Difficulty in Identifying Grapes

Times Wine Writer

The controversy over what is a Zinfandel grape and what is not has become a side issue in the grape-switching cases filed by the state against a number of grape sellers.

Should the buyer of grapes be able to identify the grape type by looking at them? State and federal government agencies are looking into the question of culpability by some wine makers who the agencies think should have known the difference. But it's not that easy to tell one variety from another, say the experts.

Bob Steinhauer, viticulturist and vineyard manager for all of Beringer Vineyards' vast holdings around the state, says it's far easier to identify Zinfandel grapes while they are on the vine than after they have been harvested and sitting in a gondola.

Steinhauer notes that once they are picked, the grapes no longer have their leaves, and it's from the configuration of the leaf that the buyer of the grapes should be able to identity the grape.

"Zinfandel has a five-lobed leaf with tomentum (tiny, fuzzy hair) on the underside of the leaf," said Steinhauer.

"I think you could be confused by a load of Petite Sirah, but on the vine, you can tell the Petite Sirah because it's glabrous (has no hair on the underside of the leaf)."

There were more unanimous gold medal-winning wines--10--at this year's Orange County Fair Wine Competition than ever.

The unanimous awards, called Four-Star Golds, went to the following wines: 1985 Bargetto Komes Ranch Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($12), in the medium-priced category; 1986 Concannon Selected Vineyards California Chardonnay ($10.85), medium; 1987 J. Kerr Santa Barbara County Chardonnay ($16), high-priced; 1987 Edna Valley Vineyard Estate Chardonnay ($15), high; 1987 Kistler Estate Chardonnay ($35), premium-priced; 1988 Windsor California Grenache Rose ($5), medium; 1987 Gary Farrell Howard Allen Vineyard Pinot Noir ($20), high; 1986 Sanford Santa Barbara Pinot Noir ($14), high; 1987 Lytton Springs Zinfandel ($12), high, and NV Cook's Imperial Blush sparkling wine ($3.99), low.

About 2,500 wines were judged at this year's competition.

St. Supery Vineyards and Winery, located between Rutherford and Oakville in the Napa Valley, will open its doors with tours on July 27.

The winery project, estimated to cost in excess of $10 million, is owned by Robert Skalli and is a subsidiary of Skalli S.A. of France, a giant food company.

An hourlong tour will include a glimpse of life in the 1880s, when the property was first farmed as a wine-making venture, and all wine tasting will be barrel samples from as-yet unreleased wine.

I was impressed with two wines that recently won gold medals at the Alameda County Fair wine competition. Both are in short supply and may be hard to find, but the prices are so fair they are mentioned here.

--1987 Retzlaff Livermore Grey Riesling ($5.95): Fresh and broad tasting, this attractively dry wine with a soft finish is a nice picnic wine.

--1988 Chouinard Monterey County Gewurztraminer ($6.50): The spice character of this fine wine is akin to carnations and litchi nuts, and the rather full-bodied taste comes in part from 1.5% residual sugar masked by high acidity. Excellent with spicy foods.

A third gold medal-winning wine at the competition, 1986 Concannon Sauvignon Blanc ($9.50) is a striking example of great wine making and perfect barrel and bottle aging. The crisp acidity and rich finish from its aging regimen make this a classic that reminds me of Graves in Bordeaux.

One more gold medal wine from this event that impressed the judges was a nonvintage sparkling Malvasia Bianca, a very sweet and luscious dessert wine that, at $6, is a steal. Serve it with fruit salad and watch people ask for more.

It has taken some time, but the first all-Freixenet Gloria Ferrer wine is on the market and it's an excellent example of why on-site control is better than remote control.

More than three years ago, when the first sparkling wine of the Gloria Ferrer winery came on the market, it impressed a lot of people with its complex, French-like nature and the fact that it was so well conceived.

The fact was that the first California wine from this Spanish-owned house was a joint project of then-wine maker Eileen Crane and Pete Downs, who was and remains wine maker for Chateau St. Jean's sparkling wine project at Graton. The reason for this was simple: at the time, there was no Gloria Ferrer winery. It had not yet been built.

So in order to release a wine soon after the announcement of the project, Gloria Ferrer contracted with St. Jean to have it make the first Gloria Ferrer sparkling wine.

The fact is, Downs has never received much public credit for the sparkling wines he has made for a number of producers who contracted with Chateau St. Jean to make their wines at Graton. (Among them were the wines of Shadow Creek, now a brand owned by Domaine Chandon.) And only savvy consumers knew that the first Gloria Ferrer wine was from Downs.

Indeed, many sparkling wines made by Downs carried small print on the bottle of the label that said the wine was produced and bottled at Graton. There is only one sparkling wine operation in Graton. It is St. Jean's.

The second and third wines released by Gloria Ferrer had labels saying they were produced and bottled at Windsor. The only sparkling wine facility at Windsor is at Piper-Sonoma, where these wines were made under the eye of Chris Markell.

As good as these wines all were, none is as good as the latest Gloria Ferrer wine, made completely in Gloria Ferrer's gorgeous, newly completed winery building. And even though it is a nonvintage wine, Gloria Ferrer Brut, you can still determine who made it.

In the address line at the bottom of the label, it says this wine was produced and bottled in Sonoma. This is the first wine of now-wine maker Bob Iantosca. (Crane is now general manager for Domaine Carneros, the Taittinger project down the road from Gloria Ferrar that has yet to release a product.)

Iantosca's first solo effort, and the first release with a "Sonoma" address, is a sprightly, delicate, finely made wine that has a crisp, slightly lime zest note in the taste.

At $13, it's well-priced and proof that hands-on control leads to better wine.

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