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True Cheers

It's obvious what a wine-lover would like as a present: wine or a wine book. But which one?

December 19, 1996|MATT KRAMER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"It ain't over till it's over," said Yogi Berra, ostensibly about a baseball game. No one needs to be told the number of shopping days left until you-know-what.

Unscientific sampling reveals that shopping for wine lovers is last on the list. Just why--if indeed it's true--is easily explained. Buying wine is boggling.

What to get for someone who already has the wine equivalent of Imelda Marcos's shoe collection? Or, if the recipient is a less compulsive sort, what sort of wine book might be appropriate?

The recommendations to follow intend to meet the challenge head-on. Look on the bright side: Wine lovers are acquisitive beasts. They can never have enough wine or too many books. The trick, as always, is knowing which ones.

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1994 King Estate Pinot Noir ($18): Oregon's 1994 vintage was a landmark year, creating--as in California--rich, intense, full-throttle wines. This was particularly so for Oregon's signature Pinot Noirs. Most were released and sold out long ago. But King Estate has only just issued its '94 Pinot Noir, and it is sure to be showered with praise.

The story on King Estate is that its owners, the King family of Kansas City, Mo., invested millions of their aviation electronics dollars in a property near Eugene. Their intent was to create Oregon's largest Pinot Noir (and Pinot Gris) producer, with long-term contracts tying up supplies from dozens of growers along the 100-mile length of Oregon's Willamette Valley.

The winery is equipped with row upon row of small open-top, temperature-controlled fermenting tanks, the sort recognized everywhere as ideal for Pinot Noir, which is best made in small batches. A few big tanks just won't do--you want a high ratio of skins to juice and as even a temperature during fermentation as possible. This is possible only in small vats.

Anyway, in the perfect '94 growing season--a warm summer capped by a long, lingering, rain-free fall--King Estate hit the jackpot. In '94 everything lined up: They had a few vintages' worth of experience behind them, an ideal facility and terrific grapes. The result is this brand-new wine.

With nearly all of Oregon's '94 Pinot Noirs already released, it's fair to say that King Estate's '94 Pinot Noir is one of the best in a vintage that overflowed with fine Pinot Noirs. Not least, where other comparable Pinot Noirs asked for--and got--$30 to $40 a bottle, King Estate's '94 Pinot Noir asks $18. Finding really good Pinot Noir at a plausible price is a chancy business. This is as close to a sure thing as it gets.

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1994 Foxen Vineyard Cabernet Franc ($24.50): Have a Cabernet lover on your list? Then the trick to wowing 'em is to offer not a Cabernet Sauvignon but a Cabernet Franc. Long ignored in California, Cabernet Franc is capable of greatness. In France, it's the sole variety used in the famous Loire Valley red called Chinon. Cabernet Franc also is an essential blending variety in many red Bordeaux.

But for too long, Cabernet Franc has been spurned by California producers in favor of Cabernet Sauvignon. One taste of this extraordinary Cabernet Franc from Santa Barbara County's Foxen Vineyard should correct this mistake. Simply put, this is one of the most compelling Cabernet Francs produced anywhere.

The shining goodness of this wine is easily explained: It's the just-so coolness of Santa Barbara County's Santa Maria Valley, where Foxen's Tinaquaic Vineyard is situated. Much better known for lovely Chardonnays, the Santa Maria Valley also has a vocation for Cabernet Franc, especially in the inland portion where it gets close to the warmer, more sheltered Santa Ynez Valley. This is known because both Foxen Vineyard and Rancho Sisquoc Winery have their vineyards in this temperature nexus between cool Santa Maria Valley and warm Santa Ynez Valley. And both issue superlative Cabernet Francs.

Few Cabernet Sauvignons from anywhere are better than this '94 Cabernet Franc from Foxen. I can't put it any more forthrightly than that.

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"A Wine and Food Guide to the Loire," by Jacqueline Friedrich (Henry Holt: $27.50): While on the subject of the glories of Cabernet Franc--a great Loire specialty--an admiring word should be put in for Jacqueline Friedrich's new book.

France's Loire Valley is one of the most daunting regions for any wine writer. Its vineyards stretch for hundreds of miles along the length of the river, encompassing dozens of districts and thousands of producers. Loire wines run the gamut from chalky-tasting Sancerre (from Sauvignon Blanc), to mouth-filling rich, sweet whites like Quarts de Chaume (from Chenin Blanc) to the aforementioned Cabernet Franc, to a variety of sparkling wines. And then there are such shellfish enhancers as Muscadet (from the Melon variety) grown near where the Loire empties into the Atlantic Ocean.

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