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Would You Like a Nice Pinot With That Fish?


I am a great believer in the traditions of wine. I suppose I began following them long before I even knew they existed. But you have to know where to draw the line. Tradition provides us the rules. And then we break them.

Take this notion of not serving red wine with fish. I readily admit that I drink white wine with fish more often than not. More and more, though, we are cooking fish in ways that invite red wine. Blackened fish, seared tuna, fish dishes influenced by the seasonings of the Mediterranean, the Caribbean or the Orient ... they all work as well or better with certain red wines.

Which red wine, of course, is important. I happen to like Zinfandel with blackened salmon, but the red variety I turn to more than any other is Pinot Noir. Not just any Pinot Noir; ones that rely on balance, elegance and openness, as opposed to ripeness and mass.

You find such wines quite often from France, but less frequently here on the West Coast. Most of our best Pinots are rich, full-bodied, intense wines that take advantage of our hospitable growing conditions.

But, as in all things, there are exceptions to the rule. Winemakers such as Gary Farrell break with tradition and find ways to make flavorful Pinot at lower ripeness levels and with more firming acidity than their peers. And Oregon winemakers, blessed with a particularly cool climate, often make such wines.

Admittedly, wines of the style I would drink with salmon or tuna, or even with a rich lobster dish, are hard to find. But when you want to flout tradition, you need look no further than the wines recommended below.

1998 Benton Lane Winery, Oregon, $16. With its controlled ripeness and quiet but likeable fruit, this is a clean, mannerly, eminently drinkable wine, punctuated in the finish by a bit of acidity. It might not rank high as a partner to beef or lamb but it would be a brilliant choice with almost any pan-seared fish from trout to tuna.

$ 1997 Camelot Vineyards, California, $10. Impeccably made in a balanced yet open and accessible style, this mild, moderately fruity wine carries a lovely bit of cherry. While not the biggest wine around, it would be just as comfortable with roasted chicken or coq au vin as with a simple fish steak.

* 1999 Chalone Vineyard, Chalone Appellation, $32. When I first started collecting wine, back in the '70s, Chalone was the preeminent maker of Pinot Noir. Indeed, some of my Chalone Pinots of that era remain among the best wines in my cellar. These are generally not understated wines; rather, they have such keen balance and deep fruit that they have lasted now for more than two decades. The current bottling is a little lighter than those, but it remains true to the notion of balance. Just last week, at a favorite restaurant, it was a good match for both my wife's salmon in miso and soy and my buttered lobster on polenta.

$ * 1999 DeLoach Vineyards, Russian River Valley, $16. Here is a likeable, well-defined young Pinot that shows both good essential fruitiness and a bit of the velvety texture that is so desired of the variety. It is balanced by a firm note of late-arriving acidity. Drink it now or over the next three or four years.

* 1998 Gary Farrell, Russian River Valley, Rochioli Vineyard, $60. If you were to ask me to name the one winemaker in California to whom I look for balanced elegance in Pinot Noir, it would be Gary Farrell. In many years, the single best example of the style would come from Farrell's wine from the Rochioli Vineyard. In 1998, the grapes were not quite as generous as they might have been in terms of depth and intensity, and so the wine is only very good instead of carrying the marks of greatness. Still, any discussion of well-made Pinot Noirs will always include Farrell and his offerings. Skip this one if the price is too high, but do not forget the name.

* 1998 Keyhole Ranch, Russian River Valley, $20. This wine from Seghesio Vineyards, whose Zins are rapidly advancing to the top ranks, combines richness and fruit in a most inviting manner yet never lets go of its acidity. Big and full enough to hold its own with steaks and chops, it has the piquant balance to be a very happy mate to a meaty piece of rare tuna.

* 1998 Paraiso Springs Vineyards "Santa Lucia Highlands," Monterey County, $20. A bit of a surprise in the mouth given its reticent aromas, this fruity wine displays good depth and vitality in its lengthy, gracefully oaked, ripe cherry flavors. Smooth and supple, it drinks nicely now but should improve over the next several years.

* 1999 Willakenzie Estate "Pierre Leon," Oregon, $28. This young, sturdy, well-ripened wine may lack a bit of its manners at present, but has firm underpinnings and attractive depth. Serve it now or let it smooth out a few years in the cellar.


Definition of Symbols

* * * A world-class wine, superb by any measure, the top 1% to 2% of all wines tasted.

* * An exceptional wine, well worth the effort to find, 10% to 12% of wines tasted.

* An admirable wine, tasty, focused, attractive, about 25% of wines tasted.

No Rating: The best are quite pleasant and can be good buys when moderately priced.

$ Good value for the money.

x Below average quality, to be avoided.

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