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).