Monday, June 27, 2011

For A Change, A Good Word About Scores

Though I have no intent to buy either carriage or horse, I occasionally mosey into the barn out back with ambitious plans to clear it of outdated automotive parts, electronics, furniture and the like, thereby making room for I don't know what; maybe a Harley.

Much of the clutter is box after box of wine memorabilia - auction catalogs, competition results, winery newsletters, tasting notes, labels, posters and assorted other detritus that eventually may end up on eBay or in the catacombs of some library.

I never get far toward my goal of sorting and organizing, however. Invariably, I'm soon distracted by some wrinkled, stained and faded piece of paper I'd forgotten I even had but nevertheless again find captivating, rediscovering why I saved it in the first place. I sit down and start to read. Before I know it, it's dinnertime, and I amble back into the house for the day. Such was the case over the weekend when I came across a copy of the one-page newsletter that Richard Peterson was writing and publishing at The Monterey Vineyard in Gonzales three decades ago.

In a pithy essay under the simple headline "Theory of Relativity," Peterson lays out his scheme to make sense of scores that just then were gaining currency in the reviewing of wines. At the time, 20 points was widely seen as the highest score a wine could receive. That's because competitions and critics frequently based their evaluations of wine on a 20-point metric developed by UC Davis. Today, 100 points is the standard used by several competitions and critics, its origin attributed to school tests with which most Americans are well acquainted, and thus easily could relate.

Regardless, Peterson's principles still apply. "I've never seen a consistent relationship between price and quality in wine," said Peterson at the outset of his essay. At the time, he'd put in more than 20 years in the wine trade. "Price sometimes depends upon the amount of a wine to be sold, but doesn't necessarily correspond to its quality," he added.

Then he showed wine enthusiasts how to apply his "theory of relativity" to everyday life. His intent was to help consumers find the best wine at the lowest price whenever they run across a list of wines whose reviews prominently feature a score. He knew from his long experience as both a winemaker and as a judge on the wine-competition circuit that there's apt to be little difference in the nature and quality of wines whose scores are relatively close.

"How maddening it is to see a wine ballyhooed in publications as a 'grand winner' because it received an average score of, say, 16.3 points - over another which averaged only 16.2 points. In reality, whichever of those two wines sold at significantly lower price should be the true 'grand winner,' as far as the consumer is concerned. I believe that if competent judges rate several wines as 'equal' in quality, then the lowest priced wine should always be reported as the 'winner' in value. Yet, this is rarely done by the wine press," added Peterson. Remember, he wrote this nearly 30 years ago. Things haven't much changed since then.

Here's how to put Peterson's theory into practice: Divide the score given each wine in a tasting by that wine's price. This will give you "quality points per dollar," and the higher the resulting figure the better the value. The July issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine, for example, lists 11 California chardonnays with scores between 90 and 93 points. Of the 11, the wine with the most points also was the most expensive ($65). According to Peterson's theory of relativity, it also offered the fewest "quality points per dollar" - 1.43 - and thus the least value. The wine with the most value, with 3.91 quality points, was the Talbott 2009 Santa Lucia Highlands Sleepy Hollow Vineyard Chardonnay, which scored 90 points and sells for a mere $23.

But don't stop there, Peterson says. He urges consumers to do their calculations, buy wines that stand out for combining high relative value with recognized quality, then taste them and decide for themselves which wines are truly high in value. "After tasting, you can score them and figure a new 'personal' relative value if you wish; but once you've made your own personal decision about various wines' relative values to you, then you must thereafter ignore the original tasting judges' scores," he writes.

It's an old story (encouraging consumers to develop their own tastes) with an enabling twist (the "theory of relativity"). In short, each consumer decides for himself or herself where they get the most value for their buck. Nearly 30 years ago, Peterson offered a quick and simple formula to help consumers on that journey, and it is as applicable today as it was then, if not more so, given the popularity and power of scores given wines.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Georgia On My Wine

"What's that smell?"

Not exactly an unusual question at a wine tasting. But this time it was tinged with more than usual puzzlement, and maybe even suspicion. Should a wine actually smell like this - subterranean, murky, feral? None of the usual descriptors bandied about at a tasting came into play. This was a wine without strawberries, grapefruit, melons, plums or any other familiar fruit association. It was dark, alien, mysterious, more earthy than fruity.

Someone suggested smoked fish. Another suggested the grill of a Weber kettle the morning after it had played host to tri-tip or ribs. Another suggested root vegetables with a lot of dark, damp earth still clinging to the skin. None of this was unkind, just curiosity triggered by a wine with which only a handful of people in the room had a frame of reference.

"Fresh black truffles," ventured Sacramento grocer Darrell Corti. Exactly, virtually everyone immediately agreed. While not a smell commonly associated with most Californian, European or South American wines, it wasn't off-putting, just unfamiliar, and both threatening and delightful in its strangeness. Corti didn't quite know what to make of it, but did add that he's also smelled the same thing in older Burgundies from esteemed producers working with grapes off a great vintage.

This was no Burgundy, however. It was a white wine from the former Soviet republic of Georgia. The grape that yielded it is called mtsvane kakhuri. It was cultivated in the eastern Georgia province of Kakheti, and the juice was fermented in clay vessels called kvevri, also spelled qvevri, coated with beeswax and buried in the ground. It soon was followed by another Georgian wine with an even more forthright smell of fresh black truffles. It had been made with another rare grape, rose rkatsiteli. Their aroma wasn't their only distinguishing characteristic. For white wines, they were unusually deeply colored, their yellow edging toward orange. What's more, they were unusually tannic for white wine, the offshoot of long fermentations in contact with the skins of their grapes in the clay jugs.

Not many Georgian wines make it to California. These two and several others were being opened at Sacramento's Waterboy restaurant only because a delegation of a dozen vintners from Georgia was touring the United States. Corti was their local host.

Georgian vintners touring teaching winery...
Earlier that day, the group, sponsored by the Georgian Wine Association and the American Chamber of Commerce in Georgia, toured the new teaching and research winery at UC Davis. Earlier, it had visited the Finger Lakes district of New York before jumping cross-country to Lodi. After leaving Sacramento it would be taking in Napa Valley and Sonoma County. The group was on a mission not only to better understand the American approach to winemaking but to learn how Georgia might emulate wine regions that have successfully capitalized on wine tourism.

The Georgians are convinced they have a story to tell that will entice American wine enthusiasts to come visit them, to learn of their wines and foods, and to explore the architecture, history, nature and celebrated hospitality of a country far removed and little understood. Georgia stretches east from the eastern shore of the Black Sea, with Russia to the north, Azerbaijan to the east, and Armenia and Turkey to the south. Its most celebrated natural feature is the Great Caucasus Range along its northern border.

Georgian wine regions like Kakheti, Imereti and Kartli aren't yet ranked with Tuscany, Bordeaux and Mosel as choice destinations for wine lovers, but the group sees no reason why they shouldn't be.

They certainly have history on their side. Wine has been made in Georgia for 8,000 years. The country often is called "the cradle of wine." Even the looping letters of the Georgian alphabet suggest the tendrils of a vine. More than 500 varieties of wine grapes are native to Georgia, some 420 of which continue to be cultivated. If grape varieties like mtsvane kakhuri, rkatsiteli and saperavi are unknown in the West, it's largely because the wines they yield have been so appreciated for so long in their immediate neighborhood. Until about a decade ago, 80 percent of Georgia's wine exports were to Russia. Five years ago, however, Russia clamped an embargo on wine imports from Georgia, prompting the country's current search for new export markets as well as its eagerness to develop a program of wine tourism.

...then sampling a test cabernet sauvignon
The loss of the Russian market also is creating an identify crisis for Georgia's wine community. Georgian vintners appreciate the uniqueness of their grapes and their winemaking techniques, but they also fret that their wines may be too unusual for an international clientele for whom fruit-forward, unchallenging cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and merlot have become the dinner-table standards. Thus, they are cultivating those varieties, and adopting more modern winemaking methods to make the resulting wines more identifiable and accessible to outsiders. At The Waterboy, however, they preferred to show off the sorts of wines that have developed avid followings in Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan. In addition to the earthy mtsvane kakhuri and rose rkatsiteli, they included another interpretation of mtsvane kakhuri not far removed in freshness and spunk from a sauvignon blanc or pinot grigio; a solidly built orange-tinted white wine from the native grape kisi; an amber-hued white wine laced with the nutty suggestiveness of tawny port, made from the grape rkatsiteli; and a meaty and firm red wine from the grape saperavi. White or red, one characteristic many of the wines shared was a fetching peppery spiciness with which Americans who like petite sirah, zinfandel and syrah could relate.

Right now, not many Georgian wines are to be found in the United States. Whether that changes will depend largely on how they are priced when they do start to arrive, where Americans see them fitting in at the dinner table, and on how adventuresome the American palate wants to be. In the short run, Georgia's wine culture may have more going for it with wine tourism than with wine exports, given the country's diverse and stirring landscape, its ancient cathedrals and monasteries, its rich heritage of cloisonne enamel art, polyphonic singing and live theater, its isolated throwback villages, and its national parks. From the way the Georgians talked of their native land, it's ancient, rugged, varied and rich with surprises, with wines equally ancient, rugged, varied and surprising.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Recap And A Look Ahead

An update and an advance:

- In reporting here earlier of California State Fair commercial wine competition results I wasn't aware that the rules of engagement had changed this year. In the past, the top award recipients weren't announced until the State Fair was under way or about to commence. That embargo has been lifted this year, however.

Therefore, here are this year's major winners:

- Best-of-Show red wine: Shady Lady 2008 Amador County Primitivo ($30).

- Best-of-Show white wine: Greenwood Ridge Vineyards 2006 Mendocino Ridge White Rieslimg ($30).

- Best-of-Show dessert wine: Navarro Vineyards 2010 Anderson Valley Muscat Blanc ($59).

- Best value: Glen Ellen 2009 California Petite Sirah ($10).

More to follow as I have a chance to taste the wines.

- That isn't likely where I am right now, which is in Paso Robles, the setting for the Central Coast Wine Competition, which commences tomorrow. Though no Cental Coast wines placed high at
the Californis State Fair, I'm excited about this judging, largely because last year's results yielded so many award-winning wines that I'd like to have in my cellar. At dinner tonight in the Paso Robles restaurant Villa Creek we got to revisit several of those wines. I was especially impressed by the minty, spicy and refreshing Rancho Sisquoc 2007 Santa Barbara County Merlot, even though I'm generally not a big fan of merlot. But in freshness and distinctive varietal character, this was an exceptional model. Anyone about to grill skirt steak would do well by their guests to find this wine or a more recent vintage to add to the table.

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.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Getting Prepped For Barbera

Joanne Streubing warns festival guests of vineyard snakes
On the eve of tomorrow's Barbera Festival in Amador County's Shenandoah Valley, here are a few things I learned about the grape and the wine at yesterday's Foothill Grape Day on the Amador County Fair grounds in Plymouth, orchestrated by University of California Cooperative Extension:

- Barbera has been grown in California since the 1880s, when Dr. Giuseppe Ollino put down cuttings at Italian Swiss Colony of Asti in Sonoma County and John Doyle included the variety in his vineyard at Cupertino.

- As recently as 1959, however, only 200 acres of barbera were being cultivated in California. Over the next 20 years that total swelled to almost 20,000 acres. It's now declined to 7,000 acres, reported Glenn McGourty, the winegrowing and plant-science adviser for University of California Cooperative extension in Mendocino and Lake counties.

- As in the past, about 90 percent of the state's barbera is in the San Joaquin Valley, where the variety historically has been used to blend with such other grapes as carignane and ruby cabernet for inexpensive everyday jug wines. Nowadays, however, farmers in the San Joaquin Valley see more profit in other grape varieties and other crops, thus have reduced their acreage devoted to barbera.

- Growers and vintners elsewhere, on the other hand, see potential in barbera as a premium varietal, with plantings increasing in such prime regions as the Central Coast, North Coast and Sierra Foothills. Because barbera is a variety that needs heat to temper its naturally high acidity, the Mother Lode is especially poised to capitalize on the variety's rising esteem, indicated McGourty. "This is a variety you guys can own," he told farmers and winemakers, most of them from the immediate area.

- Diego Barison, director of field operations and customer relations for the Santa Rosa commercial nursery NovaVine, traced barbera's origins to the northern Italian province of Montisferratenis in Piemonte, where it has been tended since at least the 1600s.

- A wine labeled "barbera" almost always is 100 percent barbera, though sometimes winemakers will blend in a portion of such varieties as zinfandel, charbono and refosco, mostly to add color, body and spice. It commonly is aged in American or French oak barrels, but generally older rather than newer barrels.

- A panel of growers and winemakers concurred that barbera's principal appeal at the table is its adaptability. It customarily possesses the fruit, structure and acidity to accommodate a wide range of foods. "Barbera is what I bring to a dinner when I don't know the menu; it's versatile," said winemaker Justin Boeger, whose eponymous family winery in El Dorado County has been making barbera for 35 vintages.

One theme that developed during the day's presentations was speculation about the oldest barbera vineyard in the Sierra Foothills. No definitive answer was found, though barbera may have been grown in the region as early as 1888, when the University of California maintained a plant experimental station outside of Jackson, where ledgers indicate a grape called "barberesco" was cultivated. Though the Italian wine Barberesco is made with the grape nebbiolo, both varieties are from Piemonte. Today, nebbiolo is rarely grown in California, and while plantings to barbera are relatively small its presence in the state looks to be more enduring and promising. The first modern barbera planting in the Mother Lode is believed to have occurred in 1971, when Cary Gott established a plot at his family's Montevina Winery in Shenandoah Valley. Today, that property is Terra d'Oro Winery, which maintains 70 acres of barbera, likely the largest plot of the variety in the state.

Tomorrow's Barbera Festival is sold out, incidentally, though plenty of the wine is available in the area's tasting rooms and grocery stores.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

State Fair Themes: Muscats, Blends, Foothills

Nearly 50 wines won high honors in last week's California State Fair commercial wine competition in Sacramento. That's because the State Fair gives more awards than perhaps any other judging in the country. For one, the competition divides the state into 11 regions, then selects a best white wine and a best red wine from each. Then it also chooses a best cabernet sauvignon, a best sparkling wine, a best "Rhone red varietal blend," a best "other dry white varietal" and so on and so forth. If you didn't already know that Sacramento is the center of politics in the state, this "let's-make-everyone-happy" philosophy would at least convince you it is a model of accommodation. Besides, the more opportunity you can give a vintner to brag, the more likely he or she will come up with the entry fees to keep the show rolling.

Nevertheless, I rather enjoy seeing how all these awards shake out, what patterns develop, and what the results seem to say of the state of California's wine trade. (The first official tabulation of wines entered in this year's competition came up with a total 2,647, all from California, but then someone discovered in the fine print of one label that the wine actually was a Chilean product.)

At any rate, here's a few broad conclusions drawn from the nearly 50 wines to win high awards at this year's California State Fair commercial wine competition:

- Several California growers and winemakers are speculating that muscat, whose wines almost invariably tend to be floral and luscious, will be the next big thing in the state's vineyards. This hunch is based on a surprising uptick in the sales of muscat wines. At the competition, judges also looked to have gotten pretty excited about muscat. Three of the top awards went to muscat wines: The Navarro Vineyards 2010 Anderson Valley Muscat Blanc was named the best "unfortified muscat" in the judging; the V. Sattui Winery 2010 California Muscat was named the best "other dry white varietal;" and the Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi 2010 California Muscat Hamburg was named best "varietal rose." These results also are a timely reminder that muscat is a wide and deep family of grapes, which range in color from pale green/yellow to deep blue/black. The wines they produce are equally diverse. "A catalog of the various sorts of muscat would be of more interest to a botanist than to a wine drinker," notes "The New Frank Schoonmaker Enclyclopedia of Wine," and for now we'll leave it at that.

- By and large, the State Fair's high honors reaffirm the perception that some grape varieties perform much better in some appellations than in others. The wine found to be the best cabernet sauvignon in the state, for example, is from Napa Valley, the source of most of the more profound cabernets of California; it's the Louis M. Martini Winery 2007 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Similarly, the wine declared the best riesling in the judging is from Mendocino County, where the varietal long has done exceptionally well; it's the Greenwood Ridge Vineyards 2006 Mendocino Ridge White Riesling. The best zinfandel is from Paso Robles, where the varietal has deep historic roots, though the region's winemakers nowadays seem hell-bent on recasting the appellation as best for grape varieties long identified with France's Rhone Valley. And maybe they have a point; the State Fair judges found that the best white wine from the area is the Eberle Winery 2010 Paso Robles Viognier.

- Wines of the Sierra Foothills still have to scramble to get any national media attention, but maybe the State Fair results will persuade the wine media to take the region more seriously. At the State Fair, no other region won as many high awards - eight. The best barbera in the state is the Jeff Runquist Wines 2009 Amador County Cooper Vineyard Barbera. The best sangiovese in the state is the Macchia Wines 2009 Amador County "Harmonious" Sangiovese. The best primitivo is the Shady Lady 2008 Amador County Primitivo. The best syrah is the Solune Winegrowers 2007 Sierra Foothills Syrah. The best "other red varietal" is the St. Amant Winery 2009 Amador County "The Old Soldier" Touriga. The best tempranillo is the Wilderotter Winery 2008 Amador County Tempranillo. And the best "other red varietal blend" is the Twisted Oak Winery 2008 Calaveras County "Parcel 17," a mix of mourvedre, carignane and graciano.

- And speaking of blends, perhaps the most surprising and gratifying theme in the results is the number of blended wines to be named best-of-region. Varietal wines dominate both the American market and the results of wine competitions, but gradually consumers and judges are recognizing that blended wines often deliver more complexity and intrigue. To the judges, blends that deserve special recognition include the Alta Colina Vineyard & Winery 2008 Paso Robles GSM, a mix of syrah, grenache and mourvedre (best red wine of the South Central Coast) and the Hahn Winery 2010 Central Coast GSM, another mix of syrah, grenache and mourvedre (best red wine of the North Central Coast).

The competition's best-of-show wines have been selected from this final field of nearly 50 high finishers, but the results won't be publicly announced until a gala July 29 at Cal Expo during the run of the State Fair.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Their Time In The Sun, If The Sun Agrees

Despite this past weekend's gray, cold and damp weather, wines of spring prevailed in two vastly different venues.

Saturday, as rain swamped the Amador County Fair grounds in Plymouth, judges for the fair's commercial wine competition whittled away at the entries until they came to one final decision, the selection of Best of Show. Four wines were in the last round. Curiously, not one of the four was a zinfandel, the varietal most extensively planted in the Sierra foothills, from which entries were gathered. The only red in the quartet was the Dillian Wines 2009 Amador County Shenandoah Valley Barbera, which just moments before had been elected the competition's best red wine, fitting for a varietal that is challenging zinfandel's standing as the most celebrated red wine in the Mother Lode.

But the day's overall winner was a frisky white, the Bray Vineyards 2010 Shenandoah Valley Verdelho, which seized the title with its lilting fruit, citric snap and touch of spice. Verdelho is a green Portuguese grape not cultivated extensively in California, though it is generating interest among growers and winemakers for the refreshing wines it can yield, generally in the dry and delicate yet snappy style that helps explain the popularity of pinot grigio/pinot gris. As the Bray shows, however, verdelho can pack more fruit and weight on its fine-boned frame than generally is the case with pinot grigio/pinot gris.

Sunday dawned drier, warmer and brighter, especially as the day progressed, in particular at Herbst Pavilion on the grounds of Fort Mason in San Francisco. This was the setting for the fourth annual tasting sponsored by the Tempranillo Advocates Producers and Amigos Society (TAPAS), a trade group promoting the cultivation of grapes and the consumption of wines traditionally associated with the Iberian peninsula. In addition to tempranillo, a black grape celebrated most enthusiastically in Spain's Rioja, Penedes and Valdepenas regions, where it yields generous and lusty wines, varieties associated with the peninsula and with TAPAS include verdelho, albarino, graciano, torrontes, carignane and garnacha (also known as grenache).

I took two swings through the pavilion, one to concentrate on white wines, the other to focus on reds. I left feeling that the whites just might have more potential in the United States market than the reds, even though virtually every member of TAPAS - and some 40 were on hand - has at least one tempranillo in his or her portfolio. Granted, some fine tempranillos were on hand, but as a group they were heavily extracted and highly tannic, wines meant to be laid down rather than consumed young. Maybe after five years they might round out into something lush and approachable, but I have my qualms about that after tasting a couple of older releases that were on hand.

The whites, on the other hand, almost invariably were clean, refreshing and well balanced, splendid for accompanying lighter dishes during the warm and sunny days that finally may be arriving. When cooler weather returns, I'll return to tempranillo and other Iberian reds, but for right now here are my favorite whites from the San Francisco tasting:

- St. Amant Winery 2010 Amador County "Miss Independent" Verdelho: Lodi's Spencer family has been growing and making verdelho for about a decade, and that experience in the vineyard and in the cellar is well represented by a take on the varietal that is unusually substantial in body and feel. Despite that heft, the wine retains the varietal's signature liveliness, freshness and spice in generous proportions.

- Urbanite Cellars 2010 Lodi Caliberico White: Luis Moya, president of Urbanite Cellars in San Francisco, believes that if Californians are going to grow traditional Iberian grapes they should follow traditional Iberian cellar practices, and that means blending wines rather than releasing them as varietals. His Caliberico White is a blend of 47 percent verdelho, 35 percent albarino and 18 percent torrontes, producing a wine whose lilting melon and peach flavors are accented with telltale floral notes from the torrontes. Its acidity is crisp, its overall flavor and feel balanced and smooth.

- Forlorn Hope 2010 Lodi Alta Mesa "La Gitana" Torrontes: While in Argentina not long ago, I tasted a fair amount of torrontes, and this interpretation took me right back to the base of the Andes. In fact, though the family resemblance is there, Forlorn Hope's take on the varietal seemed to possess more backbone and sharper acidity while faithfully holding on to the grape's floral and spicy characteristics.

- Dancing Coyote Wines 2010 Clarksburg Verdelho: Looks like verdelho has as much potential in the Sacramento/San Joaquin River Delta as it does in Amador County's Shenandoah Valley. The Dancing Coyote is another bright interpretation of this underappreciated varietal. The aroma is pronounced and inviting, promising tastes of peach and pear, which it delivers not only upfront but throughout a lingering finish.

- Odisea Wine Company 2010 Clements Hills "Dream" Albarino: Albarino can be as much about intrigue as refreshment, and this one speaks to both sides of its personality. It's dry and fruity, with a cleansing tanginess, but it also has a bit more color and a bit more depth than most albarinos of my experience. Its tropical fruit rests on a seam of alluring minerality, making it an unusually complex example of the varietal.

- Harney Lane Winery 2010 Lodi Albarino: Another fairly rich and layered albarino, packed with summer peaches and melons, and finishing with a zesty snap that makes it ideal for pairing with seafood, including oysters just off the grill, light on the sauce.