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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, December 20, 2006

RAISE A GLASS
Animal-themed wines reveal inspiring, romantic stories

 •  Saying mahalo with a Christmas feast

By Lisa Gmur

Avignonesi il Desiderio features a bull on its label because, as the story goes, a bull named Desiderio once helped re-populate a breed.

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I was quite young when my father first introduced me to Camille Saint-Saens' "Carnival of the Animals." I was so enamored by this breathtaking symphony that he actually bought me my own album to play on the record player in my room. But it was on his reel-to-reel tape recorder that I first heard this very interesting and absorbing symphony. Saint-Saens' "Carnival of the Animals" is a set of 14 character pieces, each of which is meant to describe a particular animal, usually by mimicking the sounds it makes or characterizing the way it moves or carries itself. "Royal March of the Lion," "Hens and Cocks" and "Wild Asses" are a few of the more intriguing titles, but "Kangaroos" and "The Swan" are just as inviting. And how often can you hear the hulking sounds of an elephant in a Berlioz waltz?

Years later, this amazing symphony inspired me to create a wine tasting of the same name at Paul & Terry's Place in the Chinese Cultural Plaza. Shortly after, I turned the "Carnival of the Animals" into a wine feature at Nick's Fishmarket. More tastings and features followed, and keeping the theme fresh required a bit of research. Yes, there are the obvious animal-name wines such as Radog, Duck Pond, Rock Rabbit, Iron Horse and Bear Boat. And then there are the not-so-obvious names that take a little digging. A few of my favorite discoveries unearthed engaging, romantic and inspiring stories.

The d'Arenberg "Footbolt" Shiraz is an endearing story that goes back a few years. In fact, we have to go back to d'Arry's grandfather, Joseph Rowe Osborn. Born in 1852, he was a colorful character with a multitude of talents a lay preacher, mining speculator, public servant, teetotaler and local politician. Although not a drinker, Joe joined the Thomas Hardy & Sons wine company in 1881, eventually becoming a partner and director.

Joe was an enthusiastic patron of the turf and became a well-respected racing identity under the nom de plume of Mr. J. Rowen. "Footbolt" was a chestnut colt foaled in 1898 and bought for 400 guineas, a sum quickly recouped after only six races. These and other wins enabled Joe to purchase the already-established Milton Vineyards for his son, Frank, in 1912. This wine is still made from some of the grapes from the vines purchased by Joe Osborn almost a century ago. The wine retails for about $15 to $18.

Another favorite is the Harrison Zebra Zinfandel, which revealed a wonderful romantic story.

Lyndsey and Michael Harrison met while she was a flight attendant for Pan Am and he was an international businessman. They went on safari in Africa for their honeymoon and discovered they both shared a love for zebras and zebralike mythological animals, such as unicorns. After a period of living in New York, they decided they wanted to find a place in the country. Country in this case almost turned out to be Tuscany, but instead, they fell in love with a 48-acre ranch high above the Napa Valley floor.

In 1988, the land they purchased was planted with 17 acres of mature cabernet and chardonnay vines, though Michael and Lyndsey had no intention of becoming vintners. Prior owners of the property sold the fruit to neighboring wineries, and the Harrisons were happy with that arrangement. But their friends thought they should be making their own wine because the grapes were of exceptionally high quality.

Without much hesitation and with a great deal of help from their friends and neighbors, the Harrisons made an experimental barrel each of cabernet and chardonnay. The first Harrison Vineyards wines became a reality in 1989. All of the Harrison wines had black and white striped animals on the labels. This winery was recently bought by Pat Roney, owner of Girard Winery, after Michael Harrison died and his widow moved back to New Zealand.

My personal favorite tale is of Avignonesi il Desiderio. Italians have a special steak called bistecca fiorentina. The dish, made famous in the province of Tuscany, is made with steaks from a certain breed of bull. During the late 1800s, this bull was nearly extinct. But a bull by the name of Desiderio came to the rescue, and from 1885 until 1889, Desiderio was able to help re-populate the breed, thus preventing it from becoming extinct.

Desidiero wine is a huge, full-bodied merlot with a little bit of cabernet that has "stud bull" written all over it. The wine recently received 94 points from Wine Spectator and can be found at retailers and restaurants around town, including Michel's, 12th Avenue Grill, Ruth's Chris Steak House, Baci Bistro, Tamura's and Fujioka's. The wine is highly allocated and not cheap. Expect to pay more than $40 a bottle retail and $80 to $100 in restaurants.

Lisa Gmur is a fine-wine specialist for Waipahu-based Grand Crew Wine Merchants and teaches bimonthly wine seminars at HASR Wine Co.; 535-9463. Raise a Glass, written by a rotating panel of drink experts, appears here every other week.