When he was growing up in St. Paul, Kent Rosenblum started noticing that one of his senses was particularly well developed. "I could smell things no one else could," he said. "I'd find certain odors in people's houses objectionable. It was always a detriment."

There was no way that Rosenblum could have known that he had a gift, much less where it would take him: to the pinnacle of the wine world. This year, Rosenblum Cellars celebrates its 30th anniversary, and the awards and accolades keep pouring in.

"Rosenblum Cellars is as good as it gets when it comes to zinfandel," according to the current issue of Robert Parker's widely respected magazine, the Wine Advocate.

That's quite the journey from the wintry Sundays when the St. Paul Central High student and his pal, Greg Ryan, accompanied by Hoss the St. Bernard, would snowshoe their way "as far north as we could," deep into the now long-gone forests of Plymouth, to start a fire without matches and cook whole chickens.

A few years later, after detours through Gustavus Adolphus, veterinary school, Milwaukee and Montana, Rosenblum found himself practicing along the mean streets of Alameda, Calif. -- and pursuing a newfound passion.

"We had been doing some home winemaking as a group from Berkeley Ski Club for a number of years and decided to start a winery," he recalled near a crackling fire at the Renaissance Depot Hotel in Minneapolis recently. "We rented a closed-down bar called the Dead End, refurbished it, got it all bonded and realized we were in the middle of a rough neighborhood -- house of ill repute, drug dealers, all that stuff.

"The bottom line was, they thought we were as illegal as they were. Actually, they kind of protected the place."

The rent was $125 a month back in 1978, Rosenblum added, "so we only had to sell a couple of cases of wine to stay in business." Since then, Rosenblum Cellars has released more than 1,000 wines.

But quality has not been sacrificed for quantity, as evidenced by hundreds of medals and a like number of 90-plus ratings (13 just last year from Parker and 25 the last three years from the Wine Spectator).

Oh, and the winery's production facility is still in Alameda, where this juicy journey began.

Embracing extracted wines

Rosenblum releases dozens of wines each year, all made in quintessential California style: ripe and extracted, with soft tannins, nice structure and a hefty finish. Unconcerned with the recent rancor over California wines often boasting high alcohol levels (15 percent and up), Rosenblum in essence is practicing trademark Midwestern practicality by taking what sunny California offers.

"I'm less worried about alcohol content than about getting perfect ripeness with the fruit," he said. "If we could modify [alcohol content] without it affecting the wine, we would. But we haven't found that to be the case. The difference between 14 and 15 percent is so little that if you drank three glasses, it still would have a minimal effect.

"I've heard people say, 'Oh, 15 percent, I can't drink it.' But when they drink it, they love it."

Rosenblum's biggest chore might be keeping track of all the wines he's producing. Besides a chardonnay here and a pinot noir there, he is the primary winemaker for more than a score of zins, a dozen syrahs and petite sirahs, four other Rhône varietals and a handful of dessert wines. (Chocolate lovers should pounce on his Desirée concoction, which sells out quickly in stores, but is available at www.rosenblumcellars.com).

The former Gustavus wrestler has built quite the empire, encompassing 80-plus vineyards from Mendocino to Santa Barbara, Calif., a 5,000-member wine club and two large tasting rooms (in Alameda and Healdsburg, Calif.).

Wine in, walleye out

It's a wonder Rosenblum, 63, still has the time and energy for two trips a year back to his old haunts, to reminisce with Ryan and other classmates and pour his wines at stores and events. Sometimes he is joined by his wife, Kathy, a Rochester native, though when she stays home, "it's a much happier reunion when I remember to bring back some walleye."

So does he work in some angling on these visits? "I love to fish," he proclaimed.

Even at this time of year?

"Well, ice-fishing's not my idea of a real sport," Rosenblum said. "I've always wondered, if the lakes never froze here, how the divorce rate would look."

Bill Ward has yet to meet a grape he doesn't like. Read his blog at www.startribune.com/blogs/wine.