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California's Red Wines Suffer an Image Crisis : Impatient, Misinformed Consumers Are Failing to Capitalize on Excellent Cellaring Potentials

July 23, 1987|NATHAN CHROMAN | Chroman is a free-lance wine writer and author who also practices law in Beverly Hills

The image of California's red wines currently is suffering from an erroneous notion held by a substantial number of French vintners and a few East Coast wine journalists. This group believes the wines do not age well and mature much too early. Consumers so persuaded are avoiding the cellaring of exceptional reds out of fear that aging will result in wines unworthy of the investment in time and patience.

Unfortunately, this persistent belief comes at an inopportune moment, when some major California wineries are offering, or about to offer, futures: the early purchase of wines for future delivery and cellaring. Napa's celebrated 1985 Cabernet Sauvignons fall into this class and, I dare say, they will age so well that it will be foolish to believe otherwise. Because all wines age for better or worse, the real question is whether they mature into exciting, complex, distinctive wines demonstrating all the characteristics necessary for the kind of pleasurable drinking which Robert Louis Stevenson once described as "bottled poetry."

Many Factors

Many factors go into making the kind of wines worthy of long-term aging. Vintage, ideal vineyard sites, attention to grape and clonal selection, plus expert wine-making technology which calls for high capital expenditures and dedicated vintner practices are a few. Today's worldly wise wine makers are well able to make wines of aged quality, if that is their aim.

How do you know when a wine can stand long-term maturing? The answer is, nobody does, except those who have long deliberate taste exposure to young wines which ultimately have matured, either for better or for worse. There is no other way, no magical enology measuring devices, only the experience of decades of cork pulling and tasting.

For my own palate, the evidence is clear that California wines can mature with the best. I need only point to the Cabernet Sauvignon, Beaulieu, Private Reserve, vertical tasting arranged several years ago by Bipin Desai, who presented a host of winning examples starting with the vintages of the 1930s and continuing on into the 1980s. There was nary a loser in the bunch and indeed the older bottles, particularly those of the '40s and '50s, were superb.

Who can argue against the acclaimed "giants" of 1947, 1951, 1958 and, of course, the 1968, claimed to be one of the finest of all California vintages for other wineries as well. They still show complexity and excitement. I can also point to Mayacamas where a 20-year vertical tasting proved its Cabernets to be of equal stature.

The list of great older, complex bottles is long and distinguished. Note, the aged Cabernets from Charles Krug in the '50s, Martin Ray of the '40s, Beringer from the '30s and some Inglenooks from the last century, as well as those from 1941 and 1949. All would make any vintner proud and any consumer salivate. Even from today's younger vintners, fine wine statements are made. Movie director Francis Coppola's 1978 Rubicon is extraordinary and will only improve to a benchmark standard.

Wines of the 1974 vintage are just beginning to come around with such notables as Robert Mondavi, Reserve; Louis Martini, Special Selection and Heitz Cellars, Martha's Vineyard. Phelps with a decade of its Insignia Cabernets, Estrella River, 1978, Jordan, 1978, and Raymond, 1977, are others that will not take a back seat to the best.

Recently at Carmel's Highlands Inn, wine fancier and collector Walter Emery of San Jose presented a dinner featuring 1945 clarets, a vintage which may be the hallmark for 20th-Century Bordeaux. What was even more fascinating was a 1948, Santa Clara Valley, Pinot Noir from Madronne. While this wine can't develop further, it was a delight for its still flowery nose, candied fruit and flavors. A solid easy choice today for generous drinking and matured complexity.

Considering this past track record, why does the myth continue? Surely it comes from those who have not had the privilege to taste the matured, older wines. Wine drinkers, vintners and journalists must rely on wine auction purchases for older California wines, or cellar them and wait 10 to 20 years for bottled truth. Most people are unwilling or unable to do that, and, therefore, must rely on the experienced opinions of others or try their luck with a Cabernet vintage like 1985.

Grossly Unfair

What is grossly unfair is that the image knockers have no doubt tasted great aged claret, because of easier access and current availability. Virtually any Bordeaux vintage is still obtainable simply by paying the price, a phenomenon not reserved for California wines even at this date.

For years, consumers refused to age California wines, preferring to drink them young, while studiously aging and saving French Bordeaux and Burgundy bottles. Many of these wines are still available because buyers held on to their wines waiting for just the right moment, only to pass on to the "great beyond" while cases of unopened claret remained in the cellar.

Many here and abroad found themselves drowning in claret and had no choice but to offer it for auction. Thankfully, times are changing as wiser collectors are beginning to install a California cellar selection. Wineries sensitive to this are offering futures as well as bigger styled reds capable of making the point, even though some 10 to 20 years down the road.

Notwithstanding, aged California reds need not apologize, simply they must bide their time and wait patiently to gain the kind of respect they deserve. Unquestionably, the more serious problem is the need to age and mature the palates of their persistent detractors.

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