Out of 32 1990 California chardonnays tasted recently, the following represent the best bets for the consumer in terms of quality and value. The sample group represents only a small fraction of the chardonnays on the market, so this list is no substitute for the advice of a capable wine retailer.
The very best
* Kistler, Dutton Ranch, Russian River Valley ($26.99). Is anybody in California making better chardonnay than Kistler? I can think of some peers but no superiors. This enormous, intensely flavored wine comes as close to the character of great white Burgundy as California chardonnay ever does. Like top-flight Burgundy and unlike most California chardonnays, it will improve with age. It offers flavors of lemon, toast, yeast, honey, tarragon and the stony nuances that come from the soil of a great vineyard. Expensive but worth the price.
* Sanford, Barrel Select, Santa Barbara County ($32.99). A wine of enormous concentration, but also lively acidity. The creamy texture and yeasty, toasty flavors recall a top-flight white Burgundy from Chassagne-Montrachet. Every producer who filters his chardonnay should be forced to taste this unfiltered gem to see how much flavor they're straining out.
* Sonoma-Cutrer, Cutrer Vineyard, Russian River Valley ($19.48). This full-bodied, toasty wine manages to combine a creamy texture with good acidity. It's a tightly focused, high-impact wine that still has finesse. There's plenty of fruit, but the mineral flavors predominate. Probably better in two years.
* Chalk Hill, Estate Bottled, Sonoma County ($16.35). The name is apt. You really can taste the chalk in this subtle, Burgundian wine with hints of apple, lemon and toasty oak. An elegant wine with a long finish and an attractive price.
* Mount Eden, Santa Barbara County ($19.85). This big, ripe wine combines yeast, toast, mineral flavors and some hints of tropical fruit. It could use another two years of aging.
* Cambria, Katherine's Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley ($10.99). A rich, ripe, honeyed wine with loads of vanilla and maybe a hint of residual sugar. This lush wine, with hints of apple and baked pear, isn't subtle, but it's a hedonist's delight and a great value.
* J. Lohr, Riverstone, Monterey County ($11.49). Holy moley, is this a load of flavor for the price or what? Nobody could call it Burgundian. It's an exotic mix of peach, pear, tropical fruit, a heap of sweet oak and a dollop of mineral flavor. A guilty pleasure.
* MacRostie, Carneros ($16.99). A cool-climate crispness makes this wine racy and refreshing, while a stylish melange of lemon, apple, yeast and baker's bread lends complexity.
* Calera, Central Coast ($15.39). This truly exotic wine resembles a French Condrieu with its flavors of banana, coconut and fresh lychees. The alcohol's a little high, but there's enough fruit to balance it out.
* Meridian, Santa Barbara County ($9.99). A crisp, appley wine with nuances of lychee and peach. It has the slashing acidity of a cool-climate wine and a long finish. Drink young to enjoy its freshness. Great price.
* Acacia, Carneros ($20.85). This structured, elegant wine is not the best value here, but Burgundy devotees might find themselves right at home. I suspect time will reveal more.
* Pedroncelli, Dry Creek Valley ($10.49). Here's a warm climate chardonnay, made beautifully. It's full and ripe, with bursts of tropical fruit, melon, pineapple, honey and pear. Drink it young and enjoy the sheer value of it.
* Liberty School, Vintner Select, Barrel Fermented, Sierra Madre Vineyard ($11.59). This full, rich wine is a steal at the price, with plenty of yeast, toast, pear and apricot. Great value.
* Joseph Phelps, Napa Valley ($15.75). Phelps chardonnays are a bit deceptive. They come on very shyly but they expand with age. This tightly wrapped, chalky wine with subtle hints of lemon has fine potential and a very Burgundian streak of mineral flavor.
* Morgan, Monterey County ($17.99). A restrained, appley wine that is a bit light and angular for a Morgan. After a while it softens and shows real complexity.
* Sonoma-Cutrer, Russian River Ranches ($15.99). This medium-bodied wine with a creamy texture and flavors of apple, pear, fresh bread and sweet oak could pass for a good white Burgundy.
* Byron, Santa Barbara County ($11.99). This fresh wine with hints of vanilla and banana shows a little heat in the finish but is otherwise excellent.
* Leeward, Central Coast ($12.99). Racy and fruity, with a distinct pineapple flavor and maybe a hint of residual sugar. Drink young.
* Louis M. Martini, 79 percent Napa-21 percent Sonoma ($10). An easygoing, charming wine with apple, vanilla and lemon notes.
* Saintsbury, Carneros ($15.99). A light, elegant wine in the style of a good Pouilly-Fuisse.
* Belvedere, Alexander Valley ($8.99).
* Benziger, Sonoma County ($12.75).
* Beringer Proprietor's Reserve, Napa Valley ($11.59).
* Fetzer Barrel Select, Mendocino County ($11.99).