A vivid indication of the increased stature of California wines -- and the increased sophistication of wine marketing -- was provided last week when the Park, Benziger organization offered a tasting of wines from eight California producers. In alphabetical order, they were: Bandiera, Cakebread Cellars, Grand Pacific, Husch Vineyards, Kalin Cellars, Los Conches Cellars, Mill Creek Vineyards and Stony Ridge Winery.
The names are scarcely known here. All the wineries are small in size. You wouldn't have heard of them unless you read the ratings in some of the California wine newletters, or follow awards lists from various fairs and exhibitions. So perhaps it is not surprising that no throng of restaurateurs or wine retailers arrived to sample the bottles on display. In fact, there are a number of possible explanations for this, not the least of which is that those who haven't escaped on vacation are barely coping with the heat and the late August doldrums.
But this event and the lack of attendance shouldn't be passed off with a yawn. It signifies two things: The importance of California's small, quality-oriented winteries still is underrated here, while Washington's wine trade seriously over rates this city's role in the evolving contemporary wine scene.
It is only speculation, but my guess is that a presentation of a half-dozen or so Burgundies would have drawn a considerably larger crowd. Yet the Burgundies would be available in limited amounts (as are these California wines), the names and locations of Burgundian vineyards would be as difficult to comprehend as those in California and prices for the Burgundies almost certainly would be higher.
Until recently, it was assumed one had to go to California to taste the best of that state's wines. No longer. Most of California's small-production wineries have chosen to market at least some of their wines outside the state.A handful of local wine shops have been receptive and within the past year the leading local wholesalers jumped on the bandwagon as well.
As a result, retailers and restauranteurs contend they are inundated with unfamiliar labels. To further complicate matters, most California wineries -- even the small ones -- make several wines and the quality of these wines can vary significantly from one year to another, in part because so much experimentation still is going on, and in part because there is significant variation from vintage to vintage among these thoroughbred wines.
It's not easy. One has to do a lot of tasting these days just to separate the wheat from the chaff, and a fair number of people in the business have neither time nor a talent for tasting. Maybe they conclude it is not worth the trouble, or are willing to wait for the public to voice a desire for certain wines.
The problem is that those wines may no longer be available.While Washington has long been considered a major wine market and has enjoyed a favored status with foreign producers, the current explosion of interest in American wines is nationwide. Even though it has been fueled by European price inflation, the quality of California wines is being recognized. Americans are willing to consider them in the first rank now. They promise to be the elite wines of the future.
Winemakers who make sales and promotion swings through the East talk with enthusiasm of the receptions they receive in Boston, Providence and Connecticut. Even New York City, until recently hopelessly addicted to white Burgundy, is beginning to respond. In Chicago, Kansas City, Denver and points west it may be French -- not California -- wines that are relegated to the back page of the wine list.
When demand outdistances production, Washington (and other cities) receive wines only if the winery wants to sell them here. So unless this city is to be left behind, it is necessary for the local trade collectively to show curiosity and enthusiasm, to come to know California's regions and wineries and to aggressively sell the best of these wines rather than waiting for the wines to sell themselves.
Some wines that made a favorable impression at the Park, Bensinger tasting were Bandiera's 1977 gamay; Cakebread Cellar's 1978 sauvignon blanc, cabernet blanc and chenin blanc; Husch 1978 chardonnay; Kalin's 1977 Sonoma chardonnay and 1977 Sonoma zinfandel; Mill Creek's 1975 cabernet sauvignon and 1978 cabernet blush; Stoney Ridge's 1978 dry chenin blanc and a fine, mature nonvintage cabernet; Los Coches rich, fruity 1978 chardonnay from the Ventana Vineyard.
Several other California wines sampled recently are worth noting. Among them: Apul Masson's Monterey 1977 fume blanc from the Pinnacles Vineyards, Stonegate's 1976 sauvignon blanc, Parducci's 1975 Cellarmaster's cabernet sauvignon, Grand Cru's pink Sonoma Bouquet and 1978 pinot noir-blanc, Inglenook's 1977 fume blanc and Angelo Papagni's full-bodied i975 charbono.
In a move with great potential significance, the Wine Institute has petitioned the State of California to legalize production of table wines with 7 to 10 percent alcohol and dessert wines with 14 to 18 percent alcohol. This would encourage production of lighter, German-style riesling wines and late-harvest, sweet wines. Limited quantities of these styles of wine have been produced and test marketed already under waivers "for experimentation" provided by the California Department of Health Services. If the petition is accepted, they could be mass-marketed.