I'm a city boy, but I like farmers. Give me the choice between a product made by a multinational or something of the same quality and price made by people who work the land themselves, and I'll always pick the latter.
That's why I have an affection for McManis Family Vineyards. They're fourth-generation family farmers in Ripon, in California's Central Valley. And they compete in the toughest of all price categories -- the $10 price range.
Wander into a big wine store and take a close look at what's available around $10. Most come from big corporations, which have the economy of scale to cut costs on every expense -- glass, labels, shipping, you name it.
If you see a winery you haven't heard of, pick up the bottle and look closely at the back label. Odds are good that it will be produced and bottled by somebody other than the brand on the front. This means it's likely a private label wine, possibly made specifically for the store you're at. There's nothing wrong with such a product, but it's purely a commodity.
As far as I know, there's no family named High Peak or Leafy Ridge or any of the other generic topographical names that private label makers prefer. But there are McManises (proprietors Ron and Jamie are in the photo with their kids Justin and Tanya), and if you buy their wine you're supporting their family.
That's all well and good, but who cares if the wines don't deliver? Fortunately, they usually do.
Don't misunderstand -- these are budget wines made in the American style. This winery uses oak chips, alcohol reduction and all the other technical tricks of the budget-wine trade, and I give them huge credit for being up front about it while big companies hide their hands. (Mini rant: There are very few wines for $10 that are not manipulated products. If you're one of these people who talks about "natural" and "terroir" and all of that, you need to support wineries in their back-to-the-land efforts by paying more for your daily wine.)
(Updated thanks to comments from Ron & Jamie, below): With the recent purchases of several vineyards in Lodi, the McManises farm 65% of their grapes themselves. Their original ranch, planted to Chardonnay, even has its own AVA: River Junction. They're still buying a third of their fruit, putting them in competition with the Gallos and Constellation and the rest of the Top 30 US wine companies for both product and shelf space.
This year, the standout is the Merlot. Merlot is still so beaten down by "Sideways" that the grapes are super cheap on the bulk market; some even went unharvested last year because they couldn't sell for what it would cost to pick them. I used to hate budget Merlots, which always came from grapes grown in inappropriate spots. (updated) The McManises must have found a cool hillside in the Central Valley planted with these grapes, because I thought the wine had Napa or Sonoma fruit in it.
I usually like the McManis Family reds much better than the whites, and this year is no exception. But they always produce a few wines of great value, and they're real farmers, which to me has value on its own. If you need affordable wines for Thanksgiving, look no further.
McManis Family Vineyards California Petite Sirah 2008 ($11)
Black like teeth-staining ink, this wine has plenty of ripe blackberry and black plum with an underlying light note of peach. It's potent but not hot (14.5% alcohol), with decent acidity. It's a big wine with balance, and superb value. 89
McManis Family Vineyards California Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 ($11)
An standard-variety red wine, with flavors of ripe blackberry and vanilla, but solid crowd-pleaser for this price range. Good wine for Christmas parties. 88
McManis Family Vineyards California Zinfandel 2008 ($11)
Very ripe and sweet blackberry flavors with notes of earth and coffee in the aroma and a bit of vanilla on the finish. Good value in this price range. 87
McManis Family Vineyards California Syrah 2008
Most of the McManis lineup tends toward the internationalized; not this one. This is a feral wine, with an aroma so meaty it's almost like hamburger. Sweet blackberry on the palate, though with a strong meaty note and a little vanilla. Pretty masculine stuff, although honestly too much so for me. 86
McManis Family Vineyards River Junction Chardonnay 2008 ($11)
Like drinking sweet butter. Many people like this; you know who you are. NR
McManis Family Vineyards California Viognier 2008 ($11)
Bright apple flavor but very sweet; almost an Apple Jacks flavor. Simple, and probably a pleaser of crowds I don't belong to. NR
McManis Family Vineyards California Pinot Noir 2008 ($11)
Good value for Pinot Noir, this has a deep cherry flavor and medium body, though the vanilla is a bit strong. Enough acidity to keep it food-friendly. I've had a lot worse Pinots than this for three times more money. 88
McManis Family Vineyards California Merlot 2008 ($11)
What more can you ask for at $11 -- it's varietally correct and delicious, with flavors of cherry and coffee and notes of tobacco and smoke. Easy to drink, but with some complexity, this is one of the best domestic red wines in this price range I've tasted this year. 90