You Can't Judge a Wine By Its Label

TIMES WINE WRITER

Type-casting isn't just a Hollywood problem--it happens to winemakers too. The people who believe Roseanne Arnold isn't cut out to play Lady Macbeth are also likely to think that those who make great Cabernet Sauvignons aren't cut out to make great Chardonnays.

But things change. This year, comic Robin Williams was nominated for a best-actor award alongside Robert DeNiro. And many wineries are proving that they can make great wines out of varieties for which they have no previous reputation.

The point is that looking at labels can be a trap. Assumptions about the way a wine tastes are made even before the first sip, and somehow these expectations are confirmed after tasting. This year I have judged at four major wine competitions, filling my tasting book with notes on some 800 wines. And I have evaluated another 300 on my own, blind, so I know how easy it is to fall prey to your own prejudices.

Tasting wine blind keeps the taster honest; with no label to run interference there are always surprises. My discoveries in the last few weeks have been eye-opening, proof that judging a wine by its label alone is no way to judge a wine.

Consider the following wines:

1988 Gauer Estate Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon ($18): This first release of a Gauer red wine is spectacular in an unusual way. While waiting for the red wine grapes to mature and the wine to smooth out in the bottle, winemaker Kerry Damskey had nothing but Chardonnays on the market for 2 1/2 years. In 1987 the Cabernet was big and powerful, but "not what we were looking for," says president Allan Hemphill, so the wine was sold in bulk. The 1988 has spiced fruit and generous flavors of red currant and a hint of cassis. The weight of the wine is modest, but the long, complex aftertaste is a joy. A wine reminiscent of Patrick Campbell's Laurel Glen Cabernets, with grace and a long life ahead of it.

1990 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Chardonnay ($28): When Warren Winiarski's 1973 Stag's Leap Cabernet beat a host of expensive Bordeaux to win a 1976 tasting in Paris, his Cabernets became famous. By 1985, however, something was amiss at Stag's Leap: The Cabernets, which were selling for $50 and up, smelled and tasted strange (though many people still bought them, based on their former reputation). Problems with the red wines seem to have been solved with the release of the 1989 Napa Valley Cabernet, but the wine I liked better was this one, the third elegant Chardonnay in a row from winemaker John Gibson. The aroma is floral with lemon, pears and spice; the finish is crisp and full of flavor. The grapes are from the Carneros region, not from Stag's Leap. The only drawback: The price is awfully high.

1991 Firestone Vineyards Gewurztraminer ($9): This Santa Ynez Valley winery has long made top Riesling, Merlot and Chardonnay; Gewurztraminer here has just been nice wine. In 1991, though, the grapes took three additional weeks to ripen, creating a remarkably flavored wine, a near-perfect Alsatian taste-alike with instantly recognizable rose petal, pear and litchi nut aromas. It is almost totally dry, a perfect match for spiced Asian foods, curry or cilantro-based dishes.

1991 DeLoach Vineyards Gewurztraminer Early Harvest ($8.50): This well-regarded producer of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel has always made stylish Gewurztraminers, but the '91 is really special. It's more floral than the Firestone, with grapefruity notes and a hint of gardenias in the nose. Even though the wine has 1% residual sugar, it is richer on the palate, yet still quite dry.

1990 Chateau de Baun Chardonnay ($10): Until recently, this Sonoma County winery made wines only from the Symphony grape, a Muscat variety with a pungently spicy aroma. The wines were always attractive--but not to the public. So in the last two years, winemaker Jamie Meves has reduced Symphony to one-fourth of the De Baun line, increasing production of traditional wines. His 1990 Chardonnay from the Russian River area is exceptional, loaded with citrusy fruit aromas and crisp, spicy notes. Not much oak here, just a load of Chardonnay fruit and great texture for matching with food. It has won gold medals at two fairs this year, and at the West Coast Wine Competition in Reno it was nominated for the sweepstakes award.

Wine of the Week

1991 Dry Creek Chenin Blanc ($6.50)-- Dry Creek Winery in Sonoma County's Healdsburg is known for Fume Blanc, but its Chenin Blanc is a more stylish, consistent wine. This one, from grapes grown in the Sacramento Delta 100 miles to the southeast, is a gem. It is quite Loire-like in aroma, with traces of the flinty, leafy, melony notes I love. The taste is off-dry, but it has plenty of acid to make it crisp, so it matches well with seafood and is perfect for cooling off on a hot day. It's a great substitute for Chardonnay at a fraction of the price.

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