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Cali Klatsch 

We got the goods on wine country gossip

Water cooler talk sometimes makes work bearable. Gossipy trendmongers regale us with juicy tidbits, uncorroborated or not, enabling us to escape our own reality if only for a moment. Considering the runaway popularity of shows like Entertainment Tonight, I assume people salivate to hear the newest trends and dirt.

Like Hollywood for the movie industry, Northern California wine country is the source for all wine gossip and trends. So I recently packed my bags and headed to the weekend-long Sonoma Valley Showcase of Food and Wine -- a very pricey yet awesome affair celebrating what Sonoma has to offer. Lotsa people, lotsa money, and lotsa wines make it a mouth and eye orgy, like a high-class wine tasting at a fancy mall. And filled with plenty of industry people willing to talk.

Chatter abounds about pesticides and their use in vineyards, as the organic, back-to-nature grape farming techniques of Mendocino County finally filter southward into Sonoma's vineyards. One rather eccentric winemaker, Clark Smith from WineSmith wines, avoids using pesticides by inviting all the bugs to the party so they'll eventually kill each other off the way nature intended -- kind of like an L.A. society circle. But other vineyard managers, like Paul Foppiano of Foppiano Vineyards, are nervous about letting nature take over an entire harvest, risking possibly millions of dollars. Easing up on pesticide use, in favor of more natural pest control, appears to be a risk more and more wineries are willing to take.

In another chapter on how marketing affects the way wineries conduct business, wineries are ripping up vineyards planted with grapes no longer in fashion, like merlot (R.I.P). Having consulted with the people who claim they know America's taste, wineries are replanting with syrah and other red Rhone varieties. According to the marketers, America wants spicy red wines, so wineries are rushing -- metaphorically speaking, since it takes at least three years after planting to yield fruit from a grapevine -- to provide the market with what it's apparently clamoring for. Let's hope the predictors are right, or we're in for a red tidal wave.

There's endless gossip flying about the December sale of the Robert Mondavi Corporation to Constellation Brands, the world's largest wine business. I couldn't get anyone to speak on record, but suffice to say, many people blame greed for the fall of the beloved Mondavi family. We'll see how it all plays out in the glass.

Deloach Vineyards has begun its climb back into our hearts. After expanding too quickly and bankrupting itself during the late 90s, Deloach sold to France's Boisset America, a large conglomerate that owns vineyards and wineries worldwide. Since the sale in 2003, I've been eager to see what new winemaker Greg Lafollette -- formerly of cult favorite Flowers Winery and Hartford Court -- can do. In what I hope will be an indication of things to come, he introduced a gorgeously fragrant, deliciously smooth 2004 Early Harvest Gewurztraminer ($14) that, with any luck, will make it to the Southeast.

At the signature wine tasting called Taste of Sonoma, over 400 wines were on hand from 135 wineries in the county. Although plenty of interesting highlights popped up, Sonoma is still making a family-sized batch of uninteresting, creamy vanilla, buttery chardonnay. The appearance of 79 chards proved my point.

Sonoma is certainly known for this varietal, but a little style diversity wouldn't kill 'em, right? Also poured was a fair share of cabernet sauvignon and zinfandels, with the recent warm vintages producing luscious, elegant wines bursting with fruit.

Highlights included Chateau Souverain 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon ($25) and Coturri Winery 2003 Zinfandel Chauvet Vineyards ($27). I noticed a few more pinot gris and syrah on the docket, two trends I'm personally excited about since they are a couple of my favorite wines.

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