Letters for the week of October 4-10, 2006 

Readers comment on Wineau, Proposition 36, and Health at Any Size.

"Coming Soon, Green Wine," Wineau, 9/6

The effrontery!
Are you for real? You must be the anti-Christ! Stomping on the sacred wine publications, and promoting the notion that there actually are good wines out there for under $10, and that it's okay to enjoy them? The effrontery! The horror!

Seriously, though, I thought your column was the most honest piece of wine writing I've read in my life. I grew up in a household here in Berkeley that always appreciated good, accessible wine. I remember fondly the short road trips with my mom out to the Viano Winery in Martinez, nestled alongside the Shell refinery, to hang out with Conrad Viano and score some really good Dago Red for about $3 a gallon. In her present demented state, she still asks for a glass of Viano.

I took the intro course to Viticulture and Enology, and wine appreciation at UC Davis, and I immediately applied that knowledge to get into as many female pants as possible — with some meager success, I might add. I was however, struck by the level of snobbery and disdain for anything other than Napa Valley wines that was presented in the course. Academics ... what do they know? The best sex I ever had was facilitated by a nice, cheap bottle of Liebfraumilch ...

As I have since mellowed into middle-aged decrepitude and respectability, I have come to appreciate the art and science of bottom feeding vis-à-vis wine, and being proud of it! My wife and I have slimed our way through New Orleans, New York, Paris, London, Amsterdam, and recently through Italy, spending no more than the equivalent of $10 for our bottles. How cool is it that there are others that share my sensibilities! I'll eagerly look forward to your column every week, and I'd be more than happy to participate in your tastings.
Drew Kemp, Albany

Quest for the kickass
Just read your article, and I'm happy that there's somebody writing about this kind of thing in the semi-mainstream media. I'm a longtime passionate advocate and pursuer of the $5-$10 kickass bottle. A couple of things struck me, though, and one thing a lot of people can't see past, is that most California wine, even the cheap stuff, is way overpriced. Also, it's a very particular style, and seems in recent years to be going more for a kind of "ooh-ahh" reaction rather than being something that's simply good and drinkable. My biggest problem with California wines is the excessively high amount of alcohol in them, which to me tastes basically nasty. The best deals I've found, and I've done a lot of searching, are in the European and South American stuff, especially Spain, Chile, and Portugal. There are tons of great deals from emerging regions in France (Languedoc) and Italy.

Also, you mention that you'll be shopping at places like Costco and Safeway, but I hope you'll be stopping at some smaller shops around the area. To me, places like that make for a way better shopping experience. Also, the possibility for a serendipitous purchase is of course much higher. I mean, you wouldn't go to Costco to buy books, even though they do sell them there. Not that I'm a snob; I shop there all the time, but I go other places to get good deals on wine.

On that point, my personal favorite has to be Oddlots in Albany (1025 San Pablo, near Marin Ave.). The guy who runs the place used to work as a buyer for Kermit Lynch in Berkeley, and has a very rigid philosophy when it comes to how much he thinks someone should pay for a bottle of wine. He doesn't stock certain wines (like Italian Gavis) because they're overpriced due to trendy high demand. You should definitely stop in there sometime.

A couple of other places that carry some more expensive stuff but have quite a few things from $7 to $10 are Solano Cellars in Albany and Vine Street in Berkeley. They're both run by a youngish guy who's very unpretentious about wine drinkin', and his staff have the same attitude. Last time I was in Vine Street they were blasting Zeppelin. All in all, in my opinion there's a better chance at the smaller shops that the $5 bottle will knock your socks off. I've drunk gallons of cheap wine from Trader Joe's, and some of it's quite good, but again the selection can be limited and it's really not their specialty.

Thanks again for the article and column. I'm really glad someone's providing such a valuable public service so we can all get drunker cheaper.
Valdemar Jordan, Albany

Quality AND value
As an avid wine fan and subscriber to both Wine Spectator and Robert Parker, I too like a more laid-back approach to wine. Although, in most cases, wines priced (mainly California wines; don't get me started on the lunacy of a new Burgundy vintage STARTING at $125 because they're "old growths" and actually smell like sweat socks) in the $25 to $50 range are generally much superior to those below that range. Exceptions always occur, as in the case of the Rosenblum 2003 Rockpile Road you mentioned, which is well worth its price ($28, I believe). But with so much wine on the market, you really have to do some heavy searching (and drinking) to find quality AND value. Looking forward to reading your weekly working stiff's wine review. Love the idea.

Everyone's palate is different. What I might like at $10 might not be what someone else likes, and that goes for the expensive wines. I had a 1999 Opus One recently that I thought was marginal. Having said that, the wine I have been raving about is a 2004 Kenwood Sauvignon Blanc. Honestly, I had maybe once in my life tried a Kenwood. I'm under the impression that mass-produced equals marginal wine. I was tipped off to it by Wine Spectator's "smart buy" rating and cost. I got a case of it at Safeway for, no kidding, $7 a bottle (less with the club card and 10 percent case discount). Absolutely phenomenal wine, in my opinion. And WS gave it a 91. I feel the same way about ANY of the Columbia Crest wines (which, generally always get between an 88 and 92 pts from WS), and is also readily available at Safeway between the $9 to $20 range. Who says California is the only good wine region?
Stephen M. Sanger, Oakland

Expensive wine is easy; cheap wine is hard
Thank you for tackling this much-overlooked segment of the wine experience. Any moron can spend $50 and get a good bottle of wine. The great challenge is getting a good wine for a great price. Especially with a flood of excellent South American and Australian wines on the market, it's tough to sample everything (so much wine, so little time).

I'm looking forward to following your explorations. I'm also exercising all my restraint in not sending along all my own favorites for you to take a look at. Since you've profiled Merlot already, though, next time snag a bottle of the Rabbit Ridge Cuvee Merlot ($7.99 at Andronico's). It's one of my "go-to's" — I'd be interested in your assessment.

You're right, it's never just about the wine. Good luck, have fun, enjoy.
John Kane, San Pablo

"To a Speedy Recovery," Feature, 9/6

A helping hand
I am a grateful "graduate" of California's Prop. 36 program. When I was arrested for felony possession over two and one half years ago, I believed my life's future had dropped into a pit of legal and financial despair from which I had little hope of personal extrication. I will not dispute for a moment that the die had been cast by my own personal actions, rather I will testify to the success of the Prop. 36 program.

It is not a one-stop cure for all the sufferers of an addiction. It is, when sincerely embraced, a path to sobriety, a restoration of one's employment, security, and an active contribution to our society. An additional benefit of Prop. 36 program completion above and beyond the expurgation of the legal complaint and conviction can be the reuniting of families and the restoration of trust lost during an active addiction or the often imposed periods of incarceration. To enlist the metaphor of your article, it is a significant "carrot" indeed.

I would argue that no statute, by language or definition, is perfect in its application or final result. However, California's Prop. 36 goes a fair distance to empower the nonviolent drug offender with sufficient opportunity and means with which he or she might regain the freedoms and self-determination needed to achieve a fully enjoyable life. I believe self-determination plays a larger role in the addiction recovery of each individual, or if the addict or drug user hasn't a genuine desire to cease and desist, what result can be expected? It is here that the true benefit of Prop. 36 lies. For those who choose to restore their lives and escape the inevitable downward spiral, continued drug abuse or an addiction bestows no better legal vehicle than California Penal Code 1210 (Prop. 36) exists. It is a fantastic helping hand to those who accept it.

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