"Vintage doesn't matter in California, because the weather is excellent every year."
There's little truth in this old myth, perhaps promulgated in years past by the Chamber of Commerce or maybe even the wine industry. As in every other wine-producing region, California's grape farmers are affected by the weather. Late frost, summer hailstorms, rain at harvest, El Niño or La Nina ... weather phenomena in both the long and short term can dramatically affect a year's harvest for better or for worse. What's more, in this sprawling state, larger than some entire wine-producing countries, one region's vineyards can bask in warming sunshine while another drowns in torrential storms.
But this isn't such a bad thing, unless perhaps you're in the business of selling wine. Vintage, after all, is one of the many intriguing variables that makes wine interesting. I enjoy keeping track of favorite wines, eagerly watching the wine shop for the arrival of each new vintage so I can compare it with those that have gone before. And while "vintage wine" in the common parlance may hint at something rare and expensive, I find it just as interesting to keep track of the annual changes in affordable wines of value.
One of the best of those, a wine that I've been following since it first hit the market around 1994, is the decidedly modest yet intriguing California "REDS," a red-grape blend made by Patrick Campbell, the affable Sonoma winemaker-philosopher who may be best known for his flagship wine, Laurel Glen Sonoma Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon.
With Lauren Glen Cabernet at the high end and a thoughtful variety of wines from California and South America in between, REDS stakes out the low end of Campbell's portfolio with exceptional style.
Not just the weather but the "recipe" varies somewhat from year to year in this blend of Zinfandel and Rhone-style varieties that Campbell sources from old, sometimes historic vineyards around the state. The most recent release, the 2002, appears similar to the 2001 blend: It's 60 percent 80-year-old Zinfandel, 30 percent 117-year-old Carignane and 10 percent Petite Sirah, fermented in small batches and aged in small oak barrels.
More often than not, past vintages of REDS have bespoken a distinctly European flavor, but the 2002 is unusually luscious - Campbell calls it "huge." Its intensity of fruit aroma and flavor is unmistakably New World, although Campbell's hand still shows in a complexity and firm underlying acidity that provide the usual international accent.
As in the past, the packaging comes with a wink and a nudge. Subtitled "A Wine for the People," REDS is stoppered with natural corks that bear the images of prominent, um, "Reds," from Marx (Karl and Groucho) to Lenin and Trotsky and Robert Oppenheimer, the American atomic scientist who was falsely accused of Communist sympathy by McCarthyites. Hey, that's not funny!
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Laurel Glen 2002 REDS California Red Wine ($9.99)
Inky blackish-purple in color, this California blend of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Carignan blends flavors of the Old World and the New: Black plums and smoke, a heady whiff of flowers and a dash of pepper. Big and ripe in flavor, the back label calls it "opulent," and I'll buy that. The plushy fruit almost makes it seem soft at first, but there's a firm core of acidity to hold it together and make it an excellent food match. (Feb. 3, 2005)
FOOD MATCH: An easy match with Mediterranean fare, it went very well indeed with a variation on a Piemontese classic, duck breast filling in for hare in a thick fennel-celery puree over wide pasta.
VALUE: I've seen REDS rise from $6 to $10 with inflation over the past 10 years, but it's still a fine value at this price.
WHEN TO DRINK: Although it's meant for immediate enjoyment, I can testify that REDS holds up well on the wine rack for two or three years, and I've heard credible reports of it lasting years longer in the cellar.
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Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2005