Saturday, September 30, 2006

Rich Idiot Cool Kids

Rich Idiot Cool Kids

I'm pissed. I'm pissed that I'm out 100 bones and got nothing good in return. I'm pissed that there's really no one to take my pissedness out on. And that makes me even more pissed.

OK. Deep breaths. Relax. Find your happy place. Start from the beginning.

Last week I decided to celebrate signing a six-figure contract with the Chico Beat to write this wine column (it's true that at the time I didn't realize that all six figures were zeros - but my eyes aren't good enough to read that itty bitty fine print). As a wine snob, the only proper way to celebrate was to go to a fine restaurant, buy an incredibly expensive bottle wine, and have it with a great meal.

So that's what I did. I went to one of Chico's finer eating establishments (which will remain nameless to avoid implying guilt by association), took a long thoughtful perusal of the extensive wine list, and ordered a bottle of 1999 Dominus Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Should have been a slam-dunk. 1999 was a great year for Napa Valley, and Dominus is one of the top names in cult California cabernets (“cult” meaning “insanely expensive status symbol wine”). I shelled out $108 for the privilege of tasting what was supposed to be one of the premier wines of the Golden State.

And what did I get? Right off the bat the wine was unimpressive. For $100 you expect a top of the line Napa cab to knock you down with rich aromas of complex fruit and earth. Chocolate, cassis (whatever the heck that is), black currant (never had that either), leather (yum), tobacco (even yummier) and spice. Doesn't sound too appealing, but it's supposed to be. In any case, this wine barely even smelled like wine, much less any of those other things.

Even after letting it breathe for over an hour (breathing - exposing the wine to air - is supposed to allow the wine to develop and become more flavorful after 7 years cooped up in a bottle), there was really nothing much to it.

Great red wines, like cabernet sauvignons, are supposed to have a balance of fruit- and earth-like flavors, followed by a smooth dry finish of developed tannins (tannins are a dry, potentially mouth-puckering component of the grape skins). This wine had no fruit to speak of and the tannins, far from being smooth, were bitter and acidic. Blech!

In all truthfulness, I’ve had $20 bottles of wine that blew this overpriced, over-hyped bottle of bilge out of the water. And that’s why I’m pissed. I’m pissed because there is no direct correlation between the price of a bottle and the quality of the wine in the bottle. A $100 bottle of wine is not automatically better than a $20 bottle – and certainly not five times better.

I’d like to blame the restaurant, but it’s totally not their fault. They didn’t suggest the wine; I ordered it of my own free will. And besides, the food was fantastic (mmm…curried lamb!). No, it’s the fault of idiots with tons of money, no taste in wine, and an overwhelming desire to be one of the “cool kids” who buy only the most exclusive grape juice spiked with alcohol. OK, maybe it’s my fault for falling into the thinking that a $100 bottle of wine must be mind-blowing. Instead, it was barely drinkable.

So let my misfortune be a lesson to you. An expensive wine is not necessarily a good wine. And a cheap wine is not necessarily a bad wine. There are a virtually endless number of great wines out there for under $20. Of course, there’s plenty of swill out there for under $20 as well. How do you tell the difference? Unfortunately, there’s no magic shortcut. I can help point you to a few good wines, but you have to try them yourself and see if you like them. I guarantee you’ll kiss your fair share of toads in the process, but hopefully you’ll find some princes as well.

Wine Words

Cabernet sauvignon (cab-air-NAY so-veen-YON). The "king" of the red wine grapes. Capable of making the deepest, most profound, most expensive red wines. Best areas for cabernet include the Bordeaux region in France and the Napa Valley in California.

Chardonnay (shar-doh-NAY). What cabernet is for red wine, chardonnay is for white - easily the most popular grape on the market. White wines from Burgundy (including Chabis) are made from chardonnay grapes, as is most champagne.

Frizzante (free-ZAHN-tay). An Italian word for wines with a slight effervescence, but nothing like what a truely sparkling wine would have. Sometimes disappears a few minutes after opening the bottle.

Tannin. Tannins are a naturally occurring astringent component of grape skins, and can give a very dry, mouth-puckering taste to red wines. Tannins naturally mellow over time, giving wines a sliky smoothness (the main reason red wines improve as they get older). White wines, because the juice is not left in contact with the grape skins, do not have tannins and generally do not age like red wines.

Wine of the Week

2004 Covey Run Riesling

Finally, I'm coming through with a wine of the week for under $10. It took a bit of looking. I had to drink my way through a fair amount of cheap wine before I found something I really liked. The 2004 Covey Run Riesling, from Washington state, made the grade.

Riesling, as I discussed in the last column, is a white German grape that can make wines in a variety of styles, from dry to incredibly sweet. This is a slightly sweet riesling, with a light milky smoothness. It has a mild nose, with a touch of sour apple. Not very acid. That along with the sweetness makes this a very easy to drink wine. This wine also has a touch of frizzante (fizz) that is quite nice. If you haven't experienced frizzante before, this is worth trying just for the cheap thrill. If you like big, complex, dry wines, you probably won't like this, but for the price, this is a surprizingly good effort. Actually quite nice with Indian food. Available at Cost Plus World Market for $6.99.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Wine of the Week #2

I know I said that I'd try to find a good wine under $10 this week, but I got distracted by this wine instead: the Hahn Estates 2004 Central Coast Meritage, which won a gold medal at this year's California State Fair. A meritage is a California wine made in the classic Bordeaux style of blending cabernet sauvignon, merlot and several other grape varieties to make a smooth and complex red wine. By the way, "meritage" is a marketing word made from "merit" and "heritage", and rhymes with heritage, NOT the French "Hermitage" (which is pronounced air-me-taj). There is no such thing as a "meritage" grape, so don't embarass yourself by saying there is.

I had this wine first a few weekends ago at Creekside Cellars and thought that for the price, it was a particularly good effort. Had it again a week later at Vino 100, and discovered it in the wine section at CostPlus World Market as well. Lots of raspberry and black cherry fruit, edging toward the jammy style, but well balanced. Obvious oak, with a hint of wood smoke. Mild tannins. If you like approachable, "fruit-forward" red wines, you'll definitely like this.

Available at Creekside Cellars, Vino 100 and CostPlus. Three and a half stars.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Bad Acid Trips and Spitting

Bad Acid Trips and Spitting

I was in Vino 100 (a local wine shop over by Sports LTD) the other night and overheard someone say, "sauvignon blanc, that's a sweet wine, right?" The wine snob in me sneered viciously and thought, "wrong you stupid cretin, sauvignon blanc is a dry light white wine with virtually no flavor at all!" I'm pretty sure that I didn't actually say that out loud, but he did seem to avoid me after that.

Here are some useful tips for avoiding looking like that guy.

1. Avoid white wines. Wine snobs almost always prefer heavy duty, mouth puckering reds. For some reason, white wines aren't taken as seriously as red wines by wine snobs. That’s unfortunate because white wines are often the most approachable wines for the new wine drinker. Maybe that's the reason; white wines are often seen as "newbie" wines. However, there is nothing wrong with white wine. Though I'm not much of a fan of the sort of generic chardonnay you see everywhere, there are plenty of great white wines, including chardonnay (see the Wine of the Week).

2. Pick a really obscure wine, learn a little about it, and talk about it to the exclusion of all else. It’s impossible to know everything about all wines – there are just too many. That makes it relatively easy to put one over on most wannabe wine snobs. Some recommendations: Chinon, a red wine made from cabernet franc grapes in the Loire Valley in France. Trust me, you now know more about Chinon than most wine snobs. German Riesling. Riesling is so complex (there are about 50 dozen classifications, with bad-LSD-drug-trip-hallucination-inspired names like “Trockenbeerenauslese”) that only real wine experts understand it, and even some of them are faking it.

3. Don’t say stupid things like that guy in Vino 100. When tasting wine in public, keep your mouth shut unless you’ve mastered the Wine Snob’s “Wine Words of Wisdom”™. I’ll cover these words and phrases in a future column, but they are guaranteed* to make you look like a "Master of Wine" (such things do actually exist). In the mean time, don’t let your ignorance show. Just look serious, frown a lot, and look sternly into the glass as you taste the wine. If you want to look really, really serious about wine, spit. That’s right, don’t swallow the wine (yeah, I know that’s the whole point of drinking wine) – spit it out. I’ve never seen anybody do it at a tasting. Ever. That’s why you’ll look serious. People will fear you. You won’t have to say a single word. All the wannabe wine snobs will cower before you, knowing that only real wine experts spit. Effective at fending off the wine snobs, but let's face it, it's probably not a whole lot of fun.

Of course, the best strategy for dealing with your lack of knowledge about wine is to fess up right up front. "I don't know much about wine, but I'm learning as I go along." Any real wine enthusiast will be more than happy to share what they know about wine with you without making you feel two feet tall. Only a wine snob would use your confession of ignorance as an opportunity to rip your fragile ego to shreds and then grind it into the dust with the heel of their shoe.

So, the next time you’re wine tasting, relax and enjoy yourself. Just make sure to look around for me before you open your mouth.

*(Guarantee void any place with laws against fraud and false advertising)

Wine of the Week

2004 Leveroni Chardonnay
This wine was part of an evening tasting at Vino 100. Though I'm not a fan of grassy, oaky chardonnays, I was very impressed with this wine. This is a really good starter wine for new wine drinker, but also a great wine for serious wine drinkers. It's very smooth and creamy, without a lot of acidity, and that makes it easy to drink. However, it's got a solid structure and good flavors throughout. It's dry (as opposed to sweet), but with hints of butter and cream soda, and a touch of caramel on the finish. It would be really great with shrimp or light Thai food. Four stars. Available at Vino 100.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Jed Clampett and the French

Jed Clampett and the French

Learning about wine can be scary and intimidating, with plenty of opportunities for you to look like Jed Clampett. My mission here is to help you avoid the more basic wine faux pas, and get you well on your way to being a wine snob in your own right!

First off, you have to worry about looking like a cretin in front of your wine snob friends (assuming you have any). Say you take a slug of Gallo Twin Valley Merlot and say something idiotic like, "hey, that's pretty good!" I can absolutely guarantee you that every wine snob within 50 miles is going to sneer and look down their nose to you - that is, if they even bother to acknowledge your pitiful existence.

So, what did you do wrong? To the wine snob, you made two fundamental mistakes. First, any wine with the name "Gallo" in it simply can't be any good, no matter how much you like it. Gallo, which has recently attempted to move into the more rarified circles of "fine" wine, will forever be dogged by their jug wine history. If you like Gallo wines (and there is nothing wrong with that), hide them from the wine snobs. Second, you chose a merlot. Tsk, tsk. After Miles (lead character in hit wine movie Sideways) said, "if anyone orders Merlot, I'm leaving. I am NOT drinking any fucking Merlot!", merlot's reputation fell dramatically along wannabe wine snobs.

OK, so we're off to a good start: hide the Gallo and hide the merlot.

The next thing you have to worry about is the fact that the French either don't know how to spell or can't pronounce their own language. I mean, who would ever guess that "beaujolais" is actually pronounced "boo-zho-lay"? Or that "Pauillac" is pronounced "pow-yak"? I mean, come on! Even worse, the French just love to throw away letters at the end of words. The last four letters in "Bordeaux" are pronounced as "o". Huh? Why not just spell it "borddo" or something? AND, you've got to keep in mind that if a word ends in a consonant, you typically don't pronounce it. If you were thinking that merlot was pronounced "mer-lot", you are in deep, deep trouble. That's right, it's "mer-low".

I'm not sure if the French did this deliberately because they hate English speakers or because they enjoy their own wine just a little too much, but regardless, French wine and French pronounciation aren't going away any time soon.

So! Let's have a little quiz.

Pinot Gris = "pee-no gree" (a variety of white wine grape)
Viognier = "vee-own-yay" (an increasingly popular white wine grape variety)
Coteaux du Languedoc = "coat-toe doo lang-eh-dock" ("Slopes of the Languedoc"; a wine region in southern France.)
Chateauneuf du Pape = "sha-toe-noof doo pop" ("The Pope's New House" - I kid you not - a small town and type of red wine from south central France.)

Practice inserting these words randomly into sentences, and looking sternly down your nose as you pronounce them with a pompous French accent and you'll be a wine snob in no time!

The reality, of course, is that wine can be complicated if you really want to understand it. It comes from France, Spain, Germany, and Italy - regions with hundreds of years of strange and quirky wine history. And now that wine is global, you have to deal with California, Argentinian, Australian and South African wines as well. In the coming months I'll do my best to help demystify some of the confusion, and hopefully taste some yummy wines in the process.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Why a Column on Wine?

Draft of my first wine column for the Chico Beat:

Why a column on wine? That’s probably the first of several questions that crossed your mind when you saw this article. In order to head you off at the pass, I’ll answer them all for you now, and save us all a lot of trouble.

Q: Isn’t wine the preferred beverage of rich upper class hedonists detached from – and uncaring of – the rest of us who work for living?
A: Well, yes, I suppose it is, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t drink it too. Wine is a strangely magical liquid that is accessible to anyone.

Q: Don’t you have to be a pretentious snob in order to “enjoy” wine?
A: Not at all. Anyone can enjoy and understand wine. You only have to be a pretentious snob if you also want to be a pretentious snob about wine. That’s where I come in. No, I’m not a pretentious snob (though I’m hearing some disagreement from the peanut gallery). My purpose with this column is to turn you on to the enjoyment of wine, hopefully demystifying it a bit in the process.

Q: Don’t you have to spend an arm and a leg in order to get “good” wine?
A: Sometimes it seems like it, but that’s my personal problem, not yours. In fact, the “globalization” of wine (a topic for another day) has forced producers all over the world to produce better wines at reasonable prices. There has, in fact, never been a better time in all of history to get truly great wine at affordable prices. I plan to make it my mission in this column to find those great wine bargains and drink them down. I know it’s a heavy burden and a great sacrifice, but I feel compelled by an overwhelming sense of public duty to do it for you.

Q: Isn’t Chico a beer town? Why the heck are you writing about wine?
A: While I love beer (nothing like a Summerfest on a hot day!), there’s no conflict in loving wine too. And as some wise (but sexist) philosopher once said, “man can’t live on beer alone.” We are actually quite lucky in Chico to have three establishments devoted solely to the enjoyment of wine, as well as several others that carry a decent selection of wines for our purchasing pleasure. Over the next few months, I’ll review those establishments as well as a number of wonderful – and maybe not so wonderful – wines.

Q: Why are you doing this column in the Chico Beat?
A: Obviously, they’re desperate.

Q: Who the heck are you and what do you know about wine?
A: You know, I’m starting to get really tired of your questions. Don’t you have something else to do? Actually, this is the best question of the bunch. Do I have a lot of fancy wine credentials (preferably in impenetrable French)? No. Am I a “master sommelier” (whatever the heck that is)? No. Have I ever tasted anything more expensive than Two Buck Chuck? Truth to be told, I save the “Charles Shaw” for special events. Is there anything that would qualify me to write a wine column? Not that I know of, but I did drink three bottles of wine one night last month without blacking out. Mostly. Well, I don’t actually remember much about the whole business with the cookies, but otherwise I was totally there.

Monday, September 04, 2006

A Weekend Playing Fair - Part 2

The only place open for food within 15 miles in any direction of Fair Play at 3:30 in the afternoon was the Gold Vine Grill, where we met owner Mary Kemp. Since we were the only people in the place at that early hour, we chatted with Mary as we looked over the wine bar menu (they start serving at 3:00). We ended up choosing the Greek-style Quesadillas, Portabellini Mushrooms, and Ginger-Shrimp Ravioli.

The quesadillas were tasty but not mind blowing, but the portabellini mushrooms were a delight. They weren't really "stuffed," though; a pate of sausage, spinach a cheese was piled on top of the cooked mushrooms. Though a bit unconventional, they were delicious, driven by the intensely flavorful sausage. As good as they were, they didn't hold a candle to the raviolis, which were just stunning. Gingery shrimp in a Chinese wonton, served in an incredible coconut broth brimming with Asian spice flavors. Yum!

While we ate, Mary graciously let us try several local wines from their wine bar free of charge. Most were from small wineries without public tasting rooms that either conducted tastings only by appointment or not at all. Several of these wines were particularly notable, including an Obscurity Barbara and a 2003 Bechard Herbert Vineyard Syrah. The latter had deep raisiny notes that brought up visions of hot summer days, as well as a surprising smoothness. We asked Mary how we could get some and she promptly called the winemaker and arranged to have them drop off a couple of bottles at the restaurant. Thanks Mary.

Mary also arranged for us to take a tour of Cedarville Vineyard, run by the extremely friendly and engaging Jonathan Lachs & Susan Marks. Like some of the smaller wineries in the area, Cedarville only conducts tastings by appointment. Jonathan gave us the tour of their facility, which was simple but surprisingly nice. The cement cave was particularly interesting. As for their wines - overall I found them too acidic and tannic for drinking now, but with good potential for aging. Their Syrah and Cabernet seemed the most promising, so we bought several bottles to cellar. I'm hoping that their wines are as ageworthy as they seem.

After all this wine tasting it was getting late and Jhan and I were pretty hungry, and so we headed for Restuarant Taste in the small town of Plymouth. Taste seems to be the new place in town, and already has a reputation as one of the best restaurants in the area. In that sense, it didn't disappoint. The salmon and roasted Rabbit were excellent, as was the cheese plate we had as an appetizer with a bottle of Cedarville Syrah. The syrah went extremely well with the cheese plate, particularly the "Roaring 40's" blue cheese, but unfortunately didn't pair well with the rabbit. Presentation and service were excellent, and we topped off the dinner with a Boston Creme Pie (excellent) and a Warm Ginger Cake with vanilla bean gelato (very good). Overall, I'd say that Taste lives up to its reputation and is well worth visiting again.

Saturday morning found us dozing in. We pretty much skipped breakfast, knowing that we would be lunching at the Gold Vine Grill.

Our first winery stop turned out to be Domaine de la Terre Rouge, which we had visited before. Terre Rouge (like Holly's Hill) specializes in Rhone-style wines, and is easily one of the better wineries in the area. We were the first customers of the day and tasted through several syrahs. My easy favorite - and Wine of the Trip - was the 2000 Sierra Foothills Syrah, notable for its strong earthy flavors and mellow complexity. I ended up buying a case of half-bottles on sale at a ridiculous $6.75 each. Jhan disagreed, preferring the 2001 Sentinal Oaks Syrah.

Our next stop - given that several people had recommended it - was Oakstone Winery. Though the location was beautiful and the people were exceedingly friendly, none of their wines were stunning. Their Reserve Cabernet was notable for having particularly huge tannins, but lacked structure for aging.

After the disappointment at Oakstone, we headed to lunch. We ate at the Gold Vine Grill, this time having a sausage sandwich and a tuna salad sandwich. Jhan's tuna salad was apparently excellent, but I was a bit disappointed in the sausage sandwich. I had been hoping for the same spicy, savory sausage they used in the mushrooms, but no such luck. Though good, the sausage in the sandwich was on the bland side.

After lunch (and a quick visit back to Cantiga), we headed to Granite Springs, whose petite sirah had been given raves by someone, sticking Granite Springs in my head as a place to go. The place was absolutely mobbed by people, which I've begun to suspect is an indicator of uninspiring wines. True to form, none of their wines were even mildly interesting, including their rather insipid petite sirah.

We finished off the day with a quick visit to Dillian Wines. With only two bottles of their Zinfandel left on the shelf, and less than a case of their sauvignon blanc, the place was pretty empty of both wine and people. Tom Dillian and his son were quite friendly, however, and we tasted the aforementioned wines as well as a pretty little 2005 Orange Muscat. The muscat would make a great gift wine; sweet, smooth and nicely packaged.

Although we had reservations for the highly rated Zachery Jacques near Diamond Springs, our hotel was in Sutter Creek, and we decided to go to Caffe Via d' Oro in downtown Sutter Creek instead. Given that it was Saturday night on Labor Day weekend, they weren't packed, and we had no problem getting in on such short notice. We started off with a Bibb salad, which was excellent despite the fact that you had to take it apart to eat it. Jhan had sea bass in phyllo dough, which was interesting, but not particularly tasty. I had a filet in an ancho chili rub, with sauteed mushrooms that was superior. The spiciness brought out plenty of savory flavors in the meat, and the texture of the mushrooms was the perfect compliment. The potatoes were a bit bland, but that was only a mild disappointment.

My main complaint about Via d' Oro is their wine list. Heavy on local zinfandels (which I mostly detest), they didn't have a wide selection of other interesting wines. We ended up buying mostly unmemmorable wines by the glass. The only one that was memorable was a 2004 Campus Oaks from Lodi that tasted like fermented raisins. Definitely different, but not good.

On Sunday our plan was to hit at least two wineries before heading home to beat the Labor Day rush, but we ended up visiting only one winery - Windwalker Vineyard. We'd been to Windwalker before, and fallen in love with their 2002 Lady in Red Bordeaux blend - easily the best wine in the Sierra foothill wine country. Over all, I find that Windwalker has the most consistently well made wines of any of the wineries that we've visited. This time around, their 2003 Barbera was a winner, with deep smoky flavors and just a hint of raisin. Where many barberas can be stern and austere, this wine was opulent and rich. The Sierra Sunset was a surprise as well. For an everyday wine under $10, this had a balance of fruit and richness lacking in most other vineyards cheaper cuvees. Many of these are just alcohol and grape juice, but the Sierra Sunset is a real wine.

The big disappointment - and the reason I wanted to stop there in the first place - was the 2003 Lady in Red. Where the 2002 could, in all seriousness, complete with any top-of-the-line Napa Cabernet, the 2003 was a much weaker effort. The nose was totally different and not strong, to the point of having a whiff of moldy pool cover. The taste was better, but not as full or complex as the 2002. Hopefully with some bottle age, the '03 will improve, but it looks like a disappointing year for the Lady in Red.

Wines of the Trip

Domaine de la Terre Rouge 2000 Sierra Foothills Syrah
Bechard 2003 Herbert Vineyard Syrah
Cantiga 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon
Holly's Hill 2004 Wylie-Fenaughty Syrah

OK, so three of the top four are syrahs. I'm not sure if that's me, or an indicator of what this area does well.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

A Weekend Playing Fair - Part 1

Perhaps it's appropriate that my first post is devoted to a review of wineries visited in the Fair Play area of El Dorado County, California. Perhaps it will encourage me to play somewhat fair in my reviews of the areas wineries, instead of mercilessly slamming the ones I hated (Granite Springs) and unabashedly gushing over the ones I liked (Windwalker).

My partner Jhan and I spent the Labor Day weedend visiting about a dozen wineries in the Fair Play and Shenendoah Valley areas of Sierra Nevada foothills southeast of Sacramento in northern California. Most of you (whoever you are) have never heard of this area, but it's an up-and-coming wine area in a state blessed with some of the most over-hyped, over-run and over-priced wine areas in the country. Fortunately, that's not the case here. We spent a good hour and a half at a wonderful restaurant and wine bar in the middle of the Fair Play area - talking with the restaurant owner and tasting a variety of good local wines, and the whole time we were the only people in the place.

Unspoiled - for the most part, that's the word for this wine country. Though we did encounter small crowds at some of our stops, we were also pretty lucky in being able to spend a lesurely amount of time talking to wine makers and tasting wine without any pressure. Given that it was the Labor Day weekend, we kept wondering where all the people were.

Jhan and I had been to this area before - in March - and this time around we revisited several places we had been before. But we also visited a number of new places. The following are my impressions of the wines we tasted.

First stop: Holly's Hill Vineyards. This was the last place we stopped back in March when they were absolutely mobbed by a crowd of wine club members there for their first Rhone taste off. Holly's Hill prides itself on making Rhone wines and comparing their wines to Cotes du Rhone and Chateauneuf du Papes from France. Well, CdP is my favorite wine, and on our tasting in March I thought there was no comparion. The Holly's Hills wines were all much simpler and all seemed to have a residual sweetness that was unlike anything you'd ever get from France. Jhan and I were definitely unimpressed the first time around, but we also thought that we could have been affected by fatigue (being "wined-out" as we call it), and by the teaming crowd.

So we gave them a second chance as our first stop on this trip. I won't bore you with every wine we tasted. The one wine (I couldn't get them to let me taste their top-of-the-line "Patriarch" cuvee) that stood out head and shoulders above the others was the 2004 Wylie-Fenaughty Syrah. This was the one wine of theirs with a truly earthy complexity. This was a standout wine. I was already thinking "wine of the trip" the moment I tasted it. Well worth seeking out. Actually, overall, Holly's Hill wines are a clear cut above of the highly alcoholic zinfandel fruit bombs that many of the wineries in this area churn out. I would put them in the top ten of wineries to visit if you're going this area.

Next on our list was Sierra Vista Winery, right next door to Holly's Hill. Nothing much of note there. The Le Grande Syrah was worth tasting, but the rest of the wines were uninspiring. A disappointment. So let's move on.

Third on our list was Cantiga Wineworks, not because I'd heard good things or was impressed with their wine list, but only because I thought the bottle labels I saw on their website were the coolest I'd seen in a while. They had this whole cathedral theme going on that I really liked, and honestly, I wanted to see them in person. Jhan was skeptical. Tiny little tasting room, run by a strange lady who had to knock back a pretty good "taste" of each wine before pouring us any.

Regardless, I was pretty impressed by pretty much everything we tasted. Impressed in the sense that having been to the area before, we knew the preferred wine style: huge fruit bombs with alcohol in the 16% range. No complexity or character. It was all about the booze baby. But Cantiga completely ignores the conventional wisdom of the area. They make wines in a European style, often without malolactic fermentation. Wines that have character, complexity, and smoothness instead of fruit and heat. With the exception of Windwalker, I would have to say that Cantiga made the most consistantly smooth and complex wines of any place we visited. That's not to say that you'd like them, but they are well made wines. I was most particularly impressed with the 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon, of which I bought six bottles. Not to everyones' taste, but complex and full of character.

So far, we were off to a pretty good start. Two keepers in three wineries. But we were getting pretty darn hungry and our dinner reservations at Taste in Plymouth were 5 hours away. We had to find something, and that something turned out to be the surprize highpoint of the trip - and right around the corner from Cantiga.