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One of the benefits of writing about wine is that I can uncork several perfectly decent bottles, linger over them at one sitting, and compare and contrast their virtues and flaws. Lately, I have been scrutinizing price tags a bit more and have been more aggressive about pitting one good wine against another. As wine lovers have said all along, price isn’t necessarily the best indication of quality. The wines from Sonoma County, Calif.’s Russian River Valley — an official American Viticultural Area — are fitting for a close examination and price comparison. The wines from this 150-mile area have a distinctive profile, and for the most part, manage to avoid the stereotypical, over-oaked personality that too many wineries strive for. Instead, these chardonnays are fresh, abound with apple and pear fruit, and are creamy and focused. The reason is found in the region’s designated “coastal cool” microclimate. During the late spring and summer an evening fog bathes the vines that were heated by the day’s sun, the region enjoys an extended growing season, and the grapes develop slowly to full intensity. The Russian River Valley itself is both rustic and romantic, and has a long history as a grape-growing region. According to historian William Heintz, wine growing in the Russian River Valley began with Russian colonists and fur traders who settled along the Northern California coast in the early 1800s. They named the river that flows out to the Pacific Ocean “Slavianka” and planted vines from Peru. Later, Spanish settlers renamed the river Rio Ruso — the Russian River. Within its boundaries there are more than 45 wineries, 200 growers, and an estimated 10,000 acres of vineyards. The vineyards vary in size, from small family-owned wineries with fewer than 25 acres, to larger producers like Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates’ La Crema Winery and Frei Brothers, owned by Ernest and Julio Gallo. In the late 1880s, Andrew Frei, a Swiss immigrant, purchased a 344-acre vineyard in northern Sonoma, and in 1903 turned the business over to his two sons, Walter and Louis. In the ’30s the neighboring Gallo brothers helped run the winery, and in 1977, Gallo Bros. purchased the property. The 1999 Frei Bros. Russian River Valley Reserve Chardonnay ($15) comes from the Laguna Ranch Vineyard. In a blind tasting, this wine is a winner and not what I expected from a large producer. I asked Gallo spokesman Carmen Castorina how a large operation like Gallo can maintain the quality of its wines. He attributes the success to handpicked grapes and something as practical as a large receiving area with 12 wine presses. This ensures that there is always a press available when the grapes are brought into the winery, that grapes from different parcels remain separate, and that the grapes never have to sit in the hot sun. This reserve wine is made from free run juice, undergoes 100 percent malolactic fermentation, and is placed into barrel via gravity flow. The flavors are of apple, pear, with hints of citrus. Castorina says this wine pays homage to the heritage of the Frei Bros. Marimar Torres, who was born in Barcelona, is the proprietor of Marimar Torres Estate, and its Don Miguel Vineyard is named after her late father. Torres came to live in California in 1975 and began planting the vineyard in 1986. The 1999 Marimar Torres Estate “Don Miguel Vineyard” Chardonnay ($26) is made with Burgundian techniques. The grapes, whole-cluster pressed and barrel-fermented in premium French oak barrels, are aged on the lees for nine months and undergo 100 percent malolactic fermentation. This is a good wine for the price. Its acids are very well integrated, it has an awesome fragrant aroma of green apple, a clean mineral finish, and a touch of spice. Widely respected winemaker Gary Farrell has built his winery in a forest in the western Russian River Valley. Farrell cut his teeth as winemaker for Davis Bynum Winery in 1978, stayed on at Rochioli Winery between 1982 and 1986, and began making his name wines in 1982, with his first release hitting the market in 1985. The 1999 Gary Farrell Sonoma County Russian River Chardonnay ($49) is made from his own grapes blended with a small lot from the famous Bien Nacido Vineyard overlooking the Santa Maria River near Santa Barbara. The grapes undergo full cluster fermentation, are barrel-fermented in French oak, and are aged in the bottle from June through March. While this is a delicious creamy wine with apple and apricot notes, it didn’t stand out in a blind tasting with Frei Bros. and others, and I would not want to have to justify its price. It may be too early to predict the demise of big-ticket wines, but I can’t help but wonder if consumers will help weed out the unnecessarily pricey wines from those that provide a good product at a reasonable price. Elisabeth Frater is at work on “Breaking Away to Virginia and Maryland Wineries,” the first book in a “Washington Weekends” series to be published by Capital Books Inc. Got a recommendation for Wine Counsel? E-mail her at [email protected].

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