|USA, Northern Midwest|
|hosted by Patrick M. Sheehy|
My wife, JoLee, and I have a nice sized cellar (500+ bottles) in Rochester, Minnesota. Most of the wine we buy is of the moderately priced variety; I consider myself more of a consumer than a collector or connoisseur. My greatest pleasure is finding a great buy on good wine.
Speaking of good buys, my favorite local wine shop is Andy's Crossroads Liquor Store in Rochester (56 Crossroads Center, (507) 289-0777). This store features one of the largest wine selections in the area, very knowledgeable and friendly staff, numerous monthly sale selections and weekly tastings on Saturday afternoons, usually featuring at least five or six wines. This last item is very important to me, because I firmly believe that the best way to learn about wine is to taste wine and expose yourself to new varieties, new winemakers and new production techniques. The Andy's staff can even be occasionally persuaded to open something not on the tasting schedule, if a patron is seriously interested in trying before buying.
Also in the region (and on-line!) is Sam's Wine Warehouse of Chicago. I have had very good luck dealing with them over the phone and been able to get very good deals on some of the few rarer wines we collect, such as one heck of a deal on '93 & '94 (futures) Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape. They are worth checking out...
With our harsh winters and relatively high rainfall, Minnesota (and the Upper Midwest in general) is more associated with corn and small grains than vinifera grapes. However, there are a few wineries in the area making both "country" wine (non-grape fruit wine) and wine from some of the hardier vinifera varietals (marechal foch, seyval blanc, vignoles and chardonnay, among others). In Minnesota, most of these are found near the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and St. Paul) and include Alexis Bailey, Northern Vineyards and St.Croix Vineyards. One of the most famous (and historic) in the region is the Wollersheim Winery in Prarie du Sac in central Wisconsin. A number of friends are quite fond of their products.
Despite my Midwestern roots, I firmly believe the best wine in the United States comes from the West Coast, particularly Northern California, Oregon and Washington. Of Northern California regions, I am biased toward the wineries of Sonoma County. While intending no insult to the many fine wineries of the Napa Valley, I find that generally the wineries in Sonoma County produce wines with more forward fruit, but still possessing exceptional complexity. I also feel they produce the best Zinfandels of any region. Although I have met few grapes I didn't like, Zinfandel is probably my favorite varietal because most are fruity enough to pour for non-red wine drinkers (we're talking the red version here, not the blush!) yet offer incredible complexity for the true connoisseur. It can also match with an incredibly broad range of foods, including many traditionally white wine pairings. For any like-minded Zinfandel fans, you may want to look into membership in ZAP, the Zinfandel Advocates and Producers, a non-profit group devoted to promoting Zinfandel. Needless to say, I'm a member!
If I were restricted to buying wine from just one winery, it would undoubtedly be The Benziger Family Winery of Glen Ellen, California. This family owned and operated winery at the base of Sonoma Mountain in Jack London's Valley of the Moon produces a broad range of varietals and blends that are consistently superior. Their Sonoma County wines are exceptional values and their upscale Estate, Estate Tribute and Imagery series wines are some of the most interesting and exquisite wines I've encountered. Of particular note is their Imagery Cabernet Franc, which has gotten consistently high marks from folks like Robert Parker and is a really fantastic alternative to Merlot. Their Sonoma Mountain Estate Cabernet Sauvignon is a masterpiece, with mint and eucalyptus tones similar to Heitz Martha's Vineyard Cabernet at half the price. They are also on my short-list for great Zinfandels, with big fruit and almost Cabernet-like complexity. Several friends say I gush a lot about Benziger, so I'll leave it at that (but their stuff really is phenomenal!!). The winery is also well worth a visit!
Another favorite of mine is Bonny Doon winery in the Santa Cruz district south of San Francisco. Winemaker and owner Randall Graham, dubbed "The Rhone Ranger" several years ago by the Wine Spectator, makes some outstanding Rhone-style blends. Le Cigar Volant, a Chateauneuf-du-Pape-style blend, is truly wonderful and worth a few extra bucks, while their Clos de Gilroy California Grenache is one of the best examples of that varietal I've ever tasted and is often found under $8 (U.S.). Bonny Doon also does very fruity and interesting Italian-style blends under the Ca' del Solo label (Big House Red is an all-time favorite) that are usually quite reasonably priced. Their line of dessert wines are exquisite and mouth watering.
Mr. Graham does a fair amount of viticultural experimentation in small batches, as well. The results of these dabblings are available via direct-mail to the members of the Distinctive Esoteric Wine Network (D.E.W.N). The wines are both very well made (the mistakes don't get sent) and educational, as many are single-varietal bottlings of traditional blending grapes and/or variations on traditional wine-making techniques. The accompanying newsletters make delightful reading. The winery has no web page (that I could find), but is reachable at P.O. Box 8376, Santa Cruz, CA 95061 or at (408) 425-3625. If you talk to Bonnie, mention my name...
Back in Sonoma County, Dry Creek Vineyard is another of my top-five favorites. The winery is most known for their Fume Blanc, which is consistently wonderful (my wife and I consider this one of our top-shelf "deck wines", as there are few white wines that compare to a bottle of D.C. Fume, slightly chilled and consumed on a warm summer evening on the deck). I am also very fond of their Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon. This is another winery that can be counted on for consistently good wine across their entire line. Their Reserve wines, done only in exceptional growing years, are superior, if you can find them. Check out their web page for some exceptional wine/food pairings, complete with recipes.
Gundlach Bundschuh Winery in southern Sonoma County has a long wine-making history (stretching back to the 1800s in San Francisco as the Bacchus Winery) and a slightly irreverent approach to life that makes their wines both fun and highly recommendable. Their varietals are top notch, but my favorite is unquestionably the Bearitage, a Bordeaux-style blend with Zinfandel added. According to the story we heard, Jim Bundschuh was not allowed to call the wine a Meritage (the accepted name for Bordeaux-style California wine) because Zinfandel was not one of the classic Bordeaux grape varieties, so he named it after the California state symbol, the bear. The bacchanalian painting of the bear on the label is unforgettable, and so is the contents of the bottle. They also created a White Bearitage (or "Polar Bearitage") this year that is a wonderful warm-weather wine. They are located at 2000 Denmark St., Sonoma, CA 95476 or at (707) 938-5277.
J. Fritz Winery, at the extreme northern end of Sonoma County, is not as well known as it should be, in my opinion. They have been my very favorite Zinfandel producer for several years and finally achieved some well-deserved recognition last year. Their '93 Old Vines Zinfandel was the Sweepstakes winner (Best Red Wine in Sonoma County) at the 1995 Sonoma County Harvest Fair and is, by far, the best Zinfandel I've ever had. Tim, a good friend of mine who is a true connoisseur and who had never heard of the winery, reacted to the glass of the '93 I poured for him by exclaiming "Wow! That's huge!" and proceeded to bury his nose in the glass for the next half-hour. This Zinfandel is a lush trip through a peppery berry patch and worth seeking out. The winery also does a Melon (pronounced "may-lone") which is a slightly off-dry white that's another summer favorite, and a late-harvest Zinfandel that is dessert all by itself. The winery itself is quite interesting as well, being mostly buried in a hillside. They can be reached at 24691 Dutcher Creek Road, Cloverdale CA 95425 or at (800) 418 WINE. If you like Zinfandel, ask Denise about their Underground Wine Club...
Please feel free to contact me about any of the wineries listed above (agreement, disagreement or "If you like them, try..." comments welcome). I also enjoy discussing wine, although I disclaim any true expertise, and software (particularly WineBase!), which is both a hobby and my profession (the latter is on IBM AS/400 mid-range computers, not PCs; check out my company's home page: Lakeview Technology, Inc.).