Stooping to Conquer

California making cheaper wine better

One of the most deliciously earth-moving experiences in wine life is finding a so-damn-good-I-wanna-guzzle-it-all-day-long bottle of wine. It's even better if you don't have to raid the couch-cushion change to afford it. Before, these elusive wines emerged from countries outside the U.S., but we're finally figuring out how to do cheap in these parts. The glut of grapes is helping, as are fearlessly creative winemakers and less expensive winemaking techniques. But maybe wineries just aren't as concerned with the fancy appellations anymore, listing the generic "California" instead. Blending juice from various places around the state — what the "California" appellation means — really separates the fearless from the fearful, as does sourcing fruit from lesser-known places. What consumers gain from this gumption is good wine for a reasonable price. And we're finally making it stateside. Most winemakers say great wine begins with quality raw material. The best wine is a mixture of 90 percent plump, ripe grapes and 10 percent everything else, like technique or oak barrels. Think of an apple pie. If the apples are too tart, it doesn't matter how much cinnamon or butter you add, the pie will still end up inedible — and tasting nothing like apples. So when you taste wine, it should really taste 90 percent like fruit and 10 percent other stuff like oak or butter. If the scale tips, the wine starts a-suckin'.

And that precariously delicate balance is happening in less expensive California wines. You don't need expensive grapes, high-powered consultants and celebrity winemakers — only raw talent and the patience to hunt for quality ingredients no one else has discovered. Then, there's the creativity to produce an elixir people will buy. World, I think we've figured it out — let's guzzle.

RECOMMENDED WINES

Tin Roof 2002 Syrah-Cabernet California From the folks at Murphy Goode comes a fantastic second label, value-priced wine. A dark fruit bomb goes off with blackberry, cherry and blueberry. A touch of black pepper finishes it off. $10.

Bonterra 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon North Coast Fruit forward, uncomplicated and full of red raspberries. Easy to cozy up with. $13. 1/2

Cline 2001 Syrah California Full-bodied and slaps you with black pepper, tobacco and dark cherry. Then it gives you a deep massage. Not a wine for the faint of heart. $9.

Chumeia Vineyards 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon California A cool wine that matures in the glass. From black cherry and plum to maple syrup and roses. Try it with food and watch it have some fun. $12. 1/2

Wente 2003 Riesling Arroyo Seco Monterey Elegant, slightly sweet honey soothes a tart lime and red apple experience. Thick with flavor and pleasure. $10.

Wente 2002 Chardonnay San Francisco Bay Livermore Valley Honeysuckle, oak, butter and lemon mix together like a hot toddy. Well-balanced acidity great with or without food. $12.

Camelot 2001 Merlot California A simple, sultry, oaky, cherry-driven merlot with some kick to it. So cheap, I wanna hug it. $7.

Tamás Estates 2003 Pinot Grigio Monterey County This winery in Livermore Valley California is coming up with some cool Italian gems. Their pinot grigio is soft, supple with bright, zesty lime on the tongue. Refreshing acidic finish makes it perfect for sipping on a warm day. $12. 1/2

Three Thieves 2003 Zinfandel California One of the first wineries to test the premium jug-wine waters, these guys are having fun. Blackberry jammy, smoky, spicy and quite drinkable. $11 for a one-liter bottle.

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THE WINE LIST
Got an upcoming or ongoing wine event? Send information to: The Wine List, 810 North Howard Ave., Tampa, FL 33606, fax 813-739-4801 or e-mail [email protected].

RHONE RANGERS Iffen yer tired of all them chards and cabs, then this here event is fer you! Try 10 syrah, viognier and grenache wines from around the world. $10. 7-9 p.m. Fri., Sept. 17. Vintage Wine Cellars, 3629 Henderson Blvd., Tampa (813-879-2931 or www.vintagewinecellars.net). R.S.V.P. requested.

A DIFFERENT KIND OF DATE Florida Estates Winery's cellar master, Ron Hunt, shares his experiences and knowledge of wine in a detailed wine class. $20 in advance, $25 at door. 5:30-8 p.m. Sat., Sept. 18. Florida Estates Winery, 25241 S.R. 52, Land O'Lakes (813-996-2113 or www.floridaestateswines.com).

A DRINK FOR CHARLEY Fine Wine and Spirits Warehouse hosts a fundraiser wine tasting and silent auction for the victims of Hurricane Charley. Over 60 wines from high-end producers like Shafer, Rombauer and Mer Soleil, and food from Skipper's Smokehouse. $30 per person, $50 per couple. 6-8 p.m. Thurs., Sept. 16. Mike Kwasin's Residence, 3613 Beach Drive, Tampa (813-837-8941).

DREAMIN' OF ITALY Armani's Restaurant features a class and tasting of four wines from Italy. $10 per person, but free with dinner. 5:30-6:30 p.m. Wed., Sept. 22. Armani's Restaurant, 2900 Bayport Drive, Tampa (813-207-6800). R.S.V.P. requested.

AMERICAN SPIRITS WINE TASTING American Spirits hosts a free wine tasting every Thursday. 5:30-7:30 p.m. American Spirits, 280 Third St. S., St. Petersburg (727-895-8700).

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