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Feeling frugal? Load up on cheap reds 

January has once again slithered into the new year with all the cold-blooded charm of an eel. Wielding ice storms, fender benders, layoffs and lingering coughs that chase sleep from the night, the first month of 2011 has cut a wake of misfortune through the waters, bedeviling our efforts to turn our eyes toward the horizon in hope.

This, of course, calls for wine, and nothing washes away the midwinter blues like cheap red. While most of the year I long for wine to speak to me of far-off places, to beguile me with gifts of terroir, in January I seek simply to be reminded of other times. In this season of plunging mercury and dark moods, I need wines that offer hints of warm days and sunny dispositions. And because holiday photos and large bills are all that remain of last year's season of excess, frugality is a must.

Fortunately, area wine merchants are in tune with my needs. After a quick look at the shelves and a few consultations with purveyors, I have stocked up on enough cheap red to last until the vernal equinox. By the time I'm ready to unpack the spring linen, crisp whites and cheery rosés might seem appropriate again.

One of the best deals I found this month was at Earth Fare in Raleigh's Brierdale Shopping Center (10341 Moncreiffe Road, 433-1390, www.earthfare.com), where Protocolo 2008, Vino de la Tierra de Castilla, Spain, was on sale at $6.99, down from the regular $8.99. Protocolo is a super reliable red from a vast, dry region in Spain. It has a good balance of fruit and tannins, and it finishes with a woodiness that made me think of dry twigs breaking beneath my hiking boots in October. I could almost imagine myself gathering kindling for a campfire while I sipped it. Great with olives and roasted almonds, this is a perfect red to sip while snacking with a friend who doesn't expect you to cook dinner after the day you've had.

Also at Earth Fare was the Teira 2006 Zinfandel from Sonoma County, Calif., for $9.99. This has an inky hue and offers a mouthful of raisins and dried cherries chased by tannins that keep it from being an unchecked fruit bomb. The mellow sweetness reminded me of late summer evenings, like an early September walk through a leafy forest, the kind of outing that works up an appetite. This zin would pair well with grilled steaks or ribs, but since regular outdoor cooking remains a couple of moon phases away, fire up the broiler and pretend.

Another in the category of cheap and reliable is Mosen Cleto 2007 Crianza, Campo de Borja, Spain. You can find the Mosen Cleto at wine shops and grocery stores for about $7.99. It's easy to remember this one because of the bottle's sandy texture, as if it belongs on a beach. Perhaps the makers expect everyone to take it to summer picnics, with its earthy nose and cheery tastes of cherry and strawberry. Spread a gingham cloth on the living room floor, crank up the heat and pour yourself a taste of summer. You could even start on that trashy romance novel a little early.

Wine seldom makes me think of my grandmother, but if there ever was a pour that brought her spirit to mind, it's the Crane Lake 2008 Petite Sirah from Napa and Sonoma. Its jammy undertones make me long to pick berries and break out the canning equipment, as she did without fail every summer. An expert penny pincher, Grandma would no doubt approve of the $4.99 price tag. You might not want to break it out at your next dinner party, but, as Grandma would say, everything has a time and place.

Nothing can make January pass by any faster, but a rack full of cheap red is the next best thing to sunshine on a cold winter day.


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