Sunday, April 14, 2013

MIA: Mexico's Wine Merchants

We're packing up, anticipating the long drive home. It's 1,500 miles of desert, most of it on the Baja California peninsula. To judge by past experience, however, it won't be dull. There's the subtle yet surprising shifts in geology and flora. There's the zig and zag that puts you along the Pacific Ocean one day, the Sea of Cortez the next. There's the Valle de Guadalupe and its wineries and vineyards. There's the little restaurants and inns, the thrill upon rounding a curve to find a herd of cattle or a military checkpoint just ahead, and the big trucks quickly filling your rearview mirror, invariably evoking images from "Duel." Did I mention the lack of shoulders on the road? Or the federales in their ominous aviator shades? It isn't too late to book a flight, is it?

I've much to look forward to in Sacramento, not the least of which is the area's wine shops. To bring myself up to speed on the kind of inventory they're stocking nowadays, I visited nearly all of them shortly before heading south in January. But not until arriving at the southern reaches of Baja and spending a few months visiting wine shops in the neighboring towns of San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas, however, did it really hit me how fortunate Sacramentans are to have wine shops of such personality, passion and range.

While beverages identified with Mexico run more to licuado, cerveza and tequila than wine, the country does have a wine industry, however small and struggling it may be. On top of that, several areas of the country, including Los Cabos, boast enclaves of affluent and adventurous Mexicans, as well as residents and visitors from other countries, particularly the United States and Canada. They have a thirst for wine, and presumably the means to buy it, to judge by the number of people I've seen browsing through the fairly well-stocked wine departments in chain markets like Soriana, Chedraui, Walmart, Costco and Mega.

Oddly, the small, independent wine shops of Los Cabos aren't nearly as busy. Often, I've been the only person strolling about the bins. It isn't that the selections are mediocre or the prices outrageous. By and large, the most exciting wines, whether from Mexico, California, Spain, Chile or Italy, are to be found in these shops, and their prices are competitive with what Walmart, Costco and the like are asking. So why aren't the wine shops of Los Cabos busier? I suspect two reasons.

For one, lousy marketing. I don't know what they do to promote themselves, if anything. I never see any advertising. Only one seems to have made any effort to develop an online presence. One has been able to persuade highway officials to put up a roadside sign alerting motorists to its approaching presence. The other evening, we attended a benefit food festival on the central plaza of San Jose del Cabo. More than a dozen restaurants participated, each handing out plates generously heaped with a wide choice of signature dishes. On the other hand, not a single local wine shop was represented on the plaza. Perhaps the organizers didn't want the competition, given that they were selling wine by the plastic cup, beer by the can, but surely some sort of mutually beneficial arrangement could have been worked out. Then again, I have to wonder whether operators of wine shops in the area were at all interested in taking the initiative to get involved; I've a feeling they weren't.

That gets me to my second point. Customer service in Mexican wine shops is basically non-existent. Oh, there are a couple of stores where if a principal partner is on the premises you can count on some assistance, but if not, good luck. No clerk is likely to approach you with an offer of help. If you ask for a specific wine and they don't have it, end of conversation; no one will say, "Oh, if you like that wine or that style, you just might like this." Language differences aren't so much the issue as attitude; the Mexican wine merchant seems reluctant to engage, with the understandable exception of those who claim to be sommeliers. But overall, the reluctance of so many wine merchants to attempt to sell is peculiar. It can't be that they're ashamed of their selections, though in a hot area with a culinary emphasis on seafood their inventories are strikingly thin of appropriate white wines. At any rate, the indifference of wine merchants in Los Cabos is contrary to the tenor of the wine trade in every other area I've visited, where the business thrives on enthusiasm, discussion and sharing. That kind of communication just doesn't happen hereabouts. Until wine merchants in Mexico take the lead to make it happen, I just don't see much chance that wine will start to approach licuado, cerveza and tequila in popularity.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Loving Wine The Asimov Way

After 278 pages, Eric Asimov's advice to nascent wine enthusiasts in his book "How to Love Wine" can be summed up in one word: Relax. Don't get hung up on wines with high scores from this or that critic, don't get sidetracked by attempts for the perfect pairing of wine and food, don't try to find all the scents and flavors that someone else found in a wine: Just take the glass, taste the wine in it and then figure out why it gives you pleasure, or not.

"As much as we learn about it, as much as we know, (wine) is at its heart a mystery," Asimov says early on, pretty much setting us up for more questions than answers. "With wine, sometimes it's better to feel it than to try to own it," he adds about midway through. "Mastery is not the goal; ease is what we're after," he concludes.

In between this Zen-like counseling, Asimov addresses several topics that wine writers traditionally have tackled, but in a contrarian manner. The typical tasting note, for one, is so overdrawn and arcane that it obscures more than illuminates, he suggests. The wine writer who really wants to help readers to a better understanding of what awaits them in the glass should be talking more in terms of intensity, volume, texture, size and mass, Asimov indicates. Similarly, the popular practice of anointing a wine with 97 points or 91 points or whatever "can interfere with consumers developing their own standards and preferences," he argues.

Asimov subtitled his book "A Memoir and Manifesto." The chapters more or less alternate accordingly. In all of them, however, Asimov, the chief wine critic of The New York Times - as he wryly notes, there are no other wine critics at the paper - writes with a voice quietly personable, level-headed, experienced and candid. In recalling his call to journalism and his rise to being the nation's most influential and esteemed wine critic, he's warm and funny. And in writing his manifesto, he isn't really any more hot-headed; as declarations of independence go, "How to Love Wine" is gentle and reasonable.

His approach is to be more philosophical than practical. Not until late in the book, for example, did I find myself jotting down the names of specific wines that have particularly excited him and which I will be seeking. (For the record: Jacques Selosse Champagnes, Gianfranco Soldera Brunellos di Montalcino, Henri Bonneau of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Anna Maria Abbona's Dolcetto di Dogliani, and several producers of Beaujolais and Muscadet.)

His premise is the same one that has inspired countless other wine books: People are intimidated by wine and need an encouraging hand on the back as they approach wine list and wine bin. Given the rise in wine sales in the United States over the past few decades, and the clear willingness of so many consumers to embrace even obscure and experiemental wines, that's a shaky premise, though it apparently still is persuasive among book publishers. In reality, people may be overwhelmed by the extent of choices in front of them, and eager to accept advice, but the old view that they are frightened by the array of prospects is sounding more and more dated. Perhaps Asimov sensed this, thus his patient, easy-going voice in helping calm buyer anxiety.

At the outset, he warns readers that his manifesto isn't without ambiguity and contradiction. Nowhere is this conflict more apparent than in his dismissal of the blind tasting of wine, whereby tasters generally don't know the identify of the wines beyond their varietal or style. Such an approach is a staple of wine competitions and wine criticism. The wines are evaluated solely by what's in the glass. It's democratic, it's fair, but Asimov leaps from the potential shortcomings in such methodology - too many wines at a sitting, lack of planning in arranging wines from lighter to heavier - to the conclusion that judges best can consider a wine only within a frame of reference. When fortified with information about a wine's background, they can understand where it is now and how it will evolve over its lifetime. He has a point, though no matter how much data a critic is given about a wine's breeding and history he won't be able predict accurately what it will be like 5 or 10 or 20 years from that moment. Too many variables are at work, from ever-developing changes in winemaking to how the finished wine will be handled once it is released from the winery. More to the point, any wine criticism is ephemeral, an attempt to grab the essence of a wine at a given moment. It isn't objective, and it isn't fixed, as both the judged and the judge are ever changing. And while Asimov criticizes blind tastings, he nonetheless apparently continues to see some value in them. "Despite my misgivings about blind tastings, I still engage in them. Half of the columns I write each year for the New York Times are the result of blind tastings," he notes.

The book does little to counter the perspective that Asimov is largely Euro-centric in his view of the wine world, that he spends too little time exploring and writing of New World wine regions. The tone of much of the book is that Europe is where you go to look for wines of individual craftsmanship and "honesty," while New World wine areas like California and Chile primarily produce cookie-cutter industrial wines. That he may be out of touch with what's happening in California is evident when he accuses the New World of simply mimicking the Old World by focusing mostly on what is considered the best grape varieities - cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, pinot noir, merlot. Yes, there's a lot of truth in that, but he ignores that for many decades in several California wine regions growers and vintners have been making wines with less-celebrated grapes, and doing quite well by them. Furthermore, he seems not to have noticed that in several of the Old World wine regions where he looks for wines of character and distinction that cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and their ilk are taking root where they haven't necessarily been cultivated traditionally.

At the same time, it needs to be said, Asimov is clear that much enlightenment and joy is to be found in wines that aren't necessarily from Bordeaux or Burgundy, nor do wines need to be expensive to have something to say and to be even profound. Bottom line: Look for wines in which you can sense a culture and a place, wines that provoke questions, and then share them.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Don't Geo-Fence Me In

"Meme," I just learned, is only a fashionable synonym for "idea" and the various ways by which an idea is shared. For the longest time I thought it a bit of intellectual jargon meant to remind me of how out of touch I am. Was it descended from Greek mythology or a Stanley Kubrick script? Now I realize that today's technocrats dreamed up "meme" to give the impression that they've created something new and special, like the mystifying knock on the door to let you into a cult secretive and controlling.

You've got to watch those technocrats. I'm sure they are onto something when it comes to "social media" and other ways of exploiting the Internet to reach this or that goal, but I sure wish they'd come up with a lexicon that was more transparent than complicating. Nevertheless, I rather like the latest high-tech term to come my way: "geo-fence." Who couldn't love "geo-fence"? It's at once cutting-edge yet old-fashioned. It's much friendlier than would have been "geo-wall," with its suggestion of hard-time. A fence is easier to knock down, and often you can see through one. Barbs can snag you, but at least they don't much interfere with the view.

Like a lot of other people over the past couple of days - to judge by online chatter - I first came across "geo-fence" in a gushing post at the website of the business magazine Forbes, whose reports usually are balanced and reliable. In this instance, however, the post comes off more as a press release, telling without challenge how the wine-trade think tank VinTank is building a virtual "geo-fence" around Napa County to help wineries persuade consumers to buy their wines.

VinTank, says the piece, has been accumulating data on individual wine preferences by tracking photos on Instagram, check-ins on Foursquare, comments on various social-media sites and so forth. This lode of material is impressive: "By February 2013, they had records on 13.5 million people who had expressed their wine tastes in social networks," says the Forbes post. "They...know what wine clubs you've joined, what restaurants you have visited in Napa and where you bought a case the last time you visited. They know what tasting rooms you visited and what you posted about each of them," it adds. You get the impression that not only hot-air balloons and gliders are floating above Napa Valley but also the spying drones of VinTank.

The gist, as I understand it, is that all this material will be mined to help client wineries identity their most promising customers, then target those customers with come-ons tailored to appeal to their tastes as measured by past behavior, in particular when that behavior involved spending money. Thus the term "geo-fence," which any cowboy can recognize as the oldtime custom of tracking, corraling, roping and branding.

This approach to marketing is progressive and exciting, but the post doesn't explore its downside. Is the phrase "invasion of privacy" at all in the lexicon of the technocrats? What happens to this model when people start shutting down access to personal data? What of a winery who has built its business model on direct-to-consumer sales via its wine club? What happens when club members who'd rather their membership be kept private suddenly learn that their information is being used to help other wineries exploit their tastes? And why would wineries want to share their rolls of club members with the competition? Is the wine enthusiast driving up Highway 29, grateful for being out of the office, enjoying the scenery and the quiet, going to be pleased or irritated by an email alert informing him that just up the next bend is a winery with a cabernet sauvignon stylistically comparable with the one he bought by the case the last time he was in Napa Valley?

"Marc Andreessen, one of Silicon Valley's most respected thinkers and investors," says the post, "predicts merchants will understand who you are and what you want by the time you arrive. 'Today, this may feel a little bizarre, but 20 years from now it will be bizarre if you walk into a store and the store doesn't know who you are.'" That could happen, all right, especially if a backlash develops that reduces a store's clientele to so few people it has no problem remembering customers. In that case, well, there's an opportunity for another meme.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Two Wine Critics Walk Into A Bar...

How big a story is it that The Wine Advocate is suing one of its former correspondents, Antonio Galloni, for fraud? It's this big: The Wine Cellar Insider broke the story with an opening sentence that ended with an exclamation point: "The Wine Advocate filed a law suit (sic) against their (sic) former wine reviewer Antonio Galloni today!"

In the wine community, this is juicy stuff, a delicious and personal distraction from commentaries about what foods to pair with late-harvest zinfandel, the 100-point scoring system, and how to define "natural" wine. It's also sad, petty and so smelling of hokum that the first judge to weigh the issue will throw it out of court, though it is likely to be settled amiably long before then. The lawsuit runs to 11 counts and 176 points, but The Wine Advocate and its founder (Robert Parker) or its present owners (a group of Singaporean investors) are seeking a mere $75,000 in compensation. Read the lawsuit and see if you don't agree that Parker and Galloni sat down and collaborated on what they perceived as a script worthy of the Hosemaster of Wine, Saturday Night Live or Judge Judy. "How am I going to boost my sagging circulation without you on board?" Bob asks Tony, who replies, "Let's cook up a ludicrous scrap; it will invigorate your franchise while helping me get my start-up off to an robust start."

In short, the lawsuit seems to claim that Galloni missed a deadline to deliver to The Wine Advocate tasting notes on wines he sampled while visiting Sonoma County. Instead, so goes the suit, Galloni is plotting to use those notes for his own newsletter or website. Sonoma County? Now that's a refreshing twist. Is Lance Cutler still writing wine humor?

Of course, every wine blogger in the country will be posting on this spat tomorrow. Most won't be able to help note that when Parker owned The Wine Advocate it was paying Galloni $300,000 a year, plus expenses. See what I mean about this lawsuit sounding more fictional than realistic? It is only March 20, right, not April 1?

Seriously, I don't know well any of the parties to this matter. I do know that Parker and Galloni are talented tasters and writers. They've made helpful and influential contributions to wine appreciation, and could still, but I suspect that this sort of animosity and the fallout to ensue will derail their continued effectiveness.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Little Notes From 'Big D'

After two days and 192 wines tasted blind at the Dallas Morning News and TexSom Wine Competition earlier this week, here are a few notes squeezed from my scoresheets:

- For character and value, is there another varietal more consistently rewarding these days than sauvignon blanc from New Zealand? If you're looking for a dry but fruity wine with beckoning aromatics, spirited flavor and refreshingly snappy acidity, head for the aisle lined with labels that include "Sauvignon Blanc" and "New Zealand," and just for good measure, "Marlborough," the region that yields most of the more outspoken interpretations of the varietal. Dallas organizes its classes by region of origin. Of the 32 sauvignon blancs from New Zealand we tasted, nine won gold medals, an exceptionally high percentage. Only four got no award at all. The medal winners uniformly were lively, balanced and packed with zesty fruit - grapefruit and lime, mostly. All the golds were from the 2012 vintage and from Marlborough. They were the Sileni Cellar Selection, the Martin's Rake, the Forefathers Wax Eye Vineyard, the Spy Valley, the Chasing Venus, the Starborough, the Giesen, the Wither Hills Marlborough Wairau Valley and the Smyth & Renfield.

- Lake County is no slouch when it comes to sauvignon blanc, either. We judged 13 Lake County sauvignon blancs, giving gold to five of them, another exceptional showing. As a group, they were a little less rambunctious than the sauvignon blancs from New Zealand. Several tilted more to suggestions of melon than grapefruit and lime. They were broader, with more persistent finishes, yet also had the balance and backbone to be enjoyed either as cocktail wine or as an adaptable companion at the table. The gold-medal winners were the elegant Bell 2011 Lake County, the grippy Vigilance 2011 Red Hills, the spicy and zesty Cross Springs 2011 Family Estate, the complex and crisp Shannon Ridge 2011 High Elevation Collection, and the limey and steely Line 39 2011.

- Of the 192 wines, just one clearly was contaminated with TCA, a taint commonly called "corked," though another entry was suspect. We asked for new bottles for both, and the replacements were fine. A decade ago the percentage of corked wines at the competition likely would have been close to five percent. Two lessons can be inferred from this: More vintners are using screwcaps, and the cork trade pretty much has gotten on top of the problem that caused so many wines to be marred.

- The most disappointing class was cabernet sauvignon bearing a "California" appellation, meaning the grapes that went into the wines could have been grown anywhere in the state. Of the 52 we judged, only two got gold medals; 34 got no award whatsoever. By and large, they were ragged, blunt and dull, rarely showing any trace of the kinds of fruits and herbs commonly associated with cabernet sauvignon. To be fair, most were from California's challenging 2010 and 2011 vintages, but still, if a vintner is going to release a wine labeled "cabernet sauvignon" it should show at least some family resemblance. So which ones won gold? The rich and spunky Parlay "The Bookmaker" 2010 California Cabernet Sauvignon, and the bright and supple Barefoot Cellars non-vintage California Cabernet Sauvignon. I voted gold for one more, the generously fruity and finely structured The Naked Grape non-vintage California Cabernet Sauvignon, but the rest of the panel felt it warranted no more than silver.

- Blended wines made with grapes long associated with France's Rhone Valley - grenache, mourvedre, syrah and so forth - are generating much buzz on the California wine scene nowadays. Blends from other grape varieties, however, have a ways to go before they achieve the same sort of riveting complexity and seamless grace, to judge by the 55 we judged. These were not "meritage" wines, or blends made solely from the traditional grape varieties of Bordeaux - cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot, principally. Rather, they might be a mix of zinfandel, syrah, petite sirah, grenache, mouvedre and viognier, or a mosaic of tempranillo, grenache and monastrell. Several were splendid - we awarded gold to five of them - but too many were just too simple, too clumsy or too flat to deserve anything more than a bronze, if that. One, however, drew from our panel rare unanimity when we all agreed that it warranted a gold medal. It was the darkly fruity, powerful and spicy Big Guy 2010 California Red, which showed an animation and composure unusual for the class. It consists of 73 percent syrah, 16 percent merlot, 6 percent sangiovese and 5 percent cabernet sauvignon. The other golds went to the Jeff Cohn Wines 2010 California Imposter, a substantial and complicated blend of zinfandel, syrah, petite sirah, grenache, mourvedre and viognier; the Open Range 2009 California Red, a big and round blend of syrah, cabernet sauvignon, petite sirah, merlot, mourvedre and cabernet franc; the Masked Rider 2011 California Gunsmoke Red, a youthful and delicately layered blend of cabernet sauvignon, petite sirah, merlot and cabernet franc; and the Red Rock Winery 2011 California Reserve Winemaker's Blend, a muscular and jammy blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon and petite sirah.

- Our panel also was assigned blended red wines bearing a Paso Robles appellation. Going in, I would have bet that the blends to show best would consist largely of zinfandel, the grape that to me has shown off the region more steadily than any other variety. The two golds we awarded, however, went to wines based on other varieties, the Daou 2010 Paso Robles Celestus, a hulking and concentrated blend of 59 percent syrah, 32 percent cabernet sauvignon and 9 percent petit verdot, and the Sculpterra 2010 Paso Robles Estate Figurine, a bold, toasty and solid blend of 50 percent cabernet sauvignon, 38 percent primitivo and 12 percent merlot.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Quit Crucifying Kramer

Matt Kramer (Alder Yarrow photo)
Bless him, Matt Kramer has the wine community buzzing about something other than the pairing of food and wine, the alcohol content of wines, or Robert M. Parker Jr.

In a speech at the New Zealand Pinot Noir 2013 conference, Kramer claimed that atheists can't make great pinot noir. First, let's get the semantics straight. Kramer was using "atheists" in a sense more rhetorical than literal. To Kramer, atheists are grape growers and winemakers who balk at believing in God, who look to science alone to put them on the path to righteous wine. You see, Matt Kramer believes that the soul of wine is best expressed as a sense of place. Origin is everything, and it's best when unimpeded, which is to say when tradition and instinct are given as much credence as scientific intervention. This has been his liturgy for decades, preached with a creativity and lyricism rarely heard from the pulpit.

At any rate, today's vineyard and cellar atheists are those farmers and winemakers reluctant to make a leap of faith from conventional science-based practices to rites that stem more from belief and hope. Science, Kramer says, can take them only so far and no farther; yes, 2 plus 2 equals 4, but why stop there when with confidence in divine ways of growing grapes and making wine you can get 2 plus 2 to equal 5, an extraordinay pinot noir. Start, Kramer urged his audience, by planting randomly 20 to 40 different strains of pinot noir in a single vineyard. Harvest them all at once, when the variety that ripens earliest is mature. The result in the bottle will be a pinot noir of more shadings and nuance than is customarily found in the varietal; it will be a 5 when all others are 4, at best.

Aside from that specific advice, Kramer urged his listeners to lighten their presence in vineyard and cellar. Retreat from control, he advocated. (Whether he pounded the pulpit when he said this, I don't have a clue. I'm relying on a straight-forward and presumably accurate transcript provided by conference attendee Alder Yarrow at his blog Vinography.)

Kramer's inspiration likely is twofold. For one, we live at a time when the admonition of the 1960s - "challenge authority" - is being adopted by a growing body of converts who in no way look, sound and behave like oldtime hippies. Whether it be politics, economics, agriculture, medicine, diet or some other discipline, the learned lessons are being questioned and often found wanting. New Age alternatives like Kramer's promiscuous planting of various clones of pinot noir - which actually is just a tweaked version of old-school field blending - may or may not work, but why not give it a shot, so goes his reasoning.

Secondly, Kramer bases his beliefs on Burgundian Bible studies. If New Zealand's farmers and vintners are to produce fine pinot noir, they first must make the obligatory pilgrimage to its distant cathedral, Burgundy. There, the flock learned long ago that for a wine to express the voice of God through the voice of the land it's best to concentrate on just one grape variety for red wine and one grape variety for white wine. Blending different varieties, while quite capable of yielding provocative wines, nonetheless muddles what God has to say of the place where the grapes are grown, Kramer suggested.

This brings up one of the shortcomings in Kramer's address. He credits especially Cistercian monks for concluding that a single black grape and a single green grape as the surest way to hear what the terroir, aka God, has to say. Trouble is, contrary to Kramer's suggestion, Cistercian monks don't always work with one black grape and one green grape. Just look to their Abbey of New Clairvaux in the far reaches of northern California. There, they are growing no fewer than eight varieties of grapes, with which they annually may make as many varietals or styles of wine. (None is pinot noir, by the way.) To be fair, Kramer acknowledges that the Cistercians in Europe settled on just one or two wines after several centuries of working soil and juice, while the Cistercian presence in California is relatively new, thus their stateside experience still is exploratory.

Kramer also falls into the trap of thinking of biodynamic farming as a virtually non-interventionist approach to growing grapes, though he stops short of fully embracing the philosophy. In reality, biodynamic farming, with its potions, sheep, buried steer horns and the like is an extremely manipulative means to work the land. Had any biodynamic wines lately? Did the voice of God come through loud and clear or was it a bit garbled?

For his talk, Kramer has been unfairly criticized as anti-science, an accusation that doesn't stand up against his long tenure as a wine writer who has expressed appreciation for what research has contributed to the culture, his digs at UC Davis notwithstanding. At least, that's how I'm remembering how he generally has looked upon science-based initiatives in vineyard and cellar. Coincidental with his speech, I just read an earlier Kramer essay in which he predicted that "genetic modification is surely the future - and not necessarily the scary 'Franken-future' that some would have us believe." That doesn't sound like something that would come from a non-believer in matters scientific.

I do hope he eventually elaborates on a couple of his comments in the New Zealand speech, possibly in his Wine Spectator column. I'd like to read how he defines "optimum ripeness" in grapes and why it so grates him. And I really want to know what he means when he says the finest pinot noirs made today are "all creatures of profound deference." And I especially want to know of specific examples of pinot noir that represent "profound deference." Yesterday, he did revisit his New Zealand speech in this posting, but his comments were more iteration than expansion. But, what he hell, the year still is young, and there's still plenty of time for Matt Kramer to pour into his chalice and share with the rest of the congregation those pinot noirs of "profound deference."

Monday, January 14, 2013

From The Chronicle, Mostly Highs

Virtually every wine region in the country got something to brag about at the 2013 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, spread over four days in the northern Sonoma County hamlet of Cloverdale last week.

Sorelle Winery's winning rose
 Lodi got to boast that it produced the best pink wine, the Sorelle Winery 2011 Lodi Sangiovese Rosato ($16). New York's Finger Lakes district yielded the best white wine, the Keuka Spring Vineyards 2011 Finger Lakes Riesling ($14). And Sonoma County scored a rare double when two of its wines tied for best red wine, the Terlato Family Vineyards 2010 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($60) and the Wilson Winery 2009 Dry Creek Valley Molly's Vineyard Petite Sirah ($38).

The big winners were drawn from a final field of 82 wines that had been nominated for the sweepstakes round. All earlier had been judged the best of their class. They included nine pinot noirs, eight cabernet sauvignons, seven zinfandels and seven chardonnays. Why so many of each of those varietals? For one, the numbers reflect the huge popularity of those varietals among both consumers and judges, who were to send a best-of-class wine to the final round only if they felt strongly that it was an exceptional candidate. Second, the Chronicle competition divides entries in the larger classes into price niches, at least eight for cabernet sauvignon, nine for pinot noir and so forth.

I didn't vote for any of the major winners, not because I have anything against those varietals but because I liked other candidates a bit more. Among the whites, I was pulling for the lone gewurztraminer in the field, the steely Castello di Amorosa 2011 Mendocino County Ferrington Vineyard Gewurztraminer ($27). Among the reds, I favored the least expensive zinfandel in the finale, the plush and sweetly fruity Pezzi King Vineyards 2010 Dry Creek Valley Old Vine Zinfandel ($24).

Several wineries in the Sacramento area produced best-of-class wines, but just two wineries were responsible for two each: Renwood Winery in Amador County's Shenandoah Valley for its 2011 viognier ($23) and its 2001 Amador Ice zinfandel ($35), and Gianelli Vineyards of Jamestown in Tuolumne County for its 2009 dolcetto ($24) and its 2010 aglianico ($27).

Aside from the sweepstakes round, here are my random impressions as our panel of three - my colleagues were veteran Alameda vintner Kent "Dr. Zinfandel" Rosenblum and Santa Rose wine writer and sales consultant Sue Straight - proceeded through class after class...

    Sacramento vintner Stuart Spoto
  • Yes, there really is a class called "white blush," a contradiction in terms. It apparently means pink wines with one percent or more residual sugar, to distinguish them from the class of rose wines with less than one percent residual sugar. At any rate, we tasted 27 "white blush" wines. We gave 10 of them gold medals, a remarkably high proportion. Two of the 10 were white zinfandels, both showing that this frequently maligned style is quite capable of yielding refreshing interpretations that adroitly balance sugar and acid. Best-of-class honors, however, went to a fleshier, spicier and sweeter moscato that probably has a big summer following in the Midwest. It turned out to be the Rose n Blum 2011 California Pink Moscato ($12). Whether it's related to Kent Rosenblum, I have no idea, but here might be the place to note that judges only know the wines they are evaluating by a number, and that their identities aren't revealed until after the competition.

  • Becuase the Chronicle divides wines of a type into classes by price, the class called "Italian blends" was split in two, one of entries priced up to $24.99, the other of entries priced at $25 or more. Remember, this competition is devoted solely to wines made in the U.S. Thus, "Italian blends" means wines made with grape varieties whose homeland commonly is regarded as Italy, such as sangiovese, nebbiolo, barbera and so forth. We weren't told the composition of the blends. We weren't far into our class before concluding that we didn't really care to know. This was the most dispiriting class we faced over three days. Fortunately, just 17 were entered in the class. By and large, they were awkward, tired and blunt. Aside from one or two, the typically sunny charm of Italian wine wasn't to be found in these state-side impersonations. We did give two gold medals, and elected a best-of-class, but balked at sending it up for sweepstakes consideration. Overall, I came away feeling that these wines were blends of desperation more than forethought.

  • When told we would judge the competition's 33 gewürztraminers we thought our patience with the "Italian blends" was being rewarded. Ordinarily, that well may have been the case. These gewürztraminers, however, apparently came from less than ordinary vintages, or a disproportionate number were made with grapes grown in places unsuitable for the variety. By and large, they lacked the varietal's traditional zest and complexity. You might get gewurztraminer's typical suggestions of lychee in one entry, and its essence of rose in another, but rarely were they together in a single release. Several tasted as if they were being shored up by other varieties, like muscat or sauvignon blanc. By the end of the session I was surprised to see we'd awarded gold medals to 10 of them. Our best-of-class wasn't my first choice, but it is a gewürztraminer of notable assurance and persistence, a rarity for its vivid and seamless presentation of roses, lychee and grapefruit, all in balance, with refreshing persistence. It turned out to be the Castello di Amorosa 2011 Mendocino County Ferrington Vineyard Gewurztraminer ($27), also my favorite white wine in the sweepstakes round. My favorite gewurztraminer in our class was the spicier Brandborg 2011 Umpqua Valley Gewurztraminer ($18).

    A few of the reds during the sweepstakes round
  • The funnest class was "all other red varietals," which translates as "all those red wines so obscure and made in such small quantities they don't deserve a class of their own." Maybe someday, but not yet. We're talking wines made from grape varieties like touriga nacional, blaufrankisch, teroldego, carignan, charbono, pinotage, refosco and tannat. They may be esteemed elsewhere, like South Africa, Uruguay and Austria, but in the U.S. they're pretty much limited to small experimental vineyards. These vineyards likely were planted by growers who remember liking such wines on their travels and who felt that the same sort of results could be cultivated here. And, yes, the vibrant freshness of several of the 51 we tasted reinforces their optimism. We gave gold medals to 13, and sent to sweepstakes a lagrein that while inky and firm also was aromatic, juicy and sleek. It turned out to be the Alapay Cellars 2011 Paso Robles French Camp Vineyard Lagrein ($30).

  • In contrast, class 411 - zinfandels priced $20-$24.99 - was hardly any fun at all. We had 80 of those babies, and gave just eight gold medals. OK, that's a 10-percent return, which is pretty high by the standards of most any wine competition. But consider, zinfandel owns California. No other state - no other country, for that matter - has had as much time and experience with zinfandel. Granted, the competition includes the entire country, not just California, but it's fair to assume that more than 90 percent of the zinfandels at Cloverdale were from California. And granted, while we didn't know the vintages of the wines we were judging, most probably came from the difficult growing years of 2010 and 2011. Still, aside from the golds and silvers we bestowed, this was one grim class, with a disproportionate number of wines stemmy, grippy and downright foul in one way or another. The message to consumers is to buy carefully in picking a zinfandel in this price range from a recent vintage, which amounts to putting your trust into a merchant who selects his or her inventory studiously. That said, we did settle on a best of class, an interpretation that proclaimed with clarity and nuanced power that this is a zinfandel as it is meant to be, packed with jammy fruit, spiced with pepper, big but balanced in build, and lingering in the finish. It turned out to be the Pezzi King Vineyards 2010 Dry Creek Valley Old Vine Zinfandel ($24), the same wine that was my favorite entry in the red-wine sweepstakes.

  • By the same token, consumers also need to be wary in selecting a current pinot noir, especially if it is priced less than $20. The 59 we tasted ranged in color, flavor and structure all over the place, from thin and bland to silken and dramatic. We gave 11 of them gold medals, and the one we chose as best of class was noble in every respect, from the brilliant depth of its color to its lasting finish. In the flight in which it first appeared I gave it gold on the strength of its smell alone - rich, fresh and focused, so compelling I balked at moving on until prodded by my fellow panelists. It turned out to be the A by Acacia 2011 California Pinot Noir ($14).

  • And then we came to the final class of the competition, 59 zinfandels priced $30 to $34.99. This was a happy siege, largely because the nature of recent vintages and the challenge of recent economics seem to have forced vintners to dial back on both ripeness and oak in the wines. For the most part, alcohol was tempered and the influence of new wood was moderated, resulting in zinfandels that spoke with the confident character they should in this price category. We gave 12 of them gold medals, and the rest of the field far more silvers than bronzes. While fellow panelist Kent Rosenblum and I occasionally disagreed on whether this or that zinfandel warranted a gold medal, we concurred that an interpretation that was both powerful and elegant should go to the sweepstakes round as our best of class. It turned out to be the DeLoach Vineyards 2010 Russian River Valley OFS Zinfandel ($32).