Current California Releases

Record prices for many California wines are getting harder to justify, especially in light of the distinctly mixed quality of the 1998 vintage. Some of the least successful wines from this very cool El Nino year-the late-ripening reds from Bordeaux varieties, particularly those from high-altitude sites-are just beginning to be released, and as a group they appear to be the weakest vintage of the '90s. Still, there is no shortage of satisfying chardonnay, pinot noir and syrah from this vintage.

Many red wines reviewed on the following pages are from the 1997 vintage, which typically offers lovely ripeness and balance and considerable early appeal. While the record crop level shows in some of these bottles, the most concentrated examples are truly delicious wines that give pleasure already and should age beautifully.

Any criticism of California wine must be tempered with praise for two groups of wineries. First, there are the quality-obsessed growers who begin with low crop levels from the best sites and have both the technical expertise and the respect for their raw materials to make layered, complex, unmanipulated wines. There are also those California wineries that continue to turn out competent, flavorful wines at very reasonable prices. But these two groups appear to be in the minority today. For every cult wine whose high price can almost be justified based on its quality and scarcity, there are three or four relatively new entrants who believe that just because their cabernet says Napa Valley on the label, they are entitled to $75 a bottle. When you compare these latter wines in complexity and food-friendliness to the best Chiantis, Barberas, Languedoc wines, and examples from Ribera del Duero, most would be too expensive at half the price. And for every established winery that has kept price hikes modest over recent years, there are two or three that have raised prices for competent but unexceptional wines to rival those of scarce collectibles.