My Liquid Assets column today centers around popular brands that have gone missing. Those of us who love the smaller, more allocated wines can empathize.
Even with dozens of wine wholesalers in Minnesota – estimates run as high as 60 – some dandy smaller brands come and go. The reasons vary: Maybe the distributor went out of business, or the winery was sold, or not enough was moving here, or someone’s dog died.
So it was seriously great to see Navarro wines recently reappear on store shelves after several years’ absence. This Mendocino County winery makes some tasty pinot noir, but its main focus is on whites, especially the grapes that do especially well in Alsace.
Turns out they do equally well in Mendocino’s cool (literally and figuratively) Anderson Valley. Exhibit A: the Navarro Dry Gewurztraminer, which Sunset magazine recently named the West Coast’s best white wine under $20 (it’s just a tick above that price here).
Other offerings now lining Twin Cities shelves are the Mendocino Chardonnay ($20) and the Anderson Valley Pinot Noir l’Ancienne ($33).
All are worth checking out, and the Gewurz is a peerless introduction to that underappreciated varietal.
For a city this size and a populace this sophisticated, we seem to fall woefully short in the wine-bar department. The quality is decent, the quantity decidedly lacking, in both the core cites and the suburbs.
So it's seriously cool to see the debut of Sunfish Cellars' wine and cheese bar in Lilydale. It's being steered by two of the Twin Towns' top mavens: Erica Rokke, late of France 44, for wine and Ken Liss of Premier Cheese Shop for the fromage side.
There will be small plates, a la the swell wine bar Toast, which like Sunfish cannot install a hood vent and thus has to keep the food in the flatbread/cheese/crostini/salumi bailiwick.
But what makes this enterprise special are the brands and prices on the wine list, especially the by-the-glass program: the fabulous Shafer One Point Five cab for $20 (yes, that's a steal); Bethel Heights' wonderful pinot gris for $5. These are retail prices in a wine bar, folks.
The BTG selection will rotate frequently and always include a mix of the familiar (Caymus cab, St. Supery sauv blanc, Kung Fu Girl riesling) and the lesser-known (Gamling & McDuck cab franc, Francois Chidaine Vouvray, Marcello lambrusco).
"After many years of searching for, and not finding, a place to get some good wine at low prices we decided to do it ourselves," read the email from Sunfish announcing the opening. "We have selected a mess of wines that are exciting and delicious to drink and then we priced them so that you won't be drained of your money at the end of the night."
A little more than a century ago, Cesare and Rosa Mondavi left Italy and headed for a place far from home, in distance and climate: Minnesota's Iron Range. Their grandson -- Peter Mondavi Jr., co-proprietor of the family's Charles Krug winery --shared some subsequent history during a Twin Cities visit this week:
"They left Ellis Island with about $20 in December 1908 and went straight to Virginia, Minn. There was some pioneering contingent of Italians there. Why, I don't know [chuckles].
"During Prohibition, the Italians were missing their wine. It wasn't a luxury, just an everyday beverage. The community rallied around my grandfather to go out to California and buy grapes. So he did that every year and even shipped some of them to illinois and other places."
"The Prohibition laws allowed 'the man of the house' to make 200 gallons of wine a year. Grandma ran a boarding house for miners. And her argument was that she had 16 'men of the house.' "
"My grandfather was a very, very smart individual."
Sounds like Rosa (below) could hang right with Cesare in the smarts department.
OK, now I’m getting really excited about the University of Minnesota’s newest grape. A Marquette made by Vermont’s Shelburne Vineyard not only took top honors among red wines at the International Cold Climate Wine Competition on Aug. 18; it also was the most delicious cold-climate red wine I’ve ever tasted.
“This must have some California grapes in it,” said one of my fellow judges at yesterday’s competition. And I agreed. We both were wrong. Not only is it 100-percent Marquette, but the vines had been in the ground for just four years when the grapes for this 2010 wine were harvested.
The wine showed stunning depth for that age -- most vines don’t fully mature until they’re at least five years old -- with marvelous blueberry and earthy notes.
Another red grape developed by the U of M a decade earlier showed well. Frontenacs from in-state wineries Whitewater in Plainview and Crow River in Hutchinson captured gold medals, and one from Warehouse Winery brought home a double gold (meaning all three judges on that panel rated it gold). And a Frontenac Rosé’ from Indian Island Winery in Janesville, Minn., captured the Minnesota Governor’s Cup as the state’s top wine in the competition, barely edging Saint Croix Vineyard’s Frontenac Gris.
Speaking of which, the white grapes developed at the U were the day's most widespread revelation. A late-harvest La Crescent from Vermont’s Lincoln Peak Vineyard was named best overall white, and Frontenac Gris probably had the best overall showing of any grape, including a double gold from Parley Lake Winery in Waconia.
U of M horticulturul-science professor Gary Gardner and I were talking later about how Frontenac Gris might be the most distinctive grape developed in these parts, from pioneer Elmer Swenson through the university's more recent offerings. While some of the locally grown whites taste a good bit like Gewürztraminer or Muscat, we agreed that Frontenac Gris’ fruit cocktail of flavors and solid structure don’t evoke any Old World grape.
That kind of uniqueness might eventually prove true for Marquette, which has some pinot noir in its clonal background. It’s certainly going to be great good fun tracking its progress.
(To see the entire results, go here.)
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