Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Hereby Nominated: California's Most Historic Wines

Another rainy day in Sacramento found me in the barn out back, once more trying to thin and organize several boxes of clippings, notebooks, printouts and reams of assorted other paper from more than 40 years of journalism, many of them involving writing of wine.

One fading printout was the draft of a feature I wrote more than two decades ago. In it, I speculated about the first 11 wines that should be inducted into a California Wine Hall of Fame. No such thing exists, though since that piece was published a Vintners Hall of Fame has been established at the Napa Valley branch of the Culinary Institute of America. As its name suggests, however, it's devoted to "vintners," a term that has come to mean wine writer, historian, professor and merchant as well as vineyardist and winemaker. Perhaps someday the Vintners Hall of Fame will have a wing dedicated to pivotal California wines.

If so, I'm here to help. Actually, in compiling my nominees I got help from several wine historians, wine merchants, wine writers and winemakers who were asked to recommend "impact" wines, by which I meant wines that established a style, made a major splash in the market, or signaled a turning point in the evolution of California's wine trade.

In looking back over those 11 wines, I don't see one I'd eliminate, and I'm hard-pressed to come up with others equally as significant, though Screaming Eagle, Harlan Estate and Two Buck Chuck do come to mind. Why 11, and not the usual 10 in this sort of exercise? I wanted to include one longshot, a relatively new wine then generating buzz, but without a track record to testify to its staying power or impact. At any rate, here they are, in no particular order of significance:

- Beaulieu Vineyard 1936 Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon: "Private reserve" on a wine label today doesn't mean much, unlike when it first was used by Beaulieu Vineyard to designate not only an exceptionally rich cabernet sauvignon but a style of winemaking to become the standard for truly special lots.

- Charles Krug Chenin Blanc: Up to 1954, chenin blanc, then generally marketed as "Pineau de la Loire" or "white pinot," languished in the market. With the 1954 vintage, however, the inventive Mondavi brothers, Peter and Robert, teamed up at the family's Charles Krug Winery to tweak the technology of how the wine was made, the style in which it customarily was sculpted, and the nomenclature with which it was marketed to make over the varietal into an exciting new model that continues to be inspiring today.

- Hanzell Vineyard 1957 Chardonnay: Today, the application of French oak barrels to chardonnay is taken for granted, but it all began by trial-and-error at James D. Zellerbach's small but daring estate in Sonoma County. He wanted to emulate Burgundy, and he did, but with a heavier hand, and his success spawned so many followers that Californian oak-aged chardonnay may be the world's most popular style of wine today.

- Thunderbird: Maybe this is why there's no California Wine Hall of Fame, especially in Napa Valley. You couldn't in good conscience keep out Thunderbird. Despite its ghetto image, it was conceived and marketed in 1958 as a rather high-class aperitif or dessert wine, basically a knock-off mix of white port and lemon-flavored Kool-Aid, which set the stage for all the wildly popular subsequent pop wines.

- California Cooler: The son of Thunderbird, but softer, fizzier and lower in alcohol, California Cooler was an immense hit in the mid-1970s, and inspired a legion of imitations, several descendants of which remain popular.

- Schramsberg: Sparkling wine has been made in the United States since 1842, but it wasn't until Jack and Jamie Davies took over the old Jacob Schram estate in Napa Valley in the mid-1960s that an American vintner showed the world that California could make a bubbly the equal of Champagne.

- Sutter Home Winery White Zinfandel: Sutter Home today is but one brand of Trinchero Family Estates, a Napa Valley company with vast vineyards and numerous brands, the existence and growth of which are due to the business acumen of the Trincheros. That was most evident in the mid-1970s, when they created a light, sweet, fruity and pinkish style of white zinfandel that quickly became responsible in large part for preserving several old and cherished plantings of the variety about the state.

- Robert Mondavi Winery 1966 Fume Blanc: In the mid-1960s, sauvignon blanc was something of an endangered species on the California wine scene. Then, Robert Mondavi, in perhaps his first brilliant winemaking and marketing move at his own eponymous winery, retooled the wine. He came out with a style drier, lighter, crisper and more elegant than the prevailing interpretation, renamed it Fume Blanc, and both ignited sales and set a standard for other vintners to emulate, which they did in droves.

- Joseph Phelps Vineyards 1974 Insignia: Bordeaux-inspired super-premium wines with proprietary names are everywhere today, but Joseph Phelps created the first and the most enduring with Insignia.

- Boone's Farm Fruit Wines: The precise moment when the post-Prohibition revival of the California wine trade began is something wine historians continue to debate, but a strong case could be made that it started in 1961 with the release of the first Boone's Farm apple wine, another brainstorm of the brothers Gallo. Fruit wines as opposed to grape wines were exceptionally popular at the time, but none quenched the public's thirst for a beverage sweet and refreshing  like Boone's Farm, which became the nation's most popular wine, and since then has been credited with introducing all kinds of Americans to the concept of wine.

- Bonny Doon Vineyard 1984 Le Cigare Volant: This was the wild card in my original lineup, but after tasting the latest vintage of the wine, the multi-layered and meaty 2005, I'm sticking with it. More than a quarter of a century ago, it showed the way, and that way is to blended wines rather than varietals from grapes long identified with France's Rhone Valley.

OK, this is a game anyone can play, and I'd like to hear from others, especially if they have other historic wines they think ultimately should be included in a California Wine Hall of Fame.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Please, Don't Say 'Sake To Me'

At the final session of the Los Angeles International Wine & Spirits 2010 Competition tomorrow, judges will select the best-of-show winners from a field that initially included 3,200 entries. We expect to sit down to between 30 and 40 nominees. Most of them will be red and white table wines. The best-of-show sparkling wine, dessert wine, rose wine and sake already have bene selected, though none of the major winners will be revealed until June 11.

How was the best sake chosen? It emerged from a class of 18 entries. Only 18? I also was surprised by how few sakes were entered. But I continue to be mystified by sake's lack of popularity at a time when Japanese restaurants and Japanese foods are held in such high esteem in the United States. Tempura, ramen, sushi and other divisions of Japanese food are wildly popular here, but sake remains a remote mystery. Some sort of disconnect is going on, and I got a sense of what's behind it as I watched the five sake judges consider and debate the 18 sakes this afternoon. I won't go into details here, but sake has a grading and classification system that is so extensive and detailed that you need a GPS program to get you from one to the other. The 18 sakes, for example, were grouped into no fewer than 10 sub-classes, from "junmai daiginjo" to "flavored sakes."

I tasted along with the judges, and found the sakes amazingly diverse and intriguing, even though I didn't have a clue about their heritage and appropriateness. I tried to picture them in a context with food, and saw this one with smoked salmon on an Oregon beach at sunset, that one with barbecued ribs with my pal Al, odd as that might seem, even if you don't know Al. Someone needs to come up with a way to make sake clear to Americans, and I suspect that someone is one of today's judges. The chair of the panel was Sacramento grocer Darrell Corti. All the other judges were women so fluent in sake and Japanese you wouldn't hesitate to entrust them with your well being on the Tokyo subway.

That raises a question: Why were four of the five sake judges women? "How the hell do I know," said Darrell Corti when I asked him. In Japan, said Corti, sake judges are almost invariably men, even though "women are better tasters than men to begin with." I got more than I expected, but not necessarily an answer to the question I asked. "Ask Dr. Bob," added Corti. "Dr. Bob" is Dr. Bob Small, the remarkably cool director of the Los Angeles judging. Small said he assembled the panel solely from judges who had expressed a passion and a knowledge about sake. They were the three "Sake Sisters" mentioned in the post below and San Francisco food-and-wine publicist Kimberly Charles.

One more question: At the outset of the sake session, Corti removed the chairs from the table where the judging convened. All the judges were to stand, not sit, as is the custom for the rest of the competition. Is this a ceremonial sake thing? No, said Corti. Judging of wine and the like in Europe, Australia and wine labs about the world traditionally has been done standing, not sitting, on the grounds that it forces judges to concentrate on the task at hand. "When you aren't comfortable you are forced to concentrate," said Corti. An interesting premise, but on the other hand I can see judges rushing through their assignment without due diligence in order to finally get off their feet. Sounds like a subject for a doctoral candidate at UC Davis to pursue.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

On The Road To Wine, A Detour To Sake

So, a guy walks into a sushi bar...then what? First, the back story: I'm at the Los Angeles International Wine & Spirits 2010 Competition in Pomona. I'm on a panel with three women who are becoming known at the judging as the "Sake Sisters" - San Francisco wine consultant Rebecca Chapa, the panel chair; Colorado wine merchant Sally Mohr, one of just 15 female "master sommeliers" in the United States; and Linda Noel Kawabata, the U.S. representative for a consortium of Japanese sake producers, now living in Manhattan after 25 years in Japan. All of them will sit on the panel that later in the competition is to judge sakes.

As we slogged our way through several mediocre classes of cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, our talk during breaks and at lunch turned more enthusiastically to sake, my knowledge of which could fit into a thimble, which I think is the standard size vessel for consuming the stuff.

Their passionate and intricate discussion of sake got me to thinking that I'd like to delve into the subject when I get back to Sacramento. I asked Linda Noel Kawabata, who later in the competition will lead a session on evaluating sake, where I should start. Go to the Yellow Pages in the phone directory and look up sake bars, she suggested. I don't have a Sacramento phone book in Pomona, so I Googled "sacramento sake bars" and came up with just one promising result, Peking Tokyo Restaurant & Sushi Bar, but it's in Dixon, not Sacramento. Sounds like a story for another time.

OK, if you can't find a convenient sake bar, call up a Japanese restaurant, she recommended. Ask some pretty basic questions: Do you have artisinal sakes? (She defines "artisinal" as handmade sakes from producers specializing in small lots.) Are your sakes from Japan? (That's preferable, but if they say they have sakes from both Japan and the U.S. that at least opens the possibility for tasting them side by side.) Do you have premium sakes? At this point, things can get complicated. Premium sakes come in various grades, the standards for which are so detailed and exotic that the novice might give up on the subject in exasperation. She laboriously outlined in my notebook the hierarchy of sake, and in looking back over her diagrams a vision of Albert Einstein at a chalkboard came to mind.

So back to the casually curious person interested in experimenting with sake: In short, once you find a Japanese restaurant with a selection of premium artisinal sakes from Japan, arrange with the bartender for a flight of sakes from one of the three basic grades or classifications for the beverage, such as "junmai daiginjo," perhaps the most refined class of sake. (That could be expensive, so you may want to start with a style of sake less costly to produce, such as "junmai.") Then, ask to taste a lineup of sakes of the same grade.

Regardless of classification, once you taste through comparable sakes side by side you should have a sense of their diversity and their alluring aromatics, textures and flavors. "That should give you the 'aha moment,'" says  Kawabata. "Sake is not milk. They don't all taste the same."

With so much to learn, I'm glad I won't be on the sake panel, but I wouldn't mind sitting ringside to see how the deliberations proceed. I flipped through our book of categories, divisions, rules and the like to find out who the chair of the sake panel would be, thinking I might be able to arrange a place on the sideline. I eventually found the name of Sacramento grocer Darrell Corti, who seems to be everywhere here. That, or there's more than one Darrell Corti. One of them also is chair of the competition's olive-oil judging, which this year drew about 500 olive oils from around the world. Now I'm going to see if I can find the one in charge of the sake panel.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Findings Inconclusive, But Press On

About two weeks ago, I posted here an item on an experiment about to commence at the Riverside International Wine Competition. In brief, the four-person petite-sirah panel on which I sat was to evaluate the 51 wines in the class by arranging them in groups according to their place of origin, such as Russian River Valley, Fair Play and Lodi. Ordinarily in competitions, wines of a class are judged randomly, regardless of appellation, which generally isn't even divulged. The intent at Riverside was to see if we could find stylistic threads from wine to wine that spoke to a prevailing character for each of the regions. And from that, ultimately, could be drawn targeted regional profiles against which judges would weigh the merits of wines, thereby making the results of competitions more relevant and reliable for consumers. After going over my notes, I've come to two tentative conclusions:

- We have a long way to go before we can say that the style of petite sirah from one region differs in consistency and significance from the style of petite sirah for another region. Yes, some threads did seem to emerge. The petite sirahs from Livermore Valley did have fairly consistent streaks of blackberry, blueberry, black pepper and sweet tannins. The petite sirahs from Paso Robles tended to be characterized by candied fruit flavors offset against the smell of smoldering briars. Flowers, Bing cherries, lemon verbena and soft tannins ran through the petite sirahs of Russian River Valley. Black-fruit flavors, green herbs and white pepper seemed to distinguish the petite sirahs of Dry Creek Valley. On the other hand, the aesthetic attributes of Lodi's petite sirahs ranged all over the place, with no signature readily readable from one wine to another; Sambuca was in one, sweaty horse blanket in another, but how often is either found in Lodi's petite sirahs generally? For the most part, we had too few wines for each region for basing firm conclusions. More sampling is needed, and may more competitions follow Riverside's example in seeking regional similarities.

- If "regional character" exists in wine and can be defined, track it to the peculiar physical attributes of the site where its grapes were grown - climate, exposure, drainage, elevation, rainfall, soil types and the like. At least, that was the prevailing basis for such hotly debated wine concepts as "American Viticultural Area," "appellation," "place of origin," "sense of place," "somewhere-ness" and "terroir" before the Riverside experiment. In the most romantic interpretation of those terms, grapes each late summer leap like lemmings from vine to bottle, with the winemaker only having to decide between screwcap and cork. Wine is the result of more complicated decisions than that, of course; it isn't solely the consequence of natural environment. Thus, panel chair Clark Smith, himself a winemaker, urged us also to look for the human cultural contributions that help account for a wine's regional character, including the milieu in which the winemaker labors. The proximity of a wine region to an urban center, food traditions, tourism, history and the like also affect the style of wine from a particular area, and also ought to be pondered in drawing up standards for regional character, said Smith. On that score, however, we panelists were at rather loose ends. I don't recall a single comment or note to indicate, say, that the petite sirahs from Fair Play were notably woody because of the region's proximity to Sacramento and the fondness of its residents for the vanillin of oak in the wines they buy. It could be true, but this whole approach in judging wine is so revolutionary it will take an entire reorienting of perspective among judges. Smith isn't opening a completely new front in the continuing debate on what is meant by "regional character," "terroir" and so forth, but his case at least complicates the issue, and whether it eventually leads to a heightened understanding and appreciation of wine, let alone improved wine competitions, will only become clear after many, many more vintages.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

From More Than 100 Wines, Two Standouts

Once a month or so, Sacramento grocer Darrell Corti convenes a wine tasting in the far back reaches of his family's cavernous store. A large table is covered with butcher paper, then bottles are lined up. Corti hands out a printed and stapled list of the night's wines, which he has gathered through his travels or which have been sent him by vintners and distributors hoping to secure space on the shelves of his wine department.

Last night, Corti, his wine staff and seven guests, several from the Department of Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis, one from Chile, circulated about the selection, pouring tastes, taking sips and spitting into three large buckets arranged about the table. Initially, about 60 red wines were spread out. After they were tasted, the table was cleared and some 50 whites, roses and dessert wines were lined up.

Except for the scratching of pens, the rustling of the paper sheets and the spitting, the tasting is studious and somber, though Corti occasionally interrupts the deliberations for a mini-lecture on the provenance, character or methodology of this or that wine. Because the wines come from throughout the world, the tasting serves as an introduction or reintroduction to styles and regions not commonly found in California.

And because of that mix, the tasting also is a welcome reality check on what's going on wine-wise both elsewhere and in California. Generalizations are always risky, but based on last night's tasting I again was struck by how dry, lean, sharp, refreshing and subtly complex foreign wines are compared with California releases, so often fat, soft, a touch sweet and while blunt in their fruit don't as often lure the palate back for their layered flavors or their persistence.

That said, when Corti concluded last night's tasting and asked each participant to name the two wines they most likely would buy, the response was about evenly divided between foreign releases and Californian. I chose one of each. One was a red, the Altovinum Evodia 2008 Calatayud Old Vines Garnacha, which packed so much earthiness into its berry and peppery flavor I jotted in my notes that it must come from some mountainous region, only to learn later that the grapes are grown in vineyards that rise up to 3,000 feet in the Ebro River Valley, the highest in Spain, according to importer Eric Solomon. I couldn't believe that a wine with so much weight and character is only wine, with no oak aging. Then I couldn't believe that the wine customarily sells for between $8 and $14. At either price, it's a marvelous bargain.

My favorite white comes from closer to home, the Holly's Hill Vineyard 2009 El Dorado Viognier. While the field of whites was exceptionally strong last night, the Holly's Hill Viognier stood out to me for its pure expression of varietal and place, and its dryness, balance, elegance and persistence. It customarily sells for $18.

Whether Corti Brothers will stock either of these wines, or any from last night's tasting, is a decision that only Darrell Corti will make.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Giving Medals, Gathering Notes

Wine competitions often give judges a commemorative shirt stitched with the name and logo of the judging. At the Riverside International Wine Competition, however, directors Dan Berger and Juliann Savage hand out pens. It took me awhile to figure out how to put mine together, but once I did I put it to use accumulating notes such as these:

- Don't automatically spurn box wines. Of the 28 nominees in the white-wine sweepstakes, two come in a bag in a box. The more impressive of the two was the peachy and viscous Black Box Wines 2008 Columbia Valley Dry Riesling ($25), which attracted six votes in the final showdown. The young and soft DFV Wines Bota Box 2009 California Pinot Grigio ($5) was the other, but it drew just one vote.

- Jeff Runquist Wines in Amador County's Shenandoah Valley continues to seduce the palates of judges wherever a competition is staged. In addition to two bronze medals and four silvers, Runquist got gold for his 2007 Amador County Nostro Vino Vineyard Zinfandel ($26), his 2008 Amador County Dick Cooper Vineyard Barbera ($25) and his 2008 Clarksburg Enver Salman Vineyard Cabernet Franc ($20), which finished a respectable seventh out of 41 candidates in the first round of the red-wine sweepstakes.

- Just up the road from Jeff Runquist Wines is Renwood Winery, which rounded up even more gold medals - four - for its 2007 Amador County Syrah ($25), its 2007 Amador County Grandmere Zinfandel ($35), its 2007 Amador County Barbera ($23), and its 2007 Amador County Grandpere Zinfandel ($40). The plush and persistent barbera finished just ahead of Runquist's cabernet franc in the first sweepstakes balloting.

- Another winery from the Sacramento area to perform well was Twisted Oak Winery in Calaveras County, which had two candidates in the sweepstakes, its 2006 Calaveras County Tanner Vineyard Syrah ($32) and its 2007 Calaveras County "The Spaniard" Tempranillo ($49), which fell just one vote shy of joining two other wines in the final runoff.

- Over two days, our panel judged 131 wines. From that collection, we gave 18 gold medals, four of which went up for sweepstakes consideration, including the eventual winner, the Christopher Creek Winery 2008 Russian River Valley Reserve Estate Petite Sirah ($32). Of the 17 other golds, two were from the Sacramento area, the lean yet sweetly fruity Crew Wine Company Matchbook 2006 California Tinto Rey ($17), a blend that includes tempranillo and syrah, and the peppery and chewy Michael-David Winery Earthquake 2006 Lodi Petite Sirah ($28).

- In an earlier blog posting I noted that three of the petite sirahs we gave gold medals were from Livermore Valley, and I speculated about whether any of them were from Concannon Vineyards, historically responsible for establishing the varietal's standing in that area. As it turns out, two of them were, the floral, smoky and long 2007 Livermore Valley Nina's Reserve Petite Sirah ($30) and the wiry, peppery and elegant 2007 Livermore Valley Conservancy Petite Sirah ($14). The third was the Crooked Vine Winery 2007 Livermore Valley Estate Petite Sirah ($34), a study in ripe fruit, chocolate and toffee.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Petite Sirah, Best Of The Best

How great is that petite sirah our panel nominated for best red wine at the Riverside International Wine Competition, the one I mention in the post just below?

Great enough to beat out 40 other candidates, which had been winnowed from an initial field of 1,923 entires in the 29th annual judging.

And the winner: Christopher Creek Winery 2008 Russian River Valley Reserve Estate Petite Sirah ($32). I liked it when we first tasted it early in the competition, and I liked it just as much in the sweepstakes voting, from its lilac-like smell at first sip to its plush fruitiness and snappy acidity that lingered on the palate long after the final. In the sweepstakes round, as earlier, we didn't know the identity of any of the wines.

At the end of the first vote, the Christopher Creek petite sirah was deadlocked with what we later learned was the Foster's Wine Estates Lindemanns 2008 Bin 50 Southeastern Australia Shiraz ($7), but in the next balloting the petite sirah was a clear favorite.

The Riverside competition long has had a reputation for honoring obscure wines from unheralded regions, and Friday's results reaffirmed that standing. The white-wine sweepstakes field was unusually even and provocative, with each entry clearly and justifiably showing off its gold-medal credentials. Competition director Dan Berger remarked that the field was extraordinarily strong from top to bottom - "and there's no bottom." Of the 28 nominated whites, nine were riesling, assuring that none would win as partisans of the varietal split their votes among so many different interpretations. Another four were pinot grigio, a surprise, given how delicate the wine usually is; but in nominating four the judges could have been sending a message: We're working more diligently to single out finely crafted but understated wines that frequently get overlooked when up against wines of more weight and bluster in competitions.

In the end, the white-wine sweepstakes went to another fine-boned, fine-tuned wine, the JoieFarm 2009 Okanagan Valley "A Noble Blend" ($22), an aromatic and spicy Alsatian-inspired mix of gewurztraminer, pinot gris, pinot auxerrois and riesling. JoieFarm is at Naramata, British Columbia. Distribution of its wines is almost entirely in Canada, though the Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse has been known to include some JoieFarm on its wine list.

The other sweepstakes winners were E&J Gallo's Barefoot Bubbly Moscato Spumante ($11) as best sparkling wine; Callaway Vineyard & Winery 2009 Temecula Valley Rose of Sangiovese ($18) as best rose (this is the third straight compensation in which the Callaway rose has won a high honor); and Casa Larga Vineyards 2006 Finger Lakes Vidal Blanc Ice Wine ($45) as best dessert wine.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Our Favorite Pets

Earlier today, I noted here that the panel on which I am sitting at the Riverside International Wine Competition was given the assignment of judging petite sirahs by region of origin, in contrast to the usual practice of lumping all entries regardless of appellation into a single random class.

I'm not going to try to digest all my notes now, but I do want to give a brief update. We judged 51 petite sirahs. They represented more than 20 appellations. We gave nine gold medals. Three of the golds were given to wines from just one appellation - Livermore Valley. No other appellation got more than one gold medal.

A few decades ago, the Livermore Valley's Concannon Vineyard more or less set the standard for petite sirah in California. That isn't the case today, though I won't be surprised if one Concannon petite sirah were among the gold medalists. (We won't learn the identities of any of the producers until after the final sweepstakes round late Friday.)

Do the results mean that Livermore Valley is the region to look to for California's most exciting petite sirahs? Not necessarily. Our single sweepstakes nominee from the petite-sirah class was a downright glorious interpretation of the varietal from Russian River Valley in Sonoma County. And while I liked the Livermore Valley petite sirahs, they didn't get my most enthusiastic votes for gold. That Russian River Valley petite sirah, however, struck me as a winner from the very first sniff. I look forward to learning the identity of the producer, and the price, hoping it's within my budget.

Wine Judging Goes To The Dogs

Until I got the email from Clark Smith, I hadn't given much thought to how a person should prepare to judge at a wine competition.

An argument could be made, I suppose, that a judge should abstain from wine entirely for several days before a competition, thus arrive with a palate clean, rested and anticipatory.

On the other hand, why not drink up, thereby seasoning the palate for the fast-rising tide of tannin, alcohol and acidity entailed in tasting 100 or so wines?

Smith, however, isn't concerned with those sorts of mechanics. One of California's more cerebral winemakers, he relentlessly challenges old assumptions while searching for new approaches to what wine is and can be.

Thus, on the eve of the 29th Riverside International Wine Competition in Temecula, Smith sent judges who are to sit on the petite-sirah panel 37 pages of homework. They amount to a compact and provocative brief on Smith's current quest to pin down and define the aesthetic attributes of petite sirah. He wants to see how the appearance, aroma, flavor and balance of petite sirah grown in one area differs from petite sirah grown in another. In other words, does petite sirah from Mendocino County really smell like maraschino cherries and lavender, while petite sirah from Fair Play smells like grapefruit, tar and dark plum?

Smith didn't pull those descriptors out of thin air. They stem from panels that in recent years tasted and tracked the regional profile of petite sirah under the auspices of AppellationAmerica.com, a winery-direct marketplace seeking to better define the connection between place and character in wine.

The Riverside competition, thus, will be an extension of that research. Members of the petite-sirah panel not only will weigh the merits of each entry before them, the varietals will be grouped according to their appellation - Alexander Valley, Sierra Foothills, Lodi and the like.

Why petite sirah? It's grown in a wide variety of climates, soil types, thermal regions, altitudes and latitudes, thus providing a broad spectrum of styles, says Smith. Also, he has found petite sirah to be made "more out of love than for profit," providing high quality across the board.

Beyond determining the regional fingerprints on petite sirah, Smith has another goal. He believes the time has come for wine competitions to establish regional standards for each varietal and style of wine. Thus, in the long run wines would be evaluated not only against a loose set of expectations that include clarity, balance and an absence of flaws, but against a set of well-defined, agreed-upon regional attributes.

Smith likens what he hopes to achieve to a dog competition. "In dog competitions," says Smith in his email, "thousands of entrants are judged according to exacting breed standards, and ribbons awarded based on exacting criteria put forth by the breed clubs and documented by the American Kennel Club. An Irish Setter and a Cocker Spaniel, although they are both considered Sporting Dogs, are judged by completely different rules. It would be silly to hold them to the same criteria, and sillier still to have no standards at all!"

It's the start of a long process, he concedes. This sort of refinement, however, goes back to what wine competitions are all about - providing consumers with guidance to distinctive wines they might enjoy. Anything wine competitions can do to improve reliability and consistency, Smith is eager to embrace, however risky and controversial it may be. "Everybody knows judging needs to be reformed," he says. He also acknowledges that this whole effort may fizzle, but I suspect it won't. The American wine consumer is adventurous, eager to explore and to get a grasp on what distinguishes one varietal or style of wine from another. They travel from one wine region to another for all sorts of reasons, but to secure a better understanding of place could be near the top of their list of goals. If the results of a wine competition can help them get a more secure grip on what sets apart one region from another, they will make that journey all the more relevant and intriguing.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Sparkle In The Tailings

Earlier today, as I stood before members of the Plymouth Rotary Club in Amador County, I found myself talking about the highs and lows of zinfandel in the Shenandoah Valley over the past 40 years. Zinfandel was the first varietal wine to grab my attention seriously, shortly after I moved to Amador County in 1970. As I reminisced about zinfandel and tried to predict its future, I realized that zinfandel, which established the Sierra foothills as a fine-wine region, is more susceptible to fashion and debate than any other grape and varietal in the state. In almost equal measures, people love it or hate it, or if they don't admit to hating it they relish pointing out that so many other grapes and varietals are aesthetically, historically and culturally superior, at least to them.

Zinfandel, by comparison to so many other grapes and wines, is cantankerous and chameleon. After all these years, it hasn't let itself be squeezed into a safe and secure mold. It can be delicate and flighty (white zinfandel) or weighty and brooding (zinfandel port), or it can take on all sorts of other characteristics in between. Even as a table wine alone, interpretations of zinfandel can range from the lithe and refined to the muscular and brash. It's a wine that demands patience and study, qualities usually associated with the so-called "noble" varieties like cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir, yet rarely applied to this California upstart.

Zinfandel also is on my mind because a few days ago I posted here an item about the disappointing class of zinfandels our panel judged at the West Coast Wine Competition in Rohnert Park last week. Of the 51 we judged, only three got gold medals. A disproportionate number were overwrought and imbalanced, without zinfandel's inherent charm and zest. But rather than indulge regret, let's celebrate - and look for - those three wines that won gold medals, the identities of which I learned after the judging: Redwood Creek 2008 Lodi Zinfandel ($8); Nevada City Winery 2007 Sierra Foothills Zinfandel ($19); and Campus Oaks 2007 Lodi Old Vine Zinfandel ($10).

What did they share in common? Clarity, freshness and balance, with fruitiness juicy and glossy; in short, they were drinkable, just what zinfandel aspires to be first and foremost.

Monday, May 3, 2010

As Chardonnay Season Starts, Good Buys

A few days ago, I posted an item here about a pleasantly surprising class of chardonnays at the West Coast Wine Competition in Rohnert Park. Of the 74 we judged, seven got gold medals, a respectable showing for a varietal that while popular among consumers doesn't generate much enthusiasm among panelists on the competition circuit. Nevertheless, these seven gold-medal chardonnays were lean, fruity and refreshing, with more spice and less oak than often encountered in the genre. All we knew at the time was that they were chardonnay, priced $10 to $20, and mostly from the 2008 vintage.

Now I have in hand the coded results and can report on the seven that got gold: Leveroni Vineyards 2008 Carneros Felder Creek Vineyard Chardonnay ($16); Windsor Vineyards 2008 Sonoma Private Reserve Chardonnay ($18); LeBaron Ranch 2008 Sonoma County Hop Ranch Chardonnay ($15); The Heritage Collection 2008 Lodi Chardonnay ($13); Little Black Dress Vineyards 2008 California Chardonnay ($11); Bonterra Vineyards 2008 Mendocino County Chardonnay ($14); and Kendall-Jackson Vineyards & Winery 2008 California Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay ($14).

The last three golds went to wines lined up consecutively in a flight, a rare string that prompted me to speculate that they might be from the same region or even the same producer. Clearly, they weren't, though they do share in common that they are from fairly large corporate producers with track records for smartly sourcing their grapes.