Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Bordeaux Lesson In Winemaking

Philippe Cazaux
In the medieval village Sauveterre-de-Guyenne, Bordeaux winemaker Philippe Cazaux was handed a sabre with which he could have sliced into little pieces several people responsible for wine criticism. Instead, with quiet grace he gave our group a lesson in just how a winemaker might criticize the winemaking efforts of someone else.

We'd gathered at the Union de Guyenne, where Cazaux is directeur general. It's a wine cooperative with some 100 members who bring their grapes to be crushed and fermented into wine for either their own brand or someone else's. California vintner Francis Ford Coppola, for one, is having some wine made at the cooperative, said Cazaux. Outside, a dozen tractor-pulled wagons full of grapes lined up to dump their loads.

Inside, Cazaux lined up a six bottles of wine samples. A couple were mostly merlot, a couple mostly cabernet sauvignon, others a mix of both as well as other Bordeaux varieties. A couple of the samples also differed in their exposure to oak. Our assignment was to taste through them all, then blend one wine we thought would be superior to any of the individual samples.

I used three of the wines, basing my blend largely on the sample that struck me as possessing the liveliest expression of sweet fruit; it was solely merlot, something I hadn't realized at the outset, and perhaps an indication of my growing affection for the varietal, at least as it is made in Bordeaux. I added in a fair amount of a sample that was largely cabernet sauvignon for its warmth and herbal overtone, and a dash of another cabernet sauvignon that packed more backbone and tannin than the others. The breakdown of my blend was 65 percent of the merlot, 25 percent of the first cabernet sauvignon, 10 percent of the latter. When I tasted it I wished I'd added more of the cabernet sauvignon with the firm spine and less of the merlot, but there it was, ready for Francis Ford Coppola to pass judgment and offer me a job; wouldn't matter if it was at his estate in Napa Valley or the one in Sonoma County.

Coppola, however, wasn't on hand, so it was left to Cazaux to hand out the imaginative medals. Of my blend, he said it was "well balanced, round, soft, concentrated, accessible." Sounded like gold to me. The second wine in the lineup, however, was "more concentrated, a wine to keep in the cellar" (that, of course, could be taken a couple of ways). The third had "more oak," which he apparently liked, also calling the wine "a good blend." Another was "complete, rich, with big tannins, not ready to be drunk, but with good potential." Another was "well done, round, with well-integrated tannins." I felt my wine slipping into bronze-medal territory, maybe even the dreaded honorable mention. Coppola wasn't going to be calling, I suspected more and more.

The exercise demonstrated a couple of things. For one, it showed how seven people could come up with seven very different interpretations of the base material, reminding us just how challenging the winemaker craft can be. Secondly, the winemaker as critic, at least as far as Cazaux is concerned, generally avoided the fruit and other flavor associations common to so much wine criticism and instead concentrated on structure, balance and whether the wine simply tasted good. He avoided technical jargon, and didn't talk price or value. Mostly, we appreciated how kind he was.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Mechanical Harvesting, Up Close

Day 3 of my Bordeaux adventure was both exhilarating and exhausting. I'm getting to relish the scenery, the lessons, the people, the culture and the tastings, though I don't know that I could live here, at least not in one of those rambling and turreted 14th-century chateaux that punctuate ridgetops with mystery and drama. They are handsome and romantic, but the interiors are harder and darker than I would have guessed, and the bulk of their rooms fairly overshadow the furnishings and art that dress them up, no matter how grand the pieces. If airlines soon slap a surtax on passengers for the extra pounds that visitors pack on during their stay in France, however, I may have to rent a room in one until I resume my workouts and shed some weight.

Merlot harvest under way at Chateau Couronneau

Monday, I posted an item here quoting a local vintner to the effect that about 85 percent of the grapes grown in Bordeaux are harvested by machine. I was a bit skeptical, but other growers and winemakers have concurred with that estimate. And today I got an up-close look at the efficiency, cleanliness and speed with which a mechanical harvester can sweep through a vineyard. This was at Chateau Couronneau, site of a 15th-century castle where Christophe and Benedicte Piat tend about 40 hectares of organically grown grapes, mostly merlot. Against this noble backdrop - the drawbridge is gone, but the moat remains, though now dry - a big high-riding harvester sped down one row and up another, somehow shaking trellis wires and vines just enough to release only ripe grapes, leaving behind fruit still green or so mature the berries were wrinkled. When I stuck my head into the wagon where the grapes were unloaded, few berries were broken. And this was at 6 p.m., not the 6 a.m. when hand harvesting often is well under way in California's vineyards. Granted, it was still a relatively cool 18-degrees Celsius at that time, but Christophe Piat indicated that the harvest machines are so quick and so good at getting the fruit to the winery unblemished that picking can occur most anytime during the day. Though the harvest is picking up throughout Bordeaux, I have yet to see a single crew hand harvesting grapes.

Julia Gazaniol and the vineyards of Chateau Parenchere
Over at nearby Chateau Parenchere, meanwhile, the easternmost estate in the Bordeaux appellation, Julia Gazaniol, granddaughter of the estate's founder, Raphael Gazaniol, waxed enthusiastically about how much she enjoys selling the winery's wines in the United States. Though her father Jean Gazaniol sold the property to Swedish oilman Per Landin in 2005 so he could pursue his interest in cultivating truffles, she stayed on as the brand's export manager. Belgium and Germany are the estate's principal export markets, but she travels to the U.S. two or three times a year to secure outlets, and has had success in California, Florida, Texas and elsewhere. She also put in a semester at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., to polish her business credentials. In promoting Chateau Parenchere wines in the U.S., she has found Americans refreshingly open to judging their buying decisions on what they find in the glass, not on the label. The French, in contrast, are so hung up on the country's appellation system and traditional ranking of chateaux that they tend to base their purchasing decisions on standing rather than flavor, said Julia Gazaniol. "They don't trust their taste," she remarked. Americans, on the other hand, aren't as concerned about whether an estate is a classified growth. "They taste a wine, then decide whether they like it or not," she added.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Lessons In Bordeaux

Sure, a media junket in Bordeaux is going to include a fair share of venison, pate, duck, cheese, bread and wine, but between bites and sips some enlightening and provocative snippets of information surface:

Students at Planete Bordeaux ponder grape juice
- First stop today was Planete Bordeaux, the region's answer to what Napa Valley's Copia could have been but never was, a bright and involving complex wherein visitors get an introduction to the soils, standards and practices that go into making wines labeled "Bordeaux" and "Bordeaux Superieur." It includes a laboratry where growers congregate to taste and test wines to assure they meet the region's defined goals; a series of stations where tourists can learn what cassis and a whole host of other wine-related scents actually smell like; videos on the region's wine history and culture; and a tasting room. At one point, I was startled to find the tasting room filled with schoolchildren who looked to be between 7 and 9 years old. They stood at glass-topped barrels usually occupied by adults. Each had a plastic cup of what looked like sauvignon blanc, as well as a tasting sheet on which they were jotting down their impressions as studiously as if they were judges at a wine competition. I don't speak French, but an instructor welcomed me in and handed me a cup so I briefly could join the evaluation. Turns out it was grape juice, pretty sweet but nonetheless refreshing. When I was a kid in elementary school, our field trips involved excursions to a dairy, never a winery or an institution devoted to the understanding and promotion of wine. But this is Bordeaux, where not long after stepping off the plane and walking into baggage claim, where the carousels are designated by giant wine bottles, you sense that wine here is more than diversion or industry, but a tradition that largely defines the local culture, and the sooner local children learn about it, the better.

- We were given more statistics about Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superieur wines than I can digest at this late hour (it's past midnight here), but one that lingers in mind was offered over lunch by Laurent Mazeau, president of Chateau de Costis. He was quoting a recent report in one of Bordeaux's leading newspapers, Sud Ouest. An enterprising reporter set out to show how the price of wines released by the classified-growth wineries of Bordeaux have accelerated compared with the price of wines released simply as "Bordeaux" or "Bordeaux Superieur." Bordeaux's classified-growth wines are akin to Napa Valley's cult wines, meaning they traditionally bear price tags that put them out of reach of most wine consumers. Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superieur wines, on the other hand, are priced along the lines of everyday releases from the California's Central Valley and Central Coast - $10 to $20 in U.S. currency. In 1950, the reporter found, wines from Bordeaux's classified-growth estates cost 10 times the price of the newspaper, while Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superieur wines cost four times as much. Today, classified-growth wines cost 400 times as much as the newspaper, while Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superieur wines cost just twice as much as the paper, recalled Mazeau. That widening spread explains as much as anything why the producers of Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superieur are underwriting this tour of American wine writers. They recognize their wines don't have the esteem and magnetism of classified growths, but they share the same landscape and many of the same traditions as the classified-growth estates and feel they have a product whose story also needs to be told.

- At this early stage in the trek, I'm not prepared to draw any conclusions about the value and quality of Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superieur wines. Generally speaking, I've been impressed favorably by their overall clarity and structure. They are different than what I am used to in California, being leaner, dryer, crisper and lower in alcohol. They aren't as assertively fruity; they compel the taster to listen carefully to what they have to say. The reds are released younger than reds are in California, and their tannins are firm; they aren't cocktail wines, but are best paired with food, especially in their youth. The tannic astringency of so many of the reds probably helps explain why Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superieur wines are having difficulty finding acceptance in the U.S., at least west of New York, Boston and Washington. Earlier tonight, however, we tasted a few older vintages of the wines - older meaning they were from the 2005 and 2000 vintages - and found that the tannins had mellowed out, making the wines more accessible. And over lunch, several young reds appeared to soften and open more generously by the end of the meal. This prompted some Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superieur winemakers to urge rather forcefully that their wines be opened at least a couple of hours before they are to be poured; even a full day ahead would benefit the wines, they suggested. If that isn't possible, consume just part of a bottle, then let is stand a day or two before trying it again. "It's always better the next day, always," said Mazeau.

Rare clusters of bouchales near maturity
- The rarest wine of the day was tasted at Chateau de la Vieille Chapelle, which occupies a former 12th-century Catholic church within an easy cast of the Dordogne River at Fronsac. After Frederic and Fabienne Mallier bought the 21-hectare estate in 2006 they took a closer look at one stand of unusually large and gnarly vines. For a century, the vines were thought to be merlot, but the Malliers had their doubts, in part because the leaves looked a bit different and in part because the grapes matured a little later than their other merlot. They asked the French Wine Institute to take a look. A year ago, it concluded that the grapes actually are bouchales, a variety believed to have originated in the Garonne Valley but which has virtually disappeared from the region today. The Malliers are making the fruit into a dense and robust wine bottled under the proprietary name Est Bon Le Vin. The 2006 bears a resemblance to merlot in its plummy juiciness, but it is firmer and higher in alcohol (14 percent) than their other wines. Little of it was made and likely won't be distributed beyond the winery.

In Bordeaux, Mechanical Harvesting Is The Norm

Merlot about to be picked, Chateau Pey La Tour
Today, my tour of Bordeaux starts in earnest with a visit to Planete Bordeaux, which I understand to be a tourist complex where visitors via high-tech interactive displays get a broad introduction to the grapes, soils and traditions of wines labeled "Bordeaux" and "Bordeaux Superieur," without the appellations so often associated with the region, such as "Saint-Emilion" and "Pomerol."

But after arriving Sunday afternoon I undertook my own casual and uninformed exploration of the area, starting with a walk about the vineyards of Chateau Pey La Tour, where the press group with which I am traveling initially is stationed. With 30 guest rooms and a conference center, the chateau is as much inn as working winery. It sits on a slope overlooking 192 gently rolling hectares planted mostly to merlot, which to judge by the dark and swollen look of the grapes should be harvested most any moment now.

And speaking of the harvest, which is commencing in the region, the first startling thing I learned of Bordeaux is that about 85 percent of the grapes grown here are picked mechanically. That's the word from Patrick Carteyron, who since 1982 has owned and operated nearby Chateau Penin, where the group had dinner Sunday night. In California, many wineries boast that their grapes are picked carefully by hand. In Bordeaux, however, only the classified-growth estates make that claim. Hand harvesting, Carteyron suggested, is overrated. Mechanical harvesting, he says, is faster and more efficient. It's easier to get machines into the vineyards at a moment's notice than it is to round up a crew of field hands. Mechanical harvesting, in short, gives growers more control over the crucial timing of the harvest. More importantly, as laborers sweep through a vineyard they cut every bunch of grapes they encounter, regardless of how ripe the berries are. Mechanical harvesting, on the other hand, only shakes from the vines the grapes that are fully ripe and ready to fall. "When the fruit is ripe, it falls. If it isn't, it doesn't," said Carteyron.

Validation of the technique was pretty much summed up in the clarity and balance of his wines, which included the fresh, forward and unusually spicy Chateau Penin 2009 Bordeaux Blanc, a refreshing blend of sauvignon blanc, sauvignon gris and semillon; the bright, aromatic and vibrant Chateau Penin 2009 Bordeaux Clairet, an delightfully frisky merlot; the forthright and seductive Chateau Penin 2008 GrandeSelection Merlot, which had both the supple fruit and sturdy backbone to accompany the thick and juicy rare-grilled cut of beef with which it was served; and the even fleshier and more powerful Chateau Penin 2007 Les Cailloux Bordeaux Superieur, so smoky and silken it was difficult to believe it also was solely merlot. These are wines that in the U.S. sell in the $10 to $20 range. Unfortunately, however, distribution beyond the East Coast is scarce, though Aurelie Dazinieras, the chateau's marketing director, is trying to get more of the wines into California outlets.

It's almost time to catch the van for today's tour, though it looks like I might be able to grab another espresso and croissant before climbing aboard. Heading into this tour I vowed to avoid drawing broad sketches of the French, but I do think it says something of the culture that my room at Chateau Pey La Tour doesn't have a hair dryer but is equipped with an espresso machine.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Bordeaux: An Exploration

My file on Bordeaux is so thin I had more trouble finding it than pulling it from the cabinet the other day. That's largely because around 90 percent of my writing about wine over the past four decades has focused on the many and varied appellations of California. I'm not even sure whether any bottles of Bordeaux are buried in the far reaches of my wine closet, which I only recently started to excavate in hopes of bringing some sort of order to the chaos.

I recognize that Bordeaux is the wine world's most highly acclaimed and most broadly emulated region. As much as any wine, a Bordeaux - specifically, a Chateau Haut-Brion from what I vaguely recall as the 1947 vintage - was pivotal in firing my interest in wine. It was, in a word, glorious, opening a door to a whole new world of perceptions and possibilities. While my interest in wine gravitated more to California, I do enjoy exploring other wine regions, in part to calibrate my perspective on what wine is and can be. In that spirit, I take off for Bordeaux early tomorrow. Thus, my interest in flipping through my file on Bordeaux, reviewing clippings and notes from earlier exposure to the wines of that grand area.

My most intriguing finding was my notes from a tasting of Bordeaux at Corti Brothers on Feb. 12, 1985. The wines all were from vintage 1982, which has come to be seen as one of the more impressive vintages of the century. What a lineup. The tasting included Chateau Figeac ("light pepper in the nose, licorice, complex"), Chateau Cheval Blanc ("perfumey but delicate, long finish, a wine difficult to dump or spit"), Chateau La Conseillante ("assertive, herbal, long"), and a couple of dozen other classified growths.

I should have bought a bunch of the wine, but back then $56 for a single bottle of the Chateau Cheval Blanc would have been ludicrous, with one son in college and two more soon to commence. Had I bought a bottle, I no doubt would have drunk it long before now. I've just never looked upon wine as an investment vehicle, much to my occasional regret. Just last week, the New York wine shop and auction house Acker Merrall & Condit staged a sale in Hong Kong. They sold a bunch of vintage 1982 Cheval Blanc, which fetched the equivalent of $1,525 a bottle. Not a bad appreciation over the past 25 years. Today, you could buy a college textbook with the profit you'd realize should you have bought a bottle in 1985, hung on to it until now, and put it on the auction block.

Wines like Chateau Cheval Blanc constitute just a small slice of the broad Bordeaux wine trade. I doubt that I will be stopping there, or at any of the other noble estates that are the objects of a buying frenzy in China and elsewhere in Asia. I'll be focusing on wines with the simple appellations of "Bordeaux" and "Bordeaux Superieur." They're a lot less expensive than wines with such Bordeaux appellations as Pomerol, Pauillac and Margaux, but from what I have been reading and hearing they are struggling to secure a niche in the American market, perhaps because Americans regard all Bordeaux as costly, perhaps because Americans just haven't found in the wines the sort of interest they have come to expect by being reared on the wines of California, Washington, New York and other wine regions of the United States. (At the Corti tasting in 1985, just one Bordeaux Superieur was included, the Chateau La Terrasse ("young, drinkable, fruity, charcoal, cherry candy"); Corti was offering it for $3.19 the bottle.)

Some sort of turmoil seems to be going on in France because French President Nicolas Sarkozy has proposed raising the nation's retirement age to 62, triggering opposition protests and walkouts. But if communications and transportation aren't seriously disrupted over the next week, I hope to post here what I'm learning about Bordeaux.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Zinfandel Question

Effectively ignored as a member of the "media elite," I'm about to play my card as "citizen voter." About a month ago, I asked the campaign offices of California's principal gubernatorial candidates - Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman - how I could send them a question concerning the state's wine trade. Whitman's people never replied. Brown's people sent me the typical boilerplate response saying he was "hard at work putting together a comprehensive set of policies" that soon would be posted in the "solutions" area of his website. I've looked, and find nothing there concerning California's wine culture, let alone an answer to my question.

I'll be the first to admit that my question doesn't have the gravitas of the issues that Brown and Whitman will be asked to address in forthcoming debates and forums, such as public education, budget stalemates, environmental safeguards and the like. My question is much lighter and more playful, though it does have the potential to help define just who they are, where they stand and how they might differ from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Their answer to my question may interest only me, but it also might intrigue other wine enthusiasts, not exactly a small constituency in California.

My question: Would they sign into law or veto legislation to declare zinfandel California's state wine? A measure to this effect was introduced four years ago. It subsequently was watered down to designate zinfandel as the state's "historic wine." It breezed through the legislature, but Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoed it on the grounds that California makes many historic wines and that it would be unfair to single out any one of them for special tribute. In short, the tough guy buckled to the cabernet-sauvignon, petite-sirah and carignane lobbyists. If earlier governors had followed Gov. Schwarzenegger's weak reasoning, the golden poppy wouldn't be the state flower because roses also grow in California, the desert tortoise wouldn't be the state reptile because the rattlesnake also thrives here, and the West Coast swing wouldn't be the state dance because the macarena also is popular.

The reasons why zinfandel should be California's "state wine" or "historic wine" are too numerous and persuasive to repeat here at this time. By now, Whitman and Brown should be up to speed on the state's history, economics and wine culture, and should be able to tell us where they stand on acknowledging and celebrating zinfandel's singular role in establishing the character and color of California.

While I'm not too hopeful they will answer my question, I have one last chance at getting it before them. Personal Democracy Forum has set up a website,, that gives ordinary folk a chance to ask gubernatorial and other candidates questions on matters that concern them. The format is an election itself. Visitors to the site vote on the questions they most want to see candidates answer, with the top 10 to be forwarded to candidates, who then have until Oct. 14 to post their replies. The intent of this give-and-take is "to allow voters, not media elites, to drive the conversation." My question has been posted. The deadline to add other questions and to vote is Tuesday. You can speed up your search for the zinfandel question by clicking on either "new" or "other." I wish I could say "vote often," but visitors can cast just one ballot per Google account. Nonetheless, get over there and vote positively, especially if you are a fellow fan of both politics and zinfandel.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

California: More Than Napa, More Than Chardonnay

California's two principal wine-trade groups, the Wine Institute and the California Association of Winegrape Growers, quietly did something rather remarkable Tuesday: They invited the wallflowers of the state's wine industry onto the dance floor. Fair or not, the two groups long have been perceived as representing primarily the interests of corporate vintners, and if those wineries were based in Napa Valley or Sonoma County, all the better. Several years ago, mom-and-pop winemakers felt so out of the loop they formed another association, the Family Winemakers of California.

At Hotel Vitale in San Francisco yesterday, however, officials of the two older groups welcomed to the party underappreciated wine regions, obscure grape varieties and small producers. And they did it with imagination, vitality and grace. The theme of the seminar and tasting was "Unexpected Grapes from Unexpected Places." The intent was to let a couple hundred members of the trade and media know that California has more to offer wine enthusiasts than cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, and that wines need not be from Napa Valley or Sonoma County to be worthy of respect and investment.

Master sommellier Evan Goldstein kicked off the program with an overview of the California wine scene that was so smart and brisk it all by itself restored respectability to the PowerPoint presentation. Among other things, Goldstein noted that just 4 percent of California's wine is produced in Napa Valley, with another 6 percent originating in Sonoma County. The math is simple: 90 percent of the state's wine comes from elsewhere. He then proceeded to show why restaurateurs, retailers and the press should pay more heed to what's going on in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Mendocino County, Calaveras County, Livermore, Marin and several other frequently overlooked wine enclaves. His most disarming technique was a blind tasting in which participants were to speculate on each varietal and then pinpoint where it originated in California. He urged tasters to think in terms of "classic varietals not from classic places" and "unexpected varietals from classic places." If tasters hadn't figured it out on their own, Goldstein at the end of the tasting revealed that they'd had a riesling from Napa Valley, a vermentino from Paso Robles, a sangiovese from Wooden Valley and a cabernet sauvignon from Livermore, among other matches generally seen as non-traditional.

Participants then ambled about the hotel's patio, where some 150 additional wines representing "unexpected grapes from unexpected places" were being poured. Granted, both blind and open tastings showed that some grape varieties maybe shouldn't be cultivated where they are. Or perhaps the growers and winemakers gamely experimenting with unfamiliar grape varieties and new styles of wine simply are on a steep learning curve, with more encouraging results yet to emerge. However, I did leave the event wondering whether some varieties, most notably gruner veltliner and nebbiolo, ever will find a receptive home in California.

On the other hand, the two sponsoring organizations did demonstrate through the tastings that several minor varietals can be at least as exciting as such established players as cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and merlot. I'm thinking of the rich and persistent Clarksburg gewurztraminer made by Milliaire Winery at Murphys in Calaveras County; the fruity, fleshy and firm dolcetto from Rosa d'Oro Winery in Lake County; the lush and complex teroldego from Peltier Station Winery at Lodi; and the spicy and crisp grignolino rose by Heitz Cellars in Napa Valley. (The grignolino rose is no newcomer; Hetiz has been making it since 1961, and it's a remarkable testimonial to the wine's quality and value - $18.50 - that it continues to survive in the cabernet-centric Napa Valley.)

And again, the tastings reinforced my growing belief that the most exciting winemaking in the state today involves blended wines, such as the rich, creamy and layered mix of green Rhone Valley grape varieties called Ruben's Blend, made by Twisted Oak Winery at Murphys in Calaveras County; the sharp and stony estate rose by L'Aventure Winery at Paso Robles, a mix of three black Rhone Valley grapes with cabernet sauvignon; and the marvelously expressive and elegant Patriarche by Holly's Hill Vineyards at Pleasant Valley in El Dorado County, another mix of black Rhone Valley grapes.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

A Culinary Peak Experience At Tahoe

Manzanita's short rib with bread pudding
As San Francisco celebrity chef Traci Des Jardins prepared to open her High Sierra restaurant Manzanita late last year, she said she would devote much of her menu to the sort of hearty dishes favored by famished recreationists after a day of vigorous mountain biking, snowboarding or hiking. Sunday, a rich representative of that kind of cooking brought Des Jardins, her chef-de-cuisine, Reylon Agustin, and their Manzanita restaurant inside the posh Ritz-Carlton Highlands outside of Truckee one of the top prizes at the annual Lake Tahoe Autumn Food & Wine Festival at neighboring Northstar resort. The dish, a compact and juicy block of braised beef short rib coupled with an equally rich rectangle of bread pudding made with bacon and leeks, was named the best of the 22 foods in the competition. This was the second straight year that Des Jardins and her team at Manzanita won the contest with one of the more assertive dishes in the field. The winner last year was pork-belly sliders sweetened with a pepper preserve and a Meyer-lemon aioli.

Kurobuta pork bun by Longboards
In the competition, restaurants team with wineries to vie for honors in four classes - best food, best red wine, best white wine and best pairing of food and wine. The restaurants are largely from the immediate Lake Tahoe area, while the wines customarily are from anywhere. Wines and foods are judged blind, this year by a panel of five persons drawn from the culinary arts, the wine trade and the media. (Point of disclosure: I was one of the judges.) The award for best pairing of food and wine went to a sweet and spicy mix of Kurobuta pork stuffed in a bun with pickled vegetables and hoisin sauce by the restaurant Longboards Bar & Grill at Graeagle, served with the fruity and lively Cono Sur Vineyards & Winery 2009 Riesling from Chile, a risky pairing that worked because of the agility and strength of both partners. After the judging, the dishes and wines are served at a public tasting, during which guests vote for their favorites. In that poll, Manzanita's beef short rib with the Lucia 2008 Santa Lucia Highlands Gary's Vineyard Pinot Noir was voted the best match.

Judges chose the Keenan Winery 2009 Napa Valley Summer Blend Chardonnay the best white wine, and the ZD Winery 2008 Carneros Pinot Noir the best red wine. The day's biggest winner, however, may have been pinot noir generally, which swept the top three places in the red-wine balloting by the judges. The Lucia 2008 Santa Lucia Highlands Gary's Vineyard Pinot Noir finished second to the ZD, while the Wild Horse 2007 Bien Nacido Unbridled Pinot Noir finished third.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Empty Bottle? Refill It

Nevada County vintner Tony Norskog, who for two decades has been at the forefront of environmentally conscious winemaking, has a new gig in line with his ecological sensitivity. He's just opened BYOB, a tasting room in Nevada City where customers can bring in and refill wine bottles they've previously bought at the shop. This actually is the rebirth of a grocery-store marketing approach that predated today's easy availability of wine bottles. Norskog, according to this report from The Union at Nevada City, was prompted to revive the practice after learning that only 7 percent of recyclable glass gets reused. "While recycling is great, reuse is even better," he is quoted as saying. I first became acquainted with Norskog when he was the winemaker at Nevada City Winery maybe 30 years ago. Subsequently, he establised the Nevada County Wine Guild, with which he has carved out a niche for himself by concentrating on organic, sulfite-free and vegan-friendly wines. His brands include Orleans Hill and Our Daily Red. The grand opening of BYOB, 821 Zion St., Nevada City, is to be Saturday afternoon.