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Wine of the week: Little James’ Basket Press NV

Here’s a challenge to the California wine business, and especially those who think the Wine Curmudgeon is too hard on it. Use your incredible resources and talent to make a wine like this – a non-vintage red – instead of the buckets and buckets of boring, fruit-juice grocery store plonk that you do make.

Because this French effort is not just a great cheap wine, but a great wine. As the guy at the store said to me when I bought it: “This may be the best bottle we have,” and his store has bottles that cost hundreds and thousands of dollars.

The point is not that California can’t make a wine as interesting and delicious as the Little James ($10, purchased, 13.5%). Regardless of anything else, California is probably the world’s pre-eminent wine region – the best weather, the best winemakers, the most money to spend. Rather, it’s that it has spent so much effort training consumers to buy wine with the name of the grape and a vintage on the label that it can’t conceive of anything else. If it doesn’t say Merlot 2012, no one knows what to do.

But they should. The Little James comes from a top-notch Rhone producer that mixes wine made with old grapes and wine made from current vintage fruit. The result is a $10 Hall of Fame wine: Classic Rhone barnyard aromas, red grenache fruit, some spiciness, and more tannin and acid than I expected — a rough, though not unpleasant, peasant finish that speaks to a more traditional style of winemaking. A food wine for barbecue and burgers; highly recommended.

Wine of the week: Little James’ Basket Press NV

This bottle could well be the future of the much-troubled French wine business. If so, the future may not be as dire as so many fear.

The Little James ($12, purchased) is a red blend made by Chateau de Saint-Cosme, a 450-year-old Rhone producer whose offerings include several $100, high-score wines. It’s not exactly like Silver Oak or Screaming Eagle doing a $12 wine, but it’s close enough.

How do they do it? By mixing current vintage wine with older wine, which is less expensive than using all current vintage juice. This version of the Little James is about half from 2011, and the rest comes from wine as old as the 1999 vintage.

Why do they do it? Because the French wine market, save for the most expensive wines, has been slowly vanishing for the past two decades. There are dozens of reasons, but the main one is that the rest of the world makes cheap wine just as well, if not better, than the French, and their unsold wine sits on store shelves or in warehouse vats until it’s thrown out.

The Little James is part of the attempt to recapture that market. It’s 100 percent grenache, a sturdy Rhone grape, and it smells and tastes of the Rhone. There is barnyard and bacon fat on the nose, and earthy, black fruit that gives way to a darkish finish. All in all, it’s an impressive effort that would pair with pizza, roast chicken, and almost anything with roasted mushrooms. It’s certainly not what I expected given the cutesy label and name (and a tip o’ the Curmudgeon’s fedora to Eddie Eakin at Dallas’ Veritas, who told me about this).

One caveat: Prices for the Little James are all over the place; I’ve seen it for as little as $10, and as much as $17. At $17, it’s not that great a value, and I suspect those retailers are trying to capitalize on St. Cosme’s reputation.

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