Thursday, September 18, 2014

Wineaux: Yet another trip off the beaten path


From page A7 | July 10, 2014 |

On a recent trip to the stunning Monterey County coast, we met a friend for dinner at Passionfish, a charming restaurant that serves only Marine Stewardship Council certified fish and has the quirkiest and most reasonably priced wine list of any establishment I know. So many wines. And we had to choose one.

I’ve been intrigued for several years by the “naturalista” philosophy of Berkeley winemaker Chris Brockway (“the way we make wine, the most important thing we do is decide when to pick the grapes. No adjusting, no adding. If we don’t pick at the right time there’s not much we can do”). So the Broc Cellars offering on the list quickly seduced me, not least because of the playfully defiant name: White Zinfandel.

Other wineries who make a rosé from zin grapes distance themselves from the sticky sweet white zins of our (or I should say my) youth by calling their more sophisticated offerings “Rosé of Zinfandel” or “Rosé of Primitivo.” But Chris embraces the dread moniker for this bone-dry, peppery rosé.

It tastes of stone fruit and mild citrus; it’s low in alcohol, food-friendly and fun — and it went beautifully with the three different fish entrées at our table as well as with the delightful appetizer: smoked trout ceviche tostaditas. The bottle (and an elegantly simple bottle it is) retails for $22; Passionfish charges just $31.

Drinking Chris’s white zin sent me back to two other quirky wines crafted by local winemakers in the “minimal manipulation” or “naturalista” tradition. I recently wrote about Kenny Likitprakong’s Banyan Gewürtztraminer (which I’ve continued to buy and enjoy — Co-op $10) and have been eager to try a bottle of the 2012 Valdiguié that he makes under his Folk Machine label.

It’s a gem. Valdiguié, a varietal from southern France, used to be grown widely in our area, where it was called Napa Gamay. (UCD researchers eventually discovered that it wasn’t gamay at all.) When the trend toward big fruity high-alcohol wines was sweeping California, “visionary” growers ripped out their vineyards of Napa Gamay and planted them with more prestigious grapes. Like cab.

Enter Kenny (Chris Brockway also makes a stunning Validguié — harbinger of a reverse trend?), who carefully crafted this version from Mendocino (Redwood Valley) grapes. I’m hoping the new willingness to work with “minor” grapes really catches on — this wine, like Chris’, is fantastic. Exuberantly juicy, it’s grounded in earthiness and good acidity. One critic called it “liquid sunshine.” And when was the last time you drank a red wine at only 12.2 percent alcohol? ($20 at the Co-op.)

I can barely think of a dish that this wine wouldn’t complement with the possible exception of a pound slab of steak. The only problem is making a meal that you like as much as you like the wine.

Another very low-alcohol (even lower, in fact, at 12 percent) red, also from a naturalista (in this case Berkeley-based Steve Edmunds), also a juicy, quirky delight is the El Dorado blend of 93 percent cab fanc and 7 percent gamay called Bebame (“Drink me.” Obey.) Lively, herby, completely unoaked, it tastes of eucalyptus and cranberry and thyme and the good earth. We drank this 2011 with a couple of pizzas — one with artichoke hearts and mushrooms, the other beet, onion and goat cheese. Perfect. Again, it’s hard to imagine a dish this wouldn’t enhance. Well, maybe not Thai, but I wouldn’t mind trying. About the same price at the Co-op.

All three of these wines fall a bit into the “geek” category, so be prepared not to swoon on first sip. Just sit back and let them seduce you. If you try one of these and hate it, though, I’d suggest you skip the others.

Since I recommend these interesting and unusual wines with that warning, I offer you one — also interesting and unusual — that I can’t imagine not liking. Berryessa Gap’s 2013 Verdejo. BG’s new winemaker, Nicole Salengo, is doing a terrific job, especially with these out-of-the ordinary varietals. This wine is fruity and fresh with flavors of tropical fruit (lychee, maybe?), pear and tangerine. Delicious.

Verdejo, by the way, is a Spanish grape, not to be confused with the Portugese Verdelho, from which Nicole also makes a lovely white wine. And it just won a gold medal. Congratulations, Nicole. And while I’m congratulating local wineries, here’s to Route 3′s recently awarded California State Fair wine competition medals, including two Best of Class in region for their 2013 Sauv Blanc and 2011 Syrah-Viognier blend.

All these local winners are in the $12-14 range at the Co-op or Valley Wine Company. Grab the Verdejo if you see it — Berryessa Gap didn’t make much.

Finally, here’s an interesting and unusual wine in the bargain category. I’ve stocked my fridge with this Valley Wine Company offering, Blanc Pescador — fun, refreshing, low-alcohol and under $10. A blend of Macabeo, Parellada, and Xarel-lo — the grapes generally used to make Cava — this delightful Spanish quaffer has a natural, light spritz and comes in a beautiful tall bottle that’s a pleasure to have on the table. I’ve served it with everything from bread and cheese to pasta-and-greens to bean salad to smoked trout and it works perfectly.

Cheers for quirky wine.

— Reach Susan Leonardi at Comment on this column at



Susan Leonardi



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