Malbec, the red grape that is seldom invited to party with Cab and Merlot in Bordeaux, and then only as a 2 percent wallflower, is king of the dance floor in Argentina. Recently, I took a gander at the signature wine of down under and over ("The Malbec Diaries," May 7), and found it cheap and plentiful but darn hard to get a taste of. Also, quite far away. Here at home, an adventuresome shopper with a piqued palate will find that imported Malbecs are priced upwards of $7.99—and who wants to take a chance with money like that? If we could only just pop down the road, and as though through a looking glass, enter a bucolic valley where dramatic mountains tower over cattle grazing on green pastures, and find a hearty Malbec at every winery.
I'm telling you there is such a place.
Bienvenidos a la Vallee de la Luna. Malbec has a small toehold in the area between Glen Ellen and Kenwood, where at minimum five wineries, conveniently lined up along one stretch of Highway 12, make it. The only problem with making a little expeditionary survey of Malbec here is that there isn't nearly enough of it.
Mayo Family Winery's Reserve Malbec is so popular it's sold-out until the next release in October. Ditto for Arrowood Winery, whose 150 case-lot of 2005 Malbec will mainly ship out to its wine club. At Chateau St. Jean Winery, eschew the crowded tasting room and gift shop, walk briskly through the manicured gardens, stride confidently into the sumptuous wood-paneled Reserve Room, and ask straightaway for the Malbec. Staff may be bemused, but accommodating.
The 2004 Sonoma County Reserve Malbec ($60) is a pleasing example, supple and well-rounded, like a better Merlot with bright cherry, plum and spice, but with characteristic Malbec undertones of Red Vines and rubber. Three hundred cases of St. Jean Estate Vineyard Malbec ($50) come from the volcanic hills just above the winery. They call it more "Argentinean" in style, and, lo, it's sold-out.
On the valley floor, St. Francis Winery & Vineyards is also getting into the game with a new estate planting. Its McCoy Vineyard Malbec—a rich and warm wine, if not varietally typical—is sourced from the Mayacamas, and is crazy limited. Even at a single vineyard tasting for the industry, it was only brought out from under the table slyly, like contraband absinthe. Blackstone Winery's 2003 Lake County Malbec ($25) has changed in price and flavor in half a year. At first taste, I noted that its chemical bouquet of "industrial cherry fruit" was enticing; now that's more like a squirt of chocolate essence in port, with acidic, intense red berries accenting a lush, balanced palate with a lingering finish.
More prevalent than a novelty, Valley of the Moon Malbec is almost a trend. Winemakers here have done their homework with this heretofore novelty grape, and they seem to have got it right. Is it true to the Argentine? Muchos veces, creo que mas mejor.
Mayo Family Reserve Room, 9200 Sonoma Hwy., Kenwood. 707.933.5504. Open daily, 10:30am to 6:30pm. Arrowood Winery, 14347 Sonoma Hw., Glen Ellen. Open daily, 10am to 4:30pm. 800.938.5170. Chateau St. Jean, 8555 Sonoma Hwy., Kenwood. Open daily, 10am to 5pm. 707.833.4134. St. Francis Winery & Vineyards, 100 Pythian Road, Santa Rosa. Open daily, 10am to 5pm. 888.675.9463. Blackstone Winery, 8450 Sonoma Hwy., Kenwood. Open daily, 10am to 4:30pm. 707.833.1999.