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February 1-8, 2006

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Wine Tasting Room of the Week

Topolos at Russian River Vineyards Winery

By Heather Irwin

Lowdown: A winery in transition is a tough thing. Wines may become a bit uneven as staff members scamper about waiting to see where the wind will blow. No one quite knows how things will turn out--good or bad--and there's clearly a sense of foreboding as the latest vintages sit on the shelf or sell out, without promise of another vintage. Topolos at Russian River Vineyards is in just such a transition.

Currently looking for new ownership, the winery has produced some big, jammy, regionally recognized Zinfandels as well as the Eco Zin and Eco Blanc labels, made with organic grapes, since the late 1970s. Situated just outside Forestville, Topolos also operated an onsite restaurant focused on regional cuisine with a Greek twist. The restaurant quietly closed several months ago. When I visited the tasting room, a couple had just pulled up for dinner and were shocked to find out that the restaurant was no longer open for business.

What's sad is that, with its unique Sonoma County location, winery operation and architecturally interesting wood-shingled residence, the winery should be poised to house the region's next up-and-coming wine and food venture. Unfortunately, the place may be headed for a slow decline if a buyer doesn't come to the rescue soon.

But there is a silver lining of sorts. Topolos continues to make one of the most unique wines in the region: Alicante Bouschet. An old-fashioned varietal that's lost much of its former favor (it's found only in a few "field blend" vineyards in the North Bay), Alicante Bouschet once accounted for nearly 30 percent of all plantings in California. The big, thick-skinned grape was the friend of underground winemakers during Prohibition because it could travel great distances without bruising and is one of the only grape varietals with red juice. (Most grapes, regardless of what color their skin, have clear juice.)

This workhorse grape also has a natural resistance to mildew and bears lots and lots of fruit. Prohibition-era winemakers could dilute the juice, add extra sugar and get nearly double the amount of wine for their buck. Not that it necessarily tasted all that great--and even now, it's not a particularly refined grape--but it has always been a sneaky way for winemakers to extend their other grapes and add a deep, red color.

Topolos sources its Alicante Bouschet grapes from Sequoia View Vineyards, and at $15, it's worth buying a bottle just to taste this "bootlegger's grape" in all its unrefined, simple glory. Without a huge body or nose, it's best appreciated on its own as a taste of the good old days, which, may not have been quite as good as you might think.

Don't miss: The winery bottles a humorous line of wines called Stu Pedasso. Say it a few times fast and you're sure to get the joke. Drink the wine, and it becomes even funnier.

Spot: Topolos at Russian River Vineyards, 5700 Gravenstein Hwy. N. (Highway 16), Forestville. 1.800.TOPOLOS.

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