April 25-May 1, 2007

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By Alastair Bland

What does a Merlot or a Pinot Noir or a Chardonnay actually taste like? At Cartlidge & Browne Winery in American Canyon, that's in the palate of the winemaker, Paul Moser. For 25 years, he has produced varietally correct wines, blended with grapes from some of the best vineyards in the entire state. This tactic produces wines that are not necessarily the greatest in the world--Moser admits that--but they're good, they're quite cheap and they're 100 percent what they claim to be.

"In blending varietally correct wines," Moser says, "you actually have to decide each year what each wine is going to taste like. Each growing region has a very particular range of charcteristics. A Paso Robles Cabernet has a certain edge to it, and one from Mendocino will have its own qualities that are very recognizeable. So you have the opporunity to take the most attractive characteristics and put them into a sort of symbiotic combination."

The temptation exists, acknowledges the 57-year-old winemaker, to push the boundaries of what is expected of a particular varietal by blending with the most extreme-flavored grapes available. He boasts that he could specially blend a Chardonnay, a Syrah or a Zinfandel and swindle the most extraordinary taster into thinking that it's something else entirely. But Moser has never pulled such a prank."Not purposely, anyway. I don't think our customers would be happy with it. People buy Zinfandel because they like that peppercorn-raspberry-leather bite." And they buy Cabernet, he adds, for its general profile of cassis, blackberry, tobacco, cedarwood and hints of graphite and pencil lead.

As for Merlot, Moser aims for something along the same lines, but with less of the pencil lead.

"Chardonnay," he says, "is a little trickier because it can be styled in so many ways." But the essential elements are stone-fruit flavors, floral aspects and an elusive creaminess that suggests cheese, butter or some other dairy product. And then there's Pinot Noir. "Boy, that's really a tough one," Moser laughs. "It's such a strange animal. It goes through phases where it's really unappetizing, and we'll say, 'My God, what have we done?' But a good one is a very interesting wine to smell and taste." Aside from the usual lineup of nongrape fruit aromas like strawberry, Moser says a nice Pinot noir might have a cola or root-beer quality plus peculiar scents of beets and rhubarb.

Cartlidge & Browne produces one wine which is not varietally correct. This blend, named the Rabid Red ($15), is a stew of just about everything, including 1 percent Grenache and 1 percent Zinfandel. One may accuse a person of insolence or snobbery in adding 1 percent of anything to an alcoholic drink and claiming it makes a difference, but Moser insists it does. "You would be surprised at the difference it makes. I like it better with it than without. It's that simple."

Best of all, Cartlidge & Browne's wines really are affordable. Of the eight bottles that currently feature the winery's label, the priciest is $15, several are $10 and the cheapest is $7. "We're totally populists here," Moser says. "We're consumers ourselves. I can't afford a $40 bottle every night, and I wouldn't want to sell them.

"We're pushing the trend toward less window-dressing and snobbery and just getting back down to the basics: drinking wine and enjoying it."

Cartlidge and Browne Winery, 205 Jim Oswalt Way, Ste. B, American Canyon. Tasting room open daily; Monday-Thursday, 10am to 4pm; Friday-Sunday, 10am to 5pm. 707.552.5199.

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