New Releases from California

In recent months, I'm sorry to report, I slogged through more overpriced and wearisome California wines than ever before. Too many heavily oaked or clumsily extracted wines offer major palate impact but little nuance or finesse, while on the other hand a host of current releases show unacceptably vegetal aromas and flavors. (Since when has it been okay for wines to smell of canned asparagus and little else?) These bottles are about as appropriate at the dinner table as your loudmouthed Uncle Al. I had the impression of doing an awful lot of tasting with relatively paltry payoff.

As long-time readers of this journal know, I try to provide notes and ratings on wines without regard to price and let subscribers decide where value lies. But it's becoming increasingly difficult to justify devoting space to California's less inspired offerings, which routinely carry price tags of $30 to $60, or more, when the market is awash with literally hundreds of fresh, food-friendly wines from Europe for a fraction of that amount. And while spending $50 or so on a bottle from Europe or elsewhere is no guarantee of getting an excellent wine, there have never been more worthy choices than there are today.

Today, far more California wines reflect the fantasies of marketing departments than the realities of soil, and enophiles predisposed toward the glorious fruit California can produce are the poorer for it. Many of the wines I sampled this summer and early fall might as well have been concocted in pharmaceutical labs. Too many winemakers are working with mediocre raw materials, while others are required to craft wines according to formulas handed down by corporate management - folks who are often the last to know what makes a wine great, or even distinctive. And since when was oak an essential wine flavor?

Although most casual wine drinkers think of California as a platonic grape-growing zone in which vintage variation is not of great consequence, this is simply not the case. On the contrary, it can be argued that California endured three tricky vintages in a row from 1998 through 2000, particularly for cabernet-based wines. And there is already some evidence that in the current economic environment, in which many consumers are avoiding expensive wines from anywhere, many veteran collectors of California wine may well take a buying holiday until the highly promising 2001 reds begin to appear on the shelves. Nineteen ninety-eight was California's worst vintage of the '90s, with very few big reds totally avoiding the green side of the year. 1999 was another very cool, late growing season. Its best cabernets are aromatically compelling, concentrated, tightly coiled wines that are good bets for slow, positive development in bottle, but control of yields and the quality of the site were essential to producing fruit that could benefit from an agreeably warm October. The vintage's less successful wines - and I've tasted plenty of them in recent weeks - often come across as only marginally less green than the '98s.

Vintage 2000 witnessed a third consecutive cool summer and some rare rain at the beginning of September, followed by a severe burst of heat in the middle of that month. Some growers had to pick deteriorating grapes too early, while others found that grape sugars remained stagnant for two weeks or more. Rain toward the end of the month further complicated the harvest. Many vineyards never matured fully and the wines they produced tend to lack flavor development and mid-palate density. However, it is worth noting that 1999 and 2000, and to a lesser extent 1998, were more conducive to making fresh chardonnays and pinot noirs, and in my recent tastings I enjoyed numerous syrahs and zinfandels as well.

As veteran IWC subscribers know, the bulk of my California coverage is published each spring, including in-depth coverage of the state's elite cabernets from barrel and bottle. Thus many current California releases were covered back in Issue 102. On the following pages you'll find notes on the best new California bottles that have come my way in recent months. Due to the unwieldy size of this issue, I've included notes only on wines I rated 87 points or higher. Wines listed as "also recommended" merited 85 or 86 points. In the rare instances in which these latter bottles are priced aggressively, they represent decent value.