Time for a roundup. My love for the Wine Bank is well documented, but what are they tippling up in North County? Steve Frederick, Manager at Vintage Wines (858-549-2112), immediately recommended Champagne. "People just don't drink enough Champagne. I like the Nicolas Feuillatte Blanc de Blanc. A great little bottle, and at $23.99, you can't beat it." Something fantastic to drink this holiday season (money no object)? "The '85 Sandrone Cannubi Boschis Barolo" -- $299.99. Salesman Wes Elliott hopped on the Italian train as well, pointing out (among others) '99 Brunello from Villa le Prata for $59.99.

When it came to Champagne, Michael Rohner, General Manager for the WineSellar & Brasserie (858-450-9557), leaned toward something with a little more cachet. "Feuillatte is getting to be the size and mass of Veuve Clicquot. Like Veuve Clicquot, it's good wine; Feuillatte does great stuff. But it's getting less interesting to bring to a party. Everyone will recognize it, and they'll know what to expect. I love the Bruno Paillard wines." Paillard produces only a fraction of Feuillatte's quantity, but doesn't price itself like a cult wine. The winery's barely-available '95 vintage Champagne sells for $52.99; the Brut Rosé for $42.99.

When Rohner heard me ask about sexy wines, he thought red and he thought silky. "Probably the '02 Jamey Whetstone Hirsch Vineyard Pinot Noir. It's priced at a relative discount at $45.99, compared to other people who use that same fruit." Wines like Whetstone's "are as close as we can get to Burgundy in profile and flavor, but they still have a little more massiveness, a more California palate. I could recommend them to any California wine fan. I could also recommend them to a Burgundy fan, and they would say, 'Wow, this is where California has gotten.'"

Rough similarity to California also guided his picks for bargains. "In general, I'm going to do Tempranillo from Spain, both for the value you get and for the similarities to Syrah and Merlot. It's pretty ripe, robust, and dense. I love the Finca Sobrena from Toro" -- $13.49. Top value, however, went to the Crios de Susana Balbo Syrah-Bonarda blend from Argentina -- $13.99. At that price point, said Rohner, "it'll blow away anything you can get out of California."

Over at The Wine Connection in Del Mar's Flower Hill Mall (858-350-9292), Dave Clark told me that "Pinot Noir as a category is hot this year. It started at Thanksgiving and seems to be continuing to truck along. Both '01 and '02 were good vintages, and '02 seems to be getting quite a bit of press, both for California and Oregon." It's just possible that Paul Giamatti's turn at a Pinot-loving connoisseur in the movie Sideways hasn't hurt matters. "It's showing at the theater here, and we've joked about putting up a sign: Pinot Noir Sold Here." The Wine Connection (along with several other shops) carries the very wine Giamatti first orders at the Hitching Post's tasting bar: Hartley Ostini Hitching Post Bien Nacido Vineyard, $26.99. It also carries the '01 Januik Cabernet out of Washington State. At $29.99, "it's one of the only Cabs under $30 to get over 90 points from Parker."

Given carte blanche, Clark would buy the '96 Cuvee Nicolas Francois Billecart Brut Champagne from Billecart-Salmon at $119.99. "Absolutely the best Champagne I've had in at least the last couple of years. The finish goes on for more than a minute." Given a budget, he'd eye the '95 Laurent-Perrier Brut. "It got 92 points in Wine Spectator; why it's $34.99, I don't know. They probably imported it last year, and sometimes wholesalers look at what they've got a stack of" and price it to sell. "It's really good Champagne, and it's a steal."

The Wine Connection was easily the winner for the "Most Offbeat Collectible for a Jaded Connoisseur" on my little tour. Clark lead me to a 1795 ("That's not a misprint") Madeira. "A customer bought this at auction in Europe. It's the last bottle, probably bottled 40 years ago. The price is yet to be determined -- probably something under $2,000. It's made from Terrantez, one of the great old Madeira grapes that's almost disappeared. It's only now being replanted." This wasn't necessarily a showpiece wine, something to put under lights in your cellar next to the bottle from Thomas Jefferson's cellar. The residual sugar in Madeira, as in all sweet wines, helps it to endure the vicissitudes of old age. I was once lucky enough to taste a Madeira from 1860, and it was lovely, nutty and still going strong.

Over at the Del Mar Harvest Ranch Market (858-847-0555), Buyer Justin Lewis affirmed Pinot Noir's holiday hotness. "We always recommend Pinot Noir for the holidays because it's so versatile. It's the best red you can have for turkey, and a lot of people eat salmon on Christmas. Oregon Pinots are some of the best right now." He touted the single vineyard Pinots from Torii Mor -- '01 Olson Vineyard, $49.99; '01 Seven Springs Vineyard, $46.99 -- and the '00 reserve from Cristom at $39.99. The best Pinot under $15? "Mac Murray Range, $13.99. Robert Parker raves about it."

Steve Ark, Buyer at Cardiff Seaside Market (760-753-5445), would go with the Belle Ponte out of Oregon, $14.99. "It's really good. It tastes like a real Pinot. It's got acidity; it's not trying to be Syrah." Cardiff carries its share of $100+ trophies, but when I asked Ark to pick a gem, he went for the '01 Valsacro Dioro Rioja -- $39.99. "This is one of the most killer wines. I would spend $40 on it. It's really rich and dark -- that New World Tempranillo thing." And down at the party-wine end of the scale, he selected a Calina Reserve Cabernet-Carmenere blend out of Chile at $6.99. "It's a Kendall-Jackson wine that was supposed to be $15 or $16, but they're getting rid of it. It's a really lush wine for seven bucks."

Chile also produced the top party red suggested by Buyer Matt Francke at the San Diego Wine Company (858-535-1400): "Santa Ema Reserve Merlot at $6.99. They call it a reserve because they do have a lesser bottling. For whites, I'd go with the Grove Street Chardonnay for $5.99." His pick for sexiest wine was the '01 Cassafrassi Chianti, because at $19.99 "it tastes more expensive than the price tag suggests."

Francke named Krug his best bubbly at $99.95, with the '96 Fleury Brut a sleeper at $43.95. Buyer Paris Driggers found it in France, "and he said it held its own with the '96 Dom Perignon, no problem." But what seduced me was the Charles Ellner Rosé Champagne at $27.95, which Francke judged to be a shade better than the Duval-Leroy Rosé. Opened it with the Feuillatte Blanc de Blanc that evening, and was suitably transported by both -- orange blossom and almond in the Feuillatte, Campari and cranberry in the Ellner. People just don't drink enough Champagne. (Note: Wine has a nasty tendency to sell out. If you're interested in buying any of these wines, you may wish to call about availability.)

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