If you have to put your palate on a budget from time to time, no worries. There are tasty finds out there like our wine-of-the-week winner -- the Rutherford Ranch, 2011 Napa Valley Chardonnay at $16 bottle.

Steve Rued is the winemaker behind this budget-savvy bottling.

"Part of my goal at Rutherford Ranch is to produce high quality Napa Valley wines at an affordable price," he said. "One way this can be accomplished is by having long-term relationships with our growers . . . by paying a fair price for the grapes, we're able to sell wine at a price that's affordable."

Rued said the most challenging part of producing chardonnay is making a distinctive one. "There are a lot of chardonnays out there," Rued said. "I'm trying to make a wine that has its own character and not just another generic chardonnay."

Rued grew up on his family's vineyard in Dry Creek Valley, which is where his family's winery, Rued Wines, is located. He and his wife, Sonia, make wine for Rued Wines, and he has deep roots in the wine business. His family has been growing grapes in Sonoma County since 1882.

"When I left Healdsburg for college at U.C. Davis, I hoped to never see another vineyard again in my life," he joked. "I was a physiology major."

But somehow Rued found his way back to wine in college. He's been working at Rutherford Ranch in St. Helena since 2005 and he holds the title director of winemaking. Rued said what the uninitiated don't know about chardonnay is how versatile it is.

"Chardonnay has a lot to offer, and a huge variety of choices," he said. "I feel that too many people disregard chardonnay by saying that they all taste the same. With chardonnay more than any other white wine there are so many different flavor profiles, from unoaked to 100% barrel fermented."

The most exciting part of making chardonnay, Rued said, is watching the metamorphosis of this varietal.

"It's seeing the wine change over time in the cellar, and then putting all the pieces together to make a blend." Wine writer Peg Melnik can be reached at 521-5310 or pegmelnik@gmail.com.