Current Releases from California

I'm as patriotic as the next wino, but it's hard to avoid the conclusion that California is currently one of the last places to look for excellent wines at affordable prices. Last spring, I was in Bordeaux just a few weeks after my late winter tour of California's North Coast, and thus was in a position to compare California cabernet with dozens of less pedigreed Bordeaux from the very good 2000 vintage. On a dollar-for-dollar basis, this was a competition that did not favor the home team. This spring it was the better Spanish red wines from Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Navarra that thoroughly outclassed most currently available reds from California-in terms of their aromatic complexity, soil character, texture, use of oak barrels, and overall drinkability and food compatibility. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that an alarming percentage of the California reds I've tasted in recent months were half as interesting as their Spanish counterparts, at twice the price.

With all due respect to the two or three dozen or so producers who consistently craft concentrated, distinctive, world-class wines, much of what I taste from California strikes me as a caricature of real wine. These examples have roughly the same parameters, but fail the first requirement of excellent wine: they lack the subtlety that draws one back for a second sip, much less a second glass. They're often alcoholic and aggressive rather than suave and balanced, and thus overwhelm rather than complement food. And too many wines simply do not have the material or inherent character to support the new barrels routinely used to age the wines. I continue to be amazed that numerous American wine critics routinely give outstanding ratings to wines that I find almost undrinkable. Yes, these wines can be impressive on first taste, but after that there's essentially no reason to drain the glass, except to get a buzz (and California's high-alcohol wines will certainly help you accomplish that objective). It's not just cabernets and merlots that too frequently disappoint. In the case of California chardonnay, it is becoming increasingly obvious that many producers who do not own and farm their own vineyards are working with overcropped fruit from poor clonal material that has little character or concentration in the first place.

Nineteen ninety-eight is the California vintage that won't go away. Red wines made from Bordeaux varieties are especially problematic; few of them manage to avoid the green side of this cold, difficult El Nino year. Had this been a Bordeaux vintage in the '70s or '80s, prices would have been chopped and the wines dumped through supermarkets. But that hasn't happened here; it's the wholesalers and retailers who may eventually be forced to unload these bad boys.

I have great admiration for the handful of wineries who managed to make very good red wine in 1998 from cabernet or Bordeaux blends. This required serious work in the vineyards followed by very clever vinification. The short list of wineries and wines that managed to succeed against all odds in 1998 includes, but is not necessarily limited to, Araujo Estate, Dalla Valle, Screaming Eagle, Joseph Phelps Insignia, Beringer Private Reserve, Harlan Estate, some of Robert Foley's fruit bombs from Pride Mountain Vineyards, Shafer Hillside Select, Bryant Family Vineyards. But these are generally borderline-outstanding wines in my 90 to 92 point range, and in a distinctly cooler style than releases from the best earlier years of the '90s.

I'd love to have been a fly on the wall when the marketing departments of some of California's larger wineries met to establish their prices for '98s. Perhaps their logic went something like this: When the grapes came in, they were distinctly underripe and our esteemed winemaker feared the worst. Then, with Herculean effort and all our 21st-century technology, we managed to turn out wines that were not as bad as first feared. (Somehow, "not as bad as first feared" became "not bad at all.") So the marketing gurus, looking backward at the golden years rather than forward at a slowing economy, decided: "Okay, we won't hike the price this year because it's not a great vintage. But the wines are perfectly okay, and we'll give our customers a break by holding prices to '97 levels." Which means they decided to offer their '98s at $60 or $75 or $100, and some even had the temerity to offer special reserve bottlings of cabernet. Wrong answer! The overwhelming majority of California's '98 cabernets and merlot will be rejected by most discerning tasters as underripe on their aromas alone; you won't even need to get a mouthful of vegetal flavors and underripe acidity. And today's wine drinkers are far less forgiving when wines carry price tags of $75, rather than $20.

My extensive tastings of current releases in recent weeks also provided a look at a number of finished '99 cabernets and merlots. This was another cool, late harvest but one that generally took place under more favorable conditions. It's a year in which sugars rose slowly (many growers describe it as a distinctly Northern European style of vintage), and many wines from this growing season too show a distinctly green aspect. And 1999 can hardly be described as typical for California cabernet. But the best wines appear to have wonderfully perfumed aromas, excellent density, vibrant flavors, and the spine of acids and tannins to support slow and positive development in bottle. The finest '99s may well turn out to be some of the most interesting California red wines made to date, although I suspect that this vintage will be most highly prized by those whose paradigm for outstanding red wine includes brisk acidity and a degree of restraint.

Just as '98 was a less difficult growing season for most white grapes, as well as for pinot noir and syrah, '99 also produced plenty of successful wines from these varieties, often with more aromatic interest and stuffing than those of the previous year. While many zinfandels missed out on the late-season raisined berries that many growers seek from this variety, the '99 vintage tended to produce more regular ripeness, and many winemakers have made fresh, dense wines. Even so, zinfandel as a category strikes me as less interesting today than it was even four or five years ago. Far too many wineries insist on squashing the sheer zinfandelitude of their grapes with heavyhanded application of new oak. In the clamor to be heard, too many new entrants with less than ideal fruit are building wines that shout rather than seduce. Is this really what zinfandel drinkers want?

On the following pages, notes are offered only for recommended bottles-i.e., those that rated at least 85 points in my recent tastings. In my lists of additional wines sampled, those I scored 83 or 84 are indicated with asterisks. I also tasted one or more current releases (and often five or six) without finding anything to recommend from another 35 or 40 wineries. Please note that many of the better California wines currently available in the retail marketplace were reviewed this past spring in Issue 96.