PINE RIDGE WINERY has seen both sides now. The Napa Valley winery was a darling of wine aficionados when it first produced a series vineyard and appellation-specific wines, but fell on hard times in the late 1980s when a triple whammy hit. . . .
The recession alone, at the end of the decade, would have been enough to dampen anyone's spirits, but a pair of just fair vintages in 1988 and 1989 coupled with a batch of bad barrels sent the winery into a serious downward spiral. . . .
The bad barrels imparted a green, plywood scent and astringent texture to winemaker Gary Andrus' usually supple and polished wines. . . .
Once Andrus realized what had happened, he ended up declassifying much of the wine, selling it through a second label at about half price. . . .
THE BAD BARREL episode came at a time when the winery was struggling financially too, and put Andrus and his wife, Nancy, founders of the winery, in a tight squeeze. . . .
They were faced with finding an outside investor or, worse, selling their interests completely and starting over from scratch. . . .
The Andruses were victims of the savings and loan fiasco of the late 1980stheir S&L went bankrupt, leaving them at the mercy of the federal government, which took over the failed S&Ls. . . .
At that time, Pine Ridge was fortunate to connect with Leucadia National Corp., a New York-based investment firm that wanted to dip its toe into wine. . . .
Leucadia invested $25 million to help get Pine Ridge back up and running, Andrus returned to a more active role in winemaking and, with the 1993 and 1994 vintages, the wines have made a handsome recovery. . . .
"It's been a pretty humbling experience all around," says Andrus, who founded Pine Ridge in 1978 and has focused on vineyard-designated Cabernet and Chardonnay, Merlot and Chenin Blanc. The latter wine accounts for one-third of the winery's 60,000-case output. . . .
GROWING TO 60,000 cases stretched the wine-making staff's capacity to keep in close contact with all the wines and quality suffered. . . .
The new focus has been on getting the vineyards in tip-top shape and extracting greater richness in the wines. . . .
Pine Ridge makes four Cabernets, led by a very appealing and affordable Rutherford Cuvee ($18). The newly released 1994 shows bright, tart black cherry and berry flavors. . . .
The Pine Ridge Stags Leap Vineyard ($35) shows more plush tannins and a complex mint and currant flavor. The Howell Mountain ($35) is characteristically a shade more earthy and tannic. If there's a wine maker's signature on all three reds it is the suppleness of the tannins. . . .
COMING SOON, the Andrus Reserve 1994 ($85), which is juicy and concentrated, not to mention expensive, and it will be the first reserve from the family-owned plot in Rutherford since 1991 . . . .
The Chardonnays come from two sources, one being newly planted vines in Carneros and the other traditional Stags Leap bottling, a curiously impressive white wine made from an area known for great reds. . . .
The 1995 Stags Leap ($26) features bright, ripe, juicy Chardonnay flavors and deft balance. . . .
The Merlot Selected Cuvee ($18) comes from Carneros, the Oak Knoll area between Napa and Yountville, and Oakville. . . .
A second Merlot ($25) bears the Carneros appellation, which Andrus and others think will be an ideal area for that grape because it's a bit cooler than through the heart of Napa Valley. . . .
ANDRUS' REAL TALENT is as a winemakernot an administrator or businessmanand he's proved to me through many wines and vintages that he can make great wines from a variety of grapes. . . .
Look no further than Archery Summit, the gravity-flow winery in Oregon, where Andrus and Leucadia expanded to in 1993. Its Pinot Noirs feature bright, complex flavors and lots of finesse. . . .
Or consider his curious passion for Chenin Blanc. . . .
One of the hardest things to do in the critic's chair is to come down hard on a winery when it slumps, but Pine Ridge was well off the mark between 1988 and 1992 and I did come down on it. . . .
It took a lot of guts for Andrus to face his problems and sell off hisflawed wines. That's something you have to admire. . . .
One of the nicest things to see is a winery make a full recovery the way Pine Ridge has. . . .
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