It Was a Vintage Year for American Wineries


Wine lovers had good news and bad news in 1990: Some of the best wines ever made came on the market, but at some of the highest prices.

It was a year in which sales of Italian wine flourished even though American wine consumption dropped.

The year was marked by the federal government’s ban on any wine from Europe showing traces of the chemical Procymidone, which slowed down imports. And it was the year the federal government’s infamous label advising women not to drink while pregnant and warning that drinking “may cause health problems” began appearing on bottles of wine, beer and spirits.


It was also the year the alcoholic beverage industries spent millions to defeat California’s Prop. 134, which would have raised the tax on wine, beer and spirits to fight drug abuse. The measure was handily defeated.

Taxes did rise, however--for wineries making more than 40,000 cases of wine. The Federal excise tax was expected to raise the price of a bottle of wine by about 35 cents--unless producers, upset over declining sales, absorb the tax.

It was a year when James Conaway’s important book “Napa” was released, stirring the bucolic residents of the nation’s most famous wine valley to anger, though few paid heed to the environmental message of the author.

This look back on the last 12 months includes my personal selections for the best American wines of the year. (Some of these wines may no longer be available.) Choosing a best wine in each of these categories was more difficult this year than ever--a tribute to our wine makers and grape growers.

Chardonnay of the Year: 1988 Arrowood ($18)--Classic flavors of apple, spice and pear without an excess of oak or buttery components. A more delicate style of wine than some, but one that struck me as being truly an American classic.

Find of the Year: Leonetti Cellars in Walla Walla, Wash., as one of the top producers of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in the country. Wine maker Gary Figgins is a brilliant wine maker whose production is, at present, so small he’s not widely distributed. But the cognoscenti know.

Merlot of the Year: 1987 Benziger of Glen Ellen ($15)--Stunningly fruity wine with wonderful complexity.

Rhone Type Wine of the Year: 1988 Qupe Syrah ($20)--Rich with gobs of fruit, complex flavors and probable aging potential.

Courageous Wine Maker of the Year: Brian Babcock of Babcock Cellars in Buellton. The young man has no fear. He makes dramatically good wines in a most unconventional manner and offers small lots of wines that defy description. Most are excellent, though a bit pricey.

Rose of the Year: 1989 Joseph Phelps Vin du Mistral Grenache Rose ($9.50)--the most delicious rose I have ever tasted, and it still impresses me, even in the dead of winter. It’s kind of like popcorn; I defy anyone to try just a taste of it and not consume more.

Outraged: Kermit Lynch, the respected Northern California wine importer, applied to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms for permission to quote Thomas Jefferson on his strip label. The quote was: “Wine from long habit has become an indispensable for my health.” BATF refused to allow the statement, saying statements on wine bottles may make no therapeutic claims. Lynch said BATF also rejected quotes from the Bible and Louis Pasteur, and he vowed to publish quotes about wine in his monthly newsletter.

Sauvignon Blanc of the Year: This was the toughest category for me because of the many great 1989s I tasted. I was on the verge of naming the ’89 Greenwood Ridge, a stunning wine, though I could have named Raymond, Louis Martini, Matanzas Creek, Iron Horse, Ferrari-Carano, Duckhorn, DeLoach Fume Blanc, Dry Creek, Markham or a half dozen others. The winner, though, is 1989 Spottswoode ($10.50)--a faint hint of grass over melon and lime scents leads to a complex, creamy texture. The finish is full of fruit and a pure delight.

Truth in Advertising: Chateau Potelle wine maker Jean-Noel Formeaux, mystified by two opposing reviews of his 1988 Chardonnay, took out an ad in the Wine Spectator headlined, “Read this and get confused.” The ad quoted from a Robert Parker review of the wine, calling it “bitterly acidic, lean, thin . . . . (with) no character and no soul.” On a 100-point scale, Parker rated the wine a 67. The Wine Spectator called the same wine “smooth, concentrated . . . . with lively aromas of anise and pear, deep fruit flavors . . . . Delicious” and ranked it 88. The ad concluded: “Your taste will never let you down.”

Cabernet Sauvignon of the Year: 1985 Caymus Cabernet Special Selection ($50)--Remarkable depth and richness, with a lean and spicy finish to a powerhouse wine. It will live a long time, but it’s so luscious you want to drink it now. This wine beat out the 1986 Beringer Private Reserve, 1985 Shafer Hillside Select, 1985 Raymond Reserve and Sterling Reserve--a sensational crop of Cabernets.

Making It “Big”: Restaurant Girardet in Crissier, Switzerland, has been called the best restaurant in the world--and sold no California wine. At long last, sommelier Francisco Batuello has agreed to offer a few California wines on the list. The first chosen: 1988 Chardonnays from Grgich Hills and Cuvaison; 1985 Grgich Hills Cabernet, 1986 Ridge Geyserville Zinfandel and 1987 Opus One. Applause for the Americans--until you see that the Opus One sells for the U.S. equivalent of $250. (Retail price: $55.)

Zinfandel of the Year: 1988 Haywood ($12)--Again, there were so many Zinfandels to choose from (Nalle, Quivira, Kendall-Jackson Mendocino, the Terraces, Burgess, Rafanelli, Fetzer Reserve) that it was a tough choice. What it came down to, quite simply, was a glass of the Haywood I had with a plate of linguine all’ arrabbiata. The cherry/raspberry aroma and classic berrylike finish were all I needed.

Sparkling Wine of the Year: 1984 Schramsberg Blanc de Noirs ($21)--Amazingly complex wine with a dough or toast component adding richness to the Pinot Noir fruit. An elegant cross between California fruit and the depth you get from French Champagne.

Unclear on the Concept Award: A company is marketing a device intended to protect open bottles of sparkling wine from spoilage by spraying a burst of nitrogen into the bottle. The problem: The carbonation inside a bottle of sparkling wine protects it from spoilage just as well, and if the bubbles are all gone, the wine isn’t worth saving anyhow.

Wine Gadget of the Year: After you have looked at those $10 stainless things that keep the sparkle in a bottle of sparkling wine, look around for those little plastic-topped soda bottle stoppers with the rubber gaskets. They do an excellent job of keeping in the fizz--at about 50 cents a copy.

Chenin Blanc of the Year: 1989 Grand Cru ($6.50)--Melons and pears in an off-dry wine. Wonderful with light dishes.

Make No Mistake: The Mario Perelli-Minetti Vineyard and Winery, in the Napa Valley, responding to a slew of foreign buyouts of high-image wineries, added to its winery sign facing the Silverado Trail on its winery: “American owned.”

Pinot Noir of the Year: Tie between 1988 Williams-Selyem “Rochioli Vineyard” ($30) and Gary Farrell “Howard Allen” ($25). Similarly made wines; the former gives more suppleness, the latter more power. Choose your weapons.

Curious Idea of the Year: Chateau St. Jean, which has made a vintage-dated sparkling wine since 1980, announced that all sparkling wines from the 1990 release and thereafter would be non-vintage wines. A winery spokesman said the decision was made because marketing people said retailers and restaurants complained that having a vintage date identified the wine as to its age and “some people felt they didn’t want last year’s wine.”

Gewurztraminer of the Year: 1989 Thomas Fogarty Santa Cruz Mountains ($9)--Classic spice and richness in a nearly dry wine. Perfect for Thai food.

Good Idea of the Year: Because the term Port has been deemed by officials of the European Economic Community to be proprietary to wines from Oporto, Portugal, those making a Port-type wine elsewhere may not market it in Europe labeled Port . So Andy Quady of Quady Winery in Madeira took the “right” approach. He is bottling a portion of his Port production for the European market and calling the wine Starboard.

Good Idea Runner-Up: Starboard, Quady’s excellent 1987 Port, is packed in a bottle with a back label that says the wine comes from a vineyard, “planted to a mixture of traditional . . . . wine varieties originally imported to California from the Douro district of northern Portugal” and that the resulting wines “have become associated with . . . . wines.”

After Starboard: Since Sherry has been termed legal by the EEC only for wines from Jerez, Spain, are we soon to see an American winery call its product Cheri?

Semillon of the Year: 1987 Hogue Cellars ($8)--Marvelous flavors in a wine rarely looked on with favor in this country.

Dumb Idea of the Year: Sebastiani, the Sonoma winery that brought us Domaine Chardonnay, the wine with no Chardonnay in it, is at it again. The winery has released a line of wines under the brand name Swan Cellars. Nice name, except that since the late 1960s, the Joseph Swan brand has been a super-premium wine, hard to find and in great demand, produced by the late Sonoma County wine pioneer. (A lawsuit has been threatened.)

Red Wine Bargain of the Year: 1987 Estancia Meritage ($12)--Excellent fruit (trace of mint among herbs), a faint earthy quality and a price most people won’t blink at. Wine maker Greg Upton has done a superb job with many wines in the last few years, and this is one of them.

Unclear on the Concept, Runner-Up: To the marketing people who decided to bring into the United States, late in 1990, a tired, over-the-hill, orange-colored 1987 Chateau Clarke Rose from Bordeaux. At $20 a bottle.

Rip-off: The 1990 Nouveau Beaujolais, which came in at prices ($10 to $15 a bottle) about double what they had been two years earlier.

Curiouser and curiouser: The 1990 Beaujolais sold at those prices. Go figure . . . .

Late Harvest Riesling of the Year: 1988 Fetzer Reserve ($10/half bottle)--Unctuously sweet, but with perfect flavors of honey, peach, pear and apple and a spice component in the finish. Next to impossible to take one sip and leave the rest.

What’s the Point?: Former White House aide G. Gordon Liddy appeared in print ads for Chilean wines, saying that Chilean grapevines were not grafted. Huh?

Strange Concept of the Year: Domaine St. George’s Blush Chardonnay.

Stung: International Wine Review, based in Ithaca, N.Y., missed its first issue of 1990 after editor Craig Goldwyn announced that a thief broke into the company’s offices and stole computers and software. Cases of Bordeaux wine that were to be evaluated were not touched. By mid-year, the magazine ceased publication and was acquired by Wine and Spirits Magazine.

Quote of the Year: “If your doctor says that your gout is caused by Port, change doctors. If Port doesn’t agree with you, you’re probably sick. If you’re sick, you need Port.” Dr. Marvin Overton, Ft. Worth, Texas, neurosurgeon and wine collector who specializes in Port.

Unquote: Bo Simons, the librarian for the Sonoma County Wine Library, in a review in the Healdsburg Tribune of Robert Parker’s new 500-plus-pages book “Burgundy”: "(This new book) which weighs in at over 1,000 pounds . . . .” Yeah, but can you put it in your vest pocket?