Focus on California

My late winter tour of the best North Coast addresses, plus extensive subsequent tastings of finished wines in New York in recent weeks, provided me with an in-depth look at California huge but highly successful 1997 vintage. The potential Achilles heel of the 1997 vintage was the enormous crop level produced in most of the state's growing regions. Although quality-conscious growers repeatedly dropped crop to reduce vine loads, many were still shocked by the quantity of fruit they brought in. Yet despite the sheer size of the crop (many growers had 30% to 50% more fruit than ever before), the '97s are turning out to be harmonious, attractive wines. The best cabernets and merlots offer a floral freshness that was largely missing in the '96s. Zinfandels and pinot noirs, too, generally come across as more vibrant than those of the previous vintage. Whether the vintage will be long-lived is still a question mark. But the better '97 reds should age well on their balance of components if not on sheer concentration and grip.

Although 1997 was a very warm growing season, 1996 was even hotter: a series of extreme heat spikes in July and August largely accounts for the distinctive character of these wines. Following a difficult and protracted flowering, the '96 crop level was very small from the outset. During the hot summer, sugar levels rose without accompanying flavor development in many vineyards. Where fruit had to be picked quickly due to skyrocketing sugars or falling acidity, the wines tend to show signs of incomplete ripeness, even where alcohol levels are high-somewhat reminiscent of the '92s. Many wines display a disjointed overripe/underripe quality: aromas and flavors of roasted red fruits and chocolate are frequently juxtaposed with distinct green elements and sometimes streaky acidity. Numerous cabernet-based wines lack the middle-palate flesh and depth to buffer their tannins and thus come across as somewhat dry, even rustic, on the finish. Many pinot noirs from Sonoma County's Russian River Valley are a bit dull in '96, in terms of color and aromatics. And zinfandels as a rule are less fresh than either the '95s or the '97s.

Picking dates were crucial in '96. Where fruit could be left to hang on the vine, and in cooler spots where the harvest normally occurs later, the '96s tend to show much more depth of flavor. The best 1996 cabernet sauvignons are very good, solidly structured wines, and the vintage may have provided even better conditions for merlot. Numerous winemakers reported blending a higher-than-usual percentage of merlot with their cabernets to fill in the middle of their wines and give them more consistency and smoothness.

Current pricing. Many California producers have increased prices sharply in recent years, some to unsustainably high levels. Although there is more good wine than ever before coming out of California, there is still a quality gap between the superstar producers (where talented grower/winemakers have the luxury of working with high-quality fruit from the best sites) and the host of wineries that turn out reliably good but less distinctive wine. The problem is that many wines in this second tier are essentially generic and interchangeable. When they are reasonably priced, they offer very good value in today's overheated market. But for every $25 cabernet that rates 87 points, there's another one priced at $60 or more. And far too many new labels with no track records for consistent quality or for improvement in bottle are hitting the shelves at unconscionably high prices. Let the buyer beware.

It should be noted that today's record-high wine prices, in conjunction with increasing direct sales to individual consumers, are having one positive effect on wine quality. On my most recent tour of the North Coast, several producers told me that they are no longer seeking to expand production. Rather, they are concentrating on doing an even better job with the quantities they currently make, investing in replanting where necessary, eliminating undesirable clones, updating their cellar equipment. After all, because they are now selling an increasing percentage of their production directly to consumers at retail rather than wholesale prices-despite the fact that this approach is made increasingly difficult by obstacles thrown up by many states against the shipment of wine to individuals-they're doing better financially than ever before.

On the following pages I offer brief profiles of wineries I visited in late winter, along with notes on their current and upcoming releases. Following this section are my tasting notes on all other recommended current California releases (i.e., wines receiving scores of 85 or higher) tasted in recent months in New York and California. This section also includes many more '97 and '96 cabernets and some additional red wines tasted from barrel in California. (As always, unfinished wines are scored with ranges, while wines in bottle are given precise scores.) In my lists of additional wines sampled from a given producer, bottles I scored 83 or 84 are denoted with asterisks.