Surprising discoveries from the West's wine leaders

KAREN MACNEIL-FIFE,  – September 15, 2004

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

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

There is nothing wrong with Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet, and Sauvignon Blanc, of course. But in 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 to taste wines that are not part of your usual repertoire.

Admittedly, 5,000 flavors can be daunting. How then could you experiment tomorrow night without taking a total shot in the dark? I thought inspiration might lie with some of our best winemakers. What, after a day of tasting narrowly (mostly their own wines), do winemakers drink at home?

“The great German and Alsatian wines,” said Bill Knuttel, winemaker at Chalk Hill Estate Vineyards and Winery in Sonoma County. “Rieslings, Pinot Gris, and Gewürztraminers are a real treat. They give me a new perspective on what I’m doing.” (What Knuttel is “doing” is mostly Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.)

For Bob Lindquist, winemaker at Qupé Wine Cellars in Santa Barbara County, it’s also German Rieslings. “They are the mirror opposites of California wines,” he said. “They’re about understatement, not power.” (Lindquist’s sensational Syrahs are most definitely not about understatement.)

I phoned Randall Grahm, iconoclastic winemaker at Bonny Doon Vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains. “Life is tough,” he sighed. “I want wine to be comforting. So I spell relief R-I-E-S-L-I-N-G. A German Riesling–from the Mosel especially ― is so lovely, so perfect.”

Grahm has made some perfectly comforting wines himself, but I understand what he, Knuttel, Lindquist, and an amazing number of other German Riesling-drinking winemakers are getting at. Great German Riesling–light and exquisite ― is about as different from California wines as conceivably possible. And therein lie its magic and its appeal.

What else do winemakers drink when left to their own devices? Paul Draper, winemaker at Ridge Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains (famous for its Zinfandels and Cabernets), loves the wines of Piedmont, Italy, especially Barolos, Barbarescos, and Dolcettos.

At heart winemakers are insatiably curious. “Every time I read an article about a wine, I can’t wait to see what it tastes like,” said Daniel Baron from Napa Valley. He makes Silver Oak Cellars’s luscious Cabernets but the night before had drunk a fabulous Spanish wine.

The more winemakers I spoke to, the more Germany, Italy, and Spain kept coming up. Even Robert Mondavi, 85-year-old patriarch and chairman of the Robert Mondavi winery in Napa Valley, named Italian and Spanish wines as his favorites. But not just any old Italian and Spanish wines. The simplest ones. “I like wines that are gentle, wines that are easy to drink and not too damned serious,” said Mondavi, who, of course, has made more than a few serious wines of his own.

Old World inspiration

Here are a few of the European wines Western winemakers admitted to loving. Although these specific wines might be a little hard to come by (look for them on good restaurant wine lists), you can get a sense of what the winemakers are talking about by buying wines from any top German, Alsatian, or Italian producers. Rely on a good wine shop for suggestions.

Domaine Zind Humbrecht Pinot Gris “Clos Saint Urbain” Vendange Tardive (Alsace). From a top Alsatian producer, this wine may be one of the most concentrated Pinot Gris in the world.

Heyl Niersteiner Ölberg Riesling Spätlese, Rheinhessen (Germany). A fresh, lively Riesling from a venerable estate.

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

Antinori Tenuta Belvedere “Guado al Tasso,” Bolgheri (Italy). Antinori blends Cabernet and Merlot in “Guado al Tasso.”

Bodegas Julian Chivite “Gran Feudo” Reserva, Navarra (Spain). Spain’s rising star Julian Chivite makes this wine from the country’s most revered red grape, Tempranillo, plus small amounts of Garnacha, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon.

SUNSET’S STEAL OF THE MONTH:  Barwang Regional Selection Shiraz 1996, Coonawarra (Australia), $12. Talk about bang for your buck! This big, juicy Shiraz (the grape is also known as Syrah) is packed with velvety-soft boysenberry, chocolate, and licorice flavors. A great steal from Oz.


Sunset’s Wine Club

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