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A Vine Afternoon

Drinking chilled white wine is like sipping summer. Despite my inability to wax properly on the color, clarity, bouquet or finish of a good glass of wine, still, a slow and indulgent afternoon of winetasting -- especially on a hot day -- remains one of my most decadent pleasures. And for good reason. Dr. Stanton Peele, a New Jersey--based psychologist who specializes in the social and psychological context in which alcohol is consumed, believes the convivial, relaxing nature of wine makes it particularly suited for summer, when more drinking is done outdoors and families gather on patios, at garden parties and barbecues. “The verb sip is what applies to wine,” he says. “You don‘t guzzle it, belt it, knock it down -- and summer, when you’re in a relaxed mood and the weather‘s warm, is a more leisurely time of year. So there’s a natural affinity between wine and summer, when people tend to linger longer.”

If only it were easier to escape to the NapaSonoma Valley, where the air is fresh and the dusty roads stretch through seemingly infinite acres of vineyards. Or if we could just push those dry, open Santa Barbara hills a tad closer to L.A. so we could unwind there on warm weekend afternoons. But good news: There is a distinct wine-tasting world in L.A.: a pastiche of nooks ranging from a full-scale winery to little shops with adjacent wine bars, and together they make up a veritable “little wine country” right in the heart of the city. Here‘s the two-cent tour:

Taking Peele’s advice, once the weather climbs above 70 and the city wears the edge of summer, I head to the San Antonio Winery (737 Lamar St., downtown; 323-223-1401). This near-100-year-old establishment, family-owned and run by four generations of Ribolis, is the only winery in L.A. proper and houses a million and a half gallons of wine. As I step into the original winemaking room, where the very same redwood barrels from 1917 are still used to age the juice, the air seems stained with the scent of years of crushing grapes. It is a musty, sweet smell that increases as we go deeper into the mazelike, 4-acre complex.

The temperature drops significantly in the storage area, which holds roughly 100 enormous stainless-steel and oak tanks and 2,000 barrels of wine. My host is Santo, a perfect gentleman who skirts ahead to open the next door for me. In the fermentation area, again, the temperature drops. The air is wet and heavy, and amid the deafening hum of the refrigeration system, it occurs to me: This is the perfect getaway from the summer heat. And the tour, plus subsequent tasting, is free.

At the Red Carpet (400 E. Glenoaks Blvd., Glendale; 818-247-5544), Steve Flocken, a night manager, is pouring. This is one of the few liquor stores in California to possess an on-site beer-and-wine license, so it is able to serve customers on the premises. Amidst thousands of bottles for sale, including a small number of rare wines from private sellers clearing out their collections, is a large circular bar that could be -- if you blur your eyes -- any old sports bar. This is where weekend tastings are held for either a nominal fee -- $2, $3 a taste -- or a flat fee for the full “flight,” during which you sample up to 24 or so remarkable wines.

Tonight, however, we taste ports -- syrupy, sweet dessert wines with an alcohol content of up to 20 percent. Flocken pops open the ultimate summer treat: a slightly chilled chocolate port that candy-coats my tongue and a leaves a sticky, fudgelike film on my lips (if only your neighborhood ice cream truck carried this!). The Smith Woodhouse Vintage Port is even better. While more expensive, it is less assaulting to my palate: thinner, cleaner, licoricey and nutty at once. Both are a rich, amber color that catches the light like a July sunset.

A number of shops have wine bars or tasting rooms tucked away in the back. At the Pasadena Wine Merchants (906 Granite Drive, Pasadena; 626-396-9234), events are led by the charismatic Paul Young, who greets me in a vintage ‘30s Stetson Panama hat and a broad smile. The shop is elegant, with mahogany wood, clay tiles, framed paintings, woven rugs. Wine tastings here -- set to old jazz -- have themes: just pinot noirs, for example, an evening titled “Pinot Envy”; or blind tastings, where bottles are wrapped in brown paper bags. Young says people drink different wines in hot weather, and so the upcoming June 3 event will be a night of “lighter, chilled wines. We’ll probably taste some dry roses, Sauvignon blancs, French Alsatians, which are dry, crisp and sweet -- some have hints of apple and plum.”

 

The Wine Expo (2933 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica; 310-828-4428) has a rotating schedule of either inexpensive, open tastings or more structured, formal wine dinners held at restaurants. Wine director Robert Rogness tells me they draw a younger, decidedly female crowd. “We believe the whole male collector bug is a disease that‘s treatable,” he says. “We talk about food, diversity, style, music, film, culture. Gracious living.” Twice this summer the Expo will host a Neapolitan family-style brunch, incorporating current Italian pop music and 50-some wines and champagnes. If you can’t swing a summer vacation abroad, this might be the next best thing. For dates -- which sell out almost immediately -- you must be on the mailing list.

One of the most unexpected places to taste wine -- if you‘re feeling adventurous enough to embark on your own -- is Philippe’s French Dip (1001 N. Alameda St., downtown; 213-628-3781), where customers sit on stools at long, Army-barrack-style wood tables, their feet kicking up sawdust on the floor. One of the oldest restaurants in L.A., Philippe‘s draws a diverse cross section of L.A. life (“You could just as easily be sittin’ with the mayor as with some street person,” says owner Richard Binder), and in summer -- when tourist season is at its peak -- customers stream in from all over the world. Alongside pickled eggs in beet juice, the menu offers a varied mix of excellent wines by the glass, ranging in price from $3 to $10. This night, I sample just one: a Dunnigan Toasted Head Merlot, which is warm, mellow and balanced.

Another treasure is Greenblatt‘s Deli (8017 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood; 323-656-0606), which likes to boast that it’s “the wine merchant that fronts as a deli.” At the entrance, opposite a case featuring wood-smoked pork ribs and jumbo turkey legs, is a wine-and-spirits shop with more than 800 different varieties of wine, 28 of which are on tap -- one-stop shopping for any Hollywood Bowl picnic. Greenblatt‘s does have structured tastings from time to time (such as a “vertical tasting,” where the same wine is compared over several successive years); but, more uniquely, customers can either buy wine by the glass with dinner or sample several 2-ounce tastes side by side while eating. Further, you can have any bottle from the shop served at your table -- for the retail price (normally, restaurants mark up wines to three times the wholesale cost).

Co-owner Jeff Kavin brings me an assortment of cabernets to try with my sloppy pastrami sandwich. A woman to my left, ogling the lineup of red wines by my plate, leans over: “Are you a wine connoisseur?” she asks eagerly. “No, just thirsty.” Of the three cabernets, though, I finish just one: a Silver Oak, rich and fruity. The color is a glossy, ruby red, like liquid pomegranates -- my favorite summer-ripened fruit.

Perhaps the closest thing to a wine-country escape is a small, private vineyard in Malibu -- 15 to 20 minutes from the city. Rosenthal Wines (29000 Newton Canyon Road, Malibu; 800-814-0733) is located on a rugged estate with 23 acres of hand-harvested vineyards. The grounds here alone are worth the trip up through the windy Malibu canyons: A creek runs the length of the property, which is full of wild grass, old oak, rose bushes, and avocado and citrus trees. Proprietor George Rosenthal leads walking tours himself, which begin at the main house -- a lovely Spanish Colonial home furnished with Mexican antiques -- and progress through the vineyards. Tastings are held afterward at the pool -- a geometrically challenging configuration that appears to spill right into the chardonnay vineyard -- and they last, I was told, as long as people have questions, typically a few hours.

Today I taste two wines that haven’t yet debuted on the market: a 1998 chardonnay that, aged in French oak, is light and lemony, and a 1997 merlot that is so good I take it home with me. The color is deep red, almost black, and it is full of the taste of cherries. Visits to Rosenthal -- including tastings -- are free, provided you organize your own group of at least 12 to 15 people in advance.

Pinot BistroPinot Hollywood (12969 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, and 1448 N. Gower St., Hollywood; 323-960-1762) hosts a summer Wine Tasting Series June 7 and 8 that, while a bit pricey ($24), includes hot and cold hors d‘oeuvres and an accredited sommelier on the premises.

There are also a number of charity wine events throughout the summer. On June 8, Sportsman’s Lodge (12825 Ventura Blvd., Studio City; 818-769-4700) will host a tasting to raise money for breast-cancer research. In exchange for a suggested donation of $15, there will be live music, a dinner buffet, and over 50 international wines served in a tent by the pool.

 

As my two-bit tour winds to a close, I now know one thing, for sure, about wine: I know what I like. (And I‘ve deduced, through many glasses of experience, that it comes in two colors.) You needn’t know much more. Venture into grocery aisles on your own -- the quickest and easiest way to taste wine is at home, with friends. To kick off summer this month, Cost Plus is marking down the wines of Francis Ford Coppola, which it feels are quintessential summer wines (I‘m told the Bianco -- a blend of white grapes -- is referred to as “the pool wine”). And Trader Joe’s has just acquired 26,000 cases of Canyon Ridge Chardonnay ($2.99 a bottle) -- a refreshing, easy-drinking wine, with a clean, buttery finish -- which it recommends when you‘re grilling. Explore. As wine expert Bryan Burkart told me at a pinot tasting: “It’s not about the wine -- it‘s about the history, the stories that come with it, the romance. And when you sit down with friends -- especially in summer -- it’s about how the wine brings you together.”


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