About two weeks ago, I posted here an item on an experiment about to commence at the Riverside International Wine Competition. In brief, the four-person petite-sirah panel on which I sat was to evaluate the 51 wines in the class by arranging them in groups according to their place of origin, such as Russian River Valley, Fair Play and Lodi. Ordinarily in competitions, wines of a class are judged randomly, regardless of appellation, which generally isn't even divulged. The intent at Riverside was to see if we could find stylistic threads from wine to wine that spoke to a prevailing character for each of the regions. And from that, ultimately, could be drawn targeted regional profiles against which judges would weigh the merits of wines, thereby making the results of competitions more relevant and reliable for consumers. After going over my notes, I've come to two tentative conclusions:
- We have a long way to go before we can say that the style of petite sirah from one region differs in consistency and significance from the style of petite sirah for another region. Yes, some threads did seem to emerge. The petite sirahs from Livermore Valley did have fairly consistent streaks of blackberry, blueberry, black pepper and sweet tannins. The petite sirahs from Paso Robles tended to be characterized by candied fruit flavors offset against the smell of smoldering briars. Flowers, Bing cherries, lemon verbena and soft tannins ran through the petite sirahs of Russian River Valley. Black-fruit flavors, green herbs and white pepper seemed to distinguish the petite sirahs of Dry Creek Valley. On the other hand, the aesthetic attributes of Lodi's petite sirahs ranged all over the place, with no signature readily readable from one wine to another; Sambuca was in one, sweaty horse blanket in another, but how often is either found in Lodi's petite sirahs generally? For the most part, we had too few wines for each region for basing firm conclusions. More sampling is needed, and may more competitions follow Riverside's example in seeking regional similarities.
- If "regional character" exists in wine and can be defined, track it to the peculiar physical attributes of the site where its grapes were grown - climate, exposure, drainage, elevation, rainfall, soil types and the like. At least, that was the prevailing basis for such hotly debated wine concepts as "American Viticultural Area," "appellation," "place of origin," "sense of place," "somewhere-ness" and "terroir" before the Riverside experiment. In the most romantic interpretation of those terms, grapes each late summer leap like lemmings from vine to bottle, with the winemaker only having to decide between screwcap and cork. Wine is the result of more complicated decisions than that, of course; it isn't solely the consequence of natural environment. Thus, panel chair Clark Smith, himself a winemaker, urged us also to look for the human cultural contributions that help account for a wine's regional character, including the milieu in which the winemaker labors. The proximity of a wine region to an urban center, food traditions, tourism, history and the like also affect the style of wine from a particular area, and also ought to be pondered in drawing up standards for regional character, said Smith. On that score, however, we panelists were at rather loose ends. I don't recall a single comment or note to indicate, say, that the petite sirahs from Fair Play were notably woody because of the region's proximity to Sacramento and the fondness of its residents for the vanillin of oak in the wines they buy. It could be true, but this whole approach in judging wine is so revolutionary it will take an entire reorienting of perspective among judges. Smith isn't opening a completely new front in the continuing debate on what is meant by "regional character," "terroir" and so forth, but his case at least complicates the issue, and whether it eventually leads to a heightened understanding and appreciation of wine, let alone improved wine competitions, will only become clear after many, many more vintages.