Rating the offerings of California region Wine: Selected pinot noirs and chardonnays from Carneros district undergo taste tests

Vintage Point

October 07, 1998|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN WINE CRITIC

After the cold winds off the Pacific rush through the Golden Gate into the San Francisco Bay, many of the gusts take a left at Alcatraz and swoop behind California's Marin County and into the San Pablo Bay.

The place these winds make landfall is called Carneros - a scenic land of rolling hills that straddles the line between Napa and Sonoma counties.

For more than a century, this district was prime grazing land, but in recent decades cows have gradually been replaced with grapevines.

Drawn by the breezes that keep the area far cooler than the nearby Napa and Sonoma valleys, dozens of California vintners have planted vines in Carneros.

Most of these vines are pinot noir and chardonnay - the premier red and white grapes of Burgundy. They are both varieties that thrive in cool climates and often lose their charm in hot regions such as the Napa Valley.

Carneros began to boom in the 1970s as would-be makers of America's answer to Burgundy got fed up with the buttery chardonnays and grotesquely tannic pinot noirs they were producing from Napa Valley grapes. Winery after winery went hunting for Carneros grapes, and growers planted acre after acre to satisfy the demand.

Carneros now produces some of the United States' finest chardonnays and pinot noirs. Consumers are apparently willing to pay a few extra bucks for a Carneros wine, but a recent tasting of a dozen wines showed that the Carneros experiment has not been an unqualified success. Many were expensive mediocrities, and there were no signs of a clearly agreed-upon regional style.

Among the chardonnays, the finest was the 1996 Rombauer ($24), which delivered layer upon layer of concentrated peach and pear flavor - seasoned with generous exposure to new oak. This proudly Californian chardonnay hardly makes the case for Carneros as Burgundy West, but it is one impressive mouthful of white wine.

A wine that comes closer to achieving the goal of a more Burgundian chardonnay is the 1996 Joseph Phelps ($17), a crisp, elegant chardonnay with subtle hints of apple and minerals. This is the kind of wine that is overshadowed in mass judgings but shines at the dinner table.

A promising newer label was Shooting Star, whose 1997 Carneros chardonnay ($15) is a fine synthesis of California and Burgundy styles.

Three other chardonnays were disappointing, however. The 1996 Chimney Rock was pleasant in a clunky sort of way, but couldn't justify its $18 price tag. The depressingly ordinary 1996 Frogs Leap ($22) could not be distinguished from a $7 Chilean chardonnay. And the 1996 Shafer "Red Shoulder Ranc" was hard-edged, excessively oaky, hollow in the middle and short in the finish.

The Carneros district's record with pinot noirs is marginally more successful. The best was the 1996 Truchard ($28), a rich, full-bodied wine. It's a bit too plump and overtly Californian to serve with grilled foods, but it would be an excellent companion to a standing rib roast.

The 1995 Kent Rasmussen ($26) comes a little closer to the Burgundian style that many consumers are seeking in pinot noir. The lush, full-bodied 1996 Etude goes in a different direction - offering flavors more reminiscent of a Rhone red than a Burgundy. The concentrated flavors are not very subtle but they are fun. The $33 price tag is a bit too steep.

The 1997 bottling of the usually reliable Saintsbury Garnet ($15) was a slight disappointment. It's tasty, but a bit less bright than past efforts by Saintsbury.

The 1996 Mont St. John ($16) and 1996 Acacia ($22) were undistinguished efforts.

Pub Date: 10/07/98

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