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Never Mind the Sugar : If It Tastes Good to Jesse Tidwell, It Can Wear the Parsons Creek Label


JESSE TIDWELL straightforward philosophy about wine making: That which he creates must simply taste good to him before it gets the Parsons Creek label, and if that delicious wine turns out to be a bit sugar-heavy, so be it.

Parsons Creek Winery was established by wine maker Tidwell in 1979. Under the financial wing of Cabrela wines, a 516-acre property in Alexander Valley has now been purchased, 145 acres of which will be developed promptly to supplement the original Ukiah winery.

Recently, Tidwell and I were in a restaurant for a dinner and wine-tasting session. Flutes of Parsons Creek Non-Vintage Mendocino County Brut ($12)--an appropriate aperitif--began the session. A fine bead of almost microscopic bubbles threaded to the surface, a sign of a well-made, methode champenoise sparkling wine.

"What is the cuvee?" I asked, noting the toasty, yet rich, varietal breed of the wine in taste.

"It's 70% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay," Tidwell said. "It's non-vintage because I believe that better character evolves from an older wine. The younger wine of the current year gives vitality and freshness; the older wine, the complexity."

His technique, borrowed from some of the small champagne houses he had visited in the 1960s, obviously was of benefit to this Mendocino County Brut.

When the Mendocino County 1986 Chardonnay ($7.50) came along with our first course, I noted that the young wine's bouquet reflected its 100% varietal breed, touched with a soupcon of French oak in good balance. I liked it for its engaging, clean freshness and beguiling smoothness.

I wondered aloud whether that characteristic had been the result of malolactic fermentation, which often reduces total acidity, giving the wine a kind of buttery-rich smoothness.

"No," he said, "It has .5% residual sugar."

That remark set the tone of the conversation for the next hour. The amount of residual sugar in the Chardonnay wines of California is a highly controversial subject. There are experts to whom any residual sugar in classical Chardonnay constitutes a fault.

At a recent Orange County wine tasting, a number of wines that were rated by the judges to be of gold-medal quality were denied the top awards after being found to contain--in classic evaluation--excessive residual sugar. Yet, it is widely known that the 1985 Kendall-Jackson Proprietors Reserve Chardonnay, a gold-medal-winning wine of countrywide popularity, had substantial residual sugar--and legions of loyal fans.

There is no definitive, encyclopedic, measurable definition of the ultimate wine. An analysis of any table wine could be computerized to define the technically perfect wine, but laboratory results don't necessarily correspond to bottom-line taste and the pleasures of the table. Sugar content in wine is not in itself a flaw. Witness the charm of classic German Riesling wines, and the struggle today to market halbtrocken , or "half-dry" Rheingau wines. Some of that charm has disappeared along with the reduction in residual sugar.

At the conclusion of our lengthy technical discussion, Tidwell summed up his outlook: "I make it for my own palate. I like it. My friends like it."

I laughed and confessed that I liked it, too, and asked for another glassful. That trace of sugar in the Chardonnay may be a cause celebre in judgings at fairs, but I join Jesse Tidwell in casting my vote for the taste of the wine.

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