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Business: A Brief Guide to California Wine

5 minute read

TO connoisseurs, wine is not merely a commodity but art, poetry, flowers —depending on how lyrical or sensual one chooses to be. “Wine can be likened to a living being,” say Hurst Hannum and Robert S. Blumberg in The Fine Wines of California. “It thrives on proper care and can turn against those who mistreat it.” Restaurant Reviewer Gael Greene, not completely seriously, pronounces Gallo Hearty Burgundy “as refreshing as a 17-year-old lifeguard on the Fourth of July.”

In the special vocabulary of serious tasters, wines can be “acid” (tart, sour, with the bite of natural fruit acids), “astringent” (puckery, like a cup of strong tea), or “balanced” (with just the right combination of acid, tannin and alcohol). They can be “big” (with a detectable heaviness on the tongue, not light or watery), “clean” (absent of extraneous tastes like cork or oak), “flinty” (dry and sharp), “full-bodied” (thick, robust), and “maderise” (from Madeira; turned slightly brown with age, past the prime). They can be “petillant” (slightly sparkling or effervescent), “thin” (deficient in alcohol or body, watery), or “woody” (with an overbearing taste of oak from overlong storage in the cask).

Professional oenophiles, who make, market or write about wine, are an elite of cultured globetrotters. Often foreign born or foreign educated, they jet about the world constantly, moving from one vineyard to another in search of new tastes and bouquets. Vintners treat them like pashas. Wine pros frequently interrupt their travels to get together for comparative wine tastings (during which they seldom swallow the wine, but slosh it around in their mouths and spit it out; they can taste dozens of wines at a sitting without getting high).

Professional wine critics are beginning to take California wines as seriously as the French wines that they are more accustomed to chronicling. California wines can be divided into two groups, generics and varietals. Generics are usually blends of wine made from several kinds of grapes, and are often sold in half-gallon or gallon jugs. Most generics are labeled with famous European geographical names, though the flavors can be quite different from the European. Some experts argue that the red generics (Burgundy, Chianti, claret) are slightly superior to the whites (Chablis, Rhine wine, sauterne).

Varietals are titled after the grape from which they are made. These grapes have a much smaller yield per acre than those used in generics, so varietal wines are usually more expensive: $2.50 to $ 12 a fifth. They are also more complex in taste and aroma than generics. Among the better known:

CABERNET SAUVIGNON, full-bodied dry red made from the grape that produces the best wines of Bordeaux; it is California’s best wine variety.

PINOT NOIR, a medium-bodied red from the Pinot Noir grape of Burgundy, slightly lighter than most French Burgundies and Cabernet Sauvignon.

CAMAY, a red that probably originated in France’s Beaujolais region; it is lighter and fruitier than a Cabernet Sauvignon or a Pinot Noir.

ZINFANDEL, a red as heavy as a Cabernet and as fruity as a Camay; its bouquet smells faintly of raspberries.

CHARDONNAY, a dry white that resembles the whites of Burgundy.

JOHANNISBERG RIESLING, related in taste and ancestry to some of the best whites of Germany; it is light, dry and flowery.

CHENIN BLANC, occasionally labeled White Pinot, resembles the fruity whites of France’s Loire; it is light and flowery.

Under U.S. laws, a varietal wine must contain at least 51% of the grape that is its namesake. If the label bears a vintage year, 95% of the wine has to be from the year mentioned. More and more California makers are dating even their mediocre products. Does vintage really matter? If a vine gets too little sun or too much rain one year, the grapes are likely to end up with a low sugar content and ferment into acidic, watery wine. If there is too much sunlight, the grapes can shrivel like raisins and produce overly sweet wine. In Europe, where such meteorological metamorphoses are fairly dramatic from year to year, vintage dating has an indisputable raisin d’être. But in California, where sunlight is plentiful and rainfall consistent, one year’s wine is not much different from the next. To help maintain uniformity further, many California vintners blend wines from different years to mask annual variations in quality. The trained tongue, however, can detect some yearly differences. This year’s harvest, some of which will be on the shelves by next spring, will definitely be distinguished; the spring frost reduced the number of grapes on each vine, and surviving grapes had less competition for minerals from the soil.

Among California’s more distinguished offerings:

UNDER $2.50*

Beaulie Grenache Rosé Burgundy

The Christian Brothers Chablis

Napa Rosé

Gallo Hearty Burgundy Chablis Blanc Pink Chablis

Louis M. Martini Gamay Rosé

Mountain Barbera

Mountain Zinfandel 1968

Paul Masson Emerald Dry

Wente Bros. Chablis

Dry Semillon

$2.50 TO $5.00

Almadén Gewürztraminer

Johannisberg Riesling

Beaulieu Cabernet Sauvignon 1969

Johannisberg Riesling

Buena Vista Gewurz Traminer

Pinot Chardonnay

Charles Krug Chenin Blanc Gamay

The Christian Brothers Gamay Noir

Pinot Noir

Pinot Chardonnay

Inglenook Charbono 1969

Louis M. Martini Pinot Noir

Mirassou Chenin Blanc 1971

Monterey Riesling

Cabernet Sauvignon 1969

Paul Masson Sylvaner

Robert Mondavi Chenin Blanc

Cabernet Sauvignon 1969

Johannisberg Riesling 1971

Wente Bros. Pinot Blanc

Le Blanc de Blancs

Windsor Chardonnay

OVER $5.00

Almadén Blanc De Blancs (Champagne)

Beaulieu Cabernet Sauvignon Georges de Latour Private Reserve 1968

Chappellet Chenin Blanc 1970

Charles Krug Cabernet Sauvignon 1966

Freemark Abbey Pinot Noir 1968

Pinot Chardonnay 1968

Hanzell Pinot Noir 1969

Pinot Chardonnay 1969

Joseph Heitz Pinot Chardonnay 1970

Mayacamas Cabernet Sauvignon 1968

Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon 1968

Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs 1969 (Champagne)

Souverain Cabernet Sauvignon 1968

*New York City Prices

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