Food & Drink

Skip the julep; raise a glass of wine to toast the Derby

I've crusaded for years to convince sports fans that wines are more appropriate for Super Bowl sipping than the wimpy light beers in the TV ads.

Now I come forth to declare that wine is also more appropriate than mint juleps for the Kentucky Derby, which is Saturday.

Kentuckians are buying the idea. This year, the official wine sponsor of the Taste of Derby food and beverage bash a couple of days before the Derby is a Washington State winery called 14 Hands.

Why 14 Hands? A horse's height is measured in hands just as a person's is in feet. In ancient times, traders measured a horse by stacking fists up to its withers, the area just behind its neck. A "hand" is about four inches.

As you'll see in the tasting notes below, horses and wine have a natural affinity. There are wines named for mustangs, wild horses, iron horses, even flying horses.

14 Hands Winery is inspired by that idea. It's named for the diminutive wild mustangs that roamed the area now called Horse Heaven Hills in southern Washington, grazing on its vast grasslands, galloping down to the mighty Columbia River to drink.

At 14 hands, they were only 4 feet 9 inches tall, but they were revered for their unbridled spirit.

Wild Horse Winery, near Paso Robles on California's Central Coast, is named for its own herds of wild mustangs that populated the grasslands nearby to the east.

Iron Horse Winery, in California's Sonoma, is named for the train that topped at the winery's future site in the early 1900s.

Clos Pegase, in California's Napa Valley, is named for Pegasus, the winged horse of Greek mythology, on which mortals hoped they could fly up to heaven. Winery owner Jan Shrem, who made a fortune in art publishing, has a painting of Pegasus by well-known artist Odilon Redon on the labels of his wines.

So as you cheer for your favorite on Derby Day, you can add a few snacks (maybe roast beef with horseradish sauce, if that's not pushing the idea too far) and turn the event into a wine tasting. Save the Iron Horse bubbly to toast the winner.

Highly recommended:

■ 2010 14 Hands cabernet sauvignon, Columbia Valley, Wash.: powerful black cherry and black coffee flavors, medium body, smooth, long finish; $12.

■ 2006 Iron Horse Classic vintage brut sparkling wine, Sonoma: pinpoint bubbles, hint of yeast, flavors of green apples and citrus; $34.

■ 2008 Pegasus "Mitsuko's Vineyard" pinot noir, Carneros, Napa Valley: spicy black plum and mocha flavors, rich and silky, long finish; $35.

Recommended:

■ 2009 Wild Horse chardonnay, Central Coast: rich and crisp, with flavors of green pineapples and citrus; $18.

■ 2009 14 Hands merlot, Washington State: hint of oak, soft and smooth black plum flavors, ripe tannins $12.

■ 2010 14 Hands "Hot to Trot" red blend, Columbia Valley, Wash. (merlot, syrah, cabernet sauvignon, mourvedre): soft and round, with red plum and milk chocolate flavors; $12.

■ 2010 14 Hands "Hot to Trot" white blend, Washington state (chardonnay, viognier and pinot gris): crisp and sprightly, with flavors of ripe apricots and melons; $12.

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