The June issue of the British wine magazine Decanter reminded me once again of the difficulties of grasping wine truths from afar. After tasting what the magazine called a "record-breaking" total of 106 California Chardonnays (available in Great Britain), the magazine's panel of tasters concluded that the tasting was, in Decanter's words, a "bomb."
"The quality/price seesaw was way out of balance, as were most of the wines," wrote Decanter Editor Jonathan Goodall. "In a nutshell, the average score was a feeble two stars for wines with an average price of--are you sitting down?--[the equivalent of $10 to $16.50]."
Now, before you start muttering about anti-Americanism or other dark forces, keep in mind that such tastings are neither wrong nor prejudiced. Rather, it's the old story: Most of the good stuff never leaves California, never mind making it all the way across the Atlantic.
And when California's best bottlings do make it to Europe, you can be sure they will be fearsomely priced. After all, they're not cheap even here.
This is an old problem. For example, many of Australia's best wines do not reach our shores. And when they do, they are indeed breathtakingly expensive because the wines have such an ardent following on their home grounds. Are they worth the money? Maybe not to us, but to some Australians they certainly are.
Absent from Decanter's tasting were California Chardonnay benchmarks Au Bon Climat, Babcock Vineyards, Hanzell Vineyards, Kistler Vineyards, Mayacamas Vineyards, Mount Eden Vineyards, Saintsbury, Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards and Qupe, among others.
In fairness, some worthy Chardonnay contenders were present, such as 1995 Beringer "Private Reserve," 1994 Chalone Vineyard, 1994 Far Niente Winery and 1994 Marimar Torres Estate "Don Miguel Vineyard." All of these were awarded three stars out of a possible five.
Although there was nothing wrong with the taste buds of the Decanter panelists, one thing was skewed: an unspoken premise that California wines should be cheap. In other words, how dare California wines cost as much as French?
Few American wine drinkers would be shocked by the British prices cited for some of the highest ranked wines in the tasting. The 1994 Sterling Vineyards Chardonnay, awarded four stars, costs $12 in London. The equally highly rated 1993 Raymond Vineyards Chardonnay goes for $17. Neither wine was deemed good value for money, yet both cost less than most basic white Burgundies sold in Britain.
The four other highest-rated Chardonnays (four stars) were 1993 Byron Reserve (no price quoted), 1995 Geyser Peak Winery ($16), 1995 Landmark Vineyard "Overlook" ($20) and 1995 Rutz Cellars "Dutton Ranch" (no price quoted).
Pity the poor Brits. But be thankful that you have access to the really good stuff. If only they could have tasted some of the California wines that follow. Not only would Decanter's tasters have discovered a top-drawer Chardonnay (selling for--are you sitting down?--$18), but also not one, but two, extraordinary roses. And who ever imagined California as a source for genuinely great rose?
1995 Babcock Vineyards Chardonnay (Santa Barbara County): ($18): Here's a simple clue to Chardonnay quality: Search for '95s from Santa Barbara County. It was an extraordinary vintage due to unusually low yields. This beauty from Babcock Vineyards is a prime example.
Owner-winemaker Bryan Babcock--who is one of California's most innovative winemakers--prominently notes on the front label of his wine "One Ton Per Acre." That's about what every Chardonnay grower in Santa Barbara County got in the '95 vintage. It's a phenomenally low yield, one-third the usual crop. The result is a Chardonnay of remarkable concentration and texture. Yet the wine remain refreshing, due to high acidity.
This bottling is 54% from Babcock's own vineyard near Lompoc, in the Santa Ynez Valley west of Highway 101, with the remainder coming from Bien Nacido Vineyards in the county's other appellation, Santa Maria Valley.
The result is superb: intense, luscious, concentrated, redolent of limes and uplifted by bracing acidity. It is a memorable Chardonnay selling--considering the very low yield--at a reasonable rate by anybody's standards. Look for street prices as low as $14.95.
1996 Swanson Vineyards Sangiovese "Rosato" (Napa Valley) ($11.95): Napa Valley's Swanson Vineyards takes understandable pride in its full-blooded Sangiovese, but it's got to be said: Swanson's 100% Sangiovese rose, brand-named Rosato, is even better.
No winery wants to be known for making a great rose. It's like Mozart played by a steel drum band--wonderful, but never taken seriously. And that pretty much sums up Swanson's 1996 Rosato.