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Unless you’ve been in a cultural void for the last six months, you’ve probably been bombarded with the message that the Charles Shaw brand of wine (the “Two-Buck Chuck” that retails for $1.99 at Trader Joe’s) is shaking up the wine world and wreaking havoc on producers of middle-range-priced wines. There’s even an urban legend circulating: that the Trader Joe’s employee who dreamed up the Two-Buck Chuck scheme was fired because it proved disastrous for the stores’ overall wine profits — in other words, when it became clear that TJ customers were eschewing other “bargain” wines with more profitable margins. (TJ’s Pat St. John says there’s absolutely no truth to this anecdote.) What this portends for consumers is unclear. Washington Postwine columnist Ben Giliberti persuasively argued a few months ago that this super-cheap dry wine might actually wean hordes of Americans from saccharin-laden plonk and teach them to appreciate a wine for its fruit. But some people in the field aren’t as sanguine. For instance, Kelly Ballard, a sales representative for Southern Wine and Spirits of Northern California, believes that we won’t know for at least another five years whether these new consumers will learn to appreciate the virtues of decent wine, and move up from $2 bottles to better wines priced between $8 and $20. “Two-Buck Chuck lowered the bar,” says Ballard. Many of the California producers I spoke with weren’t fazed by the appeal of cheap wines. Laura Salo Long, a representative from Mendocino winery Jepson Vineyards, says that, from where she’s sitting, sales have remained stable. She is heartened to see that consumers seem to be saying that, at these low price points, “we can drink with abandon.” What I can see from my vantage point is that California wine prices and flavors are rocking. It seems that every large retail establishment I walk into is knocking down the prices of white wines, including chardonnays and sauvignon blancs made by dependable producers. If you hunt a bit, you’re likely to find the wines below at lower prices than I’ve listed. Since the last large-scale tasting of California white wines I did two years ago, there is overall more of an emphasis on the fruit and less of a dependence on heavy and powerfully flavored oak. Alison Schneider, the winemaker at Jepson Vineyards, does see a stylistic change taking place in California toward wines that are fruit-forward, and that emphasize the grape’s mineral notes and bright acidity. Speaking about her own experience as a winemaker, Schneider says, “I changed my style, not in reaction to consumers, but because I wanted to make wines that complemented food. And butter and oak was not the way to go.” • Husch Chardonnay Mendocino (Anderson Valley) 2001 ($14). Light-bodied, packed with fruit; pear and pineapple flavors with caramel and toast on the finish. • Guenoc Sauvignon Blanc 2001 ($10): The aromas are disarming, with only a hint of the varietal characteristic of fresh-cut grass; a subtle touch of figs and cantaloupe; the flavors are enhanced by the addition of sémillon from Guenoc Valley. • Cambria Katherine’s Chardonnay 2001 ($20): A light-bodied wine with vanilla bean, spice, and pear aromas, punctuated with a burst of acidity on the finish. • Kunde Chardonnay Sonoma Valley 2001 ($15): Rich and ripe in flavor with refreshing citrus aromas; melon and citrus and apple-pear flavors with a fresh fruit finish. • Jepson Estate Select Chardonnay 2000 (Mendocino County) ($14): A wonderfully juicy wine with citrus aromas on a bright mineral frame, and nice creaminess on the finish. • Acacia Carneros Chardonnay 2001 ($19): A very well-balanced wine displaying a nice range of flavors — apricot, lemon, vanilla, with a nutty finish. This wine is often priced lower at large retail shops, and when you can get it for less than $19 it is a tremendous value. • Murphy-Goode Chardonnay Sonoma County 2000 ($15): This medium-bodied wine is a sipping wine offering a fresh apricot flavor, a hint of pineapple, and a very pleasing hazelnut finish. • Mirassou Monterey County Coastal Selection Chardonnay 2000 ($13): Layers of bright fruit flavors of pineapple and lemon, and lingering toast and vanilla on the finish. Elisabeth Frater is “Wine Counsel,” a wine law attorney based in Napa, Calif. Wine Counsel can be reached at [email protected].

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