This year's cream of the crop

KAREN MACNEIL-FIFE,  – September 14, 2004

In keeping with this issue’s Best of the West theme, here we bring you some vinous superlatives. After all, wine is one of the best things about the West.


Steve Edmunds. Once a Berkeley hippie-intellectual, a postman, and a poet-musician, Edmunds found his true calling in life when he scraped together enough money to found Edmunds St. John. From this winery, located in a nondescript Berkeley warehouse, come the very best Syrahs and other Rhône wines made in the West. Edmunds, shy and soulful, uses no fancy equipment or razzle-dazzle techniques, just lightning-rod instincts for finding stellar vineyards, then coaxing from them sensational grapes that will become even more sensational wines. (510) 981-1510.


Relatively inexpensive Chardonnays that don’t have huge oak flavors. (What’s the point of buying a wine that tastes like a 2-by-4?) A number of Washington wineries in particular are coming out with Chardonnays that are anything but oak monsters. Try Bookwalter (about $10) or Hogue (about $9).


The Wine Bank in the historic Gaslamp Quarter of San Diego. Wine shops often have all the charm of a cardboard box. Not this one. Once a drugstore with a vault, it’s now divided into 10 cozy rooms, one for Rhône wines, one for champagnes, one for Italian wines, and so forth. Meandering from room to room, you don’t quite realize that the 4,000-square-foot store carries “a couple hundred thousand wines,” according to wine buyer Terry Hudson. Absolutely everything you could ever want to drink is here, but the shop’s forte is hard-to-find wines. So the next time you read about a terrific wine but can’t find it where you live, call the Wine Bank; they can probably send it to you. If you’re a lucky local, you can also attend special tastings every Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday evening ($10 to $20 per seminar). 363 Fifth Ave; (800) 940-9463 or (619) 234-7487.


Try wines you don’t know. After all, the best way to learn nothing about wine is to continue to drink what you know you already like.


Santa Barbara County. Just 2 1/2 hours north of Los Angeles, serene rolling hills and vast vine-covered mesas compose the Santa Maria and Santa Ynez Valleys. This is wine country at its most gorgeous (and least tourist-ridden). Best of all, in the last five years, Santa Barbara County has experienced nothing short of a wine revolution. Dozens upon dozens of sensational wines are now being made here, and the wineries, B&Bs, spas, and good local restaurants make wandering a pleasure. Don’t miss tasting at Zaca Mesa, Cambria, and Byron. The Santa Barbara County Vintners’ Association can provide you with maps and a complete list of wineries. (800) 218-0881.


I know Valentine’s Day is over, but a good seduction wine should come in handy more than once a year. Our vote: Roederer Estate Brut (about $20) from California’s Anderson Valley ― sleek and sophisticated with a fine, tingling bead of bubbles, yet creamy enough to be thoroughly hedonistic.


The Yosemite Vintners’ Holidays program at the Ahwahnee hotel in Yosemite National Park. Hike in the snow-draped forest, then return to a blazing fire and glasses of some of the Golden State’s best wines. This fall will be the 20th year the Ahwahnee has invited renowned California vintners ― more than 20 this time ― to pour and talk about their wines. Seminars are capped by a banquet (and more great wines) in the historic hotel’s candlelit dining room. Runs from about Thanksgiving through mid-December; reserve early. (559) 253-2001.


Rajat Parr, wine director at the Fifth Floor restaurant in San Francisco. Born in Calcutta, India, 28-year-old Parr was introduced to wine in England by his uncle, who had an extensive cellar. Later, Parr attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, with the goal of becoming a chef. But after the institute’s wine classes proved irresistible, he went on to study wine intensely on his own and eventually landed a job with supersommelier Larry Stone at San Francisco’s Rubicon. Says Stone, “When it comes to wine-tasting skills, Rajat is astonishing.” Fifth Floor, in the Hotel Palomar, 12 Fourth St.; (415) 348-1555.


The ZAP ― Zinfandel Advocates & Producers ― tastings are held in five or six cities each winter through spring. The grandest of the events is in January in San Francisco, where more than 7,000 wine lovers show up to taste virtually every Zinfandel made (more than 350), in an atmosphere of madcap fun. Tastings will also be held this year in Austin, Texas (April 23); Scottsdale, Arizona (April 25); Las Vegas (April 26); and Folsom, California (June 9). (530) 274-4900.


Callaghan Syrah (about $22), from Cochise County on a 4,200-foot-high plateau in southeast Arizona, land once roamed by Apache warriors. Young (and restless) owner and winemaker Kent Callaghan is an undiscovered talent. His production is small, but any wine he makes is worth seeking out the next time you’re in Arizona. (520) 455-5322.


Sunset’s Wine Club

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