New Releases from California

After lurching my way through literally hundreds of fall releases from California in recent months, it's hard to avoid the feeling that there's more mediocre California wine on the market today than ever before. The wildly uneven quality of current releases reflects numerous factors, most of which will be with us for the foreseeable future. For starters, the consolidation of vineyard ownership that has taken place in California in recent years has made it increasingly difficult for many of the state's most talented independent winemakers to retain their best sources of high-quality fruit. Then, too, the vast amount of vineyard replanting that has occurred over the past decade due to the spread of phylloxera inevitably means that more of today's wines are from very young vines. And young vines are the first to suffer from ill-timed rainfall or heat stress.

With sales of most over-$20 California items sluggish for the past couple of years, many wineries appear to be cutting corners in order to be able to reduce their prices:cutting back on labor-intensive work in the vines and thereby allowing yields to get too high, or scrimping on the quality of their barrels (in some instances using oak chips to impart oak flavor rather than bothering to purchase new barrels). As always, too many wines are being crafted by the numbers, as opposed to being made to give pleasure to those who will actually consume them. And in a vintage like 2000, the numbers aren't so hot either, as this was the third consecutive vintage in which most Napa Valley cabernets struggled to ripen. In my latest round of tastings, relatively few 2000 reds from Bordeaux varieties showed the kind of ripeness that California routinely achieved during the 1990 through 1997 period (with the exception of 1993). Happily, California's cabernet losing streak appears to have ended with the very ripe 2001s.

It is worth pointing out that I visit most top North Coast producers in the late winter and publish notes on their current and upcoming wines in the May/June issue of the IWC each year. My fall tastings generally include bottles from some additional front-rank producers, especially those in the Central Coast, but also many, many more wines from operations I can best describe as industrial. With these latter wines, adequate concentration, reasonable varietal accuracy and lack of glaring flaws is about as good as it gets; rarely do I find wines that I can recommend without reservation to discerning drinkers who appreciate balance, complexity and distinctive site character - and who have a whole world of wines to choose from. On the following pages are notes on the best new California bottles I sampled this fall. Wines denoted with an asterisk under "Also tasted" rated 83 or 84 points.