By my count, 95 wines made up last night's tasting in the far back reaches of the Corti Brothers grocery store in Sacramento. They were spread out on a big table in two flights, first the reds, then the whites. This is an exercise that store owner Darrell Corti and store director Rick Mindermann conduct once a month or so to choose wines to stock in the store's cramped wine department. Winemakers and distributors eager to get their wines placed, and to hear what Corti has to say of their wines, which may be painful yet constructive, ship the store releases from all over the world. Last night's tasting, for example, included wines from Hungary, Turkey and Greece, as well as countries and regions with higher wine profiles - Italy, Spain, France and the United States, mostly California, naturally.
At one point I was surprised to hear Mindermann tell another guest that maybe just one or two wines being tasted might be chosen for the store's bins, the screening is that rigid. After attending several of these sessions over the years, I've concluded that in picking a wine to add to his inventory Corti looks for releases that represent primarily diversity, quality, a story and value. He doesn't have much patience with wines high in alcohol, heavy with oak, fierce with tannins and unrepresentative of grape and region.
I use the tastings largely to find local wines to write about in the weekly column I contribute to The Sacramento Bee. At last month's tasting, for example, we sampled seven wines from Casque Wines, a small Placer County producer that is starting to generate buzz for the forthright clarity and harmony of its releases. Of the seven, Corti chose one for the store, at least initially, the Le Casque 2009 Amador County Calotte Blanc, which he is selling for $18, I discovered last night as I browsed about the wine department just before the tasting. This is one of several Casque wines I also especially enjoyed at last month's tasting. The 2009 Calotte Blanc is a delightfully refreshing and willful blend of viognier, roussanne, vermentino and marsanne. In its vibrancy and harmony I found it strikingly similar to the Vina Robles 2009 Paso Robles Huerhuero White 4, an equally spicy blend of vermentino, verdelho, viognier and sauvignon blanc, which we declared the best white wine at the Central Coast Wine Competition in June. Both wines represent the craft of blending with authority and charm.
The 2009 Calotte Blanc, incidentally, also is available at Lakeside Beverages in Granite Bay and Carpe Vino in Auburn.
But the 2009 Calotte Blanc was at last month's tasting. Wines that got my highest marks at last night's tasting were the Guimaro Winery 2008 Ribeira Sacra Mencia, a Spanish red packed with black pepper and great length; the Dashwood 2009 Marlborough Pinot Noir, very light in color but vibrant with suggestions of watermelon and strawberries; the Schug Estate 2008 Carneros Pinot Noir, beefier, fruitier and longer than the Dashwood, but in terrific balance; and the Athair Wines 2007 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, which like the Dashwood is deceivingly light in color, yet on the palate is athletic and persistent, with fresh fruit flavors running to berries and cherries. Whether Corti will carry them, and at what price, remains to be seen.