As far back as the 11th century, Norse explorers, in what was to become America, had already perceived the winemaking possibilities of this vast, verdant land. Seven centuries later the sagacious American statesman Thomas Jefferson began dabbling in grape-growing. One might assume, then, that by now America would have a two-century-long history of making worthy wines.

Fate and nature preempted that possibility, but toward the end of the 19th century, in the grape-compatible state of California, America was taking its fledgling steps toward fulfilling its wine-producing potential.

With the exception of Prohibition, a period of several years until 1933 when alcoholic beverages were prohibited by law, the United States has consistently produced wine for the commercial market for well over a century. However, a legal loophole permitting sacramental wine for church services during the Prohibition prevented its total extinction.

Since the mid-1970s California in particular has invested time and effort in determining which grapes grow best where and which styles of wine will be most appreciated. Concomitant with California’s emergence as a wineland of world renown has been increasing health-mindedness internationally, particularly in fitness-obsessed California.

It is of little wonder, then, that the world’s best-selling nonalcoholic wines and its best low-alcohol wines are also the result of Californian ingenuity. Anyone who wants to enjoy the pleasure of good wine flavor but can’t have or doesn’t want alcohol is well served by good nonalcoholic wines. But for a long time the problem was how to make no-alcohol wine taste like regular wine.

Recently I had the pleasure of visiting Sutter Home winery in St. Helena, Napa Valley, Calif., makers of the answer to this dilemma: the Fre line of nonalcoholic wines. Sutter Home understands good wine, and was the first to introduce premium white zinfandel in America in the 1980s. Later they introduced their line of Fre nonalcoholic wines, and in no time they had become America’s best-selling nonalcoholic wines.

Alcohol is spun off the wine by the Spinning Cone, a tall cylindrical device, in a process that separates the alcohol and retains most of the varietal fruit flavor. Other flavor components collected in a separate cylinder are added and the result is the fruity Fre nonalcoholic wines. They come in both whites and reds, and some are combined with berry flavors. When chilled they’re great for summer sipping.

Sutter Home also produces the Soleo brand of low-alcohol wines (red, white and fruit blended) aimed at younger wine lovers who want a lighthearted wine with true fruit flavor. They’re perfect for casual patio parties. In 1998, White Soleo ’96 (muscat and chenin blanc) won silver medals at two of America’s important national wine competitions. The Red Soleo blend of zinfandel, barbera, pinot noir and Napa Gamay, for years has been America’s best-selling Beaujolais-style red.

Also worth noting among wines of under 9 or 10 percent alcohol content are Sutter Homes’ Portico wines, which combine varietal and natural fruit flavors. Consider their zinfandel with raspberry or white zinfandel with kiwi-strawberry, well chilled.

And now there’s “soft wine,” another great choice for summer. New Era Beverages Inc. in Gaston, Calif., produces the Touchstone 6 line of low-alcohol wines using the same technique described earlier. These wines have only a 6 percent alcoholic content. Their winemaker, J. Scott Burr, describes the wines as “the ideal amount” for low-alcohol soft wines. As little as 3 percent alcohol remaining, said Burr, deprives the wine’s fruit flavor of the middle palate. Six percent, however, delivers plenty of fruit. Touchstone 6 Soft White, floral and clean, an aromatic blend of chenin blanc, malvasia and French colombard, would complement a variety of foods: pastas, salads, fruit, fish, cheeses, chicken. So would the Soft Blush, blending white zinfandel, white grenache and floral white grape varieties. Soft Red, blending the light reds gamay Beaujolais, grenache and carignane, is very delicious and right for spicier pizza and pasta, rich cheeses and grilled meats. The bubbly is quite enjoyable as well.

California’s best wines come from European grape varieties, and originally its wines received the names of wines from wine regions in Europe (e.g., California Chablis, Chianti and Burgundy, or so-called generic wines). Not so, thankfully, today, as it’s quite confusing, and differences in soil and climate create great differences in taste.

Californian wines today are named in either of two ways: after their dominant grape (varietal), of which the wine must contain at least 75 percent; or with a proprietary name such as the producer’s name, or one created for a specific wine (Meritage, etc.). Many California wines are 100 percent varietal, meaning they are made entirely from one type of grape, such as the fantastic Tri-Leopard Vineyard cabernet sauvignon and the Topolos 1994 Piner Heights zinfandel, which was served with the main course at a state dinner at the White House.

European-origin white grapes that take well to California’s soils and climates are chardonnay, chenin blanc, French colombard, Gewurztraminer, pinot blanc, Riesling, sauvignon blanc, semillon and, in recent years, the fantastic viognier, with its rapturous flavors of apricot, dried fruit, peach and orange marmalade. Please note it, and such fine makers as Alderbrook and Hanna.

European-origin red grapes that flourish in California include barbera, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, gamay, grenache, malbec, merlot, pinot noir and shiraz. Among Californians, perhaps the favorite red grape is zinfandel, the most Californian of them all and a luscious mouthful indeed. Although its origins are unclear, it’s clear that no one understands zinfandel as well as good California vineyards such as Alexander County, Shenandoah and Sullivan.

Start planning a trip to some of these outstanding wineries in what ranks among the Bay Area’s finest wine-producing regions, and some of the most beautiful wine country in the world. Make your visit even better with a stay at the Sutter Home Hotel, fax +1 (707) 963-3104. For details on today’s wines fax +1 (415) 459-3650.

Cheers! Bon appetit!

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