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Variety is the spice of wine 

Value-priced wines shine, and a Pismo restaurant refines its offerings

I've appreciated Chile's value-priced wines since the early 1980s. You could always find tasty Cabernet Sauvignons priced at less than $10. Today you'll pay about $12 for Chilean Cabernets and Carmeneres at the best quality they've ever been, and that's an excellent deal. Of course, Chile's rare Cabernets cost a bit more. Late in February, I had the opportunity to meet Arnaud Frennet, the export manager for Casa Silva in Chile's Colchagua Valley, and taste his extraordinary lineup of white and red wines.

click to enlarge FEELING CHILE? :  Delicious wines travel from this cellar at Chile's Casa Silva winery to the Central Coast, thanks to J & L Distributing in Paso Robles. - PHOTO COURTESY OF CASA SILVA
  • FEELING CHILE? : Delicious wines travel from this cellar at Chile's Casa Silva winery to the Central Coast, thanks to J & L Distributing in Paso Robles.

# I was invited by Lorraine Alban, co-owner of J & L Distributing in Paso Robles with her husband John Alban, because they've just begun distributing Casa Silva wines on the Central Coast. I was quite impressed with the quality and amazingly low retail prices of these delicious wines.

"The Silvas are pioneers who had a key role in making the Colchagua Valley what it is today," Frennet explained. "The 94-year-old vines were brought from Bordeaux, pre-phylloxera, by the Silvas' ancestor, Emilio Bouchon, in 1892."

Casa Silva is now operated by a fifth generation of winemakers. Originally they sold their grapes, but after establishing the family-named brand in 1997, they've become leaders in the Chile for their quality winegrape growing and their wines.

Casa Silva has 900 hectares (1 hectare is 2.5 acres, roughly) of vineyards divided among three estates: Angostura, Los Lingues, and Lolol in the Colchagua (Col-chow-wah) Valley, south of Santiago, Chile. According to Frennet, they were the first Chilean winery to conduct micro-terroir studies (of the soils and effect of the climate). They also farm organically, although they aren't certified organic.

"The Silvas believe in living life in harmony with the environment and making the finest wines possible," Frennet noted.

"Colchagua is considered a red wine valley, but we don't believe it," Frennet explained. "It's so diverse."

Indeed, Casa Silva's beautifully balanced white wines are a testament to that fact. The 2007 Sauvignon Blanc Reserva, 2006 Sauvignon Gris (a mutation of Sauvignon Blanc that's similar in flavors and quite elegant) and 2006 Viognier Lolol Gran Reserva all scored well with Wine Spectator's critics, and priced at only $12 to $17 each.

Casa Silva received high praise from critic Robert M. Parker, Jr. "for producing some of the best Carmenere in Chile." Their delicious 2006 Carmenere Reserva offered blackberry, currants, plums, and spice with earthy, smoky notes. Then I tasted the 2005 Carmenere Gran Reserva, which offered the same fruit profile but in a much more luscious package, deeply layered in flavors. The 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Gran Reserva Los Lingues, earning a high 88-point rating from Wine Spectator, offers blackberries, currants, and smoky notes weaved with a thread of green peppers and herbs. These reds, priced just $14 to $20, are well worth finding. Local retailers offering them include 15 Degrees C, Monterey Wine St. Co., Morro Bay Wine Seller, and several restaurants.

"I didn't know there was space in an area where there are so many producers of fine wines," admitted Frennet, who was pleased over the enthusiasm by local wine lovers for Casa Silva wines. "The euro is so strong now that European wines are very expensive. It makes our wines unbeatable compared to their wines."

Give me variety

Restaurateur Lauren Stevens has a bold plan for her restaurant, Two Blocks Off the Beach in Pismo Beach. She called me to say that she wanted to create a comprehensive Central Coast wine list that offers at least one varietal from most wineries in SLO County. Lauren, who co-owns the cozy wine bistro with her husband Jack Stevens, also owns Tanner Jack's on the mesa in Arroyo Grande. When Lauren asked me to join their tastings provided by local distributors, I readily agreed. Although I'm not a paid consultant, I appreciated the opportunity to taste the latest wines that are being purchased by local restaurants and retail stores.

The first thing I did when I met with Lauren was explain that local wine connoisseurs, like myself, want variety when it comes to restaurant wine lists. We drink Central Coast wines regularly. So when we choose from a restaurant's wine list or visit our favorite neighborhood wine shop, we enjoy discovering new wines from Napa, Sonoma, France, Australia, and Chile. We especially love finding a rare gem hidden on the back page of a wine list that's long since been sold out at the winery.

"I don't want to have the same wines at both of our restaurants, it's good to mix it up a little," Lauren explained during one tasting session. "We want to support the little guys, but we don't want to scare away the bigger wineries we've been buying from."

Although my schedule didn't allow me to attend every tasting, I found terrific wines to recommend in my column, like the Wolff 2006 Chardonnay Old Vines. It also provided the chance to retaste several wines I'd already recommended, all of which proved themselves still excellent choices, including Osseus 2006 Sauvignon Blanc and Estancia 2006 Pinot Grigio, still available in markets.

Lauren created her own list, and I simply provided suggestions throughout the tasting appointments. I wanted to remain impartial as I do with "Kathy's Pick." I taste many wines each week to find a wine I think appropriate for my column. My criteria is this: The wine must be impressive, affordably priced, and available locally. Lastly, if it's priced at more than $40, it's because I consider it outstanding. The majority of wines I choose are locally produced, but I love discovering great wines from outside the Central Coast--as long as they're available in our local wine shops and grocers. That's what I recommended to Lauren.

After several of the tastings, she agreed with me: "I think there's room for wineries outside the area and plan to add a selection of non-local wines. It's been a great learning process about local wines. I love hearing the stories, like Wolff's commitment to sustainable farming, and the Talleys, who do so much to support the community."

Her new wine lists at Two Blocks and Tanner Jack's won't come out at once. She plans to replace older selections with the new local wines she liked.

"We're little guys, and we want to support the other little guys," Lauren said of the wines she chose.

The Stevens recently purchased a luxurious limousine, a Cadillac, no less, to create a new service they've named "Wine & Dine." Although the details weren't worked out yet, watch their for upcoming news. Their frequent diner's card will pay off loyal customers with a complimentary wine tour and dinner.

You can reach New Times' Cuisine columnist at


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