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Chilling out 

Don't give up red wine in the summer

Think white wine is for wimps? Whether a beginner or long time enthusiast, do you knowingly smile at the adage that states: "The first duty of a wine is to be red?" Just like a veteran beer drinker who wouldn't think of giving up his ale, porter or stout because of seasonal changes, red wines have an important part to play at any time of year and whenever your heart chooses to drink them. But not everyone lives in this very important comfort zone.

I remember my first experience with a quick-chilled red to suit the elements. I was at a July garden party with a full-bodied red zinfandel as my donation to the proceedings. Some gift in 95-degree heat and accompanying humidity! I plunged that zin into the icy beer cooler and, 20 minutes later, voila! A richly nuanced wine married the spare ribs while coolness caressed our throats and refreshment smiled mightily between bites. "Room temperature," that bugaboo of the Summertime Pleasure Index (SPI), needs to be ignored. Who wants a nice warmish red resting heavily on one's taste buds? No one, especially you.

This haphazard, garden-party discovery of reds drunk chilled in the full heat of summer has never left me, and I'd like to include you all in the mix. Beaujolais, Chinon and all manner of roses are veteran picks and continue to do their job as light red summer coolers. And let's get one thing straight--keep your cabernets, merlots, syrahs and nebbioli locked up for the duration. Their innate dryness and dusky character are best enjoyed in the cold, blustery months. But open your minds instead to the idea that some dark hued, "real" reds can often be the missing ingredient for picnic satisfaction and bliss. Don't give them up; chill them down!

I tried 51 wines I thought might work. My "vintuition" served me well in many instances, and came a cropper in others. I tasted these without concealing the bottles as I usually do. I figured the chill was mystery enough. Here then are the successes and flat-out dynamic discoveries. Some may seem obvious, some seemingly from left field, but all a joy to drink at white wine temps.

The best category was red zinfandel. ("I could have told you that, Arturo!") Its arrogant fruit, extroverted personality and lip-smacking spice teams up wonderfully with grilled foods. A silky, easy-to-understand Cellar No. 8 ($14/85 points) contrasted to the megapower Frank Family ($32.50/90) bursting with energy, richness and oomph. In between were Dashe Cellars Dry Creek's explosiveness ($28/89) and Sebastiani's interpretation of old vine generosity with new style vigor ($24/91) Chilling spoils neither zinfandel's vigor nor its character.

I thought Chianti in its various guises might work, but it was always too dusty dry and its expressiveness seemed to invert when cooled. Same thing with the malbec grape: It's too tightly constructed and compact to do well under ice. Yet other varietals might pleasantly surprise, you as they did me. Pinot Noir was a rousing success. Such is the fresh berry fruit and the edgelessness of it that many examples excelled. Meridian ($11/84) had honest flavors and a touch of old-world pinot character about it. Chateau St. Jean ($22/87) provided class, deftness and loving flavors. While Clos Du Val's ($24/89) grace and elegance was unmuted by a fine chill, Taz ($35/90) was a riot of explosive power and extroversion.

What a concept--invigorating, harmonious reds served cool and fruit-intensified. For purists, your glass will warm soon enough as you mingle amid friendly conversation, and most of your reds' complexities will ultimately be delivered. I say, get the best of both spheres from your reds this summer.

2005 Pinot Noir, Meridian $11

Wild cherry bark, hints of raspberry (and green bean), it's light yet penetrating. Has that certain sweet earth sensation of French Burgundy--a blessing of California's Central Coast? Dry, accented fruit flavors that please and will cut through any smoky food preparation. Try a turkey kebab. 84 points GOOD BUY

2004 Red Truck, Cline Cellars, California $10

Aroma of crushed flowers, berries and spicy root vegetables. Bright, sassy, brisk flavors that seem made for picnic pleasing. Hard to dislike (and often discounted). 85 GOOD BUY

2003 Zinfandel, Cellar No. 8, California $14

Fruit compote inhabited by plum, strawberry, leather and chocolate notes. Soft, very mature nose. A nicely rounded but spiky mouth feel. Generous choice for juicy burgers. Located in Asti, the old Italian Swiss Colony winery outpost. Fertile and hot. 85

2005 Beaujolais-Villages, Georges Duboeuf $10

Fresh, almost candied cherry nose; penetrating, exuberant, harmonious yet simple. Pure mouthful of berries, ripe acids and lemony briskness. The excellent 2005 vintage really shows in this good quaff. The quintessential summer red. Great with a pesto-laden pasta salad. 86

2004 Pinot Noir, Chateau St. Jean, Sonoma County $22

Oak-kissed lithe fruit, with beautiful streamlined intensity of roses, berry and mint. Nicely balanced and extracted flavors. Relatively simple but "what's there is cherce" ("choice," Spencer Tracy in Pat and Mike). 87

2003 Costa Del Sol, Benessere Vineyards, Napa Valley $15

Dark, deeply impressive fruit with potent spice and a light touch of herbaceousness. Entertaining, long bouquet of loamy fruit. Velvety, succulent, rustic and heady with Napa Valley earmarks seriously evident. A blend of St. Helena sangiovese, zinfandel, merlot and cabernet sauvignon. 87 FINE VALUE

2003 Zinfandel, Dashe Cellars, Louvau Vineyard $30

Dry Creek Valley old vines make a foresty, smoky paintbrush of snap, pepper and pop. A slab of a fruit rollup--almost sweet in its ripeness and splendor. Dollops of fruit balls bouncing off your tongue. Soft but long aftertaste needing lightly spiced foods. Try a tomato-based feta cheese salad. 89

2004 Pinot Noir, Clos Du Val, Napa-Carneros $24

Floating plum, cherry skins and sweet beets on the nose. An earth-mother, all-welcoming feel. Luscious cherry, fruit-friendly flavors stick to your palate until the clean lilting finish. Beautiful. 89

2003 Zinfandel, Frank Family Vineyards, Napa Valley $32.50

Wide-bodied fruit essences. A lush floral style with herbs, pepper and balanced proportion. Strapping mouthfuls of layered, super-charged flavors. Soulful, highly satisfying zinfandel grandeur. May be bit too much of a wine for some, but impressively styled. Give it highly flavored comestibles. 90

2003 Pinot Noir, Taz, Fiddlestix Vineyard $38

An explosive tankful of fully bloomed roses and intense plum oozing from saddle leather. Initially light on the palate with spicy, long-lingering fruit creeping in on the sappy finish. Full throttle and just delicious in unique Santa Rita Hills glory. A syrah lovers' pinot noir. Nothing will overpower it. 90

2003 Zinfandel, Sebastiani, "Old Vines" $24

Pure, line item expressive fruit with underlying richness and class. Gorgeous, pinpoint bouquet. Truly ancient vines make this Sonoma bottling heavenly in the hands of a great winemaker. White pepper, brisk fruit acids and a knockout finish. A connoisseur's wine for the great outdoors. 91 EXCELLENT VALUE

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The oldest kid on the block

This is one of those fabulous stories that grab right at the heart. Imagine California's first vineyard planted to the classic field blend of grapes that later proliferated and prospered among Italian settlers at the turn of the 20th century. Spurred on by the California gold rush of 1848, William McPherson Hill sailed around Cape Horn from Philadelphia on a seven-month journey to stake his claim. He prospered handsomely and eventually bought himself a ranch in Sonoma County.

Until the 1850s, most California acreage was planted to the mission grape variety, ubiquitously favored for the sweet wines that the Spanish Jesuits used for Mass and related religious ceremonies. Hill decided to replace his mission vineyard by importing a mix of varietals from Peru (!) that included zinfandel, petite syrah and mourvedre, along with smaller amounts of carignane, grenache and alicante. A more careful investigation in recent years discovered tannat, lenoir (new to me--a hybrid originating in Madeira), bastardo of Port fame, and one single vine that in the winery's own words is "easy to distinguish, but no one has identified it with any confidence."

Dating from 1856 with continued planting over the next two decades, we are talking about a grouping of 130- to 150-year-old vines left intact. Winemakers are aware that there just isn't as much "activity" in a centenarian vine as in a pubescent 18-year-old. As far as these ancients are concerned, all of their mojo goes toward promulgating just a few sparse bundles of fruit. It's all a concentrated focus of effort into a miniscule production.

So, the now-named 2003 Bucklin Old Hill Ranch Zinfandel is made from this resurrected mélange of 14 acres. How's the wine? Almost unexplainable with its unfathomable depth and generosity. No "grabbing" your attention is involved; it's all seduction yet demonstrably grandiose. So "fat," so intensely textured with an engulfing richness and tremendous length of flavor. I've never experienced such calm beauty in a California red. I served this chilled among my other "experiments," and brother did it deliver, and just kept on giving as it warmed. Look for this 2003 (limited availability), and let's all look out for the just-released 2004 as well. Get on their mailing list at ($36/94). PHENOMENAL--BEST WINE OF TASTING

Arturo can be reached at


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