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Cheap Cheer

Dead grape that won't crush your wallet

By Gretchen Giles

Welcome to the sweetest week of the year, that magical suspended seven-day stretch between Christmas Day and New Year's Day when the rigors of ordinary life seem to stand still. The air is sweet and thin and crisp, beckoning easy idle strolls through the ruin of winter landscape. Work seems like something only foolish people do and then only in February, when there's nothing better going on.

Like broken racehorses, the children--having released in shivers all that damned goodness they've been saving in advance of Santa--are calmed and absorbed in whatever was found beneath the tree. Special foods of towering caloric strength abound on countertops and crowd the fridge. The bracing fresh scent of green from the fir fills the house. Peace and love and cheer grip each grubby heart. With this eerie pause comes reflection. Because it's time, of course, to consider the booze.

Released from work and school, we tend to drift around to each other's houses, clamoring upon arrival for the figgy pudding of lovely little holiday drinks. Tony Marti, proprietor of the Sebastopol Fine Wines shop, recommends what he terms "cocktail wines." Something to pour in a glass that doesn't need a dinner plate to go with it, a cocktail wine is what you drink when drinking is what you're doing.

Marti points to a local favorite, the Fire Station Red ($13.49), a Shiraz-Carignane blend. "It's excellent," Marti says. "It's got a ton of fruit, it's easy to drink, and it's a real crowd pleaser." Plus, the Fire Station Red also somewhat slakes the season's charitable flavor, given that the wine is a benefit project for the volunteer firefighters in the Gold Ridge Fire District of western Sonoma County. Conceived as an alternative to the ubiquitous pancake breakfast, sales of this toothsome drink pay for training and equipment for a team that goes out on roughly a thousand emergency calls a year. Described by winemaker and firefighter John Drady as a "user-friendly" quaff, it's certainly worth a try with pancakes.

For cocktails, Marti also likes the estate-bottled Olivet Lane Chardonnay ($11.99) from the Russian River. He is asked by one eager to mouth the rich adjectives of the wine industry how he would characterize it. Is it rich, buttery, oaky, apricoty, creamy? He nods wearily. "Yes, it has a creamy, oaky, buttery complexity to it." He is rewarded with a smile. For those with a bit more cheer to spread, Marti recommends the Marimar Pinot Noir 2000 from the Don Miguel Vineyard ($26.99), pronouncing it "the top end of everyday wine."

Not necessarily at the bottom end, the Three Thieves 2002 California Zinfandel ($9.99) nonetheless has a wonderful wino appeal. In a clear glass jug with a little Appalachian handle perfect for tipping it directly into the mouth while seated in a front porch rocking chair listening to banjo music, the Three Thieves is a project of master winemaker Joel Gott, who, with his two partners, proclaim themselves to be "liberators of world-class wine." Bottled in the "liter format," Marti promises, "You get an extra glass with every bottle." Nothing to complain about there!

Out in the industrial end of northwest Santa Rosa, the din of the immense warehouse that is the Bottle Barn is at high volume. It's just noon on a Thursday, and the place is packed, mostly with women and retirees happily filling entire shopping carts with holiday wine and spirits. Offering prediscounted prices, the Bottle Barn has a massive panoply of choices at cheerful rates. The Three Thieves is sold here for $8.99, and Noel's Sangiovese-Cabernet la Supera blend, which normally retails for $19.99 and was produced in a limited 300-case lot, is practically given away at $6.99.

Though the staff is harried, if you can catch an employee, such rigor is rewarded; they know their stuff. But the lengthy and chatty wine notes posted near special bottles are often information enough. The Terre Rouge California Syrah ($12.29) is, for example, the Wine Enthusiast's 2002 pick for "the sexiest wine of the year." Into the basket it goes.

For pure mouth ease, the HRM Rex Goliath ($5.49), a nonvintage Merlot blend from the vineyards of California's Central Coast, is an inexpensive pleasure, perfect for pouring hugely at parties. The Toad Hollow white Vin Vivant "Risqué," ($12.49) with its whimsical label and resealable wire-rigged top, tots along nicely as a host gift.

But the real star of this season is of course sparkling wine and the don't-call-it-that-unless-it's-from-there Champagne. Trader Joe's, home of the $1.99 Charles Shaw phenomenon, certainly purveys more than its affectionate "Two-Buck Chuck," offering J Winery's outstanding sparkling brut for $23.99. Gloria Ferrer's very drinkable eponymous brut is just $11.99, and the Schramsberg Crémant, with its milky, almost ice-creamy undertones, is available for $22.99.

Back in Sebastopol, Tony Marti calls Schramsberg an "icon of the Champagne industry," explaining that "they use the classical grape varieties, sourcing them from a lot of different Sonoma County and Napa vineyards." But for his money, the Anderson Valley's Roederer Estate Brut ($14.99), discounted $5 for the holidays, "is a fantastic quality. It has a really nice richness and is as close as you'll come to a French brut Champagne."

For that special romantic bottle to be later smashed in the fireplace by just two people, Marti likes the Champagne D'Albion ($24.99), calling it a "prototypical Champagne" and remarking that "to find a French Champagne for under $35 is just amazing." But to our pockets, to find a Spanish one for just $7.99 is even better, and the Cristalano, available as a rosé or a brut, slips nicely under the skimp of a $10 bill.

We can raise a toast to that.

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From the December 25-31, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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