As with any wine, tax is most palatable in moderation

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Our new president is not known as a wine lover, but he does have a healthy admiration for Thomas Jefferson, who was.

So when William Jefferson Clinton considers ways of paying for a long-overdue national health care plan, there is at least hope he will take heed of his middle-namesake's words on wine.

"No nation is drunken where wine is cheap; and none sober, where the dearness of wine substitutes ardent spirits as the common beverage," Jefferson wrote in 1818. "It is, in truth, the only antidote to the bane of whiskey. . . . Its extended use will carry health and comfort to a much enlarged circle."

The circle of American wine enthusiasts is much enlarged from Jefferson's day, and now its needs are supplied by a domestic wine industry that was only a dream to Jefferson. But the United States is still not a country where wine is woven deeply into the culture of middle-class men and women.

That makes wine easy to portray as an exotic luxury, a threat to health, even a "sin." On both the right and left of the political spectrum, there are many who would love to tax wine out of existence on the churlish suspicion that anything that's fun must be a menace to society.

It thus behooves those of us who enjoy and appreciate wine to make our views known to our elected officials -- not with unseemly vehemence, but with the moderation we practice in our use of humankind's most fascinating beverage.

Should wine be accorded a special protected status when the government goes looking for revenue to bankroll health care? No. It's a crucial undertaking, and no form of taxation should be off the table.

But wine drinkers should not accept a punitive "sin tax" that carries the message that wine consumption is a social ill to be discouraged. A good case can be made that little of the health damage and social disruption caused by alcohol can be traced to table wine.

If anything, a truly health-conscious tax system would encourage drinkers of distilled spirits to switch to table wine.

After all, some of the healthiest and happiest people on the globe are Europeans from Mediterranean cultures, where wine is a central part of daily life and distilled spirits a rarity.

So if wine taxes must be raised, let's raise them with an eye toward necessary revenue and fundamental fairness, not neo-Prohibitionism and healthier-than-thou pieties. Keep in mind also that wine took a big hit in the Bush administration's "forget-my-lips" 1990 tax bill.

If we do have to open this whole subject, let's make a few fixes when we do it. Eliminate the gallonage tax on table wine and replace it with a value-added tax. Under a gallonage tax, a $100 bottle of Chateau Pretentious takes the same hit as a middle-class family's bottle of Gallo Hearty Burgundy. That's not right. Wine should not be shunted off to an upper-class ghetto.

(Appalled connoisseurs should consider this: Without a broad-based wine-drinking public, our rights will never be secure.)

And if we decide we do want to use the tax to discourage abuse, let's aim for the real abuse. Slap a $2-a-bottle minimum excise tax on fortified wines. That won't be a big hit for the consumer buying a 1977 Taylor Fladgate Vintage Porto, but it will put a hurt on the sales of Thunderbird, Wild Irish Rose and others of that ilk.

Jefferson would understand.

A Baltimore reader recently wrote:

"Until recently I have been happy with the colombards and reds I purchase in multiple-liter bottles and boxes. I have been aware that many domestic wines contain sulfites and that this can make them unacceptable for some persons. I thought I was fortunately not one of those persons.

"Recently, after consuming some generic burgundy, I had a distinctly unpleasant reaction. The label demonstrated that this wine contains sulfites -- as do other wines from which I have had no reaction. I am, nonetheless, forced to consider that I am one nTC who cannot safely drink wine containing sulfites.

"I plan to discard the offending bottle and to buy no more of any red containing sulfites. Checking at a wine emporium proved that any of the domestic wines I might buy contain sulfites."

The most ominous words on almost every wine sold in the United States are "contains sulfites." To many people those words are as threatening as "contains rat poison." We might not know what sulfites are, but we know they don't sound very good for you.

In fact, every imported or domestic wine you have ever tasted undoubtedly contained some sulfites. It's not a strange new additive, and is found in everything from jug wines to $300-a-bottle Bordeaux.

Some sulfites are formed as a natural byproduct of the fermentation process. Others enter the wine through the use of sulfur dioxide to kill bacteria and preserve freshness.

Sulfur has been used for this purpose for at least 500 years, with little effect on most people.

But there is a valid reason for the warning. Some individuals, particularly those who have a combination of asthma and allergies, can have a severe adverse reaction to sulfites. How many people are in this group is open to question, but it is almost certainly less than 1 percent of the population.

In the reader's case, sulfites are probably not the culprit. According to the letter, he's been drinking wine for years without an adverse reaction. It's more likely there was something wrong with that particular bottle of wine.

It's hard to make a recommendation without knowing the severity and nature of the reaction. If it was life-threatening, he should consult a doctor before touching another drop of wine. If it was merely unpleasant, it would be a shame to overreact.

Avoiding red wines is probably not the answer. Generally, reds are less likely to contain high levels of sulfites than white or rose wines.

If you have a sensitivity to reds, it is more likely an allergy to tannin, the natural preservative that lets great wines age for decades. People who enjoy the taste of reds but get headaches after drinking them might want to try low-tannin wines such as Beaujolais before giving up on reds entirely.

If sulfite sensitivity is your problem, you might want to seek out wines from small number of California producers that bottle wines with no added sulfites. They include Bellerose Vineyard, Coturri, Frey, Fetzer, Lolonis and Hidden Cellars. Check the label because some of these wineries produce some wines with sulfites and some without.

None will be entirely sulfite-free because of that small amount created naturally, but only the truly hypersensitive have to be concerned about that. For the rest of us, it's time to chill out. Worry, after all, kills far more people than wine ever did.

California appears to have another winner in the 1991 cabernet sauvignon vintage, but 1992 is looking a bit iffy.

That's the early line coming out of the eighth annual California Futures Barrel Tasting sponsored by MacArthur Liquors in Washington just over a week ago.

In general, the 1991s fall short of the concentration and depth of the 1990s, but the vintage is still well above average. Many of the wines are supple and elegant, but with fine structure and live-wire tautness.

It was a vintage that challenged the winemakers' skills more than 1990, when virtually everybody made fine wine. Top performers shone in 1991, while marginal or fading properties slid into mediocrity.

Among the stars in 1991 cabernet sauvignons were Corison, Swanson, von Strasser, La Jota, Spottswoode, Laurel Glen, Etude, Peter Michael "Les Pavots," Dunn Howell Mountain, Pahlmeyer and Philip Togni.

Among the proprietary blends, Ravenswood's Pickberry stood out.

And special kudos go to the formerly suspect Flora Springs, which threw out its filter pads and made a Trilogy proprietary wine and reserve cabernet that eclipse anything the winery has done before.

Major disappointments included wines from Robert Mondavi, Joseph Phelps and Diamond Creek.

There were too few 1992s there to make a definitive assessment of the vintage, but early signs were not encouraging, except for Ridge Montebello, which is off in a microclimate all its own.

CRITIC'S CHOICE

1989 Domaine des Grands Devers Cotes du Cotes Rhone "Enclave des Paapes" and Cotes du Rhone-Syrah (each $12)

What a two-fer! These exceptional, robust red wines are overstuffed with flavor and aroma.

Raspberry, blackberry, herbes de Provence, coffee -- they've got them all, plus the classic structure and voluptuous softness of a great Chateauneuf-du-Pape. A slight edge goes to the Enclave des Papes, but a a better idea is to buy them both and try them side by side. You might never drink anything but Rhones again.

+ ----------- Michael Dresser

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