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LaZarre's star is rising

    The upstairs dining room of landmark Savannah restaurant Garibaldi’s was washed in warm, twinkling lights from its large chandeliers. The room buzzed with conversation, the sound of popping wine corks and the clinking of glasses.

It was going to be a good night for food and wine, a very good night indeed.

I quickly found and introduced myself to Adam LaZarre, the wine maker from Villa San Juliette. He was not who I expected. I expected someone older, milder, more in line with the two decades of wine– making experience I knew LaZarre possessed. And, after all, this was the mastermind behind Hahn Estates labels like Cycles Gladiator and ubiquitous Rex Goliath –– I expected someone more wizened.

LaZarre is far from that, he’s more wild than mild, more salty than reserved. Eight years in the Navy taught him to drink and swear –– skills he has mastered. He has also mastered the knack of crafting widely accessible and value–driven wines. His brashness and confidence uniquely qualify him to make wines for Paso Robles winery’s television executive owners.

Maybe you’ve heard of their little TV shows: American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance. Nigel Lythgoe and Ken Warwick arrived in a CBS chopper for their first meeting with LaZarre –– he had no idea who they were. But they knew LaZarre and his reputation.

The first wines from the new venture began to trickle into the marketplace last year. In January 2009, the wines had no sales and no distribution. Today, consumers in more than 30 states are sipping wines that taste like old friends.

LaZarre has landed in nirvana with perfect terroir and well–funded backers.

We began the meal with VSJ’s 2008 Sauvignon Blanc –– a boldly aromatic wine that blossomed with the fresh scent of honeydew melon, just cut grass and citrus. It drank equally complex –– with plenty of character on the mid–palate and a food–friendly clean, acidic finish. It is a satisfying mouthful of fruit and citrus.

As we swirled Merlot in our glasses, LaZarre explained that he considered making good Merlot a passion.

“Most Americans wouldn’t know good Merlot if it jumped up and bit them in the ass,” LaZarre said, in his decidedly direct fashion. “Most Merlot is grown where it’s too hot, or too cold –– this one is right on.”

And I agree. As one of the strongest pours of the night, VSJ Merlot smacked of black cherry cola and a host of cuisine–friendly characteristics. It has power, complexity and is imminently drinkable. I’ll stock up on this wine –– what a stunning, garnet–colored companion for my winter steak cookouts!

VSJ’s priciest bottle of the night –– at a value–packed $20 (give or take) –– was Chorum. While the wine is a nod to classic Meritage blends, this coming together celebrates the strength of VSJ’s Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes.

At 68 percent the former and 32 percent the latter, Chorum gets an oaky respite of 16 months surrounded by new and one–year–old French oak staves. It is smooth, elegant and luxurious. Dark, ripe fruit prevails and well–managed tannins make this wine one that drinks like a reserve grade juice at half the money.
Keep an eye on VSJ –– I suspect the best is yet to come.