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© 1998 JDM Enterprises
All Rights Reserved


by Jerry D. Mead

You may have noticed that I don't rush into the wine reviews, even though I know that most of you are turning to our page for recommendations for wines you might not have discovered on your own.

I understand, and seeking out good wines, great wines and bargain wines for readers is something I really enjoy.

But I'm a storyteller at heart, and most weeks you get a little story before you get the wine.


Thinking about the vintner I planned to write about made me think about the way wine was sold when I first met him, which then led me to think about the way wine is sold today, and all the changes in between.

You youngsters can't know that just 20 years or so ago it was impossible, in most states, to buy a bottle of wine or spirits, or a 6-pack of brew, on sale. We had what was called "fair trade," which was really price fixing, which said every retailer had to charge the same minimum price. It was o.k to charge more if it was something in short supply, but sales and discounting were forbidden.

The courts eventually ruled that price fixing was price fixing no matter what you called it, and forced free enterprise on the adult beverage business.

This, of course, makes me think of all the current furor over interstate wine sales and that 20 years from now when the courts have once again ruled, we'll think it very old-fashioned that the state of California makes it against the law for one of its citizens to visit Nevada, buy a bottle of wine actually produced in California while there, and bring it home in the trunk of his/her Toyota.

And no one will believe that shipping wine to a citizen of Kentucky could get you as much or more time in the slammer than would committing a violent crime.


Back in the "fair trade" days there were only two ways to sell wine for less. One was to be a so-called "bomber," which was a merchant who would give illegal discounts. "Bombers" operated with considerable impunity, because the authorities knew that if the price fixing issue got to court it would probably be struck down. So the regulators mostly just threatened.

The other way to sell for less was to control a brand, but that took considerable volume.

In California, a fellow named Ernie VanAsperen figured out how to do it. He created an entire line of "private label" goods, wine, beer and spirits, that he controlled. VanAsperen owned some liquor stores called Ernie's, and eventually franchised the name to others, whose motivation to sign up was to be able to sell "Ernie's" private label goods that could sell for lower prices.

VanAsperen owns the Round Hill brand, which is a real winery and vineyard in Napa Valley, and has been for years, but started as an Ernie private label. That's one reason Round Hill has always been associated with value.

Virginia VanAsperen (Mrs. Ernie) has been in charge of marketing the wines for a number of years, and some time back I told her there were simply too many levels of quality being sold under the Round Hill label and that if it was confusing me, what must it be doing to consumers?

There were Round Hill generics, like burgundy and chablis, which sold in supermarkets for $3 or $4. Then there were the "California" varietals, Chardonnay, Merlot, etc., but blended from grapes from all over the state. Then there was Round Hill Napa Valley varietals and finally an occasional Round Hill Reserve.

Now let's say a restaurant was selling a $15 Round Hill Reserve with a restaurant type mark-up that would make it $25 to $30, and the only Round Hill wine a consumer had seen before sold for $3 at the supermarket. Without knowing about all these levels of quality, the consumer is simply going to think..."I'm not paying $25 for something the store sells for $3."

I had suggested that Round Hill either put its best wines under the Rutherford Ranch label (another brand the family owns) or place the family name on the label.

They probably don't even remember my suggesting it, but the best wines made at Round Hill of Napa Valley, are now labeled VanAsperen, and there's no more burgundy or chablis at all.

Round Hill wines have good national distribution. The new VanAsperen wines are more limited but will be in most major markets. For nearest retail outlet: Round Hill, 1680 Silverado Trail, St. Helena, CA 94574 (707) 963-5251.

VanAsperen 1995 "Napa" Merlot ($15) A nice wine, but my least favorite in the line. Cherries and berries with some pleasant cherry-stone bitterness. Medium bodied and easy to drink. Rating: 85/82

VanAsperen 1994 "Napa" Cabernet Sauvignon ($15) Big, bold, black cherry and cassis fruit with notes of bittersweet chocolate. Loads of extraction and concentrated flavors. A lot of Cabernet for not a great deal of money, and it will benefit from five years or more cellaring. Rating: 90/90

VanAsperen 1995 "Napa" Zinfandel ($10) Spicy, berry nose doesn't begin to predict the intensity of flavor in this very quaffable, claret-style Zinfandel. Black raspberry and peppery spice make it a great barbecue wine. Alas! Limited to the winery and a few California outlets. It's a great buy if you can find it. Rating: 90/95


VanAsperen 1996 "Napa" Chardonnay ($11) Lovely barrel-fermented style, but not overdone on the oakiness. Some smoky-toasty notes. Some tropical fruit, but mostly citrus, and especially lemon, flavors. The pleasantly tart finish works to freshen the palate after every bite of food. Rating: 89/92

Wines are scored using a unique 100 point system. First number rates quality; second number rates value.

© 1998 JDM Enterprises. All Rights Reserved
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