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WineLine: Inaugural Issue
Written and © copyright by Dave McIntyre

Welcome to the inaugural issue of Dave McIntyre’s WineLine! This is my effort to continue reporting the wine scene after the sad demise of Good Libations and Washington Sidewalk.com.

There are some differences, of course: No glitzy graphics. (Or ads.) And no editor to keep me on my toes, under 600 words, and on deadline. You are my editors, and I rely on you for feedback. Whether or not I continue this endeavor depends in large measure on whether I think someone’s reading it. With Sidewalk, I assumed someone was reading. Microsoft assured me they were reading. Besides, I got paid whether anyone did or not. No one’s paying me now, but I feel the Washington market needs some in-depth wine reporting that is not available in the mainstream publications. Details on how to subscribe or unsubscribe are at the end of this tome.

Please forward this newsletter to anyone you think may enjoy it – and encourage them to subscribe. It’s totally free, after all.

In this first, free-wheeling issue:

Cheers!

Dave McIntyre

The Napa Valley Vintners Association breezed through Washington October 20 for a benefit tasting and some good old fashioned politikkin’. What stood out most in my mind as I circulated among the tables at the French Embassy was the remarkable absence of overpowering oak in many of the Chardonnays. Wine geeks who stick obstinately to red wines at these functions may have missed this new trend and an opportunity to taste California Chardonnay that actually suggests … well … fruit.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t mean to bash all California Chardonnay. At formal wine tastings, it is often refreshing to pick Cabernet tannins from one’s teeth with an oaky "Shard" of two-by-four. But it is nice to see vintners recognizing that sometimes the fruit they pull off the vine is best left to express its own virtues rather than serving as a vehicle for demonstrating what they learned in wine school or showing off their bankrolls with expensive new barrels. Ouch. And I don’t mean that these were unoaked altogether, only that their fruit was allowed to shine through, with the wood relegated to its proper function of adding structure and finesse.

Two of these Chardonnays were particularly impressive. The Cuvaison 1997 Carneros offered vibrant peach and pineapple flavors with a long finish. And the Staglin Family 1998 Rutherford was especially noteworthy for its focus and minerally complexity. It almost did seem unoaked, until a little wooden backbone emerged surprisingly on the finish, like someone creeping up behind you and tickling you in the ribs. Shari Staglin explained that the winery stopped making Chardonnay for several years when their vineyards were replanted because of phylloxera. The resurgent vineyards feature all the post-phylloxera benefits of new planting and trellising techniques, and the Staglin Chard blend features six "clones" – TRENDY GEEK-SPEAK ALERT! – including the "Dijon clone" that California winemakers are hoping will make their Chardonnays taste more "Burgundian." (Eventually they’ll figure out that the wines will just taste "Californian," and there’s nothing wrong with that.) The Staglin Chard was aged in a mixture of new but mostly used barrels to provide that rib-tickle of wood without overpowering the wine. At $40 and in limited supply, you’re more likely to see it in restaurants. But it nearly achieved the impossible: overshadowing the Staglin 1996 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford, which local devotees will remember was one of the stars at last year’s MacArthur Liquors Barrel Tasting. In case you missed it, the wine is showing beautifully.

Other Cabernets of note included, natch, the Cain Vineyard & Winery’s 1996 Cain Cuvée, which was drinking even better than the vaunted Cain Five 1995, though the latter had more of what stuffy old wine writers like to call "breeding." The Joseph Phelps 1996 Insignia was everything we’ve come to expect from this bottling, as was the Pine Ridge Stags Leap District 1997.

In Merlots, Duckhorn is now marketing an "estate" bottling, featuring grapes they grew themselves, in addition to its regular Napa Valley Merlot. Margaret Duckhorn, always ready to make a play on the winery’s name, was also pouring a delicious, unusual and pricey (at about $40) blend of Zinfandel and Cabernet called "Paraduxx." And while we’re on the subject of aquatic life, the Frog’s Leap 1997 Merlot remains faithful to its reputation.

The most eye-opening wine for this taster, however, was the Domaine Charbay Distiller’s Port. There isn’t much of it, and a 500-ml bottle will set you back about $60, but wow! Amazing depth, concentration and finish. Winemaker Marko Karakasevic was also pouring a White Port that would be an interesting conversation piece except that it tastes so good. And in the tried-and-true trade tasting tradition of hiding something under the table, he featured a line of fruit-flavored vodkas, such as key lime and blood orange. These were quite austere and powerful with impressive aromas, perhaps best in a cocktail rather than straight up.

The Napa Valley Vintners Association public tasting was a benefit for the Shakespeare Theater.

WINE GEEK TESTOSTERONE ALERT! JANCIS IS COMING! JANCIS IS COMING!

That’s right! Jancis Robinson, the Über-Wench of Wine, will appear in person at Borders Books downtown, 18th & L Streets NW, on Tuesday, November 16 at 6:30 p.m. She will be autographing copies of the second edition of her monumental Oxford Companion to Wine. (Gee, it doesn’t seem so long ago that she lightened my wallet to the tune of $50 for the first edition … And worth every penny, I might add.) At the same time, Luskin frères Bob and Fred of Bell Wine & Spirits will conduct a tasting on "Wine for the Birds" – turkey, that is.

Before the NVVA tasting, association President Tom Shelton, of Phelps, held a news conference in which he outlined winemakers’ concerns on two subjects currently under review here in Washington: The controversy over using the word "Napa" on wines that are not actually grown in Napa County; and direct shipping of wine to consumers. (It was not clear whether that order reflected the association’s priorities or a sly recognition that we reporters only wanted to hear about direct shipping and this was the best way to ensure we’d listen to his point on the labeling.)

Briefly, many wineries are objecting to the tendency of bulk wine producers to call their brands "Napa This" or "Napa That" when the wines don’t really come from Napa. They feel that consumers will be fooled (Not you and me, of course – we’d recognize what the words "Coastal" or "California" mean. They’re worried about idiot shoppers who will settle for just any ol’ Mare-lott for dinner.) into thinking they’re buying something of quality because "Napa" means "Wine." The BATF is considering the issue, including how to grandfather or phase out long-established names such as Napa Ridge, owned by Beringer and producing quality wines, but of Coastal appellation.

On direct shipping, Shelton escalated the wine industry rhetoric over what the Wine Institute and American Vintners Association have been saying all year. Instead of arguing that "direct shipping provides an avenue for smaller wineries to get their products to market but gee whiz, guys, we really don’t have anything against the three-tier system and our good-but-misguided friends the wholesalers," Shelton cast the issue in terms of the electronic commerce revolution, and praised technology giants Intel and America Online for voicing their support of the wine industry on the direct shipping issue: The Internet and the technology economy of the new millennium against Prohibition-era laws and the 21st Amendment. Shelton stopped short of saying wholesalers were obsolete and urged them to enter into a "business to business" dialogue on a new distribution framework to replace the three-tier system and allow for Internet sales and direct shipping.

He conceded, however, that the wine industry would "take a hit" in legislation now before Congress to give states the ability to fight direct shippers in federal courts. Wine industry supporters in Congress were trying to dilute the legislation with language that would protect their rights under the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution and ensure that deliveries required an adult signature, a move opposed by wine and beer wholesalers.

Shelton’s unusual foray into politics, including glad-handing lawmakers at a Capitol Hill reception sponsored by Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif), appeared to reflect new awareness by vintners that they need to pay closer attention to Washington and try to match the influence of the wholesalers lobby. If the anti-direct shipping legislation becomes law, wine may end up in the Supreme Court, pitting the interstate commerce clause against the 21st Amendment in one of the first legal battles of the e-commerce age.

"What contemptible scoundrel stole the cork from my lunch?"

W.C. Fields

TASTINGS: For more than a decade, the words Robert Kacher Selections have been a guidepost to quality French wines. Well, Bobby is branching out – to New Zealand of all places. He now imports two outstanding Sauvignon Blancs: the Lofthouse Marlborough Single Vineyard 1999 ($15) and the Solstone Wairarapa Valley 1999 ($17). Both feature the intense passion fruit and red grapefruit flavors New Zealand captures so well in its Sauvignon Blancs. The Lofthouse is fleshier and rounder, more hedonistic than the Solstone’s rather acidic, mineral structure, which in turn might appeal to intellectuals or spelunkers. Buy some of each and drink the Lofthouse now; the Solstone will likely soften a bit and develop even more in six to twelve months. Just don’t let the vintage ruin the Beaujolais Nouveau for you. Kacher reports that he is also marketing small quantities of reds from Solstone, priced in the $30s, such as Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc. They are terrific, he says. Of course. (Wine Geek Trivia: This is actually Kacher’s second foray into the New World. He also distributes Oregon’s Beaux Frères Pinot Noir for You Know Who.)

Whoever would have thunk Olney would provide a delicious little oasis for wine-loving diners seeking to evade Montgomery County’s stranglehold on restaurant wine lists? Fiorentino’s Italian Restaurant (in the Town Center shopping plaza on Rte. 108; 301-570-8226) has long offered an impressive list of Californian and European selections to pair with its hearty fare. Now it is joined by Mannequin Pis (18064 Georgia Ave.; 301-570-4800), a cozy Belgian bistro wedged among a Domino’s, an Indian curry spot and a Chinese carryout. Moules frites abound, as do reasonably priced wines from the south of France and a lengthy selection of Belgian beers. A friendly little taste of Brussels, right here in Olney.

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