John JuergensNotes From the Wine Road

Sometimes one just has to get out of the cellar to find out what is going on in the larger wine world. Cruising the local shelves and reading press releases and industry magazines can take one only so far. At least this was the justification I used for my recent expedition to the California wine country to conduct "field research."

One of the first things I noticed was how few people were out visiting the wineries. Places like Robert Mondavi and Beringer in Napa Valley, where you normally have to sign up for specific tour and tasting times, were almost uninhabited. It was the same over in Sonoma.

I'm certainly not complaining, mind you. Actually, it was quite nice because I didn't have to fight the hoards to reach the tasting counter, and those pouring the wine seemed genuinely glad to have someone to talk to.

Another benefit to the low turnout at the spigots was they tended to pour larger samples and most wineries gladly rolled out some of their best stuff. It was not unusual to taste wines at every stop that cost as much as $70 a bottle, which was a great opportunity to challenge my belief that beyond about $30 it's all about marketing rather than quality. I'm glad to report that this notion is still valid.

With more than 800 wineries in California you can only hit a small fraction of those in any one trip. My strategy on this trip was to focus on the smaller, lesser known wineries to see what they are up to. I also checked the availability and prices in supermarkets, discount stores such as Cost Plus, local delis, and corner grocery stores for comparison.

A couple of years ago wineries and grape growers began a major replanting program because something like 85% of the vines were infected with a bug that slowly eats away at the roots and eventually kills the vine. The new plantings combined with continued advances in wine making technology have pushed overall quality way up at all wineries. Most of the wines I tasted were very well made, even if I did not care for some of the styles certain wineries produced. For example, V. Sattui Winery in Napa produces some wonderful white wines, but their reds are made in a distinctly lean, old fashioned European style, which I find difficult to drink unless served with a meal.

On the other hand, many of the very large well-known wineries have been criticized for the "homogenization" and manipulation of their wines to the commercial American palate so that it frequently is difficult to distinguish Merlot from Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay from Sauvignon Blanc. One of the good things about going to the smaller wineries is that they tend to have more individuality in the personality of their wines, and the wine makers try to retain the varietal identity in his or her wines. In other words, the wines from smaller wineries can be a lot more interesting because of the greater variability.

One such winery that I have overlooked for many years because it is way off the beaten path is Chateau Potelle. The winery sits up on the side of Mt. Veeder and you have to navigate a long, narrow, and severely winding road, but you are afforded some incredible vistas once you get there. But the best surprise was the quality and intensity of the wines at fairly reasonable prices. Both Napa and Sonoma are littered with such treasures; you just have to do a little prospecting to find them.

Speaking of prices, I noticed that wine prices have taken a jump across the board by about $2 - $3. The discount stores such as Cost Plus were by far the best place to shop in terms of availability, but there still were far more wines in the $15 - $25 range than under, and boat loads of wines in the $25 - $35. Supermarket chains such as Safeway and Albertsons also had competitive pricing, but the corner delis and groceries were as high or higher than the prices at the winery.

It used to be that you could buy most any wine in California for a lot less than what it would cost back here. However, most of that margin is now history with the exception of some of the higher end wines in the $20 and higher category. I was told that some years ago wineries with national distribution programs began to cross level their prices across the country to avoid large price disparities and to promote sales east of the Mississippi River. Therefore, we can thank West Coast wine drinkers for subsidizing wine prices back East.

One significant new development since my last trip to the U.S. wine Mecca (is that an oxymoron?) is that in both Napa and Sonoma Valleys many of the smaller wineries have formed consortia to operate jointly centralized wine tasting rooms along the major routes through wine country. This is a win-win concept: The wineries are spared the expense and hassle of operating individual tasting rooms, and the tasters don't have to drive all over hell's half acre and back to find these places. It's all very efficient; however, you really have to be careful because you can end up with a snoot full of wine, which can make the drive back to your hotel a risky challenge.

I did find some incredible wines that were worth lugging back on the plane. But I'm not going to tell you about them because they are not available around here. And I know from experience that talking about such wines just irritates the "sediment" out of my audience. But if you ever have a chance to go out to the wine country, I will be glad to recommend some of the better places to visit.

With cheap airfares and low winery traffic, between now and about April is a good time to head for the wine road to conduct your own field research. And while it is exciting to visit some of the big name wineries just to see them, the real treat is to go exploring off the beaten path to find those diamonds in the rough.

January, 2002

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