Thursday, April 28, 2011

Showing Why It's Called 'Superior California'

For the second straight week, a Sacramento-area winery has won a high honor in an international competition. Today, the Bogle Vineyards 2010 California Sauvignon Blanc ($10) was named the best white wine at the 2011 West Coast Wine Competition in Healdsburg. A week ago, the Jeff Runquist Wines 2009 Lodi Alta Mesa Silvaspoons Vineyard Touriga ($24) was elected grand champion at the 2011 Pacific Rim International Wine Competition in San Bernardino. (Jeff Runquist Wines is in Amador County's Shenandoah Valley.)

At Healdsburg, judges evaluated 1,128 wines, most from the United States, though the field also included entries from South America and Canada. After two days of tasting, the entries were narrowed to 29 candidates for best white wine and best red wine. Judges didn't know the identities of the wines. The Bogle, which stylistically is more European than Californian in its sleek build, balance, persistence and uncloying fruit flavors, was one of nine best-of-class wines in contention for best white wine. The other contenders included three chardonnays, a pinot gris and a muscat.

In the final tally of the day, however, the Bogle was beat out for the title of best table wine by the top red wine, the Scheid Vineyards 2008 Monterey County Pinot Noir ($32), a light-colored but rich, spicy and spirited interpretation of the varietal. The candidates for best red wine also included four cabernet sauvignons, four blends and two each zinfandels, malbecs and merlots.

The biggest winner at the judging may be Monterey County, the source of the grapes not only for the Scheid pinot noir but for a portion of the Bogle sauvignon blanc (the balance was from Russian River Valley).

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Needed: A Reevaluation Of Wine Competitions

It's much too pretty a day in Sonoma County to stay inside, but inside I am as a judge at the 2011 West Coast Wine Competition. Despite the allure of balmy temperatures and largely sunny skies, I'm actually enjoying myself in a cubicle inside the old hillside retreat called Villa Chanticleer, once allegedly mob-linked but nowadays the stylish setting for weddings and other fashionable soirees, at least when wine judges don't gather on the site.

The three-person panel on which I sit has gone through 39 chardonnays priced more than $20 (we gave seven gold medals), 13 sangioveses (no gold medals, which pretty much sums up the struggles that this noble Italian grape faces in California), 10 barberas (half the class got no medal whatever, perhaps further testimony to the challenge faced by Italian grape varieties in California, though perhaps none of the entries was from the Sierra foothills, where barbera is showing so much promise), 27 pinot noirs priced $10 to $20 (wow, what a delightful class), and 46 cabernet sauvignons priced $10 to $20 (another really strong class, showing why cabernet sauvignon is California's most highly regarded and most consistently rewarding wine).

We reconvene Thursday morning to decide the competition's sweepstakes winners, to be drawn from the best-of-class nominees. Because the judging is blind, we have no idea of the identity of the entries.

At this point, it's fun to pause and mull over what has been experienced so far and what the results might mean. Chardonnay, for example, is a varietal I don't often drink. When I want a white wine, it's usually going to be a riesling, sauvignon blanc or blend based on grape varieties cultivated historically in France's Rhone Valley. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed our class of chardonnays. In contrast to my past experience, they were fresher, fruitier, crisper and more lively, with their oak influence managed more astutely than customarily has been the case.

Throughout this competition, as well as during last week's Pacific Rim International Wine Competition in San Bernardino, my consideration of the entries would be disrupted occasionally by intruding thoughts about the status and value of such judgings. This is a topic I will explore in more depth at a later time, but for right now I'm starting to question their relevance for today's wine enthusiasts. For years, organizers of wine competitions have measured their success in large part by the increase in entries from one edition to the next. This year, however, the total number of entries at virtually every competition is down. The unsettled state of the economy has something to do with that, I'm sure. But I also sense that more wineries are questioning the value that competitions provide both themselves and the audience they hope to reach.

At the end of a competition, I like to drift into the "back room," the staging area where wines are organized, opened and poured. Until the end of a competition, this area is strictly off limits to judges. Nowadays, as I walk down aisle after aisle of bottles after a competition, I'm seeing more brands from corporate wineries with the deep pockets to enter judgings and fewer wines from small independent producers. If this is a trend, I don't like to see it, since I consider a principel benefit of competitions the exposure it gives a start-up winery that wins a gold medal or other high award.

I'm also developing a hunch that the more influential wine competitions of the near future won't be the largest and most embracing judgings, but the ones that focus on region. The day of the wine competition that tries to attract wines from throughout the world, or from throughout the United States, or from some other massive area, may be drawing to a close. The world of wine is just too large and too diverse for wine competitions to attempt to be all things to all people. The smaller the competition, such as the Central Coast Wine Competition or the Amador County Fair Wine Competition, ultimately may pack more influence because they are regionally based and because judges won't be expected to weigh the merits of so many wines representing so many grape varieties and styles.

While I need to give more thought to this matter, it's still a beautiful day in Sonoma County, and I'm going out for a walk,

Thursday, April 21, 2011

From Galt, Via Plymouth, A Grand Champion

Stop me if you've heard this one before: Jeff Runquist is picking up where he left off last year. As wine competitions gather momentum each spring, Runquist always seems to be in the middle of the action, gathering a disproportionate number of high awards.

Just look at what happened at the Pacific Rim International Wine Competition in San Bernardino earlier today: His winery, Jeff Runquist Wines, based in Amador County's Shenandoah Valley just outside of Plymouth, won seven gold medals and three best-of-class awards. What's more, during the final vote of the day the Jeff Runquist Wines 2009 Lodi Alta Mesa Silvaspoons Vineyard Touriga ($24) was elected grand champion. The touriga is a dark, dense and juicy interpretation of a Portuguese grape variety cultivated only in small, remote and easily overlooked patches in California. The Silvaspoons block, for example, is in Galt, not the most highly regarded wine-grape appellation in the state.

This was the second time in three years that a Runquist wine has won the sweepstakes honor at Pacific Rim. Two years ago the Jeff Runquist Wines 2007 Amador County Dick Cooper Ranch Barbera took home the competition's highest award. Last year, the Jeff Runquist Wines 2008 Amador County Dick Cooper Ranch Barbera was in the running for grand champion after being chosen the competition's best red wine, but was beaten on the final ballot by the Callaway Winery 2009 California Rose of Sangiovese. Today, the Callaway Winery 2010 Temecula Valley Rose of Sangiovese also was in the running for grand champion but get edged by the Runquist touriga. Given the consistently strong showings by Runquist and Callaway, a person might wonder whether any other wineries enter the judging. Actually, more than 1,400 wines were entered in this year's competition, coming from throughout the United States as well as Canada, South America, Australia and New Zealand.

Why did the Runquist touriga win? In short, Jeff Runquist makes wines that seduce the palate with their lush fruitiness, immediate accessibility, and generous exploitation of oak, which shores up his releases with a seductive suggestion of sweetness. Mostly, the touriga is an exceptionally expressive wine, with deep and lasting red-fruit flavors laced with brown spices. It got my vote in the final round, but so did the refreshing rose of sangiovese and a leanly structured but forthright gewurztraminer. (In the sweepstakes round, judges can vote for as many of the candidates as they like, or none.)

The gewurztraminer, incidentally, was the Chateau Fontaine 2010 Leelenau Peninsula Gewurztraminer from Michigan.

Other Runquist wines to win gold in San Bernardino were his 2009 Lodi River Oaks Ranch Carignane ($30), his 2008 Clarksburg Enver Salman Vineyard Petite Sirah ($28), his 2009 Paso Robles Syrah ($24), his 2009 Amador County Nostro Vino Zinfandel ($22), his 2009 Lodi Alta Mesa Silvaspoons Vineyard Souzao ($24) and his 2009 California 1448 ($16), a proprietary red blend.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Varietal Wines: Yesterday's Story?

This has been a long and strange day, the first of two at the Pacific Rim International Wine Competition in San Bernardino. Some 1400 wines have been entered. They can be from any wine-producing area on any continent brushed by the Pacific Ocean. Panels of three or  four judges each are trying to determine whether the wines deserve a gold, silver or bronze medal.

The panel on which I sit judged 137 wines. We were told the varietals, styles and vintages, but not the producers or the regions where the wines originated. Our classes included "non-vintage pinot noirs" and "2008 cabernet sauvignons under $20."

As the day progressed, several possible story themes developed, ranging from "do wine competitions really matter?" to "what was there about the vintage of 2008 that accounted for such a disappointing roundup of cabernet sauvignon?"

But for now, in keeping with the traditional positive impulse of wine writers, I'd rather ponder the significance of Class 359, otherwise known as "other white blends." We had 32 of them. In years past, this would have been seen as a kiss-off class, consisting largely of kitchen-sink wines - blends for which there was no purpose other than to market them under a catchy name and to hope that an audience materialized. Neither quality nor value was high on the list of steps to check off as they were made.

Customarily, "other white blends" has been a small class. Today, however, I first was impressed by the number of wines in the category. Then I was impressed by their range; they not only represented daring mixes of grape varieties - riesling and chardonnay, anyone? - they showed that wineries throughout the United States and beyond recognize the power and pleasure that can be delivered by blends, and thus are striving to come up with fresh and authoritative combinations. In short, this was the most provocative and uplifting class of the day.

Of the 32 wines, six got gold medals. One of them was our only double-gold medal of the day. (A double-gold medal is awarded when judges agree unanimously at the outset, without discussion, that a particular wine is worthy of gold.)

I won't know the identities of the wines until after the competition. Of this, however, I am confident: The gold-medal wines are as likely to be from Missouri, New York or even Pennsylvania as well as California. I find that both comforting and amusing. The United States not only now consititutes a wine-drinking culture, it is showing that wine can spring from a wide range of settings.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

150 Years Later, Prospecting Resumes

Winemaker Chris Pittenger, at Skinner tasting room
For the first time in a century and a half, two members of the Skinner family are gambling that the rolling Sierra foothills just east of Sacramento will yield riches.

The first two were James and Jessie Skinner, Scots who arrived in El Dorado County in 1852, drawn by the Gold Rush.

The latest couple is Mike and Carey Skinner, who have returned to El Dorado County to see if its soils will be as rewarding for them as they were for James Skinner, who was Mike Skinner's great-great-great grandfather.

James Skinner found enough gold in mining at Foster's Bar that he was able to buy some land and a cabin in the vicinity of what is now Cameron Park. As paydirt in the region played out, James and Jessie and their six children cultivated a vineyard and built a winery, one of the earlier significant players in El Dorado County's wine history. Their son George gradually took over the operation but eventually the business withered. Traces of the Skinner winery still can be found today at Cameron Park, though the site of his vineyard now is occupied by the community's airstrip.

Their winemaking legacy is being cultivated anew, however, by Mike and Carey Skinner, who divide their time between Southern California and Rescue in El Dorado County. He's the founder and president of the commercial insurance provider M.G. Skinner & Associates of Los Angeles; she's vice president and brokerage manager of Sotheby's International Realty in Pacific Palisades and Malibu.

Skinner winery flanked by tasting room
In returning to the family's winemaking heritage, they've established vineyards at Rescue and in Fair Play, where they've also built their Skinner Vineyards & Winery. The winery is a large and modern steel-and-stone structure topped with a sign that approximates the sign on James Skinner's barn in the 1860s, "J. Skinner Native Wine & Brandy."

The modern Skinners aren't yet distilling brandy, though they eventually hope to. And while their Fair Play vineyard includes a block of oldtime mission grapes, which they intend to use for a contemporary version of the original California dessert wine, angelica, they believe that the future esteem of the foothills as a fine-wine region rests largely on such Rhone Valley grape varieties as viognier, roussanne, mourvedre, grenache and syrah, and that's what they've planted primarily.

To oversee winemaking they've hired Chris Pittenger, a newcomer to the foothills whose background includes stints with several prestigous producers in varied settings, including New Zealand (Kim Crawford), Australia (Torbreck), Sonoma County (Williams Selyem, Marcassin) and Napa Valley (Robert Biale).

Sunday, when we happened upon the winery and its neighboring tasting room, built of stone and the reclaimed beams of an old railroad trestle, the place was just in its third day of being open to the public. The structures occupy an open knoll 2700 feet up the foothills, providing tasters with a view that stretches from Mt. Diablo to Pyramid Peak, at least on a clear day.

Pittenger's initial lineup under the Skinner brand almost certainly will generate buzz for both their force and finesse. Though the viognier tasted tired, everything else in the opening portfolio was bright and vibrant, including a couple of authoritative syrahs, a luscious mourvedre and an unusually complex yet lilting grenache. The standouts were proprietary blends, a profound and prolonged mix of roussanne, marsanne and viognier called Seven Generations (in recognition of seven generations of Skinners in the U.S.), and a juicy, smoky and leathery mix of grenache, mourvedre and syrah called Eighteen Sixty-One (in recognition of the year that James Skinner is believed to have planted his first vines).

Already, Skinner wines are being stocked by the Sacramento restaurants The Firehouse, The Kitchen, Grange and Ella, as well as the retail shop WineSmith in Placerville.

The winery's grand opening won't be until May 22, but in the meantime the tasting room is open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday through Sunday. It's at 8054 Fair Play Road in Fair Play.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

California State Fair Gets The Brush-Off

I just received an invitation to judge at the California State Fair Home Wine Competition in June. I checked the calendar, and found that I have the date open. I'll do it, but not without pause.

The invitation came from G.M. "Pooch" Pucilowski, who has been in charge of the judging for six years.

The pause came via a posting by W. Blake Gray on his wine blog "The Gray Market Report." Blake also was invited to judge, but he turned down the opportunity and explained why in a commentary under the provocative headline "California State Fair exploits wine judges." Basically, Blake complains that in contrast to most wine competitions the State Fair - we're talking here only of the State Fair's home winemaking competition, not the State Fair's commercial wine competition - doesn't reimburse judges for their transportation costs or provide lodging at the end of what generally is a long and trying day. (Actually, by my experience most competitions don't provide lodging once the last award is determined.) What's more, the State Fair Home Wine Competition expects of its judges more work than customarily is asked. In addition to deciding whether each wine is worthy of an award, judges are asked to write a helpful and readable analysis of each wine. This information is intended to guide home winemakers toward being even more adept at their craft. (Many already are as talented as commercial winemakers. Years ago, I sat on a panel at the Amador County Fair commercial wine competition. This was when white-zinfandel sales were booming, and several interpretations were entered. A couple of them were darn good. Afterwards, however, a few of us were recruited to judge the homemade wines. Hands down, we concurred that the best white zinfandel of the day was in the home-wine competition.) What's more, the judges get rated on the quality of their feedback, in hopes that they, too, will become more adept at their craft. You have to love that symmetry.

At any rate, Blake likens Pooch to a latter-day Tom Sawyer, inveigleing the innocent to pay to whitewash his fence. Blake doesn't think this is much of a deal. As an alternative, he suggests that home winemakers be asked to add another $1 or so to their entry fees ($12 to $18 per wine) to help pay judges for at least their gasoline, which today is no small issue.

Stung by Blake's remarks, Pooch dispatched an email to the California State Fair Wine Advisory Committee (of which I am a member).  Therein, he explained his dilemma: He strives to keep entry fees low to encourage home winemakers to enter the competition, even though that means that he can't afford to provide judges with anything more than "coffee, juice and rolls" when they arrive and an "elegant box lunch" during the mid-day break.

Here is his key point: Judges participate as a way to give back to the state's wine trade; they volunteer their time and share whatever expertise they can provide to help home winemakers become better at squeezing and fermenting grape juice. The competition does expect a lot of judges, but they know that going in, and, frankly, I think most of them appreciate being appreciated for their experience and their generosity. What's more, it's refreshing to judge a wine competition where nothing commercial is at stake. Sure, it would be nice to have at least travel costs reimbursed (the competition is in Lodi), but for most judges the distance there and back doesn't represent a substantial investment. I'm there because I like the feeling of maybe giving a little something to a culture that has provided me with so much, and because I have a weakness for breakfast rolls and coffee. But I also look upon the home winemaking competition as an opportunity to learn. During the judging, members of the competition's technical advisory committee circulate about the room, dashing from panel to panel to discuss with judges the peculiarities of this wine or that. This committee knows its stuff - Dr. Richard Peterson, Darrell Corti, Scott Harvey and Ed Moody, among others - so for me it's an opportunity to be exposed to a college-level tutorial without paying tuition. Call me exploited.

But Blake does bring up a point that is gnawing more and more at me: Where does the money raised by wine-competition entry fees go? No wine-competition director I know looks to be getting rich off running these judgings. Nonetheless, I'd like to see an accounting, especially for those competitions ostensibly set up to benefit this or that worthy service, program or institution. I like to think we are living in an era of spreading transparency, but so far no wine competition has stepped up to open its books. Maybe the California State Fair will be the first.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Hot Wine, Hot Water

This is an alert for viticulturists and vintners who claim to cultivate and crush the "brunello" clone of sangiovese in the United States. Ignore this warming and be prepared to face the polite if awkward wrath of Ezio Rivella, president of the Consorzio Del Vino Brunelleo Di Montalcino, a Tuscan trade group working to protect and promote wines made with sangiovese grapes grown in Siena.

In February, The Sacramento Bee published a column in which I praised the Bray Vineyards 2008 Shenandoah Valley La Dama Oscura Sangiovese. In the column, I explained that Bray winemakers John Hoddy and Mark McKenna had chosen for the wine grapes from a block of the Bray vineyard planted to the "brunello" clone of sangiovese. This wasn't the first time I've heard vintners rave about this particular strain of sangiovese for yielding interpretations of the wine unusually forceful yet spirited.

It's the first time to my knowledge, however, that wine officials in far-off Tuscany took notice as well as apparent offense. A month later, Ezio Rivella dispatched to Bray Vineyards a two-page letter in which he claims that the word "brunello" can be used only in relation to sangiovese when the grapes are grown at Montalcino in Siena. "Nobody can, in any way, assume the word 'Brunello' to identify a wine made by grapes grown in a different place because it does not make any sense," writes Rivella, a copy of whose letter Hoddy just forwarded to me.

Rivella backs up his stand with various vague references to "plant variety rights" and "industrial property rights." He also refers to "intellectual properties," "registered trademark" and Italy's wine requirements and regulations, all of which he suggests have been affronted by talk about a "brunello" clone of sangiovese in Amador County.

"So, since a foreign producer does not respect all these requirements, it should be clear now that the word 'Brunello' is improperly used by him in any case," says Rivella. That foreign producer apparently is Bray Vineyards, though several other wineries in the United States and in other regions far removed from Tuscany have made similar claims.

Despite all the bombastic legalisms, Rivella doesn't threaten any litigation, and concludes his letter in a conciliatory tone, simply asking that Bray representatives henceforth choose their words more carefully. Actually, they had from the outset. Officials in Washington, D.C., who oversee the nation's wine trade already had told the folks at Bray that they couldn't in any way use "brunello" on their label. That's why the wine is called "La Dama Oscura," a phrase long used to describe the wines Brunello di Montalcino. Apparently, however, it is not as recognized or as sensitive as "Brunello" itself.

I rather like the concept of geographical integrity in food and wine, and applaud Rivella and the consorzio for their vigilance. I just wish that in expressing their concern they'd been less pompous and more clear in outlining why geographically based traditions are important in preserving individual distinctiveness. At the same time, contrary to Rivella's fears, I don't see American wine consumers as so dim that they will think they are buying an Italian wine rather than a Californian wine just because the winemaker says he used a strain of grape cultivated historically in Tuscany.

I also suspect that Rivella and his brethern are trying to capitalize on Bray's small production - only 175 cases of the 2008 La Dama Oscura were made - to move Brunello di Montalcino back into the spotlight from which it has been shouldered aside by stellar takes on sangiovese from elsewhere. Look at the facts, as gleaned from a research paper published in 2006 by Susan Nelson-Kluck and JaRue "Jim" Manning for Foundation Plant Services at UC Davis: Sangiovese has been cultivated in Italy for more than 1,000 years. During that time it has shown itself remarkably adaptable to a wide range of settings. Indeed, by now sangiovese has morphed into more than 70 clones in Italy alone. No wonder the Consorzio Del Vino Brunello Di Montalcino is so intent on protecting and promoting its take on the variety as superior to others; the competition out there is stiff.

The paper by Nelson-Kluck and Manning, incidentally, never refers to a "brunello" clone of sangiovese. Rather, the 24 selections of sangiovese at Foundation Plant Services at UC Davis bear such innocuous designations as "FPS 03," "FPS 12" and the like. The closest the researchers come to designating a strain of sangiovese the "brunello" clone is "FPS 07," which they note derives from "VCR 6," a clone of the Montalcino biotype, "which is the biotype traditionally used to produce Brunello di Montalcino wine." Here you have the perfect if non-poetic solution to this little dust-up: Henceforth, the folks at Bray should refer to their clone of sangiovese as "FPS 07," if indeed that is what it is. They won't be happy with that, and neither will authorities of the Consorzio Del Vino Brunello Di Montalcino, denied the opportunity to raise the profile of Brunello Di Montalcino by crying "foul" over a wine in Amador County.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Send That Guy To The Head Of The Class

As I walked up to the banos at the wine estate Errazuriz in Chile's Aconcagua Valley north of Santiago a couple of weeks ago, I had a vision. It told me to shape up, buckle down and start writing that book that's been teasing me from the far recesses of my mind. I could do this, I told myself, because it would be a book that required virtually no writing. Two words would do it, though they'd have to be in several languages, starting with the Spanish hombres and mujeres. Beyond that, it would be a picture book, focusing on the signs that cultures use to designate the whereabouts of bathrooms in restaurants, wineries, theaters and other public places. Don't you agree that it would be a grand idea if a publisher sent me around the world taking photos of bathroom doors? I've had some experience, and been neither arrested nor assaulted, though I have elicited a few chuckles and mystified and apprehensive glances.

Look, you've heard of sillier book proposals, right? Many have even been successful. lists no fewer than seven books about winery dogs. (There's another opportunity here; doesn't list a single book about winery cats, but I'll have my hands full with the bathroom project.) While does list one book about bathroom signs, I think it's a joke. It was published just this past April's Fool Day, for one, and the author is listed as "I.P. Daily."

Maybe my thinking has been twisted by three months in Latin America. Whether in Mexico, Argentina or Chile, I rarely saw the standard blue-on-white male-and-female silhouettes that make going to the bathroom in a restaurant or winery in the United States so predictable and cheerless. In Latin America, however, restaurateurs and vintners have fun in letting their clientele know which room is for men, which for women. Sure, they occasionally slip into old-fashioned stereotypes, such as using a lacy shawl or bright rose to designate the women's restroom, a set of spurs or a brushy mustache to indicate the men's. But for the most part their efforts seem to be meant in good cheer, to add levity and artistic expression to a routine chore. Why you don't see this kind of originality in the United States perplexes me, but there's probably a law that says restaurateurs, vintners and the like must conform to the silhouette standard for the safety and well-being of their customers. Thus, I can see the chapter on bathroom sings in the U.S. being pretty short. I face the same problem in France, where they don't seem to use many signs at all, probably because of their fondness for the unisex toilet.

As to the vision I had at Errazuriz, it was provided by Soledad Chadwick, described to me as a niece of the winery owner, Eduardo Chadwick. She apparently got the family assignment to highlight the men's and women's rooms at the winery. The wry original paintings with this posting was her response. While they reinforce the old belief that white wine is for women, red for men, that view is now so outdated that these signs can be seen more as artifact than command. Now to see if there's a book publisher about with a sense of humor...and a substantial advance and travel allowance.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Valle de Guadalupe's Wine? Consider Petite Sirah

Camillo Magoni, Vinos L.A. Cetto
No wine region I've visited is more challenging for vintners who hope to make wines worthy of high respect than the Valle de Guadalupe at the northern reaches of Mexico's Baja peninsula. The area is stark and forlorn, so dusty and dry that even a cactus that can survive on a drop or two of rain each year anywhere else just barely gets by. Vines in the Valle de Guadalupe almost invariably are stumpy and skinny, more skeleton than fleshed-out members of the viticultural family, even at the peak of the growing season.

In some quarters, this barren and stingy landscape is seen as the perfect setting for assuring that vines struggle, and thus yield grapes with the most compelling stories to tell. I'm not convinced, though on two successive nights now I've had Valle de Guadalupe wines to indicate that site, grape and vintner are well placed.

The grape is petite sirah, the vintner Camillo Magoni, longtime winemaker for Vinos L.A. Cetto, Mexico's largest and most progressive winery. The winery is young, founded in 1974; it's in the difficult Valle de Guadalupe; and it's huge, with a run approaching a million cases a year. Yet, with each vintage it shows that petite sirah just may be the grape most at home in such an inhospitable environment, with the possible exception of grenache, a story for another day.

On successive nights now, I've pulled the corks on bottles of Vinos L.A. Cetto Valle de Guadalupe petite sirah. The first was the 2007, the second the 2008. Neither is expensive. I paid only about $8 for each, and this in Mexico, where taxes on wine and spirits is extorntionist. Nevertheless, both were among the more memorable Mexican wines I've had in some time. I preferred the 2007 for its sunnier fruit and more pronounced black-pepper spice. The 2008 was jammier and oakier, with the spice lingering in quiet authority in the background; in another year or so, however, I suspect it will be more vocal. Both were juicy, well built, muscular and nicely balanced, quite companionable with the rib-eye steaks with which they were served. I know, I know, that's too much fatty meat to eat in such a short span, but after first tasting the 2007 I just had to follow it up soon with the 2008. Vinos L.A. Cetto, incidentally, is distributed in California; one vintage or other of the petite sirah, or perhaps both, is apt to be available in the North State.