My goal here is to share with other wine enthusiasts my discoveries as I judge at wine competitions and visit wine regions, with occasional commentary about issues touching the wine scene, especially in California.
Chardonnay, pinot noir and riesling all have celebrations in their honor, so why not barbera, the black Italian grape that is challenging zinfandel as the flagship varietal of the Sierra foothills? That's what Brian Miller and Deirdre Mueller of Fiddletown have been asking themselves. A few years ago they organized the first Fiddletown Wine Competition, and now they've set their minds to orchestrating the first Sierra Foothills Barbera Festival. They have a date (June 11, 2011) and a place (Deaver's Amador Flower Farm in the middle of Amador County's Shenandoah Valley). They envision entertainment, tastings, food, art and up to 2,500 visitors. To keep up with details as they develop, check out the couple's Facebook page.
Napa Valley's food-and-wine culture, shaped in large part by European sensibilities, is getting a fresh and refreshing infusion of Asian aesthetics, in particular Japanese. Kenzo Estate Winery, perhaps the first Napa Valley winery financed with the after-school earnings of American teenage boys, and Morimoto Napa, the first West Coast restaurant established by Masaharu "Iron Chef" Morimoto, provided the stylish bookends to our visit to Napa Valley the other day.
In creating Kenzo Estate Winery some 1,500 feet up Mt. George just northeast of the city of Napa, Kenzo Tsujimoto resisted any urge he may have had to build one more ostentatious architectural monument in Napa Valley, even though money was no object. Over the past 25 years he must have made hundreds of millions of yen as the founder of Capcom Group in Japan, whose portfolio of video games includes such immensely popular titles as Street Fighter, Resident Evil, Lost Planet, Monster Hunter and Mega Man.
Kenzo Estate Tasting Patio
Instead, his cluster of winery buildings floats quietly in a sunny hollow, surrounded by rows of the most tidily pruned vines in Napa Valley, along with fiery patches of poison oak, clusters of oak trees and massive outcroppings of rock. Architectually, the board-and-battan buildings pay subdued tribute to both the equestrian ranch that previously occupied the site and the simplicity and lightness of traditional Japanese design. The structures virtually are dwarfed by the whole point of the exercise, the surrounding vineyard, which soars like a towering green wave up the otherwise parched slopes, curling around trees, lapping against rocky inlets, stopping just short of breaking over the ridgeline.
Like a lot of successful men, Tsujimoto early in his growing affluence got smitten with the wines of Bordeaux. But he was impressed with how California wines had won a notable blind tasting against releases from Bordeaux in Paris in 1976, so in the 1980s he began to scout Napa Valley for property. In 1990 he bought these 4,000 acres and planted 100 acres to vines. Then he began to recruit several of the valley's viticultural, enological and culinary superstars to help him realize his vision. One, vineyard developer David Abreu, tore out both the first vineyard and the three feet of topsoil under it, and started to replant vines. Today, the vineyard is up to 70 acres in strictly Bordeaux varieties.
Old Books and Bottles, Kenzo Estate
To make his wines, Tsujimoto brought in consulting winemaker Heidi Peterson Barrett (Screaming Eagle, Dalle Valle, Grace Family, Amuse Bouche). To judge by a tasting of the winery's current releases, he directed her to make the reds in a style more suggestive of traditional Bordeaux than contemporary California. (The sauvignon blanc, on the other hand, is decidedly Californian - ripe, toasty, fleshy, a cocktail wine to sip while standing and strolling rather than sitting and eating, which is how they use it at Kenzo Estate - to welcome and accompany visitors during a tour of the grounds, the caves and the fermentation room with its throwback concrete fermenters.)
The three flagship reds, while effusive with fruit suggestive mostly of cherries and berries, lean more to Bordeaux than California in their lean and angular builds, mineral tones, reserved oak and firm tannins. Each comes in at 14.8 percent alcohol, high by Bordeaux standards but not out of line for the authority of these releases. They are wines of balance, refinement, serene tension and understated complexity, much like the estate itself. Each bears a propretary name in Japanese; the cabernet sauvignon is "Ai," or "indigo," for the similaities between winemaking and the Japanese art of creating indigo dye, while one of the two Bordeaux-inspired blends is "Murasaki," or "purple." They aren't inexpensive wines, ranging in price from $60 for the sauvignon blanc to $150 for both the Ai and the Murasaki.
Tsujimoto appears in no hurry to sell the wines, at least in Napa Valley. Eighty percent of his production is exported to Japan, and visitors to the estate are limited to just how many bottles they can buy (four of the sauvignon blanc, two each of the Ai and Murasaki). Why he opens the estate to the public daily is something of a mystery, but it's a gracious gesture. The staff is attentive but so low-key in their sales pitch you have to wonder if they've been directed to avoid selling the wines if at all possible. Guests can order food prepared by Thomas Keller's Yountville restaurant Bouchon. And the setting is exeptionally scenic and relaxing. A visit isn't inexpensive, with the basic tasting costing $30 per person and a wine-paired luncheon costing $60 per person, but given the artful layout and the civil reception, it's a retreat as soothing to the soul as it is intriguing to the palate.
Old Vines, Morimoto Napa
On the western bank of the Napa River in downtown Napa, meanwhile, the scene is more urbane and vibrant as word gets around that chef Masahuro Morimoto finally has opened his long-anticipated first restaurant on the West Coast, Morimoto Napa. Our waiter crowed that already the place has had 660 covers in a single night, which isn't bad for a resturant open only about two months, or for any restaurant in this economy, for that matter. Though Morimoto is one busy guy, with restaurants stretching from New York to Mumbai, and others under development in Hawaii and Mexico City, he's reportedly often on the scene in Napa, though he wasn't this night.
While the design is open, airy and simple, running to heavier earth tones, hard surfaces, an animated sushi bar and naturalistic touches like gnarled grapevines on the walls, it isn't without its drawbacks, including some poorly conceived furnishings and a static deli and gift shop at the entrance. Morimoto, however, may be counting on customers seeking inspired food more than a clever look, and his extensive modern Japanese menu is exciting in its range and originality. He blithely reinvents the old Piedmontese standby bagna cauda ("hot bath") by draping pureed anchovy on the bowl of oil in which the accompanying vegetables - asparagus, cauliflower, carrot, radish - were dipped. A carpaccio of thinly sliced Wagyu glistening with yuzu and soy sauces, spicy with ginger and sweet with garlic came as close to melting in our mouths as beef ever will. The "ten-hour" pork belly and rice congee were at once intense while comforting. A single plump breast of steamed chicken looked bland but delivered pure succulence and flavor, accented by an array of baby pickled root vegetales. A whole fried branzino, crispy of skin, fresh and moist of flavor, almost was upstaged by the sweetness and spice of its tofu sauce.
Whole Crispy Branzino, Morimoto Napa
Moroimoto is pricey, with appetizers, salads and soups in the $12 to $20 range, entrees generally more than $30. A party can eat well, however, by just sticking to first courses, which aside from the branzino is what we did. Still, we left much to explore on our next visit, including the yellowtail "pastrami," the "frozen" iceberg wedge with smoked bacon, the fig tempura with peanut-butter sauce, and the bone marrow with teriyaki sauce. And all those are first courses. The next entree will be a tossup between the sea-urchin "carbonara" and the one-pound Australian Wagyu ribeye. Given that the sea-urchin costs $28 and the ribeye $75, I think I know which it will be.
One of the joys of life in Sacramento in August is that this is when the Paragary Restaurant Group traditionally rolls out irresistible offers in hopes of enticing customer traffic during a customarily slow stretch. So despite the heat (104 degrees) and the distance (12 blocks), we ambled over to Spataro Restaurant and Bar this evening to take advantage of its three-course prix-fixe menu ($20 per person). Diners get their choice of one of three starters, one of three entrees and one of three desserts. There's no quibbling about the quality of the food, which included a forthright and refreshing bowl of Brentwood corn soup dappled with pancetta and laced with chili oil, bruschetta topped with "blistered" cherry tomatoes sweet and tangy, an immense serving of fresh housemade tagliatelle tossed with shell beans, sweet corn and a basil "pesto" that might more accurately be labeled basil "oil," a wedge of olive-oil cake with berries and stone fruit, and a small but intense rum-and-almond semifreddo. Add in the opening platters of bread and the saucers of outstanding olive oil, and this is a high-value bargain not to be missed no matter how hot it is outside (the offer continues through Saturday; reservations required).
Of course, the Paragary group isn't going to lose money on the deal, not with the prices it charges for wine and other drinks, and not by cutting back on staffing to such a degree that chefs repeatedly could be heard shouting for runners to pick up orders. (OK, we understand that much of the crowd was en route to Music Circus, but those productions doesn't exactly sneak up on restaurateurs.) To complicate matters, our server badly needs to pick up her pacing and her knowledge; she was uninformed about the wine list and wasn't about to get answers to our questions, and then for us to wait 20 minutes after placing our order for our first glass was not up to the usual Paragary standards.
Though wines by the glass tend to be dear, the list overall is impressive in its mix of Californian and European releases, several of them downright exciting. But for a restaurant group that long has prided itself on being at the forefront of the "locavore" movement, locally made wines are woefully underepresented. One of the best buys on the list, incidentally, just might be the Delta Vineyard 2006 Marlborough Pinot Noir, which has the richness and spice to complement both the grilled salmon and the tagliatelle (despite the wine's name, it's from New Zealand, not Clarksburg).
On our way home, we made our first visit to the newly opened Midtown branch of Grocery Outlet at Capitol Avenue and 17th Street. Its wine selection is surprisingly large and surprisingly enticing, with some high-profile North Coast releases reduced to $12 or so. I bagged a German riesling for $4 and a South Australian ruby cabernet for $7 (the shelf talker misidentified it as a cabernet sauvignon). I've no knowledge of the brands or of the quality, but at those prices the experiment isn't too risky.
No two wine competitions are alike, but the judging at the annual Lake Tahoe Autumn Food & Wine Festival is far different than most, largely because the entries are put into a sensible context, or at least that's the hope. Wines are judged individually, a dish that each wine is meant to complement is judged on its own merits, and then the two are judged together to see how compatible the pairing actually is. In short, it's three competitions in one. For several years, I've been a judge at the event, which is prelude to the festival's finale, a "Grand Tasting" where the public can taste for itself the wines and dishes from the 30 or so wineries and restaurants that customarily pair up for the competition. I look forward to all wine competitions, but this one has several added attractions, the pairing being the most novel. It's also the only one at Lake Tahoe, for several years at the Resort at Squaw Creek, now at the Village at Northstar. Settings don't come much more dramatic than that.
And the competition is but one of several events that constitute the three-day festival, which starts with a grape stomp on Friday, Sept. 10. Maybe because this year's festival is the 25th annual the program looks to be more extensive and varied than it has in the past. Year after year, it's a strong lineup, and year after year I've been puzzled why several events don't sell out well in advance, or sell out at all. This year, for the first time, however, the Village at Northstar's proud new neighbor, the Ritz-Carlton Highlands, will be open, and doubtless will have an impact on ticket sales. You have been warned.
For three days, several prominent players on the California and Nevada culinary scene will conduct cooking demonstrations and lead tastings. Instructor Lars Kronmark of the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley will be just back from Italy to show how the classic Tuscan steak bistecca alla fiorentina is to be grilled. Spirited Marko and Jenni Karakasevic of Charbay Artisan Winery & Distillery in Napa Valley always seem to have some new and notable spirit to introduce, and likely will again this year; even if they don't, they throw a heck of a party. Celebrity chefs Traci Des Jardins of San Francisco (Jardinere) and Lake Tahoe (Manzanita in the Ritz-Carlton Highlands) and Mark Estee of Truckee (Moody's) and Lake Tahoe (Baxter's Bistro in the Village at Northstar) will team up to prepare a five-course dinner to benefit in part a hunger-relief program serving North Lake Tahoe. Wine educator Kim Caffrey of Silver Oak Cellars will oversee a vertical tasting of Alexander Valley cabernet sauvignons. Specialty food and beverage producers will hand out samples, chefs will compete in a cooking contest, and photographers and artists will exhibit works.
For a rundown of the complete schedule, go here. For more information on tickets, and to order them, go here.
Snap judgments from Sunday's opening session of the 20th Anniversary Tasting of the Family Winemakers of California, which drew 235 wineries to the Festival Pavilion at Fort Mason Center in San Francisco:
- Keep an eye - or better yet, a palate - on the wines of Dancing Coyote at Acampo. With little notice, the Tom McCormack family is redefining winemaking in the Sacramento/San Joaquin River Delta. While the Delta long has been recognized for its petite sirah, chardonnay and chenin blanc, Dancing Coyote is showing that the region also can turn out alluring takes on varietals for which it isn't known. Across the board, they were clean, clear, lithe, individualistic and high in value. The 2009 gewurztraminer and the 2009 albarino were outstanding for their refreshing liveliness. The 2009 verdelho was steely and sharp. The 2009 pinot noir was a muscular interpretation of the varietal, rich and peppery. And the 2009 gruner veltliner was a virtual European knockoff for its lean build, austere fruit and dry finish; I just wished it had a bit more of the white pepper I look for in the varietal. Good for the McCormacks for taking a chance on these obscure varietals and for crafting them in a style that makes them outstanding fits for the table.
- My favorite story of the day came from Carole Meredith, retired grape geneticist at UC Davis. With her husband Stephen Lagier, she makes luscious and complex syrahs on Napa Valley's Mt. Veeder. Now, the couple has teamed up with neighbors Aaron and Claire Pott to diversify their portfolio with a new line of varietals about to be released under the label Chester's Anvil - a spicy 2009 Sonoma Coast chardonnay, an animated 2009 Sonoma Coast pinot noir, and a sunny and zesty Bordeaux-inspired blend called Hattori Hanzo, after a 16th-century maker of samari swords. Why Chester's Anvil? When the tractor of longtime Mt. Veeder grape grower Chester Brandlin broke down, Lagier volunteered to disc his vineyard, after which he refused to take any money for the chore. Brandlin instead gave Lagier and Meredith one of his family heirlooms, an anvil cast in England sometime in the 1880s. In San Francisco, Lagier and Meredith were pouring samples of the wines from behind the anvil. Now in addition to lugging cases of wines to tastings, they'll be hauling the anvil, which weighs in at 105 pounds.
- I was at the tasting primarily in search of wines from the Sierra foothills, the Delta and Lodi for the weekly column I contribute to The Sacramento Bee. Yet, the lineup of wineries was so broad and varied I occasionally drifted from my mission in hopes of catching up with what's going on in the rest of the state. One excursion confirmed that Corison Winery continues to make one of the more finely honed and persistently gripping cabernet sauvignons in Napa Valley, with the 2007 coming in at just 13.8 percent alcohol, showing that a wine need not be fiercely concentrated to be alluring; indeed, that restraint helps make it so charming. Another side trip took me to the table of Dutton-Goldfield Winery at Sebastapol in Sonoma County, where I wasn't surprised to find the chardonnays and pinot noirs living up to their reputations for attack and balance, but that wasn't where I expected to find my favorite zinfandel of the day, the Dutton-Goldfield 2008 Russian River Valley Morelli Lane Zinfandel, all spirited red raspberries seasoned with black pepper.
- My problem now is to decide which wine from Lange Twins Winery & Vineyards at Lodi to next write about - the complex and earthy blend of petite sirah and petit verdot, the exhuberant and juicy malbec, the spicy and long pinot noir? Or will it be one of the family's new value-oriented Green Hills wines, the lively chardonnay, the gripping cabernet sauvignon? The Green Hills wines, incidentally, are just entering the pipeline, and will sell for about $10.
- Whenever anyone attends a wine tasting of this magnitude, it's best to have a game plan, but the format at the Festival Pavilion wasn't especially helpful. Wineries were arranged alphabetically, which makes a certain sense, though to treat participating wineries equitably year after year the sponsoring Family Winemakers of California tweaks the alphabet to start off with a different letter. "If you just adjust your version of the alphabet you'll find everyone easily," warned the tasting booklet, perhaps written by Dr. Seuss. Here's another thought: Why not arrange tables by appellation? Vintners forever talk about how important vineyard and place of origin is to the nature and quality of their wines, so why not put togehter all the wineries that make Napa Valley wines, all the wineries that make Paso Robles wines, all the wineries that make Fair Play wines and so forth? Then within each of those groupings wineries could be arranged alphabetically. Maybe I'm just being selfish, but for comparative purposes for any wine enthusiast such groupings would seem to be more manageable and relevant.
About 100 wine writers about the country are getting ballots to elect the 2011 inductees of the Vintners Hall of Fame at the Napa Valley campus of the Culinary Institute of America, and two of the 22 nominees are sure to provoke debate beyond the voters. They are Fred Franzia and Cesar Chavez.
Franzia, if the name doesn't ring a bell, is the irascible California vintner who in 2002 introduced the Charles Shaw line of wines, quick to become better known as "Two Buck Chuck" for its $1.99 price at Trader Joe's grocery stores. On the strength of the Charles Shaw and similar wines readily accessible by both palate and pocketbook, Franzia built the Bronco Wine Co. of Ceres into the 4th largest wine producer in the nation, with annual revenues of more than $500 million. Along the way he paid a $500,000 fine and Bronco paid an additional $2.5 million in penalties after he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit fraud by misrepresenting grapes selling for $100 to $200 a ton as varieties commanding $500 to $1,000 a ton. These days, according to a profile of Franzia in the New Yorker magazine 18 months ago, he's funding an association of farm-labor contractors aimed at making sure field hands are provided the water, shade and safety measures to which they are entitled. This puts Franzia in league with the late Cesar Chavez, who in 1962 co-founded the United Farm Workers and subsequently led several non-violent protests, boycotts and strikes aimed at compelling grape growers to stop using certain pesticides and to stop employing illegal immigrants, among other measures to improve the recognition, rights and pay of vineyard and winery workers. California's wine history is long, twisted and colorful, in large part for people like Fred Franzia and Cesar Chavez, both of whom belong in the Vintners Hall of Fame.
Of the remaining 20 persons on the ballot, I'm still pondering who to vote for. The field is impressive, a reminder of just how diverse the country's wine culture is. They include Napa Valley winemaker Randy Dunn, who for three decades has been making exceptionally elegant cabernet sauvignon on his Howell Mountain estate; Madera County winemaker Andy Quady, who has been making port-style wines for 35 years; wine chemist Vernon Singleton of the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology, who before retiring in 1991 published more than 220 academic papers and four books; California wine historian Charles Sullivan; August Sebastiani, who at the time of his death in 1980 had built his eponymous Sonoma County winery into the sixth largest in the country; and Robert M. Parker Jr., widely recognized as the nation's most influential wine critic since starting his newsletter The Wine Advocate in 1978.
The deadline to return ballots is Sept. 17, with induction of the newly elected to take place next spring.
Point of disclosure: I'm a member of the nominating committee for the Vintners Hall of Fame.
The yoga instructor this morning provided just the clarity I'd been looking for since returning last night from two days of judging wine in Lake County: "I can tell you where to go, but only you can experience the pose," she said. Substitute "wine" for "pose" and you have the essential goal of wine criticism, whether that judgment is handed down by a critic working in isolation or panelists who collectively come to a consensus at a wine competition. By whatever route, their opinions are cairns along a trail, providing direction to a peak experience that can leave the hopeful hiker enlightened, or maybe just thoroughly exhausted and exasperated. We've all been there. No method of evaluating wine and passing judgment is infallible, and no one, least of all the consumer, should look upon 95 points for this wine or a gold medal for that wine as the last word in quality and value. They are signs pointing to a wine that someone or some group, hopefully well informed and well intentioned, has found to be exceptionally expressive, and thus warrants discovery by other wine enthusiasts, who ultimately may or may not agree.
This year, several wine competitions, stung by criticism that their conclusions too often have been shaky, and mindful that entries generally have been down, have taken steps toward improving the consistency, reliability and relevance of their panels. In Dallas, judges tasted white wines after reds, contrary to the usual approach, and were given the chance to enroll in pre-dawn yoga sessions in hopes of keeping both body and mind limber and balanced. At Riverside and Long Beach, petite sirahs were grouped by place of origin in hopes of refining the standards by which wines generally are evaluated. And at Lake County, medals were eschewed altogether as the competition switched strictly to a point system. That is, judges were to assign each wine a value up to 100 points. Though the results are being reported in terms of points only, judges were mindful that 90 to 100 points was the equivalent of a classroom "A," or gold medal, while 85 to 89 points represented a "B" grade, or silver medal, and 80 to 84 points amounted to a "C," or bronze medal.
I'm not a fan of assigning points to wines, largely because the point approach suggests an objective precision to which the aesthetic appreciation of wine doesn't apply. I do appreciate that points constitute a shorthand means of conveying overall judgment, and I do recognize their popularity, so I looked forward to seeing how the approach would work in a group setting.
At most wine competitions, judges sit on panels that get to taste just a fraction of the wines entered. At Lake County, however, they did something else novel. Director Ray Johnson arranged the format so all judges got to taste all 146 wines, though not simultaneously. Two panels of five judges each were convened. Each panel came to a consensus on how many points should be awarded each wine, and their results subsequently were reconciled to come to one average score per wine. Under this format, the debates that ensued at the end of each flight seemed to take longer than they do when arguments focus on whether a wine deserves a bronze medal or a silver. At times, I found myself wondering whether mental fatigue from adding and subtracting all those numbers, then discussing whether a wine should get 83 points or 85, might be as distracting to concentrated wine evaluation as palate fatigue.
As I look over the results, I'm not sure whether wine consumers and Lake County vintners are better served by assigning points instead of medals. We ended up giving a lot of wines between 80 and 89 points, and consumers tend not to get excited by a wine if it scores anything less than 90 points. Furthermore, in at least two classes the overall results this year aren't as impressive as they were last year, when Lake County held its first modern commercial wine competition. Sauvignon blanc, for example, is a variety by which Lake County long has done exceptionally well. Last year, of the 21 sauvignon blancs that were judged, four got gold medals. This year, of the 20 sauvignon blancs judged, just one scored 90 or more points, the equivalent of a gold medal. Petite sirah is another variety for which Lake County historically has been recognized. Last year, five of the 13 petite sirahs in the competition got gold medals. This year, two of the 12 petite sirahs that were judged scored 90 or more points. Tougher judges this year? Weaker wines? Or did using points instead of medals somehow affect the perception or commitment of judges?
Unlike at most competitions, Lake County didn't have a taste-off among judges to determine the best wines in the judging. Instead, the sweepstakes winners were the wines that scored the most points in each of three categories - white, rose and red. For the record, the best white wine was the ripe, refreshing, apricot-scented and off-dry Shooting Star 2008 Lake County Devoto Vineyard Riesling (93 points, $12), a surprise, given that Lake County commonly is seen as too warm for this cool-climate variety. The rose sweeptakes went to the Gregory Graham 2009 Lake County Crimson Hill Vineyard Rose (88.3 points, $12), a forward and full-bodied interpretation of the genre, blended from grenache and syrah. The red sweepstakes went to the Six Sigma 2005 Lake County Diamond Mine Vineyards Tempranillo (93.2 points, $42), which while still firm with tannin remains a graceful and complex representative of the varietal, and easily could be misinterpreted as coming from Spain rather than California.
The competition formally is known as the People's Choice Wine Awards. The 10 judges who assembled at Langtry Estate and Vineyards in Middletown merely whittled the field of 146 entries to a more manageable 56 that consumers will be able to taste blind and vote on during a Sept. 26 tasting at Six Sigma Ranch & Winery in Lower Lake. Tickets for that event are $25 in advance, $35 at the door, and are available online here.
Like firefighters quickly and smartly building a wide break around a wildland blaze, North Coast winemakers are reacting with sacrifice, candor and even humor as they contain adverse consumer reaction to news reports of smoke-laced wine from the 2008 vintage.
That's the summer when several wildfires spread across Northern California. While the fires generally didn't burn vineyards, they often cloaked maturing grapes in smoke for weeks at a stretch, particularly in the heavily timbered counties of Mendocino and Humboldt.
Now, as red wines from that harvest are being released, vintners and consumers are finding that some wines from the region carry more smoke than can be attributed to the toastiness of barrels in which the wines were aged or to the inherent attributes of the grape varieties. (White wines from 2008, cutomarily released earlier, haven't been as affected because they usually aren't fermented on the skins, the waxy and sticky surface of which is where smoke residue is believed to have settled and been absorbed.)
Often, excessive smoke in the wines wasn't detected when the grapes were crushed and fermented. Only after aging, bottling and release has it become evident. Also, it appears capricious, more evident in some bottles of a kind than in others. What's more, it sometimes seems to bloom only after a bottle has been open awhile, with the wine tasting smokier at the end of a meal than at the start. More curiously, several consumers not only don't mind the smoke, they like it.
"At tastings, it's one of our more popular wines," says Sharon Winnett, who with her husband David owns Winnett Vineyards in the Willow Creek appellation of Humboldt County. She was speaking of the Winnett Vineyards 2008 Willow Creek Smokey Rose, made from their hillside merlot that was smothered with smoke for much of the summer of 2008. "That was a nightmare. We were socked in with smoke almost on a daily basis," she recalls.
They crushed the merlot and kept the juice on the skins overnight, but that was enough to leave the final wine shot through with whiffs of smoke, which can vary from light and fleeting to heavy and lingering. They first considered just dumping the wine, but at the suggestion of an Arcata wine-shop owner decided to bottle it with the forthright "Smokey" name. He used the persuasive if wry argument that few wines anywhere are as apt to be representative of terroir and vintage. He also predicted that some consumers would love it while some would hate it.
Most, however, appear to love the wine, which retails for $12. "Maybe they like the wine because it's novel," says Winnett. However, 90 percent of the people who sample the wine at a tasting don't know the story behind it; nonetheless, more than half like it. "Some make a terrible face when they taste it, but they are fewer than those who like it."
The couple's red wines, which include cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and zinfandel, still are in barrel. They're debating what to do with them, though they are noticing that the smoke infusion seems to be lessening as the wines age. "It's not really as noticeable as it was the first year," says Winnett of the smoke in the wine.
Other winemakers are filtering their wines with several techniques in hope of straining out the smoke, while some have sold off their reserves in bulk or are bottling the wine under a second label at prices far less than they ordinarily would ask for the wine.
Bob Hodgson, who with his wife Judy owns Fieldbrook Winery outside Arcata in Humboldt County, had made 100 cases of a 2008 pinot noir from Mendocino County. After he started to release it, however, he realized while tasting through a bottle that a distinct smokiness developed and intensified. He didn't like it, suspected customers wouldn't also, and pulled it off the market. One wine-bar proprietor initially balked, saying it was selling well by the glass and that no patrons had complained of the wine. "But I didn't want it out there," says Hodgson, who now faces the prospect of pulling the corks on all the bottles, dumping the wine back into a tank, and then deciding which of several potential filtering methods will be most effective at removing the smoke while preserving the wine's more positive characteristics.
In neighboring Mendocino County, meanwhile, Ted Bennett of Navarro Vineyards also had been releasing his 2008 pinot noirs when he started to realize that something was amiss. When he and his wife, Deborah Cahn, returned from a European vacation earlier this summer they opened bottles of the three versions of the pinot noir they'd made from the 2008 harvest and compared them alongside equivalent bottles from the 2007 and 2006 vintages. "There was no question, the 2008 was smoke affected. It was much more evident that when we bottled the wines," says Bennett.
They took several steps to alert customers. They dropped the price. They had visitors to the winery taste two vintages side by side before making a purchase. They'd already pre-sold but not yet shipped 750 cases of one version of their pinot noir, the 2008 "Deep End." Subsequently, they sent every customer who'd placed a reservation for the wine a sample bottle. If they liked it, they'd sell them more. If they didn't like it, they'd swap their order for the 2007 version of the wine or for the upcoming 2009, or they'd refund their money. So far, Bennett has issued just one refund. Half the customers who'd reserved the 2008 "Deep End" didn't change their mind, half requested another vintage.
Since then, Bennett and Cahn decided not to release any other red wines from 2008 under the Navarro label. "They're too uncharacteristic of Navarro wines," Bennett says. Instead, he'll drop their usual prices and release them under a second label, Indian Creek, most likely in early September. Ironically, a couple of the wines had won gold medals in wine competitions. A couple more wines, including a cabernet sauvignon, are so heavy with smoke he won't release them at all under any label. "We'll just dump them," he says.
Bennett, who has been making wine in Mendocino County since 1974, says he's never seen such diverse consumer reaction to his wines. One customer will send him an email saying he was so disappointed in Navarro's 2008 Mendocino pinot noir that he poured it down the kitchen sink, while another will send him an email asking for two more cases of the same wine. "Reaction is all over the board," he says. But Bennett is just as conflicted as his clientele. "Sometimes I love it and sometimes I can't stand it," he says of the wine.
Bennett isn't saying how much money he is losing on this setback, other than, "Lots." He's been upfront with customers since the issue became apparent because he values the close relationship Navarro has developed with wine enthusiasts over the past three decades. Three-quarters of the winery's sales, for example, are directly to customers. "This snuck up on me," Bennett says. "The biggest hit for me would be to lose my customers' trust."
When visitors stroll into the large and sparely appointed Vintners Hall of Fame on the campus of the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley, they're apt to walk right by the first dispaly on their right, especially if the lights aren't yet on, as they weren't one morning not long ago.
There, in a long locked coffin topped with thick glass are 41 bottles of wine constituting an exhibit called "A History of California Wine." A visitor shouldn't feel ashamed for thinking he ought to have brought a hammer and a corkscrew. Inside are such rare and mouth-watering wines as the Isaias W. Hellman 1875 Cucamonga Port, the Concannon Vineyards 1928 Angelica, the Heitz Wine Cellars 1966 Napa Valley Martha's Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, and the Chateau Montelena 1973 Napa and Alexander Valleys Chardonnay, winner of the white-wine division in an industry-rattling blind tasting in Paris in 1976.
The display is just a portion of the 156-bottle David and Judy Breitstein Collection, which the couple donated to the CIA a few years ago to preserve for posterity. The Breitsteins, owners of the Duke of Bourbon liquor shop in Canoga Park, have been enthusiastic collectors as well as dealers of California wine for more than 40 years. Many of their bottles were acquired through their eager bidding at charity wine auctions. "We love wine, we care about it, and we didn't want to drink everything we have," says David Breitstein in explaining why the two have loaned permanently this valuable collection to the CIA. "The wines we chose for the collection have historic significance. They're from wineries that played a key role in California wine history." Every few months, the 41 wines on display are rotated out and a new lineup is installed. Maybe someday the CIA will be able to display the entire collection at once, and in a format in which the stories the wines have to tell are easier to grasp.
On a table not far from the display is a stack of booklets that list all the bottles in the collection. One of the wines is the Corti Brothers Cantina Vecchia California Vermouth Aperitif. "I included that as an homage to Darrell Corti. He was a legend before he was 30," says Breitstein. (Footnote: Name the three influential California wine merchants born on the same date. They're David Breitstein, Steve Wallace and Darrell Corti. All were born on April 3, though Breitstein is a year older than Corti and Wallace, a Los Angeles wine dealer.)
Later, Corti, who had a hand in creating the wine and then selling it through his family's Sacramento grocery store, Corti Brothers, told the story behind the vermouth: Sometime between 1959 and 1961, Sutter Home Winery bottled two vermouths for the neighboring Bartolucci Winery in Napa Valley. One was a dry white vermouth, the other was a sweet red vermouth. About 100 cases of each were bottled.
Flash forward a decade, when the Bartolucci property was sold to Oakville Vineyards. Someone from Oakville Vineyards who came across the reserves of the vermouth - about 50 cases of each remained unsold and in storage - called Bob Trinchero of Sutter Home Winery and asked if he would like the wine back. Trinchero took it, then called Corti to ask what he might do with 100 or so cases of old vermouth. Corti told him to open the bottles and pour all their contents into puncheons, otherwise known as large oak barrels.
Subsequently, Corti went over to Sutter Home, tasted the wine - "It was terrific" - and bought all of it. The wine - now blended, dry white and sweet red - was returned to the bottles from which it came, an early exercise in reusing rather than recycling wine bottles, a procedure that is starting to attract renewed interest, by the way. (Another footnote: In labeling the wine Corti intially ran into resistance from federal authorities who oversee the trade. They argued that "vecchia," Italian for "old," cannot be used in referring to wine, a stance they maintain to this day, which raises the question: How can wineries continue to refer to "old-vine" zinfandel and other varieties without a definition of "old vine"? Just asking.)
The wine was an immediate hit, selling for around $15 a bottle, somewhat dear by the standards of the early 1970s. In Corti's mind, the wine stands out as "the best quality wine I've ever sold." Given its odd provenance, what makes it so? "It was most complex, and delicious. It was absolutely the perfect wine."