Sips: From California, Donelan's Kobler Vineyard Syrah

I've been thinking a lot in recent weeks about a growing trend in California winemaking -- a return to more modest and elegant wines that still have great fruit concentration but with lower levels of alcohol. Some of this has to do with weather conditions, some with vineyard location and some with a winemaker's decision on when to harvest grapes (the longer they hang the higher the sugar and resulting alcohol levels).

You may have read about an excellent Dry Creek Valley zinfandel from Dashe Cellars that I reviewed in my column on NBCNews.com. Its alcohol is a modest 13.7 percent. Another superb wine in this more modest style comes from Donelan Family Wines in Sonoma, which produces a line of vineyard designated wines, mostly syrahs, but also a pinot noir, a chardonnay and a rousanne-viognier blend.

One of Donelan's syrahs, the 2010 Kobler Family Vineyard Syrah from the Green Valley of the Russian River Valley, is among the  most beautiful California syrahs I have tasted, a wine of retrained elegance, wonderful balance and gorgeous fruit. And here's the kicker: the alcohol level is a mere 12.8 percent, a function, to some extent, of the cool 2010 vintage.

What does this mean in terms of what you'll experience in the glass? This is a wine that is at once complex and effortless to drink, a wine that easily invites you to take another sip, to pour the next small glass. Sip again and repeat. Aged for two years in French oak, none of it new, the wine is plummy with raspberry and blackberry notes. There's some spice here as well, along with cinnamon and touches of licorice and white pepper.

The wine reminds me more of the northern Rhone than California, but is, hopefully, another sign of a broadening return to leaner times in California winemaking. The suggested price is $45. Recieved as a press sample.


Swirls: A wine to support equality for gay Americans

These days, making wine is often about creating a concept, for better or worse. The store shelves are loaded with bottles depicting everything from animals to cars and trucks to those that donate part of their sales to research on various diseases. And now, a new concept -- a wine billed by its promoters as "the first wine created in support of equality for gay Americans."

It's called Égalité, and it comes to us from Biagio Cru & Estate Wines, an importer based in Rosyln, N.Y., that says it will donate part of the proceeds to organizations that promote quality for gay Americans.

Égalité is a sparkling wine, a Crémant de Bourgogne from France with a suggested price of $24. A press release says that it's the product of "exhaustive research by Biago Cru as well as input from the gay community." A focus group helped develop the name and label.

Part of the strategy, not surprisingly, is to capitalize on moves by an increasing number of states to  legalize same-sex marriage, and Biagio Cru calls its wine "the perfect touch for weddings, engagements, anniversaries, galas, and all celebrations." And it hopes, of course, that the wine will have broad appeal beyond the gay community.