Monday, May 23, 2011

Just How Lucrative Are Wine Competitions?

In the old days - 50 or so years ago - a wine competition was fairly straight forward. Entries were grouped by varietal or style, and panels of judges from the winemaking, wine marketing, wine teaching and wine writing worlds tasted through the classes without knowing the identity of the wines, awarding gold, silver and bronze medals as they progressed.

That's still more or less the model of longstanding competitions. But in recent years novelty wine competitions have cropped up. One competition, for example, is judged only by people who buy wines for grocery stores, restaurants, cruise lines and the like. There's a competition judged by sommeliers. There's a competition where all entries are wines made by women, judged only by women. There's a competition where entries are wines made biodynamically, judged by biodynamic winemakers. There's a competition judged only by mainstream consumers. Another is judged only by members of the millennial generation. And a new competition will be judged by three panels of judges - one made up of wine-industry professionals, another of millennials, the third of Hispanics. Yet to be introduced is a competition of wines made only by gay winemakers, and a competition of older wines judging only by elderly vintners, but don't be surprised.

This proliferation of wine competitions comes at a curious time. With few exceptions, the number of entries at established judgings is stagnant or falling. Perhaps competitions are cannibalizing each other. Perhaps vintners are questioning the educational and marketing value of competitions. Perhaps entry fees have become just too darn high.

Nevertheless, the rise in the number of competitions suggests that there's money to be made in them, and not only by wineries fortunate enough to win gold medals and other high awards. Wine competitions must be profitable for the people who organize them, right? Nothing wrong with that, but I've been wondering just how much profit a wine competition can make, so I went to Norb Bartosik, general manager and CEO of the California State Fair, which sponsors two competitions, one for commercial winemakers, the other for home winemakers.

Let's look first at the commercial wine competition, this year's edition of which will be next week at Cal Expo in Sacramento. Bottom line: There doesn't look to be much money in running a wine competition, not even one as historic and as large as the State Fair's. Based on early entries and projected costs, all of which have been trimmed this year, the State Fair's general budget is expected to realize a profit of only about $17,000 from next week's judging. That's almost identical to what it earned last year. In 2009, the competition actually lost money, nearly $19,000, according to budget summaries compiled by Bartosik.

Revenues come largely from entry fees, expected to be around $156,000 this year, compared with $165,000 last year and almost $138,000 in 2009. Expenses this year include $24,600 for a cellar master who spends six or seven months organizing the inflow of wines and generally overseeing logistics (down nearly $7,000 from 2009), $46,360 for "professional services," which includes remuneration for the chief judge, computer programmer and volunteer coordinator, along with catering costs for the meals served judges (down nearly $7,000 from 2009), nearly $20,000 for judges fees (basically the same as they were two years ago), $13,000 for awards (no change), and nearly $23,000 for "overhead," which includes air conditioning for the facility where wines are stored before and during the competition, lodging for judges, website management, janitorial services, insurance and the like (down $2,000 over the past two years).

As to the State Fair's home-winemaking competition, it is expected to lose $2,387 this year, less than last year's losses of nearly $5,000 but a little more than the approximate $2,000 lost in 2009. Entry fees have risen over the past three years, now topping $13,000, and while the cost of "professional services" has dropped to $4,535 from nearly $8,000, "general expenses" have risen from less than $1,000 two years ago to more than $5,000 for this year's competition. No "salaries and benefits" are budgeted for the home-winemaking competition.

These figures provide insight to just one wine competition. They point to a lot of revenue going through Cal Expo, but don't indicate that anyone is getting rich off the judging, not even the State Fair.

Aside from the competitions, the State Fair is shaking up one of its wine programs this year. In the past it's put on Grape & Gourmet, a gala during which high awards from the State Fair's commercial wine competition were handed out. In recent years it's been at the Sacramento Convention Center. This year, however, it's being returned to Cal Expo and is being rechristened "Taste & Celebrate the Best," to be held July 29. The program will be much the same, with awards presented and participants able to taste winning wines, but the array of vendors providing food will be virtually eliminated, given the proximity of smoked turkey legs and corndogs.

Proceeds from both Grape & Gourmet and the State Fair Gala, which involves wine tasting and an auction on the eve of the fair's run, as well as profits from the fair's livestock auction, benefit the exposition's scholarship fund. Generally, between $25,000 and $40,000 in scholarship money is raised by various State Fair programs, said Bartosik. Attendance at last year's Grape & Gourmet took a dive, however, and little revenue was generated by the event for scholarships. Thus the move to Cal Expo. The State Fair, incidentally, runs July 14 to July 31 this year.

(Disclosure: Though I've been a judge at the State Fair's commercial and home wine competitions, I didn't participate last year and won't this year. I'm also a member of the State Fair's wine advisory task force.)

Friday, May 20, 2011

On Red Wine's Turf, A White Rules

After 500 wines were sniffed, sipped and spat at the El Dorado County Fair commercial wine competition in Placerville today, the final round of voting to settle on a single sweepstakes winner came down to one red and one white.

This doesn't seem just, given that the Sierra foothills, the source of most of the entries, is primarily red-wine territory, celebrated largely for its zinfandel, barbera and syrah. Indeed, the last standing red wine was drawn from a crowded field of 24 nominees for best red. In contrast, just seven wines had been nominated for best white.

In the end, however, the white wine prevailed. It's the Montevina Winery 2010 California Sauvignon Blanc, an exceptionally zesty representative of the varietal, fresh with sweet fruit flavors running to grapefruit and lime, and vibrant with the sort of sharp and refreshing acidity that explains why sauvignon blanc is so popular with dishes highlighting seafood, especially shellfish. It shows by its pluck and persistence that the sort of sauvignon blanc typically associated with New Zealand also can be made in California. Sauvignon blancs of this much thrust are rare in the foothills. Indeed, while Montevina is a brand of Terra d'Oro Winery in Amador County, the grapes likely came from appellations far removed from the foothills, thus the "California" appellation. In the past, Montevina's sauvignon blanc has been made with grapes from such cooler climates as Santa Barbara County, and that practice likely had been continued with the 2010, though the winery's website isn't current with information about wines now on the market.

As to the red wine it edged for the sweepstakes title, that was the Macchia Wines 2009 Lodi Rebellious Petite Sirah, a big, juicy and rigid interpretation of a varietal well known for its mass.

The Montevina sauvignon blanc sells for around $10, the Macchia petite sirah for $24.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Trong Nguyen, Party Planner

Like a lot of other people, Trong Nguyen hates to see a fun party end. But as it does, the good cheer he's shared is tempered by a disturbing vision - beer bottles only half empty, cocktail glasses mostly full, unfinished goblets of wine. Such waste, he thinks.

He has a hunch why so many guests don't drain their drinks, and it has nothing to do with a disappointing vintage or concern about inebriated driving. Party goers simply don't remember whose drink is whose, so they abandon them and fetch fresh ones, which they may or may not finish or lose.

Nguyen is a scientist and an inventor who when he sees a problem he's compelled to do something about it. Thirty years ago he couldn't find a decent croissant in Sacramento, so he opened a bakery along J Street. His big and buttery croissants were an immediate hit, and he parlayed their popularity into the La Bou chain of bakeries and cafes. He's closed a few of the stores in recent years, but there's still 22 of them in the Sacramento region.

In the meantime, he's tinkered on other projects, many of which spring from both his studies in genetics, chemistry and physics and his "do-gooder" instincts. His social consciousness was forged in the turbulent 1960s, he recalls, and he still has the urge to improve the lot of others. His inventions have ranged from compact housing for the homeless to a system for easily moving a stack of chairs. "A lot of them haven't been commercially successful, but they're very useful for the people who do use them," he said the other day.

But he's upbeat about his latest inspiration. Back to the party and the puzzle of the unconsumed drinks. His solution is called PartyPal. Basically, PartyPal is a sticker that guests are to apply to their bottle of beer or glass of wine to help them keep track of it. He's aware of the competition, such as individual charms to loop around the stem of a glass, but they're overpriced, he says. As to paper discs meant to work in much the same way, they're simply ugly, he adds.

Tag first is removed from sheet
He's given a lot of thought to PartyPal. There are 52 stickers to a sheet. In number and look the tags are identical to a deck of cards - ace of diamonds, jack of spades and so forth. But a person doesn't simply peel off one of the tags and stick it on his or her glass. These are precisely engineered stickers, meant to separate so the larger portion of each goes onto beverage container and the smaller identical attachment tears off easily to go on wristwatch, sleeve, ring or skin to remind the guest that his or her drink is the five of hearts, eight of clubs, or whatever.

Why the deck-of-cards theme? The number and their varied design, making them fitting for a fairly big soiree, but Nguyen also sees a possibility for guests to develop party games based on the stickers. He has none in mind, but is hoping that people who buy and use the stickers will come up with suggestions and post them on PartyPal's website, which he still is developing.

Small portion is put on watch or skin
Nguyen has gone to great lengths to develop a kind of paper that not only peels and separates easily but will stick to surfaces ranging from the warm and dry to the cool and wet. He's convinced that party guests will jump at the opportunity to use a simple, bright and easy means to help keep them from mixing up and misidentifying drinks.

But his goal goes beyond helping confused guests and avoiding the waste of leftover beverages dumped down the drain. Nguyen grew up in Vietnam at a time when potable water was scarce and cherished. This memory has prompted him to tie the sales of the stickers to A Drink For Tomorrow, a non-profit organization working to provide clean, safe drinking water by digging wells, installing pumps, building wash stations and the like in impoverished communities, principally in Asia, Africa and Latin America. A packet of three sheets of 52 stickers each is to sell for $5, with $1 going to A Drink For Tomorrow. "They make as much money as I do. I make a dollar and they make a dollar," says Nguyen of each packet of tags. ""I'll be happy if they get a million (dollars) and I get a million (dollars)."

Larger part is put on glass
Nguyen just got his first batch of stickers, which he hopes to start selling soon through winery tasting rooms, grocery stores and the like. Locally, Corti Brothers is the first outlet to stock the tags.

Meanwhile, Nguyen hasn't turned his back on croissants and other baked goods. He's experimenting with a brioche-style croissant that is lighter, moister and not as big or sweet as his original version, and he's looking at an upscale spinoff of La Bou, but that's a story for another day.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Drivers, Start Your Food Trucks

The folks at Iron Horse Vineyards in Sonoma County have an inspired idea that just might resonate in and about Sacramento. If it does, it could help resolve two frustrations. One is the difficulty of finding good eats while touring wineries in the Sierra foothills, in particular in Amador County's Shenandoah Valley. The other is what to do about all those food trucks that are having such a tough time finding a place to park in Sacramento.

Dim Sum Charlie's, at Iron Horse on June 10
Over at Iron Horse, they're about to launch Food Truck Fridays. Each Friday from June through September a food truck will set up shop at the winery from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Thus, visitors will be able to select from a different kind of menu each Friday a dish or two that they can pair with Iron Horse wines by glass or bottle in the winery's gazebo. The early lineup includes Rosso Pizzeria on June 3 and Cochon Volant on June 17.

This is a fun idea worth emulating in Sacramento's nearby wine regions, where cafes tend to be few and scattered. Meanwhile, food at wineries themselves tends to be standard picnic fare, little of it interesting. Food trucks at wineries would offer more varied and original options, and might even encourage wine sales.

Whether the trek and the traffic at any given winery would make the journey worthwhile for the operators of food trucks is an unknown element, but apparently both Iron Horse and the owners of several mobile kitchens saw enough potential in the plan to give it a try. The only question now is what winery in the foothills will be the first to invite a food-truck cook to pull up alongside the tasting room. Why do I think it just might be Driven Cellars in Shenandoah Valley?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Shenandoah Valley Zinfandel Tops The Field

Wines from Sacramento's backyard continue to win high honors on the spring competition circuit. The latest is the Shenandoah Vineyards 2008 Amador County Paul's Vineyard ReZerve Zinfandel, which earlier today was voted the top entry in the third annual Zin Challenge in Pleasanton.

It was one of 13 entries to win gold medals in the early stages of the judging, thus qualifying for the final best-of-show round. A total 75 zinfandels had been entered. The final 13 came from virtually every prime zinfandel region in the state, including Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Paso Robles and Lodi as well as Amador County. Among the wines with which the Shenandoah Vineyards competed in the final round was an entry from its sister winery, the Sobon Estate 2008 Amador County ReZerve Zinfandel. Both wineries are owned and run by the Leon Sobon family.

Though both wines pack 15.1 percent alcohol, they were two of the lighter, brighter and zestier candidates in the final flight. Both are relatively lean and lithe, but spirited with zinfandel's natural and sunny charm, an attribute lacking in many of the other contenders.

The best-of-show round concluded two days of judging on the soggy grounds of the Alameda County Fair. The first day was devoted to a separate competition, the Best of the Bay, which drew 123 wines by wineries in the greater San Francisco Bay Area. Though the competing wineries had to be based in the Bay Area, they could enter wines made from grapes grown outside the region. In that contest, Fenestra Winery of Livermore won both of the highest honors: The Fenestra Winery 2008 Livermore Valley Ghielmetti Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon was named best red wine, while the Fenestra Winery 2010 Lodi Alta Mesa Silvaspoons Vineyard Verdelho was crowned best white wine. Silvaspoons Vineyard is at Galt, meaning grapes from the Sacramento area were responsible for two of the three top awards in the Pleasanton competitions. What's more, Fenestra is on a roll. Just last week the Fenestra Winery 2007 Livermore Valley Ghielmetti Vineyard Petite Sirah won the red-wine sweepstakes at the Riverside International Wine Competition in Temecula Valley.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Raising The Bar In Amador County

Joh Shebl (left), Scott Helwig alongside picnic pavilion
Scott Helwig is showing me around his family's nascent wine estate, Helwig Vineyards & Winery. We're ambling about a knoll 1,640 feet up the Sierra foothills east of Sacramento, in the heart of Amador County's Shenandoah Valley. In virtually every direction vines ripple across the rolling terrain.

We walk gingerly, for the site is still a construction zone. A jackhammer pounds into a new concrete walk, tearing up an apparent mistake. A breeze lifts red dust, which settles on granite boulders in the middle of what eventually will be the estate's central courtyard. It's flanked by four buildings whose soaring and sloping shed roofs say today, while sidings of corrugated metal and board-and-batten suggest the barns, mines and farmhouses of yesterday Amador. If we were in a hot-air balloon overhead, looking down at the cluster of buildings, the layout would suggest an "H," as in Helwig, Scott notes.

One building will be the tasting room, its oval counter milled from two oak trees fallen on the site. Another is an events center; here, Scott pauses to gesture across the expanse toward a room designed specifically for brides preparing for their wedding. A third is the open-air picnic pavilion, with built-in fireplace and grill. Oddly, there's no commercial kitchen on the premises, but the Helwigs have retained the restaurant Paul Martin's American Bistro of Roseville as their caterer.

The fourth building is the winery itself. It's no larger than the others, though alongside is a crushing pad that easily could accommodate an entire fleet of forklifts.

And underfoot is a warren of caves capable of holding 350 barrels of wine. One wing will be a private dining room with a table that will seat some 30 guests. The caves represent what well could be the largest excavation in the county since the last gold mine was dug. "We did run into some quartz veins, but we didn't find any gold, at least none that the construction guys told us about," says Scott.

Some 60 of those workers remain on the site, scurrying about as if continuing a frantic search for nuggets. Actually, they're up against a tight deadline. The Helwigs aim to open the grounds to the public around Memorial Day weekend.

The Helwig amphitheater takes shape
 Many of the workers are on the north side of the hill, sculpting rows of curved seating for the estate's amphitheater. It will hold 400 guests on tiers that bracket the north portal into the caves. They have to finish it by July 8, the date of the winery's first concert, headlined by the Celtic rock group Tempest, for which tickets already are on sale. That should be enough of a seismic test for the caves.

Given its striking design - by Sage Architecture of Sacramento - and its industrious hospitality and entertainment programs, Helwig clearly is the most ambitious and costly investment in Amador County's wine trade. As soon as the first visitor winds up the drive and is greeted by the south portal into the caves, comparisons with the affluence and aesthetics of Napa Valley will be drawn.

Scott sidesteps questions about the expense, but it's obviously substantial. The facilities sit on 42 prime acres, 17 of which the Helwigs have planted to vines; another three acres are devoted to olive trees. Eager to be active members of the local wine culture as soon as their winery was built, the Helwigs bought two former nearby wineries, Rabbit Hill near Fiddletown and Serenidad just to the west. They made their first wines at Rabbit Hill and use Serenidad for stockpiling their releases. They also bought a fully mature 35-acre vineyard in Suisun Valley just outside of Fairfield.

The first 3800 cases of Helwig wine are being released today, though it may be several days before they start to arrive in Sacramento outlets. The initial rollout involves 14 wines. Scott Helwig made them with guidance from seasoned Amador County winemaker Joe Shebl, the winery's general manager. "Our goal is opulent, succulent, mouthwatering wines," Scott says. And true to that model, the lineup includes a luscious rose of syrah, a smoky barrel-fermented sauvignon blanc, an unusually muscular barbera, a syrah with more power and complexity than usually found in the varietal, and four interpretations of Amador County's signature wine, zinfandel, from the swaggering to the lumbering.

Scott's parents, David and Nancy Helwig, live in Thousand Oaks. He's an executive with Blue Cross; she's a homemaker who tends some 30 head of alpaca - breeding, showing and shearing them, then spinning their wool and knitting it into purses, socks, hats and the like. Eventually, they'll settle in Amador County, bringing the alpacas with them.

Scott says his father, a Chicago native, long has been interested in wine, to the extent that he's tended vines in a small plot behind their home. Scott, a graduate in psychology at North Park University in Chicago, was following his father into the insurance business when his parents acquired the Shenandoah Valley property in 2007. Scott, figuring he'd rather work outside than in an office cubicle, returned west from Chicago and began his formal introduction to the wine trade, starting under the tutelage of Chaim Gur-Arieh, proprietor and winemaker of the Shenandoah Valley's C.G. Di Aire Vineyard & Winery.

When his parents began to toy with the notion of becoming vintners they first looked at Santa Ynez Valley in Santa Barbara County, but land prices were high and going higher, and they weren't crazy about the attitude, says Scott. They turned to Napa Valley and Sonoma County, but had the same reservations. In Amador County, they found what they were looking for, not only in land values and availability but in the county's  familial atmosphere. Besides, Scott's mother grew up in Sacramento and was familiar with the foothills, where she still has family.

"We're a humble and quiet family. We're hometown people. We like community, and that's what Amador is," says Scott. "The (winemaking) bar has been rising in Amador County, and we would like to raise it a little more. My dad knows the potential of Amador, and he wants to help it keep growing."

Monday, May 9, 2011

Prescription For Pleasure, And More: Colby Red

When we arrived at South Coast Winery Resort & Spa in Temecula Valley the other day - the site of the 30th annual Riverside International Wine Competition - the first familiar face we encountered was that of fellow judge Daryl Groom.

That face, which almost always is smiling, also was sweating. He was just ending a three-mile jog. It was late in the afternoon. The sun was beating down. The temperature had topped 90 degrees. He could have been lounging by the pool. But if anyone knows the value of keeping a heart pumping vigorously, it's Daryl Groom, a longtime Australian and Californian winemaker.

Groom has a son, Colby, who was born with a hole in his heart. Early on, that hole seemed to have healed itself. Subsequently, however, doctors discovered that he had a defective valve, and when he was 8 he underwent his first open-heart surgery. When that patch didn't hold, he went back under the scalpel 10 months later to get a mechanical heart valve.

As he recuperated, he took it upon himself to join fund-raising drives in hopes of advancing heart research so other youths wouldn't have to face what he'd endured. He participated in heart walks. At one event, he raised $1,000 by charging people to see his chest scar.

About a year ago, he suggested to his father that the two of them make a couple of barrels of wine to sell at auction, with the funds to go to the American Heart Association, St. Jude's Childrens Hospital and other groups helping youngsters with heart ailments. He anticipated generating about $500.

As word of his proposal began to circulate among his father's acquaintances and friends, the scope of the project grew. Treasury Wine Estates, an international wine company whose 54 brands include Castello di Gabbiano, Stags' Leap Winery and Penfolds, a celebrated Australian winery where Groom once was in charge of its red-wine program, jumped aboard. So did the drugstore chain Walgreens.

The first vintage of "Colby Red" began to roll into Walgreens stores in February. Those two barrels that Colby Groom first envisioned making with his father had grown into 25,000 cases. So far, sales of the wine have raised $115,000 for heart research. The Grooms are hoping to hit $250,000 by the end of the year.

"Colby Red," a 2009 blend of California cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, syrah, merlot and petite sirah, delivers more fruit, harmony and complexity than its $10 price tag suggests. This isn't a wine getting by on its feel-good story and noble goal. It's a bright and supple wine whose sunny and forward red-fruit flavor is accented with a seam of herbalness and a couple of dashes of spice.

The day before running into Groom in Temecula Valley, I coincidentally picked up and tasted a bottle of "Colby Red." Be forewarned that not all Walgreens stock this or any other wine. I visted three of the drugstores before finally finding the wine at the Walgreens branch at Arden Way and Eastern Avenue.

Today, Colby Rex Groom is a vigorous 13-year-old who often accompanies his father and mother as they travel about the country to hand out checks for this and that heart-related charity. They make a point of dispensing funds to communities where the wine sells briskly. At "heart balls" he's become an effective pitchman in urging attendees to donate generously, helping raise $430,000 in Dallas, $285,000 in Chicago, where he also was invited to throw out the first pitch at Wrigley Field. He's developed into a wicked southpaw.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Mike Lee: Pioneer, Winemaker, Gentleman

Mike Lee (Santa Rosa Press Democrat)
"He was just one of those people who loved other people." That's Sonoma County winemaker Charlie Tolbert, talking to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat about another Sonoma County winemaker, Mike Lee, who died of a heart attack while playing golf in Santa Rosa on Monday. Tolbert's comment sums up Mike Lee with absolute precision and accuracy.

Mike Lee's fondness of other people was unselfish, positive and persistently supportive. He helped aspiring winemakers find their way, and on the competition circuit, where he was an amiable and insightful judge, he approached wines with an appreciation for both what the winemaker seemed to be seeking and what the consumer likely was expecting. I last saw him a week ago, at the West Coast Wine Competition in Healdsburg. He was a person you were always glad to see for his relaxed demeanor, the equilibrium he struck between seriousness and playfulness, the persistent twinkle in his eyes, and the brightest and happiest smile on the planet. He was a person of quick and firm opinions, but he didn't try to dominate, and was always eager to give and take in a forthright yet respectable exchange of opinions. He was trim and vibrant, and his abrupt death has stunned his colleagues and friends.

Mike Lee, with other members of his San Francisco family, founded Kenwood Vineyards in Sonoma Valley in 1970. That may not seem so daring now, not with wineries scattered the length of Sonoma Valley, but four decades ago such a gamble only rarely was undertaken. And from the start, Mike Lee played a pivotal role in putting Kenwood Vineyards on a solid foundation by making clearcut wines at readily accessible prices, a philosophy he followed throughout his three decades overseeing the winery's cellar. (The family sold Kenwood in 2003, and in 2005 Mike Lee became the winemaker for Pattiana Organic Vineyards in Mendocino County. He assumed that role after a buddy, former Sacramentan Casey Burke, was killed in a plane crash. Burke was married to Patti Fetzer, the other principal behind Pattiana. She subsequently married Gregg Hileman, and he and Mike became good friends. It was Hileman with whom Mike was playing golf when he collapsed Monday.)

But what was Mike Lee's mark on California wine? For one, Kenwood's sauvignon blanc early on set a standard that other wineries strived to match. He sought out and capitalized on outstanding vineyards, then handled their grapes in a way that expressed fundamentally their place. This was true of other varietals as well, but sauvignon blanc is what brought him his first widespread acclaim. He made clean and fresh wines, released at prices that put them within grasp of an American audience that was only just starting to discover wine. This was a standard he continued at Pattiana.

Mike Lee wasn't a celebrity winemaker. He didn't promote himself. He wasn't as interested in raising his profile as he was in raising the profile of fine wine. In talking with him, his focus persistently was on the vineyard, the culture, the wine. He listened as much as he talked. He was a true gentleman. His sudden passing reinforces the values he represented so naturally - understand, respect, share, smile.