In his student days, zoology major Fran Kysela spent about two years deeply involved in the study of hog parasites. Then he decided to switch from swine to wine.
It's hard to say whether that was good news for pigs or their parasites, but it has certainly worked out for wine consumers.
Five years ago, after almost two decades in the wine trade, Kysela decided to launch his own importing business in Winchester, Va. He named it Kysela Pere & Fils in the hope that his son, 5, would eventually follow him into the business.
Over that time, Kysela has emerged as one of the nation's most reliable importers of wine from Europe - especially from France, Spain, Italy and Portugal. His wines are widely available at better wine stores in Maryland.
Kysela's hand-picked selections show he is a strong believer in wines that emphasize pure fruit rather than obvious oak, and he does not forget the needs of the consumer with a refined palate but modest means.
"I like wines that give lift and are bright - that make you want to have a second, third, fourth glass because of the equilibrium in the balance," Kysela says.
Spanish wine is one of Kysela's strongest specialties.
Budget-minded consumers should seek out wines such as the 1997 Vina Borgia from Campo de Borja, $9 for 1.5 liters of meaty, fruity red wine with fine grip and length. Complex? No. But it's an eminently satisfying, light- to medium-bodied red to serve with hamburger or pizza.
A similarly appealing red wine is the 1997 Figaro ($8), also from Campo de Borja. Slightly more complex, its rough-and-ready fruit favors are joined by nuances of smoked meat, spices and pine. Drink it young to enjoy its rambunctious charm.
A similarly fine value is the 1996 Sierra Cantabria Rioja ($7), which delivers generous flavors of black cherry and cedar, complemented by notes of chocolate and black currant.
Spain is not known for fine white wine, but Kysela has managed to unearth winners in the 1997 Martin Codax Albarino from Rias Baixas ($15) and the 1997 Vega Sindoa Barrel-fermented Chardonnay from Navarra ($10).
The Codax, made from the native albarino grape, is a crisp, clean, elegant wine with hints of nuts and minerals among its fresh and well-delineated flavors. It has a style all its own, but it might remind some consumers of a fine white Bordeaux.
The chardonnay is a good, medium-bodied example of a well-balanced, international style. There's none of the strangeness that so often pops out in Spanish chardonnay.
For those who are willing to stash a promising wine away for a decade or so, Kysela has found a potential classic in the 1996 Abadia Retuerta Sardon de Duero ($30). This huge, slow-developing blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and the native tempranillo grape is just loaded with rich blackberry fruit, concealed now behind a vast quantity of tannin. But in the manner of a fine Pomerol, the tannin is not harsh. At some point, it could be magnificent.
One of Kysela's greatest finds comes from Spain's neighbor on the Iberian Peninsula, Portugal. The 1996 Vila Santa Vinho Regional Alentejo offers depth and complexity far beyond its $13 price tag. It offers lush fruit with hints of blueberry and blackberry, as well as the flavor of smoked meat. Under the supple fruit is plenty of backbone and surprising intensity.
Kysela also represents exceptional producers in such regions as Tuscany, Burgundy and the Rhone Valley.
In Burgundy, Kysela has forged an alliance with Domaine Valette, one of the most respected producers of overachieving white wines from lesser-known villages. While I was slightly disappointed by Valette's 1996 Macon-Chaintre, which seemed light for a great white Burgundy year, I was impressed by the 1996 Valette Pouilly-Vinzelles ($29). It's not a blockbuster, but its near-electric vibrancy and subtle mineral flavors make it a congenial accompaniment to seafood.
Kysela has also triumphed by signing up Pierrette and Marc Guillemot-Michele, whose gripping 1996 Macon-Clesse Quintaine is followed by a slightly more intense and lovely 1997 (both about $17). Both are finely etched white wines with hints of yeast, lemon, white pepper and wet stones.
Kysela has mined the Rhone Valley for a number of gems, introducing American consumers to accomplished but uncelebrated producers from several of that area's finest villages.
Fans of full-bodied Rhone reds will want to keep their eyes out for the 1997 Domaine des Entrefaux Crozes-Hermitage ($10), the 1997 Chateau de Segries Cotes-du-Rhone ($8), the 1994 Les Genets Cornas ($28) and the 1995 Domaine Grand Veneur Chateauneuf-du-Pape ($18).
For one of the best mature red wines on the market today, consumers can turn to one of Kysela's Italian selections, the 1990 Puteus (written as Pvtevs). This Salice Salentino from Macavero ($10) is a medium-bodied, spicy wine that is already taking on the brick-red hue of well-aged red. The fruit is still bright and intense, with hints of black cherry, earth, vanilla and smoked meat.
From the north of Italy, in Tuscany, Kysela has imported an equally impressive 1997 Chianti Rufina from Fattoria Selvapinna ($12). This medium-bodied red wine would be an impressive companion to grilled foods today but is also capable of achieving even greater complexity if given time to develop.