There's never been a better time to be a wine lover. Here's why. (Prices are approximate for recommended wines.)
1 - Quality Has Exploded
Technology and capital are spreading fast in the hands of a daring new generation of winemakers. Old winegrowing regions, such as Spain's Calatayud and Italy's Apuglia, are stepping up their quality. New regions are stealthily challenging the old guard. (Compare, please, Oregon Pinot Noirs and Washington Merlots with their compadres in Burgundy and Bordeaux.) Be it from Argentina or New Zealand, good stuff abounds. What's next? Uruguay? Tasmania? Yep.
Try: 2003 Las Rocas de San Alejandro Garnacha Calatayud ($11, K&L Wine Merchants, klwines.com)
2 - There's a Glut
The number of vineyards planted in California and abroad has outpaced the current global market, leading to an overabundance of wine grapes, juice and finished wine. In California, the 2005 harvest this fall was a doozy, with everyone scrambling for more barrels, tanks and buckets to stash the take. Virtual wineries, called negociants, will turn the excess juice into yummy blends with attractive packaging.
Try: 2003 Jewel Collection "Firma" Italian varietal blend Lodi ($10, Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op and Nugget Markets)
3 - Small Is Beautiful
Wine shops and independent grocers offer a great selection of wines from high-quality small producers. Local heroes such as Corti Brothers bravely import the obscure and create their own branded labels, treating us to their good taste. The Wine Merchant, in Folsom and Roseville, sends out weekly e-mail blasts with just-arrived wines you won't see elsewhere.
Try: 2003 Lemelson Pinot Noir Willamette Valley "Thea's Selection" ($30, Taylor's Market)
4 - We're in the Thick of Things
We are surrounded by grape-growing regions. Winery associations throughout Northern California serve up informative websites with maps of vineyards and recommendations for places to stay and eat. Join a local winery's club to get discounts and invites to special events, and develop your own knowledge of the vintner's style over time.
Try: 2004 Wildhurst Sauvignon Blanc Reserve Lake County ($7, Trader Joe's)
5 - You Can Try Before You Buy
It's all about getting it in your mouth, and Sacramento has more opportunities than most cities its size. Everybody wants to pour you a taste, especially wine shops with tasting bars, such as Capitol Cellars in Roseville and Beyond Napa on Fair Oaks Boulevard. You also can sip at charity benefits, Second Saturday art gallery receptions and wine competitions. If you want to go geekier, seek out classes. Sip away, and keep track of what you like. If you're not a note taker, snap a photo of the label with your date's cell phone. If he's smart, he'll bring you a bottle the next time he sees you.
Try: Fun flights of three wines by the 2-ounce pour with themes like "Pinot Envy" and "Zin Madness." ($10 to $14 per flight of three, Enotria Cafe & Wine Bar)
Elaine's Pick of the Month
2003 Sum Torreguaceto, a dark and flavorful red from Apuglia, Italy, made from the obscure grape Susumaniello. Divine with roast pork loin stuffed with dried apricots and sour cherries. ($18, Corti Brothers) *Wine Trivia Contest What is the most versatile wine grape, used not only in sparkling, still and dessert wines but also brandy? If you know the answer, e-mail it to email@example.com by Jan. 15. The winner will receive the 2006 20th anniversary edition of Windows on the World Complete Wine Course by Kevin Zraly ($24.95). Make sure to include your name, address and telephone number. The winner will be selected by random drawing from all the correct responses.