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Congress, computers & wines that break the mold

On Aug. 4, 1997, while North Carolina citizens vacationed or were lulled into torpor by the oppression of summer, then-Gov. Jim Hunt signed Bill 994 into law. This horrendous statute stated that any consumer, found committing the crime of having wine shipped directly to him or her from out of state, would be fined $10,000 and be subject to felony charges. Yes, rapists and murderers had nothing on these tipplers of illicit Washington State gewurztraminer.

Times have changed. With booming business created by 26 N.C. wineries, it makes little sense to allow our wines to be sent to Texas, while we refuse to let Texans send their products to us. It's called reciprocity. So now, House Bill 1108 anxiously awaits Gov. Easley's signature. If signed, starting Oct. 1, folks in North Carolina will be able to order up to two cases of wine a month directly from their favorite, small producer without being arrested. This doesn't apply to Beringer, Gallo, Kendall-Jackson or similar heavy hitters. Any winery that sells over 1,000 cases a year within the state will still be under the control of local distributors.

But, for that special pinot noir you discovered while visiting Santa Barbara last year, or that very small production chardonnay, highly rated by The Wine Glutton, you will be able to order away--if you reach them before they sell out. This is a very fair and logical move which will equitably collect our tax dollars. It's way overdue. I'll keep you posted on the bill's progress.

Days of wine and modems
A group of 14 European wine makers has approached the European Space Agency to try to keep up with the "new world" and, with the help of satellites, use a complex mapping system that pinpoints the best vineyard sites and tells the winemakers the optimum time to harvest.

Details include the angle of slopes, humidity levels and soil composition. The satellites will also monitor and report on the fruit as it ripens.

Concurrently, it was announced by Cinnabar Vineyards and Winery in Redwood City, Calif., that it will utilize WinePro software "to manage, monitor and analyze every aspect of the winemaking process from crush through bottling." After reading the prospectus, which is chock-full of phrases such as "powerful forward and reverse traceability for single click blend analysis and 702 form reporting," my eyes glazed over as my heart sank. I pity Cinnabar winemaker George Troquato who, when asked about all this said: "We are able to maximize our output without the need to hire additional personnel, thus keeping costs under control." What about the cost of WinePro technology? Oh well, if the crop fails, George can always blame it on the "fully integrated technical solution."

I certainly appreciate how aerial photography and satellite photos can supply incredible geological information that in the past was only discernible by continuous, earthly trial and error. But how can vineyard scrutiny be more successful from space than it is by the physical inspection of the property that takes place here on earth?

Can the space cameras identify the foot-by-foot devastation of heavy rains or unsuspected hailstorms? Will the computer decide which vats of wine will make up the final master blend? Will it sniff out the sublime aromas and potential of bin X versus the merely acceptable Y container?

I may be hopelessly archaic and "non- fluid" on this subject, but I squirm at Big Brother deciding when to prune, if to irrigate or when to harvest. It's all reminiscent of an old Twilight Zone episode where a proud scientist feeds and nurtures his computer until the creation finally takes over and the scientist becomes obsolete. Frankly, I'd rather drink winemaker Ed Sbragia's "mistakes" than WinePro's triumphs. As the twig is bent (or programmed), so grows the vine.

Children of a lesser grape
Summer heat still beckons. Although many of our children are already, ridiculously, back in school, this shouldn't diminish our enthusiasm for elegant summer dinners, weekend barbecues and warm weather wines.

Today, I report on whites that cannot be easily pigeonholed. No chardonnays or merlots, but rather moscato, pinot blanc, verdelho and exotic blends. It is with admiration that I discuss wines that are a far harder sell to the general public, but are worth all the effort that goes into their unique production. A tip of the hat to these intrepid winemakers. For this group I did not taste the wines blindly. I knew what I had in front of me. As in all of my tastings, I drink the wines at room temperature. Thus, any and all flaws show through, and assure you of a superior drink, especially when it's eventually chilled!

Following are the highest rated choices from a group of 31 wines sampled; choices for August, September and beyond.

2001 Pinot Blanc, Chateau St. Jean $18
From the Robert Young vineyard in Sonoma's Alexander Valley, this has a smooth, elegant nose of fresh melons and soft, subtle fruits. A brisk, almost tart mouth feel; very refreshing peachy flavors are a perfect foil for boiled lobster or grilled salmon. A full-blown California style. Grade: B/B+

2002 Pinot Grigio, Ecco Domani $10
From the Venezia region of northeastern Italy, it has fresh lemon-lime and tangerine flavors "dancing" on the aroma. Flavors are ripe, very refreshing but not tart. Well-crafted and pleasurable. Grade: B

2002 Pinot Grigio, McManis $11
A "rowdy" lemon, grapefruit, floral and sweet pea nose. Very outgoing and fun. The tart flavors are decent, but lacking in follow-through. May improve over the next six months. A pleasant and fascinating quaff. Located inland from San Jose, Calif. Grade: C+

2002 Riesling, Bonny Doon $15
Labeled "The Heart has its Rieslings" on a thoroughly Art Deco label, it's like an apricot liqueur on the nose; ripe, honeyed and dense. Yet it's very Germanic, with a slate-like, cutting bouquet that promises refreshment over flab. With simple tropical flavors and a smooth mouth feel, this would be lovable with grilled pork or a spicy couscous salad. Grade: B/B+

2001 Gewurztraminer, Louis M. Martini $16
A low-key bouquet that slowly coaxes out the flower and spice scents. Well-balanced flavors; nutty, fairly dry with a good balance of fruitiness and refreshment. A long finish. May improve over the next year. Best with indoor cooking, especially Asian cuisine. Grade B- (possible B)

2002 Gewurztraminer, Chateau St. Jean $15
Another St. Jean wine that rates very well. A potpourri of totally-in-bloom garden and wildflower smells. Deep stone fruit and a late-harvest sense of richness on the nose as well. Contagious and inviting. The balanced, sweet flavors stay with you, with enough acidity to match with fruit-glazed poultry or pork. Sweeter than the Martini, but a super sipper. Grade: B

2002 Classic White, Evans and Tate $14
From Australia's Margaret River Valley, this is a blend of predominantly semillon, with sauvignon blanc and verdelho in minor roles. An easy, and very inviting lemon custard nose. Brisk, "razor's edge" flavors that really refresh. A touch of bitterness on the finish. A great poolside quaff or with shellfish on the barbie. Grade: a solid B

2002 Moscato, St. Supery $15
California makes a beautiful, Italianate version of this grape with a gentle fragrance of lychee and musky melon touches. It drinks with a full texture while soft tangerine and pear nuances cover the palate. It carries the 5.85 percent residual sugar lightly and airily without being a bit syrupy or cloying. Ideal for sipping, but smoked cheeses would be a grand match. Grade: B

2002 Malvasia Bianca, Ca' del Solo $13
Beautiful, ripe smell of peaches, jasmine and tree-ripened fruit. Absolutely delightful. Tangy, mouth-cleansing citrus flavors with lingering fruitiness. Drinks dry, but remains flavorfully exuberant and energetic. Sip or match it with any lightly spiced dish. From Bonny Doon. Grade: B+/A-

2001 Alluvium Blanc, Beringer $16
From Napa's Knights Valley, this is the best Alluvium in years. Lovely, ripe fruit on a figgie, nutty, smooth and invigoratingly fresh nose. Quite brisk and expansive on the palate. Solid flavors in a "serious" wine that shines brightly. Really deserves a fine meal, but outdoor grilling will simply be spoiled rotten! Excellent and a fine value. Grade: A-

And one red...
2002 Beaujolais-Villages, Duboeuf $8
Beaujolais is the perfect picnic red. This one is grapey gamay, with fresh raspberry and full texture on the expansive nose. Nice and ripe yet a bit astringent on the palate, it is still a baby and will improve over the next year. But this berry-infused wine is a lively accompaniment now for grilled red meats or shish kebob. (Meatless, too.) This everyday wine bodes very well for the "cru," single village beaujolais, the top of the liners, that will be released next spring. I can't wait. Grade: B-

P.S. There's nothing worse at a summer cookout than a bottle of red wine coursing down your throat at 90 degrees Fahrenheit! Chill your reds just like your whites. This goes for Valpolicella, zinfandel or Chianti. You'll love them, and as they warm in the glass, the complexities will emerge. 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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