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California wine gets an international lift Add to ...

California winemakers are breaking out the party hats. Exports are booming. Foreign shipments rebounded to a record $1.14-billion (U.S.) in 2010, up 25.6 per cent from 2009. Numbers like that no doubt made Arnold Schwarzenegger's day - until the Terminator's day - and more critically, his wife, Maria Shriver's - imploded after news he fathered a love child with a member of their household staff. The governor had been a big grape crusader, appearing in TV ads while enjoying a glass with Ms. Shriver as well as promoting wine on trade missions, which included an appearance at a Toronto liquor store in 2007. Credit for the surge also goes to the economic recovery and, not least, favourable currency exchange rates that make the wine more affordable in key markets, such as Canada, which accounts for about a quarter of foreign sales.

It's a cause for celebration, yes, but what strikes me about the export total is not how large it is but how small. Australia, a much smaller producer, ships away almost twice as much wine in dollar terms as the United States. New Zealand, a relative pipsqueak in terms of overall production, also has been aggressive in foreign markets, exporting about $800-million (U.S.) worth of wine, almost as much as California.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. The so-called Judgement of Paris, a blind tasting against France in which California producers took top honours in both the red and white categories, vaulted California onto the global stage in 1976. American wine seemed poised to conquer the world. Today it's sparring in a crowded market that includes not just Australia and New Zealand but also Chile and Argentina - countries that were not even in its rear-view mirror in 1976.

Paradoxically, what turned California into an export turtle was the factor that made it so successful at home: a vast and affluent domestic market. For decades, California simply didn't need Johnny Canuck or Toshiko from Tokyo. It was doing fine selling Hearty Burgundy and Caymus Cabernet to Billy Bob from Boise.

How that's changed. The domestic market, though still growing, has become too limiting for California's ambition. Napa, Sonoma, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz, coming off a crippling recession for luxury wines, need us now. And they've enlisted their governator to do the bidding. That's the subtext of the state's current marketing push in Canada, which includes a big release today in Ontario Vintages stores, highlights of which follow. California winemakers? Don't call them global girlie men any more.

Atlas Peak Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 (California)

SCORE: 94 PRICE: $94.95

Owned by famed Tuscan producer Piero Antinori, Atlas Peak produces well-structured wines designed to age gracefully rather than to offer immediate accessibility. This one's got tannins of testosterone. Expect intense flavours of cassis, earth and smoke, too. Cellar it for 6 to 12 years if you can, or decant it and serve it with medium-rare beef or lamb.

Ridge Lytton Springs 2008 (California)

SCORE: 94 PRICE: $43.95

A classic red blend from a leading zinfandel producer, this combines jammy zinfandel with tannic petite sirah and carignan. The result is a wine with intense berry-like fruit and firm structure. I love the spice and mineral-accented edge. Pair it with barbecued ribs or seared duck breast or cellar it for up to seven more years.

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Artemis Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 (California)

SCORE: 92 PRICE: $49.95

Founded by the great Warren Winiarski, who took home the top red prize in the 1976 Judgement of Paris against some of France's finest, this red is built for the long haul. Astringent with tannins, it has a dense core of dark fruit and chocolate dusted with minty herbs and dirt. Give it eight to 10 years in the cellar if you can, or decant it now and pour it with medium-rare beef or lamb.

Newton Unfiltered Chardonnay 2007 (California)

SCORE: 91 PRICE: $64.95

Founded 30 years ago, Newton Vineyard was one of my first Napa Valley epiphanies. The chardonnay remains a benchmark, and this 2007 delivers - at a price as steep as the winery's Spring Mountain slopes. Rich and silky, it gently releases flavours of pineapple, butter, toast and fig, all answered by fresh acidity. Pair it with lobster.

Kenneth Volk Santa Maria Cuvée Chardonnay 2007 (California)

SCORE: 91 PRICE: $19.95

If you're familiar with a popular and expensive California white called Landmark Overlook, you'll notice a similarity here and appreciate the "bargain" price. Tropical fruit, hazelnut and vanilla caress the palate, yet it's crisp and lively on the finish. It's another good white for lobster.

Eberle Vineyard Selection Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 (California)

SCORE: 90 PRICE: $23.95

A value producer by premium-California standards, Eberle, in the central region of Paso Robles, does a fine job with this cabernet. Full-bodied and juicy, with black-fruit flavours, it has a chewy, wine-gum essence with notes of cocoa and spice. It would pair well with steak or lamb.

Stanza Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 (California)

SCORE: 88 PRICE: $16.95

Crowd-pleasing flavours of cherry and chocolate are carried on a succulent, velvety frame. Firm, dry tannins give it backbone. Good value. Pair it with steak.

Westside Red Troublemaker Blend 1 (California)

SCORE: 86 PRICE: $19.95

A Rhone-style red made from of syrah, mourvedre and grenache, Blend 1 hails from Paso Robles, roughly mid-way between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The region specializes in intensely ripe wines and this doesn't stray far from home. Thick and fruity, it teeters a tad too far into raisin-land for my liking, but I suspect many would admire its fleshy texture. Sweet barbecued ribs are called for.

J. Lohr South Ridge Syrah 2009 (California)

SCORE: 84 PRICE: $18.95

J. Lohr has many fans in Canada, especially for its creamy cabernet sauvignons. This syrah is a bit stalky and green and lacking in concentration for my taste. It's a red that might pair well with braised lamb shank, though.

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