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Mini-Winery With Maximum Style : A Small Vintner Produces Some Very Fine Big Red Wines

February 19, 1987|NATHAN CHROMAN | Chroman is a free-lance wine writer and author who also practices law in Beverly Hills

A long-standing axiom in the wine world is that the smaller the winery, the better the wine. Although there are many exceptions, Caparone Winery, a tiny San Luis Obispo County producer of 3,500 cases, offers strong proof with its superbly fashioned big red wines.

"Big reds, while not popular, are my favorite," said Dave Caparone, proprietor and wine maker, "because I like to drink them. I make wines for my own table, and what is left over I sell."

His Cabernet Sauvignon, 1982, is indeed big, but it sells for the relatively small tab of $7.50. It is a marvelously flavored, rich, powerful, assertive wine, rampant with fruit for obvious long-term aging. There are intense Cabernet flavors up front in this wine.

This is the kind of long-lived Cabernet style that was prevalent a decade ago, which other vintners now disdain in favor of a softer, more supple mode for earlier drinkability. This wine has 13.4% alcohol in a no-nonsense, somewhat hard forward taste. Aged for two years and four months in American oak and produced from Santa Maria Valley grapes, this is definitely a bottle that needs to be uncorked and allowed to breathe for hours before tasting. My bottle was open for 24 hours and then recorked.

Wine for Now and Later

Frankly, I am delighted to see the style resurface. Hard-core Cabernet fans fearful that lighter Cabernet styles will dominate the California wine scene can take heart with this bottle. Neophyte wine lovers can buy several bottles, try one at dinner, and if it does not overwhelm, cellar age the others for the kind of complex development certain to come. For now, try it on a cool winter night with robust meat dishes and don't be afraid to try it with lively chili.

Caparone did not agree that this durable Cabernet will take years to come around.

"My aim in red wine making," he said, "is to produce, as here, rich, complex and intense wines with good aging potential, but without excessive tannin or harshness. I do long fermentations on the skins, usually about three weeks, and very warm fermentations. My wines, however, do spend a minimum of two years in 50-gallon American oak barrels, where they are racked every three months. And what I like especially about them is that there is no fining, nor filtration and no chemical additions to the wines."

Deviation from big style is not within his ken. A 1974 Cabernet made from 3-year-old vines, representing his first crop, showed some softness and mellowing and considerable wood, but it was clear it was a "biggie." It does not match the flavor of the 1982, but Caparone had improved as a wine maker since then, although he has received no professional wine making education and proudly claims to be self-taught with hands-on vineyard experience.

Currently in release is his Merlot, 1984, produced from Bien Nacido Vineyard grapes in the Santa Maria Valley appellation of northern Santa Barbara County. It is less aggressive in structure and power, but is a big wine and not for the faint of heart. It is long on fruit and sports a fat texture, herbal characteristics and a less astringent bite in the finish. Aromatic in the nose, it can be enjoyed now, but it's better to age for removal of any harshness.

At $7.50, it is also a good buy, not because of any impending softness (a clear taste target of most Merlots) but because it makes a big style statement, the kind rejected by Bordeaux Merlot vintners who look to the grape for quick, soft, supple textures and flavors.

Without a doubt, this is strictly a California-styled Merlot and is not another weak attempt to emulate the French. Indeed, Gallic growers are likely to question the validity of this kind of wine making, but would praise it unhesitatingly several years down the road if the wine were tasted blind.

In 1979, when Caparone selected his vineyard site on 60 acres five miles southwest of Paso Robles, Zinfandel was on his mind. He claims his microclimate and soil is especially suitable for Zinfandel, notably for wines of complexity and balance. His Zinfandel, 1985, is a big Zinfandel in every sense of the word. It has strong structure, a full and spicy aromatic nose, ample flavor and plenty of heat from 13.2% alcohol. This outstanding, aggressive style demands considerable time, but the future is excellent.

Also in the back of his mind were two premiere Italian grapes, Brunello and Nebbiolo. Both are rare to the region, especially Brunello, which is a clone of the Sangiovese Grosso grape responsible for all those powerfully styled expensive wines known as Brunello di Montalcino. The grape was first isolated on the Biondi-Santi Estate near Montalcino more than 100 years ago. There were only 170 acres of the grape in production in 1970.

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