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Adrift in a Sea of Wine

September 01, 1994|DAN BERGER | TIMES WINE WRITER

More good has happened for wine drinkers in the last 20 years than in the previous 200, but the good news is tempered by the confusion that now exists in the wide world of wine.

Not so long ago, there were three kinds of wine: excellent, drinkable and poor. Excellent wine (the top Bordeaux chateaux, a handful of Burgundy producers, the best German and Italian estates and a very few top-rate American and Australian wineries) accounted for a tiny proportion, drinkable wine for somewhat more. But most of the world's wine was pretty poor and (justifiably) unknown outside its own neighborhood.

Technology--in the vineyard, in the winery and in shipping--has changed all that. For one thing, the bottom rung of the old three-level system is all but gone; so little truly poor wine is made now that it is a negligible part of the industry. Today fine and even exceptional wines come from places that previously never dreamed of making anything more than the local populace could swig. This means that demand for these improved wines has increased, prompting their sale thousands of miles from their points of production.

As if this wasn't enough to cram the shelves with good wine, along came the breakup of the Soviet Union, making possible the import of wines from former Soviet satellites, such as Hungary, Bulgaria, Slovenia and Romania. Then apartheid got kicked in the teeth, making South African wines suddenly an import item.

Add to this the rapid rise of quality wine from New York, Texas, Washington, Oregon, New Mexico, Virginia, even Missouri. Factor in the rapid improvement of Chilean wines, the internationalization of vineyards in Spain and Italy (with new plantings of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon) and the more sophisticated marketing of top-rate wines from Australia.

What today's consumer faces is a veritable forest of bottles with unfamiliar names.

The wine lover suffers from that cliched problem, an embarrassment of riches. How do you keep track of all these new wines? Indeed, how do you even find out about them?

Experimentation is one way. Ask wine merchants or knowledgeable waiters to recommend something new and very good to go with the food you're planning to eat.

But be prepared to be surprised by what you find. I usually am. You may not have heard of a "new" property, yet it may be quite old. Other wines come from regions you may never have heard of, or from "wineries" that don't even exist--some "wineries" these days are simply wine brands, such as the Forest Ville brand that Bronco Wine Co. markets. Bronco owns neither vineyards nor a place to make wine but contracts for grapes to be delivered to a winery where space is leased to crush and ferment the wine. Other new winery-less brands blend wine purchased from bulk wine brokers.

Some of the best new labels on the shelf are from newcomers who have developed new wineries on existing vineyards. Among these are excellent producers with names such as Von Strasser, Araujo, Viader, Peter Michael, Fife, Bayview Cellars, Benton-Lane, Seavey and Random Ridge.

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And finally there are brands that exist as second labels, allowing the primary producer the luxury of selling lesser wines at a lower price, brands such as Bell Canyon (Burgess Cellars); Bel Arbors (Fetzer); Canyon Road (Geyser Peak), C.K. Mondavi (Charles Krug); Counterpoint and Terra Rosa (Laurel Glen); Hawk Crest (Stag's Leap Wine Cellars); Gavilan (Chalone), and Liberty School (Caymus Vineyards).

So yes, it is confusing. But today, adventuresome consumers can have good, fairly priced wine in almost every price range--wine that's better than it's ever been.

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