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The Brothers Gallo and Their $60 Cabernet


Late last year, Ernest Gallo announced that his E & J Gallo Winery in Modesto would release a Cabernet Sauvignon selling for $60 and a Chardonnay selling for $30.

The wine trade greeted the announcement with a collective raised eyebrow. Merchants wanted to know how Gallo expected customers to shell out $30, let alone $60, when the company had yet to put out a Cabernet or Chardonnay worth even $15. Wine lovers debated what constitutes value in wine.

The conclusion: Wine prices have gotten completely out of hand.

We all know that French wine is expensive, but California winemakers are asking a lot for their wines these days too, and they can't claim the excuse of the weak dollar. I wonder whether recent price hikes for California wines are aimed at simply filling the vacuum created when French wine prices rose even higher.

Moreover, California wine prices rose in the last three years even while the nationwide recession grew worse. They rose even as wine consumption sank like a stone and the amount of unsold wine increased dramatically. (Maybe the industry slept through its wake-up call.)

Meanwhile, I continue to receive press releases that gurgle the glories of overpriced wines--comments that drip platinum prose. What all this folderol does is turn off the people who are just getting into wine. They read that the bottles they must have in the wine cellar are $25 and $40 each. This is simply too much money for newcomers who have yet to discover whether they like Shafer-style or Dunn-style wines. Nuances pale when the prices are so exalted.

Some wineries actually have to charge more for their wine because their production is small and demand is high. Wineries such as Grace Family Vineyard, Dunn Vineyards, Spottswoode Vineyard and Kalin Cellars charge a lot for their wines. Still they sell.

Larger wine companies merely put fat price tags on some of their wines as an advertising device, to imply greatness. It's true that some of their wines are as good as those of the tiny producers, but the essential difference is that it is made in large amounts, and one of the factors that makes wines expensive is supposed to be scarcity.

In the last year, I haven't been able to find a lot of wines worth getting excited over. I have been happy, for instance, to talk about the value in 1990 Geyser Peak Winery Sauvignon Blanc ($6.50); the Strata red wine from Seghesio Winery ($5), and a handful of others. Such is also the case with 1990 Marchesi de Frescobaldi Chianti ($7), which I found at less than $5 in a discount shop. The wine is tart and clean and goes great with pasta.

But the good values are hard to come by these days. The following wines, discovered at random over the last few weeks, are recommended because they are of excellent quality and represent very good value, especially at discounted prices:

1988 Stevenot Vineyards Zinfandel ($8)--A truly classic Amador-style wine with a violet and spice aroma, a dot of American oak, dill-weed and wonderful fruit. Can be found at $7.

1988 Fetzer Vineyards Barrel Select Cabernet ($11)--Substantial, richly textured Cabernet with ample fruit and lovely finish. Occasionally discounted to $8 or so.

1990 Chateau Souverain Chardonnay ($9.85)--Tom Peterson's best effort thus far, with ripe fruit and complex oak notes. A stylish wine occasionally seen in the $7 range. One of the bargains of the year.

1990 David Bruce Winery Grenache "Mrs. Baggins" ($10)--Wonderfully fruity and complex wine with 17% Petite Sirah for richness. Just 400 cases produced, but an excellently structured red wine. A deeper companion, 1990 Cabernet Pfeffer "Mrs. Baggins" ($10), in even shorter supply, is spicier and with more peppery scents. Both excellent.

1990 Gavilan Vineyards Chardonnay ($12.50)--From Chalone, this splendid "richer-styled" wine from the Pinnacles vineyard has ample butterscotch and oak tones. It's worth more than its suggested retail price, and at least one Los Angeles-area wine shop has it for $9.99.

1990 Stone Creek Brand Gewurztraminer ($6)--Lovely sipping wine with floral notes of carnations and gardenias, just over 2% residual sugar, but well balanced so it will match with spicy foods (Sichuan, Thai, Indian). May be found in the $4 range in some places.

1990 Rosemount Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($10)--The Australians have a knack for making good-tasting wine, and this one delivers: fruit and character in a softer wine that will probably hit shelves at $7.99.

1986 Chalk Hill Winery Late Harvest Semillon ($10/half bottle)--This may be the bargain of the year in dessert wines. Made by former winemaker Tom Cottrell, the wine has a perfect Sauternes-type nose of vanilla and honey, with notes of caramel and butterscotch and an amazingly complex finish, not as sweet as it might have been. If it had been from Sauternes, it would have cost twice as much. Stunning wine. Buy some for now, some for the cellar.

Clearly, values can be found, and in every price range. Some of these are even in the $20 range. The challenge is to wade through all the overpriced stuff to find the values.

But the craziness continues. Just last week, Los Angeles wine merchants got a letter from Al Brounstein, owner of Diamond Creek Vineyards, proudly offering "the first California wine to be released at $150 a bottle"--his 1990 Lake Cabernet Sauvignon. The letter said, in part, that "American wines are world class, but until now have not achieved price recognition."

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