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Pondering the Uncertain Fate of Patrician Vintages in a 6-Pack Society

About Wine

May 04, 1989|DAN BERGER | Times Wine Writer

SANTA ROSA — Wines that are either extremely tart or light, crisp and delicate are often misunderstood by consumers, and this causes consternation for some wine makers.

Wine makers sadly tell stories of wines they've made that have not been big, rich, oaky monsters, but rather have shown a degree of elegance. They say that some wine reviewers denigrate their lighter-styled wines because they prefer the chewy, oaky, flabby style of wine.

And such is the impact of some writers that many consumers buy the bigger wines eagerly, bypassing the wines of finesse. This encourages wine makers to make more wines that are bigger, fleshier, more obvious.

Yet wines that are loaded with wood flavors and high alcohol rarely age as well as wines that are in better balance when young, a fact born out by a taste of an older Chardonnay from Stony Hill. These hard-to-find wines are usually lean when they are young and appear simplistic, but they develop charms with many years in the bottle.

Patience Is a Virtue

With wine, patience is a virtue, but in today's "I want it now" society, few people are willing to wait for the charms of maturity.

Tasting about 100 1987 California Chardonnays in the last few weeks, I was struck by the fact that many California wine makers are trying hard to make wines of better balance and harmony, but a number of wineries are still under the misbelief that bigger is better.

Still, those in the finesse game often have a rude awakening.

Merry Edwards has as good an understanding of Chardonnay as anyone in the business, yet just four years ago made a decision that was off the mark as far as the public was concerned. And it irritates her.

Edwards is wine maker at The Merry Vintners, a one-woman operation sitting on a flat plateau above the Russian River plain. All she makes is Chardonnay, a project that followed stints as wine maker at Mount Eden Vineyards in Saratoga and Matanzas Creek Winery in Sonoma County, where her Chardonnays won wide acclaim.

All-New Oak Barrels

Edwards is a classicist. Her Mount Eden Chardonnays were made from fully ripe fruit; the juice was fermented in all-new oak barrels and the resulting wine was rich and unctuous, but with long life in the bottle. (I recently tasted the 1978 Mount Eden Chardonnay and it was still magnificent.)

Later, at Matanzas Creek, her early 1980s wines won awards and today remain exceptionally well balanced. Starting with 1984 her own Merry Vintners' Chardonnays have shown potential to expand in the bottle.

In 1985, she made a Merry Vintners Chardonnay that was a perfect example of her style. The wine had deep peach-like fruit character and oak tones and plenty of acidity to permit it to age. I loved it.

It didn't sell.

"We're in a different era today," said Merry the other day. "This is a 'now' society, and everyone wants a wine to drink tonight. No one puts wine away in the cellar any more. But when I was at Mount Eden, people bought a case and put it in the cellar to age."

She loved her 1985, but noted that it didn't capture the public's fancy because the high acidity made the wine initially very tart. Since people are not into aging such wines any more, few understood its potential.

Close-Out Table Bargain

Walking through a grocery store just a few miles from the winery recently, I spied the 1985 Merry Vintners Chardonnay on the close-out table. It was originally supposed to sell for $14. It was marked $8.99. I bought three bottles and tried one.

The wine was better for the extra 18 months it's had in the bottle since I last tasted it. It was rounder, richer, still in balance . . . and still loaded with acidity. No doubt about it, the wine was tart. But when served with food, it was exceptional, complementing the meal beautifully.

Still, when it was released the response by the now generation of wine consumers was: too tart. Give us something more approachable, they said.

So Merry has. Yet she hasn't compromised. The soon to be released 1987 Merry Vintners Chardonnay Reserve ($17) is a magnificent example of a broad, rich yet balanced wine with a hint of spice, a layer of pineapple fruit, and a full, complete taste. This time, however, the acid is not dominant, but still ample enough to allow the wine to age.

Giving In to Temptation

Edwards admits she could have made the 1987 Chardonnay broader, fatter, more oaky, but that would have showed no restraint. It would be giving in to temptation to pander to the now people.

Jeff Booth at Conn Creek in the Napa Valley also believes in the reined-in style of wine making for Chardonnay. His 1986 Chardonnay ($13) went through a single fermentation in oak and then was bottled without much additional tweaking of the wine.

"I think it's important to let the fruit be the dominant characteristic," said Booth, whose lovely Chardonnay accents a delicate citrusy tone with muted oak notes.

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