Friday, April 30, 2010

Zinfandel From Siskiyou?


Judges at the West Coast Wine Competition in Rohnert Park gathered for their last assignment this morning - selection of the best red wine. From a total field of more than 1,300 wines, 21 contended for top red in the final round. They got there by earlier being recognized as best-of-class in their individual categories.

For me, the story wasn't so much the wine chosen as best red after two ballots - the Sycamore Creek Vineyards 2007 Santa Clara Valley Mosaico, a sleekly balanced blend of Bordeaux grape varieties - but that five of the 21 candidates were from what I think of fondly as Superior California, a large geographical area stretching north from Lodi to the Oregon border, east from Napa Valley to the High Sierra.

When the identities of the wines were revealed, I was familiar with most of them, the most startling exception being the Shasta View Vineyard 2005 Siskiyou County Zinfandel. I'd no idea zinfandel was being grown that far north. Indeed, Shasta View Vineyard claims to be the state's most northerly winery, just a short distance south of Oregon. The zinfandel itself is a solid representative of the varietal, its clean blackberry fruit ripe, its structure firm and enduring.

The other four nominees from Superior California were the Lone Buffalo Vineyards 2008 Sierra Foothills Where The Buffalo Roam, a bracing blend of four grape varieties traditionally grown in France's Rhone Valley (Lone Buffalo Vineyards is at Auburn); the Naggiar Vineyards & Winery 2007 Sierra Foothills Mistero, a lean yet lengthy mix of zinfandel, sangiovese and grenache (Naggiar is at Grass Valley); the smoky Drytown Cellars 2008 Shenandoah Valley Barbera; and the sweetly fruity and spicy Campus Oaks 2007 Lodi Old Vine Zinfandel.

Other high honors went to the Tsillan Cellars 2008 Columbia Valley Dry Riesling as best white wine, the Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Noir as best sparkling wine, and the Callaway Winery 2009 California Rose of Sangioves as best rose. (Just last week, the Callaway was the sweepstakes winner at the Pacific Rim Wine Competition in San Bernardino.)

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Zinfandel, A Wine In Need Of TLC

As snapshots go, this one was taken with a camera with a rather narrow field of vision, not a wide-angle lens. Nonetheless, it could say something of the state of zinfandel in California these days, and the picture isn't particularly encouraging to those of us who are especially fond of the varietal.

Today, our panel at the West Coast Wine Competition in Rohnert Park considered two classes, cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel, both priced up to $20. Of the 44 cabernet sauvignons we tasted, seven got gold medals, a fairly high return. We were especially gratified that so many of the wines showed clearly that vintners truly appreciate the grape's inherent potential and are eager to wring as much natural personality as they can from it, without overlaying it with too much oak, sugar, tannin and alcohol.

The opposite was the case with the 51 zinfandels we weighed, only three of which were awarded gold medals. As a whole, the group was obese with sugar, alcohol, tannin and oak. "Clumsy" and "awkward" appeared in my notes much more often than usual for any varietal or style. I don't think I jotted down "charming" once, an attribute I've come to associate with zinfandel at its freshest, clearest and most balanced. Too often, grapes tasted as if they were left hanging on the vine well beyond when they should have been picked, yielding flavors tired and raisiny. The vanillin and smokiness of oak barrels often was the first smell to register in the nose, not the sunshine and freshness of raspberries and blackberries. Several were so offensively stinky that my only note was the dreaded "DPIM" - "don't put in mouth."

As I left the conference center where the competition is being held I had to wonder whether zinfandel's discouraging showing was due to a poor vintage - most were from 2008 - or whether vintners are taking the varietal for granted, assuming consumers never will regard it with the same esteem given cabernet sauvignon, and thus aren't giving it the same tender loving care. If that's the case, who can fault consumers for not thinking as highly of zinfandel as they do cabernet sauvignon?

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Say, Some Chardonnay Is Darn Interesting

Despite its popularity, chardonnay isn't a varietal I give much heed, in part because my preference in white wines runs more to sauvignon blanc, vermentino, albarino and riesling, in part because little notable chardonnay comes from my backyard, meaning the Sierra foothills, the Delta and Lodi.

Thus, today's opening round of the West Coast Wine Competition in Rohnert Park gave me a broad opportunity to catch up on chardonnay. It constituted the biggest class our four-person panel evaluated. There were 74 of them. The tasting is blind, so we don't know who made them or where they came from, though most no doubt originated with California producers. And we were told most were from the 2008 vintage.

Of the 74, seven got gold medals. I look forward to learning their identity at the end of the judging, especially the three chardonnays late in the lineup that got consecutive gold medals, an unusual development in any competition. Were they from the same region, made by the same winemaker? That's my hunch, but I could stand corrected. We'll find out Friday.

As to all the gold-medal chardonnays, they shared several traits. They were more dry than sweet, more lean than fat, more understated than blustery. Their fruit was clear, more on the tropical and citric side of chardonnay than the apple. Most had a welcome spiciness, and most were relatively restrained in their oak. While I might not be a big fan of chardonnay, I look forward to learning their identities, and to buying them for chardonnay fans who stop by during the approaching summer evenings.

Back To Basics

Shortly, the 2010 edition of the West Coast Wine Competition gets under way, a judging I first joined 25 or so years ago. Since then, it's moved from Reno to Rohnert Park, in the meantime growing to an anticipated 1,400 wines.

Because the field is drawn from wine regions of the western United States, British Columbia, Australia and New Zealand, I likely won't face a challenge encountered at last week's Pacific Rim Wine Competition in San Bernardino. There, the field included wine regions of the Midwest and East Coast, where varietals rarely found in California are favored.

Thus, our panel, made up of four West Coast residents, sat down to classes that included wines you don't often see in wine shops and restaurants hereabouts, including seyval blanc, vignoles and vidal. These are hybrids that combine traditional French varieties with American varieties that have adapted to hostile grape climates like New York and Missouri.

At any rate, when you've had little or no experience with those wines, what are you to do to be fair to consumer and winery alike? In short, it's an exercise that sends you back to your first glass of wine, compelling you to concentrate on what it's all about. You simply try to find if it is an enjoyable beverage. You look for obvious flaws, you consider balance and whether the first taste invites a second. You contemplate what distinguishes it. Mostly, it comes down to pleasure. We apparently liked what we found in those classes, giving a higher proportion of gold medals than we awarded more common categories like chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon. It was another sign that other areas of the United States clearly are developing their own distinctive wine cultures.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Seeking Harmony In Fiddletown

The old Mother Lode mining camp Fiddletown is so small its annual commercial wine competition is held in Plymouth, itself not exactly the biggest settlement in the Sierra foothills. Nevertheless, it is home to Beth Sogaard's Amador Vintage Market, which has a back room just large enough to stage the competition, so that's where three coordinators, four judges and 17 wines congregated Friday evening to see how vintners are handling the grapes they grow and buy in the remote, quiet and tiny Fiddletown American Viticultural Area.

Results were mixed, in large part because Fiddletown is most closely identified with zinfandels lighter, brighter, friskier and spicier than their broad and brooding cousins in the neighboring Shenandoah Valley American Viticultural Area. Of the 17 wines judged blind yesterday, about half were zinfandel, but only one won a gold medal, and it is labeled primitivo, a zinfandel sibling, according to its DNA, though many vintners argue persuasively that the two varieties aren't identical twins.

At any rate, the zinfandels tended to be denser in color, huskier in build, heavier with tannins and riper in flavor than they have been in the past, which could reflect the vagaries of the vintages, though vintners also could intentionally be making them bigger in emulation of Shenandoah Valley zinfandels, which by their numbers alone get more media coverage.

At any rate, the only zinfandel/primitivo to get gold was the Windwalker Vineyard & Winery 2006 Speed Vineyard Shady Lady Primitivo. At the inaugural Fiddletown Wine Competition two years ago, the 2005 version of the same wine was the only entry to get a double-gold medal, awarded only when all judges concur that an entry deserves gold.

Two other gold-medal wines, however, finished in a dead heat for the sweepstakes award, the sweetly fruity, lively and long Thomas Fogarty Winery & Vineyards 2006 Fiddletown Barbera and the inky, floral and solidly structured Morse Vineyard 2006 Evans Hill Vineyard Petite Sirah. As shown by the performance of those two varietals, Fiddletown looks to be diversifying in the makeup of its vineyards. The competition also included wines made with montepulciano, sangiovese, grenache and syrah. For sure, the high hills of Fiddletown is black-grape territory; not a single wine in the judging was white.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Jeff Runquist Picks Up Where He Left Off In 2009

As the spring stretch of wine competitions accelerates, Amador County winemaker Jeff Runquist is showing that his impressive performance on the circuit last year was no fluke.

In San Bernardino this afternoon, the silver-anniversary Pacific Rim Wine Competition wrapped up with six wines vying for the sweepstakes award. One of them was the Jeff Runquist Wines 2008 Amador County Dick Cooper Vineyard Barbera ($25), which in an earlier round was named the best red table wine at Pacific Rim. It didn't wine the sweepstates, however. That honor went to the bright and aromatic Callaway Winery 2009 California Rose of Sangiovese ($18). Had the Runquist barbera won, that would have given him two successive sweepstakes awards at Pacific Rim. A year ago, the 2007 vintage of the wine took home the top honor.

Runquist can't be disappointed by this year's Pacific Rim results, however. Five more of his wines also won gold medals - his 2008 Amador County Barbera ($24), his 2007 Paso Robles Colina Poca Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($25), his 2008 Alta Mesa Silvaspoons Vineyard Grenache ($20), his 2008 Napa Valley Carneros Sisters Vineyard Pinot Noir ($30), and his 2007 Paso Robles Syrah ($24). He also picked up a few silver medals and a couple of bronzes for a remarkably consistent showing by a small Sierra foothill producer. Were any other wineries in the contest? About 1,700, down around 300 from a year ago, but still a competitive field.

And in March, the Jeff Runquist Wines 2008 Amador County Barbera, which got a gold at Pacific Rim, won the top honor at the Jerry D. Mead New World International Wine Competition at Ontario. The only way his winning streak is likely to be interrupted is if he simply doesn't have the wine to enter such upcoming competitions as the Riverside International, the Los Angeles County Fair and the California State Fair. His 2008 Dick Cooper Vineyard Barbera already is sold out.

Runquist wasn't the only local winery to win high honors at Pacific Rim. Gold medals also went to Scott Harvey Wines 2007 Amador County Mountain Series Barbera ($20), Scott Harvey Wines 2006 Amador County Mountain Series Syrah ($20), Drytown Cellars 2008 Amador County Cabernet Franc ($18), Drytown Cellars 2007 Amador County Primitivo ($18), Terra d'Oro Winery 2007 Amador County Sangiovese ($18), Terra d'Oro Winery Amador County Zinfandel Port ($24), Bogle Vineyards 2008 California Pinot Noir ($11), Jessie's Grove Winery 2006 Lodi Old Vine Vintner's Choice Zinfandel ($22), Nello Olivo Winery 2006 El Dorado County Primitivo ($25), Harlow Ridge Winery 2008 Lodi Chardonnay ($7), and Montevina Winery 2008 California Chardonnay ($10).

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Health Care Reform For Wine Distributors

If the nation's wine and beer distributors get their way, we'll know precisely when the latest "good old days" began and ended. They began in the spring of 2005, when the Supreme Court of the U.S. interpreted the Constitution's Commerce Clause to mean that states can't discriminate against out-of-state wineries in the shipping of wines direct to consumers. Since then, nearly four of every five states have set up systems whereby wineries can ship wines directly to the homes of customers. This bypasses the cumbersome, antiquated and difficult three-tier method of wine distribution, which since the repeal of Prohibition required wineries to distribute their wines through wholesalers. That's still the way most wine is distributed, but wholesalers want all consumers all to themselves.

Not surprisingly, they haven't sat idly on the sidelines while this significant shift in wine marketing has developed, and from one statehouse to another they relentlessly have fought efforts to open up distribution channels, often unsuccessfully. Now, apparently tired of those skirmishes, distributors are supporting a newly proposed Congressional bill - HR5034 - to effectively hobble enforcement of the Commerce Clause. If and when the bill is enacted, that's when we'll know that the latest stretch of "good old days" has ended. Soon thereafter, distributors eager to resecure their virtual monopoly on the distribution of wine will start to pressure state legislators to rewrite bills in their favor. If you are a fan of riesling from small wineries in the Finger Lakes region of New York, and have to rely on direct shipping to get them, you might as well kiss those good times goodbye.

George Orwell would love the euphemistic language the bill's sponsors and supporters are using to get it rushed through Congress. For one, it's called the "Comprehensive Alcohol Regulatory Effectiveness (CARE) Act of 2010," as if social consciousness and not economic greed were at its root. In backing the measure, the country's beer distributors talk as if passage of the bill would promote "responsible consumption," when there's nothing to suggest anything of the kind. Wine distributors are even more loose with the language, suggesting that in helping preserve the three-tier system of wine distribution the measure would promote temperance and enhance tax revenues.

The bill, introduced last week by a small group of lawmakers from states without much of a wine trade, seems to have taken proponents of direct shipping by surprise, but they're reacting fast, and within days a Facebook site had joined the issue with spirited comments. For the most comprehensive look at the matter, check out Robert Taylor's feature from The Wine Spectator. And for continuing coverage, visit Tom Wark's frank blog Fermentation.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Lamb And Zinfandel, Updated

You'd think that after a day of tasting wine in the Sierra foothills we would have had our fill of zinfandel. And true, our first request when we stopped at the new Relish Burger Bar in El Dorado Hills on our way back to Sacramento was for a tall, cold glass of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. But as we were being escorted to our table - after a half hour in a holding pattern on the patio, not at all as bad as the predicted wait of an hour and 15 minutes - an old foodie acquaintance tipped us off to order the lamb burger and a glass of the Sobon Estate 2007 Fiddletown Zinfandel.

This we did, and found that the ripeness and sweetness of the zinfandel did indeed match up well with the intensity and juiciness of the lamb, though the assertive spiciness of the burger did mute the wine's higher fruit tones. I'd order it again, though several other potential pairings are intriguing. How about the Stonehouse cabernet sauvignon from Shenandoah Valley with the Angus-and-mushroom "Bordeaux burger," or the Lava Cap chardonnay from El Dorado County with the turkey burger?

If you want a relatively traditional hamburger at Relish Burger Bar, you can build it yourself from a list of components that include sesame bun or ciabatta among the breads, Cheddar and goat cheese among the cheeses, and applewood-smoked bacon and roasted red peppers among the add-ons. But the featured burgers are where the crowd looked to be gravitating, and those burgers tend to be husky and busy; for example, pickled jalapeno chile peppers and a roasted-garlic aioli top the "Gilroy burger," while barbecue sauce and crispy onions dress up the pork burger.

Open just a couple of weeks, Relish Burger Bar is the inspiration of two passionate longtime members of the Sacramento area's culinary scene, Richard Righton and Wendi Mentink, whose light-hearted interpretation of French country cooking has been charming food enthusiasts at Bidwell Street Bistro in Folsom for the past decade.

To judge by the line waiting for a table, it hasn't taken long for residents of El Dorado Hills to discover a serious new player in the area. That line and the wait both could be relieved as soon as this weekend, when the restaurant's spacious patio overlooking the lower foothills is expected to open, said our server.

Relish Burger Bar, in the Montano De El Dorado Shopping Plaza at White Rock and Latrobe roads in El Dorado Hills, is open from 11 a.m. weekdays, noon weekends. For more information, visit its Web site, www.relishburgerbar.com.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Is This Where The Buck Stops?

On the outside, it's a throwback to a sweeping old hay barn of the sort in which many California wineries had their start. Inside, it's all high-tech. It's the new teaching winery at UC Davis, nearing completion on the campus just off Interstate 80 west of Sacramento. But as Paul Franson reports at Wines & Vines, the environmentally sensitive structure has one problem - no name.

UC Davis officials are trying to tap into the same ego economics that in recent decades has seen the owners of sports franchises change the name of their arenas almost as often as they change their lineups. In short, anyone with $6 million to donate to the new winery can have it named after themselves. Already, several affluent members of the California wine trade have stepped up to underwrite other aspects of the winery, the cost of which is being entirely privately funded. The donors include Jess Jackson and Barbara Banke of Kendall-Jackson Wines, who gave $500,000 toward construction of the cellar in which wines will be stored; Jerry Lohr of J. Lohr Vineyards & Wine, who gave $2 million for the fermentation room; and Beringer Estates, which gave $450,000 for a classroom.

Aside from the winery itself, also still unnamed is the facility's 12.5-acre vineyard (going for $2 million), 12 fermentation tanks ($50,000 each), and a study lounge ($100,000). Let's see, who else has done well by the American wine trade over the past several decades and seemingly could come up with at least enough dough to see their name on a fermentation tank? How about critic Robert Parker Jr. and Wine Spectator publisher Marvin Shanken, though both already are active in raising student scholarship funds? Not to put them on the spot, but there looks to still be room on the donor list for such notable and prospering names as Sebastiani, Delicato, Trinchero, Wente, Korbel, Hess and Hahn; maybe they could pool their resources and name the vineyard for all the mixed varieties it likely will contain - the Aggie Field Blend. And the Darrell F. Corti Study Lounge has a naturally nice ring to it, but $100,000 is a hefty chunk of change for a grocer with just one store.

That still leaves unanswered the question of who will pony up the $6 million to secure the overall name of the winery. Conspicuously absent from the donor list is E&J Gallo Winery, the biggest player on the California wine scene. Remember, however, that the teaching winery is part of the Robert Mondavi Institute of Wine and Food Science, and the Mondavis and the Gallos were fierce rivals during their most dynamic growth years, their personal friendship aside.

By process of elimination, we're down to the biggest success story of them all in California winemaking over the past decade, the vintner who controls more vineyards in the state than anyone else, and that would be, of course, Fred Franzia of Bronco Wine Company, the man responsible for the Charles Shaw line of wines, better known as Two Buck Chuck. If only he could be persuaded to set aside his loyalty to Santa Clara University, that $6 million would represent maybe just a month's sales of Two Buck Chuck. But if he stepped up with check in hand, could UC Davis authorities actually grab it, knowing that while Fred Franzia Teaching Winery would fit, the student t-shirts inevitably would refer to the place as Buckaroo U.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Let's Have A Discussion About Duckhorn


Sometimes you just get lucky, Margaret Duckhorn is saying. She'd been asked how it happened that two of the three California wines served at the inaugural luncheon of President Obama were from Duckhorn Wine Company - a sauvignon blanc from her and her former husband's Napa Valley brand Duckhorn, and a pinot noir from the company's Mendocino County brand Goldeneye.

Sen. Diane Feinstein oversaw the inauguration's luncheon arrangements, and she apparently likes Duckhorn wines, Margaret Duckhorn adds. Democratic politics? Not likely, she says. "I'm an independent. I don't know what he is today," she says of her former husband, Dan Duckhorn. But before their divorce a decade ago, they were Republicans.

Luck probably had less to do with the inauguration wine list than Duckhorn Wine Company's longevity and reliability. "When we started in 1978 we were the 40th winery in Napa Valley," Dan Duckhorn recalls. "Today, there's what, 450 wineries in Napa Valley?"

Dan and Margaret Duckhorn, their winemaker Bill Nancarrow, and company president Alex Ryan were in San Francisco's Hotel W on Tuesday to oversee both a retrospective tasting of several of their Napa Valley merlots and cabernet sauvignons and the launch of their first luxury Bordeaux-inspired proprietary blend, The Discussion.

The tasting included pours from their inaugural 1978 cabernet sauvignon and merlot. The merlot was a faded yet firm shell of its former self, while the cabernet sauvignon remains compelling with traces of sweet dark fruit and gripping acidity. Early on, the Duckhorns staked the future of their Napa Valley winery on merlot, and over the years the gamble paid off as Duckhorn evolved into the North State's most distinguished brand for the varietal. (It really paid off three years ago, when the financial investment firm GI Partners ventured into the wine trade by paying an estimated $250 million for Duckhorn. Since then, the new owners have left well enough alone, retaining the Duckhorns and their longtime principal players while sanctioning new risks, most notably The Discussion.)

In recent years, merlot's esteem and sales have slumped, but the Duckhorn crew made clear that it is sticking by the troubled varietal. For one, as some vintners jump off the merlot bandwagon, more choice plots of the grape have become available to them. Secondly, challenged by the depressed market, they're reexamining their whole approach to merlot, from the clones they select to the time they harvest. Their intent is to make even better merlot. They appeared more invigorated than discouraged by merlot's troubles. "This has focused us," says Ryan. "We're trying to rise above it. We're not giving up on merlot by any means."

While the older merlots the foursome poured underscored Duckhorn's standing for the varietal - the 1991 Three Palms Vineyard was especially sunny, complex and sharp - the authority of the cabernet sauvignons begged the question of why the winery isn't more highly regarded for the varietal. Each vintage that was tasted, from the browning yet still vital 1978 through the soft but persistent 1999, showed by their distinctive profiles why cabernet sauvignon is Napa Valley's most highly regarded grape.

By their enthusiastic endorsements of cabernet sauvignon, the Duckhorn principals made it pretty clear that while merlot will remain a key player in their extensive portfolio, cabernet sauvignon is the future, at least as far as the original brand is concerned. This is most apparent by their investment in The Discussion, largely cabernet sauvignon (53 percent) and merlot (28 percent), with supporting roles from cabernet franc (14 percent) and petit verdot (5 percent). It's a big wine, ample with sweet, spicy and minty fruit, and enough French oak for a new wrap-around veranda on an estate Victorian in the middle of a Napa Valley vineyard, a characteristic that Nancarrow is confident will tone down as the wine ages.

The Discussion - the name stems from debates the Duckhorns and their winemakers have had for more than three decades over whether to stick with varietal wines or release a proprietary cuvee - also carries a big price, $115. Dan Duckhorn, a banker before he became a vintner, acknowledges that their timing for a prestige cuvee could have been better. But the first Discussion is from the 2006 vintage, harvested just before the country's economic troubles. On the other hand, with the Dow, tax revenues and other indicators of the economy now trending up, perhaps their timing couldn't be better. "This is the apex," says Dan Duckhorn of The Discussion.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Turning A New Leaf

Someone from the Modesto headquarters of E&J Gallo Winery apparently attended fashion week in London and liked what they saw in the collection of British designers Basso & Brooke. According to this report in the Financial Times, stodgy Gallo has retained edgy Basso & Brooke to update the label of its Turning Leaf brand. Basso & Brooke, the article notes high up, is notorious for insinuating bits of pornography in its prints. Maybe once upon a time, but nothing so graphic leaps out from either the Turning Leaf label or Basso & Burke's spring/summer collection.

The Turning Leaf package Basso & Brooke has designed is eye-catching, all right, amounting to a psychedelic collage of circus colors and colliding textures and shapes. Any cohesivness and rhythm to the label is elusive. It leaves you feeling that you've finally found what designers do with leftover scraps of fabric at the end of the day, when they gather in a wine bar to commiserate over a glass or two. The label is refreshing in its fun quotient, but for harmony and drama, it's no improvement on the simple dignified leaf that has stood for the brand since its inception. If sales of Turning Leaf chardonnay were slow in the UK during the days of Ernest and Julio, I suspect they'd first look to what's in the bottle rather than what's on the outside, and shown Basso & Brooke the door. Those guys weren't especially into fun, Ripple aside.

Just how extensive the label makeover will be, or whether it is to be limited to a short run of chardonnay for the UK market alone, isn't made clear by the article, which devotes more effort to ridiculing the sartorial tastes of Napa Valley and Sonoma County than to exploring what this development means for the California wine scene. Maybe nothing, though we can hope it signals the end of the critter era as vintners look for fresh ways to draw attention to their releases. On the other hand, the use of animals to market wine hasn't been abandoned entirely even by Basso & Brooke to judge by the patch of snow-leopard fur on the new Turning Leaf label.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Last Night's Wine

Dinner was smoked turkey with lingonberry compote, risotto with Italian seasonings, and roasted yams, a menu suggestive more of fall than spring, but it's chilly here in Sacramento, or at least it seems that way after nearly three months in Mexico. I was tempted to reach for a husky white wine, chardonnay or viognier, but instead grabbed a bottle we'd bought at Costco earlier yesterday, the 2007 Pillar Box Red.

It cost $8 and comes in a screwcap bottle, so I didn't pay much attention to the verbiage on the back label until I was midway through my first glass. "This wine benefits from decanting," it said at the bottom, almost as an afterthought. That such a young and inexpensive wine should improve with decanting is unusual, but I took the suggestion to heart and poured the rest of the contents into our simple and squat decanter.

I let the decanter sit undisturbed as I finished that first glass. The wine, an Australian blend of 65 percent shiraz, 25 percent cabernet sauvignon and 10 percent merlot, is deeply colored, almost murky, smelling young but ripe, with rounded edges and a clean if elusive fruitiness. Those were my first notes.

With the second glass, this time from the decanter, the wine became more expressive, the fruit juicier, its suggestions of berries and cherries more clearly enunciated. With the third glass, we tried it with some dark chocolate. Didn't work, the wine is too dry and too light for that kind of intensity. With the turkey, risotto and yams, however, it was right on. The 2007 Pillar Box Red isn't a blockbuster wine rich with complexity and length, but it is balanced, smooth and nimble, with enough shadings to prompt diners to keep refilling their glasses until the bottle is empty. Just remember to decant it.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Sarah Palin, That Tea-se

Sarah Palin didn't take my advice, and today she's paying the price. Yesterday, she was the keynote speaker at the annual convention of Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America Inc. in Las Vegas. This morning, however, not a word of her talk was to be found in my usual sources of news, which routinely include the New York Times and the Sacramento Bee. I couldn't even find a clue to what she said at the Web sites of the two daily Las Vegas newspapers. Not even the Web site of the wine wholesalers is reporting on whatever she had to say of alcoholic beverages. If she was hoping to raise her already high profile by addressing such a formidable group, she clearly miscalculated. If only she'd listened to me she could have rattled her audience, stirred some debate, and perhaps attracted a whole new wing of fans. Instead, she settled for tea, nothing as bracing as zinfandel.

Tom Wark of the blog Fermentations may have been the only other wine scribe to look forward to her presentation as eagerly as I was, and to judge from his report she really didn't say anything about wine and spirits. She talked up entrepreneurship and deregulation, but only in vague terms, stopping far short of urging distributors to quit relying on outdated regulations to thwart the efforts of entrepreneurs to market their products. Earlier this year, when her appearance before the distributors was announced, I mused about how she could use this platform to try to persuade wholesalers to stop leaning on the quaint and cumbersome three-tier system of distributing alcoholic beverages and instead come up with more equitable and efficient ways to help the family farmer secure footing in the market. But she didn't do it, preferring to rehash safe bromides about innovation, discipline, patriotism and the like, without apparently coming up with a single concrete suggestion for enhancing any of her familiar themes.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Bottle, Cork Puller And Glass Or Magnifying Glass?

The more alcoholic California wines become, the less likely consumers are to notice their increased potency before they actually taste the fire in the glass. For example, our dinner tonight was accompanied by a modest California pinot noir - slim, supple, pleasantly engaging, whispering sweetly about its noble bloodline, but not about to cause a sensation at the table by bragging loudly about pedigree and complexity. Despite its reserve, however, it was fairly high in alcohol for the varietal, weighing in at 14.2 percent by volume. At least, that's what I think the label said. A tastevin is fitting at the table, a magnifying glass not so much.

For whatever reason - guilt? deception? typographical artistry? - the more alcohol a California wine carries these days, the smaller that disclosure on the label. I'm just back in California from Mexico, where wines both domestic and imported fairly shout their alcohol content in loud, bold type; no magnifying glass is needed at dinnertime in Mexico. Someone in the Mexican wine trade told me that the large-print disclosures are delegated by government authorities as a hopeful means of combatting alcohol abuse.

Government officials in the United States may be no less concerned about alcohol abuse, but they are more conservative in requiring wineries to disclose the alcohol content of their releases. Here, the fine print on wine labels really couldn't be much finer. Wine-label rules in the U.S. stipulate that the alcohol content appear in typeface of at least one millimeter, that it be offset against a contrasting background, and that it be readily legible under ordinary conditions, which, I suspect, doesn't factor in the subdued lighting favored by many restaurants.

By and large, California wineries may be living by the letter of the law, but not necessarily the spirit. The size of the type that wineries use today to disclose alcohol content not only often pushes the boundaries of what is allowed, the contrast between the boldness of the typeface and its background, an admittedly ambiguous standard, nevertheless seems to be embraced only rarely. More wine-label laws aren't needed, but if wineries don't take it upon themselves to be more transparent in their dealings with consumers that could be the consequence.