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Published: Tuesday, 12/11/2001

Insects, soggy season add to California wineries' challenges

HEALDSBURG, Calif. - Stand back at arm's length and look at California wines - not just at the four or five labels you particularly like, but with at least a glance at the long row of chardonnays on one retail shelf, and cabernet sauvignons or merlots on the next. Focus on the big picture.

Why? Are quality and price, now and tomorrow, important to you? It may not seem so, but the fact is that California winemaking is still a maturing industry. It has not yet shaken out the anomalies with which it's riddled. It has yet to define compelling standards, for instance, even for the big varietals: not just cab and chard, but merlot, zinfandel, and sauvignon blanc. Equally important is industry structure - for example, will boutique wineries survive? - and capital adequate to compete in a world market.

I came out here to the heart of California wine country to sound out the thinking of the men and women whose livelihoods and futures are at stake in the vitality and future of the industry.

One quality issue coming up for discussion concerns alcohol in table wine: How much is too much? Fortified wines, in which high-alcohol brandy is added to fermenting wine, are a different matter; table wines are those that have a place on the dinner table and complement a meal.

One question is this: At what point does the level of alcohol in wine threaten the sobriety of the average adult? Short of that, does a level of, say, 14.5 percent begin to deaden the palate and so diminish the enjoyment of wine? Some well- respected winemakers and critics say it does. Others argue that alcohol at that level, in moderation and as part of a meal, lends a texture and weight, even subtle aromatics and flavors, at the higher level. See for yourself; you'll find the alcoholic content, within about one percent, in fine print on the label.

An issue potentially more critical than many people out here want to admit is Pierce's Disease. You've heard of it if you've been keeping an eye on wine news for the past year or so.

The villain is a wasplike insect with an intriguing name, the sharpshooter. Actually, there are two related sharpshooters: a blue-green-winged variety and a deadlier, glassy-winged variety.

These insects propagate rapidly, laying large clumps of eggs on the underside of the leaves of selected plants, among which the vine appears to be a favorite.

Newly hatched sharpshooters feed on the leaves, to the immediate detriment of the plant. One grower told me that it is practically impossible to grow grapes within 100 yards of the Napa River from St. Helena downstream.

Public and private agencies are funding a search for a remedy, preferably natural, but so far without decisive results.

Farmers, whatever the crop, depend on weather, and grape farmers are nervous about heavy late-autumn rains.

Normally, the farmers hope for enough rain in winter to help the vines prosper during the long summer growing season. Now, however, a significant percentage of a normal year's rainfall - 60 to 75 percent, I've been told - has already fallen, and it keeps coming. Too much can be almost as bad as too little.

Next week, I'll have some suggestions for holiday dinners, and beyond that, some information about the reshaping of the industry, and what's said to be the largest straw-bale building in the world.

Robert Kirtland is The Blade's wine critic.

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