LIKE A FLOCK of migratory birds seeking a warm winter haven, many of California's big name wine companies have flown south to Chile to harvest grapes, but there are a few little guys winging their way south too, right up there with the likes of Mondavi, Beringer, Fetzer and Kendall-Jackson. . . .
One of them is Patrick Campbell, owner of Laurel Glen Vineyard in Sonoma, who decided that making just Cabernet from his sloping 40-acre vineyard on Sonoma Mountain didn't fulfill all his vinous dreams. . . .
A few years back, he launched a second label, Counterpoint, using grapes from his vineyard that didn't fit into the Laurel Glen blen and it proved so successful that on occasion it out pointed his Laurel Glen Cabernet in blind tastings, much to his chagrin. . . .
From Counterpoint, he moved on, first adding Terra Rosa, which is made from both purchased grapes and bulk wines and has carried a Napa Valley appellation and then adding his latest concoction Reds, a Rhonish-style blend that includes Syrah, Grenache, Carignane, Zinfandel and Malbec. . . .
THE STATEMENT ABOUT REDS, which sells in the $6 to $7 range, is value, but as many California wineries are finding out, it's getting harder and harder to make great values and hold the line on pricing. . . .
Which leads to his joining the mass exodus to Chile, where the land is inexpensive, the potential for world-class wines is high and many wine executives think, hope and pray that they can produce enough good quality wines to offset the wine and grape shortages in California. . . .
After looking throughout California for grapes and/or wine, Campbell decided he'd better fly south too, and did earlier this year, making the decision to turn Terra Rosa into a Chilean brand by importing enough Cabernet to bottle 10,000 cases and still keep the price at about $10 to $12 a bottle. . . .
The trend toward international wines styles and/or blends will drive appellation purists zany, but for Campbell and others this issue is rather simple. . . .
"QUALITY AND PRICE come before appellation of origin," he told me, "so what I'm saying is I want to make a great wine and keep the price low and the only way to do that is to bring in the wine from Chile". . . .
"If you're stuck in an estate program, like Laurel Glen, you either have to gut it out [and raise prices] or go to an options program," says Campbell. "I do not want to raise prices or lower quality" . . . .
Mondavi, Beringer, Kendall-Jackson and Fetzer are all on the same page in this thinking and the deeper they dig into the Chilean wine business the more they realize that this is not likely to be a passing fancy, but rather a long-term commitment to producing quality wines with value in mind. . . .
So far Chilean wines have not turned the industry upside down, but it's quite evident that the potential is there to make better wines and with the rapid advancements in vineyard techniques and winemaking technology, expect quality to rise rather swiftly. . . .
THIS IS MIXED NEWS for fans of affordable California wines, because they may be a vanishing breed in a worst-case scenario. . . .
What these wineries are saying is that it's going to be increasingly difficult to hold the line on prices, and when you see wines such as K-J's Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay and Napa Ridge approaching $15 a bottle, you know what that means. . . .
Ernest Gallo has been kicking around Chile for years, too, checking out the scene, but he's inclined to stick with California, believing it's still a better long-term investment buying land there and planting vineyards than taking the risks in Chile. . . .
Still, he was whistling a different tune when he decided to import Pinot Grigio and Merlot from Italy, which he sells under the Ecco Domani brand. . . .
If things go smoothly and Chilean wines move up the quality ladder as expected, look for a domino effect, with interest spilling over into its giant neighbor to the east, Argentina, which is capable of producing an ocean of wine at affordable prices. . . .
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