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Good News: The Nouveau Niche

April 15, 1993|DAN BERGER | TIMES WINE WRITER

Competition in the medium-priced wine bracket means that the $8-to-$10 price niche is growing very crowded with bargains. There are two main reasons for this. Three major brands--Sundial of Fetzer Vineyards, M.G. Vallejo of Glen Ellen and Napa Ridge of Beringer Vineyards--have moved out of the so-called pop-premium field ($4 to $6 per 750-milliliter bottle), preferring to make better wine and charge more for it. And some wines which were previously overpriced at $10 to $12 are now selling for less than $10.

Fetzer's Sundial Chardonnay, which now has a suggested retail price of about $8 (it was $7 until recently), is floral, with an attractive tropical fruit aroma, and more complexity than in the past from oak fermentation. Alongside this wine, Fetzer has placed two attractive additions to the line it calls the proprietary line. A 1990 Fetzer Eagle Peak Merlot and 1990 Valley Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon are well made, with good varietal character and deep, rich flavors.

The M.G. Vallejo line was introduced by Glen Ellen in 1986 as a parallel line to Glen Ellen's Proprietors Reserve line. That brand never took off strongly, so three years later, Glen Ellen used it for 1.5-liter bottles. In this third incarnation, M. G. Vallejo now is stictly fine-quality, oak-aged Chardonnay and Cabernet and a White Zinfandel of higher quality than in the past.

Beringer's Napa Ridge line, once merely aimed at volume sales and made from grapes from widely flung regions, now is a smaller, more quality-oriented line of wines priced at $8 to $9. Two reserve wines, a 1989 Cabernet and a 1991 Chardonnay, priced at $12, are to be released in June.

There are other excellent values in the under-$10 price category. The following personal list includes wineries that make consistently good wine and sell it for a modest price. Many of these wines are discounted below $8.

Parducci: Longtime Mendocino producer specializing in delicious, flavorful Sauvignon Blancs and Chardonnays, gracefully fruity Pinot Noirs and deeply flavored Petite Sirahs.

Seghesio: Northern Sonoma County winery that has hit its stride in the last two years with a string of great wines, notably Zinfandel, Cabernet, Chardonnay and a spectacular Sauvignon Blanc.

Columbia Crest: The great success of this Washington winery's Merlot has kicked its price to $11.50, but the 1991 Chardonnay ($8.50) and Semillon-Chardonnay ($7.50) are superb values.

Chateau Ste. Michelle: The parent winery to Columbia Crest sells its top wines above $10, but bargain hunters love the 1991 Riesling ($6.25) and Semillon ($6.25). And the 1991 Chardonnay at $9.50 is a winner.

Castoro Cellars: There may be no more consistently good, well-priced Cabernet in California than this San Luis Obispo County winery's at $10. The other wines (notably a fine Fume Blanc at $6.50) are excellent.

Estancia: Franciscan Vineyards' companion brand using fruit from Alexander Valley offers very fine Chardonnay and Cabernet in the $9 price range.

Louis Martini: One of the Napa Valley's oldest winemaking families continues to make splendid red wines (Cabernet, Zinfandel, Barbera) as well as a newly improved line of white wines.

Villa Mt. Eden: Consulting winemaker Jed Steele (who made Kendall-Jackson a dominant Chardonnay producer) has helped to turn this brand into a value leader in deeply scented and flavored Chardonnay, Cabernet and Zinfandel.

Belvedere: Once all of this Sonoma County winery's top wines were above $10. A recent declassification of the brand without a loss in quality has turned it into a bargain. The winery's Zinfandel is one of the better ones in the county.

Seven Oaks: San Jose-based winery J. Lohr uses this designation for a dramatic Cabernet from the Paso Robles area. Its other wines are priced around $9, too, and all are good values.

R.H. Phillips: Based in Esparto, northwest of Sacramento, this small winery makes attractive red wines, many of them in the style of the Rhone, and a wine called Cuvee Rouge (a Rhone blend) is excellent in 1.5-liter bottles at less than $10.

Buena Vista: Once higher priced, this Carneros-based winery now has excellent Chardonnay and Pinot Noir at the $10 level that rival more expensive wines.

Trefethen: This Napa Valley winery's Eshcol Red and Eshcol White wines have been revamped into a Chardonnay and a Cabernet/Merlot blend. The price has risen about $1 a bottle to $8.75, but the wines are excellent.

Other good values in the price range are from Liberty School; Wente (the Central Coast wines); Mirassou (especially Pinot Blanc); Sebastiani "Sonoma Series" (especailly the 1990 Zinfandel); Ivan Tamas and Round Hill.

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