Wednesday, June 23, 2010

From Hungary, Diversity and Quality

Because of Tamas Torok and Frank Dietrich, I'm more informed and more enthusiastic about Hungarian wines tonight than I was this morning. Torok, proprietor of the restaurant Seasons in Davis, and Dietrich, managing director of the importer Blue Danube Wine Company in Los Altos, teamed up this afternoon to conduct a thoughtfully structured, relaxed and patient tasting of Hungarian wines in the restaurant's private dining room.

I still have much to learn about Hungarian wines, but if future lessons are as pleasant and enlightening as they were today the challenging names of such grape varieties as kiralyleanyka, olaszrizling and harslevelu should be tripping off my tongue in another decade or two.

Those unfamiliar names really should be the only obstacle for anyone curious about Hungarian wines. Even then, the palate-wrenching names need not be much of a barrier if a supportive and engaging wine merchant is on hand. Two of them also were at the tasting - Michael Chandler of The Market at Pavilions and Darrell Corti of Corti Brothers. How persuasive was the character and quality of the wines? Both Chandler and Corti ordered several cases.

By and large, I found the wines strikingly aromatic, richly textured, finely balanced and almost invariably long in the finish. Even the white table wines were unusually complex. And while both white and red almost without exception were solid and rich, they weren't at all heavy on the palate. They were, in a word, refreshing. Here are notes on a few of my favorites:

- Hilltop Winery Craftsman 2009 Akos Kamocsay Cserszegi Fuszeres (11 percent alcohol; $12): "Cserszegi Fuszeres" is the name of the grape. According to Hungarian native Tamas Torok, "fuszeres" translates as "spicy," which this light, dry white table wine is, as well as floral and sweetly fruity, not unlike gewurztraminer. It's in stock at Corti Brothers.

- Patricius 2008 Tokaji Sarga Muskotaly (14 percent alcohol; $18): The "Tokaji" on the label doesn't refer to the honeyed sweet wine for which Hungary is best known, but to the region where the grapes were grown. The grape variety is the "sarga muskotaly" on the label, which translates as "yellow muscat." As that name suggests, the wine is a heady white, with a floral aroma, a fruity flavor not far removed from ripe chardonnay, a somewhat viscous texture, and a touch of residual sugar that rounds out the wine more than sweetens it. Both Chandler and Corti ordered some of this.

- Zoltan Demeter 2007 Tokaj Harslevelu Szerelmi (14.5 percent alcohol; $35): Zoltan Demeter is the winemaker, Tokaj the region, harslevelu the grape, and Szerelmi the vineyard. They all add up to an unctuous white with ripe tropical-fruit flavors, a suggestion of green olives, and a touch of creme brulee. Americans who like big and oaky chardonnays could transition easily to this equally formidable but more exotic dry table wine. The bottle at the tasting, unfortunately, was the last Frank Dietrich could get his hands on, though it may be in some restaurants and wine shops.

- Attila Gere 2008 Villany Portugieser (12.5 percent alcohol; $15): My favorite wine in the tasting, this is a light and bright red meant for everyday drinking. The smell is of young and fresh grapes, the flavor youthful in its zesty fruitiness. While uncomplicated, it lingers astonishingly long on the palate. This is a true summer red, quaffable on its own but with the structure and depth to pair with barbecued burgers and other grilled foods of similar weight. At Seasons, the wine is a huge hit by the glass, said Torok. Chandler ordered some, and Corti either has it or a similar version already in stock.

- Patricius 2004 Red Lion 3 Puttonyos Tokaji Aszu (12 percent alcohol; $20 per 500-milliliter bottle): Customarily, Hungary's intensely sweet white dessert wines are priced too high for anyone unfamiliar with the style to invest in them. Thus, this honeyed, floral, citric and spicy interpretation is a great place to start; the price is a bargain for all the breadth and depth it delivers. The "3 Puttonyos" refers to the concentration of sugar in the wine, and by Hungarian standards this isn't terribly high. (Two other interpretations in the tasting were labeled "5 Puttonyos" and "6 Puttonyos," and they were heavier and more complex. But they also were much more expensive, the former $50, the latter $80.) Often, botrytised dessert wines such as this don't deliver much life to the palate, but this take was remarkably vibrant. Corti ordered a bunch of all three of the Tokajs.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Novelty Reigns In Paso Robles

In the final round of voting at the Central Coast Wine Competition in Paso Robles today, novelty emerged as the prevailing theme. For anyone looking to the best wines of a comprehensive judging to say something of a region's strength, personality and momentum, today's outcome would be a disappointment. While the competition was open to wineries from Monterey to Ventura, as befits the name "Central Coast," three-quarters of the entries were from the immediate Paso Robles appellation, which became clear as we 15 judges learned the identities of the wines immediately after the last vote. And Paso Robles is a region recognized largely for wines based on grape varieties long grown in France's Rhone Valley, such as viognier and syrah, as well as cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel. Yet, not a single wine with those pedigrees finished in the top four, from which the grand champion was selected.

For one, while Paso Robles is celebrated for exquisite dry roses based on such Rhone Valley varieties as grenache and syrah, the competition's best pink wine was the brash and sweet San Marcos Creek Vineyard 2009 Paso Robles White Merlot. It was delightfully fragrant and persistent, an ideal hot-tub wine on a warm summer evening, but I don't see it setting the agenda for Paso Robles over the coming decade.

The best red wine was even more startling. Elected from a field of 13 nominees, including a cabernet sauvignon, a pinot noir, a tempranillo, a zinfandel and a syrah, it was the juicy and solid Alapay Cellars 2008 Paso Robles French Camp Vineyard Legrein. What the heck is legrein? It's a black grape most closely associated with hearty yet accessible red wines from the Alto Adige territory in northern Italy. I liked it enough to vote for it during the round to choose the competition's best red wine, but I also voted for a stupendous meritage, a highly toned tempranillo and a wonderfully lively and complex cabernet sauvignon, all of which, in retrospect, I suspect better represent the future of the wine trade in Paso Robles. Thus, I was surprised by the wide margin with which the legrein won the title as the competition's best red wine.

The best white wine, which went on to become the competition's grand champion in the final vote, also was something of a surprise. It's the Vina Robles 2009 Paso Robles Huerhuero White 4, an elegantly fresh and spicy mix of vermentino, verdelho, viognier and sauvignon blanc. No one was surprised that a white blend was so highly regarded - Paso Robles long has been home to stylish blends based on green grapes commonly identified with France's Rhone Valley - but more than a few fellow judges may have been startled that this particular blend was so varied and imaginative, yet ultimately satisfying in its balance and persistence. Regardless, it seems to speak persuasively to the longterm standing of Paso Robles as a fine-wine region, in part for the quality of its fruit, in part for the free-wheeling yet thoughtful enterprise it represents. What's more, it sells for just $16 the bottle. I know; immediately after the competition I drove out to the winery and stocked up.

Toogood To Be True

Over at Cal Expo, officials of the California State Fair commercial wine competition are having problems with paperwork. Somehow, Toogood Estate Winery in El Dorado County got credited with winning the award for the competition's best sangiovese when the honor should have gone to another El Dorado County winery, Nello Olivo. Kem Pence, chair of the State Fair's wine department, says the mixup stemmed from "a flaw in our inputting system." No doubt helping to contribute to the confusion is that Nello Olivo and Toogood share winemaker (Marco Cappelli) and facilities. At any rate, let the record henceforth show that it is the Nello Olivo Winery 2007 El Dorado Sangiovese ($27) that was declared best sangiovese in California at this year's State Fair commercial wine competition.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

A Long And Winding Road In Paso Robles

The first day of the Central Coast Wine Competition in Paso Robles has ended, and I'm worried. I can only speak of the panel on which I sat, but we gave shockingly few gold medals, even though we drew three enviable classes - white wines based on grape varieties traditionally associated with France's Rhone Valley, blended red wines based on Rhone Valley varieties, and zinfandel. These three groups largely account for the rising stature of Paso Robles on the California wine scene, though some observers will argue that cabernet sauvignon also helps account for the region's standing. Maybe the final rounds tomorrow leading up to selection of the grand-champion wine will help clarify the picture.

For now, however, I'm somewhat bewildered. Consider: Of the 22 white wines made with Rhone Valley varieties, just three got gold medals; of 22 blended red wines based on Rhone Valley varieties, just three got gold medals; of the 40 zinfandels, just three got gold medals, and none of them were rewarded without argument, persuasion and repeated tastings, even though zinfanfel is the varietal with which Paso Robles is most historically identified.

OK, time for a reality check. Though the Central Coast Wine Competition is in Paso Robles, and though most of the 540 or so entries likely are from the immediate area, which now boasts more than 200 wineries, for the first time this year the judging represents the merging of four competitions stretching from Monterey to Santa Barbara. That's a long and diverse wine-grape area, so let's not be too quick to draw any judgments about Paso Robles based on the opening day of deliberations.

Still, I expected going in that our panel would have awarded a higher percentage of gold medals in each of the classes we were assigned. For one, Rhone Valley wines look to be generating the most buzz these days through the northern reaches of the Central Coast, while pinot noir continues to provoke the most excitement in Santa Barbara. Secondly, I don't expect many of the zinfandels in the contest to be from anywhere in the Central Coast other than Paso Robles, and for my money this is the varietal that shines most brightly in the area, though local vintners seem hellbent on jettisoning the region's past in favor of a more glorious yet uncertain future based on Rhone Valley varieties.

That said, what happened? Why so few gold medals in these choice classes, and why were so many of the golds so hard to come by? There's the possibility, of course, that the judges simply were off their palate, but I think not. We're all seasoned, and I believe we were earnest and impartial. The setting was comfortable, the support staff efficient and fair. Going forward, here's my shorthand summation: Too many of the white Rhones were over-oaked, unfocused and soft. The red Rhones overall actually were pretty exciting; only three didn't get any medal at all, a really small proportion; so while the group wasn't high in the "wow!" factor it showed a fair amount of daring, in large part for its rather novel blends. The zinfandels constituted the most disturbing letdown; they ranged from leafy to sugary, too many lacking the lift and sass for which the varietal is recognized in the area.

Nevertheless, I won't be astonished if one of our best-of-class wines ends up on the podium as one of the competition's top award winners. They include a lean, zesty and peppery zinfandel; a sunny and substantive Rhone blend based on the underappreciated green grape grenache blanc; and a rich and lengthy viognier. There, I've talked myself out of being worried, after all.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

California State Fair Gets Tighter With the Gold

Were the judges tougher, or the wines weaker? Both, perhaps? Or maybe something else entirely? At any rate, I'm looking over statistics from this year's California State Fair commercial wine competition, and they're intriguing. The judging, at Cal Expo in Sacramento earlier this month, drew 2,786 wines, all from California, an increase of 163 entries over last year. Fewer gold medals were awarded, but more silver and bronze medals were handed out, though not by much. The real eye-opener was the jump in wines that didn't get any award, from 728 in 2009 to 870 this year. Overall, about 69 percent of the wines entered got some sort of award, compared with slightly more than 72 percent last year. Don't read too much into that, though wine competitions generally are smarting from criticism that they are too free with medals. As a consequence, judges are taking it upon themselves to be more demanding, recognizing that commercial quality alone no longer is enough to warrant a medal.

The annual State Fair results are fun to ponder because the competition gives out so many high awards. For one, the judging divides California into a series of regions, such as Napa Valley and North Central Coast, and then customarily names a top white and a top red for each, with occasional ties. The State Fair also gives out awards for best varietals and best styles, such as best chardonnay and best meritage.

Wines from the Sacramento region did exceptionally well in the final rounds, when judges in a long series of blind tasteoffs whittle away at the gold-medal winners to come up with the best of the best. Of the 24 wines to be named best varietal or style, seven have roots in Sacramento's back yard:

Best Tempranillo: Convergence Vineyards 2008 El Dorado Tempranillo ($28).
Best Barbera: Jeff Runquist Wines 2008 Amador County Ambra Vineyard Barbera ($40).
Best Red Generic: A tie between Karmere Winery & Vineyard 2008 Shenandoah Valley Empress Juana ($22) and Fenestra Winery California Lot 2 True Red ($11).
Best Viognier: McManis Family Vineyards 2009 California Viognier ($11).
Best Cabernet Franc: Nevada City Winery 2007 Sierra Foothills Cabernet Franc ($23).
Best Sangiovese: Toogood Estate Winery 2007 El Dorado County Sangiovese ($27).
Best Rhone Blend: Wyneland Estates 2007 Lodi GMA ($30).

Of the 22 wines to win best-of-region honors, six were from the Sacramento area:

Best of Region Sierra Foothills Appellations, White: Davis Family Vineyards 2008 Sierra Foothills White Rhone Blend ($26).
Best of Region Sierra Foothills Appellations, Red: Deaver Vineyards 2007 Amador County Zinfandel ($28).
Best of Region North-Coast Appellations, Red: Michael-David Winery 2007 Mendocino County "Sloth" Zinfandel ($59).
Best of Region Other California Appellations: Tierra Del Rio Vineyards 2008 Clarksburg Merlot ($18).
Best of Region Lodi Appellations, Red: Ramos Torres Winery 2007 Lodi "Branches" Cabernet Sauvignon ($30).
Best of Region Lodi Appellations, White: Vino Con Brio 2009 Lodi Amorosa White Blend ($16).

Note that the State Fair's highest honors - best white wine, best red wine and the like - for the most part are chosen from among these two groups. They will be revealed July 7 during the annual Grape & Gourmet tasting at Sacramento Convention Center. For more information about that, go here.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Surprise, Surprise

Since the Los Angeles International Wine & Spirits Competition ended three weeks ago, I've been looking forward to learning the identity of two wines that especially intrigued me during the final round, when judges select the top wines. The competition's results just landed in my in box.

During the round to pick the best-of-show red wine priced less than $15, I felt that the soft, leafy, earthy and sweetly fruity petite sirah very well could have been from Bogle Vineyards in the Sacramento/San Joaquin River Delta. It wasn't. It was the Villa San-Juliette Vineyard & Winery 2008 Paso Robles Petite Sirah. According to the winery's Web site, it packs 15 percent alcohol and 22 percent cabernet sauvignon. The winery's first petite sirah, it sells for a suggested retail price of $15. San-Juliette's winemaker, Adam LaZarre, earlier in his career was responsible for establishing the reliable reputations of the HRM Rex Goliath and Hahn brands.

In the round to pick the best-of-show red wine priced between $15 and $30, I was keen on a wine that had been nominated by the panel on which I sat. We knew it only as "negrette," a variety with which I was totally unfamiliar. The wine was at once fresh with red-fruit flavor, yet also spicy, earthy and sturdy, with supple tannins and a remarkably persistent flavor. After I returned home, I looked up "negrette" in "The Oxford Companion to Wine," which says it is popular north of Toulouse in southwest France, where it yields wine "sometimes described as having a slightly animal, or violet, flavour, unsuppressed by heavy oak aging." That fit this wine. Our panel was pretty much convinced it had to be an import, or maybe from the Midwest. Nope, it turns out to be Californian, the Kenneth Volk Vineyards 2008 San Benito Calleri Vineyard Negrette, which carries a suggested retail price of $24. The Volk Web site says the negrette is part of its "heirloom" collection, rare varieties that produce fine wines elsewhere but have yet to establish a following in the American market. Though the Volk negrette didn't win best-of-show red, I'll be looking for it, as well as hoping that it develops enough of a following for Kenneth Volk to expand his plantings and production. For the record, the wine to win best-of-show red in this price category was the rich and nicely balanced Armida Winery 2008 Sonoma County Poizin Zinfandel.

While wines from the Sacramento area were shut out from the competition's highest honors, several finished with best-of-class awards: Terra d'Oro Winery 2008 Amador County Rose, Michael-David Vineyard 2006 Lodi Earthquake Syrah, McManis Family Vineyards 2008 California Zinfandel, R&B Cellars 2007 Lodi Swingsville Zinfandel, St. Amant Winery 2008 Amador County Bootleg (Port), and Montevina Winery 2007 Amador County Barbera.

What We Drink, Where We Get It

Spring finally has blown into Sacramento, but I'm still hanging out in the barn, moving 40 years of newspaper clippings and notes from big bales into slightly smaller bales. Among the papers I've newly uncovered is a 1985 report from the Wine Institute comparing the growth of the California wine trade over the previous decade. Statistics can be both enlightening and misleading, but in this instance I prefer to think of them simply as fun. In that spirit, let's compare how the California wine scene shaped up statistically in 1974, 1984 and today, a quarter of a century later:

Table wine's share of the American wine market, table wine being defined as unflavored still wine not over 14 percent alcohol:
1974: 54.9 percent
1984: 73.1 percent
Today: 87.3 percent
Comment: Forget for the moment that a lot of what is being marketed today as table wine exceeds 14 percent alcohol, and that much of it is flavored with as much oak as fruit, if not more. The sociology represented by these figures is that Americans increasingly expect their wine to be more dry than sweet, and that they prefer to drink it with food than as a stand-alone appetizer or dessert wine. As a further measure of that shift, the share of the market held by wines with more than 14 percent alcohol (again overlooking today's high-octane table wines) steadily has declined from 24.7 percent in 1974 to 8.4 percent today.

The U.S. wine market:
1974: 349.5 million gallons
1984: 554.5 million gallons
Today: 767 million gallons
Comment: In 35 years, the United States clearly has become a wine-consuming nation, though annual per-capita consumption among Americans (2.5 gallons today) has increased only slightly over what it was 25 years ago (2.35 gallons).

California's share of the U.S. wine market:
1974: About 70 percent
1984: About 70 percent
Today: 61 percent
Comment: This is the most interesting trend, but what's it mean? Two things. For one, California still is the nation's leading state in the number of wineries and in the acreage planted to wine grapes. Several other states, however, most notably Washington, Oregon and New York, but also Texas, Nebraska, North Carolina and Wisconsin, among several others, have found that they can produce fine wine, sometimes with traditional vitis vinifera varities like cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, sometimes with native grapes or French/American hybrids customarily not cultivated in California. Secondly, the 61 percent represents only wine made in California; it doesn't include the wine that California wineries buy in bulk from other countries, ships here, and then bottles and releases from their home bases. If that undetermined figure were included, California's share of the U.S. wine market would be more than 61 percent, though it might not again be close to 70 percent. As I was typing up this post, I received coincidentally the results of the recent Los Angeles International Wine & Spirits Competition. As a measure of the rising quality of wines made elsewhere in the U.S., the best-of-show wine in the limited-production division was a chenin blanc from Washington state, the best-of-show white wine in the $15-to-$30 range was an edelweiss from Nebraska, the best pinot grigio/pinot gris was from Oregon and the best riesling was from New York state. California wines still won most of the high awards, but the competition is intensifying.

California's growth, sign one:
1974: 300 bonded wineries
1984: 662 bonded wineries
Today: 2,972 bonded wineries
Comment: Despite more competition both at home and from abroad, and despite the continuing economic slump, entrepreneurs in California still look to vineyards as a way to self expression and financial reward, and by the next time a census is taken of the state's wineries the total easily should surpass 3,000.

California's growth, sign two:
1974: 322,044 acres in wine grapes
1984: 358,001 acres in wine grapes
Today: 473,000 acres in wine grapes, and possibly as many as 531,000, given that the totals are based on voluntary disclosure
Comment: It just seems that all that growth is due to the immense popularity of chardonnay. All sorts of grape varieties are being cultivated in California, but it is true that chardonnay rules. In 1974, just 10,037 acres were planted to chardonnay in the state. The total more than doubled over the next decade, to 26,143 acres in 1984. And since then it's almost quadrupled, now standing at 94,986 acres.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Amador's Best Zinfandel

Of the 465 wines in Saturday's Amador County Fair commercial wine competition in Plymouth, 85 were zinfandels. No other varietal came close to matching that total. (For the record, barbera was the runner-up with 36 entries.)

Zinfandel long has been the dominant vine and wine in the Sierra foothills, though it doesn't always win the sweepstakes award at the various county-fair wine judgings in the region. In Plymouth, for example, a cabernet franc took the highest honor (see posting below).

At the Amador County Fair judging, zinfandel is divided into two broad classes, with 14.5 percent alcohol being the dividing line. According to conventional wisdom, zinfandels at or below 14.5 percent alcohol are lighter than those with more than 14.5 percent alcohol. That clearly was the case in Plymouth, though the alcohol content may not have contributed significantly to the differences in the wines found to be the best in each class. After all, just .1 percent separated the alcohol content of the two best-of-class zinfandels. (This presumes that the alcohol content stated on the labels is precisely accurate. According to federal wine-label regulations, a tolerance of 1.5 percent is permitted in wines with less than 14 percent alcohol, while wines with more than 14 percent alcohol are allowed a tolerance of 1 percent.)

At any rate, the best-of-class award in the "lighter" zinfandel class went to the freshly fruity and austerely built Terra d'Oro Winery 2007 Amador County Zinfandel (14.5 percent alcohol). The best-of-class award in the "heavier" zinfandel class went to the richer and more athletic Dillian Wines 2008 Shenandoah Valley Hangtree Zinfandel (14.6 percent alcohol). The two went head-to-head in the round to select the competition's best red wine, along with 17 other best-of-class winners. This was the long shootout eventually won by the cabernet franc that went on to win the fair's sweepstakes award. Between the two zinfandels, judges overwhelmingly favored the Dillian, giving it the award as "Best Amador County Red Zinfandel."

To learn a bit more about the Dillian family and their commitment to zinfandel and primitivo, please jump over to my column in today's Sacramento Bee.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Cabernet Franc Wins Gold In The Gold Country

Like the persistent finish of an especially intriguing wine, some impressions from yesterday's Amador County Fair commercial wine competition in Plymouth beg to be savored long after the fact:

- The competition drew 465 wines from throughout the Sierra Foothills, where red wine rules. It's fitting, therefore, that a red wine was the sweepstakes winner. The surprise, however, was that it wasn't one of the three red varietals on which the Mother Lode has staked its reputation - zinfandel, barbera and syrah. Instead, the grand award went to the Latcham Vineyards 2007 Fair Play Special Reserve Cabernet Franc. Of the 14 cabernet francs in the competition, it was liveliest, cleaning capturing the varietal's minty herbalness and plummy fruitiness, all framed handsomely with vanillin and chocolate overtones. And get this: While the foothills are sometimes celebrated, sometimes criticized for their bulky and brooding high-alcohol reds, the Latcham cabernet franc is downright elegant in its restraint and equilibrium, carrying just 13.9 percent alcohol.

- As a measure of the cabernet franc's authority, each of the seven judges involved in the final round of voting cast his or her ballot for the wine, despite a strong and diverse field. Acclamation voting is used in the sweepstakes round at Amador, meaning judges can vote for as many or as few of the candidates as they want. Four wines were up for the grand award. The cabernet franc earlier had been chosen as the judging's best red wine. The best white wine was a sweetly fruity, sunny and spicy blend based on grapes long associated with France's Rhone Valley, the Young's Vineyard 2009 Shenandoah Valley Jour D'Ete, a stunning mix of 68 percent roussanne and 32 percent viognier. The other two wines in the final balloting were the best "other wine" (drawn from sweet and dessert classes), the intensely floral, thick and long Renwood Winery 2009 Amador Orange Muscat, and the best blush wine, the bright and austere Hatcher Winery 2009 Calaveras Grenache Rose.

- The Latcham cabernet franc came from the panel on which I sat. Throughout our deliberations I was sure our gold medals were going to wines from the Mother Lode's Northern Mines, especially Placer and Nevada counties, where the grape has been showing its most promise in higher elevation vineyards. Wrong again. While the Latcham was from one of the Northern Mines counties, El Dorado, the other two gold-medal wines in the class were from the Southern Mines. They were the user-friendly Drytown Cellars 2008 Amador Cabernet Franc and the inky and fit Brice Station Vintners 2007 Calaveras Cabernet Franc.

- We also judged the chardonnay class. The surprise here was that there were so many of them - 15. As we found, the foothills generally are just too warm for chardonnay, but vintners persist in making it because it's California's most popular wine. Besides, once in awhile a chardonnay from the foothills will shine. We gave two of them gold medals, the lithe and lemony Sierra Vista Winery 2009 El Dorado Unoaked Chardonnay, and the fatter, more sweetly fruity Findleton Estate 2009 El Dorado Chardonnay.

- We also judged the 21 petite sirahs. By and large, they were true to the varietal's customary profile - dense and ripe without being overripe, with floral aromas, juicy fruit flavors, subtantial tannins and black-pepper spice. The distinguishing foothill thread that coursed through many of them was an earthiness that ranged from forest duff to shattered granite. We gave four gold medals, to the complex, peppery and persistent Busby Cellars 2007 Fair Play Petite Sirah, the smoky and long Oakstone Winery 2007 Fair Play Geoff & Katy Vineyard Reserve Petite Sirah, the layered and snappy Hatcher Winery 2007 Calaveras Petite Sirah, and the robust, minerally and sweetly fruity Cooper Vineyard 2007 Amador Estate Petite Sirah, our best of class.

- Eventually, I suspect, Mother Lode winemakers will recognize that the area's reputation with black grapes from the Rhone Valley will stand on blends more than varietals. Today, however, they're generally using those varieties for varietals. The competition drew 28 syrahs, for example, and only seven red Rhone blends, which our panel also judged. We gave two golds, one to the Convergence Vineyards 2008 Sierra Foothills The Ranger, an opulent mix of syrah, mourvedre, caignane and petite sirah, and the lean yet complex Sierra Vista Winry 2008 El Dorado Fleur de Montagne, a stylish mix of grenache, mourvedre, syrah and cinsault.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Down, But Not Out

Much as I'd like to, only occasionally do I get excited about syrah. Too often, my indiffernce reflects the wine's indifference. It's generally monochromatic, listless, dull. At too many dinners it brings too little to the table to look forward to a second glass. Oh, I've had some terrific examples over the years, but they've been few and far between. That alone could explain its lackluster acceptance by American wine consumers, but in today's New York Times wine writer Eric Asimov looks more deeply into syrah's lukewarm performance on the American wine scene.

By drawing on the perspective of both longtime Rhone Valley specialists and winemakers whose style he especially likes, he concludes that California vintners largely have missed the boat on syrah by focusing on concentration, jamminess, alcohol, weight and power in the wines when they should have been emulating the more refined, complex and food-friendly interpretations of the varietal common to the northern reaches of the Rhone Valley. In short, syrah in California has been reduced to just one more bulky cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel or merlot, without individuality and charm.

I buy that reasoning, though I have a few quibbles with his piece. He seems to accept the suggestion that commendable syrah can be grown only in cooler climates, even though he admires what Steve Edmunds has accomplished with the syrah he gets from relatively warm El Dorado County; beyond that, Asimov seems totally unaware of other finely crafted warm-climate syrahs, such as those from foothill producers like Lavender Ridge, Sierra Vista, Miller Vineyards, Cedarville, Holly's Hill and Terre Rouge. And he knocks Australian shiraz, as syrah is known Down Under, as if its standing were due to its breadth and force alone, rather than the marvelous complexity and length it so often provides. And while it's a small quibble, I would like to have seen him illustrate syrah as it should be done by pointing to brands other than those almost impossible to find, like Arnot-Roberts, Wind Gap, Failla and Copain. Nevertheless, they are among the handful of California producers who haven't given up on syrah, and by their flexibility and artfulness are showing how the grape should be handled, providing a model for others to follow.