Thursday, March 25, 2010

Good Reads

Some local wine news deserves an audience beyond the immediate readership for which it is intended.

Yesterday's Sacramento Bee, for one, produced this feature about the pricing of wine in restaurants. Chris Macias, The Bee's wine writer, got some wine-trade insiders to go on the record with several enlightening and candid comments about their marketing strategies. Sacramento sommelier Michael Chandler, for example, chides restaurateurs for the common practice of pricing wine-by-the-glass at their wholesale cost for an entire bottle. Boycott 'em, suggests Chandler, a motion that deserves seconding. And I'm a bit skeptical and puzzled by sommerlier Joe Vaccaro's remark that he ends up pouring a lot of leftover expensive wine down the drain rather than use a preservation system. Why not use that wine before it turns to educate the service staff by letting servers taste it and learn by it, a practice not unheard of at many restaurants?

And then there's this piece from the Santa Maria Times announcing the merging of four individual central-coast wine judgings into one comprehensive regional competition. The move, made at least in part to help wineries trim the expense of entry fees, is smart, and one I'd like to see emulated by three wine competitions in the Sierra foothills. For the past couple of decades, three wine counties in the Mother Lode - Calaveras, Amador and El Dorado - have had individual county-fair competitions. Each has been open to wineries from throughout the Northern Mines and Southern Mines. Why not merge them into one judging? It would cut the costs for vintners who enter more than one of the competitions, which several do. And an argument could be made that the results of one large high-profile judging would have more impact on both marketplace and regional standing than a series of smaller judgings.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

A Quirky Taste Of History

Two days have elapsed since I tasted the strangest wine, the source of the strangest reaction I've seen at a tasting, and I still don't know what to make of either.

The wine was the 2008 Vinos Tanama (about $11), which is the name of both winery and wine, which is the way Mexican vintners sometimes handle their marketing - concisely and casually. The wine is a 50/50 blend of rosa de peru and mission, two obscure Spanish varieties introduced to Latin America by conquistadores and missionaries perhaps as early as the 16th century. The grapes that went into the 2008 Vinos Tanama were grown in a century-old vineyard at Guadalupe Ranch in Tanama Valley south of Tecate in Baja California Norte, an area hot and arid.

Tuesday night, the wine had been chilled, and San Jose del Cabo wine merchant Carlos Fernandez suggested that tasters approach it as if it were a rose, not easy to do given its dark ruby tone, viscosity and weight. At first sip, it was downright peculiar - green, grapey and funky, with a smell that suggested Naugahyde in a rusting car that had been sitting on a sun-baked hillside for a couple of decades. One taster said "cactus," and in its herbal and slippery nature the wine did bear a resemblance to nopales. It was semi-sweet, but with a note of bitterness in the finish. It was too mangy and feral for my taste, but as I headed to the dump bucket something told me not to give up on it so soon. I took a few more tastes, and while I still didn't particularly care for it I had to admit that it had grown on me somewhat. It was sweet, husky and ragged, all right, but the early stemminess had yielded to a hearty sun-baked fruitiness.

A few people who tasted it didn't get far beyond the first sip before dumping the wine, but others lingered over it, equally mesmerized by both its novelty and its changing dynamics. If what you look for in a wine is unfolding drama, the 2008 Vinos Tanama delivers. It's quirky, but at that price it's worth the investment, if for no other reason than it might give some idea of what conquistadores and missionaries were drinking three centuries ago.

Winemaker Fernando Martain made only about 370 cases of the wine, so distribution likely isn't far beyond Tecate and Ensenada. The wine carries 12.9 percent alcohol and absolutely no oak. Martain suggests it be poured with spicy Mexican dishes, pates, sushi and after-dinner cheeses. I wouldn't pour it with sushi, but it did work splendidly with assorted Baja cheeses that Fernandez had spread out, and the richer the better.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Boxing First, Bullriding Next

A Saturday night without wine can mean just one thing: The annual Fiestas Tradicionales is under way in San Jose del Cabo. Tequila and cerveza, si; wine, not so much. So please excuse this digression. Until next Sunday, San Jose del Cabo will be pretty much given over to assorted pageants, dance performances, religious services, craft sales, a carnival, a rodeo and concerts, most of it on and about the town plaza, with all the entertainment free, unless you're into wagering at the cock fights.

Much of the main boulevard leading up to the plaza is closed for an array of makeshift hair-styling studios, shooting galleries, gaming tables, restaurants, sweets shops, bakeries and craft booths. Celebrants from all over Baja California Sur jam the concourse, making life difficult for the strolling vendors selling fake mustaches, beards and eyelashes, a tradition many local men adopt during the fiesta for reaons I don't yet understand. "I'm falling apart!" exclaimed a server at the steakhouse El Vaquero as one half of his mustache came unattached and fell over his upper lip.

On the walk home I got my first introduction to the mania surrounding Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao, who was successfully defending his welterweight title against Joshua Clottey. The fiesta came as close as it ever will to a standstill as celebrants paused for a glimpse of the fight, telecast on TV sets large and tiny, one in almost every booth. Away from the fiesta, the scene was no different as patrons and workers at one restaurant after another were fixed on the fight. To judge by their winces and applause, they are were pulling for Pacquiao. What's his appeal in Mexico? His impoverished background? His Roman Catholicism? His raising of fighting birds? Or simply his acumen in the ring?

For a better understanding of the man and his allure, earlier today I turned to this telling profile by GQ's Andrew Corsello. Read it and wonder.

Friday, March 12, 2010

A Winner From France

Oh, those French, they do know a thing or two about making wine, don't they? For the past two months I've been tasting and drinking wines most readily available near our casa in Mexico, and that's meant Chilean, Argentine, Mexican and Spanish wines. Comparably few Californian, Italian and French wines are marketed in Los Cabos.

Nevertheless, I did pick up one intriguing French label the other day, the Clefs des Murailles 2007 Vacqueyras (about $18). This is an appellation with which I have had little experience, but I do recognize that it is in the southern Rhone Valley and is close to Gigondas, the source of several of my favorite French wines.

Vacqueyras has been its own AOC only since 1990. Before, it was one of the Cotes du Rhone Villages. The red wines of Vacqueyras - and 95 percent of the appellation's production is red - must contain at least 50 percent grenache, with the balance syrah and mourvedre.

In short, the Clefs des Murailles simply was the best red wine I've tasted in Baja. It's a husky wine, with a ripeness that pushes its dense cherry and berry flavors toward the raisiny side of the fruit spectrum, but it has a complexity, litheness and spice that made each glass a treat. While rich, it was animated, with a structure and suppleness that worked well with chicken cloaked in a dark, sweet and fruity mole poblano. Both tannins and alcohol (14 percent) were easily tolerable, especially with that dish.

The Clefs des Murailles, a blend of 70 percent grenache, 20 percent syrah and 10 percent mourvedre, is one I will continue to watch for when I return to Sacramento, as well as other releases from Vacqueyras.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Outstanding In Their Field

"Field blends" - wines from a mix of grape varieties grown, harvested and fermented together - are the subject of an intriguing feature in today's Los Angeles Times. The point of the article seems to be that zinfandel is much better when it's made this way, and that it's a shame more consumers don't know that.

To help spread the good word, the article suggests that some sort of label law may be needed to help give the term "field blend" respectability and market traction. Before our overtaxed lawmakers bite at that bait, however, let's do a reality check.

There's no controversy here. Field blends have been around about as long as the California wine trade. They could be the result of savvy planting strategies or of happy accident when a grower thought all the cuttings he was putting in the ground were the same variety, and later found they weren't. The only issue here is whether zinfandel producers who are marketing field blends can promote them at the yearly ZAP tasting in San Francisco, and that isn't even an issue because vintners routinely ignore efforts of the organizers to have them pour only wines labeled "zinfandel."

Whether field blends are better aesthetically than wines simply labeled "zinfandel," which the article seems to claim, is highly debateable. Even zinfandel as "zinfandel" often is a blend, though the proportion of petite sirah and other secondary players might not be as high as it is in a field blend. An argument could be made that zinfandel made with subsidiary varieties harvested and fermented separately is superior to field blends because that approach gives vintners more control over fine tuning the final wine.

As for those vintners having a tough time marketing their field blends, well, hang in there. All California wines not labeled by varietal are a tough sell in the United States, unless they are named Insignia or Opus One. Nonetheless, consumers are discovering that blends that aren't dominated by one varietal can be more fascinating than many varietals. Evidence of that is the growing authority and appeal of meritage wines, some of which actually may be field blends, though you wouldn't know it by what's on the label.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Getting a Grip on Baja Wines

Virtually every Tuesday night for the past several weeks I've sauntered over to La Casa del Vino de Baja California for a wine tasting. This is a small wine shop in San Jose del Cabo that stocks only wine made in Baja California. From his inventory of nearly 150 wines, owner Carlos Fernandez pulls four bottles, arranges them by graduated intensity, spreads out platters of cheese and bowls of olive oil (also all from Baja) and charges tasters 200 pesos - about $16 in U.S. currency - to make their way through the lineup.

I've been using the tastings to look for broad aesthetic threads coursing through Baja wines, all of which have been made in a cluster of valleys just outside of Ensenada. At this early stage in my exploration, I'm finding Baja table wines, regardless of varietal or blend, to be fairly heavy with the flavor of really ripe fruit. No surprise there, given that Baja's vineyards, like California's, are exposed to an abundance of sunshine and warm temperatures. Varietal characteristics in a surprising number of the wines have been muted, which could explain why so many Baja vintners are making proprietary blends, perhaps hoping that in such mixes will be found an expressiveness that is elusive in their varietals. In feel, the wines have been more round than angular, with finishes soft rather than sharp, another reflection of the warm climate in which the grapes have been grown. Residual sugar has been evident in several wines, but that's not unusual regardless of appellation these days. Several of the wines have lingered in new oak barrels longer than they should have. By and large, the Baja wines have been balanced and pleasant, but too often without the complexity, brightness, force and zip I look for in wines priced in the $20 neighborhood, where most of the wines sampled have been placed. However, there have been these exceptions:

Tres Mujeres Winery 2007 Valle de Guadalupe Ivette Cabernet Sauvignon/Grenache (about $22): Cabernet sauvignon is struggling to secure a foothold in Valle de Guadalupe, but grenache has a long history of yielding surprisingly sturdy and deep wines in the area. Here, the two varieties combine to produce a wine whose fleshiness and ripeness suggest a release from one of the warmer enclaves of Sonoma Valley. While strongly scented with oak, the Ivette is unusual for a Valle de Guadalupe wine in that it has length and complexity, the latter represented by hints of chocolate and tobacco in its mature cherry fruitiness.

Vinisterra 2006 Valle de Guadalupe Mourvedre ($30): One of the more elegant wines to emerge from Valle de Guadalupe, Vinisterra's mourvedre is dry, lean and supple, with an aroma that suggests dried tobacco leaves and charred oak, and a sweetly fruity flavor that matches perfectly with the region's medium-bodied semi-hard white cheeses.

Monte Xanic 2007 Valle de Guadalupe Chardonnay (about $17): Straight out of the modern California mold, this chardonnay is vibrant with the sunlight of tropical fruit and the smoke of new oak. Bright in color and medium-bodied in build, it's a rarity for the Valle de Guadalupe in its freshness, crispness and length.

15 Lineas 2007 Valle de Guadalupe Barbera ($29): In its clarity and spunk, the 15 Lineas barbera runs counter to my impression that Baja is having a difficult time squeezing varietal character from its grapes. This is simply a terrific representative of barbera - floral in aroma, lean in structure, dry and fruity on the palate, and with both grip and persistence in its zesty finish. The brand 15 Lineas is one of 11 orchestrated by the progressive and arty Sinergi-VT wine company.

Casa de Piedra 2005 Ensenada Vino de Piedra ($58): Three winemakers are largely responsible for establishing Valle de Guadalupe's reputation as a fine-wine district, and one of them is Hugo D'Acosta, who with his architect brother has built two wineries in the region, founded a winemaking school, and released vintage after vintage the area's two most highly regarded benchmark wines, a chardonnay called Piedra de Sol and a blend called Vino de Piedra, a mix of cabernet sauvignon and tempranillo. Finely drawn, the 2005 Vino de Piedra is slim yet vociferous, attracting attention largely for the clarity with which it expresses itself. In addition to cherries, rose petals and tobacco leaves, the wine even seems to carry a fine layer of Rutherford dust.

Vinos Pijoan 2008 Silvana ($22): This dry and razory blend - chenin blanc, sauvignon blanc, viognier and moscatel - is perfectly structured to underscore the refreshing directness of the ceviche, shrimp cocktails and other simply prepared seafood for which Ensenada is celebrated.

L.A. Cetto Boutique 2004 Malbec ($42): L.A. Cetto, which has a way with big dark reds, including the petite sirah and nebbiolo with which it is most closely associated, here produces a husky yet lithe malbec. It's deeply colored, yet keeps inviting you back for its bright berry fruit, suggestion of minerals, spiciness and long finish.

Coco 2008 Rose ($21): Another brand by Sinergi-VT, the Coco is at once an earnest yet fun rose, delivering prettiness, fresh aromatics, refreshing fruitiness, and a creamy yet spirited texture on the back of an unusual blend - moscato di canelli and grenache.