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Published: Tuesday, 6/5/2001

Washington's Hyatt Vineyards merlot is a bargain

If you've browsed your favorite wine shop lately, you've almost certainly noticed the very forward Hyatt Vineyards labels on a series of Washington State wines.

But once you've tried the wines, more than the label design will get your attention. Recently, I've sampled the Hyatt '97 merlot, the winery's flagship varietal, and it's plain that 15 months in small barrels gave this wine more structure and smooth palate-teasing flavor than you might expect from merlots selling for considerably more than its $11 suggested price.

Besides this merlot and the wines I called to your attention recently - a distinctive cabernet sauvignon and two attractive whites, a yummy fume blanc and a chardonnay - Hyatt has sent our way a riesling rather sharper than I like, and a '99 black muscat that puts me in mind of a cough medicine. As the winery notes, it is a dark rose. As advertised, it has a whiff of strawberry in the bouquet. It doesn't promise to go with any foods I can think of. Both the riesling and black muscat are $8.

Calling it a soiree, Matthew Weston recently served an elegant dinner to showcase a selection of elegant Bettinelli wines. As an added attraction he was host to the charming Veronica Bettinelli Barclay, who came to speak about the wines and the winery. Viognier ($22) was a magic partner to a seafood tart coupled with a compote of roasted fennel and crisp pancetta. An easy-drinking cabernet sauvignon ($26) without sharp edges complemented a cassarecia ragout. And a reserve merlot, the Bettinelli signature wine ($30), was superb with the lamb entree.

Bettinelli, a model boutique, is on the verge of building in Lake County, which lies like a lazy cat's tail across the upper end of both Napa and Sonoma counties.

Grape juice or water, is that your only choice? No, thanks to J.C. Meier Juice Co., sort of stepsister to Firelands and Mon Ami wines. In bottles that look somewhat like sparkling wines, with foil capsules wrapped around resealable caps, Meier gives customers a 12-flavor choice of nonalcoholic, lightly sparkling fruit juices, ranging from catawba to cold duck to cinnamon apple. Look for them in the supermarket, at $2.99.

For $29.95 your favorite book store can order for you Wine Heritage by Dick Rosano, recently published by California's Wine Appreciation Guild. Check the subtitle: The Story of Italian-American Vintners. The subtitle matters, for the book is about the prominent role Italian immigrants and their progeny have played in the American wine industry since the middle of the 19th century. It's not really about wine, except for a somewhat disorganized meandering through the past. The section of the book that follows lists several Italian-American wineries - but not all; my friends the Bettinellis, for example, don't rate a nod. Though it's not of cocktail-table dimensions, it's hard to imagine why else you might want a copy.

Robert Kirtland is The Blade's wine critic.

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