Current Releases from California

Following are my notes on new releases from California, including a number of wines I previously reviewed from barrel. Although I found many standouts in my recent tastings, slogging through 300 or more bottles was hard work. Too many California wines are generic or downright boring- made by the numbers or designed by marketing departments rather than accurate reflections of their variety and site. Of course, "Generic or Downright Boring" used to be a lot more affordable, but sharp price inflation in recent years has upped the ante for wine lovers. Other wines here simply lack ripe fruit: they are lean, green, dilute, devoid of flavor. And too many of today California wines, including some at very serious prices, are whomped by new oak. Do California's wineries throw a lot of new wood at their wines to justify high bottle prices, or are prices hiked to pay for expensive new barrels?

For the past couple of years I have been under the impression that many California producers have begun to tone down their use of new oak-or at least have begun to use new oak in a more sophisticated way, with attention paid to the strength of the underlying raw materials-as demanding consumers increasingly search for accurate varietal character and site specificity beneath the maquillage. But in my recent tastings I ran into far too many grotesquely overoaked bottles, as well as a number that were obviously overextracted. In many of these wines, often from high-yielding young vines, there's simply not enough stuffing to support the barrel treatment or extractive vinification. Winemakers cannot extract what is not there in the first place without seriously throwing their wines out of joint.

Prices for many California wines today have reached absurd levels: overoaked, heavyhanded chardonnay at $30 a bottle, and fruit-simple, overripe/underripe cabernet at $30 to $40 surely rate among the world's poorest wine values. But in economic boom times, even bottles from some of California's industrial-sized wineries are parcelled out to a thirsty public, so there appears to be little incentive for pricing restraint. The good news, though, is that while there are now a shocking number of utterly uninteresting California wines carrying fanciful price tags of $60 or more, one increasingly comes across juicy, fresh numbers with flavor intensity, personality and food flexibility in the $20 range. These wines are not from the usual suspects (chardonnay, merlot, cabernet); rather, they come from sangiovese, Rhone Valley grapes (reds, whites and blends), zinfandel and sauvignon blanc, among others.

Many of the current releases included on the following pages are from the 1997 vintage, a year with the potential to make beautifully balanced wines. But crop levels were huge: some of these wine are good as far as they go but don't go far enough. Notes are offered only for recommended bottles-i.e., those that rated at least 85 points in my recent tastings. Due to space constraints, dozens of additional bottles are not listed.