Grapes of Hostility 

Cheap South African reds range from "meaningful" to "hurting cats."

Mexico, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, Russia, England, Wales, and North Africa — yes. But somehow South Africa was never among John Steinbeck's destinations. Call this the only flaw in an otherwise perfect weekend in Steinbeck country — specifically Salinas and Monterey — where we swilled cheap South African reds on the beach as we paid homage to an original Wineau. Steinbeck's novels and nonfiction are liberally sprinkled with references to the glorious 20-to-50- cent gallon jug — enough to dive headfirst into a night of "Bacchic holiness," to borrow from his essay "The Golden Handcuff."

Always a champion of the oppressed, Steinbeck certainly would have had much to say about apartheid. South Africa's wine industry has benefited from a long, slow recovery that's recently gained momentum. Since the comeback began in the 1990s, the Western and Northern Cape areas have produced reliably good wines, with Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Shiraz as the dominant grapes and the country's native Pinotage (a cross of Pinot Noir and Cinsault) as its high-priced signature varietal.

The 2005 MAN Vintners Shiraz ($9.99) delighted our guest taster from Hollywood, who had gone all Method on us and would answer only to Rose of Sharon (see Wrath, Grapes of). Rose described the MAN as a cozy, fun wine; she likened it to a meaningful yet harmless conversation with a stranger. Our Token Winemaker, choosing to appear as Pa Joad in this installment, tasted faux cherries — he said cold medicine, I said Sno-Cone — but we both liked it anyway, particularly its grapey taste, nicely balanced by a slightly acidic herbaceousness.

The 2005 Goats do Roam ($6.99) red wine, a blend of Pinotage, Shiraz, Cinsault, Grenache, and Carignan, struck a home run for the second year in a row. While we'd found the 2004 vintage full-bodied and spicy, the 2005 had a lighter, juicier flavor, simple and smooth with a tinge of bitterness. I liked its cherry aroma and summed it up as a nice, pleasantly bitter red you'd drink on its own, while Pa Joad praised its good level of tannins and its aroma of black plums, smoke, and toast. He declared it a great value.

"This is what the dogs drank in Lady in the Tramp," snarled Rose after a sip of the 2005 Herding Cats Merlot/Pinotage blend ($5.99) — which truly did smell a bit like the alley outside a diner's kitchen. Pa Joad was slightly more charitable: He, too, tasted rotten fruit, but he could at least see drinking it with something sweet and rich. Not so Rose, who renamed it "Hurting Cats" and could see drinking it only with hostility.

Perhaps we'd be wise to remember the Steinbeck Standard: "[I]t was adequate," he once wrote of a 39-cent gallon. "It added gaiety to a party and it never killed anyone."

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