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Your personal sommelier, on a $300 spree

July 23, 2003|James Ricci | Times Staff Writer

IT'S a great time to buy wine.

Thanks to a glut of wines on the global market, even producers of the most sought-after California wines have dropped their prices. Recent vintages in France have ranged from swell to fabulous, making it possible to pick up wonderful bottles without experiencing sticker shock. And efforts by winemakers from Argentina to New Zealand to bring the fruits of their labors to thirsty Los Angeles, one of the world's premier wine markets, mean that the Southland is awash in exciting, undiscovered -- often inexpensive -- wines.

The moment has arrived to start putting together that cellar you've always talked about -- or to brighten up an existing collection with some terrific buys.

But with all that wine out there, how to separate the nectar from the plonk?

No one is savvier about buying wine than a good sommelier, whose professional mission it is to find great values at all price levels. Seeking guidance, we asked four of L.A.'s top sommeliers -- among the best wine buyers in the city -- for the inside dope. We asked them to tell us what they would buy, given $300, on a wine shopping spree, ferreting out great values from local wine shops at bargain prices.

Our experts are all associated with restaurants that feature forward-looking wine programs; their wine lists each have a particular slant, reflecting each establishment's personality. Patti Rockenwagner, wine buyer at Rockenwagner in Santa Monica, has a penchant for German and Austrian wines, while Christophe Rolland, sommelier at Bastide in Los Angeles, favors those from France. Bonnie Graves, sommelier at Spago Beverly Hills, and David Rosoff, owner and sommelier at Opaline in the Fairfax district, both have wide-ranging wine lists that reflect the eclectic styles of their respective restaurants.

Our four sommeliers indulged their personal enological proclivities on their sprees, resulting in four unique collections. They chose 39 different wines in all, most as single bottles, some in multiples of two or four. Prices ranged from $10 to $55 a bottle.

Perhaps surprisingly, only one California wine -- 1999 Ravenswood "Monte Rosso" Zinfandel -- made anyone's list.

"Because there's so much California wine on the market, it's more work to sniff out the good values," said Graves, who included the Ravenswood Zin on her list of 10. "Also, I think a lot of sommeliers feel they ought to introduce people to something different from what they usually drink: California Chardonnay and Merlot."

Rosoff freely admits to a bias against California wines. Although he features a number of Santa Barbara selections on Opaline's wine list, he carries none from Napa or Sonoma. "There's no price-quality ratio in California anymore," he explained. "Great mistakes were made here, and the opulent arrogance and nouveau-riche attitude that is so pervasive in places like the Napa Valley -- not among all people, of course, but among many -- is detrimental to the honest production of good wines.

"Also, the No. 1 rule for food-and-wine pairing is you have to have acidity in the wine, and that's the exception not the rule with California wines," Rosoff said. "It's too warm here. Wine grapes need a long, cool growing season, and we don't have a lot of places that are like that."

Big-box store surprises

In the project's spirit of bargain-hunting, Spago's Graves limited herself only to wines available at Costco stores. Her 2000 Chateau Beau Sejour-Becot, a predominantly Merlot wine from Bordeaux's Saint-Emilion region, was the most expensive wine of the 39 at $55. It's an exciting find from Saint-Emilion's best vintage in a decade. "It's got soft, supple tannins and a pretty Merlot palate of plum and cherry fruit tones," she said. "You could open it and enjoy it now, but congratulate yourself for getting a great value and put it away for a couple of years."

Graves also picked 1999 Chateau Ste. Michelle Reserve Syrah, a Washington state wine with "really beautiful elegance and a lot of classic black pepper quality. It's delicious with steaks -- a Cadillac bottling of Syrah." She found it for $22.

She included on her list 1995 Chateau Rieussec Sauternes, a dessert wine, for $37. "If Chateau d'Yquem is the Ferrari of Sauternes, this is the reliable Mercedes sedan. It's honeyed, viscous and rich in apricots and honeysuckle. A very good vintage from a very good chateau that gives people a sense of what Sauternes is all about without breaking the bank."

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