March 14-20, 2007

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Wine Tasting

Eric Ross Winery

By James Knight

More about this barrel tasting: Is it about conversing with the winemaker in the hush of the cool cellar over a cask of the nascent vintage? Well, you and a few thousand others. At the end of the hugely popular first weekend, a few who were manning the barrels confided about Saturday like they were talking about bad weather. Me, I have somewhat less enthusiasm for crowds than for good wine--but the wine wins. Now, my vegetarian soul wags, if there were only something decent to eat besides chipped beef . . .

The Heart of Sonoma Valley Wineries are always stepping it up with a theme-party atmosphere for barrel tasting. This year, 19 Kenwood and Glen Ellen wineries are hosting a foodie extravaganza. Finding nosh for the sip-sodden can be hit or miss, but Savor Sonoma Valley promises that wines will be "perfectly paired with culinary creations." Arrive with an appetite for appetizers, and you will certainly be sated. Top chefs and caterers from the local roster, like the General's Daughter, the Girl and the Fig, and Feast, will be on hand, as well as both cheese makers and cheese mongers. Meanwhile, the deceptively staid Chateau St. Jean is going off the hook--something about pirates, treasure and secret maps. Aaargh! Nice to see that the valley doesn't take itself all too seriously. This event sells out, so snagging tickets in advance is not a bad idea.

Across the street from the historic mill in Glen Ellen, the winemaker himself at Eric Ross Winery will be grilling up savory mini cheeseburgers. I first heard of Eric Ross when it won top awards at the Harvest Fair a few years back, and I wondered if it was a guy I knew whose local band did a cookin' cover of "Lowrider" at the end of the '80s. Nope, nor is it the name of the rooster that struts across the label. Two wine enthusiasts, Eric Luse and John Ross Storey, got the winery going in the mid-'90s.

Eric Ross is something of an anomaly. The wine is made in Novato and plunked down in a tasting room in Glen Ellen. It's become very popular on weekends, but on a cool winter's Monday, we were the only visitors to enjoy the fire and hang out at the bar. The place is furnished with giant metal roosters, a plus.

The 2005 Saralee's Vineyard Chardonnay ($25) has a full mouthfeel, honey and melon, and a hint of fresh vegetal aroma--a walk in the June garden. The 2005 Old Vine Carignane ($18) is surprisingly soft, not too acidic, and scented of vanilla and raspberry. The 2002 Feeney Ranch Old Vine Zinfandel ($30) has sweet raspberry jam flavor, with a whiff of spice--garam masala?

The knockout is the winery's first Syrah, and I hope they don't learn the wrong lesson from it. The 2005 Catie's Corner Syrah ($28) stews menacingly in the glass with dark fruit, a brooding floral aroma and deep tobacco and plum. I'll wade through the crowds to get a taste of the 2006.

Savor Sonoma Valley runs at 19 wineries Saturday-Sunday, March 17-18. Eric Ross Winery, 14300 Arnold Drive, Glen Ellen. Tasting room open Thursday-Monday 11am to 5pm. 707.939.8525.

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