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Swirl 'n' Spit
Tasting Room of the Week

Gallo of Sonoma Winery

By Heather Irwin

Lowdown: The napkins are neatly pressed, the small tables impeccably set. From the lovely center of downtown Healdsburg, the Gallo of Sonoma tasting room looks out onto the lovely streets where lovely people drive by in lovely cars.

It's all so very, well, lovely. Except for the not-so-lovely feeling I'm getting from the tasting-room staff. Standing among $80 bottles of Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, there's a chill. Despite being the only person in the room, I'm being tolerated with about as much cordiality as a picket-sign-wielding UFW worker.

Which is a shock, considering the uphill public-relations battle the family has been fighting the last 20 years. Best known for the convenience-store staples Thunderbird, Boones Farm, Hearty Burgundy and Ripple, Gallo has, since the mid-'80s, worked to create a premium line of wines worthy of something more than a screw top and change from a $5 bill.

Also, a spring visit to Gallo of Sonoma's Frei Ranch estate (where we sampled a number of the Estate and Reserve wines) was shockingly pleasant. I fell a little in love with the much-maligned brand and was gently guided by the kindest of pourers, who described each of the zesty reds and a particularly tasty Chardonnay in great detail.

So standing here tasting while the staff opens mail and reads from Wine Spectator is a little disappointing. Being looked up and down and asked your age isn't cute when you're 13 years past your 21st birthday. Frankly, it feels creepy. And a little elitist. Especially when you're shown to the "free" bottle tasting. But I'm here to taste, and despite the frost, I push on.


Mouth value: There are clearly some great wines in the upper price range. The estate Cabs and Frei and Stephani Vineyard single vineyard Cabs were dynamite. Those, however, weren't what I tasted in Healdsburg. The 2001 Laguna Vineyard Chardonnay was like licking the inside of a barrel. Oak, oak and oak--and for $24, I expect a little more complexity. The 2003 Gallo of Sonoma Pinot Gris ($11) lacked character, as did the 2001 Two Rock Pinot Noir which had little of the earthy, dark fruit flavor you'd expect from a $28 pinot.

The 2000 Frei Vineyard Zinfandel ($22) was also bland and failed to deliver on a promise of black pepper spice and ripe berries. The 2000 Barrelli Creek Cabernet Sauvignon ($30) was the best of the bunch, with nice warm tannins but still failed to live up to the memories of its meatier cousins we had tasted last spring. If you go, try the Taste of the Gallo Family Library, which includes the estate wines.

Don't miss: Healdsburg can sometimes feel a bit snooty, especially when you're reeling from a tasting-room bum rush. Keep it real with the locals at the Healdsburg Bar and Grill (245 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg, 707.433.3333). They feature the best salad ever: rock shrimp ($10.50), with avocado, mango and crunchy rock shrimp on romaine.

Spot: Gallo of Sonoma, 320 Center St., Healdsburg. Open Sunday-Wednesday, 11am-5pm; Thursday through Saturday, 11am-7pm. Tasting fees vary. 707.433.2458.

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From the July 7-13, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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