A RECENT ISSUE of The Wine Spectator, a biweekly publication devoted to things vinous, contained a list of California chardonnays for $10 and less. These wines not only are a real value for the money but also display some depth -- and some of them have complexity once considered impossible for wines costing less than $20 a bottle.
The article was remarkable for a couple of reasons. The Wine Spectator, a champion of California wine and read by many people accustomed to buying the more expensive sort, revealed that competition has invaded what was once the sacrosanct domain of the California chardonnay. It also recognized the fact that enophiles of even the most liberal purse strings are no longer willing to buy classy Napa labels when good wine lurks behind those from lesser known producers and viticultural areas.
More about The Wine Spectator later. For the moment we're searching for pleasant, affordable white wines with some character that can be drunk with summer fare; lighter chardonnay is perfect. A case of it won't last the season, because we intend to drink it or to carry a bottle off as a present to a host with a beach house. Some of the wines mentioned later should be kept until next summer, or even the summer after; others are ready now.
Several among the top two dozen on the list from the '84 vintage are easily obtainable here, and some represent real bargains. One is the Corbett Canyon '84 from the central coast, a fruity, very appealing chardonnay that can be drunk now with lighter foods. It costs only $7, and for that price you get a full liter -- a true bargain.
Another good deal is the Domaine St. George, from Sonoma County, an oakier version that should be held for awhile before drinking. At only $5, you should put some of the '84 or the '85 away.
The Glen Ellen Proprietor's Reserve, at a mere $3.50, is right up there in quality with the other two wines.
My favorite was the '84 Innisfree, a Napa chardonnay with too many elements to be fully realized now, but a great opportunity for future summers at only $9. Innisfree is Phelps' "second label," a supposedly lesser wine put out by the same vineyard.
The '84 Raymond California Selection headed The Wine Spectator list, a much fruitier, approachable wine that can be drunk now and costs even less -- $8.50.
Other '84s well worth the price, and available here, include the Concannon, with a quarter of the grapes from the Mistral Vineyard in Santa Clara County and the rest from the Tepusquet Vineyard in Santa Maria Valley, for $10; the '84 Fetzer Sundial from Mendocino County for only $6.50 (the '84 Fetzer Barrel Select is not as approachable and costs $9); and the '84 Conn Creek, another exceptional bargain at about $7.
I would add to the list the '84 Garrison Forest, made by St. Clement Vineyard ($8); the '84 Cassayre-Forni at $8.50; and the '84 chardonnay from Adelsheim Vineyard in Oregon's Yamill County, a $10 excursion into the northern reaches of West Coast chardonnay -- so far the undisputed triumph of American wine-making that has finally entered the price range of the average American wine drinker.