Surprising discoveries from the West's wine leaders

Imagine that every night, of all the foods in theworld, you ate only cornflakes, chicken, or, occasionally, walnuts.Wouldn't that be unthinkable? Virtually no one would eat sonarrowly by choice.

As tragic as this foodscenario is, however, it's precisely the way many of us drink wine.On any given night, we sip a Chardonnay, Merlot, or maybe Cabernetor Sauvignon Blanc. Four flavors. But do you know how many grapevarieties there are? About 5,000. That's 5,000 taste experiences wecould be having!

There is nothing wrong withChardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet, and Sauvignon Blanc, of course. Butin the same way that it's intriguing and enlightening to try, say,a guava or some couscous every now and then, it's also wonderful totaste wines that are not part of your usualrepertoire.

Admittedly, 5,000 flavors can bedaunting. How then could you experiment tomorrow night withouttaking a total shot in the dark? I thought inspiration might liewith some of our best winemakers. What, after a day of tastingnarrowly (mostly their own wines), do winemakers drink athome?

"The great German and Alsatian wines," saidBill Knuttel, winemaker at Chalk Hill Estate Vineyards and Wineryin Sonoma County. "Rieslings, Pinot Gris, and Gew├╝rztraminersare a real treat. They give me a new perspective on what I'mdoing." (What Knuttel is "doing" is mostly Chardonnay and CabernetSauvignon.)

For Bob Lindquist, winemaker atQupé Wine Cellars in Santa Barbara County, it's alsoGerman Rieslings. "They are the mirror opposites of Californiawines," he said. "They're about understatement, not power."(Lindquist's sensational Syrahs are most definitely not aboutunderstatement.)

I phoned Randall Grahm,iconoclastic winemaker at Bonny Doon Vineyard in the Santa CruzMountains. "Life is tough," he sighed. "I want wine to becomforting. So I spell relief R-I-E-S-L-I-N-G. A GermanRiesling--from the Mosel especially — is so lovely, soperfect."

Grahm has made some perfectlycomforting wines himself, but I understand what he, Knuttel,Lindquist, and an amazing number of other German Riesling-drinkingwinemakers are getting at. Great German Riesling--light andexquisite — is about as different from California wines asconceivably possible. And therein lie its magic and its appeal.

What else do winemakers drink when left to theirown devices? Paul Draper, winemaker at Ridge Vineyards in the SantaCruz Mountains (famous for its Zinfandels and Cabernets), loves thewines of Piedmont, Italy, especially Barolos, Barbarescos, andDolcettos.

At heart winemakers are insatiablycurious. "Every time I read an article about a wine, I can't waitto see what it tastes like," said Daniel Baron from Napa Valley. Hemakes Silver Oak Cellars's luscious Cabernets but the night beforehad drunk a fabulous Spanish wine.

The morewinemakers I spoke to, the more Germany, Italy, and Spain keptcoming up. Even Robert Mondavi, 85-year-old patriarch and chairmanof the Robert Mondavi winery in Napa Valley, named Italian andSpanish wines as his favorites. But not just any old Italian andSpanish wines. The simplest ones. "I like wines that are gentle,wines that are easy to drink and not too damned serious," saidMondavi, who, of course, has made more than a few serious wines ofhis own.

Old World inspiration

Here are a few of the European wines Westernwinemakers admitted to loving. Although these specific wines mightbe a little hard to come by (look for them on good restaurant winelists), you can get a sense of what the winemakers are talkingabout by buying wines from any top German, Alsatian, or Italianproducers. Rely on a good wine shop forsuggestions.

Domaine Zind HumbrechtPinot Gris "Clos Saint Urbain" Vendange Tardive (Alsace).From a top Alsatian producer, this wine may be one of the mostconcentrated Pinot Gris in the world.

Heyl Niersteiner ÖlbergRiesling Spätlese, Rheinhessen (Germany). Afresh, lively Riesling from a venerableestate.

Selbach-Oster ZeltingerSonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese (one star),Mosel (Germany). Selbach-Oster is a great Moselproducer; the 1997 ($21) is a knockout.

Antinori Tenuta Belvedere "Guado alTasso," Bolgheri (Italy). Antinori blends Cabernet andMerlot in "Guado al Tasso."

BodegasJulian Chivite "Gran Feudo" Reserva, Navarra (Spain).Spain's rising star Julian Chivite makes this wine from thecountry's most revered red grape, Tempranillo, plus small amountsof Garnacha, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon.

SUNSET'S STEAL OF THE MONTH: BarwangRegional Selection Shiraz 1996, Coonawarra (Australia),$12. Talk about bang for your buck! This big, juicy Shiraz (thegrape is also known as Syrah) is packed with velvety-softboysenberry, chocolate, and licorice flavors. A great steal fromOz.

Sunset's Wine Club

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