Napa Valley is sending good news to wine lovers.

The first item of interest is the significant improvements achieved recently in wines made from the pinot noir grape, and the second involves the particularly high quality of white wines from the 1980 vintage.

First, the pinot noir. While this grape is responsible for the great red burgundies of France, the results in this country have been mixed at best. American pinot noirs often have had a peculiar smell, described by imaginative wine writers as resembling "petroleum" or "rubber boots." I was therefore surprised when representatives at the Robert Mondavi Winery and Beaulieu Vineyards, both long famous for their wines produced from the cabernet sauvignon grape, suggested trying some recent pinot noirs. Not wishing to be impolite, I accepted the offer without expressing my considerable skepticism. Well, that skepticism has vanished, and I returned from Napa convinced that pinot noir has a bright future there.

At Mondavi I tasted the 1977, the 1978 Private Reserve and the soon-to-be-released 1979 Private Reserve pinot noirs. The 1979 was a noticeable improvement over the 1978 and far better than the 1977. It had full, rich, burgundian-style fruit in the nose and mouth and possessed that velvety, silky feel one expects from good pinot noir, although there was sufficient tannin for longevity. This progressive improvement in the Mondavi vintages provides encouraging indications for the future.

After this pleasant surprise, I proceeded to Beaulieu Vineyards and tasted its superb 1976 Carneros Pinot Noir. While this wine was released some time ago and will be hard to find now, it would be well worth a serious search. The nose is classic burgundy with hints of smoke and bacon; the wine has full fruit and a rich texture in the mouth with sufficient underlying tannin for further development. Beaulieu Vineyards officials say that the cool climate in the vineyards where these grapes were grown is ideal for the pinot noir, which has a thin skin that makes it quite susceptible to heat.

This past Friday, a group of wine makers from California and the Pacific Northwest, organized by David Bruce, visited Washington and presented seven pinot noirs at a luncheon tasting. The wines were: Domaine Chandon Blanc de Noirs; Knudsen Erath, Oregon, 1979; David Bruce, Santa Cruz Mountain, 1979; La Crema Vinera, 1979; Acacia Winery, Napa 1979; Associated Vintners, Yakima, 1979; and Martin Ray, Winery Lake, 1979.

The group enjoyed the amber colored Domaine Chandon, which was served as an apertif. This wine, having more body, if less elegance, than most French champagnes, provides a rare example of a sparkling wine to accompany a meal. The David Bruce and the Martin Ray were my favorites of the remainder of the tasting. Both possessed complexity, structure and characteristic pinot noir fruit. Indeed, the Martin Ray displayed an amazing intensity of fruit and had no difficulty overpowering the mild cheeses with which it was served.

Wine lovers will find encouragement in these developments for several reasons. First, the quality of red burgundy is not as uniformly high as its price, so some California competition would be welcome. Second, pinot noir provides an alternative flavor to cabernet sauvignon and produces wines that usually can be enjoyed sooner. Most first-class cabernet sauvignon takes years to develop, being closed in and highly tannic when young. A good pinot noir, on the other hand, while it will improve with age, is more approachable in its youth than is a cabernet of comparable class.

The other good news concerns California white wines of 1980--a year in which Napa experienced an unusual climate pattern.

A cooler-than-normal summer preceded a warm Indian summer in late September, which resulted in grapes both fully ripe and high in acidity. Sufficient acidity is often a problem in California and is essential for the making of first-class white wines. Therefore, wine lovers have been looking forward to the arrival of the 1980 California whites and, based on my tastings in Napa, will not be disappointed.

Of the 1980 chardonnays produced in the classic California style--that is to say, big, intense and powerful, with perhaps more force than finesse--I tasted several of exceptionally high quality, including the St. Clement and Acacia wineries. At the other end of the spectrum, with more emphasis on elegance than power, is the soon-to-be-released 1980 Mondavi Private Reserve Chardonnay. This wine is fermented in small oak barrels and possesses a complexity, elegance, balance and finesse which should make it a classic. I look forward to seeing this spectacular chardonnay in blind tastings with the great white burgundies of Louis Latour and Domaine LaFlaive.

While not in the same quality or price range as the foregoing, another interesting 1980 white is the Sterling Sauvignon Blanc. Although this wine lacks the classic sauvignon blanc flavor--often described as weedy, grassy or herbaceous--it has pleasant fruit nonetheless, and an extraordinary crispness from its high acidity level. This wine will be too austere or dry for some, but I personally am pleased to see a California white with this degree of acidity.

If there is one thing were are learning to count on from California, it is continuing improvement.