Wines by many other names are still Gallo Improvement: New brands from Healdsburg are several cuts above the firm's mass-market products.

October 12, 1997|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN WINE CRITIC

There is no more famous name in American wine than Gallo, though sometimes the company can't seem to decide whether that's a blessing or a curse.

On the one hand, the giant wine company has been trying to elevate the name Gallo to one that commands respect among serious wine connoisseurs. On the other, it has been creating several new brands that appeal to upscale consumers by artfully concealing their Gallo ownership.

Turning Leaf? A fig leaf for Gallo. Anapamu? An ancient Indian word for Gallo. Zabaco? Gallo from A to Z.

Check the back label of each, and you'll see the wines were produced in Healdsburg, Calif., where Gallo has built a huge new winery to go along with its extensive Sonoma County vineyard acreage.

At the same time, the company has been producing many of its most expensive and most ambitious "New Generation" wines at the same facility under the Gallo of Sonoma label. It is backing this label with an expensive marketing campaign that clearly aims to put the Gallo name on a par with Robert Mondavi or Beringer.

"Every family wants the children to do better than their parents," reads a magazine ad picturing Ernest Gallo's grandson Matt in a vineyard. "So how are we doing?"

Not bad, actually -- especially if you expand the question to cover the wide range of new Gallo brands. A recent sampling of the Healdsburg-produced Gallo wines shows that they are several cuts above the mass-market wines the company churns out at its huge complex in Modesto, Calif.

The following wines were tasted:

Whites

* 1995 Turning Leaf Sonoma County Chardonnay Fume, Sonoma Reserve ($10). This dry blend of chardonnay and sauvignon blanc was the best white in the Turning Leaf stable. It's a clean, crisp, apple-y wine that draws on the fullness of the chardonnay and the herbal nature of the sauvignon blanc. It ranks with the best chardonnay-sauvignon wines from Australia and Washington state.

* 1995 Anapamu Central Coast Chardonnay, Barrel-Fermented ($11). This toasty, flavorful, oaky wine is a little blunt and could use a longer finish, but it's a good basic chardonnay that delivers value for the money.

* 1996 Zabaco Sauvignon Blanc, Sonoma County, Barrel-Fermented ($8). This crisp, herbal, pleasant wine -- with hints of fig, smoke and pears -- is quite enjoyable in its unspectacular way.

* 1996 Turning Leaf Monterey County Johannisberg Riesling ($6.49). It's pretty certain this riesling wasn't made with wine critics in mind. But if bone-dry wines aren't your style, you might enjoy this mildly sweet riesling. It has enough crispness to avoid being cloying.

* 1994 Zabaco Sonoma County Chardonnay, Barrel-Fermented ($9). The Zabaco chardonnay seems a little tired, as if it's the 1995 or 1996 that should be on the shelves. It's a decent chardonnay, but undistinguished.

Reds

* 1993 Turning Leaf Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma Reserve ($10). There's plenty of black cherry fruit and a good, stiff backbone to this ripe, long-finishing wine. It has a bit of an herbal quality, but not enough to become objectionable.

* 1993 Gallo Sonoma Northern Sonoma Zinfandel ($10). This middleweight zinfandel offers fine meaty flavors seasoned with black pepper, bright black raspberry fruit and moderate length on the palate.

* 1994 Gallo Sonoma Northern Sonoma Valdiguie, Barelli Creek Vineyard ($10). Valdiguie, one of the more obscure varietal names on an American wine, is the former Napa gamay. It's not a highly regarded grape, but this is a very appealing, fruity, Beaujolais-style red with nuances of black cherry and blackberry. It should be drunk up soon.

* 1993 Gallo Sonoma Northern Sonoma Merlot ($17). Going by price and pedigree, this wine should top the list of Gallo reds. The quality of the fruit is unmistakable, with a complex mix of black cherry and herbs. But the tannin level is a bit too high to be confident it will develop before it starts to dry up -- a tendency of Gallo's "serious" reds going back to the days when the late Julio Gallo was winemaker.

* 1994 Turning Leaf Sonoma County Merlot, Sonoma Reserve ($10). In its way, this is more successful than its big brother listed above. It's a medium-light red with breezy but intense black cherry fruit. A hint of spiciness keeps it from being a one-note wine.

* 1994 Zabaco Sonoma County Zinfandel ($8). This middleweight zinfandel offers good blackberry and black pepper flavors with a distinct oakiness that contributes to a slightly dried-out finish. It's on the right track, but needs less oak and an earlier release.

* 1994 Turning Leaf Sonoma County Zinfandel ($8). Intensely plummy and bordering on blowzy, this chunky zinfandel walks a fine line. Some might find it crude; others will like its directness.

* 1993 Zabaco Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon ($8). There's a lot of chocolate, black cherry and oak in this uncomplicated, slightly rustic, medium-weight red.

* 1995 Turning Leaf Sonoma County Pinot Noir, Sonoma Reserve ($10). This medium-bodied pinot noir offers an easy fruitiness but a short finish. It's pleasant, nothing more.

Pub Date: 10/12/97

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