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Has Nouveau Gotten Old? State's Vintners Bow Out of Beaujolais

November 19, 1987|BRUCE KEPPEL | Times Staff Writer

What's new in the nouveau sweepstakes this year is the novel silence from California wineries that in recent years sought to out-Beaujolais the French, who started the annual race to market the harvest's first wine.

Nouveau marketing madness began about two decades ago in France, when growers in Burgundy celebrated and sampled the year's harvest with an "instant" wine made by a special process. The result was an exceptionally light and fruity, violet-tinged red wine, intended to be drunk within the year--often chilled.

Under French law, however, this wine cannot be sold until one minute after midnight on the third Thursday of November--today. Consequently, bistros and wine stores throughout the country are unfurling banners proclaiming variations on the single theme, Le Beaujolais nouveau est arrive!

In recent years, the marketing talents of wine merchants have resulted in similar signs sprouting today around the globe. "In terms of marketing, we've had a fabulous success," said Frank DeBoeuf, son of wine wholesaler Georges DeBoeuf, whose name is practically synonymous with the nouveau explosion.

France expects to sell about 60 million bottles of Beaujolais nouveau this year--10% of it in the United States, where the cheaper dollar will boost the price above last year's $5 a bottle. Nonetheless, the French are hustling both coasts: Chauvinet has called on Miss France to present its Beaujolais nouveau tonight at Joss Restaurant in Los Angeles, and Pasquier-Desvignes will pour its Marquisat bottling at Miami Beach's Alexander Hotel.

In contrast, California wineries are showing uncustomary restraint.

"On the nouveau front it's been very quiet in California," observed Paul Gillette, Los Angeles publisher of a number of beverage publications, including the Wine Investor. The wines are once again appearing, but without the marketing hoopla of recent years. Three years ago, for example, Creston Manor, a small winery in San Luis Obispo County, made a splash by hiring a stagecoach to haul its Beaujolais along Sunset Boulevard to a tasting at Scandia restaurant, beating the French release by a week.

This year, San Pasqual Vineyards in Escondido beat the French by offering a tasting last Sunday after its 10-kilometer "Gamay Nouveau Run." And Delicato Vineyard in the San Joaquin Valley town of Manteca a month ago sought to redefine the whole concept by labeling its first cases of 1987 White Zinfandel as nouveau . (The designation, a spokesman explained, simply alerts shoppers to what may be the year's first California wine to reach market.)

Gillette suggested that lagging wine sales might be casting a pall among California vintners. Shipments for the first nine months, he said, lagged behind 1986 and, unless the trend has changed, 1987 could emerge, he said, as the first year since World War I--except the Prohibition years--that both domestic and imported wine sales decline.

"The industry's in the doldrums," Gillette said.

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