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Souverain, savings and summer


Today's Chateau Souverain emerged from the most fascinating, helter-skelter period in California winemaking history. Joe Heitz, Ric Forman, Donn Chappellet, and others of their ilk were pioneering hombres, turning out magical, mysterious, best of the West wines, in a shoot 'em up atmosphere. Experimentation was everywhere, and a well-crafted Johannesburg riesling was just as exciting a goal as cabernet sauvignon.

The original Souverain property was 20 acres located atop Howell Mountain, and foresightedly planted with grapes in 1871. Retired businessman Lee Stewart bought the land in the 1940s, and its interim claim to fame was as much for its solitude and chicken ranching as it was for wine production. Stewart did eventually take to winemaking, sometimes from his own grapes, and sometimes, bartered like pork bellies, using grapes from other nearby Napa vineyard sites including Spring Mountain, Stag's Leap and Stony Hill.

The winery grew, as did the types of wines it produced, continuing steadily on into the early 1970s when Souverain was purchased by Pillsbury (those grape and dough boys). Souverain had been experimenting with varietal wines--wines made from a single grape--for years, so it's not surprising to see names like colombard, gewurztraminer and green Hungarian heading up their roster. Unbelievable to today's younger consumer, it is less than 30 years since wineries began de-escalating the production of dozens of different varieties, until today, where one usually sees only the big four or five varietals ruling the landscape, if not the imagination.

In a fit of buying and expansion, Pillsbury built a second winery in Sonoma County to increase production. Inexplicably, they sold the original prime parcel to Tom Burgess, of Burgess Cellars, and built a new Napa facility in the town of Rutherford. If this all sounds like the dot-com '90s, well figure this: In less than four years, Pillsbury had divested itself of all of its wine holdings and the new Souverain was purchased by a conglomerate of local growers.

Lee Stewart's daughter suggested the name "Souverain," which means ruler. In the ratio of quality to price, the chateau has ruled the Sonoma field for years. More than ever, it is smelling like an ungreedy rose to today's grumbling, pissed off and overcharged consumer. At a recent, intimate luncheon with winemaker Ed Killian, and public relations enchantress Maggie Zeman, the three of us pondered the physiologic structure of the current releases, alongside their concomitant excellence in price structure.

2001 Alexander Valley Sauvignon Blanc, $12
Overt, fresh, with a lemon curd and slate like nose. Very refreshing with good body, but brisk, clean flavors. Minerally and just a touch of adhesive tape gum feeling on the finish. Grade: a solid B

2001 Sonoma County Chardonnay, $14
An even tempered nose, beautifully balanced with a nice vanillin background. A touch thin and pasty on the palate. Likable enough, if not memorable. Grade: B-/C+

2001 Russian River Winemaker's Reserve Chardonnay, $25
Arriving now at retailers. Ideally ripe fruit and deep oak meld very well on the nose. Very inviting. Dark, deep and powerful, but not overpowering flavors. Drinks well but has a pronounced kick of muscular acidity now. Eighteen more months in the bottle should make for a very happy evening. Grade: A-

2000 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel, $18
Nose is so characteristic; fresh, grapey, warm and beguiling. Good spicy flavors, pepper and a kick in the pants. It is a bit stark, short and bitter on the finish. Still, a good effort. Grade: B-

2000 Alexander Valley Merlot, $18
Very refined. Good black cherry and herbs to the nose. Ripe and luscious on the palate but a bit tough on the finish. It lacks a little grace and tenderness, but a fine wine and value. Grade: B

2000 Alexander Valley Syrah, $20
All vineyard-grown grapes in this explosive, big, deliberate, blowsy, licorice-y, in-your-face red. Iodine and knock out drops on the palate. Very rich and direct. A great California bottling, but not for the meek. Drink now-2007. Grade: A

1999 Alexander Valley Cabernet, $20
Overt bouquet of plums, dill and American oak. Very complex on the nose and palate. Fascinating and very ripe in texture. Two percent cabernet franc for luck, but it doesn't need it. Drink now-2005. Grade: A-

1999 Alexander Valley Winemaker's Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon $35
Note: Will not be released until July. 100 percent new oak barrels are used for this saturated, cavernous red. Really tight now. Both bouquet and flavor need coaxing out of its gorgeous shell. Extremely ripe, supple and broad shouldered. Drink the regular cab while waiting on this. This is a wonderful example of a reasonably priced, "real" reserve that loses nothing compared to wines at twice the price. Drink from 2005--08. Grade: A

Mr. Killian is a very unprepossessing man: a straight shooting bear with a fine sense of humor and purpose. I think that the wines of Chateau Souverain have done nothing but improve since the start of his tenure as winemaker seven years ago. Here's a toast and a plea to no rapid changes in philosophy or in pricing. Chateau Souverain is most deserving of your patronage.

A Batch of Bargains
Here are some well-priced, delicious wines to drink now. Available at shops throughout the Triangle. No grades here, but all are good drinking.

2002 Alamos Chardonnay $9.25
Tasty drinking to cover all occasions. Perfect bottle for that last minute pest that drops in!

2002 Torreon de Paredes Sauvignon Blanc $7.75
Chile is making terrifically fresh, uncomplicated, simple sauvignon. Great for the upcoming hot weather.

2000 Salice Salentino, Vecchia Torre $8
Ripe, modern styled, southern Italian red for your cookouts. Drinking very well.

2002 Amberley Chenin Blanc $8.99
A sipper's delight on a lazy afternoon. Easy, not too dry but comfy-cozy.

2002 Bidoli Pinot Grigio $8.25
Defies the bad rap on the '02 vintage. Drinks so clean, vibrantly and in textbook style.

2001 Chianti, Poggio Cenni $7.50
Affordable Chianti with all its characteristic flavors and scents , but effortless, not thick or ponderous.

2001 Domaine Michaud, Touraine Blanc $7.75
Still one of my all time favorite "get home after a hard day" refreshers. Very brisk, lemony and even a bit tart. A great pick me up. Shellfish stand at attention.

This just in ... In a short while, Wal-Mart customers will be able to buy a new custom made brand of wine vinted exclusively for Wal-Mart and selling in the $2-$3 range. This idea, and trend, seems to be feeding off the incredible success of the Charles Shaw $2 phenomenon, and its imitators, that has been running through West Coast wine shops the past nine months.

But, as Kathy Micken, professor of marketing at Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I., has said: "The right name is important." With that in mind , here are some early contenders for just the right moniker:

10. Martha Stewart's Sour Grapes
9. Sam's Dog 20/20
8. Box O' Grapes
6. Chef Boyardeaux
5. Peanut Noir
4. Domaine Wal-Mart "Merde de Pays"
3. Sammy Classico
2. Chateau des Moines
and, the number one name for Wal-Mart wine:
Nasti Spumante!

I have no particular grudge with Wal-Mart. I buy one thing there--razor blades, the most overpriced commodity for a man's minimal grooming needs. Wal-Mart may or may not be the ultimate bargain wine answer, but what if every other major grocery chain had some kind of decent, well crafted wines that weren't an expenditure one needed to think too hard about? Or better, how about specialty shops having their own "pick of the litter" everyday wines that they can really recommend with a light heart and a good conscience.

We in the United States will never be able to imitate the country wines of Germany, Italy, France, Spain or Portugal which grace every table at local eating establishments. We will never have that small neighborhood winery where you can go to the back door and pick up a few bottles. Our country is far too large, and there just aren't neighborhood wineries to be found around the corner in Nevada, Kansas and Alaska. But if we can break the stigma of wine as a snobbish, luxury and instead see it as a healthful addition to our daily diets, then we will really have achieved something. EndBlock

Ciompi's grades:
I use the old, public school grading system.

A: A wine that seems to give all it is capable of. It offers a myriad of complexities and memorable attributes that make it a standout.

B: Very good with real flavor interest and a number of highlights that make a fine wine.

C: Average. No true defects, but minor flaws that hinder its charm. It is OK and is recommended.

D: Many irritating flaws take away most of the wine's pleasure. The wine is drinkable.

F: Undrinkable, with unacceptable defects and no pleasure factor. A failure.

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