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WINE

Money Talks but Quality Tells

November 16, 1995|DAN BERGER

Experts in sensory evaluation say it's difficult to judge a wine by looking at the label. The gloss of a high-quality producer's name or the dull image of a perennial loser can often change even the most steely evaluator's mind. For that reason, I have long done major evaluations of wines double-blind, without sight of the labels and without knowing which wines are being tasted.

That paid off recently when a $12 Cabernet Sauvignon finished first in a group of 45 similar wines, some priced as high as $75 a bottle.

I tasted these wines in several settings, and the winner of all the evaluations was the cheapest wine in the first group. Frankly, I doubt I would have liked the wine quite as much had I known that it sells in discount shops for close to $10 a bottle.

The top wines, in order of preference:

* 1993 Rodney Strong Vineyards ($12): Ripe cherry and faintly toasty aroma; a very attractive texture, soft and appealing, with enough tannin for aging. Loads of fruit, just enough herbal notes to reveal its varietal base and a classic finish. A great achievement by winemaker Rick Sayre.

The wine was made from grapes from a number of Sonoma County vineyards, including those in warmer and cooler areas. By its label alone, one might be tempted to simply dismiss it as a nice, well-made wine.

In particular, if one knew that about 50,000 cases were made, the prejudgment would have diminished its score. Widely available wine isn't supposed to be this good.

* 1993 Francis Ford Coppola ($18): Lovely fruit (more like Merlot); soft entry and a graceful lighter-weight finish. Only 190 cases produced. For details, call (707) 963-9099.

* 1991 Chimney Rock Vineyards ($18): Ripe red currant and faint herbal notes; a bit hard, but with ample fruit to age. Better with air. One of the few 1991s in the tasting.

* 1992 Spottswoode Vineyards ($32): Truly ripe and rich with scents of red and black currants and very deep flavors. Needs at least three more years to open up.

* 1992 Joseph Phelps Vineyards "Backus Vineyard" ($35): Very deep, concentrated, powerful black cherry and cassis aroma; hints of chocolate and anise and a hard, dense aftertaste. A wine for the next decade.

* 1992 Beringer Vineyards "Private Reserve" ($35): More complex than most with notes of cassis, anise and herbs, but with the typical Beringer "PR" hardness. Needs a decade to reach full greatness.

* 1992 Staglin Vineyards ($26): Herbs and cherries, quite a bit of tannin, but time will cure it. More elegant than most.

* 1992 Joseph Phelps Vineyards' "Insignia" ($50): Nowhere near as impressive as Phelps' 1991 Insignia, but lovely herbal-cherry aroma and fruit strong enough to hold up to aggressive tannin.

* 1992 St. Clement Vineyards ($20): Concentrated black cherry and delicate herbal notes. A big chewy wine with graceful aftertaste. Should be great in a few years.

* 1992 Cain "Cuvee" ($12): Lovely aroma of dill and other dried herbs; good fruit, nice structure. Better than Cain Cellars' more expensive ($35) blended wine called Cain Five, which was dull in fruit, hard and oaky.

* 1993 Diamond Creek Vineyards' "Volcanic Hill" ($75): Not as dense and inky as some past vintages but with the same sort of powerful, cassis/herbal aroma and a load of tannin. More approachable than some wines of the past. Nice effort, but pricey.

If label image and price had been a factor in judging these wines, some of the following might have scored better:

* 1992 Heitz Cellar "Martha's Vineyard" ($75): Leathery, faintly dank aroma, a bit overripe with a mushroom-like taste. Not a bad wine, but not worth anything approaching its release price.

* 1991 Merryvale Vineyards' "Profile" ($36): A cooked taste overrides meager fruit.

* 1991 Shafer Vineyards' "Hillside Select" ($45): Ungraceful, clumsy, attenuated wine that seems manipulated. Not up to this fine house's past great efforts.

* 1991 Oakford Cellars ($25): Vinegary, jam-like, rock-hard with tannins and already getting tired.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Wine of the Week

1993 Zoveto, Chianti Ruffina ($7)-- With the rapid increase in popularity of Italian cuisine worldwide, demand for top-quality Chianti Classico has grown. As its sales have increased, so has price. Long gone are the days when we could pop into a local grocery store and grab a bottle of good, sound, dry, tart Chianti for $6 or $7 to serve with spaghetti.

Chianti Ruffina, a much smaller region with no major producers, remains underrated in terms of quality, although some of the best vineyards in all of Tuscany are here. This wine earned the highest-quality seal, DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita), awarded only to wines of exemplary character. The aroma is pure Sangiovese (Zoveto is an ancient form of the word for that grape), with cranberry and clove aroma, tart entry and a light, crisp finish perfect for pasta with tomato sauce and other equally tart dishes.

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