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Good, inexpensive Pinots

What a crazy spring...

There seems to have been an unending line of wine makers and winery owners doing their annual East Coast sales swing. Add to that the usual festivals and most calendars are jam-packed.

And the food and wine scene just keeps growing, demanding even more care and feeding. Since last Friday, I've conducted two wine classes for interested newbies, done a one-day trip to New Orleans to talk with franchise owners about new media and tasted about a dozen wines so you don't have to.

I'm not complaining.

To prepare for the wine classes, I tasted about two dozen Pinot Noir examples to fulfill the theme, "Pinot Noir of the World." It was a great learning experience for me, too.

Since the 2004 film Sideways, it's been darned near impossible to find good Pinot Noir for under $15. Some of my personal favorites push that limit by nearly double, but during my research, I found some excellent drinkers in the $10-$15 range.

Grab your corkscrew and let's explore:

Mandolin 2008 Monterey: Hailing from the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA of Monterey County, Calif., this fruit forward, juicy Pinot hails from vineyards that bask in cool, night time fog push in by the sea. After the crush, the grapes were barrel-aged in small 2-3 year-old French oak barrels for 18 months to impart a rich flavor.

Mandolin Pinot Noir is soft cherry-red in color and features bright cherry and raspberry fruit with hints of spice, leather and cedar. Medium in body with mild tannins, this generous red wine gem will complement a wide array of foods, including grilled salmon, roast pork, grilled lamb chops and aged cheeses. This is a small winery with big ambitions...stay tuned.

Undone 2007 Pinot Noir: What? A German Pinot Noir for barely over 10 bucks? Yes!

This easy drinking pleasure, widely accessible wine is bottled with a screw cap, unoaked and unmanipulated. This is the fresh, light and juicy wine for those of us who don't like our Pinot Noir to look and taste like Syrah.

The wine is delicate and pure, medium bodied and full of wild strawberry, cherry and raspberry aromas with just a subtle hint of spice in the finish. Think of this for grilled sausages or roast chicken with mushrooms.

McWilliams 2008 Hanwood Estates: But if you do like your PN to be Shiraz-like, grab this big, bold Pinot! Be prepared to give it some air - my bottle continued to evolve for a good hour after opening - and frankly, tasted better on day two. Brash tannins, big, powerful dark fruit - it hails from southeast Australia and it shows. Still, a great drinker if you like this style.

As difficult as it is to grow, handle and ferment Pinot Noir, it's awesome to find bargains like these on retail shelves. Even these wines exhibited some classic traits - including the supreme silkiness that is so unique to this grape.