IT'S EASY to pick on California wine. Too easy.
Consider the charges: boring sameness, pathological fad-following, obsession with technology, ego-driven pricing, low acidity, artificially high acidity, excessive alcohol, insufficient elegance, paucity of flavor, excessive yields and pretentiousness the first degree.
Forget the jury. The kangaroo court has no difficulty disposing of these charges. Guilty on all counts. Off with their heads.
But wait. There are mitigating circumstances. Yes, they're a minority, but there are wineries that do display imagination. There are grape-growers who learn from the soil rather than try to teach it to do tricks. There are winemakers who understand that they are servants of the wine, not supervisors.
There are still wineries that dare to put real flavors in the bottle, even if they offend some palates. There are still some winery owners who price on the basis of production costs plus a fair markup, not what the guy down the street is asking.
And no, not every California winemaker believes wine was something invented at the University of California at Davis in the early 1970s. There are some who have a thorough knowledge and appreciation of the classical European wine tradition, but who have the good judgment to know Europe is Europe and California is California.
Most importantly, California is still a pioneering wine region. Yes, some folks are stuck in the mud, but the California industry still has its share of rebels, curmudgeons, fanatics and dreamers who have never lost sight of the fact that California is a very young wine-growing region where few questions have been definitively answered.
The following wineries each represent, in some way, the best of California. This isn't a 10 best list. It isn't a ranking. It's not a list of personal favorites, and it certainly isn't a guarantee that every wine each of these wineries makes is a success. In each case, there are other candidates -- magnificent wineries -- who could have also represented the same qualities. My apologies to all.
Each of the following wineries has a lesson to teach. They represent diverse approaches, traditions and market niches. In some cases, their lessons are directly contradictory. In that respect, wine is a lot like life itself.
What these wineries do have in common is integrity and the opportunities they offer for the discriminating consumer to enjoy wines that challenge the mind and please the senses.
BONNY DOON VINEYARD
Santa Cruz County
Owners: Alan and Randall Grahm.
Winemaker: Randall Grahm.
History: Founded 1981.
Production: 30,000 (includes distilled products).
Other labels: Ca' del Solo, Grahm Crew.
Bonny Doon is the Monty Python of wineries. Its motto might as well be, "And Now for Something Completely Different."
Every year -- actually it seems like every month -- Randall Grahm comes up with some new harebrained scheme. First there was Rhone varieties, then pot-still brandy, then "ice wines" straight from the freezer, then fruit wine "infusions," then grappa (a kind of Italian cross between eau de vie and rocket fuel), then Italian wine varieties.
Now, says long-suffering Bonny Doon general manager Patrice Boyle, Mr. Grahm is talking about trying his hand at sherry.
In fact, all these gyrations would be rather pathetic if it weren't for one thing: Randall Grahm is one hell of a winemaker.
From his rich, chunky Chateauneuf-du-Pape takeoff (Le Cigare Volant) to his crisp, Provence-style rose (Vin Gris de Cigare), to his nouveau-style grenache (Clos de Gilroy), to his impressively authentic version of white Hermitage (Le Sophiste), Mr. Grahm's Rhone-style wines have led the way for the pioneering band of California winemakers dubbed "the Rhone Rangers."
And now his new Italian-style label, Ca' del Solo, has produced a delightfully crisp and aromatic Malvasia Bianca, a simply irresistible white wine for summertime drinking. There's nothing in California quite like it. (The other new release under that label, a lightly sweet white muscat, doesn't quite capture the zing of the Italian moscatos that inspired it.)
Mr. Grahm also made a superb estate-bottled chardonnay before he tore out the vineyard and replaced it with two Rhone white varieties, marsanne and roussanne.
In addition to making completely different wines, Mr. Grahm also takes a perverse pleasure in testing the limits of the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms with his completely different wine labels, complete with some of the worst puns since grapes were first stomped.
"Randall doesn't know he's going to die," says Ms. Boyle, "so he just does what he feels like doing."
Wine consumers can only hope he never catches on.
Recommended: 1990 Ca' del Solo Malvasia Bianca ($9.49); 1989 Vin Gris de Cigare ($8.99); 1989 Bonny Doon Chardonnay, La Raina Vineyard ($16.49); 1990 Bonny Doon Grenache, Clos de Gilroy ($8.79); 1989 Bonny Doon Gewurztraminer, Vin de Glaciere ($15/half bottle); 1988 Le Cigare Volant ($22).
Fine wines, fair prices
Owners: Peter Eckes family and Augustin Huneeus.
President: Augustin Huneeus.
Winemaker: Gregory Upton.
History: Founded 1972.
Other label: Estancia.
Production: 160,000 (40,000 Franciscan; 120,000 Estancia).
Sometimes it's easy to overlook a winery like Franciscan. There are no exotic wines, no eye-catching prices, no oddball antics.
All Franciscan does is make very good, sometimes exceptional, wines and charge less for them than virtually any other top-flight winery in the Napa Valley.
That's not to say Franciscan is a "budget" label. Most of its wines are priced firmly above $10. But its wines routinely sell for $4 to $5 less than those of comparable wineries.
Franciscan's pricing policy reflects the views of Augustin Huneeus, the former Paul Masson president who has run Franciscan since 1985.
"Augustin believes wine does not have to be expensive to be good," says Gregory Upton, Franciscan's winemaker.
According to Mr. Upton, Franciscan is able to underprice most other Napa Valley wineries because it owns extensive vineyards in the prime Rutherford Bench area, bought before the price spiral of the 1980s. Consequently, it doesn't have to shell out huge amounts to growers or bankers.
Franciscan makes flavorful wines that don't try to get cute or oversubtle. They are, as Mr. Upton says, "wines that make a statement."
Franciscan's 1987 Oakville Estate Cabernet Sauvignon combines elegance and power, with generous cedar, spice and black currant flavors. At $12 to $13, it rivals many wines that sell for $18 to $20. The 1987 Oakville Estate Meritage -- a Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet sauvignon, Cabernet franc and merlot -- is even more impressive. Its bold, multilayered flavors of cedar, chocolate and spice rival the complexity of California's most famous $30 to $50 red wines. Not bad for a wine that sells for $19.
Franciscan also makes a highly regarded chardonnay and merlot and plans to reintroduce red zinfandel.
Besides the Oakville Estate wines, the Franciscan group also offers some of California's best chardonnays and Cabernets in the so-called "fighting varietal" class under the Estancia label. For frugal consumers, they represent some of the best values in the $7 to $9 range.
Recommended: 1987 Franciscan Oakville Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($12.49); 1987 Franciscan Oakville Estate Meritage ($19); 1988 Estancia Chardonnay, Monterey County, ($9).
Owner: Josh Jensen.
Winemaker: Steve Doerner.
History: Established 1975.
Production: 18,000 cases.
Far too much California wine seems to be made from hydroponic grapes. Fruit flavors abound, but no nuance breaks through to suggest the vines were actually grown in the earth.
That's unlikely to ever happen with Josh Jensen's wines. In a positive sense, the founder of Calera is a man with his head in the ground.
Limestone is what Mr. Jensen wanted when he went looking for a winery site back in the 1970s. That's what's found in the soil of Burgundy, and red Burgundy was and is his obsession.
Mr. Jensen found his limestone in San Benito County, a remote location inland from Monterey County where few other wineries have ventured. After acquiring it, he proceeded to plant pinot noir, which at the time was virtually the laughingstock of the California wine industry.
His gamble succeeded. Calera's pinot noirs are among the few in California to show real Burgundian flavor, complete with a smack of earthiness.
There are four Calera estate vineyards planted in pinot noir -- Mills, Reed, Selleck and Jensen. Each is made similarly but displays subtly different shading because of minute difference in soil and exposure.
Mr. Jensen is acutely aware of the Burgundian model for pinot noir, frequently holding public blind tastings in which he matches his wines against some of Burgundy's best. Usually, the Calera wines fare quite well, though they do sometimes stand out as more broad-shouldered than their French counterparts.
Calera does imitate the best Burgundian producers in its gentle, noninterventionist approach in the winery. Wild yeasts are allowed to do their job, and the pinot noirs are not filtered.
In their youth, Calera's pinot noirs can taste a bit raw and stemmy, but with time they soften up and grow closer in style to great Burgundy. The 1985 Jensen pinot noir is just starting to hit its stride, and really won't be at its peak for another five to eight years.
Calera's estate-grown wines don't come cheap -- about $30 -- but that doesn't look so bad when compared with comparable Burgundies.
Besides pinot noir, Calera also makes a tiny amount of the best American viognier, the rare and hard-to-grow white wine grape that makes the Rhone Valley's exceptional Condrieu. It's even more expensive than the pinot noir, if you can ever find it at all, but the wine is a masterpiece.
Chardonnay, also part of the Calera repertoire, is more uneven -- careening from greatness to mediocrity from vintage to vintage.
Recommended: 1990 Calera Viognier, about $35 (very rare); 1987 Calera Mills Pinot Noir (young vines), $28.
LAUREL GLEN VINEYARD
Owner: Patrick Campbell.
Winemaker: Patrick Campbell.
History: Founded 1980.
Production: 5,000 cases.
In California, most winemakers hop around from varietal to varietal like leaf-eating insects.
Some winemakers handle it all quite well, feeling the diverse challenges keep them fresh. Others don't, and the wines show telltale signs of neglect.
But there is a small corps of winemakers in California who prefer to follow a traditional European model: the dedicated vigneron who spends his entire life working with one type of grape on a few familiar patches of soil.
This small group includes some of California's most celebrated winemakers: Randy Dunn (Dunn Vineyards) and his Cabernet sauvignons, Bill Bonetti (Sonoma-Cutrer) and his chardonnays, Jerry Seps (Storybook Mountain) and his zinfandels.
Patrick Campbell, a former professional musician, isn't as well known as some of these stars, but in a brief 11 years his single-minded dedication has built one of the most prestigious and consistent Cabernet houses in California. And his Laurel Glen Vineyard, a 35-acre parcel in the mountains not far from Santa Rosa in Sonoma County, has developed one of the most distinctive signatures of any California wine.
When you taste Laurel Glen, you taste black cherry. Vintage conditions change, one year is earthy and the other elegant, but running through all the wines -- like a wire stringing them together -- is that blast of wonderful black cherry flavor. Another appealing characteristic is that the wines, while firmly structured and capable of aging, are almost always pleasant to drink from the day of their release.
From 1984 on, Laurel Glen has gone from one success to another, with the 1985 and 1987 Cabernets ranking among the top wines of the vintages.
Recommended: 1988 Counterpoint Cabernet Sauvignon ($18); 1986 Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon ($25); 1987 Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon ($25).
New blood, old values
THE ROBERT MONDAVI WINERY
Owner: The Robert Mondavi family.
Co-CEOs: Michael and Tim Mondavi.
Chairman: Robert Mondavi.
Winemaker: Tim Mondavi.
History: Founded 1966.
Production: 1.5 million cases (Oakville and Woodbridge wineries).
The Robert Mondavi Winery was born of a family feud -- largely the result of an ill-prepared transition from generation to generation.
Robert Mondavi was the loser in that celebrated squabble, but after a struggle he came out of it as master of his own house -- a winery whose reputation would eclipse that of the Charles Krug Winery, the prize his brother Peter wrested from him in 1966.
Mr. Mondavi would go on to become the most celebrated figure in the Napa Valley and a spokesman for the entire wine industry. Never forgotten amid the success, however, were the lessons of that ugly rift. The incident would leave Mr. Mondavi determined that the next transition would go forward without rancor.
By all appearances, the Robert Mondavi family has carried out a textbook transition. With the recent retirement of Robert Mondavi, Michael Mondavi and his brother Tim have jointly inherited the duties of chief executive officer.
This would all be inside baseball if it were not for one practical result of the transition: Robert Mondavi wines are better than ever. For many years the sons learned from the father; in recent years it has become clear the father has been learning from the sons. The result is new energy for a winery that had begun to lose some of its early luster.
"In the mid- to late '80s, we got a little complacent," Michael Mondavi says. "We became desk jockeys instead of wine makers and wine marketers."
But now the Mondavis are going back to the energy of the early days when Robert Mondavi co-founded the winery with his teen-age sons.
"We should take the attitude that it's Robert Who again," says Michael Mondavi, who remembers the days when he was introduced in New York as "Michael Mogen-David."
That attitude is already paying off in the glass. The cabernets, which had lost some of their 1970s luster in the early 1980s, have bounced back with a vengeance. From 1985 on, Robert Mondavi reserve has bounced back to the top ranks of California cabernet.
Pinot noir, which had baffled the family for more than a decade, has finally hit its stride with a very good 1986 reserve and a magnificent 1988 reserve.
If there's a weak spot in the Mondavi lineup now, it's
chardonnay, as shown in a harsh, hollow 1988 regular bottling and a middling 1988 reserve. According to Michael Mondavi, the family is well aware that chardonnay is a trouble area and is taking steps to shore it up.
Recommended: Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve ($32); 1986 Robert Mondavi Pinot Noir Reserve ($25).
Owner: James L. Barrett.
Winemaker: James P. "Bo" Barrett.
History: Founded 1882; re-established 1972.
Production: 30,000 cases.
Chateau Montelena is one of the most boring wineries in California. It's also one of the most exciting.
Where some other great wineries find strength in constant re-evaluation and bold experimentation, Montelena prizes stability and predictability. In the 1970s, it settled on a style it liked and hasn't wavered.
"Trends come and go and Montelena's Montelena," says James P. "Bo" Barrett, winemaker and son of the owner. Ten years ago, skin contact for chardonnay was the newest thing. Montelena said no. Then it was 100 percent charred new oak barrels. Montelena said no. Most recently, Bo Barrett said, "stirring up the dead yeast" is the rage. Montelena said no.
Montelena has plenty of reason to resist change. Its wines -- Cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and zinfandel -- all are classics of their type. All emphasize the taste of the fruit over the influence of oak. Vintage conditions may vary, but the house style remains the same and the quality is consistently excellent.
With Cabernet, Montelena emphasizes French-style structure but unapologetically Californian flavors. The wines are bold, dramatic and long-lived, with the distinct chocolate overtones that mark Cabernets from the Calistoga area in the north end of the Napa Valley.
Montelena's chardonnays are reserved, dignified but full-bodied -- Meursault with extra muscle. Unlike most California chardonnays, they age very well, often peaking between five and 10 years and lasting well beyond a decade.
The zinfandel is made in a claret style rather than the broad, mouth-filling, berryish style of a Ravenswood or Lytton Springs. It's still zinfandel, with plenty of rippling muscle and characteristic flavor, but it's dressed in a three-piece suit and fit for polite company.
In any case, Montelena's not about to change its approach. People may complain that it is conservative to the point of complacency, but that doesn't bother the Barretts. They say the customers like the house style the way it is.
Recommended: 1987 Chateau Montelena Napa Valley Zinfandel ($14); 1986 Chateau Montelena Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 1987 Chateau Montelena Napa Valley Chardonnay ($27).
The California-Italian tradition
J. PEDRONCELLI WINERY
Owners: Jim and John Pedroncelli.
Winemaker: John Pedroncelli.
History: Established 1904, bought by Pedroncellis 1927, bonded Production: 100,000 cases.
J. Pedroncelli is a quiet winery. You don't see it in many ads. Sometimes you can't find it in the best stores. It doesn't win 90-point ratings from the Wine Advocate.
"Maybe we're not really flashy," Jim Pedroncelli says.
But Pedroncelli represents something important in the history of the California wine industry: the down-to-earth philosophy of the Italian families with names like other choices -- Parducci, Foppiano and Seghesio, those who dominated the state's winemaking until the wine boom of the 1970s.
"We look at wine as an everyday beverage and not a special occasion," says Jim Pedroncelli. "That's kind of the way we grew up."
The winery's prices and quality reflect that viewpoint. You don't get collectible boutique wines from the Pedroncellis; you get well-made, thoroughly enjoyable wines for affordable prices -- usually under $10. Occasionally they throw in a real sleeper, such as an exceptionally fresh and charming 1990 fume (sauvignon) blanc, with lots of zip, a long finish and bold, grassy varietal character. Don't buy it if you like your fume blanc to taste like chardonnay. This is the real thing.
More often, however, Pedroncelli's strength is consistency, especially with zinfandel (red and white), chardonnay, a dry chenin blanc and a well-made nonvintage dry white table wine. Cabernet sauvignon can be variable, however, and its overly herbal 1987 is not a disappointment after its fine 1986.
Best current buys: 1990 Fume Blanc, Dry Creek Valley ($8); 1988 Zinfandel, Sonoma County ($9); White Table Wine ($7.99/1.5 liters); 1989 Chardonnay, Dry Creek Valley ($11).
Strength in diversity
JOSEPH PHELPS VINEYARDS
Owner: Joseph Phelps.
Winemaker: Craig Williams.
History: Founded 1972.
Production: 90,000 cases.
Other labels: Innisfree, Neyers, Vin du Mistral.
Few wineries anywhere do as many things as well as Joseph Phelps.
Its Cabernet sauvignons are among the most prized in California; its sweet dessert wines rival the best of France and Germany; it makes one of the state's best gewurztraminers, one of its best dry rieslings, an underrated chardonnay and an excellent Alexander Valley zinfandel.
And last year, it launched a new label, Vin du Mistral, for its Rhone-style wines.
It's all a bit mind-boggling, but winemaker Craig Williams says diversity has its advantages. Not the least of them is that he's having fun.
"It not only helps us keep fresh," he says. "It also provides us with better insight on how to better create some of our standard wines." The Vin du Mistral project, in particular, has spun off useful ideas for growing other varieties, he adds.
Nevertheless, Mr. Williams admits that Phelps is about at the limit of what it can do well.
"I will confess that I thought it was going to get easier as we grew," he says. "It's becoming increasingly difficult to make all of these wines that we're making."
Mr. Williams says the winery is in a critical phase in its latest effort to reinvent itself. The root louse phylloxera is chewing its way through many of the vineyards that were planted 20 years ago on nonresistant rootstock, and fundamental decisions must be made about replanting vines.
For Mr. Williams, there is opportunity in calamity. The need to replant is forcing the winery to re-evaluate not only which varietals it plants but how it plants them. Everything is up for grabs, and Mr. Williams feels certain Phelps can improve its vineyard practices.
For now, however, Phelps is doing quite well with its present methods. The Vin du Mistral label has a strong lineup, with a spicy Rouge blend that resembles a French Bandol, a crisp Grenache rose, a meaty syrah and a delicate white wine from the rare viognier grape. And if there's been any fall-off in the quality of the rest of Phelps' lineup, it isn't apparent.
Recommended: 1989 Joseph Phelps Gewurztraminer ($11); 1987 Joseph Phelps Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($18); 1989 Joseph Phelps Chardonnay ($12.59); 1989 Innisfree Chardonnay ($8.29); Vin du Mistral Rouge ($13.49); Vin du Mistral Syrah ($13.49); 1990 Vin du Mistral Viognier ($19).
Complexity through simplicity
Owner: Joel Peterson.
Winemaker: Joel Peterson.
History: Established 1976.
Production: 40,000 cases.
There's no mystery to why Joel Peterson makes great wines. It's simple.
He keeps crop yields low in order to concentrate the fruit, he uses wild yeasts and he tries not to tamper with the wine too much as it basically makes itself. Then, before bottling, he filters only very lightly -- preferably not at all.
There's "not a lot of razzle-dazzle" at the Ravenswood winery, Mr. Peterson says.
The wines, however, can be dazzling. Mr. Peterson's simple, straightforward approach consistently yields some of the richest, most concentrated and complex wines made in California.
"What I aim for is intense and full wine . . . spicy and full-flavored, lots of complexity and multiple layers," Mr. Peterson says.
That's a description that rings especially true with Ravenswood zinfandels. Yes, Mr. Peterson makes Cabernet sauvignon and merlot too, and some are excellent, but it's the often underappreciated zinfandel that is the flagship.
Ravenswood makes a multitude of zinfandels, from the fruity, forward and attractively priced Vintner's Blend to the excellent Sonoma County bottling to the awe-inspiring Old Hill, Dickerson and Cooke single-vineyard wines.
The Vintner's Blend is, in fact, a very appealing, exuberant, spicy red wine that is fit to be drunk young. The price, still under $10 when many zins have cracked that barrier, is very attractive.
While the Vintner's Blend is easy to find in virtually any good wine store, the single-vineyard bottlings are very difficult to obtain. It's best to talk with your retailer about ordering the wines.
Besides zinfandel, Ravenswood makes one of California's best merlots (although 1988, a difficult year, was a bit off stride) and a superb Cabernet sauvignon from the Pickberry Vineyard. Ravenswood's chardonnay also shows promise, though reds are what this winery does best.
Recommended: 1988 Vintners Blend Zinfandel ($9.49); 1988 Zinfandel, Sonoma County ($14); 1987 Cabernet Sauvignon, Pickberry Vineyard (about $30).
The new wine country
Santa Barbara County
Owner: Richard Sanford.
Winemaker: Bruno d'Alfonso.
Production: 30,000 cases.
The easiest way to understand why Sanford Winery is where it is, doing what it's doing, is to think of California as upside-down.
Look at a map and it would be easy to jump to the conclusion that Santa Barbara County, just north of Los Angeles, must be much warmer than Napa County, hundreds of miles to the north near San Francisco.
Not true, says winery owner Richard Sanford, who as a geography student at Berkeley sat down two decades ago and pored over climatic records for the entire West Coast in hopes of finding the best match for the Burgundy grape varieties he loved.
"Santa Barbara County has a unique mountain range," he explains. Unlike the rest of the state's ranges, it runs east-west, funneling the cool winds of the Pacific into the Santa Ynez Valley and creating one of the coolest microclimates in California.
So in 1970, Mr. Sanford planted what is now one of the oldest vineyards in the county with pinot noir and chardonnay, the red and white stars of Burgundy, and sauvignon blanc. (Cabernet sauvignon doesn't ripen in this climate.) After an earlier venture dissolved, he founded the present winery in 1981.
Although Sanford has been in business for 10 years, recognition has been slow. But consumers who taste Sanford's delicate, authentically Burgundian pinot noir and crisp, lively chardonnay should be able to get over their Napa-Sonoma fixation in a hurry.
Sanford's sauvignon blanc might prove a little more controversial because of its bold herbaceousness, quite reminiscent of some great Loire whites, but it's a well-made wine.
Recommended: 1987 Sanford Pinot Noir ($17); 1989 Sanford Chardonnay ($17); 1989 Sanford Sauvignon Blanc ($11).