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Prime Time for Mendocino

August 31, 1995|DAN BERGER DAN BERGER..DL: PHILO, Calif.

In 1986, 10 of us sat in a hot, humid blockhouse on the Mendocino County Fairgrounds, having just finished a grim judging of red wines.

The wines, notably the Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots, had left the now-deceased winemaker Myron Nightingale particularly grumpy. (Well, to be honest, Myron was always particularly grumpy.) They were, in general, terrible.

"What'd you expect?" said Myron, nearly spitting out the words. "This is Mendocino. It's not Cabernet country. Oughta tear 'em all out. Too cold."

But Mendocino is moving upscale. Its wine competition is not held in that blockhouse in Boonville anymore. Now it's judged at the state-of-the-art Scharffenberger Winery in Philo, here in the gently rolling Anderson Valley. And the long overdue acclaim for its improved wines is beginning to reach the public.

The bad news is that some of the better wines are in limited supply. The good news is that Mendocino rarely gets the sort of high-volume publicity accorded Napa and Sonoma, so a diligent search should be able to turn them up.

Mendocino wines have been slow to develop for a number of reasons, the main one being a cool climate. In most of this county, grapes don't ripen as fully as in warmer areas, making for less showy wines. (This is not a flaw, though. The more delicate wines of cool-climate regions are often better with food.)

A decade ago, Nightingale was right about the red wines of Mendocino. But today is another story, as was evident from the result sheet at the latest Mendocino County Fair wine judging. Mendocino's red wines have at last reached parity with its whites.

Perhaps it's merely that the last few vintages, notably 1993 and 1994, have been so good. Locals, however, attribute it to improvements in agricultural and production techniques.

Vineyardists have transferred some grape varieties to more appropriate regions, and they have adopted vine-growing techniques that bring more sunlight to the grapes. This allows for more even ripening and better flavor.

In the winery, grape varieties are now treated individually (no longer is Pinot Noir made as if it were Cabernet Sauvignon), and winemakers now use far cleaner methods than were common just a decade ago.

As a result, Mendocino can now produce a wine like the competition's spectacular Best of Show red wine, the 1992 Gemello Vineyards Zinfandel ($17). It's a splendid, powerful, spicy wine with loads of blackberry fruit.

Sophisticates who know of Mendocino's past would argue that it's no surprise that a Zinfandel would win top honors here, since for more than a decade that grape has been the county's one consistently good red. And they're right: Of the 21 Zinfandels entered in the competition, 19 won medals.

But many reds made from other grapes were very impressive, too, including the 1993 Navarro Vineyards Pinot Noir "Methode Ancienne" ($16), 1992 Husch Vineyards Cabernet "La Ribera Vineyard" ($14), 1993 Lolonis Vineyards Merlot ($16) and 1992 Navarro Cabernet Franc ($16). Incidentally, I liked the 1993 Claudia Springs Winery Zinfandel from the Pacini Ranch ($14) more than the sweepstakes-winning Zinfandel from Gemello because of better balance and more accessible fruit.

The white wines, always exceptional, have really proved themselves in the market in the last decade. Among the best wines I tasted here were a wonderful 1993 Fetzer Vineyards Fume Blanc ($7, a real bargain); 1993 Navarro Gewurztraminer ($11), still one of the finest white wines made in this country; and the splendid, delicate, minty-fruity 1994 Chardonnay from Husch Vineyards ($11.50), a complex wine that is a delight now but will be better in a year.

Then there were the surprises, the wines that excited me because of their uniqueness. One of these was 1994 Jepson Vineyards "Chateau d'Alicia," named after the wife of Robert Jepson, owner of the property.

This amazing, fresh and fruity wine is made by longtime winemaker Kurt Lorenzi entirely from 50-year-old estate-grown French Colombard grapes. The wine has an aroma of melons and spices and is off-dry (1.8% residual sugar) and stunningly fresh, a perfect wine for hot-weather sipping.

Although available only at the winery, the wine may be ordered by telephone. Call (707) 468-8936. It sells in the tasting room for $5 a bottle, and including tax and shipping and factoring in the discount for case purchases, California resident may order a case of this attractive wine for a total of $58.11. (Out-of-state shipments may be slightly higher.)

Another sleeper wine: 1991 Parducci Charbono ($7). This red Italian grape variety usually makes a coarse, tannic wine with a dusty-plummy aroma. Here, however, Parducci offers a more minty, cherry-like aroma and more graceful texture. It's a great wine with hearty pasta.

A third wine to get excited over: 1994 Handley Cellars Pinot Meuniere "Pinot Mystere" ($18), a marvelously scented and flavorful red wine from the most widely planted grape of Champagne, but one that is hardly planted in California at all.

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