February 15-21, 2006

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Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
In Vino Veritas: The valley's top shops know the truth about wine.

Put a Cork In It

Three of the valley's top wine shops make it easier than ever to imbibe in style

By Stett Holbrook

IF YOU want to find a copy of Mariah Carey's latest CD, you could certainly head to a megachain like Borders or Fry's and they would be happy to set you up. But if you're looking for something special or hard-to-find like, say, a Japanese import of the Ramones first album, you have to seek out an independent record shop like Streetlight or Amoeba.

The same goes for wine. You can pick up a serviceable bottle of wine at any supermarket or corner liquor store, but if you're after a special bottle or want wine from a small production boutique winery, you need to seek out a specialty wine shop.

At their best, these wine shops offer a selection you won't find on grocery store shelves and a staff to help you understand the differences between barolo and barbaresco and which will go best with your dinner tonight. Fine wine need not be expensive and a good wine shop can steer you to some great values as well. And in-store wine bars, classes and tasting events give you a chance to sip and learn before you buy.

Silicon Valley has a growing number of wine shops that appeal both to connoisseurs and to wine drinkers who want to move beyond the same old merlot and chardonnay. I stopped in at three and was pleased with what I found.

Snobbery Is Out

I'm happy to report that wine snobbery is out and friendly attitudes are in. The wine industry has learned that jerkiness is not part of a sustainable business model and has largely sworn off its haughty ways. While I don't know what would happen if I walked into one of these shops and asked for a cold bottle of white zinfandel, I imagine one of the helpful folks I spoke with would kindly steer me toward something more ... interesting, like a fruit-forward but dry rosé.

My first stop was Vintage Wine Merchants in San Jose's Santana Row. This is an impressive wine shop and tasting bar. The shop has a beautiful, flowing wood bar, and beyond it the place is stacked to the rafters with wine, yet the store is easily navigated. The shop specializes in good value, small-production wineries. Continuing with my music analogy from above, think of many of the wineries showcased here as culty garage bands that don't have wide distribution but make great music for small but rapt audiences.

Vintage Wine Merchants employs experts in the different wine regions of the world, so if you're after an Austrian riesling or a Spanish priorat there's someone who can help you. I enjoyed walking around the store and reading the pithy but informative write-ups placed near select bottles. The industry term for these placards is "shelf talkers," typically exuberant tags that proclaim the virtues of a particular wine. Often these are written by advertisers instead of the shop staff, but here they're written in-house or by outside wine critics and are far more comprehensive than most.

One shelf-talker sold me on a bottle of Domaine St. Benoit "Grande Garde" Châteauneuf-du-Pape for $19.99.

"Did Xmas come early?" gushed the write-up. "I mean, come on, a $20 Châteauneuf-du-Pape??? That, in and of itself, is virtually unheard of, let alone one that gets 90+ points from [wine critic Robert Parker]. Folks, this won't stay around long, so act fast."

I got mine and it was great and full of lingering aromatic, earthy herb, cola and cherry flavors. An excellent bottle of wine.

Value Uncorked

Next I checked out Uncorked! in downtown Saratoga. The nearly 3-year-old shop brings some new life and some good wine into the city's rather sleepy downtown. (Note to city elders: you've got a great-looking downtown, but it's kind of boring. How about trying to create a little more liveliness? The new Starbucks doesn't count.)

The small, tidy shop specializes California wines, including many from our very own Santa Cruz Mountains appellation.

"We live for value-priced wine, no matter if it's a $10 bottle or a $200 bottle," says co-owner Patrick Rupert.

The wine bar at the back of the shop has the feel of a neighborhood bar, albeit a really clean and well-lit one. On my visit a wine-swirling patron and co-owner Rupert were trading gossip about Saratoga politics. The bar has a "totally random" selection of wines that changes each day.

Rupert says he makes an effort to demystify wines and create a nonthreatening atmosphere. The shop's tag line is "fine wine without the attitude."

"I tell my customers, 'We have to get real about it. This is grape juice.'"

Although the shop specializes in California grape juice, it was an Argentine syrah that caught my eye. I'm a fan of syrah and love value-priced Argentine wines, but I admit it was the handsome label of the 2003 Xumek ($12.95) that caught my eye. I wasn't disappointed. It's a classic syrah with full flavors of blackberry, plum, leather and spice and a lingering finish.

Grape Date Night

My final stop was The Grapevine, a 6-year-old wine shop, tasting bar and cheesemonger in Willow Glen. The shop carries about 75 percent California wines and the rest from elsewhere in the world. And most of the wines come from wineries that make less than 5,000 cases, some less than 500 cases.

I was please to see the shop's "cheap and cheerful" shelf, wines priced under $20. I picked up a good Spanish wine, a 2004 Monte Negro Ribera del Duero, for $16.45. For such a deep, garnet-colored wine I expected a little more depth of flavor and fruit extraction, but it was a medium-bodied, easy-drinking wine that went well with the bacon-accented white bean and vegetables I made for dinner.

The Grapevine's wine-tasting events are quite popular, particularly the "cheap date nights" that feature pairings of pizza (from Pizza My Heart across the street) and premium grilled cheese sandwiches with wine.

"It's become a phenomenon," says co-owner Ruth Hennigar. "We sell out."

The events attract couples, groups of friends and people looking for a date. Because the shop is female-owned (Cara Finn is the other owner), Hennigar says women feel particularly comfortably coming in to sip and talk wine.

If good wine and a shop full of women isn't enough of a draw, I can't help you. Maybe you're really just the Mariah Carey, white zinfandel type.

Vintage Wine Merchants, 377 Santana Row Suite 1135, San Jose. 408.260.1115. Uncorked!, 145000 Big Basin Way, Saratoga. 408.741.9000. The Grapevine, 1389 Lincoln Ave., San Jose. 408.293.7574.

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