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From the land of Shiraz

Vintner Darioush Khaledi has built a palatial Napa winery that honors his Persian heritage and turns out top-shelf reds.

By CHRIS SHERMAN
Published August 24, 2005


NAPA VALLEY, Calif. - Against the soft browns and vineyard greens of this winemaking valley, the shining travertine temple of Darioush and its giant columns topped with two-headed bulls may seem wildly out of place.

Hardly.

In a valley lined with hillside Tuscan villas, haciendas, French chateaux and Rhineland castles, why shouldn't a winemaker build an imitation Persepolis, especially if he grew up just a few miles from the ancient royal ruins of Shiraz in modern Iran?

Indeed, Darioush's Persian palace of a winery might actually be more fitting than the other imported architecture here. Ancient Mesopotamia was the birthplace of winemaking thousands of years ago, a legacy known to most wine drinkers today only in the shiraz name on Australian labels.

And though you can't drink architecture, the wines made inside are rich, lush reds. In barely five years, they have become Napa royalty, commanding regular 90 point ratings and a sacrifice of $70 a bottle.

Oddly, owner Darioush Khaledi did not initially intend to build a monument to the fabled wine history of his native country. He was a civil engineer who fled Iran in 1976, leaving his construction business and settling in Southern California. Khaledi and a partner started a small grocery that grew into a chain, and eventually he was a wealthy businessman who loved great Bordeaux and dreamed of making his own.

And he was confirmed in his taste for French, not American, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and meritages. "Up to 15 years ago, my collection in my cellar was all Bordeaux," he says. That changed during an anniversary trip to Auberge du Soleil, the fabled inn on the ridge overlooking the valley, when he had a bottle of Caymus Special Select, 1984.

"I said, "Wow, this was a Napa wine?' "

The next day he met Caymus' Charlie Wagner, who has since died, and soon started looking for land in the prestigious stretch of dirt between Oak Knoll and Stag's Leap. About seven years ago, Khaledi acquired Altamura, a small but well-regarded winery, and began bringing his dream to life.

Altamura had produced good wine from that land, and Khaledi found the secret under the vineyard: just 3 feet of topsoil and the rest volcanic rock that the grape roots have to muscle through.

"That way there are fewer berries and they are smaller, which means they are more intense, for there is more skin," he says. "The taste comes from the skin and seed."

In addition, he applied high-cost care in all other aspects. Vineyards are manicured. Grapes are picked in small handbaskets; they are sorted twice, first by cluster, then by individual berry. The yeast is rare and costly, and aging is in new French barrels that are used only once. All are expensive practices.

"Everything has to be done right," Khaledi says. "It's like a golf swing, you must do everything right. If one link is wrong, it doesn't work."

Adding the Persian theme for the winery came from the designer hired to help find a name to replace Altamura. Looking through Khaledi's books, he became fascinated with Persia's wine history.

It was not news to Khaledi. His father had made wine at home when it was legal. "Before they made it illegal in 1979, there were 200 or 300 wineries in Iran," he remembers. "Now there are 300,000 or 400,000, but they're all underground."

Shiraz had been famous for its wine for centuries before merchants shipped it to European courts in the 1600s, in caravans loaded with what may have been the first glass wine bottles.

No one, including Khaledi, is certain if the grape now called syrah or shiraz is related to grapes of the old Persian vineyards. In the Rhone Valley, speculation has it that syrah grapes come from ancient Syracuse and Sicily via the Romans or Crusaders returning from the east.

The early Australian colonists may have borrowed the old Persian word from early English usage, perhaps of Shiraz for a rich, sticky port, which Aussies favored.

The name of this winery, however, is clear: Darioush is not so much Khaledi's first name as it is the name of Persia's most famous ruler, known in American textbooks as Darius. The king who built Persepolis and fought Alexander is commemorated on the label in an embossed portrait with a regal Babylonian beard.

Khaledi is proud that the winery testifies to both ancient heritage and fine modern wine, and he has happily included shiraz grapes, whatever their derivation, in his portfolio and given them top hillside sites.

Yet the grand, columned winery with its bright, contemporary interior and classical stone amphitheater has special appeal for him and fellow Iranian-Americans.

"We have a tasting room, and on weekends perhaps a good half of our visitors are Persians. They are so touched," he says. "So many of them, like me, have difficulties to go back. They take my hand and they say, "Thank you for bringing our home here.' "

He is quick to add an earnest toast to his adopted land with a "God bless America" for "this country which was so open to us."

With Darioush in the glass, it's quite a tribute.

-- Chris Sherman, who writes about food and wine for the St. Petersburg Times, is the author of "The Buzz on Wine" Lebhar-Friedman Books, $16.95. He can be reached at (727) 893-8585 or sherman@sptimes.com

[Last modified August 23, 2005, 18:32:02]


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