Snap judgments from Sunday's opening session of the 20th Anniversary Tasting of the Family Winemakers of California, which drew 235 wineries to the Festival Pavilion at Fort Mason Center in San Francisco:
- Keep an eye - or better yet, a palate - on the wines of Dancing Coyote at Acampo. With little notice, the Tom McCormack family is redefining winemaking in the Sacramento/San Joaquin River Delta. While the Delta long has been recognized for its petite sirah, chardonnay and chenin blanc, Dancing Coyote is showing that the region also can turn out alluring takes on varietals for which it isn't known. Across the board, they were clean, clear, lithe, individualistic and high in value. The 2009 gewurztraminer and the 2009 albarino were outstanding for their refreshing liveliness. The 2009 verdelho was steely and sharp. The 2009 pinot noir was a muscular interpretation of the varietal, rich and peppery. And the 2009 gruner veltliner was a virtual European knockoff for its lean build, austere fruit and dry finish; I just wished it had a bit more of the white pepper I look for in the varietal. Good for the McCormacks for taking a chance on these obscure varietals and for crafting them in a style that makes them outstanding fits for the table.
- My favorite story of the day came from Carole Meredith, retired grape geneticist at UC Davis. With her husband Stephen Lagier, she makes luscious and complex syrahs on Napa Valley's Mt. Veeder. Now, the couple has teamed up with neighbors Aaron and Claire Pott to diversify their portfolio with a new line of varietals about to be released under the label Chester's Anvil - a spicy 2009 Sonoma Coast chardonnay, an animated 2009 Sonoma Coast pinot noir, and a sunny and zesty Bordeaux-inspired blend called Hattori Hanzo, after a 16th-century maker of samari swords. Why Chester's Anvil? When the tractor of longtime Mt. Veeder grape grower Chester Brandlin broke down, Lagier volunteered to disc his vineyard, after which he refused to take any money for the chore. Brandlin instead gave Lagier and Meredith one of his family heirlooms, an anvil cast in England sometime in the 1880s. In San Francisco, Lagier and Meredith were pouring samples of the wines from behind the anvil. Now in addition to lugging cases of wines to tastings, they'll be hauling the anvil, which weighs in at 105 pounds.
- I was at the tasting primarily in search of wines from the Sierra foothills, the Delta and Lodi for the weekly column I contribute to The Sacramento Bee. Yet, the lineup of wineries was so broad and varied I occasionally drifted from my mission in hopes of catching up with what's going on in the rest of the state. One excursion confirmed that Corison Winery continues to make one of the more finely honed and persistently gripping cabernet sauvignons in Napa Valley, with the 2007 coming in at just 13.8 percent alcohol, showing that a wine need not be fiercely concentrated to be alluring; indeed, that restraint helps make it so charming. Another side trip took me to the table of Dutton-Goldfield Winery at Sebastapol in Sonoma County, where I wasn't surprised to find the chardonnays and pinot noirs living up to their reputations for attack and balance, but that wasn't where I expected to find my favorite zinfandel of the day, the Dutton-Goldfield 2008 Russian River Valley Morelli Lane Zinfandel, all spirited red raspberries seasoned with black pepper.
- My problem now is to decide which wine from Lange Twins Winery & Vineyards at Lodi to next write about - the complex and earthy blend of petite sirah and petit verdot, the exhuberant and juicy malbec, the spicy and long pinot noir? Or will it be one of the family's new value-oriented Green Hills wines, the lively chardonnay, the gripping cabernet sauvignon? The Green Hills wines, incidentally, are just entering the pipeline, and will sell for about $10.
- Whenever anyone attends a wine tasting of this magnitude, it's best to have a game plan, but the format at the Festival Pavilion wasn't especially helpful. Wineries were arranged alphabetically, which makes a certain sense, though to treat participating wineries equitably year after year the sponsoring Family Winemakers of California tweaks the alphabet to start off with a different letter. "If you just adjust your version of the alphabet you'll find everyone easily," warned the tasting booklet, perhaps written by Dr. Seuss. Here's another thought: Why not arrange tables by appellation? Vintners forever talk about how important vineyard and place of origin is to the nature and quality of their wines, so why not put togehter all the wineries that make Napa Valley wines, all the wineries that make Paso Robles wines, all the wineries that make Fair Play wines and so forth? Then within each of those groupings wineries could be arranged alphabetically. Maybe I'm just being selfish, but for comparative purposes for any wine enthusiast such groupings would seem to be more manageable and relevant.