After an Identity Crisis, Belvedere Winery Gets a New Image and Label

Times Wine Writer

Wineries change . . . .

Peter Friedman thought the idea was great: instead of creating a new winery, he would create new brands named after grape growers. There would be a different design for each wine label and a different name for each grower's wine.

"That was back in 1979. I thought there were already too many wineries, and I figured this would highlight the great work our growers were doing," said Friedman recently. "Maybe I was wrong."

Friedman's Belvedere Winery in Sonoma County began by making wines under four "grape maker" labels--Winery Lake, Bacigalupi, York Creek and Robert Young--representing four vineyards in four regions and featuring different grape varieties. The wines were good, but few understood that Belvedere Winery made them, and over the years that Don Frazer was responsible for improving them.

'Different Wineries'

Using different names didn't help Belvedere Winery's image with consumers and that hurt sales. Also, medals won in major competitions were attributed to four different "wineries."

In a few weeks, the name Belvedere will appear on a single new wine label, Belvedere. Growers names will appear in the center of the redesigned label. "This makes us look like a new winery," said Friedman, whose new releases are impressive.

Best of them are a 1984 Cabernet from the Robert Young Vineyard and a 1984 Merlot from the same vineyard (both $13). The Cabernet has a light dill-tarragon aroma mingling with black-cherry fruit, and it is has good richness and should age well. The Merlot has spice and a raspberry aroma to go with excellent balance.

I also liked the two 1986 Chardonnays, one designated Carneros and the other from Bacigalupi (both $13). The former has a hint of clove and grand elegance and tartness. The latter, the best yet from the vineyard of Charles and Helen Bacigalupi in the Russian River Valley, has more tropical fruit and is slightly softer.

A 1983 York Creek Cabernet ($13) is very concentrated and has an appealing black-currant aroma, but it is hard and tannic at present. Time may open it.

The Louis Martini Winery has newspaper clippings on its wall from the days immediately following Prohibition when the winery was built and, ever mindful of the success of the founder, the winery rarely changed many of its procedures over the years.

Yet third-generation wine maker Mike Martini was aware something was amiss. Nothing major, you understand. The wines were all well made, but every now and then Martini would taste a wine that had been bottled and it wasn't quite up to the way it had been in the tank, before bottling.

One day, walking through the winery, he got an idea that the winery's ancient, post-Prohibition upright redwood tanks, in which wine was placed just before bottling, might be at fault. Scraping at the side of the tank, Martini removed enough to sniff and noted a faint aroma that he had detected in some of the wines.

"I wasn't sure that was it," he said, but as an experiment he began bypassing the old redwood tanks and bottling from stainless steel. The result has been a subtle but important difference in the Martini wines that in the last year has shown up in better fruit aroma and better taste.

In particular, the superb 1987 Chenin Blanc ($5) offers a melony, lightly leafy and very crisp aroma with a dry, complete taste and none of the faint "redwood" aroma of past bottlings. It is superb.

Martini has always been known for great red wines, but now they're even better. A soon-to-be-released (June) 1986 Pinot Noir ($6.80) is richly fruity with a light peppery undertone. A very good buy.

I also liked the 1985 Zinfandel ($6.80) and 1985 Cabernet ($8.50), both with typical Martini finesse and superb fruit, better balanced wines than in the past. For a treat, try the 1981 Barbera ($6.25), well-aged wine at a bargain price.

Franciscan Vineyards has always made reputable wine. Little more. The Chardonnays were good, with some of the best ones the winery made coming from the awkward 1982 and 1983 vintages, but rarely was there anything exciting. The Cabernets had been so-so, offering ample fruit but lacking in complexity, with some not well balanced.

The property has been owned by the Peter Eckes Co. of West Germany since 1979, but only after Augustin Huneeus took over management of the company in 1985 were major changes made to improve the wines.

To begin with, new French oak barrels would replace American oak barrels for most of the premium wines. Then wine maker Greg Upton was hired to head up the wine making team. And Upton began changing the Franciscan style in ways now showing up.

A few weeks ago I recommended the 1984 Franciscan Oakville Cabernet as an excellent buy at $9.50. Upton "finished" this wine by careful cellar treatment. The spectacular fruit and olivey complexity are accented by a hint of French oak. Another good buy is Franciscan's 1985 Merlot ($9.25) with fresh fruit and a tarragon complexity, Upton's first red wine.

The best Franciscan wine to date is, unfortunately, available only by mail direct from the winery (write to P.O. Box 407, 1178 Galleron Road, Rutherford, Calif. 94573) or at the tasting room.

The 1985 "Library Selection" is a boldly different wine from past efforts, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux varieties. It has a rich cherry-currant aroma and toasty French oak nuances. The taste is full and complete without harsh tannins intruding. At $17.50 it's expensive, but only a couple of hundred cases were made.

A bargain is the 1985 Estancia Cabernet, $6.50. The Estancia label is used on wine from Franciscan's Alexander Valley ranch, and this Cabernet is fruity and complex with some French oak and American oak both noticeable in the aroma.

More excellent Franciscan wines are on the way, to be released later this year and early in 1989.

Sebastiani Vineyards has been through some wrenching moments in the last few years.

Once perceived as an old-line, bulk-wine-oriented winery with a few pleasant surprises, the Sonoma property then tried to change its image with a line of pricey wines under former president Sam J. Sebastiani.

While that program was in transition, an internal power struggle between Sam and his mother, Sylvia, and brother, Don, forced Sam out and put Don in charge as chairman of the board. Sam now has his own winery; wines are marketed under the Viansa label.

Recently, Sebastiani has moved to refine its image, under the direction of president Marty Adams, and now it will make the ultimate step forward with a line of top-quality wines.

The first wines to be released will be four Chardonnays, two Cabernet Sauvignons, and a sparkling wine. Most of the wines are are well made, showing what wine maker Mary Sullivan can do when permitted to isolate great grapes and keep them separate in smaller lots.

The 1986 Chardonnays will be released May 1. The best is designated Niles, a wine of subtlety, with a delicate lime-citrus overtone and grand structure. The grapes were grown in the cool Carneros region of Sonoma County, and it clearly will be better for another year in the bottle.

I also liked one designated Kinneybrook, also rather lean, but with a short aftertaste. Time may round it out. The other wines are also well made, but less successful. The Clark Ranch wine is pineappley, soft and appealing; Wilson Ranch is fairly oaky and soft.

The price for the Niles is $17; the others are $14 each.

I was not impressed with the 1983 Richard Cuneo sparkling wine, which is rather heavy-handed and has an aroma more reminiscent of chicken soup.

Interestingly, these new Sebastiani wines have labels that are somewhat confusing. First, they don't clearly indicate the wines are from Sebastiani. The brand names are the names of the ranches from which the grapes came, and Sebastiani is listed only in the small legal print at the bottom of the label. And the traditional "Produced and bottled by" statement is on a strip label on the back of the bottle, not the front.

Also, the appellation on each wine (Sonoma Valley) and the wine type (Chardonnay) are in type so small they are actually smaller than the required minimum set by the government.

All this is beside the point, however. The wines are very good.

Cuvaison Winery in Calistoga has been around since 1969, and the wines have always been well-received. But some of the red wines were hard and tannic and so unyielding that wine lovers began to back away from them. And the Chardonnays, though well made, varied from year to year in style.

Through the 1970s and early 1980s, Cuvaison's house style was so erratic because the winery used grapes from vineyards all over the Napa Valley. But by 1984, when John Thacher took over as wine maker, Cuvaison's 270-acre vineyard in the Carneros region was then in full production.

Cuvaison now focuses on expanding the intensity in those grapes. Wines now feature high concentrations of fruit with superb backbone so the wines--whites and reds--should age well. All three of the latest offerings, a 1984 Cabernet, 1985 Merlot, and 1986 Chardonnay, are superb.

The latter wine ($14.25) a richly fruity without obvious oak. A lasting citrus taste makes it superb with food. The Merlot ($17, up from $14 the previous vintage) is again a stylish and complete wine, with long aging potential. (The '84 was a spectacular wine, should you find any lurking in a shop or wine list.)

But the Cabernet is the real prize. Loaded with chocolatey tones and a violet-black cherry aroma, the wine is amply endowed to age a long time. In a blind tasting last month, many others and I rated it well ahead of the famed 1984 Dominus ($40 and sold out at that price). At $14.50, Cuvaison's '84 Cabernet is quite a good buy.

Wine of the Week: Sandeman Fine Dry Palo Cortado ($18)--Don't wince at the price, this wine is a bargain. Space limitations don't permit an explanation of why Palo Cortado is such a rare designation on a bottle of Sherry. But in addition to being rare, this wine is very special. Bone dry and amazingly complex, the wine has a hint of floral character and a nuttiness similar to some oloroso wines, but with a delightful citrusy aftertaste. Since the wine won't change much after opening, buy a bottle and try it with cream soup; and if there is any left, just stick it in the back of the refrigerator. More about Sandeman's wines in an upcoming column.

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