I am not a cat person, though I do have a cat. What I most like about my cat is the fact that he does not behave like a cat. He enjoys people and does not act as though he is the most important being in existence. He acts more like a dog. Plus, he's adorable.

  Some time ago, I was given two open sample bottles of California Pinot Noir to take home and enjoy, one around $15 and the other around $35. Binny's does not carry either of these wines, which is probably why I ended up with them.

  My fiancee and I decided to do a side-by-side comparison. First up, the $15 pinot. It poured a bright pinkish red. Though not complex, it fit my expectations just about exactly: fresh cherry with a little bit of delicate spice, full on the palate but not heavy. It tasted like a $15 pinot noir from California, as it should.

  But the $35 pinot - an estate bottling from a winery in Edna Valley - caught me off guard. In the glass, it was a dark purple. Instead of a graceful red, light on its feet, it showed fat, heavy red fruit like plum and raspberry, and had a lot of heft on the palate. Not a wine of finesse, as pinot noir is known, but a wine of breadth.

  My fiancee asked me which wine I liked more, which was more difficult to answer than you'd think. On one hand, the expensive bottle is clearly a bigger, deeper and maybe more interesting wine. On the other hand, if I were tasting it blind, I would never guess it was a pinot noir, or any other clearly defined varietal. The vineyard's website has it listed as 100% pinot noir (some wineries have been known to blend other grapes into their pinot noir to add weight, which is legal). The cheaper one is by no means a great wine, but at least it tastes like what it is. What's the point of making a varietal wine if it doesn't show any characteristic of that varietal?

  Don't get me wrong, I don't want wine to be homogenized, always tasting the same. Part of the joy of opening a bottle is the act of unfolding what's inside, discovering all the little surprises that make each wine unique. And sometimes I like something because it is atypical, like my cat.

  I was pleasantly surprised by a pair of South African reds recently, a shiraz and a pinotage by Wildekrans. The 2007 shiraz shows a plush nose of ripe, jammy red fruit, with a mouth full of cherry and blueberry preserves and the kind of cocoa notes that come from barrel aging. The 2008 pinotage was similar but more focused, with notes cherry sour ball candy and solid tannins framing the whole thing. Both of these are good values at just under $15.

  As I pondered the pinotage, it struct me that something was missing: there is an abscence of that trademark weedy, tire-on-fire note that I get in just about every South African red I taste. Could this actually be pinotage I was tasting? It was so modern, so clean, so ... atypical. I guess I like this wine for being something other than what I expected.

  Reminded me of my cat.

  Wildekrans wines should arrive at your favorite Binny's store soon.

  What do you think? How important is varietal typicity to you?