Persnickety critic makes wines live up to very high standards


For about a year, this newspaper has run a feature called "Wine of the Week," which presumes to tell you that a particular wine is so good that it justifies parting with some of your hard-earned money.

Somebody has to do the choosing, and that someone is me. Sympathy cards are not expected.

Each Wine of the Week is chosen from a group of several candidates. To select these candidates, I depend heavily on the counsel of local wine merchants.

These fine people have been doing an especially good job lately because the quality of the runners-up is as high as it's ever been. In fact, many of them would make meritorious "Wines of the Week," but might be out of the market before we could get them into the paper.

To stave off this calamity, we therefore present this honor roll of wines that didn't quite make it into the winners' circle but, nevertheless, merit your interest.

The reasons these wines haven't been chosen as Wine of the Week range from the arbitrary to the capricious. Sometimes it's simply because their producers used that nasty glue that keeps you from soaking off the labels.

* The 1994 Muga Rioja ($10.49) was not chosen because the name Muga sounds like a villain on "Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers" and the idea of a white Rioja is ridiculous anyway. Never mind that this Spanish wine is a dead ringer for a fine California chardonnay, with crisp acidity offsetting its soft texture.

Yeah, we're tough here.

* The 1992 Gran Creacion ($8) from La Mancha wasn't chosen because it has the worst label in Spain. Sure, this red wine is rich and robust, with intense flavors of black currant, earth and smoked game. But its producers are dreaming the impossible dream if they think we're going to reproduce that ugly thing in this newspaper.

* The Hop Kiln Winery's 1994 "A Thousand Flowers" ($8) was spurned because we disapprove of naming California wines after Maoist slogans. There's nothing wrong with the wine itself -- an imaginative blend of chardonnay, riesling and gewurztraminer. In fact, its delicious flavors of apple, honey and peach make it perfect for summertime quaffing. Still, something about this wine smells subversive. (Note to conspiracy theorists: Hop Kiln has another wine it calls "Big Red." Hmmmm.)

* The 1993 Walnut Creek Merlot was excluded because we don't like Chilean wines that use American-sounding names that could fool consumers into thinking they're buying California wine. That goes even when the wine is a lush, fruity merlot that costs only $5 and puts most $10 California merlots to shame. Real patriots will pay no attention to the fact it's a terrific value and resist the urge to buy this wine by the case.

* The 1993 Buena Vista Gewurztraminer ($8) from Carneros was eliminated because it tastes nothing like an Alsace gewurztraminer. It's in the Wine Writer's Handbook, page 703. The fact that many consumers actually prefer the fruity, non-classic, slightly sweet style of gewurztraminer that prevails in California cannot be considered. Nor can we take into account the lively, spicy, tropical fruit flavors of the Buena Vista. Rules are rules.

* The 1994 Woodhall Seyval ($9) is being passed over because it's made from a -- horrors! -- French-American hybrid grape, one of a breed that is banned by the European Union as unclean. So ignore the excellent body, balance and intensity of this dry white Maryland wine. Pay no attention to the subtle hints of lemon and honey. All those reports of complex, long-aging Maryland seyvals that rival California chardonnays but cost half as much are just so many Elvis sightings.

* The 1993 SB Select Pinot Noir ($8.49) was dumped from consideration because it's from Oregon, which sent Bob Packwood to the U.S. Senate. All the fruity charm and lively black cherry flavor in the world can't overcome that handicap. It's too bad the wine is politically incorrect because light-bodied, lively red wines like this one go so well with grilled chicken on a warm evening.

* The 1992 Guigal Cotes-du-Rhone ($9) red wine was blackballed because it just gets so boring recommending this wine year in and year out. Doesn't Marcel Guigal know how to make something other than rich, robust reds redolent with black raspberry fruit and exotic spices? Why does he insist on giving us intense, complex wines even in lousy vintages? Did he ever stop to think we might want to taste a thin, diluted Guigal wine for a change? Talk about being in a rut.

* The 1993 Seghesio Zinfandel ($8), the 1993 Robert Mondavi Woodbridge Zinfandel ($6.49) and the 1992 Montevina Zinfandel ($7) from Amador County were excluded because it's tough deciding which offers the best value. And tough choices give me a headache. Why don't you taste them and decide?

* The 1993 Philippe Lorraine Napa Valley Johannisberg Riesling ($9) won't be chosen because wine writers who say kind things about lightly sweet California rieslings -- even well-made ones that would go well with Asian cuisine -- hear snickering behind their backs at wine conventions. Besides, naming a California winery Phillippe Lorraine is like having a Chateau Joe Bob in Bordeaux.

* The 1993 Cline Vineyards Contra Costa County Zinfandel ($11) was not named a Wine of the Week because I wanted to keep all LTC of this intensely ripe, fleshy, earthy, voluptuous red wine to myself. Don't you be messing with that bottle. That baby's mine.

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