DRINK / Blossom on the vine in California: The West Coast is waking up to competition from the newer world, says Anthony Rose

CALIFORNIA, too laid back for its own good, has finally realised that of all the new world's wine areas, its was the least impressive performance in the expanding UK market of the Eighties. In part, this was the result of its own laissez-faire attitude: why bother, when we can sell all we want at home? But mostly it was because California's polarisation between cheap plonk and pricey boutique wines meant that value for money in the middle- price range of pounds 4 to pounds 8 has been conspicuously unavailable.

In an attempt to make up lost ground, the Napa Valley vintners showed a dozen wines - half less than pounds 10, half less than pounds 6 - at the annual California tasting last month. On a 100- point scale, they scored 80 for quality and 65 for diversity (the chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon fixation still affects three out of every five bottles that the Napa Valley produces). On value for money, however, they did not fare so well. 'I don't think our strong position is under pounds 5,' said Dick Ward of Saintsbury, one of Napa's few premium wineries to have made a success of the UK market.

Once upon a time, Napa was the biggest draw on the US West Coast, synonymous with California wine itself. Today, it is up against a strong dollar and spirited competition from the rest of the new world. And phylloxera, the resurgent louse that is now attacking California's vineyards, is compounding Napa's problems. Mondavi, for instance, reckons it will have to replant two-fifths of its 2,000 acres, at a cost of dollars 17m ( pounds 11.8m). In the long run, however, it will allow producers to select more suitable grapes and clones.

In the meantime, wine drinkers are waking up to the fact that there is more to California wine than Napa alone. Even with the wines of Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake Counties, as well as Napa, the whole North Coast region accounts for one in 10 bottles of wine produced in the state.

At the same time, we are beginning to see an unaccustomed flexibility in Californian styles. Randall Grahm and J Lohr, for instance, have made customised blends for Oddbins, which itself has put considerable effort into wooing California. And Fetzer, Glen Ellen and Monterey Vineyards all produce good value, so- called varietal wines at under pounds 5.

These companies are based in Santa Cruz, San Jose, Mendocino, Sonoma and Monterey, but Napa can do it if it wants to. Sterling Vineyards, Inglenook, Beringer, Joseph Phelps and Franciscan are all responding to British customers, in some instances assembling blends specially for UK tastes from sources outside Napa Valley.

The California tasting, therefore, was considerably more illuminating than the Napa Valley vintners' sideshow. Chardonnay and zinfandel tastings were arranged in four price categories: pounds 3 to pounds 5, pounds 5 to pounds 7, pounds 7 to pounds 10 and more than pounds 10.

Most of the cheaper chardonnays ( pounds 3 to pounds 5) were honeyed confections for the seriously sweet-toothed; exceptions came from Monterey Vineyards, Sterling Vineyards and Glen Ellen. But one step up in price and the quality seemed to double, notably with Fetzer's Naturally Farmed Chardonnay, Mountain View, Inglenook and Sebastiani's Sonoma Series. At pounds 7 to pounds 10, at least four outstanding chardonnays are available, each subtly flavoured, and above all with a finesse and fruit character lacking elsewhere: Chalk Hill, Cuvaison, Carneros, Iron Horse and Saintsbury (all, incidentally, either from Sonoma or the cool, southern Carneros district of Napa).

I tried only one of the 29 chardonnays priced more than pounds 10: the Newton Unfiltered, a beautifully balanced, burgundian chardonnay that lives up to the Napa name.

I was not particularly enamoured of the cheaper zinfandels, which tended to be soft, sweet, rustic or just plain dull. Exceptions were the Fetzer and Inglenook versions. In a world of stereotypical wines, it makes sense for California to bang the zinfandel drum, especially when production costs are half those of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and the other popular varieties. Some of the zinfandels were delightful and redolent of the seductive, spicy, raspberry fruitiness that is their particular hallmark, such as Elyse, Quivira and Ridge.

The strong dollar is disheartening for suppliers and customers alike. California wine now costs nearly 30 per cent more than in November, and the UK Budget's 5p-a-bottle increase in duty will not help. The pounds 3.99 bottle will soon cost pounds 4.50 plus, and the pounds 4.99 about pounds 6.

Such crucial changes at sensitive price points do little for hopes of a spring blossoming of California wines. Nevertheless, I feel fairly confident that, in the coming year, California will be playing a bigger part on the British stage.

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