Mid-Price Delights from California

Sonoma and Mendocino varietals are gaining favor

Marcia Kunde's family knows a thing or two about grapes. Since her great-grandfather emigrated from Germany a century ago, her family has been working the Kunde Estate Winery at the end of a lane of stately magnolias in California's Sonoma County. With vineyards extending 280 acres and comprising 10 microclimates--pockets of differing weather conditions--Kunde crafts a surprisingly wide selection of wines.

Kunde is one of the many great Sonoma wine labels that would make a pretty addition to any mid-price ($12 to $25) wine collection. While Napa Valley is the better-known region, Sonoma is one of the most diverse wine-growing areas in the country, with hills and valleys that produce quality wines of nearly every varietal, or grape type. Long famous for its chardonnays and cabernet sauvignons, Sonoma is now garnering more attention for other varietals, such as syrah and merlot.

Merlots from Sonoma, for example, tend to be far more pleasing for novice drinkers than its cabernet sauvignons, with hints of cherries, plums, and other black fruits complementing the oak-barrel flavoring. One benefit of merlots, which usually are aged and reach store shelves two years after they are bottled, is that they can be opened immediately and sipped without the mouth-puckering tannin assault of the cabernets. Yet they can be saved for as long as six years before losing the complex flavoring that goes well with a variety of dishes, from steak to pasta.

It's hard to go wrong when choosing a moderately priced Sonoma merlot, but Kunde stands out. For one, the winery spent millions to carve out a cave in the hillside that runs along its vineyards. The cave is not only a neat tourist attraction; its coolness and humidity also serves as a natural place for aging wine. Kunde only uses grapes grown on its own estate, thus giving its wines more consistency.

Indeed, many California wineries buy grapes from vineyards throughout the state--and as a result, their wines are more susceptible to the vagaries of regional weather patterns. That's why aficionados point to the unevenness of California wines bottled in 1998, when heavy rains and intense heat spells affected the quality of grapes. That year's wines may be prime candidates for wine cellars, improving with age. Fortunately, the 1999 vintage currently on store shelves appears to have many of the strong attributes of earlier years.

BLUEBERRY. Another Sonoma favorite is the Ravenswood Winery, which over time has gained a near cult-like following for its fine zinfandel. Since being purchased last spring by Constellation Brands, the maker of jug wines Almaden and Paul Masson, Ravenswood has been expanding its distribution nationwide. While its Vintner's Blend Merlot line serves as decent, drinkable wine now, the Ravenswood Estate Bottled Merlot makes a good choice for storing. Age will mellow its berry, plum, and vanilla accents and bring out even more complex flavors.

Not far to the north, in Mendocino County, is the home of another crowd-pleaser--Fetzer Vineyards. Fetzer's Barrel Select Merlot was the surprise favorite at an informal wine-tasting with my friends, beating out brands nearly three times as expensive. With hints of vanilla and blueberries, the velvety wine proved Fetzer can produce fine, reasonably priced products. A word of warning: Fetzer's vintner blends use lesser-quality grapes and aren't suitable for long-term storage. Even the Barrel Select varieties, most of which are ready to drink immediately, shouldn't be held more than two years.

As with all food and drink, what you enjoy is a matter of taste. Choosing from among these mid-price wines, you're likely to find some pleasing to your palate--and your wallet, too.

By Cliff Edwards

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