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Wine tasting, a time to sip and surmise

Tampa Bay wine lovers opened this year's case of wine tastings and found them as ripe and refreshing as the first sips of sauvignon blancs from the 1997 vintage and as sweet as the new crop of golden dessert wines.

There was plenty of gold in Sarasota at the Florida Winefest & Auction, a three-day marathon of tastings, dinners and black-tie evenings under huge air-conditioned tents on the golf course of the Longboat Key Club.

Although many winemakers oppose Florida's new laws against shipping wine directly to consumers, they concentrated on pouring wine, not politicking.

"We do encourage people to write their representatives," said Dennis Cakebread, while offering his family's '95 cabernet, a big, sweet red. "We don't mind paying taxes; what we want is a level playing field."

In the climax of the festival, wine collectors bid for the likes of 30-year-old Bordeaux and Burgundies and towering 9-liter salmanazars of prized California cabernets. All told, more than 1,200 guests raised approximately $300,000 for local charities.

The top price bid for wine this weekend was $7,000 for a salmanazar of the rare wine Maya, a blend of cabernet, sauvignon and cabernet franc from Dalla Valle Vineyards in Napa. Three-liter jeroboams of Dom Perignon and Iron Horse Brut Rose fetched $5,200 and $5,000, respectively.

Local wine lovers also won a bonus in a new Tampa tasting. Some visiting winemakers moved north to Tampa, where they and other vintners poured more wine at Bern's Fine Wine & Spirits' inaugural grand tasting. The event drew at least 700 wine fans.

The two tastings together provided good news for everyday drinkers as well:

+ Upcoming vintages from California and France promise improved quality and possible price relief.

+ U.S. and foreign wineries are offering wines made from a greater variety of grapes. While that may add to the puzzlement of some shoppers, it should delight consumers thirsty for alternatives to chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon.

California's harvest last year was a bumper crop in quantity and quality, although 1997 could be tasted so far only in the earliest whites and samples of reds still in the barrel.

The 1997 sauvignon blanc from St. Supery, for example, was ripe, with the taste of sweet grapefruit and a luscious texture. That's not expected in a big crop, which many fear dilutes the flavor.

"Quality? Nothing wrong with the quality we had," said Michael Scholz of Napa's St. Supery. "The problems were logistics. Some people just didn't have enough tank space to store all the grapes at the right times."

"What we had was a perfect growing season for the Napa valley," said Andrea Pecota, whose family has a winery in Calistoga. Other winemakers agreed, differing only on which would be better. Scholz said reds, but Grgich Hill's Ivo Jeromaz predicted the '97 chardonnays would be "the best ever."

More important to consumers is that the huge '97 harvest, 30 percent above average in some places, comes after a string of desperately short harvests caused by weather and a phylloxera infestation. Tasting wines just released from the 1994, '95 and '96 vintages in California show they made very good wines but very limited quantities, and at significantly high prices.

The size of the 1997 crop should push down some prices, first with white wines released in the next year or two. Look for merlot prices to drop eventually, too: Since merlot's popularity has soared, many vineyards have been replanted with the grape, and supply will start to catch up with demand.

In France, the situation is much the reverse: There, the 1997 harvest was difficult and small, ending a string of good wine luck. Since 1993, French vintages have improved steadily, with 1995 getting the best ratings of the decade _ until 1996. "The '96s are going to be great," promised Thierry Gardinier, whose family owns Ch. Phelan-Segur in St. Estephe as well as orange groves in Florida.

Whatever the weather, vineyards and store shelves will blossom with a growing range of varietal wines and blends made from less common grapes. After years of focusing on cabernet and chardonnay, U.S. wineries and their customers show a new interest in other grapes and wines.

The biggest growth area evident at the Sarasota tasting was in dessert wines, small half-bottles of honeyed liquids. California dessert entries ranged from Far Niente's top-dollar Dolce to affordable treats like Quady's tingling Electra and Pecota's apricoty Muscat d'Andrea. There's more from Europe, too, including Italian passitos and a jammy Banyuls from Les Clos de Paulilles in southern France.

"You see more people drinking pinot noir or petit sirah, not just cabernet and chardonnay. They're going crazy over sauvignon blanc," said David Brown of Columbia Crest, busy pouring samples of a dessert wine made from late-harvested semillon from Washington State.

In addition to the growing number of expensive California reds mixing five Bordeaux grapes, many vineyards grow and vinify the grapes of southern France and Italy, to find niches outside the crowded cab and chard categories.

Swanson Vineyards, for instance, now has a bright cherry sangiovese, the base of Italian Chianti, as well as its well-regarded merlot, and introduced its first Italian white, a pinot grigio, in Sarasota. "We don't know where it's going to go," said owner Clarke Swanson, but if it does well, he might rip out Napa chardonnay vines to plant more pinot grigio.

From the Rhone, the most popular white grape is viognier, which makes a full-bodied wine with a peachy aroma. It showed up as a varietal and in a blend with sauvignon blanc at Iron Horse Vineyards and distilled as a fragrant high-spirited grappa from Germain-Robin of Ukiah. Much rarer is Ivan Tamas' trebbiano, a common Italian white grape that is surprisingly flavorful and promises to be long-lived.

The most difficult new name on U.S. wine labels probably will be "valdiguie," which J. Lohr Estates puts on a very easy-drinking red wine. That's the French term for one of the many U.S. varieties of gamay.

Introducing wine drinkers to unfamiliar grapes isn't easy. At Jekel Vineyards, which has made a crisp German riesling for years, winemaker Rick Beyer said it's hard to get the right long-necked brown bottles anymore, let alone to get restaurants and stores to recommend it. "Once you you can get it into their mouths, people love it."

Foreign wineries are fighting similar battles to win over consumers. Look for albarino, a white wine with creamy texture and a floral nose, to show up from Spain. From France, Chateau Hostens-Picant is shipping old-fashioned clear rose-colored French clairet. And Grgich Hills soon will release a 1996 Croatian mali plavac, a possible ancestor of American zinfandel.

German firms are exporting more distinctly dry white wines and more reds, but the most unusual new wine from Deinhard is a pinot grigio. Although the grape is known as Italian, it does grow in Baden vineyards.

Four days of tastings also showed that California's red wines can be exceptional. The '95 merlots from Stonestreet, Stag's Leap, Pecota and B.R. Cohn kept their strength and richness, wrapped in velvet softness. Yet cabernet sauvignon remains the great red grape, especially from the some of the state's oldest names, such as the rich '93 Knight's Valley Alluvium from Beringer to the 1994 George de Latour Private Reserve from Beaulieu.

The richest surprise, however, was that the '94 North Sonoma County estate cabernet from Ernest & Julio Gallo puts them in that class, too.

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