September 25, 2008

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Where fantasy meets reality
Wine columns can offer aspiration and inspiration
By Tim Protzman letters@hippopress.com

I read a wine column the other day written by someone else. It’s not that I don’t read my own column (I do), but I read everybody else’s too.

The main complaint against wine columns is that the wines they cover sometimes aren’t available. But isn’t that the same reason why people read romance novels? Why give up your dreams and fantasies just because your husband’s on the couch in a ratty t-shirt with a beer and a bag of Doritos squirming around trying to sneak one out without you hearing it?

So, that’s why I like some other people’s wine columns. Especially the ones that start like this:

“Dawn breaks quickly over the village of Ampuis as the balloon’s spacious gondola sets down in a field beside acres of grapevines. The winemaker ushers us into a 1,000-year-old stone cellar. The steps are worn as we descend into part of the cellar that hasn’t been opened since 1987. Here are the legacy wines, the greatest vintages ever from Cote Rotie. Some secreted out of Paris before the Second World War. Some from that fabled but fragile 1970 vintage...”

It’s a bottle-ripping tale of depth and passion for when you’re sitting on the couch with a $4.99 bottle of Walnut Crest because it was the only decent wine you could find at the truck stop.

Then there are the columns about wine you can find but can’t afford. Like Blankiet Estate 2003 Merlot at just $179. I’ll take a case and use the wood box for storage when I move into a van down by the river.

Sometimes, though, all the stars align. When I read a recent Friday’s Wall Street Journal, Weekend Journal, Tastings column by Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher, I knew the stars were in alignment. Concannon Petite Sirah was one of their top picks for Taste and Best Value. And it’s readily available almost anywhere.

The Concannon Vineyard’s a little off the beaten wine path. It’s in Livermore, Calif., which is about 45 miles southwest of San Francisco. Livermore is more famous for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The vineyard is quite close to the lab and the Tesla Road, named for Nikola Tesla, the brilliant inventor turned mad scientist, who along with Edison made it possible to move electricity from one place to another. The Lawrence Livermore Lab is known for its defense work, especially in the area of nuclear weapons safety. This seems like the last place you’d want a winery, but in Bordeaux they have vineyards next to factories. And most of grapes are sourced from Central Coast AVAs anyway. And I don’t think they store the weapons at the Lab. It’s more of a think tank.

The wine was great. I tried the Petite Sirah, but the people at the wine shop raved about the Pinot Noir. Concannon also makes a Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Gris, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and a Syrah. All are priced affordably, although you can get a super-premium Heritage level bottle at the winery tasting room, or Cellar Door as they call it in Australia.

The Pinot Noir was really nice too. Maybe even better. The wine’s a little too good to be just a house wine, but the price allows it to be if it wants. I’ve had $45 Cabs and Pinots that weren’t as juicy. (Although I think the cabernet is the least approachable of the Concannon wines.)

The vineyard’s 125 years old and was built by a Concannon who emigrated from Ireland. The wine rookies liked the Pinot but were a bit reserved on the Petit Sirah. Having recently rediscovered the joys of American Petite Sirah I was attuned to the structure, finish, sugar and alcohol content. For a $12 bottle the stuff was good.

With the price being the best feature, the taste being very good, what are the flaws? It’s a little unauthentic. Just a little manipulation, a smidge of globalized wine taste and that creeping up alcohol content (you know they all go up a little each crush), it has a touch of that “better living through chemicals” flavor. Not a huge amount, but not a Chateau Lafon-Rochet St Estephe either.

Explore Concannon Vineyards now. Try two varietals side by side and visit the vineyard if you’re in the Fremont/San Jose Area.

Here are this week’s wines:
• Concannon Petite Sirah ($11.99) Red licorice and elderberry with chocolate and currant sparkles. Great smooth finish, not too dry and a touch of sweetness. No alcoholic afterburn.
• The Concannon pinot ($13.99) cherry, bitter orange marmalade, a touch of earthiness and some nascent structure that follows the finish across the tongue. I really want to try the Syrah.
• 2003 Bodegas Muga Reserva Rioja ($26.99) A nicely structured, dry (tannic, but tamed) Rioja with meat, red cabbage and cranberry fruit notes.
• 2006 Santa Carolina Reserve Carmenere ($7.99) Deep rich and untamed. Like meeting Che Guevara in an internment camp. Once again, I would love to taste a Carmenere that’s been aged for 20 years. Grown in the Maipo Valley, Chile


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In Praise Of An American Wine
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Looking back at the heyday of cheap wine
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My Big Fat Greek Wine Tasting
The Best Drinks On A Budget
The Highly Drinkable (Mostly) Merlot
The Long, Strange Journey Of Wine
Old French grape in the New World
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Shopping for Wine Bargains

Sitting By The Fire And Dreaming Of Wine
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Spirit World Tales
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Time To Stay Frosty
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