ST. HELENA, Calif. — Can you really get a decent bottle of Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon for $5?
The interest in lower-priced Chardonnay and Cabernet, two of the most expensive grape varieties, began about 1984 when Glen Ellen developed the Proprietor's Reserve line of wines. Today a dozen major companies and many more small ones compete in this category.
Since these wines are blended for year-to-year consistency, vintages on the bottle mean little except to tell you how old the wines are. Youth is a virtue; these wines are not meant to be aged.
There are so many of these so-called pop-premium brands on the market it's difficult to know which wines are good values. That's why The Times assembled a tasting panel to evaluate the pop-premiums in a double-blind tasting.
The event was staged May 15 at Meadowood Country Club in the Napa Valley. Almost all of the nearly five dozen wines were bought at major supermarkets two days before the event. None of the wines were priced at more than $6. In no case should any of these wines sell for more than $7.50; a few actually cost $3.39.
Judges included Michael Martini, wine maker for Louis Martini Winery; wine author Bob Thompson; wine industry consultant Michael Rubin, and John Thoreen, director of Meadowood's wine center.
In general, the wines were far better than we had anticipated. The Cabernets especially represented very good value for the money. The best-scoring wines were from smaller producers; the wines of the large-volume producers seemed a little unfocused and dull.
Results are listed in groups of wines judged relatively similar in quality. They are listed in order of preference.
Many of the Chardonnays showed little varietal character and many were noticeably sweet, but the level of quality was higher than just three years ago when I staged a similar event.
1989 Geyser Peak, Sonoma-- A citrus/spice aroma with hints of Golden Delicious apples; not very complex, but excellent balance and a great finish. A wine with wide appeal.
1988 Christian Bros., Napa-- A handsome, well-made wine with depth of fruit, some French oak nuances, and a creamy yet tart finish. Not a wine for beginners, but one that wine lovers will love. I paid $4.99 for the bottle we tasted.
Note: This bottling carries the old Christian Brothers label. Later bottlings (with an updated label with a color picture of vineyards) are not remotely similar to this wine.
Very Good Wines
1988 Mondavi-Woodbridge-- A bit older than I prefer, but with some fruit and oak, a tad on the coarse side. Not as fresh as I prefer, but relatively rich.
1989 Dore, California-- I preferred this to the above wine because of its spice (juniper and clove) character. A lovely, no-oak freshness with hints of pineapples and lively fruit acidity.
1989 Round Hill "House," California-- Spicy fruit in a lighter style. There's a trace of astringency in the aftertaste.
1989 Weibel, Mendocino-- Pineapple juice aroma, but appealing appley, buttery notes in the finish. Not totally dry; the label, refreshingly honest, says it is "off-dry."
Bel Arbors Cask 90-- This wine is made from grapes grown in Washington, Oregon and California. It has no vintage date, though "Cask 90" indicates it was made from grapes picked in 1990. The wine is appealing, though it was marked down for lacking Chardonnay character. There is a spicy and lemony zip to a flavor more like Riesling. It is fairly soft, though it should appeal to many people.
1990 Glen Ellen Proprietor's Reserve, California-- A spicy quality not unlike Sauvignon Blanc with lovely fruit and an appley perfume. Nice, quaffable wine.
1989 Robert Alison, California-- Soft and simple, and quite drinkable. A hint of spritz on the tongue dissipates.
1989 Moceri, California-- Leafy, reminiscent of Chenin Blanc. Santa Monica, Rancagua (Chile)-- Oak, fruit and citrus tones. 1990 R.H. Phillips, California-- Muscat-like aroma, like cooked apples. 1990 Fetzer Sundial-- Tropical fruit like golden apples, dull mouth feel. 1988 Mark Swann, South Australia-- Cooked pineapple, a bit tired.
1989 Eye of the Swan Cellars (Sebastiani)-- Pineappley and a hint oxidized, soft and coarse. 1989 Napa Ridge, North Coast-- Green with a trace of old Chenin character; not as fresh as we'd have preferred. 1989 Oak Ridge "Bighorn"-- Light, soft and awkward. 1989 Vendange (Sebastiani)-- dull fruit, heavy, tired. 1989 Sutter Home, California-- Apple and pear, but with a candied aroma and soapy entry; sweet. 1989 Mendocino Estate, Mendocino-- Diffuse flavors, papery finish. 1988 Montpellier-- Green, papery and thin; watery finish.
Poor Wines (listed randomly)