Sunday, June 12, 2011

Barbera, King For At Least A Day

Dick Cooper welcomes guests to his landmark ranch
After sampling 30 or so wines at a tasting, I usually can point to three or four that stand out for their individuality, cohesiveness and impact. But when fellow guests at Saturday's first Barbera Festival on Dick Cooper's ranch in Shenandoah Valley asked me which wines most excited me, I was at a loss to rank three or four higher than the others. The problem wasn't in finding outstanding wines; it was that so many of them were outstanding. Rarely have I attended a tasting where the wines were so uniformly notable. Maybe I just have a liking for barbera, but the consensus among other participants with whom I chatted was that the wines almost invariably were clean, fresh and balanced, with bright fruity flavors, restrained tannins, modest oak and snappy acidity. As a group, they were wines remarkable for their consistent brightness and understated flair. As the day progressed, it became more and more apparent why so many producers of the varietal are nervous about running out of inventory before the next vintage is ready to release. Barbera is a wine that long has been under the radar, but its profile is rising fast.

Barbera is quite capable of yielding statement wines, as shown by the high honors it has taken at competitions in recent years. But as Saturday's exercise also showed, the grape deserves to be celebrated more for producing wines of exquisite equilibrium, smoothness and refreshment. For me, I realized as I tasted more and more of the wines, barbera's sweet point is when its aging regimen involves no more than 20 percent new oak barrels, regardless of whether they are American or French. Beyond that, the wood intrudes too much on the grape's inherently sunny fruit. But that's me. Plenty of other tasters welcomed the caress of vanilla and the toastiness of smoke that comes from new oak cooperage.

While Saturday's festival was a decidedly California event, with most of the participating 80 wineries from the Sierra foothills, Lake County and other North State wine regions, guests also were able to taste five wines from the northern Italian region of Piemonte, barbera's native land. Also on hand was Monica Pisciella, an Italian wine consultant who was representing the Piemontese vintners who had sent their wines to the festival. Near the end of Saturday's gathering, after she'd had an opportunity to taste some of California's takes on barbera, I asked her what she thought of them. "I was struck by the fact that California barbera is very fruity and that it has high drinkability," she said. "Today's California barberas are very fresh and fruity and easy to drink. You can open a bottle and the wine is ready to drink." In contrast, Italian barberas often are best if they are opened and allowed to breathe before they are consumed, she noted. "If you drink them immediately you don't enjoy them at their best," said Pisciella. "Italian barberas are leaner, a little bit more complex, and they need more time to be appreciated." Sure enough, people who revisited the Italian table and retasted the wines later in the afternoon found at least some of them to be more expressive.

Art, crafts and food as well as wine greeted guests
Beyond that, Saturday's Barbera Festival was a major success. I've been to a lot of wine festivals over the years, but few have been as thoughtfully conceived and as organized as this inaugural event. Wineries poured at tables clustered about the trunks of Dick Cooper's walnut orchard. The vines that produced many of the barberas being poured were off to one side. A band was off to another. Guests who weren't all that crazy about red wine could buy white wine by the glass, or beer. Crafts vendors looked to be doing a brisk business in everything from garden sculptures to hats. The lines for the food vendors were long, but I didn't run into a single guest who complained about the quality, nature or price of dishes from such purveyors as Beth Sogaard Catering and the restaurant Taste in Plymouth, the cafe Clark's Corner in Ione, or Tuli Bistro of Sacramento.  About the only two people who didn't get to taste any barbera until late in the day were the organizers who came up with this vision less than a year ago and saw it to success were Brian Miller and Deirdre Mueller, last seen hauling a couple of trash containers through the orchard. It didn't hurt that the weather was exceptionally balmy for early June.

I don't know the date for next year's Barbera Festival, but as soon as it is announced, sign up. This year's festival sold out quickly, and tickets for next year's no doubt will be grabbed even faster. Throughout the day, Monica Pisciella tweeted to followers in Italy who were eager to learn more of the festival. "This is a great event, with a lot of people coming to discover the wine. In Italy, wine festivals are always smaller than this. This should be longer. It should last one week." Maybe next year.

1 comment:

  1. The consensus favorites among my group was, in no particular order - Lava Cap, Crystal Basin, Auriga, Avio, Cooper, and of course Renquist.
    We all had a fantastic time and were impressed by how easy it was to access all of the wine stations. The organizers did a brilliant job of using the shade of the trees for the tables. Having perfect weather didn't hurt, either.
    We sampled some of the food, which was excellent, and were able to take a break and tailgate in the parking area.
    It was great to see the Gur-Arieh's (C.G Di Arie) pouring their wine with enthusiasm.
    We are definitely coming back for next year's event.