Sunday, January 31, 2010

Remembering Not To Slight The Small

On the eve of the Dallas Morning News Wine Competition, I arrived early enough to spend most of this afternoon at the Dallas Museum of Art. This has become an annual tradition, a relaxing and inspiring way to calibrate my perspective for the judging ahead. For example, I'm not instinctively drawn to the display cases of early-American table utensils any more than I'm drawn to the shelves of merlot at the supermarket. But soon after I pause to scan the cases of 19th-century silver tongs, forks and the like I realize I'm actually enthralled with the purpose, silent stories and intricate artistry of the sardine server, chowder spoon and cake knife. That realization reminds me that even merlot may have some surprises in store and deserve no less scrutiny than pinot noir, zinfandel and riesling.

My favorite reality check each year is in the gallery that houses both Childe Hassam's 1887 "Along The Seine, Winter" and Frederic Edwin Church's 1861 "The Icebergs." Both are as chilly as Dallas this trip. Hassam's small and spare painting is of a one-horse carriage on a snowy Paris street. It's a simple study in gray and white, compact and balanced, more elegant than its ornate gold frame, and so effective in conveying bitter cold you feel like pulling on a pair of gloves. Church's "The Icebergs" is just a few paces away, but it's so monumental it takes up an entire wall all by itself. Icebergs loom in a rosy light that while brilliant also is threatening. Everything about it is forboding, from the size of the icebergs to the fractured mast of a ship almost lost in the foreground. The painting is all mass and power, so forceful you not only want to pull on gloves you feel as if you should back up. While far different in scale, both are marvelous works, masterfully evoking a sense of place and time. Hassam's small, light landscape is easy to overlook in the cluster of neighboring paintings, in particular Church's expansive and dramatic scene. But both have their role, a lesson I'll have to keep in mind while going through flight after flight tomorrow.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The New Big D: Downward Dog

While they can be stern in their deliberations, judges at commercial wine competitions generally are a tolerant and even amiable bunch once they step back from a challenging flight of, say, chardonnay.

If something irritates them - the quality of the bread to help clear their palates, the nature of the lunch the competition's organizers provide, the often huge number of nominees in the final sweepstakes round - they carp quietly and then proceed to complete their assignment with equanimity. The only outburst I've witnessed that might qualify as a temper tantrum came years ago from a usually calm academic who picked up the cluster of pencils at his seat at the start of judging and hurled the handful across the room. It was his way of saying that the fresh smell of newly sharpened cedar would interfere with his acute nosing of the cabernet sauvignons we were about to ponder. He was serious, but he made his point with so much elfin delight that no one appeared intimidated or offended by the uncharacteristic drama.

Pencils still customarily are provided judges at competitions, including at least one in which he participates, and by now he may have abandoned his campaign to have them banned. At least I haven't seen any pencils hurtling from his direction. Maybe his nose isn't as sensitive as it once was. Or maybe he's into yoga, his perspective more elevated and his demeanor more relaxed than ever.

I wonder if that's the intent Rebecca Murphy has in mind for the approaching Dallas Morning News Wine Competition, of which she is the founder and producer. By and large, the itinerary of wine competitions is pretty static. Judges arrive at their assigned hotel. They may be welcomed with a goody bag and a t-shirt. On the eve of the judging, a reception will be held. They'll start early the next morning, break for lunch, and resume judging until late in the afternoon, after which they will be taken to some swanky restaurant for dinner. Murphy always lines up a notable restaurant, but her choice this year is especially exciting - Samar, the new addition to the Dallas art district by acclaimed chef Stephan Pyles.

But without explanation, Murphy has added to the itinerary something perhaps unprecedented for a wine competition - yoga classes for the judges starting at an unseemly 6 a.m. each day. In addition to seeing just how many judges show up at that hour, I look forward to her reasoning. From what little I know of yoga, I'm speculating that she sees it as a means to help us focus on our subsequent deliberations. Yoga can be energizing, so maybe it's a way to keep us alert during the concentration demanded by fair wine judging. Perhaps she's counting on the spiritual attributes of yoga to help us keep our poise during the exasperating and heated debate that can break out over the merits of a particular wine. Judging wine also involves hours of sitting, so maybe she just wants us to limber up, and to pick up on some stretching moves we can put into practice as one flight is cleared and another is set up. At the least, Dallas will be the first competition to give "going to the mat" a whole new twist.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Distilled Findings

On the eve of President Barack Obama's State of the Union address, officials of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau released their own State of the Union findings concerning whether the advertising, labeling and disclosure of contents for distilled spirits complies with federal standards.

In a word, yes, they do, by and large. Just how thorough and balanced the research was, however, is unclear. The report found, for example, that two distilled spirits were "under proof" and should have been labeled "diluted." That will be the day. In other words, the two spirits weren't as potent as claimed. The study not only didn't say how many distilled spirits were reviewed, it didn't name the two that weren't delivering the firepower they said they were. Two words probably tell us why: campaign contributions. Let's hope the President's address is more forthcoming than this.

Federal authorities say this is the first of three such reports. They reviewed the "rate of compliance" for beer last year, but apparently still are compiling and interpreting their data. This year, they'll take a look at wine. When that report is released in a couple of years I'll be looking forward to a bit more substance. If nothing else, I'm hoping that investigators finger those wineries that aren't living up to either the spirit or the letter of the law when it comes to stating the level of alcohol in their releases. Just try and find it on some labels...without a magnifying glass, that is.

A New Platform For Seasoned Perspectives

Just as the byline "Corie Brown" became a familiar and reliable sign that the wine article below it would be comprehensive and balanced, it disappeared from the Los Angeles Times, where she was a reporter before the paper went through one of its spasms of employee layoffs.

Now her byline is showing up again in all sorts of places, including the New York Times (for a profile of Sonoma County vintner-turned-farmer Naomi Brilliant) and Entrepreneur magazine (for an update on how vintners are dealing with economic challenges). What's more, Brown is co-founder and general manager of Zester Daily: The Culture of Food and Wine, a timely and spirited Web site addressing a cornucopia of culinary matters. She's assembled a highly credentialed and experienced corps of contributors to provide insight on wine, food, dining, cooking, farming and similar related topics around the globe. The link has been added to the list just to the left.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Platinum Out Of The Pacific Northwest

In difficult economic times, the most helpful advice for wine enthusiasts who want to continue to take a glass or two with dinner is to look to underappreciated varietals and styles and to regions that have yet to develop a wide and deep following. In relative anonymity are bargains to be found.

Vintners of the Pacific Northwest may not like to be lumped in with South Africa, Uruguay, Ohio and other areas trying to establish a wine trade, but face it, Okanagan Valley and Yakima Valley, among the region's other appellations, don't yet have the esteem and the following of, say, Russian River Valley and Napa Valley, regardless of the quality of their wines. Thus, the price of many of their releases often are more realistic as consumers attempt to regain their footing in this recessionary era.

To get a lead on Pacific Northwest wines that offer the most quality and best value these days, consumers need look no farther than the results of one of the country's more imaginative and reliable competitions, the Platinum Judging overseen by Wine Press Northwest of Tri-Cities, WA. Here's how the competition works: Wineries of the Pacific Northwest are invited to enter wines that through the year have won gold medals in one or more of some 30 competitions the magazine tracks. This winter, the Platinum Judging, in its 10th year, drew a record 450 wines. As the judges tasted through the field they looked for the most impressive entries, awarding them either Platinum (if three of four judges concur it is worthy) or Double Platinum (if all four judges agree it is worthy).

While the list of Platinum and Double Platinum winners includes several pricey wines, it also includes several releases well under $20. What's more, many of them, such as the Domaine Ste. Michelle Columbia Valley Non-Vintage Extra-Dry Sparkling Wine ($13) and the Hogue Cellars 2008 Columbia Valley Riesling ($10) - are in fairly wide distribution along the West Coast. Take a look at the winners, start your shopping list and head for the market.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Mexican Wine Update

Where do you go to get the pulse of the Mexican wine scene? You could go to Valle de Guadalupe just outside of Ensenada, where 80 percent to 90 percent of Mexico's wine is made, but brace yourself for heat, dust and bumpy roads.

Or you could drop in to the new, cozy and comfortable wine shop La Casa Del Vino in San Jose del Cabo on a Tuesday evening, when owner Carlos Fernandez opens four or five bottles for a relaxed tasting at a nominal price (100 pesos per person last night, less than $10 per person at the current exchange rate, and that includes assorted cheeses and fruit as well as the wine).

Fernandez stocks only wines made in Baja California, a long and thin desert peninsula with pockets here and there of microclimates damp enough and cool enough for growing wine grapes.

Last night's five wines were too varied in composition to draw any rash conclusions about the style and direction of Baja's wine culture. Four of the five were clean and balanced, and exactly what they were said to be, though a couple tended to be overly sweet with oak. Nevertheless, they said the Baja wine trade is diverse and vigorous.

My two favorites were the Monte Xanic 2007 Valle de Guadalupe Chardonnay (206 pesos; about $16 in U.S. currency), a bright interpretation so ripe with tropical fruit and smoky with oak it easily could be taken for a chardonnay out of Monterey or Sonoma Valley; and the Vinisterra 2006 Baja California Mourvedre (375 pesos; about $30), a dark and supple red whose sweet fruitiness was shot through with suggestions of dried tobacco leaves and charred oak. The mourvedre was especially fitting for the assortment of white semi-hard cheeses Fernandez had spread out.

Monday, January 18, 2010

A Cabernet That Goes With Goat

If you just watched Larry King's fundraiser for Haiti relief efforts, you again were reminded of the generosity of Americans. About $5 million was raised in two hours, including a chunk of change from the sale of several sets of King's trademark suspenders. Second only to the country's generosity in times of need is the country's trust. Americans tend to believe almost instinctively that money raised in times of need ends up where it is intended, doing the most good, with little skimmed off the top for "administrative" or other bureaucratic needs. A couple of times during the King fundraiser callers expressed healthy skepticism about how the money would be used, and CNN correspondents attempted to address that matter, but they clearly weren't prepared to shed much light on the issue. The next time a disaster strikes and Americans rally to help with little question and much empathy, here's hoping they will be.

So is there a wine angle here? There is, and it involves Haiti and trust. Patrick Campbell, a Sonoma County winemaker whose wine Reds is one of the first I mentioned after starting this blog, long has been involved in Haitian matters with his business partner Tim Chegwidden. They release a modestly priced ($10) Chilean cabernet sauvignon called Chevere, named after the Caribbean revolutionary Che Guevara. Since the wine's inception, a portion of the profits from its sales have gone to the Lambi Fund of Haiti, which long before the recent earthquake had been overseeing some 20 projects in the nation aimed at developing sustainable agriculture, reviving goat and pig breeding, conserving natural resources and the like. For at least the next two months, Campbell and Chegwidden have decided, all their profits from the sale of Chevere will be sent to the Lambi Fund.

I don't know the wine, and I don't know the Lambi Fund, but I do know that Patrick Campbell is an honorable, selfless vintner who turns out all sorts of quality wines at high-value prices, and I wouldn't hesitate to pop for a few bottles of Chevere. Unfortunately, the wine isn't distributed through the usual retail channels, though I imagine an enterprising retailer or restaurateur could work out an arrangement with Campbell to get it. In the meantime, consumers can order the wine through Campbell's Web site.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Big Fish, Big Wine

Within hours of landing at San Jose del Cabo along the southern reaches of the Baja peninsula, we not only heard of a novel new wine shop but actually found it, which wasn't difficult at all, given that the store is just across the carretera from our casa. The proximity is a good sign in that I find Mexican wines increasingly alluring. It isn't so good in that Mexican wines tend to be pricey, owing to the inflated confidence of some vintners and the country's counter-productive wine taxes.

Open just six weeks, La Casa Del Vino De Baja California is devoted solely to the wines of the peninsula. This is a remarkably brash undertaking for Carlos Fernandez, the shop's "director general." Though Baja California is home to an old and varied wine trade, most of which is in and about the Valle de Guadalupe outside Ensenada, Mexican wines are little understood or appreciated even in Mexico, still perceived primarily as cerveza and tequila country.

Nonetheless, Fernandez is stocking some 140 of the 200 or so wines he says are being made in Baja. There are the usual suspects - cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, merlot - and some varietals that are relatively unfamiliar, but which Baja vintners are counting on to help establish the region as prime wine territory, such as carignane and grenache.

We asked Fernandez what he would recommend to accompany the wahoo my brother-in-law had caught while fly fishing in the Gulf of California. Without hesitation, he suggested a red, and not, as I thought it might be, a lighter red akin to pinot noir, commonly suggested with seafood, salmon especially. No, this was the Murmullo 2007 Barbera/Petite Sirah, a dark and dense wine effusive with sweet tangy fruit and dill-scented oak. The white flesh of the wahoo, however, also is dense, and while delicate in flavor is as beefy as swordfish if not filet mignon. The pairing worked well, and would have been even better had we grilled the fish over mesquite rather than sauteed it.

Mexican wine labels don't tell consumers as much as those in the United States. There's no appellation on the Murmullo, for example, but in an exchange of e-mails with the owner/winemaker, Mario A. Montano Benson, who is based in Ensenada, I found that the 75 percent barbera in the wine is from San Vicente Valley about 60 miles south of Ensenada and the 25 percent petite sirah is from Valle de Guadalupe. The wine, aged in American oak, sells for a suggested retail price of $23 in U.S. currency. It isn't yet available in California, however, though Montano Benson hopes to start exporting it soon. In the meantime, spring breakers will be able to find it at La Casa Del Vino De Baja California - Plaza Del Cabo, kilometer 32.5 of Carretera Transpininsular, San Jose del Cabo. Unless, that is, my brother-in-law catches more wahoo.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

A Scorpion More Fun Than Frightful

And speaking of the weekly column I do for The Sacramento Bee, one that was scheduled a couple of weeks ago apparently got lost amid the year-end festivities. It was meant to highlight the Karly Wines 2007 Amador County "El Alacran" Mourvedre:

About a decade ago, I rashly compiled a list of grape varieties I felt would be the most significant in California half a century down the road.

Cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and zinfandel would be at the top, I foresaw then, and don't see any reason now to alter that prediction.

But I also suspected that syrah would be in that company. Today, I don't think so. While several splendid releases of syrah are on the market, you have to wade through a lot of insipid juice to get to them.

Far down the list was mourvedre, and four decades from now I see it still far down the list, yet well entrenched. It's a tough grape to grow, and a tough wine to master as a varietal, but when handled diligently delivers wave after wave of dark juicy flavor. Just ask the Buck Cobb family in Amador County's Shenandoah Valley, who bravely began to plant mourvedre in 1989. Syrah was just starting to draw attention, and Buck Cobb, who appreciates longshot gambles, figured he might as well put in a couple of acres of an even more obscure grape with Rhone Valley links.

He, his wife Karly, their son Garth and his wife Jonna not only have stuck with it, they've expanded the vineyard a bit, despite numerous challenges in growing and harvesting mourvedre. For one thing, deer, gophers, birds and bees will bypass their neighboring varieties to get to the mourvedre. Scorpions, too, swear the Cobbs.

More than one of the feisty critters has appeared in the vineyard during harvest, alarming members of the crew picking the grapes. As a consequence, the Cobbs adopted the proprietary name "El Alacran" - Spanish for "the scorpion" - for their mourvedre.

More than acknowledgment of scorpions in the vineyard, the name lets wine enthusiasts know that this is no meek wine, as shown by the current release, the Karly Wines 2007 Amador County "El Alacran" Mourvedre. It's all ripe, sweet and fleshy red fruit, highlighted with spicy notes and backed by the dulcet caress of oak from the Hungarian and Romanian barrels in which the wine was aged. While the wine is dark and robust, its smooth elegance makes it more inviting than intimidating, unlike its namesake. If you still are looking for a New Year's resolution more pleasant than daunting, vow to seek out more mourvedre in 2010, starting with the Karly.

By the numbers: 15.5 percent alcohol, 200 cases, $35.

Context: Karly Cobb, the celebrated cook in the family, recommends the mourvedre with "burned meat and fire-grilled vegetables," as well as pot roast with a brown reduction. Garth Cobb seconds the motion, but also suggests it be poured with chateaubriand.

Availability: Only at the winery, and can be ordered through Karly's Web site, www.karlywines.com.

More information: The tasting room at Karly Wines, 11076 Bell Road, Plymouth, is open noon-4 p.m. daily.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Brushing Up On Latin

By fluke, both wines I wrote about for my column in today's Sacramento Bee have Latin connections, one made by the winery Trinitas, the other by the winery Onus. "Fluke," incidentally, isn't from Latin, nor is it from its traditional Anglo-Saxon or Low-German associations, but in this instance is a slang term that either originated with or was popularized by billiards, describing the unexpected but fortuitous outcome of a shot.

Pinot Followup

As a followup to the posting just below, the folks at BevMo! did indeed tabulate the tasters' rankings from yesterday's evaluation of 12 pinot noirs that the company's cellarmaster, Wilfred Wong, had found to be the most sought in the chain. Here are the top three wines, as seen by the group:

1) Roar 2007 Santa Lucia Highlands Garys' Vineyard Pinot Noir ($50), which I ranked seventh, even though I liked its broadly minty, spicy and oaky flavors. I found it somewhat tight in aromatics, however, and simply found several others more compelling from first sniff to final spit.

2) Testarossa Winery 2008 Santa Maria Valley Sierra Madre Vineyard Pinot Noir ($55), my third favorite entry for its overall vigor and balance.

3) Kosta Browne 2007 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($52), my fifth favorite for its dark earthiness, dense fruitiness and overall complexity. All my notes are positive, and I suspect it wasn't in my top three only because I favored others just a bit more. As an indication of just how close the voting was, the Kosta Browne finished just four points behind the Testarossa.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Gray Above, Sunny Below

Emeryville on the east side of San Francisco Bay isn't customarily seen as the epicenter of West Coast pinot noir, but for three illuminating hours today it was. Wilfred Wong, cellarmaster for the BevMo! chain of adult beverages, summoned about two-dozen members of the North State's wine media to taste their way blindly through 12 of what he called "America's Top Pinot Noirs" at the company's Emeryville branch.

Two quick conclusions could be drawn from this pleasant exercise. For one, some mighty fine high-end pinot noir is being made along the West Coast; by and large, the wines were complex, substantial and balanced. A couple were lean and lithe, a few dense and generous, but that's the nature and fascination of pinot noir; it's not only subject to highly personal interpretations, it's mercurial, likely to give one impression the first time through a flight, turning sunnier or more shaded the second.

Secondly, each taster had a favorite, but no more than two or three appeared to agree on any one wine. My favorite, as well as the favorite of at least one other taster, was dismissed as suggestive of "pickles" and "hairspray" by a third taster.

At any rate, my three favorite wines in order of preference:

1) Beaux Freres Winery 2007 The Beaux Freres Vineyard Pinot Noir ($80), as grand and noble a take on pinot noir as you are apt to find in Oregon, and perhaps along the entire West Coast. From its rich cherry/berry flavor to its silken texture, it's definitive New World pinot noir.

2) Failla Wines 2007 Sonoma Coast Hirsch Vineyard Pinot Noir ($65), an unusually flamboyant interpretation of the varietal, its ripe cherry fruitiness at one end of the chorus line, its liberal oak backbone at the other. One taster called it "bizarre," but then maybe he doesn't appreciate the color, drama and tradition of a Mardi Gras float, either.

3) Testarossa Winery 2008 Santa Maria Valley Sierra Madre Vineyard Pinot Noir ($55), which while lean in build was vibrant with bright fruit flavor under a veneer of glossy oak.

Wong warmed up the group's palates with three flights of three wines each, intending to showcase BevMo!'s own house brands. In my case, the plan more or less worked. The wines also were tasted blind, but my favorites in two of the flights were wines that BevMo! had made to its specifications and then bottled under its own fanciful labels - the perfumey, spicy and sweet Vigilance 2008 Lake County Sauvignon Blanc ($18) and the inky and beefy Zolo Gaucho 2008 Mendoza Select Malbec ($16). The third and least inspiring flight was of cheap red blends, all tasting young and heavily manipulated. But for the record, my favorite was a non-BevMo! brand, the dusty, herbal and long Red Truck 2008 California Red Wine, loaded with syrah, petite sirah, cabernet franc, petit verdot, zinfandel and carignan, and the most refreshingly acidic in the lineup.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Wine with Cupcakes? Why?

"If wine consumption is going to continue growing in America, it's important to confront new pairings of food and wine," says wine blogger Tyler Colman in Eric Asimov's wine blog. (Both blogs are among my favorite reads, which is why I posted links to them, just over there, on the left of this column.) Based on this comment alone, Colman would seem to be a shill for the wine trade, bent on urging Americans to blindly drink more wine. Anyone who has followed him for any time, however, knows that isn't the case, or at least hasn't been up to now.

His remark made it into Asimov's blog because Asimov questions the extreme pairing of food and wine (what to serve with peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, Cap'n Crunch, smores) and because Colman is running a playful series of what to pour with just those kinds of foods, as if anyone were to spend good time and money with such pranks at the table. But, remember, this is January, which excuses a lot of odd behavior (but, wait, it will get even better; February is just around the corner).

"Many traditional foods, such as steak and fish, get frequently discussed in wine writing while many more untraditional foods slip through the cracks," Asimov quotes Colman as saying in an e-mail. There's a reason why wine pairing with steak and fish get more attention in the wine press than wine pairing with fruitcakes and cupcakes, and that's because people have come to appreciate and expect wine with traditional centerpiece entrees. They welcome guidance, given the wide range of wines that would be appropriate, and in some instances inappropriate. Wine with cupcakes and smores would be a novelty, but not likely to intrigue many consumers, who already know that hot chocolate, coffee, milk and tea would be the more fitting companions to such foods. Colman's efforts would be more helpful if he were to recommend wines with foods that traditionally appear on the American table but generally aren't seen as appropriate with wine, yet nonetheless compatible. I'm thinking chicken fried steak, chicken pot pie, calves liver, potato salad, baked beans, meatloaf. Hurry up, I'm working on next week's shopping list.

Rebirth for Late-Harvest Zinfandel?

The funnest round to judge at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition also was the final round - the election of the best dessert or specialty wine in the blind judging. Five wines were in contention. If nothing else, they represented the wide range of "stickies" - or sweet wines - being made in the United States today. One was a syrah "port" that you really didn't need to pair with chocolate to enjoy, given that that's pretty much what it tasted like. Another was something called "strawberry white zinfandel" that tasted exactly like what it claimed to be. One of my three favorites was a rhubarb wine not only dead-on in flavor but possessed of a razor-sharp acidity that balanced its sweetness so keenly it just zipped across the palate. Another was the smooth and spicy Watermill Winery 2008 Walla Walla Valley Late-Harvest Gewurztraminer, the eventual winner. My first-place vote, however, went to the Bella Vineyards 2008 Sonoma County Late-Harvest Zinfandel ($25), which was all brambles and jam, so luscious you could spread it on your morning toast. I was surprised to see a late-harvest zinfandel in the lineup, given that it's a style that virtually has disappeared from the portfolios of even zinfandel specialists, perhaps because so many table-wine zinfandels these days are being made with so much sugar and alcohol they almost qualify as late-harvest renditions. In the red-dessert-wine class that sent the Bella to the finals, however, five other late-harvest zinfandels had been entered in a field of only 11 wines, so maybe some vintners sense a rebirth for the genre.

Friday, January 8, 2010

A Winner from Shenandoah Valley


Back in Sacramento after most of the week in Cloverdale, the setting for the annual San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, I've been flipping casually through the results in hopes of spotting some revelations or trends. I'd say Russian River Valley is a big winner among the appellations, not only for winning two of the five sweepstakes awards - J Vineyards & Winery Brut Rose ($35) as top sparkling wine, Graton Ridge Cellars 2007 Paul Family Vineyard Pinot Noir ($40) as top red wine - but for its consistently strong showing in other varietals and styles. The Finger Lakes district of New York state and the Walla Walla Valley of Washington state also turned in impressive performances, the former in part for the Keuka Springs Vineyard 2008 Finger Lakes Gewurztraminer ($17), best white wine, the latter in part for the Watermill Winery 2008 Walla Walla Valley Late Harvest Gewurztraminer ($14), best specialty or dessert wine.

Appellations about Sacramento didn't fare so well, with the notable exception of Bray Vineyards in the Shenandoah Valley of Amador County, which got the sweepstakes award for best pink wine with its 2008 Shenandoah Valley Barbera Rosato ($17). Maybe now the folks at Bray will have some luck getting it placed in Sacramento-area retail shops and grocery stores, which should have been carrying it already, given the wine's zesty and refreshing flavor vintage after vintage. As it is, the wine is available only at the winery.

Earlier, I blogged that I was looking forward to learning the identify of a couple of wines I especially liked. One was wine no. 72 in class no. 400, a light but juicy pinot noir. Our panel liked it enough to nominate it for sweepstakes consideration. It turned out to be the Castle Rock Winery 2008 Central Coast Pinot Noir, which at $13 was the least expensive of the seven pinot noirs in the sweepstakes round. It didn't win - the competition was just too weighty and concentrated in comparison - but its bright cherry flavor would make it a graceful and welcome companion whenever a lighter beef, lamb or pasta dish is headlining the menu.

Another was wine no. 11 in class no. 413, zinfandels priced $30 to $34.99. Of the seven zinfandels in the sweepstakes round, this was the sleekest and prettiest. It was a zinfandel not only sunny with blackberry and raspberry fruit, but unusually graceful, with supple tannins, sharp acidity and a persistent finish. It's the Alderbrook Winery 2007 Dry Creek Valley Three Goose Zinfandel ($34). Get it now and hang on to it for the Thanksgiving turkey.

Shaky Sangiovese

The sangiovese class at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition drew 67 entries, a remarkably high turnout, given that the varietal has yet to establish an avid following in the United States. That high turnout actually may represent the wine's struggles rather than indicate that more winemakers are jumping on the varietal's wobbly bandwagon. Our panel judged all 67 entries, and came away suspecting that several wineries had entered two or more vintages of the wine, an indication of sluggish sales. Many of the wines simply were tired - dull in color, closed in smell, listless in flavor. We unanimously rejected four of the wines as unworthy of any medal whatever, a rare occurrence in any class, at least for our panel. Nonetheless, we gave gold medals to 11, and sent one to the sweepstakes round, which convenes shortly. I'll be surprised if the sangiovese we selected wins the red-wine sweepstakes, but I look forward to learning the identity of all our gold-medal sangioveses, given that one area where it looks to have found a receptive home is the Sierra foothills east of Sacramento. Results of the Chronicle judging, incidentally, should be posted this afternoon on the Web site www.winejudging.com.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Cloverdale Chronicle

I've just wrapped up my second day of judging at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition in Cloverdale. The judging is blind, so I don't know the identity of any of the wines we have awarded gold medals. By "we" I mean myself and my two fellow panelists - Ben Pearson, general manager of the wine shop Bottle Barn in Santa Rosa and William Bloxsom-Carter, food and beverage director at the Playboy Mansion West in Los Angeles. I'd love to interview Hugh Hefner, and when I asked Bloxsom-Carter what it would take for me to share a dinner with Hefner, he said, "$100,000." Message: Hefner doesn't need the exposure, which I appreciate for its candor and freshness; too many interviews posing as news in the press these days really are little more than marketing vehicles.

At any rate, after two days we've tasted our way through 226 wines, including 82 pinot noirs priced up to $19.99 and 58 zinfandels priced between $30 and $34.99. Some snap judgments:

- As to the pinot noirs, we awarded 13 percent of the wines a gold medal, which is about right. It was a wildly variable class, and because of that it reinforced my view that savvy consumers will find and follow a wine critic they can trust as well as track the results of wine competitions to find which wines most consistently win high honors. That said, I look forward to learning the identity of wine no. 72 in class no. 400, the only pinot noir we nominated for sweepstakes consideration, to be determined Friday.

- Let's give it up for high-end sauvignon-blanc specialists who are resisting the temptation to convert the varietal into a wannabe chardonnay. In other words, they by-and-large are letting the fruit set the agenda, and aren't shellacking it with a whole lot of oak. This conclusion comes after tasting 46 sauvignon blancs priced more than $20. Most of the sauvignon blanc I drink is in the $10 to $15 range, so this pricey class was a revelation for both the balance and integrity of so many entries.

- Immediately after the sauvignon-blanc class we tasted zinfandels priced $30 to $34.99. It was like getting caught up in a tornado that transported us from Kansas to Oz. The zinfandels were all over the place, from refined and graceful to dense and blustery. We gave two double-gold medals, which only go to wines that a panel unanimously concurs deserves gold. Curiously, neither was our lone nominee for the sweepstakes round. That was wine no. 11 of class no. 413, another entry I look forward to learning the identify of come Friday.

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Monday, January 4, 2010

Gru-Vee

When I see a wine for $5 per glass at a restaurant I'm automatically suspicious. It's usually a corporate product, most likely sweet and flabby, and bearing only a remote resemblance to the varietal it is supposed to represent, maybe the color alone. I'm also a sucker, however, for gruner veltliner, an Austrian white wine notable for its herbal overtones, zippy acidity, touch of minerality, and dash of white pepper. Could a wine selling for just $5 a glass actually pack all that interest and complexity?

Earlier this evening, I had a chance to find out soon after we strolled into Healdsburg Bar and Grill in downtown Healdsburg. Right at the top of the wine list was the Berger 2008 Austria Gruner Veltliner for $5 a glass. I crossed my fingers and ordered it along with the housemade falafel. Served appropriately chilled in a stemless glass, it was just what I would expect in a gruner veltliner at twice the price - dry, lean, crisp, minerally, subtly herbal, and accented with that telltale white pepper. I wouldn't recommend it with the falafel, however, whose harissa-seasoned yogurt dressing and pickled red onions were just too assertively spicy and sweet for a wine of such finesse and restraint.

I don't know where the Berger can be found in Sacramento, but K&L Wine Merchants of San Francisco has it for $13 per liter, and it can be ordered online.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Hearty Heartlander

Seems like I'm meeting more people who are turning their back entirely on California wine. Wines of the Golden State are too monochromatic, too overwrought, too expensive, too boring, they complain. They often say they prefer European wines. Even the cheap ones are more drinkable and more interesting than California wines at two or three times the price, they say. They don't get much of an argument from me. There are a lot of times when I prefer the sleekness, leanness, dryness and price tag of a European wine myself.

But unlike them I haven't given up on California wine. It's what I drink most of the time. That's due in part because I'm often on a mission to find a California wine to write about. Those forays have taught me that there are some California winemakers who can turn out intriguing wines that successfully combine the rich fruit generated by the generous sunshine here with a European consciousness that understands restraint and balance, and do it at a price that makes their wines competitive with imports.

One of them is Patrick Campbell of Laurel Glen Vineyards in Sonoma County. He's best known for the dark and dense cabernet sauvignons from his Laurel Glen estate on Sonoma Mountain. But he also has a few bargain-bin brands in his portfolio. One is Reds, a wine and a label he introduced in 1995 to take advantage of some cherished old vineyards at Lodi. His rallying cry is "a wine for the people."

We unscrewed the cap of his current release, the Laurel Glen Vineyards 2007 Lodi Reds ($10, Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op) to have with sandwiches stacked with slices of roast beef left over from our New Year's Day dinner. Campbell wouldn't be insulted. He suggests pouring the wine with such casual bistro fare as burgers and pizza. A blend of 60 percent zinfandel from vines 40 to 80 years old, 30 percent carignane from a vineyard 118 years old, and 10 percent petite sirah from vines just 20 years old, the 2007 Reds is dark and aromatic, its smell unusually developed and layered for such an inexpensive wine; in addition to berry fruit, there's a floral note in there, probably from the petite sirah. On the palate, it's fresh and sweetly fruity, the fruit being raspberries seasoned with a dash of pepper. Its European element came through in its dryness, balance and sharp finish. Roll the 2007 Reds into a blind tasting with comparably priced European releases and just watch those folks who are turning up their noses at California wine do a quick turnaround.

Friday, January 1, 2010

An Elder With Something To Say

The start of a new year, as well as the start of a new blog, calls for a special wine. I had one ready: The 1942 Chateau Pontet Canet, which I’d call ancient, antique or even old if it wasn’t a birth-year wine, the birth year being my own. Sacramento grocer Darrell Corti gave me the wine a little more than a year ago as I wrapped up 30 years as a feature writer with The Sacramento Bee, including extended stints writing of food and wine and reviewing restaurants.

Old wines intrigue, mystify and intimidate me. The corks often crumble when you open them. The sediment, so thick you could patch the roof with it, calls for the wine to be decanted. Wines worthy of being stashed in someone’s cellar for half a century or longer almost invariably are seen as noble wines, and thus call for an elaborate dinner, a group of friends, candlelit ceremony. And then they often disappointment. A pedigree not as grand as originally reputed, poor cellar conditions, the passage of time - any one or all could contribute to a wine dead on arrival at the dinner table. Even when their pulse still is beating, however, older wines call for a recalibration of perspective. Aside from madeiras and ports, I haven’t had an older wine yet that comes close to being as fat, sweet, oaky and alcoholic as most wines I taste, most of which are young and Californian, where the prestige these days - or at least the marketability - goes to those releases that weigh the most and speak the loudest.

For the Chateau Pontet Canet, I prepared a simple low-key dinner, roast beef crusted lightly with mustard, garlic and peppers (black and red), and fingerling potatoes dressed with an herb vinaigrette. I also did a little research on Chateau Pontet Canet. I learned it’s a fifth-growth Pauillac, the Bordeaux commune that is home to an unusually high concentration of more highly regarded chateaux, including Lafite and Latour. Pontet Canet, in fact, is just down the road from Mouton-Rothschild. The estate dates from the early 1700s, and has had only two changes in ownership since then. The 200-acre vineyard - gravel topsoil over limestone bedrock - today is planted to about two-thirds cabernet sauvignon and one-third merlot, with a sprinkling of cabernet franc and petit verdot. Whether the proportion was the same in 1942, I’ve no idea, but I’ve dispatched an e-mail to the chateau.

After my wife and I toasted the new year we began to debate the merits of the Chateau Pontet Canet, alternating sips with bites of beef and potato. The color was a deep garnet with a rim of orange. The smell was surprisingly fresh, with no hint of oxidation. It had that unmistakable and haunting aroma of bottle age, which almost invariably whispers of old casks and of old and calloused hands that have spent more than a few cold winter days pruning vines. But there still were cherries in there. For the tanginess they brought to the wine, they were sour cherries. That acidity gave the wine an astonishingly zesty edge for all its years. Its structure was angular, its pulse vital. It didn’t shout, but it had things to say of heritage and history. Imagine, World War II was still young, its outcome far from certain, when this wine was made. It was a grand and memorable way to start a new year and a new blog.