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Wild Spirits

Dessert wines find a port of ease

By David Templeton

Winemaker Bill Reading is not certain when human beings first started sipping port out of those little, fragile-looking dessert glasses. What he does know for sure is that he doesn't much like it.

"A lot of people assume that you're supposed to serve port in those tiny little glasses, like it's some sort of rule that you have to," Reading says, preparing to serve some port of his own in nice big glasses. Lined up along with the half-dozen attractively named dessert wines (Deco, Duet, Maduro, Amuse, Aris, and Spirit of the Harvest) that he will be pouring today within the cozy downtown Petaluma tasting room of the Sonoma County Portworks, the award-winning winemaking operation he founded in 1992, are a number of medium-sized wine glasses, such as you'd find in any other tasting room in wine country.

"A well-made port," Reading says, "will have the same wonderful aromas, and the same need to open up with air exposure, that a red table wine will have. To fully enjoy it, you need a wine glass with a generous-sized bowl, so you can do the same swirling and sniffing that you'd do with a fine table wine. You can get your nose in there and really enjoy the aroma. I'm not saying you should fill the glass with port. Pour the same amount you'd pour into one of those little dessert wine glasses. But with a larger glass, you can really let the wine breathe, which is just as important to a port as it is with other kinds of wines."

Reading, clearly, is on a mission to change the way people think about port. A longtime aficionado of after-dinner wines, he began making ports after a lifetime in the sales end of the wine industry. Sonoma Valley Portworks now has two tasting rooms, one in Kenwood, near the original production facility, and the other here in Petaluma, where he also manufactures his latest two offerings, a Petit Syrah port (that would be Aris) and a grappa (Spirit of the Harvest). Reading has long been aware that plenty of people don't know ports, or else they don't understand them. Oddly, many wine drinkers assume they don't like port, even before they've tasted it.

"I suppose some people have had bad experiences with a low-quality port, or maybe they grew up watching their grandparents drinking port or sherry and decided that if grandma drank it, it could never be cool enough for them to drink," he says.

"It's my goal to make ports that will win people over, and everything from the wines themselves to the size, shape and color of the bottle we sell them in to the artistic design of the label has been thought out so they would have a lot of aesthetic appeal. Now, after 10 years of making port, we've proven that a lot of people who would never normally try a port will try these, and they end up discovering that, hey, this stuff is pretty tasty."

The result is that, because of the Sonoma Valley Portworks and other small dessert-wine companies that have gradually been emerging over the last decade, a lot of people are being introduced, or reintroduced, to a whole new category of wine-drinking experience.


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Port gets its name from Portugal, where the Douro region has been producing unique "fortified" wines for several centuries. The British discovered the stuff in the late 17th century, and to sate England's growing thirst for unusual imported wines, began importing port by the shipload. England had been acquiring fancy wines from France, but with the two countries at war, France's loss was Portugal's gain.

Port's unique flavor, sweetness and intensity are derived from the process of adding distilled spirits to slightly fermented grape juice. From the English perspective, this fortification process had several benefits: first, the addition of distilled spirits to the port during its creation made the wine more stable, which helped it survive the boat trip from Portugal to England; second, because the spirits were added before fermentation is complete, the wine ended up sweeter than other types of wine.

Most ports are rich, red and fruity, are generally aged in the bottle, and taste somewhat like plums, though there are tawny ports, which are aged in the cask. These are typically lighter in color and have a spicy, buttery, nutlike flavor. The distinct sweetness that can be tasted in a finished glass of port comes from the natural grape sugars that have not fermented into alcohol. The way those grape sugars are retained is that, at a certain point during the fermentation, the port maker stops the process by adding high-proof grape spirits to kill the yeast and arrest the fermentation. The higher alcohol content of port comes primarily from that high proof spirit added along the way.

Of the California wineries that are making port, most use Zinfandel or Cabernet grapes, and in recent years a number of ports have appeared that use Syrah grapes. Portworks uses almost exclusively Petit Syrah, which Reading likes for its darkness and complicated character.

"If it's handled properly, Petit Syrah makes a big, big wine," he says. "I only know of a couple of other wineries in the world that are using Petit Syrah for port."

Oddly enough, when Reading first got into the winemaking business, he had not intended to make ports at all, in spite of having loved dessert wines for years. When he started out, Reading had the intention of releasing a Cabernet with chocolate essences, but after months of experimentation, when nothing seemed to be producing the kind of mouth feel and flavor Reading had in mind, an accident happened. On a whim, while enjoying a glass of port after a long day of testing wine and chocolate combinations, the winemaker with whom Reading was working decided to stir a few drops of chocolate essence into the port to see what would happen.

The result was Deco. It was a small run, but was well-received. Over the years, he's added more varieties, each one developed slowly and carefully to suit Reading's own demanding tastes.

In 2004, Reading crushed about six tons of grapes in the Petaluma production room, the same amount he plans to crush this year.

"For wineries like Kendall-Jackson, six tons is nothing," he says. "But for me, that's a goodly amount, and about all we can handle. At six tons, I'm bumping into everything back there. Our total production of all our after-dinner wines, including the grappa, is about 4,000 cases a year. We really can't do a lot more than that, and we really don't want to."Portworks' wines are marketed through distributors to restaurants and wine shops around the country. And, at Reading's suggestion, they are served in large glasses.

Sonoma Valley Portworks, 613 Second St., Petaluma. Open by appointment only, Monday–Friday. 707.769.5203. Kenwood tasting room, 9575 Sonoma Hwy., Kenwood. Open daily, 11am to 5pm. 707.833.6131. The small Kaz Winery in Kenwood, which boasts of only producing 1,000 cases a year, also produces the Bodega Bay Portworks, as part of its efforts. Kaz Winery, 233 Adobe Canyon Road, Kenwood. Tastings, Friday–Monday, 11am to 5pm. 707.833.2536. Prager Port Works in the Napa Valley has six varietals of dessert wines, among them a Petit Syrah and a 'Noble Companion' vintage. 1281 Lewelling Lane, St. Helena. Tastings by appointment. 707.963.7678.

From the July 27-August 2, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© 2005 Metro Publishing Inc.

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