The North Coast counties of California -- Sonoma and Mendocino -- are known for well-made wines with distinct varietal characteristics. Years of wine-making experience produce good fruit easily distinguishable from the excessive oakiness and alcohol of some wines from Napa and the southern counties. The wine of Mendocino -- the northernmost of the two counties -- was for years unfairly characterized by the county's considerable bulk production. Today the sun-warmed hills harbor many small producers of fine and inexpensive wine.

Highway 101 follows the Russian River north through Sonoma. Just across the Mendocino County line and west of the road sits Parducci Wine Cellars, Mendocino's oldest winery and a kind of historical testament to the hundreds of Italians who came north from San Francisco at the turn of the century to plant vines. Coastal mountains hold back the cold Pacific winds; the topography and well-watered slopes supposedly reminded the early winemakers of Tuscany. Chianti found no New World counterpart, although there are still some plantings of the Italian grapes used in the old blend.

Aldolfo Parducci was one of the transplanted Italians. Prohibition wiped out many of his compatriot winemakers, and he bought their equipment and some of the vineyards cheaply and began to make his own wine right after Prohibition was repealed. The cellar that Parducci dug by hand is still in use. A third generation of Mendocino Parduccis now works at the winery, which expanded under Adolfo's sons, John and George, to 340,000 cases a year. Much of the wine is a bargain because the Parduccis do not suffer the heavy interest payments of more recently created wineries.

"When you got the land for nothing," says John Parducci, "you can pass the savings along to the consumer. Because it's cheap, people think it's no good. How the hell do you beat that?"

Parducci, an outspoken critic of wine fadism and an enologic institution in California, spends much of his time on wine-judging panels. His wines are known for their fruitiness, tempered by a touch of wood, and their velvet quality. When he took over the winery, the only grapes it produced were zinfandel, alicante, carignane and petite sirah. He planted cabernet sauvignon and other varietals in 1964, foreseeing the direction the wine boom would take. In 1973 the majority holdings of the Parduccis were bought out by a confederation of California teachers, but the Parduccis still run things at the winery.

Now Parducci has many outstanding varietals, and one of the best cabernet buys around in its Cellarmaster's Selections. The '80 anniversary cabernet has deep color and a full, lush nose, with great body and a long, smooth finish. It costs only $8. The '82 chardonnay has the typically fresh fruit associated with the maker. It needs a couple of years yet, and is an outstanding value at under $7. Likewise the '81 zinfandel, a lighter "beaujolais" style, is lively, well made, well priced (about $4) and ready to drink.

The '79 petite sirah, not an overwhelmingly popular wine, has great color and provides quite a mouthful, although it lacks the distinction and finesse of the cabernets. Typically, the tannin seems too pronounced ever to permit softness and fruitiness to predominate, although petite sirah can surprise you.