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Swirl 'n' Spit
Tasting Room of the Week

Casa Nuestra Winery

By Heather Irwin

Lowdown: The groovy rainbow peace flag hanging outside was the first giveaway. The grizzled old dog that nuzzles you at the tasting-room door, then flops back to sleep on the floor, was the second. And the goats on weed patrol? That pretty much sealed the deal. "We've been called a Sonoma winery in Napa!" effuses the lone employee manning the tasting room in the funky yellow farmhouse and winery that is Casa Nuestra. Judging from the lack of Hummers in the parking lot, I'd certainly venture to guess we're not in Napa anymore.

Vibe: Neighbors such as the Clos Pegase Winery, that multimillion dollar Michael Graves extravaganza, and the Sterling and Joseph Phelps estates, however, shatter the pretense that we're anywhere but Napa. Casa Nuestra may have the folksy charm of many Sonoma wineries, but it remains firmly entrenched in a high-rent 'hood. With just six employees and an annual production of only about 1,500 cases divided between seven wines (nearby Sterling does more than 200,000 cases annually), Casa Nuestra is a small family business surrounded by some mighty giants. But small can be good, especially when it means a dedication to doing something different, like the Loire-style dry Chenin Blanc (sorry, it's sold-out), the unique field blend Tintos and the fact that the winery's planning to dedicate a part of its Cabernet Franc vineyards to growing produce for the Napa Food Bank. When certain Napa vineyards are selling at $100,000-plus per acre, that's some serious dedication. Take that, corporate pigs!

Mouth value: Despite their funky demeanor, Casa Nuestra's wines don't lack sophistication and intrigue. The most interesting wine is the 2002 Tinto ($25) "field wine." Taken from its 10-year-old St. Helena estate (and inspired by its 80-year-old vines in Oakville), the field blend is a combination of nine different varietals. Planting a virtual "recipe" in the style of early European immigrants, field wines are rustic and imprecise, with undetermined amounts of Zinfandel, Cabernet, Carignane, Syrah, Gamay and other types of grapes thrown into the mix. And that's the fun of it all.

Five-second snob: Casa Nuestra also features a 2000 Meritâge from their St. Helena estate. What's a Meritâge? It's really just a fancy name for Bordeaux-style table wines that didn't meet the mandated requirements of being more than 75 percent of one type of grape or varietal. In Europe, wines are named for the region where they are grown (Burgundy, Bordeaux, etc.). In the United States, wines are described by the kinds of grapes used (Chardonnay, Merlot, Viognier). Because wines made with the same grape can be very different in characteristic and because wines containing less than 75 percent of one grape are slapped with the nasty "table wine" moniker, growers came up with the fancier Meritâge name, which combines the words "merit" and "heritage," for wines that are a mixture of varietals.

Don't miss: Just up the street in Calistoga is the Wine Garage, (1020 Foothill Blvd., Calistoga, 707.942.5332) featuring hard-to-find regional and international wines all under $25.

Spot: Casa Nuestra Winery, 3451 Silverado Trail N., Saint Helena. Open daily, 10am to 5pm. $5 tasting fee, refundable with purchase. 707.963.5783.

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From the April 7-14, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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