In a perverse way, prejudice can be a wonderful thing -- a long as you don't share in it.
Simply put, bias means bargains. The canny consumer who consistently defies wrongheaded popular notions of what is classy and what is crude will enjoy quality and value his conventional cousins will never know.
That's especially true with wine. It's a field fraught with prejudice, not just the fatuous pronouncements of self-styled experts, but also the unspoken stereotypes that linger in our minds in spite of ourselves.
One of the most deeply ingrained prejudices in the wine field is the bias that equates Italian names with rustic, coarse, jug-style wines.
Lou Foppiano knows all about this problem. As general manager of Foppiano Vineyards, a prize-winning California winery that traces its roots back to 1896, he is well aware that the ugly term "dago red" has not been purged from people's memories.
During a recent visit to Maryland, Mr. Foppiano was asked a casual question about whether he thought an Italian name on the label held down the price of his wines. It was like touching a raw nerve."I don't think the public has ever taken them seriously," Mr. Foppiano said, adding that the reason he called his winery's premium bottling cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay Fox Mountain was because he knew he couldn't get $16 a bottle for a wine that carried the family name.
In part, the problem can be traced back to the old country and the lowbrow image of its wines.
"There are fabulous wines out of Italy and people don't take Italian wines seriously," Mr. Foppiano said. "They think Italian wine begins at Riunite and ends at Cella."
Another factor is that many of California's Italo-American wineries have been around for a long time. It's a sad fact that critics (myself not excluded) often overlook established American wineries and concentrate on the new and the fashionable, especially those with names like Heathcliffe Estate or Chateau Le Souffle du Cheval. An Italian-sounding wine often has a hard time even making it onto the tasting table. (Mondavi, of course, is the notable exception.)
For Italian-American producers, this means they have to hustle twice as hard in order to sell their wines at a decent price.
That's a shame, but it's also an opportunity for consumers who are too discriminating to discriminate. They know that some of the best values coming out of California carry names such as Foppiano, Parducci, Pedroncelli and Seghesio.
All four of these wineries are former jug-wine producers, and to some extent the image persists. But each has been making vintage-dated varietals for years now, with a excellent track record for quality and value.
It isn't just prejudice that keeps the prices of these wines reasonable. For many of their wines, the vineyards were bought and paid for decades ago, when land in Sonoma County (Foppiano, Pedroncelli and Seghesio) and Mendocino County (Parducci) was cheap. That's why they can charge $8 to $10 for a fine cabernet while a newer winery, still paying off a hefty loan at 11 percent interest, must charge $12 to $15 for its equivalent.
There are other long-established Italo-American wineries that are equally meritorious, but in a recent series of tastings I concentrated on the four wineries named above. There were many bargains worth seeking out, but these four were the best:
*1988 Foppiano Sauvignon Blanc, Dry Creek Valley ($6-7). Exceptional intensity and smoky flavors. One of the best sauvignon blanc values around.
*1987 and 1988 Foppiano Petite Sirah, Estate Bottled, Russian River Valley ($7-$8). Foppiano is a star with this underrated varietal. These are big, rich, complex red wines with intense black cherry and chocolate flavors. Mr. Foppiano says they age "like a Volvo," and I believe him. These are exceptional values.
*1987 Foppiano Petite Sirah Reserve, Estate Bottled, Russian River Valley ($20). This rare wine may seem obscenely priced for a petite sirah, but it is an unqualified classic, reminiscent of a top-flight Rhone selling for $30. It is one of the few California wines likely to last 30 years.
*1988 J. Pedroncelli Chardonnay, Sonoma County ($9.50). A bright, balanced, polished chardonnay with toasty flavors and a Burgundian feel. More character than most $15 California chardonnays.
Almost as impressive were these wines:
*1986 J. Pedroncelli Cabernet Sauvignon, Dry Creek Valley ($10).
*1988 J. Pedroncelli Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley ($6).
*1987 Seghesio Zinfandel, Northern Sonoma ($7).
*1987 Parducci Cabernet Sauvignon, North Coast ($10).
*1988 Foppiano Chardonnay, Russian River Valley ($8.50).
*1986 Seghesio Cabernet Sauvignon, Northern Sonoma ($8.59).
*1989 J. Pedroncelli Dry Chenin Blanc, Alexander Valley ($4.79).
*1988 J. Pedroncelli White Riesling, Dry Creek Valley ($5.79).
All of these wines are available in Maryland, but distribution is a bit spotty -- in some cases because their wholesalers aren't pushing them as aggressively as they could.