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Image: Part of the Mystique--and the Price Tag

September 29, 1988|DAN BERGER | Times Wine Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — They came from throughout the state to attend a 100th anniversary party that the Italian house of Biondi-Santi threw for itself here in mid-September, and the affair was opulent.

Two days later, a new wine, born in a marketing man's brain, was unveiled in yet another grand manner at a restaurant nearby. And the two events, so juxtaposed, got me thinking about how a wine's image is part of its mystique--and its price tag.

When merely pricing a wine very high creates an exalted image, that wine then assumes an aura of invincibility--a guarantee that it is worth buying regardless of price.

This encourages some wine connoisseurs to overlook any problems they find because the item is so expensive they assume any fault must be in themselves, not in the wine, and no one ever questions the quality of a product with such an impeccable track record.

Call it, for want of a better term, the "emperor's new clothes" syndrome. (Some producers avoid this by regularly making superb wines, such as Chateau d'Yquem.)

A Worldwide Reputation

The house of Biondi-Santi of Tuscany has earned a worldwide reputation for producing great Brunello di Montalcino. And it is unquestionably a monumental wine, made sans souci to be a bold, rich statement of how much can be extracted from the Sangiovese grape that also is at the heart of the lighter-styled Chianti.

Biondi-Santi was first to make a Brunello, in 1888, and throughout the years the wine has commanded a lot of press, a lot of praise and along the way some controversy.

Yet despite the notoriety Biondi-Santi has generated recently, the fact is that Brunello di Montalcino is a relatively new phenomenon. It was "scarcely even known in Tuscany a decade ago," wrote Burton Anderson in his 1980 book "Vino."

Anderson devoted more than two pages of his book to the high pricing of the Biondi-Santi's top wine, the Riserva, noting that it had caused consternation among Biondi-Santi's neighbors as well as wine buyers, wholesale and retail, and that there was resistence to prices of $80 and $90 a bottle.

Even the quality of Biondi-Santi wines has been questioned.

"Whether or not it is the finest Brunello produced may be open to argument, but it cannot be disputed that the (Biondi-Santi) family created the wine and has always set the standards by which it is judged, thereby earning extended attention in any detailed description of Brunello," wrote Victor Hazan in his 1982 book "Italian Wine."

Massive and Complex

Biondi-Santi Brunello is a massive, complex wine that is unyielding in youth. Its fans say it needs at least 10 years in the bottle to smooth out, and even then should be decanted for 24 hours before serving.

I like these wines, and the younger vintages show potential to become marvels of depth and richness with the requisite bottle age. At the dinner here, I preferred the 1983 Biondi-Santi Brunello for its balance and intensity of fruit, a wine that appears to have the potential to age handsomely. Since it is not designated Riserva, this wine sells for only $35 a bottle.

(By comparison, two weeks earlier I had tasted the Biondi-Santi side by side with a Brunello imported by Grape Expectations of Emeryville, Calif., La Chiesa di Santa Restituta. Both were from the excellent 1982 vintage. The latter wine has none of the panache of the former, yet was preferred by all seven tasters at the table. The La Chiesa sells for $22.50.)

But, price aside, are these Biondi-Santi wines the monumental achievements some people say they are? I think not. When young, they are hard and astringent, offering little suppleness and only an indication of greatness with bottle age. Yet the older wines such as the 1971 and 1964 served at the dinner in San Francisco, though they show some fruit and richness, have little of the patina of age you see in a great older Bordeaux, such as Lafite or Latour or Margaux. And they, too, remain fairly tannic even after a quarter century.

Moreover, at $80 or more per bottle when the wine is released and hundreds per bottle when the wine is well aged, the question of value is academic.

The other event staged here, almost as lavish as the Biondi-Santi event, was for the unveiling of Montage, red and white wines made by The Christian Brothers winery from a blend of Napa Valley and French grapes.

The concept has been criticized by some people as nothing more than a gimmick. Some allege that the project is more a publicity stunt than a serious wine, and that The Christian Brothers were merely trying to "one-up" Robert Mondavi's Opus One project in which French expertise and Napa Valley grapes were used to make the wine.

Moreover, some in the Napa Valley are irritated because they say Montage takes the focus off the Napa Valley, by, in effect, diminishing a local wine by blending in "cheaper" French wine.

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