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Animal love

Should you fear the fur?

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Don't take this in a kinky Stifler way, but animals have always kindled my affection. My earliest "professional" experience (outside the parade of household pets) was in fifth grade, when my parents hooked me up with a summer gig at a vet clinic and boarding facility. There, I held down terrified pets for embarrassing procedures, cleaned up items grown-ups avoided and spent hours petting Charlie, an absurdly friendly yet obese orange tabby resembling a whiskered orange fur ball that swallowed a pumpkin. But, man, was he happy, especially when the Friskies bell rang. So, much like Eric Dunham did with his Three Legged Red and their winery dog, I've often thought if I had a winery, I'd name a brand after Charlie. Obviously, many others feel the same, since the trend of animal labeling is obnoxiously pervasive. Initially, I embraced the cuddly cuteness -- I still remember my virgin sip of Yellow Tail Shiraz, back when the nascent brand was a fraction of its current volume. Its low $9 cost was something to rave and write about, but then a stampede of incredibly banal kangaroos, penguins and moose began trampling our labels. Thus began my fear of fur.

Judging a wine by its cover is the basis of a multibillion-dollar industry, and animals have proven their efficacy. In 2005, sales of wines with animal names or images clocked in at $600 million, with many in the industry pointing at Yellow Tail as the instigator. Although far from the first to fashion fur on a bottle (pretty sure 1950 Mouton Rothschild beat them), the now household name was certainly the first to propagate its icon literally across the globe. Like a herd of soft, fluffy sheep, hundreds of wineries followed and so did the human hordes. A 2006 ACNielsen study reported that Americans, when seeking a new wine to try, are twice as likely to buy one with an animal on it. Yes, animals with their warmth and snuggliness are more approachable than the cold, staid logos that adorn most wine bottles. But the thing is, quality matters, too. Uninspired and insipid wines such as Little Penguin and 3 Blind Moose continue to berate us, burrowing their way inside often unsuspecting households. But since you're statistically predetermined to buy fur (or feather), take a gander at this list of those worth adopting.

Decoy 2005 Napa Valley Red Level of lovableness: 5 out of 10. Hey, no fur. Sw = 2. $28. **** 1/2

Dunham Cellars 2004 Three Legged Red Columbia Valley (Washington) Level of lovableness: 9 out of 10. Has a floppy-eared black and white dog on it. Sw = 1. $20. **** 1/2

Este de Bodega Alto Almanzora (Spain) Level of lovableness: 9 out of 10. Has a really cute, fat sheep. Sw = 1. $9. ****

Marquis Philips 2006 Cabernet Southeast Australia Sw = 1. $16. ****

Marquis Philips 2006 Sarah's Blend Southeast Australia Level of lovableness: 7 out of 10. Features the "Roogle" -- a mythical kangaroo/eagle creature that "represents the lasting friendship and the shared destiny" of Australian winemakers Sarah and Sparky Marquis and Dan Phillips, American importer. Ironically enough, these guys are now in a bloody lawsuit to extract themselves from said shared destiny. Rates high since this is amusing. Sw = 1. $15. ****

Aberdeen Angus 2007 Malbec Mendoza (Argentina) Level of lovableness: 5 out of 10. But Angus also doubles as premium steak -- can that be lovable? Sw = 1. $9. *** 1/2

Smoking Loon 2005 Merlot California Level of lovableness: 2 out of 10. Hard to love a loon made of lines. Sw = 3. $9. ***

Kenwood Jack London 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma (California) Level of lovableness: 4 out of 10. Like the loon, the wolflike drawing needs to soup up the snuggle. Sw = 1. $25. ****

Sweetness (Sw) rating is out of 10, 10 being pure sugar. * (star) rating is out of 5, 5 being wine nirvana.

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