The Wine-Bright Sea 

Splashing through the wave of new wines this season.

The goal of every winemaker swimming in that ocean is to create wine that’s both unique and affordable. To assist us in better understanding these things, Style tasted recently with Ron Schrieve, the winemaker for the Beringer Founders’ Estate in California. His theory is simple: “The winery made a white zinfandel at $6, then leaped immediately to a $20 merlot with nothing in between. There were suddenly all of these grapes available, and we thought it a good idea to make a wine in the $10-$12 everyday world that had a California Appellation label and tasted good for the money.”

Schrieve is a classically trained winemaker from the University of California at Davis. He also is a classically trained singer who’s the size of a pro football tackle. His task was to assemble grapes from a wide variety of California vineyards and come up with “not your basic California jug wine, but a head-shaking value.”

Chardonnay is always a benchmark grape in California. “The label of the Beringer Founders’ Estate Chardonnay 2002 states the basic California Appellation, but I seek out the nook-and-cranny vineyards for blending” Schrieve says. “You will discover in the glass the Mendocino green-apple flavor, the citrus quality of Santa Barbara, the tight-and-bright qualities of Carneros and the lemon-zest character of Monterey.”

A glass of chardonnay is certainly capable of all of these and more. In this wine, there’s some oak but not a lot. This is an excellent $10 benchmark chardonnay.

You would think that cabernet sauvignon would be the simplest grape to use for quality wines at reasonable prices, because it’s always relatively easy to grow. But thin, uninteresting cabernets abound. Schrieve’s idea of vineyard blending to achieve a better final product starts with the full, black fruit of Northern California and drops down to the plummy, soft fruit of Monterey County. “My ringer occurred when I found some vineyard blocks of cassislike fruit bombs on the edge of Santa Barbara County.”

The Beringer Founders’ Estate Cabernet 2001 was interesting to compare with some $10 values around the house. The Santa Maravista Reserve Cabernet 2001 from Chile had good fruit but not the depth or complexity. The El Portillo Cabernet 2001 from Argentina was very soft.

The trickiest test of all is to see how Schrieve’s vineyard blending compares with the bigger siblings, the Beringer Napa Merlot at $20 and the Bancroft Ranch, Howell Mountain Merlot 1977 at $80. Merlot is a vineyard-by-vineyard grape, doing well where it wants and disappointing you with insipid flavors when you’ve made mistakes in planting, pruning or making it. Schrieve’s Founders’ Estate is blended from a variety of good sites and has the fresh, fruity, delicious straightforward flavor that you hope for from merlot.

The Beringer Napa Merlot is more concentrated and has more oak in the wine’s flavor. Schrieve’s concept was to “produce a smaller version of their style, but one with similarities that the wine drinker would recognize.”

The ultimate expression comes from the finest single-vineyard wine. The Beringer Bancroft Ranch, Howell Mountain Merlot 1977 features all the winery’s bells and whistles in one glass. It is very intense and extremely luscious and could stand a few more years in the bottle to unleash all its flavors. If doubt enters into your head about a bottle of wine being worth $80, this will make you a believer. S

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