Surviving troubled waters

Vintage Point

Wine shop owner vows to reopen

October 01, 2003|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Wine Critic

Hillard Donner said he knew he was in trouble when he peered in the window of his Annapolis wine shop and saw a bottle of Smirnoff vodka float by.

"Fifty-seven years, I've never seen anything like this," he said. "I don't ever want to see it again, either."

Of the many businesses socked by the tidal surges of Hurricane Isabel, Donner's Mills Wine and Spirits is one of the oldest and the most revered among Maryland wine enthusiasts.

Since 1946, Mills has stood its ground at the foot of Main Street, offering one of the best selections of wine in Maryland. In certain categories, such as fine-vintage Bordeaux, Donner's shop is without peer in the state.

Most of the best wine was saved, Donner said, because the Mills staff had moved it upstairs before the storm hit. There were extensive losses, however. How much he didn't know when interviewed last week.

The morning after the storm, Donner had to catch a ride in a canoe to get to the door of his business, where the water stood nearly waist-high.

"I had sandbags, but they didn't do a ... bit of good," he said. In fact, Donner said, they did only harm by keeping the water from draining out of the store. Though he's nearly 80 and has no flood insurance, Donner insists he will reopen the business he co-founded with his father (who died a few years ago at 101).

"I'm not quitting. We'll be here," said Donner, who started the business after serving in World War II.

Donner said it would take a couple weeks to clean up the damage. He said that when he reopens, he will probably have a sale on wines with lost or damaged labels.

Australian wines

Sometimes wine writers guide consumers; sometimes it's the other way around. After receiving hints from several readers, I finally got around to tasting the Yellow Tail line of Australian wines - one of the hottest brands on the market today. Wow! is all I can say.

All five wines I tasted, at a cost of $6.49 each, were exceptional values - better than most of the wines Australia is churning out in the $8-$12 range.

The 2002 cabernet sauvignon, merlot, shiraz, shiraz-cabernet blend and chardonnay were all well-crafted wines with ample fruit - unmarred by the funky flavors and aromas you often find in Aussie wines.

None was exceptionally complex, but none was mind-numbingly simple either. The cabernet tasted the way a cabernet should; the merlot was recognizable as a merlot. That's more than many of Yellow Tail's peers ever achieve.

While they are all top-value wines, my favorites were the shiraz and the chardonnay. The shiraz offered the boldest, most chunky fruit, while the chardonnay was refreshingly light on oak.

Tasting through the Yellow Tail wines was a refreshing break because I had been in the middle of a fairly depressing stretch of tasting Australian wines. Let's just say there are a lot of disappointments between the Yellow Tail price bracket and the $20-plus Australian wines.

The landscape changes a bit when you get into the $20-and-up bracket because of an influx of smaller, quality-oriented producers.

One of these is the Lengs & Cooter winery in South Australia.

The 2002 Lengs & Cooter 70 percent shiraz, 30 percent cabernet sauvignon blend from the Clare Valley called the Victor is a clear winner at $20. Its lush, intense blackberry and black-currant fruit glide across the palate with no trace of harshness and nuances of chocolate and Asian spices. It could probably age well, but what's the point? It's excellent now.

Lengs & Cooter shows it is equally adept with white wine in the form of its 2002 riesling from the Watervale area of the Clare Valley ($20).

According to Bin 604 owner Jay Miller, who recommended these wines, riesling - not the ubiquitous chardonnay - is the varietal Australian winemakers choose to drink when they want to serve a white. The Lengs & Cooter shows why.

It's a very dry riesling with crystalline clarity and hints of minerals, pears and sweet pea. Its style is not Germanic but more of a synthesis of Austrian and Alsace riesling. With its complexity and structure, I suspect it will age quite well for a white. Serve it with pork, sausage or seafood. (Kudos to the winery for using a sophisticated screw top rather than primitive cork technology on the riesling.)

Australian wine fans who are willing to invest time as well as money should try to lay their hands on some bottles of the 2002 d'Arenberg "The Laughing Magpie" Shiraz-Viognier blend from McLaren Vale ($38).

The blend is similar to that used in the Rhone Valley area of Cote Rotie, which only produces some of the greatest wines on earth. The d'Arenberg isn't quite in that class yet, but it's showing a lot of promise.

There is a resemblance to a Cote Rotie in the pure black-raspberry flavors and layers of blackberry and spice flavors, but there's also a good measure of Australian muscle. It really needs three to five years of cellaring to show its true potential.

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