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Today, grills across America are smokin'. The Founders might find our back-patio palate patriotism amusing.

With an eye to the holiday, The Press Democrat organized its annual "Hamburger Reds" tasting to set you up with the best wines $20 and under to pair with your burger.

The top winner? Four-star rated Tablas Creek Vineyard, 2011 Patelin de Tablas, Paso Robles Rhone Blend at $20. It made the flavors pop in a Niman Ranch Black Angus Beef burger that was 80 percent lean, 20 percent fat. The juicy Rhone blend was the perfect complement because it had refreshing acidity and aromas and flavors of tart cherry, rhubarb and cinnamon.

The favorite wines rose to the top because they were rich and fruity or smoky enough to stand up to a burger's protein and fatty juices.

Other top-ranking wines include: Second-place winner Dry Creek Vineyard for its 2009 Heritage Sonoma County Zinfandel at $19 (4 stars), and third-place winner Amalaya for its 2010 Valle Calchaqui, Salta, Argentina Red Wine at $17 (4 stars).

A quick note about the star ratings. The scores reflect each wine on its own merit; how it fared with the burger didn't impact the score.

The flight included 30 wines, and the range was broad, from red blends to pinot noir, to zinfandel to cabernet sauvignon. The flight was eventually pared down to the tastiest 12, with the best burger matches noted in our wine grid.

Jason Haas, a partner in Paso Robles' Tablas Creek Vineyard, said he wasn't surprised his Rhone blend showed well with the burger and snapped up first place because of the way the wine made.

"We use a lot of grenache (29 percent) and grenache has a lot of fruit and a lot of spice but it also has great acidity, which allows it to be intense and yet still vibrant," Haas said. "

The grenache is blended with syrah (57 percent) and syrah has a smokiness which I think goes well with grilled foods."

Haas suspects another reason the wine made a great impression is because of its low alcohol level at 13.7 percent.

"Wines that are too ripe and too heavy end up not cutting through the richness and fattiness of a burger," he said. "You want a freshness to balance the weight of the burger."

Finally, Haas added, the Rhone red is approachable, an easy drinker.

"I don't want wine that requires a lot of contemplation when I'm having a burger," he said. "I want something that is appealing and fun and fresh."

The runner-up in the burger tasting was Dry Creek Vineyard's Heritage Zinfandel, and winemaker Tim Bell of the Healdsburg winery said he knows why it made a winning match.

"For a wine to go well with burgers, I think it needs to be on the younger, fresher side," Bell said. "You don't try to match your prized 15-year-old cab with it. The wine also has to have crisp acid and enough body to stand up to the fat and smoke you get from a good juicy burger."

Bell said the low alcohol level of the Heritage Zinfandel at 13.5 percent was also a plus.

"I'm not sure that the wine would be less burger-friendly at 14.3 percent alcohol, but I do think that if the grapes are picked extremely ripe (with high sugars and consequently, high alcohol), then you are likely to lose some of the fresh fruit and likely to have low acid. So our practice of not making a super-ripe style of zin lends it to matching well with burgers."

As for the best varietals to match with a burger, Nick Peyton of the Healdsburg Bar & Grill opts for zin, pinot noir and/or grenache. He said he likes something to quaff rather than contemplate, and Peyton should know. \

The Healdsburg Grill has plenty of burger traffic now that its HBG hamburger was named one of America's top 25 burgers in Food & Wine magazine. HBG's Meyer all-natural Angus beef burger has a slightly higher fat content in the beef than you would likely find in a grocery store.

With a little imagination, you can dress up the burger as local chefs do with green chiles or pimiento cheese and bacon. Of course, the bare burger won't disappoint, as long as you have a good wine to complement it.

Many of our tasty picks are available in grocery stores and drugstores that are open today, so you can sweep in and set yourself up for your holiday burger fest.

In America, and particularly in Wine Country, we celebrate palate patriotism.

As the late columnist Erma Bombeck put it:

"You have to love a nation that celebrates its independence every July 4, not with a parade of guns, tanks, and soldiers who file by the White House in a show of strength and muscle, but with family picnics where kids throw Frisbees, the potato salad gets iffy, and the flies die from happiness.

You may think you have overeaten, but it is patriotism."

You can reach Staff Writer Peg Melnik at 521-5310 or peg.melnik@ pressdemocrat.com.