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Swirl 'n' Spit
Tasting Room of the Week

Matanzas Creek Winery

By Heather Irwin

Lowdown: Matanzas Creek is an off-the-beaten-path gem that draws nearly hysterical enophiles and gardeners in equal numbers. Built in the late '70s, Matanzas Creek was the impossible dream of Sears heiress Sandra MacIver and her husband, Bill. Both knew almost nothing about business or agriculture, but somehow ended up creating some of the most sought-after super-premium wines in the country. Recently sold to Jess Jackson of the Kendall-Jackson empire, some devotees say the wines have suffered in recent years, though they continue to impress many critics as superb. Set amidst lush lavender gardens, the tasting room is a peaceful, scented retreat, despite a sometimes chilly reception by the tasting staff.

Mouth value: Matanzas Creek is primarily known for two things: Chardonnay and Merlot. For lovers of oaky Chard, the 2002 Chardonnay ($30) delivers with a smoky, toasty flavor and lots of vanilla. However, unlike other flabby, overly creamy Chards, the Matanzas Creek retains a strong mineral and fruit flavor (apple, tangerine), keeping it crisp and dynamic. The best buy is the 2002 Sauvignon Blanc ($20) with tons of bright citrus and lemon. Less oaky than the Chardonnay, the Sauvignon Blanc is a simpler wine to pair with food--especially bright, spicy ethnic dishes.

Matanzas Creek also features a number of solid Merlots, the 2001 ($30) is mixed with a small amount of Syrah and has a spicy, exotic flavor with cedar and cinnamon. The 1999 Merlot Reserve ($60) is more refined with hints of vegetable and pepper. The 2000 Merlot Port ($25) is a yummy toffee- and coffee-influenced dessert wine. The 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon ($35) is passable but unexceptional at the price, while the 2001 Syrah ($25), though a bit heavy on the tannins, has lots of chewy complexity with smoke, pepper and dark fruit. If you've got $155 (or more) burning a hole in your pocket, you may be able to secure a bottle of the very rare and coveted Journey wines--the pick of each year's barrel litter (and sometimes not produced at all). The current Journey wine is a 1999 Meritâge.

Don't miss: In marked contrast to the highly cultivated fruit and vegetable gardens of the Kendall-Jackson Estate, Matanzas Creek has a diverse landscape of native grasses and plants that echo the natural surroundings. For many people, the six separate gardens usurp the wines as a primary reason for visiting. The large lavender fields feature a variety of the deeply scented purple plant, and the winery offers bath and home products made with lavender in the gift shop. There are also water and shade gardens, a pathway and staircase garden dotted with contemporary and wildlife art. A self-guided tour is available during tasting-room hours.

Five-second snob: Matanzas Creek is one of only a handful of wineries located in the new Bennett Valley appellation. The microclimate, bordered by three mountains, has a slightly longer growing season and benefits from cool coastal fog, giving the grapes a concentrated flavor.

Spot: Matanzas Creek Winery, 6097 Bennett Valley Road, Santa Rosa. Open daily, 10am-4:30pm. Tasting fee, $5. 707.528.6464.

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From the August 18-24, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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