Hero Images/Getty

Whether you're hosting the fête or are a reveler on the guest list, these are the crowd-pleasing bottles to have on hand. Bonus: They're easy on the wallet.

By Chris Hughes

When it comes to wine, I have to admit, I spend most of time championing the atypical: minerally muscadets of France’s Loire Valley, spicy, vegetal-streaked cabernet franc, or unorthodox varietals like the valdiguié and counoise that’s such a focal point at Broc Cellars in Berkeley. But no matter how much I sermonize on the pulpit of “high-acid” and “food-friendly,” I acknowledge the polarity of some of my preferences. In my own family, popping the cork on some of these bottles can conjure confusion, or worse, indifference.

At the end of the day, people like what they like. And around the holidays, they’re particularly prone to fall back on the familiar. Attending a party? Why not buy a nice bottle of chardonnay. Looking to pair something with roast bird or beast? Reach for pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon, respectively.

Related: Sparkling Wines That Make Perfect Holiday Gifts:

Those are all great choices, hence why winemakers around the globe press oceans of that juice. So rather than fighting it, I instead opt to wade through the piles of plunk and point you toward some of the most exciting examples of the big four: chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, pinot noir, and cab. Even better, each of these bottles clocks in at under $30 … because aren’t the holidays expensive enough?

Division Wine Co.

The Best Pinot Noir

Our Pick: Division Winemaking Company’s “UN” ($28)
Also try: Banshee Sonoma County Pinot Noir ($28)

Blame it on the movie Sideways (unbelievably, the wine world is still feeling the residuals from Miles’ merlot angst—and pinot bias). But more than any other varietal, pinot noir follows that old adage: You pay for what you get. Do bargains exist outside of Burgundy? Sure, but you’ll have to do your homework. Fall below that $30 threshold though, and worthy bottles are difficult to come by.

Fortunately, there are still some domestic labels that are able to cultivate cost-effective, terroir-expressive examples, like Division Winemaking Company’s “UN” ($28)—a cuvee blend (most of which comes from the Eola-Amity Hills)—that is supple, yet smashable. Expressive, without devolving into pinkies-up austerity. Come for the ripe red raspberry fruit, stay for the minerality and subtle earthy funk in this stunner from Oregon’s buzziest urban winery.

Dry Creek

The Best Cabernet Sauvignon

Our Pick: Dry Creek Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($25)
Also try: Substance Cabernet Sauvignon ($17)

Cab may never have had the fall from grace that Aussie shiraz did in the early aughts, but many of its adherents are still galvanized by the same tenets—namely, brute force. Why, they reason, would you merely slice open a watermelon when you could use a Gallagher-sized sledgehammer. Some may call it the Robert Parker effect, I just call it a chronic misfire. Because at its best, cabernet sauvignon possesses some semblance of elegance.

Enter Dry Creek Vineyard, a second-generation winery that has never betrayed its Bordeaux-centric roots. Aged in French oak (only 37% new oak), and blended with trace amounts of merlot, malbec, cabernet franc, and petit verdot, their Dry Creek Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($25) exemplifies that perfect dichotomy of power and grace. Yes, there’s plenty of structure, but it’s built upon a foundation of silky tannins, fat-cutting acidity, and dark fruit untethered by a shroud of vanilla (a one-dimensional side effect of new American oak).

Matthiasson Wines

The Best Chardonnay

Our Pick: Matthiasson Napa Valley Chardonnay Linda Vista Vineyard ($29)
Also try: Lioco Sonoma Coast Chardonnay ($22)

I recently read (and observed!) that fanny packs were having a mini, misguided comeback, and that got me to thinking about chardonnay. And not just any old chardonnay, but that other embarrassing early ‘90s relic: dense, buttery, pancake-ready chard that you could practically cut with a knife. Now, I’m not saying that the what’s-old-is-new-again edict doesn’t have its occasional success story (see: fondue and chunky, Lebowski-esque cardigans), but I can confidently say that that viscous wine style should remain roosting under a six-foot-deep dirt mound.

Instead, let us bask in a more enlightened present, where white wines are approached more as—oh, I don’t know—something cold and thirst slaking. Less like a boozy Frappuccino. And one of the brand’s that exemplifies this bracing new reality is Napa Valley’s Matthiasson, whose Linda Vista Vineyard Chardonnay ($29) prioritizes balance. Think top notes of lemon and tart green apple that crescendo into a creamy mouthfeel and a delicate honeyed finish. So you experience the best of both worlds.

Kermit Lynch

The Best Sauvignon Blanc

Our Pick: Domaine Hippolyte’s Reverdy Sancerre ($26)
Also try: Smith Story Knight’s Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($25)

Traveling back from D.C. the other week, I overheard a fellow passenger raving about sauvignon blanc. She gushed over the grape, so much so that others joined in on her reverie. Frankly, I was stunned because I had always looked at that varietal the same way Wayne and Garth approached Delaware, with shoulder-shrugging ambivalence. Not all of it mind you, because there are great examples all over the world. But more specifically in the bucolic French village of Sancerre, which has never fallen prey to the two most egregious sauvignon blanc transgressions.

  1. Handling it like a neglected stepchild (i.e. As an afterthought, where winemakers buy simple bulk juice whose insipidness is disguised behind a quirky label)
  2. Giving it the training wheels treatment (i.e. Not trusting the grape to stand on its own, and hence picking brash, overripe fruit that’s further enhanced in new oak)

Not so in the Loire Valley, where families like the Hippolytes have been making thrilling sauvignon blanc since the 17th century. Domaine Hippolyte’s Reverdy Sancerre ($26) is the antithesis of those everyday grocery store bottles, with an unparalleled depth highlighted by smoke, citrus, and lingering herbal flavors.