Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Reflectons On Medals Won At Dallas, Or Not

Random thoughts while scrolling through the newly released results of the 2011 Dallas Morning News/TexSom Wine Competition, concentrating largely on gold-medal wines:

- Judges really liked pinot noir from the 2009 vintage. They awarded 17 gold medals to the group. A surprising number of the golds went to such value labels as Cupcake Vineyards, Redwood Creek, Forest Glen, Cono Sur and most notably for fans of Superior California wines, the McManis Family Vineyards 2009 California Pinot Noir, which customarily sells for around $10. (McManis Family Vineyards is at Ripon.)

- Just two other regional wineries won gold - Michael-David Vineyards at Lodi for its Earthquake 2007 Lodi Cabernet Sauvignon, one of just five gold medals awarded the vintage, and Fasi Estate Vineyard of Fresno for its 2007 Madera Private Reserve Fasi Crest Syrah, one of just five golds dispersed among entries from the 2007 vintage.

- No other local winery won gold, not even for petite sirah, primitivo, sangiovese, zinfandel and barbera, all highly regarded varietals coming out of the Sierra foothills, the Delta and Lodi. What's the issue? In glancing at the entire rundown of medal winners, I suspect the lack of gold and even silver and bronze for local wineries simply reflects the lack of entries from the area. Only a handful of local wineries came up with the entry fees for Dallas, which could say a number of things. For one, wineries could be cutting back on the number of competitions or wines they enter, given the unsteady economy. They also may not be seeing much in the way of benefits from even a strong showing in such a far-removed competition, however prestigious it may be.

- Aside from the local results, I was gratified to see gold medals go to a couple of wines from a winery I visited recently in Chile, Emiliana Organic Vineyards. Their wines that showed exceptionally well at Dallas were the Emiliana Organic Vineyards 2009 Valle de Casablanca Eco Balance Chardonnay and the Emiliana Organic Vineyards 2009 Valle de Colchagua Natura Carmenere. I didn't taste either at the winery, but can say that the sweetly fruity, lightly minty and delicately spiced 2010 version of the Natura carmenere is a terrific introduction to the varietal at $11. What's more, two other releases under Emiliana's Eco Balance label - the lean, sunny and deceptively complex 2010 Valle Central Cabernet Sauvignon and the crispy and limey 2010 Bio Bio Valley Sauvignon Blanc - are extraordinarily fresh and vivacious takes on the varietals, even at a mere $8 the bottle in the U.S. They may be a bit difficult to find, however, given the shrinking value of the U.S. dollar compared with the Chilean peso, prompting the folks at Emiliana to concentrate more on exports to European markets.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Familia Zuccardi: Branch Campus For UC Davis?

Jose Alberto Zuccardi, with Mendoza malbec
Had I followed up yesterday's hunch with a wager at the casino just down the street from our Mendoza hotel, I'd be broke today. In a posting here, I speculated that before the day was over some Argentine vintner would point out how his vineyard or winery had benefitted by research or teaching in the department of viticulture and enology at the University of California, Davis.

Nope, didn't happen. Indeed, our first stop, the sprawling and prospering wine and olive-oil estate of Bodega Familia Zuccardi, well could be a branch campus for UC Davis. During his tour of grounds and cellar, director Jose Alberto Zuccardi pointed out one research project after another. In a 40-hectare experimental vineyard, he's growing 38 varieties of wine grapes not generally found in Argentina, such as verdelho, albarino, nero davola, gewruztraminer, ancellota and greco. In a winery within the winery, he strolled about small fermentation tanks seething with juice from this year's harvest of those sorts of grapes. A separate room is devoted solely to the storage and study of natural yeasts he's been gathering for years from his vineyards. Another room is given over in part to concrete fermentation tanks, some whose interior is coated with epoxy and some that aren't, his effort to see how identical batches of wine would react to the different surfaces. Flanked by those tanks, he kicked off a tasting by pouring glasses of wine made from a new variety with which he is experimenting, caladoc, a genetic cross of grenache and malbec (dark, broad and rich, with an unusual green-peppercorn spiciness that all on its own calls for this encouraging experiment to continue).

Finally, I had to ask whether UC Davis had contributed anything over the years to the success of his winery, established in 1968, five years after his father planted his first vineyard in the region. Oh, yes, he said, his agronomists consult and study with the university fairly regularly. He also noted, however, that he works closely with a local research association and with an Argentine university in developing better ways to grow grapes and make wine. Nonetheless, more cooperation with UC Davis would be welcome, if for no other reason than that a research project could advance more quickly because of the two crops each year, one in the northern hemisphere, the other in the south. "With two crops a year, research could be faster," he remarked. In part for that reason, his son Sebastian, one of several of his children active in the business, routinely works for a California winery starting each September and then returns home to work the Argentine harvest starting in February.

The results of one of Zuccardi's experiments will comfort California vinters who specialize in zinfandel. Zuccardi had planted zinfandel in his experimental vineyard. The results have been a letdown. "The problem with zinfandel is that its skin is too thin for the weather here in Mendoza," he remarked. Mendoza is in a high desert that doesn't get much rain, but it can fall most any time. Hail also is an issue. Zinfandel grapes just couldn't take the onslaughts, he discovered. "Of our five harvests of zinfandel, two were good and three weren't," he said. "Zinfandel isn't the variety for this region. We need varieties with stronger skin." His comments may harm zinfandel's reputation as a rugged variety, but growers and winemakers in California should be relieved that at least with this one grape and wine they won't face competition from Argentina.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Davis Reach Is Long, But Could Be Longer

At Achaval Ferrer yesterday, malbec gets sorted
Today's itinerary for Vineyard Tour 2011 includes visits to the Argentine wine estates Familia Zaccardi and Trivento. After 10 days of touring vineyards and wineries in Argentina and Chile, I feel confident in predicting that the growers and winemakers we will see today will have something flattering to say of the department of viticulture and enology at the University of California, Davis.
This is something I hadn't expected coming in. While I'm aware that Davis instructors and researchers long have made significant contributions to the development and improvement of grape growing and winemaking about the world, I hadn't appreciated how fondly vintners well beyond California think of the university. At virtually every stop they volunteer information about how the viticulture and enology gurus of Davis have done something to contribute to the stature of their wine trade. They like the quality and cleanliness of this or that clone of grape they get from Davis. They recall pivotal advice from the likes of such Davis giants as Maynard Amerine, Vernon Singleton and Ralph Kunkee. They talk of tweaking this trellis system or adopting that irrigation practice because of research by Davis. They send their children to Davis to learn the craft. And then there are personal memories: "My third daughter was born in Sacramento," said Carlos Tizio Mayer, gerente general of the wine estate Clos de los Siete as he drove us about vineyards south of Mendoza. That was 25 years ago, when he was working on his master's degree at UC Davis.

It's an old lesson: You sometimes have to go far to get a fresh perspective on something right in your own backyard. Against that backdrop, however, something kept gnawing uncomfortably at me. In preparing for this trip, I contacted a professor at Davis to ask for current findings on two topics I expected to look at in South America - the pros and cons of machine harvesting of wine grapes and the pros and cons of high-density planting of vines. In effect, I was told that there isn't anything substantial to help me. The wine trade these days simply isn't providing funds for that kind of research. I was surprised, because these are subjects generating buzz within the grape-growing and winemaking community. It seems as if the wine trade in the United States has surrendered leadership in viticulture and enology research to Australian and other campuses and institutes. But given the standing and reach of Davis, and in light of its the impressive new facilities for its department of viticulture and enology, responsibility for continued research shouldn't be put on the farmers and winemakers of the U.S. alone. If the department's administrators haven't done so already, they should start putting the touch on those South American, European and even Australian members of the trade who clearly continue to gain by what they got from Davis.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Chileans Rebound, As Will The Japanese

If anyone can identify with the shock, fear and loss that the Japanese are experiencing right now, it's the Chileans. In Santiago, Chileans are riveted by reports and videos coming out of Japan after yesterday's earthquake and tsunami. Just a little more than a year ago, a magnitude 8.8 earthquake struck Chile about 200 miles southwest of Santiago. More than 500 people were killed; the property damage was estimated at $30 billion.

As I tour wine valleys about Santiago, vintners recall the day of the quake but don't dwell on it. They talk fleetingly but not glibly about large stainless-steel fermentation tanks collapsing as if they were soft-drink cans being stomped on, a dam falling apart, barrels shattering. One vintner says he lost two million liters of wine. Another says he lost 1.5 million liters. A third put his loss at 1.6 million liters. In all, the Chilean wine trade lost around 125 million liters. Vintners don't shrug off the quake and its aftermath, but their attitude suggests that they are well acquainted with their environment and its history and that they recognize the need to move on.

At one winery, Casa Silva, marketing and hospitality manager Thomas Wilkins Biggs recalled how 80 laborers worked six months to repair the cellar, how its restaurant had to be relocated to another building on the edge of the estate's polo field, and how the on-site hotel only reopened in September. As he led me through a maze of tunnels under the cellar I couldn't help but ask, "Did any of the tunnels...." "No," he was quick to respond, apparently picking up the quiver in my voice.

At wine estate Vik, rebuilt dam awaits winter rains
At another wine estate, Vik, the quake broke a dam whose irrigation waters ordinarily cover some 60 hectares. The quake came at the end of the growing season, when the lake ordinarily is low, so downstream damage was small as the water flowed away. But the break in the dam couldn't be repaired in time to capture runoff from the following winter's rains, so farmers dependent on the water for their crops took a financial hit this summer.

The dam, however, has been rebuilt, its new rock gleaming in the intense Chilean sun. This winter, provided that normal rains return, it again will fill with runoff, and the region's farmers will rejoice. Here and there throughout Chile's wine regions, evidence of last year's quake remains in the rubble of adobe houses, in the water wheels that got knocked off kilter and still aren't again turning, and in the nervous chatter among residents and visitors when they discuss the length and intensity of the previous night's aftershock that awoke them.

Despite their losses and the apprehension they continue to feel with each tremor, Chileans haven't lost their sense of humor. At the winery Lapostolle, winemaker Andrea Leon Iriarte recalls the earthquake advice her grandmother gave her family: "'Wear nice nighties and don't close the door; they jam.'" Maybe that isn't so much humor as sound advice.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Tournament's Early Top Seeds

Resident alpacas, Emiliana Organic Vineyards, Chile 
"March Madness" in the southern hemisphere: A sweet 16 wineries in Argentina and Chile in 11 days. In the first two days I've tasted 45 wines at five estates. My goal by the end of nearly two weeks in South America is to come up with a "Final Four" wines, the limit on the number of bottles I can bring home. I feel like a Sacramento King - in deep trouble in just the first quarter. Already, I have five take-home candidates:

- Emiliana Organic Vineyards 2010 Eco Balance Valle Central Cabernet Sauvignon ($8): The varietal most closely identified with Chile is carmenere, but the varietal most impressive so far has been cabernet sauvignon, starting with this bright and sunny interpretation. Best of all, it's a steal, delivering the kind of clearcut black-cherry fruit and notes of damp green herbs common to California cabernets two decades ago, but now dwarfed by the rush to interpretations that are heavier, oakier and more concentrated. They have their place, but the place for this friendly take is on the table with an invigorating stew or a homey ragu tossed with pasta.

- House of Morande 2009 Casablanca Valley Edicion Limitada Sauvignon Blanc ($21): Sauvignon blanc is the white wine most closely associated with Chile. Generally, they are zesty and crisp. This one is more complicated, with the sort of structure and richness that invites comparison with a ripe and round chardonnay. Yet, it's all sauvignon blanc, with floral aromatics, tropical-fruit flavors, and complex notes that stem from such vinification techniques as fermenting the wine in 2,000-liter French oak casks and then aging it on its lees. The local angle is that the two clones of sauvignon blanc that were planted for this wine are from UC Davis.

- House of Morande 2007 Loncomilla Valley Carignan ($21): The biggest surprise of the tour, so far. Planted in the 1950s by the grandfather of winery owner Pablo Morande, the Santa Elena vineyard is producing a carignan of atypical depth and complexity. This is a wonderful red wine, with pronounced fresh red-fruit flavors and a muscularity tempered by buoyancy and reserved tannins.

- Vina Leyda 2010 Leyda Valley Las Brisas Pinot Noir ($18):  Here's a pinot noir underpriced by about half of what it could be. It delivers lush and seductive strawberry fruit on a carefully crafted frame. The flavors are complex, the finish long and caressing.

- Casa Silva 2006 De Los Lingues Microterrior Carmenere ($50): I've had a difficult time finding carmenere to excite me. This is the exception. It shows just how distinctive and alluring the varietal can be. It's packed with berry and cherry flavors, herbal notes and lashings of cinnamon and leather. A whole lot is going on with this wine. Casa Silva has its own polo field and its own polo team. Appropriately, this wine reflects that sport's emphasis on muscularity, precision and risk.

Though I'm over my limit, I'll continue to search for four wines that I'll try to jam into my luggage. And if I can't squeeze them all in, I won't much fret about it. All these wines are exported to the U.S., with California a major market for Chilean and Argentine vintners.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Patrick Campbell Sells, But He Isn't Going Away

After dinner I returned to my computer to catch up on the day's news, only to find in my email a message even more depressing than tonight's wine: Patrick Campbell has sold his Sonoma Mountain winery Laurel Glen. This is unsettling because I've long looked upon Patrick Campbell as one of the more open and earnest winemakers in the California wine trade, a vintner to be valued both for his respect of place and for his knack of delivering quality at readily accessible prices. At first glance, I was baffled by his announcement, but then remembered that he's been in the game for more than three decades and is ready to take on new challenges, or perhaps just to relax a bit, though I suspect that relaxation to Patrick mean writing a book or composing a symphony.

Neither his name nor the name Laurel Glen may be readily recognized by a lot of wine consumers, given the modest profile he's been comfortable with and his limited production, but I'm pretty confident in saying that among smart sommeliers, restaurateurs and wine merchants both Patrick Campbell and Laurel Glen have been synonymous with integrity, character and value.

The up side to this development, however, is that Patrick Campbell isn't leaving the wine business. While some wine consumers may be unfamiliar with Laurel Glen, virtually everyone who appreciates a solid buy will know his other labels, such as Tierra Divina, Terra Rosa, ZaZin and most especially REDS, all everyday wines that deliver refreshing fruit, complexity and balance for just a few bucks. He may be selling Laurel Glen, but he's keeping his hand in the trade by continuing those brands, all under the umbrella company called Tierra Divina Vineyards.

"With 35 years of farming Laurel Glen under my belt, I had simply gotten about as much intellectual interest and satisfaction out of the vineyard and winery as I was ever going to get. Furthermore, during the past 20 years, my heart has been increasingly taken with the projects I had been developing in Lodi and Argentina, and it became ever more obvious that it was time to move on," said Patrick in his email. (For the Tierra Divina brand he gets fruit in Argentina, while for REDS he relies on grapes from Lodi.)

He's sold Laurel Glen to Bettina Sichel, a member of a prominent Bordeaux and German family invoved in the wine trade for several generations. She's the daughter of legendary wine promoter Peter M. F. Sichel, who was so instrumental in establishing the brand Blue Nun in the United States. The Sichels know prized properties, and in Laurel Glen have acquired a site with a remarkable record for cabernet sauvignon of singular distinction, celebrated for their concentrated fruit, layered complexity and long life. "I have been working on this sale for over three years, and after many hiccups and detours it has finally happened," says Campbell. He didn't disclose the terms of the sale, though more details may be forthcoming in a press release to be issued soon.

Long before today's buzz over the wines of Argentina and Chile, Patrick was exploring the two countries and striking deals to import wines. Consequently, as I prepared for a trip to South America I asked him who I should visit and where I should eat. As for dinner options, he highly recommended the pasta primavera at the restaurant Trevi in Mendoza. If I get there, the first thing I'll do is raise a toast to the pleasures his wines have provived in the past and no doubt will continue to provide in the future.