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California dreaminí
Just what does the Golden State label mean?

Whatís in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet ...

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

If you walk into a liquor store and buy yourself a bottle of wine labeled california, how sweet, so to speak, can you expect it to be? What does " California " mean as a designation? Before we get into the answers and their actual wine-drinking ramifications, letís put some facts on the table: 90 percent of all wine made in this country comes from California, where producers crushed 2.6 million tons of grapes in 1999 (a rather light year). Many California wines rival the worldís best.

Labels are the key to decoding Golden State wines. When a label says only " California, " it means that the wine was made (or finished) in that state, and 100 percent of its grapes ó as required by California law ó were grown there. And under federal law, for a blended wine to carry the designation of one of the 145 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) approved by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, 85 percent of the grapes that went into the wine must have been grown within that area.

When it comes to " single-vineyard " designations, the standards are even stricter: 95 percent of the wineís grapes must have grown in the named vineyard. With premium ($10 to $14) and ultra-premium (above $14) wines, the trend has been toward more of this single-vineyard labeling and marketing. These wines are also called " estate-bottled, " meaning the winemaker owns most of the fruit in the wine, and didnít have to purchase it. Winemakers have found that they can sell such bottlings for a lot more money, and consumers love knowing just which vines produced the grapes that made their wine.

In the $10 range, however, itís lately been possible to find a number of truly excellent bottles with the California " appellation of origin " label, and no AVA or other designation. Sometimes wineries choose to take single-vineyard wines and label them this way. Minerís viognier offers an example: most of its fruit comes from the Simpson Vineyard, but the wine is simply labeled " California " ó perhaps because the vintner does not want to identify the wineís originating region, Madera, which is not particularly known for producing great wines.

But another reason " California " wines can be so good is the return to the time-honored art of blending. Although I can devour those high-end, single-vineyard wines with the best of them, I am also a huge fan of blends, as they tend to highlight the winemakerís skill. I have tasted more than a dozen excellent California wines over the past few weeks, all of them tremendous values. I donít need to know which field my grapes were grown in, or the exact composition of the wines. I have come to trust that good wineries tend to make good wine, or they wonít put it on the shelves ó their brand name is too precious over the long haul.

I do remember a time when the " California " designation often indicated lower quality: the fruit grew in the hot, dry valley, rather than on the coastal side of the hills, and the wines were made from cheap, mass-produced grapes. This kind of fruit was low in acid, and you could taste that. At this stage, though, seeing " California " alone on a label is, if not an enticement, then at least not a disincentive to trying a wine. Some mediocre (or even jug-caliber) wines may carry that label, but if you know the winery, then the bottle will probably be pretty good. Indeed, since winemakers rarely use all the fruit from any one vineyard, the excess from these lots can be blended to make some darn good wine, even in less-than-stellar years.

One indication of the " California " labelís swing back to respectability is the highly political opposition by the Wine Institute, the public-policy advocacy association of California wineries, to the proposed " California Coast " AVA. Since such an AVA would be vast, stretching from Mexico to Mendocino, it would have little meaning, and could unduly benefit those major wineries that have access to lots of the grapes grown near the Pacific, at the expense of all the non-coastal areas of California. The Wine Institute has never before opposed a proposed AVA; it justifies its position in part by noting that the " Coast " AVA could dilute the meaning of the " California " appellation of origin.

At the end of the day (and drinking wine while watching a California sunset is one of lifeís grander pleasures), " California " has largely come to mean " quality. " Some of my favorite California winemakers include Hess, Pepperwood Grove, Beaulieu Vineyard, Beringer, Bogle, Fetzer, and Baron Herzog. With help from your local wine store, you can find your own favorites when looking for those less expensive, high-quality wines.

California, here I come.

David Marglin can be reached at wine[a]

Issue Date: August 16-23, 2001

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