May 10, 2006
Hollow Protest

In a rant at Slate, columnist Mike Steinberger reminds me of the guy in school who won’t acknowledge that the prettiest girl on campus is even cute. She’s too shallow and too skinny, he gripes, trying to hide his real fear – that he’s mad about her but has to hold his passion in check because she isn’t from the nobility in which he is expected to marry.

He’s writing of sauvignon blanc, dismissing the grape as a “dud, producing chirpy little wines wholly devoid of complexity and depth.”

Some of what he says has merit. Sauvignon blanc isn’t likely to be the most glamorous and entangling companion on the table, but it’s risen sharply in esteem and authority over the past couple of decades under the tutelage of vintners who patiently have coaxed out its inner beauty and spirit.

One measure of how much more alluring sauvignon blanc is today than it was 20 years ago is that at that time I wrote a column similar in tone to Steinberger’s, dissing sauvignon blanc as confusing and insipid.

I doubt I went about it with the kind of jocularity and fire Steinberger uses in dismissing sauvignon blanc: “Spare me that old chestnut about versatility: It is hardly surprising, given their acute lack of personality, that these smily face wines can accommodate themselves to just about any dish. Water can, too,” he vents. That’s good, really good.

But I think he protests a bit too much, a sure sign he’s being tempted by the flirtatious little tart that is sauvignon blanc, often so athletic, assertive and racy that Steinberger only can blush and sweat when he meets one that truly has something to say, and isn’t shy about speaking up. Who can’t like a wine whose descriptors often run to freshly mown hay, rapier acidity, gooseberry, gunflint, grapefruit, cat pee, spice and lime?

No character? No verve? No brio? That’s not the kind of sauvignon blanc I’ve been drinking in recent years. I’m tempted to round up a bunch of them and ship off a case to Steinberger, who I suspect hasn’t set aside his fondness for powerful and pricey chardonnays long enough to really explore sauvignon blanc.

There are scores of producers doing exciting things with sauvignon blanc these days, including Robert Pecota, Geyser Peak, St. Supery, Kenwood, Kunde and Bogle, all from California, as well as New Zealanders like Lawson’s Dry Hills, Kim Crawford, Kathy Lynskey, Lake Chalice, Saint Clair, Stoneleigh and Nobilo, among others. And don’t overlook sauvignon blancs from other New World wine regions, such as Chile’s Veramonte.

At the Riverside International Wine Competition a few weeks ago, our panel tasted 24 sauvignon blancs from the 2004 vintage and gave four of them gold medals: Concannon Vineyard 2004 Central Coast Selected Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc ($10), Concannon Vineyard 2004 Monterey County Reserve Sauvignon Blanc ($18), Rancho Zabaco 2004 California Dancing Bull Sauvignon Blanc ($10) and Miramonte Winery 2004 Temecula Private Reserve Sauvingon Blanc ($22). They were varied, vibrant, refreshing and, yes, perfectly at home at the summer table.

Maybe next year the competition’s organizers will invite Steinberger to judge, seating him, of course, on the sauvignon blanc panel. He could come away a changed man, finally professing publicly his love for sauvignon blanc.

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