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Prices Stable for French Vintages


A freeze, the worst since 1945, has hit many of the wine-growing regions of France, reducing the potential crop by as much as 50% in some areas.

Even so, French wine officials say that because crops have been so large in recent years, they don't foresee a sharp rise in wine prices.

"The market for Bordeaux wine should not experience any shortage and prices should remain stable," reads a statement from the Bordeaux Wine Council. However, the announcement goes on to compare the freeze to that of the disastrous 1945 freeze and says the freeze will cause a "sharp reduction in this year's harvest compared to those of previous years and will lead to numerous difficulties for wine growers."

The freeze in late April was felt most severely in the Loire Valley and in Pomerol, the region of Bordeaux that has larger plantings of Merlot than of Cabernet Sauvignon.

Damage was reported in other regions too: Beaujolais and Cotes du Rhone production was expected to be half of normal; 33% of the Champagne crop was destroyed and extensive damage was reported in Cognac.

Worst hit may have been the Loire region, where one report says that 95% of the Muscadet and some other appellations were damaged.

Growers say some of the vines might give "second crop" fruit if temperatures are warm over the next few weeks, which could improve the harvest yields. However, one Burgundian producer says weather through mid-May was not as warm as he had hoped: "It's very sad, very sad."

Heublein, as part of the down-scaling of its Christian Brothers wine brand, has listed for sale two of its large Napa Valley properties on Highway 29, including the well-known Greystone winery north of St. Helena.

Greystone, a 117,000-square-foot facility, has been used largely as a tourist center for the last decade. It was last used to make wine in 1984, when bulk-method sparkling wine was produced there. A real estate firm listed the property with an asking price of $10 million.

The other Heublein property for sale is its relatively new wine-making plant in Oakville, near Heublein's two major wineries, Inglenook and Beaulieu. That facility is also listed for $10 million.

Ron Batori, a spokesman for Heublein, says the firm hopes to consolidate Napa Valley wine-making facilities at a single winery, meaning that the two additional properties were not needed.

Heublein also recently sold a 124-acre Napa Valley vineyard to UCC Vineyards Group, a limited partnership that owns a number of premium vineyards in Napa and Sonoma counties and sells grapes to premium wineries on long-term contracts.

Batori says the listing of Greystone is "one of a series of options we're looking at." He says the Greystone name is part of any deal to sell the building. At one point the company had planned to develop a brand of wines called Greystone Cellars--an option now open to potential buyers of the building.

The Christian Brothers, a Catholic teaching order, bought Greystone in 1950. In recent years it was used for wine storage and as a major tourist attraction. At its peak, the visitor's center hosted nearly 300,000 visitors annually.

In 1981, the center was closed because it was not earthquake-safe. The main wing of the building was reinforced and the facility re-opened in 1988, but a year later, in a deal valued at $200 million, the Brothers sold the winery, 1,200 acres of prime vineyard land, ancillary facilities and inventory to Heublein, a division of Grand Metropolitan of Great Britain.

Grand Met's main interest in the Christian Brothers was not wine, however. It was brandy, which accounted for some 80% of the winery's revenues.

Soon after buying the winery, the Christian Brothers' wines were down-scaled to $5-per-bottle blended varietals--to eliminate competition from Heublein's upscale Inglenook and BV brands.

The Interstate Commerce Commission has ruled that jurisdiction over the controversial Napa Valley Wine Train is under the California Public Utilities Commission.

The ICC previously had ruled that the wine train, operating on tracks established by Southern Pacific Railroad, was under its authority. But it reopened the case following a court decision affecting a small rail line in Illinois.

The ICC ruled that the wine train failed to show a direct link with interstate commerce or transportation, such as continuing freight operations to other states or to passenger traffic with Amtrak.

Norm Manzer, head of Friends of the Napa Valley, which fought the wine train, said the ICC ruling "removed that cloud of jurisdictional dispute that existed, and it is clear-cut now that the PUC is the lead agency" in ruling on how the wine train may be operated.

The ruling also revives the hope that wine train officials will be required to mitigate environmental impacts on the Napa Valley. At a series of public hearings before the PUC in early 1990, public outcry demanded that the PUC require the wine train to guarantee that its operation would in no way negatively impact the wineries of the valley.

"All of the testimony that had previously been given at the public hearings is on record," Manzer says, "and it's my understanding that the PUC will call for an entirely new EIR (environmental impact report)."

Wine of the Week

1990 Chateau Ste. Michelle Dry Riesling, River Ridge ($7)-- Here is a prototype Washington State Riesling, showing spice and pear-fruit quality in the aroma and the faint steeliness of a near totally dry finish. This is a perfect wine to match with food in place of Chardonnay.

It should be wonderful with crab dishes or delicate entrees. A number of wine makers in California, Oregon and Washington are now making Riesling in this dry style, and it is a superb alternative to high-priced (and often over-oaked) Chardonnay.

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