SOME RECENT NEWS out of California has special interest for wine drinkers:
* The heavy flooding in northern California, which covered some vineyard land in Napa and Sonoma counties, won't significantly affect the '86 crop. Because the vines were dormant in February when the heaviest rains hit -- 24 inches in a single week -- the relatively small number of vines briefly under water survived. Some were damaged by debris along the Napa and Russian rivers and by crumbling stream banks and terraces in Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, the Central Valley and Mendocino County. But most vines are now in spring bud, and the underground water system is brimming, which means plenty for irrigation.
* The average cost of a ton of California grapes went down last year about 11 percent. That is potentially good news for the consumer because falling grape prices should eventually be reflected in the real price of wine. The steadily rising cost of imported wine means California can capture a significantly larger share of the U.S. market if it will take advantage of this rare opportunity. California wines, including those from the best boutiques, with significantly higher prices this year, should be avoided.
One of the few grapes that rose in price was zinfandel. This is not because California winemakers have returned in force to quality red zin, but because they are making so much money off the pale version. White zinfandel -- which is usually pink -- has bailed out many a marginal producer and is the latest success story in California. Winemakers who once laughed at white zin are now buying grapes for their own versions.
In my view, white zinfandel is but one step up from wine coolers, with too much residual sugar and no character. If you like "blush" wines -- those made from red grapes that gain some color before the wine is separated from the skins -- then drink blanc de cabernet. White cab is generally a better wine than white zin, with some complexity and a cleaner finish.
* Banks in California are taking a harder look at a winery's claims of worth. A lot of wine is in storehouses. In the past wineries have been able to borrow money on those stocks indiscriminately, but bankers have realized that some of that stored wine is past its prime and, consequently, of less value. Now that winemakers can't borrow against it, some are putting it on the market at considerable reductions. So beware that bottle of '83 chenin blanc at a fabulously low price -- it may taste like fingernail polish.
* The aging potential of California wines is the hottest theoretical question on the West Coast. This is not the time to address it, but a word about lighter wines is in order. Blush wines should be drunk as fresh as possible, '85 being the most recent available vintage. California chenins, most rieslings and gewurztraminers, and some sauvignon blancs, are better quicker. Even chardonnay, the legendary grape of white burgundies, is not immune to early aging. I recently tried two '82 chardonnays from quality Napa producers, with plenty of backbone, and the fruit had already faded.