Wednesday, September 15, 2010

California: More Than Napa, More Than Chardonnay

California's two principal wine-trade groups, the Wine Institute and the California Association of Winegrape Growers, quietly did something rather remarkable Tuesday: They invited the wallflowers of the state's wine industry onto the dance floor. Fair or not, the two groups long have been perceived as representing primarily the interests of corporate vintners, and if those wineries were based in Napa Valley or Sonoma County, all the better. Several years ago, mom-and-pop winemakers felt so out of the loop they formed another association, the Family Winemakers of California.

At Hotel Vitale in San Francisco yesterday, however, officials of the two older groups welcomed to the party underappreciated wine regions, obscure grape varieties and small producers. And they did it with imagination, vitality and grace. The theme of the seminar and tasting was "Unexpected Grapes from Unexpected Places." The intent was to let a couple hundred members of the trade and media know that California has more to offer wine enthusiasts than cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, and that wines need not be from Napa Valley or Sonoma County to be worthy of respect and investment.

Master sommellier Evan Goldstein kicked off the program with an overview of the California wine scene that was so smart and brisk it all by itself restored respectability to the PowerPoint presentation. Among other things, Goldstein noted that just 4 percent of California's wine is produced in Napa Valley, with another 6 percent originating in Sonoma County. The math is simple: 90 percent of the state's wine comes from elsewhere. He then proceeded to show why restaurateurs, retailers and the press should pay more heed to what's going on in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Mendocino County, Calaveras County, Livermore, Marin and several other frequently overlooked wine enclaves. His most disarming technique was a blind tasting in which participants were to speculate on each varietal and then pinpoint where it originated in California. He urged tasters to think in terms of "classic varietals not from classic places" and "unexpected varietals from classic places." If tasters hadn't figured it out on their own, Goldstein at the end of the tasting revealed that they'd had a riesling from Napa Valley, a vermentino from Paso Robles, a sangiovese from Wooden Valley and a cabernet sauvignon from Livermore, among other matches generally seen as non-traditional.

Participants then ambled about the hotel's patio, where some 150 additional wines representing "unexpected grapes from unexpected places" were being poured. Granted, both blind and open tastings showed that some grape varieties maybe shouldn't be cultivated where they are. Or perhaps the growers and winemakers gamely experimenting with unfamiliar grape varieties and new styles of wine simply are on a steep learning curve, with more encouraging results yet to emerge. However, I did leave the event wondering whether some varieties, most notably gruner veltliner and nebbiolo, ever will find a receptive home in California.

On the other hand, the two sponsoring organizations did demonstrate through the tastings that several minor varietals can be at least as exciting as such established players as cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and merlot. I'm thinking of the rich and persistent Clarksburg gewurztraminer made by Milliaire Winery at Murphys in Calaveras County; the fruity, fleshy and firm dolcetto from Rosa d'Oro Winery in Lake County; the lush and complex teroldego from Peltier Station Winery at Lodi; and the spicy and crisp grignolino rose by Heitz Cellars in Napa Valley. (The grignolino rose is no newcomer; Hetiz has been making it since 1961, and it's a remarkable testimonial to the wine's quality and value - $18.50 - that it continues to survive in the cabernet-centric Napa Valley.)

And again, the tastings reinforced my growing belief that the most exciting winemaking in the state today involves blended wines, such as the rich, creamy and layered mix of green Rhone Valley grape varieties called Ruben's Blend, made by Twisted Oak Winery at Murphys in Calaveras County; the sharp and stony estate rose by L'Aventure Winery at Paso Robles, a mix of three black Rhone Valley grapes with cabernet sauvignon; and the marvelously expressive and elegant Patriarche by Holly's Hill Vineyards at Pleasant Valley in El Dorado County, another mix of black Rhone Valley grapes.


  1. Very nice to see some attention being directed toward us strong supporting actors to the industry. Thank you very much for flagging this event, Mike!

  2. Gruner Veltliner will never find a home in California, not even California Gruner!
    Most folks cannot pronounce it and are totally disinterested in unusual varieties such as Gruner.
    It will be gobbled up by geeks like us.
    I bought the ZOCKER 2009 GRUNER VELTLINER