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Eat Drink Food Wine

February 15, 1996|CHARLES PERRY

"Alternative Wines Meet Alternative Foods" said the announcement of the Napa Vintners' Assn.'s 10-city tour. Winemakers on a panel were going to talk about their more exotic varieties and a local chef would come up with exotic snacks to go with them.

There was other Napa stuff going on at the Westwood Marquis last Friday too: a tasting of 50 wineries' non-alternative wines and even a panel discussion itled "The State of the Grape," but the latter was playing to a nearly empty house. The obvious reason: no wine, no food.

At the fully booked Alternative/Alternative panel, a representative of Robert Mondavi Winery explained that Napa has been "in upheaval" since the appearance of a new strain of the vine louse a couple of years ago. Whole vineyards have had to be torn up and replanted with new root stock, and some wineries have taken the occasion to experiment with grape varieties from Italy and southern France. Like several others on the panel, he hastened to add that he was not an "ABC" (Anything But Cabernet/Chardonnay) guy.

Mondavi's variety was Pinot Grigio ("gray Pinot"), which gets its name because the grape's skin is brown (so why isn't it called Pinot Bruno? Don't ask us). To go with it, chef Shari Robbins of Fusion Restaurant had marinated calamari in Meyer lemon juice, which made the spicy, very dry Pinot Grigio taste almost sweet. On the other hand, if you clumsily picked up the baby avocado stuffed with chicken, cashew and papaya salad, which was actually intended for the next wine, that didn't go badly with the Pinot Grigio either. The marriage of wine and food sets a very bad example of monogamy.

The next wine was a Viognier from Joseph Phelps, who has been using this French grape longer than practically anybody in California and has accumulated a list of flamboyant aroma descriptions too long to quote. Everybody seems able to detect apricot in the bouquet. A restaurateur stood up and announced that he tells his waiters to push Viognier at lunchtime with salads and fruit plates.

Two wineries, Staglin and Turnbull, presented wines made from Sangiovese, the esteemed Northern Italian grape. Staglin's tasted like an Italian red wine with the cherry-and-leather Sangiovese character; Turnbull's was in the California tradition of going for all-out inky varietal flavor. Came with a pepperoni- and mozzarella-stuffed mushroom cap.

The last Alternative was the inkiest of all, dry but almost Port-like (you were supposed to drink it with olive- and filet-topped crostini). Swanson Vineyards lets Syrah juice slosh around with its grape skins for up to six weeks, and its representative remarked with cool satisfaction that the result is probably the "most extracted" wine in California.

The juice was already concentrated when the grapes were picked, he added, because Swanson's Syrah vineyard has the good fortune to be afflicted with a virus that reduces production. Why can't we train the vine louse to do something clever like that?

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