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Hunting the Extraordinary 

Look beyond pretty, pricey wines

When trying to impress with wine, you walk the fine line. When invited to your boss's fancy shindig or your significant other announces a romantic soiree, you can't exactly offer up your everyday jug, but cracking open an unknown wine can invoke visions of embarrassing failure. But remember that wine people can be impressed with cheap or expensive, and few can tell the difference -- just keep the price tag hostage. Uncovering the latest wine deal is really a game. But you have to be comfortable diving into the unknown, since established brands know they can charge higher prices even for their low-end slop. Once in a blue moon, a big-name winery might release a value-priced label to grab interest but sneak the cost higher when demand grows.

Drilling for Foreign Finds

One rule of thumb: Imported wines always impress. Because Americans are numbly accustomed to California Chardonnay, Merlot or Cabernet, the foreign names seem more exotic, whether they're better or not. Is this simplistic? Yes. True? Absolutely. But extraordinary wines are coming from Argentina, Chile and Spain. Don't be afraid to risk paying a lowly $8 for a bottle of wine from any of these countries; there's a good chance it will pay you back tenfold.

Label Fanciers Beware

Ninety nine point nine percent of the time, pretty labels mask crappy wine. Georges Dubeouf, importers from France, often employ the tactic of fanciful, color-laden labels to disguise insipid wines, especially their Beaujolais Nouveau. Don't fall into the trap. Also avoid those with beautiful colored glass with sleek, artistic labels. Luna di Luna corners the market with their gaudy blue, purple and red bottles. Like a mean, beautiful person, it's ugly inside... don't buy it.

Up and Comers

Forget what the Joneses are doing...to really impress, follow your instinct to the nearest funky grape. People dig novel things, and you can bask in the glory of introducing it. Hot grape varietals to present right now: California Petite Syrah, Germany's Gruner Veltliner, California Viognier, Argentinean Malbec and Chilean Carmenere. Slip one of these into the mix at your next dinner party and watch people ask questions.

Exploring the out-of-the-ordinary can pay off down the road. You never know how the boss decides who gets the accolades or the axe, but be certain it's not because of your boring wine choice.

Recommended Wines

2000 Bodega Faraon Malbec Like a smooth port wine without the sweetness, this Argentinean Malbec boasts figs, prunes and a bold potpourri-like aroma. Very interesting wine... a conversation piece, and be proud of the price. $10 1/2

Calina 2001 Carmenere Reserve A bargain if I've ever tasted one. Huge and rich like a steak with a fruity sauce of blackberry and vanilla. Comes with a side of peppery earthiness. $10 1/2

Fess Parker 2000 Viognier Dripping with honey, peaches and a hint of coconut, this beautiful Santa Barbara wine made me take notice. Rich, full and loaded with personality. Love it. $201/2

David Bruce 2001 Petite Syrah Face slapping big-bowl-of-berries flavor, yet smooth and drinkable. Tannins are manageable in this grape normally known for its rich tannic content. $18 1/2

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