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Drinking Hard to Get

March 26, 1997|MATT KRAMER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

They're an endless aggravation for wine drinker and writer alike: hard-to-get wines.

The story is an old one, but these days it's taken on headline proportions. Thanks to an outsize demand for fine wine, not just in this country but also in the more prosperous parts of Asia, Switzerland, Germany and northern Italy, supplies are tight.

Although per capita wine consumption is declining everywhere, including in those strongholds of wine tippling, France and Italy, the aggregate statistical picture doesn't quite tell the story. It's the consumption of cheap bulk wines that's down. For better-quality wines, it's way up.

A buoyant economy surely has helped. Not least is the fact that the ubiquitous baby boomers--and their counterparts in other countries--are in their peak earning years.

Making matters worse is that both California and Europe saw small crops in recent vintages. In Europe, it's been a matter of either lesser-quality vintages (1991, '92, '94) or, as with the '95 vintage, which was excellent everywhere in Europe, a small crop because of late, irregular flowering during a cool spring.

The California difficulty is mostly attributable to phylloxera. This nearly microscopic root louse has infected tens of thousands of acres since the late '80s, forcing owners to uproot whole vineyards and replant them with more resistant rootstocks. We will soon see a surplus of California wine, however, as the new vines begin to bear fruit.

In the meantime, though, the best wines are hard to get. What supplies exist are stretched thinner than ever across more markets than ever before. Remember when the East Coast sneered at California wines? No more. Of course, prices are higher than ever.

Sure, there are still plenty of wines on the shelves. And many of them are swell. But there's no denying that if you're searching for something really distinctive--either in price or quality--it takes a bit more effort these days. The silver lining is that quality has never been better.

The following wines are hard to get, if only by reason of limited production. In some cases, that means just a few hundred cases. In other cases, the supply may seem generous, but it really isn't because the wine is so popular. But the game is afoot and, yes, the wines can be gotten--and they're worth getting.

*1995 Byron Vineyard & Winery Chardonnay "Santa Barbara County" ($16.95): Here's an example of nature affecting the market. In 1995, throughout Santa Barbara County and much of the Central Coast, an extremely cool spring dramatically reduced the crop size. Winemaker Byron "Ken" Brown tells the story succinctly. "In our estate vineyard, the typical yield is about 2 3/4 tons to the acre," he says. "In '95 we got 0.9 ton per acre."

Although such extremely low yields are not essential for quality, they can help. And there's no doubt that '95 will probably be a vintage that fans of Santa Barbara County wines will be talking about for years to come. Brown is not the sort given to hyperbole. Yet even he says, "The quality of the wines is, without question, the best across the board of any vintage in my more than 20 years of making wines in Santa Barbara County."

This is buttressed by Byron's just-released '95 Chardonnay. This is what followers know as the "regular" bottling; the '95 Estate is scheduled for release later. Yet 60% of this wine comes from the same vineyard as the estate-bottled wine.

Byron has long been one of the consistently best sources of textbook Santa Barbara County Chardonnays. What that means is a rich, intense, downright luscious Chardonnay infused with the signature Santa Barbara scents of coconut and lime.

In the ultra-low yield '95 vintage, Byron's "Santa Barbara County" Chardonnay offers these qualities with greater depth than perhaps ever before. Even more impressive is that it does so without seeming excessive. There's real flavor definition here, also with refreshing acidity. This is the sort of rich, intense wine that many Chardonnay fans dream about. Look for a street price as low as $12.95, which makes this a flat-out bargain, given the uneconomical low yield.

*1995 Mayacamas Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc ($14): Mayacamas Vineyards, 2,000 feet above the Napa Valley floor in the Mayacamas Mountains, has one of California's longest histories of wine elusiveness. Not only has Mayacamas always been a tiny winery, but the site's stony soil and high elevation painfully restrict its vineyard yields.

Founded in the late 1800s and revived in the 1940s, Mayacamas has been owned and very personally run by the Travers family since 1968. They make wine--Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Zinfandel, among others--their way, with barely a nod to the wine fashion of the moment.

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