THE LOCATION of a vineyard, always important, has become even more vital in the past decade. "We're in the second phase of a revolution in California wine making. First it was the wineries . . . reviving labels from yesteryear. Second, the now, is the vineyards," says Gary Andrus, owner and wine maker of Pine Ridge Winery.
In the past, the name of the winery alone was enough to sell a wine. But these days, with increased competition among wineries and higher expectations from consumers, there's increasing emphasis on the vineyards--the grapes themselves--rather than on marketing and processing.
"In the winery, we've gone about as far as we can go using skin contact, maceration and better techniques involving yeast strains, malolactic fermentation and high-performance technology. The revolution today is on the vineyard," Andrus says.
As a result, wineries are experimenting with techniques that include new trellising methods and vine-row spacing. Paraphrasing author Robert Louis Stevenson, Andrus says, "We're seeking out our great Lafites and our Clos Vougeots," referring to the famous French Cabernets and Burgundies.
The soil of a vineyard is crucial, along with two other factors: the vines and the wine maker's skill. When each of these are at optimum level, a notable wine results.
When wine makers talk about soil, they include the vineyard's elevation, climate and exposure to the elements, not just the geologic composition of the earth. Vine, of course, refers to the species of grape from which the wine is made.
Wine makers have limitless options, each changing the taste of the wine. Among the challenges: choosing the vineyard site and the vines best suited to it; refining methods of cultivation and harvesting and selecting the method of fermentation.
Andrus of Pine Ridge Winery has made the three factors work for him. Although the winery is young, with fewer than 10 vintages to its name, it has produced seven consecutive medal-winning Cabernet Sauvignons.
Current releases include:
Pine Ridge 1987 Napa Valley Chardonnay--Knollside Cuvee ($15). Made from vine-ripe fruit, this wine has a bouquet that brings wood and fruit in salutatory balance. Long on taste, it has citrus and pear overtones. Two or three years of aging will give this Chardonnay increased richness.
Pine Ridge 1986 Napa Valley Merlot--Selected Cuvee ($15). This popular Pomerol varietal is blended with 11% Cabernet Franc and 2% Malbec, producing an intensely fragrant wine. The bouquet suggests ripe black cherries. An unusually fine claret.
Pine Ridge 1985 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon--Estate Bottled--Pine Ridge Stags Leap Vineyard ($26). Of 95% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Cabernet Franc, the bouquet is one of rich grapes. Deep jewel-garnet in color, though less than 4 years old, this is a superb wine with a luscious berryness that suggests currants and black cherries. It is Cabernet at its finest . . . solid and balanced.