When Consistency Is Good
Spring Mountain Vineyard

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds," Ralph Waldo Emerson said. That's probably true for matters intellectual. But when it comes to wine, consistency is often seen as a forced march of mediocrity.

The reason is that wine lovers everywhere have had drummed into them the inevitability of vintage variation. Consistency is therefore suspect. It smacks of manipulation, more Gallo than grand cru.

Many years ago I interviewed the late Julio Gallo. Far from ashamed, he was openly — and rightly — proud of his winery's famed consistency. "We don't want people to find a different wine than the one they tried, and enjoyed, the day or month before," he said. Given the vast scale of Gallo's production, such undeviating consistency was no casual accomplishment.

Precisely because of this association, hearing a wine praised for its consistency is like being told that a child is the slow learner class. It's a bad rap that colors your expectations. Yet many of the world's best wines are, if anything, impressively consistent. Consistency at the high end comes from wineries in possession both of great vineyards and what might be called a champion mentality. Numerous examples come to mind: Aldo Conterno in Barolo, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in Burgundy, Mount Eden Vineyard in California, and Egon Müller in Germany, among many others. Their wines may not be quite as cookie-cutter as Gallo, but they are unfailing across all but the worst vintages.

The wines to follow represent a new generation of such enviable consistency.They don't occupy such a rare pinnacle as Romanée-Conti, but they are in that elite echelon of wines made with an exceptional sensibility from rewarding sites. Happily, we're seeing more such wines today than ever before.


SPRING MOUNTAIN VINEYARD "NAPA VALLEY" SAUVIGNON BLANC 2004 -- Whenever I see an article about California sauvignon blanc, I always look to see if Spring Mountain Vineyard is mentioned. Oddly, it rarely is.

This is odd on two counts. First, Spring Mountain Vineyard is one of the most significant estates in Napa Valley, with 225 hillside acres of vines. So it's not exactly off the beaten track. Nor is it poorly distributed.

But the key point is that Spring Mountain Vineyard creates, yes, one of California's consistently best sauvignon blancs. Since its inaugural vintage in 1993, this sauvignon blanc has delivered uncommon distinction in a grape variety that too often trades on exuberant, even flashy fruitiness that flares briefly and brightly and then quickly sputters into a dim blandness. That's not the (provable) case here.

Sauvignon blanc can be broadly classed as falling into one of two categories: cool climate versions (New Zealand, Sancerre, Russian River Valley) that emphasize a bright, zingy, citrus-inflected fruit, or warmer-climate versions (Bordeaux, Napa Valley) where sauvignon blanc acquires a greater textural density and offers scents of figs, peaches, and melons. Both are equally good and equally legitimate.

The Spring Mountain Vineyard rendition is an exemplar of the warmer-climate style, although it displays bright and refreshing acidity. Made from 100% sauvignon blanc, this 2004 bottling is barrel-aged yet mercifully free of oakiness (just 10% is new French oak; the balance is composed of two- to four-year old French oak barrels) and comes from two hillside plots on the Spring Mountain Vineyard estate near St. Helena in the midpoint of Napa Valley. One of the plots (called La Perla) is densely planted with Bordeaux-type meter-by-meter spacing, which conceivably might add some density and structure to the wine.

This is flat-out great sauvignon blanc. Experience shows that it does nothing but improve with additional aging, growing more resonant and dimensional after several year's worth of aging. It's mighty fine right now, though, with pristine notes of figs, melons, and a touch of tropical fruits served up with gyroscopic balance. This is a sauvignon blanc to serve not just with fish or cheese, but also with meats such as pork, chicken, lighter-style sausages, and veal. It takes its place among the world's best sauvignon blancs. $29.95.

VIN DE PAYS DE VAUCLUSE 2004, DOMAINE DE L'AMEILLAUD -- Now here's an example of superb consistency selling for an improbably low price. Vin de Pays de Vaucluse 2004 is a blend of grenache (60%), syrah (20%), and carignan (20%) from 30-year-old vines. Ideal for grilled meats, pâtés, salami, and a good burger, it shovels up scents of wild cherry and black cherry plum, along with an unmistakable whiff of mineral earthiness. The price is lip smacking: $8.95 a bottle. Look for a street price a buck cheaper than that, even. This is a contender for your summer "house red" this year.

I previously recommended the 2003 bottling of this delectably supple and flavorful red Rhône. So when the 2004 bottling appeared, I was disinclined to mention it again. Yet this wine proved so compellingly good — and is such a ridiculously good deal — that I decided not to let the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson hobgoblin me. There's no shame in consistently recommending a terrific red wine deal.