New-world Rhone

Times Staff Writer

I figured I might be in trouble when I asked the winemaker what food she thought would best match the best wine in her portfolio, and she replied -- without hesitation -- "kangaroo filet."

Of course. Why hadn't I thought of that?

To be fair, Caroline Dunn, the 41-year-old senior winemaker at Annie's Lane Winery, is from Australia, as are her wines. But we were having lunch in West Hollywood, and although the restaurant -- Lucques -- has a fairly adventurous menu at times (including the best roast suckling pig I've ever had), there were no kangaroo filets (or kangaroo burgers or kangaroo chops) in sight.

Annie's Lane produced about 130,000 cases of wine this year, 9,000 of which have recently become available in the United States in what the winery calls its "official American launch." Dunn's visit to Los Angeles gave me an opportunity to taste her wines and to chat with her about her rapid climb to success.

Between bites of the cured salmon tartine that she settled for, Dunn was quick to pay tribute to Chris Hatcher, chief winemaker for Wolf Blass Wine Estates, a sister company of Annie's Lane, as someone who "really values what women winemakers can do."

And this winemaker can do quite well. Indeed, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed her 1999 Copper Trail Shiraz when I drank it alongside chef Suzanne Goin's grilled yellowtail with farro, black rice, rapini and salsa verde.

I was surprised for two reasons: (1) Although I like red wine with almost everything, including fish, Shiraz has always seemed too big, too robust and, when young, too tannic for fish, and (2) I am not generally as big a fan of Rhone varietals as I am of the reds made from Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo and Cabernet Sauvignon.

But tuna, though unlikely to be confused with a New York steak (or a kangaroo filet), is a strong, meaty fish, and with the salsa verde as a potent accompaniment, the dish stood up nicely to the Shiraz.

"The wine would also go well with lamb," Dunn assured me. "And with a red Thai curry."

Dunn's 2002 Riesling, which we drank to begin our lunch, would also go well with curry, or with most any spicy Asian dish.

Dunn's wines have fared well with American wine critics. The 2002 Riesling won a 91-point rating from Robert Parker and an 89 (and a "smart buy" rating) from the Wine Spectator. Parker also gave 90 points to her '99 Copper Trail Shiraz -- so named because the vineyard sits astride the trail formerly used to haul copper from the mines in the Clare Valley to the ships in the harbor below.

But as much as I enjoyed Dunn's wines -- well, five of the six we tasted, anyway -- I enjoyed her story even more. That's one of the great things about the world of food and wine. When people do something they're passionate about and are good at, they almost invariably have interesting stories to tell.

In Dunn's case, the story actually begins more than a century before her birth.

John Horrocks was a 19th century British explorer who became one of the earliest to plant grapevines in the Clare Valley of south Australia. Unfortunately, he is perhaps best known in Australia not for his vines, but for having been accidentally gunned down by his own camel. It seems that on Aug. 28, 1846, Horrocks was riding the camel when he spotted a bird and decided to shoot it. He dismounted to load his gun -- at which point the camel lurched suddenly to the side and the pack on its back caught the cocked hammer of Horrocks' gun, discharging it and blowing off parts of two of his fingers before entering his lower jaw and knocking out a row of teeth. He died a month later.

Today the Clare Valley that Horrocks pioneered is home to 34 wineries, including Annie's Lane, named for Annie Wayman, who drove a horse-drawn cart from one Clare Valley vineyard to another in the final decade of the 19th century, delivering lunches to grape pickers and other winery workers sweltering under the midday Aussie sun.

As Dunn told the story, Wayman's cart got stuck one day in a ditch alongside one of the vineyards, and the workers not only helped her pull the cart free, they decided to show their appreciation for Wayman by naming the narrow road she was traveling on "Annie's Lane."

Australian wineries often have evocative names -- Hazyblur, Hill of Content, Passing Clouds, Mad Fish, Kissing Bridge, Lost Wolf Vineyards -- why not Annie's Lane?

Born, like Horrocks, in England, Dunn grew up in Sydney, having come to Australia with her parents when she was 2.

"I had a passion for food from a young age," she said, "and I studied hotel and restaurant management in college." Not long after graduating, she went to work for the well-known Bathers Pavilion restaurant in Sydney Harbor. Her interest in wine grew quickly, but her fondness for restaurant work gradually declined.

"I didn't like management, and I didn't like the hours," she said. "After a while, I decided I liked eating in restaurants better than working in one."

She can still remember the exact day she quit -- "Jan. 31, 1991" -- and she also remembered that "two days later, I went to a wine-tasting and met a Hunter Valley winemaker. Harvest was about to start, and when I told him I wanted to know more about wine, he invited me to work in their vineyard for five days.

"I stayed six weeks and fell in love with the whole concept of winemaking. I said, 'This is it. This is what I want to do with my life.' "

Dunn studied oenology at the University of Adelaide, and when she graduated, she won all the top winemaking awards given to her class. Having worked her way up to assistant winemaker at Chapel Hill Winery while still in college, Dunn stayed there for a year after graduation, then went to Annie's Lane.

She has continued her award-winning ways since leaving college, sharing in the highly regarded Jimmy Watson trophy for the Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon made by Wolf Blass and -- on her own -- winning the Len Evans Dux award, named for Len Evans, one of the biggest names in the Aussie wine world.

Dunn's Shiraz retails for $32, the Riesling -- which comes with a screw cap -- for just $14. She has four other wines in current release, and all are reasonably priced -- which helps explain the growing popularity of Australian wine in the U.S., where Aussie imports have grown more than a hundredfold in the past decade and now top $200 million a year in sales.

The Annie's Lane 2002 Chardonnay, the 2001 Cabernet-Merlot blend and the regular bottling of the 2001 Shiraz are each $13; the '99 Copper Trail Shiraz -- actually a blend of Shiraz, Grenache and Mourvedre -- is $21. Dunn seemed especially fond of the latter wine.

"I think the Shiraz gives it weight, the Grenache provides the flesh and the Mourvedre the spice," she said.

The only one of the six wines we tasted at lunch I didn't particularly like was the Cabernet-Merlot, which I thought exhibited a distinctly vegetal finish. Given Dunn's fondness for the Rhone varietals, perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised that it was the lone non-Rhone red that disappointed.

Dunn so loves Rhone-style wines -- and so wants to learn more about them to improve her own skills -- that her idea of a vacation a couple of years ago was to go to the Rhone and work during the harvest in the vineyards and winery run by Max Chapoutier, whose red and white Hermitages are among the best and most traditionally made in France.

She enjoyed that opportunity enormously -- even though she found no kangaroo filets at chez Chapoutier.

David Shaw can be reached at

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