The Chronicle: This sub-$20 red wine from two S.F. sommeliers is easy Memorial Day drinking

As longtime sommeliers at Boulevard restaurant in San Francisco, John Lancaster and Robert Perkins were serving fancy wines every night: grand cru Burgundy, prestigious Chateauneuf du Pape, cult California Cabernets. But when the two decided to make their own wine, they wanted to go in the opposite direction.

“All the expensive wines would drive us crazy,” says Perkins. There was a surplus of excellent wines at the high end of the price spectrum, but a paucity at the lower end, they said. Rather than make yet another expensive bottle, they figured they could help fill a gap that wine buyers like them needed filled, by turning out wines that were easy-drinking, well made and affordable.

That was 17 years ago. Ever since, Lancaster and Perkins have been turning out consistently delicious bottles under their Skylark label. Among their most successful is a Rhone-inspired blend called Red Belly, which sells for $20 or less.

 “The idea for Red Belly was just to make something user-friendly and versatile,” says Lancaster, who is still the wine director at Boulevard. (Perkins left the restaurant a few years ago to focus fulltime on Skylark.)

Specifically, they were aiming for something like a Cotes du Rhone, a red blend from France’s southern Rhone Valley that tends to be juicy, fruity and approachable. Cotes du Rhone wines come from less famous areas of the Rhone Valley than their more-expensive counterpart, Chateauneuf du Pape, but what they lack in prestige they often make up for in homey charm.

Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre are usually components of a Cotes du Rhone wine. When Perkins and Lancaster set out to make Red Belly, they quickly found vineyards where they could buy some Syrah and Grenache grapes, but locating Mourvedre proved more difficult. So they decided to diverge a little bit from the Cotes du Rhone template. 

Instead of Mourvedre, they ended up finding a vineyard source for Carignan, a grape variety that’s common in Spain and southern France. It’s not exactly a Mourvedre lookalike — Carignan lacks the savory, meaty notes that are typical in Mourvedre — but it fits the bill for an assertive, medium-bodied red wine with dark fruit flavors. Carignan is also plentiful in Mendocino County, making their Carignan-Syrah-Grenache blend a distinctly Californian riff on the French recipe.

I recently opened a bottle of Skylark’s 2016 Red Belly and found it to be an ideal red for this time of year, as we approach Memorial Day: hearty enough to stand up to grilled food but light enough to remain refreshing on a hot day. It smells like strawberries and thyme, with zesty, spicy flavors of black pepper and a bitter, dark cherry. Smooth, silky tannins keep it from feeling too heavy. The wine is very quaffable.

It fulfills one of the criteria that Perkins says was most important to the two somms-turned-winemakers. “I always think about when I’m tableside and I have two customers, one having the salmon, one having the steak, and they want the perfect bottle to go with both dishes,” he says. “I love finding those wines that fit the mark, that can be in the middle.”

Red Belly and the other Skylark wines will be back on the wine list at Boulevard once it reopens; the restaurant is currently undergoing a renovation. In the meantime, either the 2016 or 2017 vintage of the wine is available from the Skylark website, plus the following San Francisco retailers: San Francisco Wine Trading Co., Little Vine, K&L and William Cross. You can also find it at Vino in Oakland. Note: The price may vary by a couple of dollars, and some retailers may run out of inventory. I tasted the 2016 Red Belly for this story, but many stores are now carrying the 2017, and it tastes similar.

Skylark Red Belly North Coast 2016 ($20, 14.5%)

Esther Mobley is The San Francisco Chronicle’s wine critic. Email: Twitter: @Esther_mobley