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The right wine depends on the occasion

Back when I wrote the Mail Tribune's dining column, people would occasionally ask, "What's your favorite restaurant?"

"Well, it depends," I'd answer.

Now that I concentrate on writing about wine, people occasionally ask, "What's your favorite wine?"

Well, it depends.

Different wines work for different occasions. I'd go for a hearty syrah or Bordeaux-style blend from the Rogue Valley to accompany an elegant steak dinner in a restaurant. At the other end of the spectrum, a cheap California white or red will suffice if the goal is to add an extra touch to some homemade dishes — the white for broccoli-cheese soup, the red for chili.

Wines that I buy fall primarily into three groups: (1) High-quality wines priced above $12, usually from Southern Oregon, purchased for special occasions; (2) Good West-Coast wines that can be found on sale in the $6-$9 range, desirable for a weekend dinner at home; (3) Jug wines that come in 1.5- or 3-liter bottles and sell for $7-$9, suitable for sipping on nonspecial occasions, as well as for use in cooking.

So some of my favorites are:

Group No. 1: Valley View or EdenVale chardonnay, Foris gewurztraminer, RoxyAnn pinot gris, Daisy Creek viognier, Anna Maria syrah, Weisinger's mescolare, Del Rio merlot, just about any local claret — and, more recently, Crater Lake Cellars Firehouse Red. All are Rogue district products.

Group No. 2: Duck Pond chardonnay, from Dundee, has been a favorite of mine for a decade or more, consistently good. Fetzer and Meridian chardonnays from California are usually dependable, also Bridgeview from Cave Junction. Among reds, I like Bridgeview's cabernet-merlot and Smoking Loon merlot from California.

Group No. 3: About the best cheap California chardonnay I've found is Turning Leaf. In second place would be CK Mondavi or Sutter Home. I used to buy Glen Ellen chardonnay, but recent vintages have seemed harsh. Among very inexpensive California chablis (like $8 for 3 liters), my vote goes to Almaden Golden (not Mountain). Among reds, Gato Negro cabernet-merlot from Chile is respectable and often under $7 for the 1.5-liter bottle. But my first choice for a red, usually just over $9, is Stone Cellars by Beringer cabernet sauvignon — staying rich and flavorful for days.

BELLA UNION RESTAURANT in Jacksonville has long offered one of the Rogue Valley's most consumer-friendly wine lists — good selection, wide price range and availability of every wine by the glass, as well as by the bottle.

Prices have risen over the years, but it's still a good list — 37 wines, 13 of them local, and all by the glass. Prices start at $4.25 a glass, $19 a bottle. Local labels include Slagle Creek, Velo and Jacksonville Vineyards, as well as the more familiar RoxyAnn, Troon, Bridgeview, Valley View and Foris.

TWO VOLCANO VINEYARDS WINES have won gold medals at the 2008 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. Volcano is based in Bend but buys its grapes from the Rogue Valley.

The winners were its 2006 Syrah and Lava Red Blend, both to be released later this year. Three other Volcano wines, already in release, earned silver medals: its 2005 Syrah (Lakeside Vineyard), 2005 Merlot and 2006 Merlot (Fortmiller Vineyard).

The Chronicle competition is huge. This year, a record 4,235 wines from 1,500 wineries were tasted.

KENDALL-JACKSON OF CALIFORNIA is known for making some first-rate wines that are relatively inexpensive, in the $10-$14 range. You see them on many Rogue Valley supermarket shelves and restaurant wine lists.

Like many other firms, the winery also produces some higher-end wines. I recently sampled three "grand reserve" K-J wines that sell for about twice the price of their more ordinary counterparts. Were they worth the extra money? Yes, maybe and no.

The "yes" goes to the winery's 2005 Jackson Estates Grand Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, priced at $26. In my tasting notes, I wrote, "This is what a cabernet sauvignon should taste like." It was rich, complex and full of flavor.

The "maybe" goes to the 2005 Jackson Estates Grand Reserve Merlot, also $26 — a good wine but not as special as the cab.

And the "no?" The 2006 Jackson Estates Grand Reserve Chardonnay. It seemed very average for its $21 tab.

Cleve Twitchell is a retired Mail Tribune editor and columnist. E-mail him at clevelinda@msn.com.