Vines you can cling to 

Three wineries that give me hope

As I age, my cynicism ripens. So many wines smack of sugared-up, watered-down grape juice with no soul, and I wistfully yearn for those tasting of love, care and skilled craftsmanship. Occasionally, out of the morass emerges a ray of vinous hope ... I doubted it was still possible, but a few devoted wineries have surfaced with an ability to inspire, making wine worthy of your dollar and heart.

Clayhouse Wines

Founded in 2003, Clayhouse is a boutique winery located in California's Paso Robles wine region. The owners, the Middleton family, made their money in Washington State lumber and expanded to the grape business in the 1980s. Since 1990, they've owned a gigantic 1700-acre estate in Paso called Red Cedar but make only a minuscule amount of wine, selling the remaining fruit to other wineries. Twenty different grapes, from petite sirah to sauvignon blanc, call the vineyard home, making it a playground for Clayhouse winemaker David Frick. He produces better reds than whites, but his tasty talent shows in the smooth, fruit-forward offerings that have a certain je ne sais quoi of well-made, cherished wines. All that for $25 and under -- even better.

Layer Cake

Winemaking trailblazer and, some say, exuberant troublemaker Jayson Woodbridge is the energy behind Layer Cake, an innovative, "pure love" wine concept. He's also the young father of a $150 cult cabernet called One Hundred Acres, guzzled by the rich and famous. But his relatively new label, Layer Cake, aims at normal folk. Grabbing grapes from the best areas of the world for wine, he invents his own unique version for the American palate. A primitivo (aka zinfandel) from Italy's Puglia region, a Rhône blend from France and a malbec from Argentina reflect the concept his grandfather inspired: "My old grandfather told me the soil in which the vines lived [was] a layer cake. If properly made, the wine from these vines was like a delicious cake layered with fruit, mocha and chocolate... never pass up a good Layer Cake." Indeed, all of Woodbridge's wines possess a rich, powerful, highly fruited depth. Try 'em and you might crave a glass of milk.

Vision Cellars

Far from a newbie to the wine world, Mac MacDonald blows a refreshing waft of down-home appeal up wine's snoot. A humble and jovial son of a bootlegger who grew up in the backwoods of Texas, Mac still wears coveralls -- quite proudly, I might add. He's one of the only African-American winemakers -- if not the only -- in California, but none of that concerns him or his craft. He specializes in making elegant, subtle pinot noirs and sources his fruit from all over the state to showcase what the grape can do. And do it does. Despite the acclaim by echelons like the White House, Mac's ego remains untouched by all the glamour; he's kept in check by his incredibly cool wife Lil, who publicly chastises him if he gets mouthy. Together, they're an unassailable combo, their passion clearly proven with their pinots. Bravo.

wine recommendations

Clayhouse 2005 Petite Sirah Paso Robles Gutsy and rich with a fruity edge of red cherry, tart cranberry and luscious bittersweet chocolate. Drinks like a meal in the mouth. Sw = 2. $25. 4 stars. Also look for their 2005 Adobe Red.

Estancia 2007 Pinot Grigio California Recession Buster! Crisp and poolside drinkable. Smacks of pears and green apples in light vanilla syrup but also has a bright, lemony finish. Sw = 3. $12. 3.5 stars.

Vision Cellars 2006 Pinot Noir Gary's Vineyard Santa Lucia Highlands Whoa! Unbelievable wine. Elegant and feminine, seductive and flirty, bright raspberry and fresh wild blueberries. Soft tannins and a firm acidic backbone. Beautiful but dangerously addictive. Sw = 1. $50. 5 stars. Also look for the 2006 Sonoma County Pinot Noir.

Sweetness (Sw) rating is out of 10, 10 being pure sugar. 1 (star) rating is out of 5, 5 being wine nirvana.

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