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January value shopping

Suspecting that the holidays have your vino budget in disrepair, I went trolling the aisles last week looking for some bargains.

My first stop was World Market. This Costco division frequently has a stash of proprietary labels - wines made just for Costco by big wine makers with too much juice. Sometimes, it works, sometimes it doesn't, but generally, I have good success with the second label projects - especially given the low price tag!

Foodies Merlot, at $7.98, is one example I found. I tried this label last year and didn't care for it....this tastes like different juice. You won't score a massive, artisan Merlot with Foodies, but you will get plenty of rich fruit and a easy-drinking, medium-bodied Merlot for less than $10. It's good party juice, especially when you're serving a house full of folks who are there for mass quantities - not wine chat.

At $19.99, which doesn't sound like much of a bargain, I found a line of wines bearing labels from Maxwell Creek - Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Since I wanted an apples-to-apples comparison with Foodie, I snagged the Merlot.

Why is a nearly $20 wine called a bargain? I strongly suspect that this is a second label for Napa Valley wine maker St. Supery. Why? First, Maxwell Creek runs through St. Supery (how's that for geeky trivia); secondly, it's the buzz around the 'Net and, lastly, a little Costco bird planted the seed.

A St. Supery Merlot will set you back $25-$50, depending on its vineyard. For me, it was worth the gamble.

Maxwell Creek Merlot is definitely fruit forward. The immediate sensation is that of ripe red raspberries but that quickly grows more complex, offering hints of chocolate and spice. Silky tannins indicate careful oak aging. It drinks slightly bigger than its price, making this a hidden gem exclusive to World Market.

Combine this with a membership in the World Market wine club, and I saved another $30 off this purchase - paying $6.98 for Foodie and $17.99 for Maxwell Creek.

Want to experiment with more Merlot? Try these, available at most local retailers:

Swanson 2006 Merlot: Deep, luscious and silky Napa fruit powers this elegant Merlot of the first degree. Great with food, a winner with dark chocolates. About $26.

Villa San-Juliette 2008 Merlot: Wine maker Adam Lazarre is a masterful Merlot crafter. This latest vintage from the Paso Robles vineyard is quintessential Merlot: blackberry, raspberry and black currant laced with silky mouthfeel and complex minerality. Adam will be at Noble Fare on Feb. 17 for a wine dinner. For information or reservations, call the restaurant, 443.3210.

Wine and chocolate

The two are a classic pairing and one of the most romantic of foodie Valentine's Day gifts. You can sample three special wines paired with gourmet chocolates at a tasting I'm hosting on Tuesday, Feb. 8 in the cellar at Ruth's Chris Steak House.

These tasting are part wine class, part party -and attended by wine curious folks like yourself. I conduct the events to help walk you through interesting wines at a bargain price.

Fee is $20 per person, call the restaurant at 721.4800 for reservations.