THE ARMY OF wine consumers thirsting for a good glass of chardonnay or cabernet sauvignon need not despair just because the most-highly prized California boutique wines have become expensive and rare. There are numerous sensational values on the market which offer quality well above their humble prices. As the wine snobs trip over each other in their zealous crusade to seek out the esoteric and absurdly priced boutique wines, others can find relief and refuge in the following fine wines which are widely available at journeyman's prices.
Chardonnays represent the creme de la creme of California's white wine production. However, the popularity and quality of this wine has resulted in double-digit prices for the best wines, and the $20 price level is past-history for such brash wineries as Martin Ray and Chateau St. Jean.Bargains do exist, as exemplified by the following three great buys: 1979 Cedar Ridge, $4.99 to $5.99, from Sonoma; 1978 Beringer, $5.99 to $6.99, from Napa; and 1979 Beaulieu, $6.49 to $6.99, from Napa.
Sauvignon blanc also has escalated significantly in price as wineries have learned how to tame some of this varietal's intense herbaceous, grassy character, and produce dry, flinty, crisp wines. The best value on the market is the reliable 1979 Parducci Sauvignon Blanc, $5.99, from Mendocino County. It will not make anyone forget a great sancerre or a white graves, but it is a fine value in sauvignon blanc. A wine that competes with the best French graves is Sterling Sauvignon Blanc, $5.99 to $6.99. A dry, flinty, medium-bodied wine which is extremely well made, it is approximately half the price of a comparable French white graves.
At the bottom of the white wine price spectrum are the generic jug wines, which frequently represent the best values in the wine world. Generics are blended wines which can be vintage dated or nonvintage. It is rare to find expensive grape varieties such as chardonnay or sauvignon blanc in these blends, as wineries prefer to use the less-expensive grape varieties such as colombard, riesling, chenin blanc and thompson seedless. These blended wines often appear under misleading or uninformative names such as "chablis" or "white table wine", and the best for which the wine buyer can hope is a fresh, clean, fruity wine without objectionable odors, flavors or candy-like sweetness. Three of the best on the market include 1979 Monterey Vineyard Classic California White, $2.99 to $3.49; the highly promoted non-vintage California Cellars Chablis, $2.79 to $2.99; and 1979 Mirassou White Burgundy, $3.99 to $4.49.
The list of sanely priced red wine values is even more impressive. No one yet has disputed the fact that the cabernet sauvignon grape can do some wondrous things along the north coast of California. However, all this fame and wonderment has a price, and for buyers the price of a good cabernet sauvignon can be the same as a meal at a favorite bistro. Heitz, Robert Mondavi, Mount Eden and Sterling have discovered that cabernet will sell at $30-plus per bottle, but these prices are unrealistic when measuring the price/quality relationship of all cabernet sauvignons. For values in fine cabernet sauvignon, the buyer need not look any further than 1978 Beaulieu Beau Tour, $3.99, from Napa; 1979 Fetzer Lake County, $4.79 to $5.49; and 1978 Dry Creek, $5.99, from Sonoma. All of these wines are priced well below their quality level and have the double virtue of being delicious to drink now.
California's most widely planted red wine grape is zinfandel. It can vary in style from a light, fruity, beaujolais-type wine, to a powerful, full-bodied, inky black purple, tannic wine that is extremely concentrated and potentially long-lived. There are plenty of drinkable zinfandels, but despite the wine's success and high visibility, really fine zinfandels are in short supply. The best current values in zinfandels include 1978 Fetzer, $3.49 to $3.99, from Lake County; 1977 and 1978 Fetzer, $4.49 to $5.99, from Mendocino; and 1978 Willow Creek, $3.99.
California's red generics are generally disappointing, as the worst of this lot have in common a sweet, cooked aroma and syrupy, heavy flavors. My current favorites are the charming 1977 Souverain Burgundy, $2.99, reminiscent of a French Cote de Beaune, and the fuller, but more expensive, Conn Creek "Maja" Cask 747, $4.99. Almost as good are the offerings of Monterey Vineyard's 1978 "Classic California Red," $2.99; and 1977 Beaulieu Burgundy, $3.99. WINE BRIEFS
For those readers who absolutely must have French champagne, the current rendition of Louis Roederer's non-vintage brut, $17.95 to $19.95, is not only better than any other non-vintage champagne I have tasted, but it competes very favorably with the best of the vintage-dated champagnes.