Value Vino – Great wines for under $15

Christian Tietje, Four Vines winery’s founder, “Zinbitch and Maker of Wine,” is a big boy. Burly even, balding, and completely cocksure. Definitely not a self-effacing, all-wine-is-made-in-the-vineyard kinda guy. A fallen-away pre-med student, much is made of the fact that in a prior life he was also a professional chef in the Northeast. Over lunch at Boudro’s, I also learned that he went to California to surf in the late ’90s — and ended up making wine in a garage.

Four Vines wine is no longer a garagiste operation; it’s crushed and bottled in a “squeaky-clean, state-of-the-art” contracted facility. But the chef’s palate remains, and it’s not inconsequential to the results Tietje (pronounced TJ) achieves. “Drink Naked often” (in both senses of the term) he says of his Santa Barbara County Naked Chardonnay, a wine crafted without oak to enhance its food friendliness. Crisp with a green-apple snap, it’s nevertheless got great body and should cozy up to cheeses, chicken, pastas, and even seafood with shameless abandon.

Reds, though, are TJ’s passion. A tempranillo blend called Loco, from the Paso Robles “Tres Cajones Vineyard,” will, he claims, “suck the teeth right out of your mouth,” and though mine survived, I can testify that it’s grippy, still tannic, and imbued with chewy coffee and chocolate flavors. It has the “big balls” he says it does (though we think he may have his balls and boxes confused) — but so, too, does his Paso Robles Rhone blend baptized The Peasant. This was a “wow” wine with licorice undertones and spicy, sexy black fruit for days. Think grilled meats and game for sure, but also lusty terrines.

Four Zinfandels, plus a zin Port, testify to TJ’s major ’jones in the red-wine world. From Dry Creek and the Russian River Valley comes The Sophisticate, and elegant it is — yet it’s elegance atop a powerful, spicy blueberry foundation — “the James Bond of Zinfandel” says its creator, shamelessly.

“Ass-kicking” is how he describes the ’04 Paso Robles Biker Zindfandel, and wild-ass tattoos come instantly to mind in this brambly, chewy, tobacco-spittin’ baby with a restrained, Hell’s Angel sweetness.

The only single-vineyard zin, the ’04 Paso Robles Dusi Vineyard, doesn’t come across as “crazed, manic,” and “not for the zin novice” as our outspoken Zinbitch claims, but regardless it’s full of brooding, dark fruit, bolstered by silky tannins and a judicious jolt of oak.

My least favorite of the quartet was the ’04 Amador County Maverick, but then I’ve never been a big fan of that region’s often ripe and jammy style.

Four Vines wines are seasonal splurges for this column, and they’re just now coming into the market. You may even find them in restaurants first; appropriate, given their chef-driven foundation. Try them despite their bad-boy braggadocio — or maybe because of it.

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