Local wine distributor Constantine "Gus" Kalaris could very well be one of the nicest people in the wine business. He routinely prefers a bear hug to a handshake, and his broad smile and deep laugh are genuinely infectious. We met about a decade ago at the release party of the first vintage of his flagship wine, Axios. I had a hunch back then that Gus would one day be a big deal in the wine world. I was right.
Kalaris fell in love with wine while doing a stint as a maitre d' in a Virginia restaurant, then later expanded his knowledge of the business side of wine while working with a wholesaler. He quickly developed a reputation for finding great wines throughout a wide range of price points.
In 1986, Gus took the plunge and founded Constantine Wines, a local distributor that represents notable high-end wines as well as many popular, affordable brands. But just selling wines was not enough. So in 1998, Gus founded Axios (Greek for "worthy"), a concept based on two principles: making the kind of wines that Gus likes to enjoy with friends over a meal, and making wines that he can be proud to offer his clients. Kalaris tapped longtime winemaking consultant Bob Egelhoff to partner with on the project. They have a shared vision of producing top-flight wines from quality grapes with minimal intervention.
Recently, Kalaris and I got together with a group of friends to taste through his portfolio. Even though his wines are a huge success, his biggest passion remains his family, including his wife, Lynne, and their two children -- who have a few wines named in their honor. Retail prices are approximate.
The 2011 Worthy Five Clone Sauvignon Blanc ($23), from Napa Valley, is like drinking summer in a glass. Scents of grapefruit and orange blossom burst through on the fragrant bouquet. The slightly creamy body carries flavors of tropical fruit and nectarine throughout the palate and onto the nicely balanced finish, ending with a pop of refreshing lemon/line citrus. QPR 9
In wine there is truth, and in the 2010 Truth ($25) there is really good wine, produced using the five classic bordeaux varietals. It is a very pretty, well-balanced red blend with delicious notes of dark berry fruit and sweet tannins. The medium-bodied finish highlights notes of cocoa and plum. QPR 8.5
Named after Gus and Lynn's daughter, the 2008 Worthy Sophia's Cuvee Red Wine Blend ($30), from Napa Valley, is built around the cabernet sauvignon -- about 60 percent -- that doesn't make it into Axios. Cabernet franc, merlot, petit verdot and malbec are added to produce a gorgeous wine with rich, deep flavors of black plum, cassis and blackberry jam. The finish is long and complex with layers of cocoa, dark berry and vanilla that persist for more than a minute. This is a big, luscious wine, worth twice the price. QPR 10
In 2012, Gus launched the Kalaris brand to introduce an artisan approach to making wines with minimal intervention. The 2011 Kalaris Chardonnay ($50), from Napa Valley, is simply delicious. Aged in 100 percent new French oak, the lush flavors of apple, pear, white peach and creamy buttered toast glide across the tongue on the way to a beautifully balanced finish. Bright acidity adds a refreshing crispness and keeps the wine focused. QPR 9.5
Kalaris and Egelhoff also make a beautiful pinot noir from fruit grown in the southernmost region of the Sonoma Coast. The 2010 Kalaris Pinot Noir ($55) is a ripe, succulent pinot with flavors of dark plum, chewy cherry and black raspberry that feel both delicate and powerful at the same time on the tongue. The finish is lovely and structured, featuring a hint of wild strawberry on the back of the tongue. QPR 9
Gus' flagship wine is the 2007 Axios Cabernet Sauvignon ($125), from Napa Valley. Vanilla, blackberry and tobacco scents dominate the nose. Blackberry liqueur, dark cassis, black plums and dark chocolate flavors are supported by firm tannins on a balanced frame. The powerful, uberlong finish features notes of blackberry fruit, vanilla and a hint of roasted coffee. QPR 9
Note: QPR is a rating system that compares the quality a wine delivers relative to the price. A QPR of 10 is considered an excellent value.