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TASTING : But Is It Worth 30 Bucks?


In California, new expensive wines tend to be bigger, richer and showier than lesser-priced wines, full of oak and alcohol and extract, on the theory that if people are going to pay a lot of money for something, they ought to get a big slug of flavor.

In Europe, though, most of the expensive Chardonnays--from Corton-Charlemagne to the biggest, Montrachet--are designed to show the character of the area in which the grapes are grown. They are relatively delicate compared to the fat, lugubrious Chardonnays new California producers specialize in. Only one new expensive California Chardonnay in the last few years, from Woltner Estates, has had the lean, delicate character I associate with great French wine.

So I wondered whether the long-awaited, much-heralded 1991 E & J Gallo Winery Chardonnay, to be priced at $30 and thus more expensive than all but a tiny handful of California Chardonnays, would follow the California pattern and be "bigger" than other Chardonnays. I also wondered whether the wine would show the regional quality of the grapes it used.

Gallo makes the wine from its Chardonnay ranch in the cool Russian River Valley of western Sonoma County, which is known for Chardonnay with apple/pear and spice components. Many delicate Chardonnays are made there. Across the road from Gallo's Laguna Ranch is the property of Tom Dehlinger, who makes Chardonnay in nearly identical soil and microclimate. Up the road two miles, in the similar Green Valley area, is Iron Horse, which makes a classic example of Russian River Chardonnay.

I also knew that the late Julio Gallo, the man responsible for the giant wine company's grape growing and winemaking, liked the taste of fruit more than winemaking production tricks, so I anticipated that the wine would be fresh and show the character of the region.

During a September, 1990 interview, Julio Gallo made the point that he intensely disliked the aroma associated with malolactic fermentation, in which the strong, apple-scented malic acid is converted into the soft, butter-scented lactic acid. He regarded it as a sort of spoilage and said it was prohibited in any white wine at Gallo. He even banned it from Gallo's red wines, though the procedure is common in red wine throughout the world.

So how is the Gallo Chardonnay? Last Thursday I set up a double-blind tasting. The judges were told only that the 14 wines were 1991 California Chardonnays. The bottles (with their capsules removed) were placed in coded bags and the wines were served. Judges ranked the wines from top to bottom, then scored them on a 20-point basis.

Among the seven judges were Richard Arrowood, winemaker of the winery bearing his name and former winemaker (1974 to 1986) for Chateau St. Jean; Gary Farrell, producer of wines under his own name and winemaker since 1978 for Davis Bynum Winery; and Jill Davis, winemaker since 1983 for Buena Vista Vineyards. All three, unknown to them, had wines of their own in the tasting and, interestingly, none identified their own wines. In fact, only one winemaker voted his own wine higher than fifth place.

The results of the judging were revealing. After the top wine, eight wines placed within an eyelash of one another. Here are the results, with the appellation following the name of the producer:

1. J. Rochioli Vineyards, Russian River Valley ($15).

Lean, delicate aroma but with nice oak notes (like toasted hazelnuts); a trace of caramel in the aftertaste. A soft, appealing wine that is refreshingly complete. No first-place votes for this wine, but no votes lower than seventh place. Score: 16.6 of 20.

2. Silverado Vineyards, Napa Valley, ($14.50).

Spiced apple (trace of cinnamon), very crisp and complex, leaning more on acidity than oak for its attractiveness. A delicate, stylish wine that will be excellent with another year or two in the bottle. Score: 16.4.

3. Iron Horse Vineyards, Green Valley ($18).

Another wine of spiced apple fruit, with more green-apple than tropical flavors. Deft handling of the oak. A tart wine, but with masterfully handled fruit. Will be better in a year when the flavors marry a bit. Only one judge criticized the wine, saying it was "a little too citrus-y." Score: 16.3.

4. Armida Winery, Russian River Valley ($10).

Fragrant, floral, spiced notes of grapefruit; lovely handling of the oak, with a supple and creamy entry and crisp finish. Should improve. Good value, occasionally seen at about $8. Score: 16.1.

5. (tie) Gary Farrell Wines, Russian River Valley ($16); Dehlinger Winery, Russian River Valley ($13.50); Arrowood Winery, Sonoma County ($18); Chateau Souverain, "Allen Vineyard Reserve," Russian River Valley ($13.50);

Farrell--A honeyed note adds interest to pear and green apple flavors; complex, toasty wine with a tart/crisp finish. Score: 16.0.

Dehlinger--A bit too much buttery aroma for me, but a wine of good fruit that is soft and appealing. Score: 16.0.

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