Finder Keepers 

Importers: our guide to good taste.

There's a reason why today's kids, while abandoning the time-honored traditions of kick-the-can and tag, still migrate toward treasure hunts. Really fun video games abound with uncovering secret treasure hiding beneath five layers of passwords, slaying evil gargoyles along the way. Finding treasure has an addictive feeling of accomplishment.

Wine importers get this high every day in the grown-up world. Importers, individuals with unrelenting passions for wine, scour the earth to find the next great wine treasure, meeting in dusty cellars to uncover hidden greatness. Each wine they import bears their name on the label, so that with only one glance, you can be assured of a deliciously addictive drink.

Most importers specialize in one country and cover the regions with eager expertise. Kermit Lynch, a California importer and retailer who spends half the year in the south of France, reportedly tastes every wine he puts his name on. Then he negotiates with the small producers to allow him to represent their pride and joy in the United States. I discovered one of my favorite Bordeaux whites, Chateau Graville Lacoste, by eyeing Lynch's name on the label.

Enter Robert Kacher. Prolific and worshipped by wine snobs across the country, Kacher, obsessed with uncovering only the highest-quality French juice, finds these obscure little vineyards and creates a following with just 12 letters on the label. I have never tried a wine imported by Kacher that didn't completely rock. Even when you haven't heard of the region or the maker, and perhaps even the grape names, you can pop the cork of a Kacher-selected wine and be assured of a good time, usually at a good price.

Dan Philips, an enthusiast in his late 30s, traverses the expanses of Australia to import the best wines Down Under has to offer. In 1997, he formed a company called Grateful Palate, which now represents so many award-winning wines I can't keep up -- from Paringa to Trevor Jones to his own label, Marquis Philips. If you're looking for the juiciest, meatiest shiraz from Australia, write Grateful Palate on your hand, in your PDA, or in your planner, since you've found a reliable path to nirvana.

If Austria or German wine calls your name, seek out Terry Thiese. Wine Advocate succinctly said of him: "In a country where selling high-quality German is akin to swimming against the current, [Thiese] has done a remarkable job, making true believers out of many skeptics." He finds wines that have soul and only represents those that are craft-made, with the winemaker following production from grapes to bottle. He also imports champagne. Mmmm ...

Jorge Ordoñez has been importing Spanish wines since 1987, before they were cool. He works tirelessly to educate winemakers about updating old techniques that will improve their quality and thus make Spanish wines more competitive. Consequently, Ordoñez finds almost absurd bargains from the corners of this vast wine-producing country.

Recommended Wines

Due to small production, these wines will be difficult to find, but look for importer names on any label.

Domaine La Hitare 2003 Les Tours Gasgogne (France)

Unique flavors and unique grapes, like ugni blanc and gros manseng, from a relatively unknown region in France. Tastes like overripe grapes and has a zingy, fizzy thing that finishes with a rush of lemon. Amazing price. Kacher selection. $7.50.

Chateau Grande Cassagne 2003 Costieres de Nimes (France)

Bursts at you with strawberry, plums, and spicy white pepper. Elegant, sophisticated juice, and it's pink. Gasp! Kacher selection. $10.

Vega Sindoa 2002 Cabernet Tempranillo Navarra (Spain)

Chocolate, leather, dark cherry, and black pepper make you want to don an apron and use it for cooking. But don't -- savor it. Ordoñez selection. $14.


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