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Port Just Works

by Robert Farmer

I read somewhere once that it's standard to bring a bottle of wine to dinner at a friend's house. But it's sophisticated to bring a bottle of port. I have to admit I don't always adhere to the maxim (the sophisticated part, I mean). Though on the occasions I have brought a bottle of port to dinner, I've noticed my bottle almost always gets opened that same night. The same cannot be said about the standard bottle of wine - can't tell you how many times I've handed off the usually-very-nice bottle of wine only to see the host glance at it, say thanks, and put it somewhere on the kitchen counter among the flotsam and jetsam attendant with preparing a dinner party. That bottle is destined for the host's personal cellar. Which is fine, of course. But in the case of port, you get to be the hero right away.

So bear that in mind the next time you're in St. Helena. And make a stop at Prager Winery & Port Works (1281 Lewelling Lane; 800-969-7678; www.pragerport.com ) where, from grapes grown on a half-acre of estate vineyards, they're making fabulous ports from the traditional Portuguese varietal, Touriga. (Prager also tends an additional 10 acres at Imogene's Vineyard in Calistoga, planted with Petite Syrah and five Portuguese varietals, as well as an additional leased five acres of local Petite Syrah). At the humble and unassuming family-operated winery, port takes center stage-one of the few places in the region with such an emphasis. It's also one of the few places in the region with such a quirky disposition. Visiting the Prager Port Works is a bit of a unique experience-which is saying a lot in Wine Country. I mean, there's a window that looks like something right out of a classic horror film. The Web Window, it is claimed, is home to generations worth of spiders, who have spun their webs in thick redundancy across age-old bottles and a sill that is barely visible. On another side of the tasting room is the Money Wall, papered with currency from around the world, placed there by guests from the same.

The funky eclecticism is part of what makes Prager and its wines so special. The aesthetic can be tasted. In addition to its wines, Prager makes such products as port vinegar and insanely rich and flavorful chocolates-the latter happens to pair perfectly with their wines. Producing just 3,600 cases a year, Prager is able to control the inimitable characteristics that make a good port. This includes harvesting grapes at the peak of balance among sugar and acid (for port, a little more acid). Their methodology results in port that tends to be less sweet than what many people are used to. It imparts brighter fruit and allows the appellations to truly shine. Then, Prager likes to mix it up a little as well-witness Aria, a white Port made from Chardonnay grapes (named for a Prager granddaughter), and Alyssa, a dry white port made from Sauvignon Blanc. I have to admit that these were my first real experience with white ports, and I wasn't quite sure what to expect. But I am very impressed with their robust flavor, sturdiness, and long beautiful finish. These whites can stand proudly alongside their more traditional counterparts, the Royal Escort Vintage Port and the aptly named Noble Companion Tawny.

Just to be sure I stay ahead of the sophistication curve when it comes to dinner parties, next time I show up with a bottle of port, it'll be white. That should keep the conversation going.