Thursday, May 13, 2010

From More Than 100 Wines, Two Standouts

Once a month or so, Sacramento grocer Darrell Corti convenes a wine tasting in the far back reaches of his family's cavernous store. A large table is covered with butcher paper, then bottles are lined up. Corti hands out a printed and stapled list of the night's wines, which he has gathered through his travels or which have been sent him by vintners and distributors hoping to secure space on the shelves of his wine department.

Last night, Corti, his wine staff and seven guests, several from the Department of Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis, one from Chile, circulated about the selection, pouring tastes, taking sips and spitting into three large buckets arranged about the table. Initially, about 60 red wines were spread out. After they were tasted, the table was cleared and some 50 whites, roses and dessert wines were lined up.

Except for the scratching of pens, the rustling of the paper sheets and the spitting, the tasting is studious and somber, though Corti occasionally interrupts the deliberations for a mini-lecture on the provenance, character or methodology of this or that wine. Because the wines come from throughout the world, the tasting serves as an introduction or reintroduction to styles and regions not commonly found in California.

And because of that mix, the tasting also is a welcome reality check on what's going on wine-wise both elsewhere and in California. Generalizations are always risky, but based on last night's tasting I again was struck by how dry, lean, sharp, refreshing and subtly complex foreign wines are compared with California releases, so often fat, soft, a touch sweet and while blunt in their fruit don't as often lure the palate back for their layered flavors or their persistence.

That said, when Corti concluded last night's tasting and asked each participant to name the two wines they most likely would buy, the response was about evenly divided between foreign releases and Californian. I chose one of each. One was a red, the Altovinum Evodia 2008 Calatayud Old Vines Garnacha, which packed so much earthiness into its berry and peppery flavor I jotted in my notes that it must come from some mountainous region, only to learn later that the grapes are grown in vineyards that rise up to 3,000 feet in the Ebro River Valley, the highest in Spain, according to importer Eric Solomon. I couldn't believe that a wine with so much weight and character is only wine, with no oak aging. Then I couldn't believe that the wine customarily sells for between $8 and $14. At either price, it's a marvelous bargain.

My favorite white comes from closer to home, the Holly's Hill Vineyard 2009 El Dorado Viognier. While the field of whites was exceptionally strong last night, the Holly's Hill Viognier stood out to me for its pure expression of varietal and place, and its dryness, balance, elegance and persistence. It customarily sells for $18.

Whether Corti Brothers will stock either of these wines, or any from last night's tasting, is a decision that only Darrell Corti will make.


  1. Great post Mike. I tend to agree with you about European wine, generally speaking. There seems to be a bit more nuance and character at a lower price point with wines from across the pond. Don't get me wrong, I'm still a fan of California wine- just sometimes the fruit gets a bit overdone.


  2. Thanks for the kind words. A Corti Bros. tasting is a memorable experience.

    Josh Bendick
    Holly's Hill

  3. As I recall Corti was the first in the area to promote wines with less than 14% alcohol. Did all of these wines fall into this category?
    T Pershall
    Carmel Valley,CA

  4. While Darrell Corti prefers to stock table wines not exceeding 14.5 percent alcohol, he is open to considering releases with more firepower. I didn't check the alcohol of all the wines in the lineup, but my random sampling found just a few at 14.5 percent or above, with most well under his preferred ceiling. Interestingly, the Bordeaux wines in the tasting almost invariably ranged from 12.5 percent to 13 percent.