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The beauty of ignoring the critics

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The usual hoopla, except more so, is accompanying the imminent release of the 2005 Bordeaux reds.

The combination of a very weak dollar with what seems to be an extraordinarily good French vintage, is spelling misery for American wine drinkers and collectors alike. Mostly gone are the advantageous days of buying wine on a presale basis: plunking down your money two years in advance to be sure to get the wine you like and the better price you crave. Nowadays, the money-saving aspect of this equation is gone with the wind. Sometimes a presale price may actually be higher than the price you'll see on the wine shop shelves. The reason? A handful of critics who decree what is good, and what's not, before it is even bottled. A wine that seemed promising while still aging in its oak barrel may later be seen to be not as good as the grand pooh-bahs of oenophilia had originally thought—oh well, we were wrong. ... Don't you hate when people put a number on a wine when it's still in the womb?

What to do? Here's an everyman's guide to beating the system. Today's influential critics use two important yardsticks for evaluating greatness: fruit and texture. Therefore, the subtleties of a wine such as Chateau d'Issan (Margaux)—oriental spice, understated nuance and non-overbearing fruit—can be easily downgraded. Where's the "in your face" fruit and extract? For 25 years, winemakers have been forced either to go against the grain of what used to make their wine special, or stick to their guns and see less than dramatic scores and sales.

As consumers, we must be aware. Any Bordeaux wine that has given you pleasure in the past will undoubtedly do so again in a strong year like 2005. If you have enjoyed the ubiquitous Chateau Larose-Trintaudon in vintages past, it will be terrific again. Look for those wines that do not achieve that automatic price inflator—90 points or more from national publications. Wines that fall into the "good" category (85-88 points) may well be your salvation.

A great vintage is the time to invest in good chateaux, not the elite. Nothing beats or gives more pleasure than tasting a good estate positively go through the roof under ideal weather conditions. In fact, unless you're a multi-millionaire, the greatest wines of Bordeaux (the Lafites, Latours and Cheval Blancs) are actually the ones to avoid. Their huge prices will never make a modest wine drinker happy. She'll squirm and never drink these wines because they have become an investment, not a drink. Better to buy 50 cases of the very good wine than one of the superstars. Here is a list of 2000 Bordeaux (the last top vintage) that I bought, got decent scores and were sold, after all the initial hoopla and the shouting had died down, at less than $20 per bottle:

La Tour de Mons (Margaux)
Moulinet (Pomerol)
Lalande-Borie (St. Julien)
Tronquoy-Lalande (St. Estephe)
Caronne St. Gemme (Haut Medoc)
Peyrabon (Haut Medoc)
Loudenne (Medoc)
Fourcas-Hosten (Listrac)
La Louvière (Graves)
Carbonnieux (Graves)
Rochemorin (Graves)

You may notice that the Graves wines are often the Rodney Dangerfields. With a few exceptions, they don't get the respect of St. Juliens, Pauillacs or Margaux. La Louvière, which got well-deserved, fabulous press, was released at $48, but I was able to buy it, after all the dramatics ended, for $18.

I cannot overstate the pleasure factor of the Margaux and the Pomerol on this list. The vintage took these wines to heights seldom achieved under "normal" circumstances. The others were wines I had a good personal history with. Failing that, I used the philosophy espoused by my old sidekick in the wine business, Rick Heeren—"vintuition." Some wines just feel right. For those with less experience (or confidence), a glance at Hugh Johnson's 2008 Pocket Wine Book can make instant connoisseurs out of everyone. It was his discussion of Chateau Rochemorin, and the pedigree it possessed, that made me decide to buy in—and I am ever grateful.

So, cool your heels, everyone. Another "vintage of the century" is upon us. All of this boils down to reviews versus reality. I can't guarantee the $20 prices any more; after all, it is five years later. But bargains will be around for those who wait. There are hundreds of terrific estates that will fall between the cracks. If you are patient until 2010 or so, they will be flushed out at distress prices. We will then enjoy these wines twice as much—for their quality and their value.


Old friend

Rodney Strong bought his first California vineyard in 1959.
  • Rodney Strong bought his first California vineyard in 1959.

Wine writer Barbara Ensrud and I recently sat down with the winemaker of Rodney Strong Vineyards. Rick Sayre, an overtly modest man, has been its winemaker since 1980. He answered all of our questions thoughtfully and with an ear to ideas. He must be ideal to work for and, with his seeming openness to possibility, an ever-continuing student in this wonderful profession. He still waxes poetic about the influences that Hall of Fame winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff (of Beaulieu Vineyards) had on him.

Rodney Strong, the former professional Broadway dancer turned gentleman farmer, bought his first California acreage in 1959. During those first years, Strong bought thousands of acres of what had been prune and apple orchards and turned them into Sonoma Vineyards and, ultimately, Rodney Strong Vineyards. I recall a delicious Petite Syrah that Strong made in the mid-'70s: generous, round and cheap. He also produced the very first single vineyard Cabernet from Sonoma County—the 1974 "Alexander's Crown."

He once said, "I knew I couldn't be an old dancer, but I could be an old winemaker."

Barbara and I continually probed Sayre and Public Relations Director Robert Larsen about one thing: How will your red wines age? Will they develop and improve? Will all the sappy, high alcohol, overflowing fruit gush vanish in time—leaving a desiccated, oaky shell in its wake? Although Sayre says "My passion is to have people enjoy what they're drinking enough to ask for a second glass," one still wonders about the "refreshment" capability of a 15-percent-alcohol wine. But almost all winemakers today are caught up in the game of making wines that get high scores from critics and are exciting to drink upon release from the winery. How many people are actually going to collect their output and drink the wines in five or 10 years' time? The answer is, practically nobody, and this daunting question has little place in the business mode of most California wineries.

Here are the eight wines we sampled:

2006 Charlotte's Home Sauvignon Blanc, $14

Named after Strong's wife, this continues to be one of the winery's most consistent stars and values. Fresh! New-mown hay and grassy components are a delight to smell. Smooth entry and flavors that never lose their brightness, cleanliness and fun.

2006 Chalk Hill Chardonnay, $20

Clean, tropical and minerally with warm butterscotch underpinning. Spicy mouth entry that smooths out on the palate. Distinctive style celebrating its 30th anniversary.

2005 Reserve Chardonnay, $35

Russian River Valley fruit is subtle yet alive. Substantial oak twang awakens the taste buds and creates a very creamy texture. Gorgeous generosity—engaging and excitingly full-blown style.

2006 Russian River Valley Estate Pinot Noir, $22

Intense berry fruit with a touch of beet root—that odd yet wonderful Pinot aromatic. Brisk, crisp and slightly biting drink. Direct style needing food.

2005 Jane's Vineyard Reserve Pinot Noir, $45

A dark, brooding wine with a black cherry component and earthy richness. A good sumptuous wine lacking a bit of focus. Excellent acid balance keeps it lithe.

2004 Alexander Valley Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, $25

An explosive nose of ripe fruit freshness keeps it happy and refreshing. Slightly herbal and lean as a drink.

2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, $50

Hearty, rich and strong. A throwback to the chunky, toothsome, insular cabs of the '80s. Not subtle and maybe a touch clumsy now, but I would bet this will be a good ager and will fan out into a benchmark Sonoma Cab in 2020. (1/2)

2005 Symmetry, $60

A Meritage blend of five Bordeaux-style grapes with Cabernet Sauvignon predominating. A showy wine with fullness, generosity, solidity and structure. A joy to drink and the kind of wine American aficionados crave—a showstopper now with aging potential optional. Delicious.

Sometimes the "old" names in the wine business seem to get less press than the exciting new upstarts. But the Rodney Strong tradition is going on 50 years—ancient by most California standards—and is in no need of AARP. It impressively carries on.

Questions, comments or column ideas? Arturo can be reached at deal5@earthlink.net.

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