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Despite Late Rains, 1989 Bloomed as Good Year for California Vintners


California wine makers moaned loudly after the long hours and hard work they endured throughout the harvest, but taken as a whole, 1989 wasn't a year of total pain and suffering for the wine industry.

It was a year when September rains hit California's north coast, turning a potentially lucrative and exceptional harvest into one that required a lot more work than in many years.

It was, however, a year when a lot of winery owners took a deep breath and raised prices--and found, surprisingly, that the public didn't balk as much as they had expected. But there were rumblings of a 1990 backlash.

The 1989 harvest turned out to be of generally high quality and slightly larger than 1988. So all the wailing was just a lot of sound and fury.

High prices were no barrier for Bordeaux producers, who released the 1986 red wines with exalted comments and prices to match. Touting 1986 as the fifth great vintage in the last six years and a vintage to rival them all, the Bordelais asked and received inflated prices.

But French Burgundy producers found the going rougher. Americans finally called time out as prices for red Burgundy approached $100 a bottle.

Chile made its first major thrust to market wine in the United States, and the wines showed great potential. Italian wine makers (aided in part by a surge in Italian restaurants here) rebounded from the black eye of 1986 when deaths were attributed to tainted wine in Italy. In fact, if there was an "imported wine story of the year," it was the rise of top-quality Italian red wine to super-premium levels.

Light red wine made a comeback as interest in White Zinfandel and wine coolers began to peak.

More acquisitions occurred. Heublein spent $150 million to buy The Christian Brothers; Klein Foods bought Rodney Strong Vineyards for $40 million; a Vintech joint partnership bought Domaine Laurier; Mondavi bought Byron, and a French firm acquired Scharffenberger.

In November, government-mandated warning labels began appearing on the back of wine bottles and other alcoholic beverages, but some consumer groups argued that the label was too small and a debate raged.

The Napa Valley Wine Train began rolling despite vigorous, often vitriolic opposition. It came as Napa County was restricting new winery development to slow down the rush of weekend tourists who were clogging the valley's once-bucolic side roads.

Wine also lost a number of vital figures. Among the obituaries: William Durney, founder of Durney Vineyards in Carmel Valley; Alexis Lichine, longtime French wine marketer and author; Bruno Benziger, who created one of the decade's greatest success stories, Glen Ellen Winery, and Joseph Swan, famed Sonoma County wine maker.

Following are random items from around the California wine country as well as personal picks for the best wine in various categories. (Availability was a factor; it makes no sense to praise products you can't buy.) A bargain wine is listed in some categories.

Sauvignon Blanc of the Year: 1988 Adler Fels ($9.75)--This assertively herbal wine makes a bold statement and carries it off beautifully. The wine improves with air and with food. I also love the gorgeous 1988 Spottswoode Sauvignon Blanc ($10), but it's largely unavailable. Close behind were 1988 Charles Shaw ($9.50), 1988 Kenwood ($9), 1988 Iron Horse ($9.50), 1988 De Loach (not the Fume Blanc, $9), 1988 Dry Creek ($9.25) and 1988 Sterling ($10). Bargain of the Year: 1987 E. and J. Gallo ($3.50), a marvelously balanced wine.

Health Claim: At the Wine Industry Technical Symposium, stout Peter Ventura, marketing executive with Robert Mondavi Winery, spoke on the health benefits of moderate consumption of wine. Later, moderator Ed Everett of New World Wines, a San Francisco marketing company, who has a bare pate, said: "You heard Peter say that a claim could be made that wine helps control weight. Well, I'm not sure he can make that claim for himself any more than I can make a claim that wine prevents baldness."

Gewurztraminer of the Year: 1988 Navarro ($8)--Ho-hum, another year, another great Gewurz for this small Anderson Valley winery, the sixth year Navarro has won the honor. Might as well retire the trophy and give it to Ted Bennett and Debra Cahn. Runners-up: 1988 Davis Bynum ($8), 1988 Mark West ($8) and 1988 St. Francis ($7.50). Bargain: 1988 Napa Ridge ($5.20).

Uh-huh: Two wine lovers in a liquor store were chatting about a Conn Creek wine. A beer delivery man overheard the conversation and said, "Concrete? Wow, that oughta be a heavy wine."

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