Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Two Buck Chuck's New Home In Sacramento?

I've often wondered why Fred Franzia doesn't just pony up $5 million for the department of viticulture and enology at UC Davis so his name can go on the school's new teaching and research winery. That would put him in the same neighborhood with the Robert and Magrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts and the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science, thereby raising in prestige Franzia's home territory, California's Central Valley. He may yet. For sure, Franzia seems to be warming up to the Sacramento area, to judge by this startling article from the trade magazine Wines & Vines.

In short, consultants to Franzia's Bronco Wine Company, long based in Ceres, have indicated to County of Sacramento authorities that winery officials are thinking of building a new production facility, possibly in the county's southwest reaches. Thus their appearance at a public hearing convened by county planners earlier this month to discuss a proposed new winery ordinance.

Bronco, as writer Jon Tourney notes in the Wines & Vines article, is the fourth largest winery in the nation, producing 12 million cases per year. With 40,000 vineyard acres, Bronco is the largest wine-grape grower in the state. Its dozens of wine brands inclue Napa Creek Winery, ForestVille Vineyard and Salmon Creek Cellars, but it is best known for wines under the label of Charles Shaw, better known as "Two Buck Chuck," sold exclusively through the Trader Joe's chain of specialty markets.

Of nearly 20,000 acres of wine grapes cultivated in Sacramento County, Bronco owns 1,000, concentrated in the Herald area east of Galt, in the shadows of the mothballed Rancho Seco nuclear power plant, whose twin cooling towers could house Bronco's biggest fermentation tanks yet, though no one has suggested that. Indeed, beyond indications that Bronco is looking at building a new production facility, no one with the company would discuss the proposal with Wines & Vines.

Monday, August 29, 2011

How About Wisconsin Wine With That Cheese?

Wendy Staller, with milk tanks used to ferment wine
In deciding what grapes to plant, California vineyardists don't have to consider varieties bred to withstand temperatures that plunge some 30 degrees below zero. Historically, they've looked to comparably temperate climates in Europe for what they should cultivate, and consequently have had success with such long-established and highly regarded varieties as cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and chardonnay.

Growers with a hankering to cultivate wine grapes in the challenging upper Midwest of the United States, on the other hand, haven't had that luxury. They've had to look elsewhere, mainly inward, to breed grape varieties able to withstand brutal temperatures and deep snow in winter, high humidity in the summer, and a fleeting and compact growing season. After decades of experimentation, they're succeeding. Today, in states such as Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois a nascent wine culture is taking hold, helped along, no doubt, by the locavore movement.

We got an inkling of what Wisconsin winemakers are up against when we stopped by Staller Estate Vineyard and Winery in Richmond Township last week. It's in the southeastern portion of the state, just east of Janesville and south of Whitewater. This is traditional dairy land, the gently rolling landscape lush with densely planted soybeans and corn.

A former dairy farm, in fact, is where the husband-and-wife team of Joe and Wendy Staller, Wisconsin natives with degrees in biology and chemistry from the University of Wisconsin, Whitewater, set up Staller Estate in 2007. The farm's former machine shed houses winemaking gear in the back, a sunny tasting room up front. Their stainless-steel fermentation vats are former 600-gallon milk tanks. Outside, two acres of grapes back up to a field of corn. The couple tends a second vineyard of nearly an acre a few miles to the north. With their own grapes and with fruit they buy from equally daring nearby growers, they're making around 2,500 cases a year, most of it sold locally through retail shops, restaurants and their tasting room. Not surprisingly, guests at the tasting room can refresh their palates with tastes of Wisconsin cheese, which on the day we visited were a first-rate parmesan and a fruity and rich cranberry cheddar.

Wendy Staller in the home frontenac vineyard
Their lineup is extensive - 11 wines were being poured when we stopped by - but their varieties are likely to be unfamiliar to Californians. "We have no chardonnay, no cabernet sauvignon, and nothing that tastes like them," warns Wendy Staller at the outset. She oversees day-to-day operations of the winery while her husband works off-site as a chemist in the research and development of polymers. Both were home winemakers and brewers before going commercial. She periodically flies to Sacramento for short-term concentrated classes in viticulture and enology at UC Davis.

Their packaging differs from the California standard in two respects. For one, they market their wines by proprietary name (Whitewater Rush, Maiden Blush, Lady in Red) rather than by varietal. Secondly, they don't vintage-date their wines, usually a sign that a winery blends wines from more than one harvest; at Staller Estate, however, vintage dating is eschewed because the wines almost without exception are made for consuming within a year of their release, explains Wendy Staller. Incidentally, their wines customarily weigh in at around 12 percent alcohol, and prices are in the $10-to$16 range. (For more information, check out their website.)

Fronteanac, close to maturity for harvesting
 If their wines were marketed by varietal, California visitors would become acquainted with such unusual grapes as la crescent, marechal foch, marquette, niagra, isabella and frontenac. Many of them were developed at the University of Minnesota, several with the assistance of the late Wisconsin dairy farmer Elmer Swenson, dubbed "the patron saint of cold-climate grape growing." His goal, as well as the goal of other grape breeders, was to come up with varieties that would capture the flavors and complexities of traditional European strains while being hardy enough to survive the upper Midwest's trying weather.

The wines they yield at Staller Estate are cleanly aromatic and refreshingly fruity. Several of them are sweeter than Californians are used to, but their acidity generally is so high that the wines come off more snappy than sticky. The only clearly dry white is the Blanc de Crescent, whose apricot notes and razory finish suggested a finely honed riesling. Their most popular wine is Horizon Cuvee, a distinctly sweet white blend based mostly on the grape catawba. I especially liked their Estate Reserve, an herbal, earthy, peppery, medium-bodied dry red made with marechal foch.

Wendy Staller was correct. None would be mistaken for cabernet sauvignon or chardonnay, but several could fill the same role at the table. Indeed, a bottle of the Estate Reserve filled in splendidly for zinfandel or syrah when it was opened to accompany a slab of grilled tri-tip when we got back to the farm where we were staying.

Wisconsin grape growers and winemakers, whose numbers are growing, face more challenges than a brief season and cold temperatures, though those obstacles are formidable. The growing season, for one, is tight; the threat of freezing temperatures lingers deep into spring, and snow is apt to fall even in October. "Mid-May to October is our growing season," says Wendy Staller. "It was cold this year to June." A torrid summer throughout the Midwest, however, helped develop the grapes quickly, with the frontenac just outside the tasting room looking mature enough to be picked most any moment, three weeks ahead of the customary start to the harvest.

Raccoons, turkeys and Japanese beetles complicate the couple's hopes of bringing in a full crop. "They live in the corn and soybeans," says Wendy Staller of the especially troublesome Japanese beetles. "They annihilate everything." Deer also can be a nuisance, but in contrast to California vineyards, generally secured with high fences, the Stallers haven't fenced their vineyard. A pretty effective deterrent for deer, they have found, is to carve up bars of Irish Spring soap into eight pieces, wrap indvidual squares in nylon, and tie them to a trellis every two or three vines. It might not be much of an endorsement for Irish Spring, but so far the technique repells deer and their voracious appetite.

Estate Reserve, made with marechal foch
The Stallers are showing that fine wine can be made in uncharacteristic styles with unfamiliar grapes, and that they have an audience. Wisconsin likely will never challenge California's dominance in the production of domestic wine. But it is showing that fine wines can be made in areas traditionally seen as more suitable for hay, corn, oats and cheese. Indeed, a survey earlier this summer by the Wisconsin Wine Growers Association found that the number of bonded wineries in the state jumped from 50 a few years ago to 73 today. Most of them supplement homegrown wine with wines made from grapes or juice imported from other states, primarily California, New York and Washington - the Stallers use some fruit from the Finger Lakes district of New York - but the report was optimistic that demand among the state's vintners for Wisconsin-grown grapes would continue to grow.

By what we tasted at Staller Estate, we'd have to agree that despite the challenges of making wine in such a seemingly inhospitable setting there is a place on the table for Wisconsin wine, right alongside the many cheeses for which the state already is celebrated.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Sweet Talk About Sweet Wine

Grape grower Terri Harvey tends lamb on the grill
Farmers fret - about the weather, the market, the pests, the unpredictable tastes of consumers. The wonder is that this tension so rarely shows itself in frustration and anger. On the contrary, farmers aren't just stoic, they're steadily charming and gracious regardless of whether business is bright or dark, by and large. Their glasses are perpetually half full.

They were last night, at least, when members of the Amador County Grape Growers Association met beside a quiet pond on the bucolic grounds of the Amador Flower Farm for their annual potluck and barbecue. For good eating and plenty of good wine, there's nothing quite like a gathering of grape growers to bring it all together.

After cuts of hog and lamb from the county fair's livestock auction were devoured, but before the dessert table of berry pies and brownies got raided, the growers paused to hear a few talks concerning the state of the trade. Fiddletown grower Dick Martella moderated the session, recalling at the outset that "some of us were hit pretty hard" by a spring freeze, then wrapping up the evening by noting that the ripening of grapes is running a month later than usual, raising the possibility that fall rains will move in before all the fruit is off the vines. "We're going to need all of October and half of November probably," he said of the forthcoming harvest, sounding not at all fretful, even if he is. Overall, however, he was downright upbeat. The extent of damage from the spring freeze, for one, won't fully be known until the fruit is brought in. And then there's the strength of the American wine trade, despite the shakiness of much of the rest of the economy. The wine market in the U.S. grew by between six percent and eight percent the past year, with exports particularly impressive, up 16 percent to 18 percent, said Martella.

Another speaker, Erica Moyer, a partner in Turrentine Brokerage of Novato, which deals in the buying and selling of wine in bulk - wines without a retail commitment - drew an even sunnier picture for Amador County growers. Of all the reasons she outlined for optimism - a weak dollar that encourages exports of California wine while discouraging imports, two successive years of relatively light crops that mean higher prices for dwindling inventories - her most surprising observation concerned a sharp rise in winemaker demand for zinfandel, the backbone of Amador County's wine industry.

But Moyer wasn't talking so much of zinfandel bottled as a varietal but of zinfandel as the base for proprietary blends in the hot $10-to-$15 price niche. These wines are meant for everyday quaffing, and they're generally made somewhat sweet, a style with which American consumers are quickly becoming more comfortable. "Proprietary blends are coming back, and zinfandel is the base for that product," said Moyer. "We didn't see this coming. For growers, this is the time to take advantage of it...I wish you had more grapes on the vine."

So, no doubt, do the growers, but they showed no signs of anguish over the matter as the party broke up and they ambled toward their vehicles.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Two To Tango In Amador

"Established in 1993, Renwood Winery quickly gained a reputation as a premier producer in California's Gold Valley."

Gold Valley? Don't try to find that in a list of California wine appellations. Shenandoah Valley is more like it. The reference to "Gold Valley" is deep in a brief press release announcing that Ren Acquisition Inc. has completed its purchase of Renwood.

Ren Acquisition was the sole bidder for the winery last month at an auction in federal bankruptcy court in Sacramento. The price was $6,950,000.

Ren Acquisition is a privately held company chaired by Alejandro Pedro Bulgheroni, an Argentine whose wealth up to now has relied largely on oil and gas exploitation. In addition to being president of Bridas International Holdings Ltd. with corporate headquarters in Houston, Bulgheroni is counselor of the Buenas Aires Stock Exchange, vice president of the Argentine-Uruguyan Chamber of Commerce, and vice president of the Argentine Chamber of Hydrocarbons Producers, according to Bloomberg Businesweek.

Though the press release doesn't discuss his specific plans for Renwood, it says the winery will retain its commitment to "preserving the region's flagship varietals" while adding innovations and resources "to elevate winemaking to the highest quality level possible."

While Dave Crippen will remain as Renwood's head winemaker, Ren Acquisition's board of directors includes veteran Argentine winemaker Carlos Pulenta, who will be Bulgheroni's primary wine consultant in Shenandoah Valley. Pulenta owns Bodega Vistalba in Mendoza, where he makes wines under the Vistalba, Progenie and Tomero labels, and olive oil under the brand Corte V. His expansive and modern estate also includes a posh lodge and the French restaurant La Bourgogne.

"It is an exciting new opportunity for our team to work with the terroir of Renwood," the press release quotes Bulgheroni as saying. "We believe that the addition of zinfandel from Amador County to our portfolio of wines will be the first step in our international commitment to pioneer winemaking."

Monday, August 8, 2011

Prospecting In Placer County

Coincidence or conspiracy? Whatever, wineries along the Placer County Wine Trail this weekend had plenty of competition from their neighbors. Around just about every bend motorists were greeted by signs tacked to utility poles and fence posts beckoning them to this garage sale or that yard sale. We took so many detours from our programmed route that the generally pleasant and helpful GPS lady really got on my nerves with her repititious reminders that she was "recalculating" our way.

Only a handful of Placer County's nearly 20 wineries join this yearly event, which includes educational seminars, food pairings and tastes of current or pending releases at wineries scattered from Auburn to Lincoln. Don't know why more wineries don't sign on to the tour, but I suspect some may be so small they'd be overwhelmed by attendees if they did participate.

Irie Gengler of Source, at Lone Buffalo
 At any rate, the outing provides the curious with a snapshot of where Placer County's wine trade stands and where it may be going.

Where it stands: It's young, and still learning to walk. Vintners aren't yet sure of the direction in which they should head. A couple stubbornly are gambling on chardonnay, despite its dismal record in the Sierra foothills, seen as too hot and arid for this cool-climate variety. A couple also believe in cabernet sauvignon, which also has yielded mixed results in the Mother Lode. With cabernet sauvignon, however, the outlook is more promising, to judge by a couple of sturdy and lingering interpretations by the new but quick-out-of-the-gate Wise Villa Winery of Lincoln.

Where it's going: Based on this weekend's admittedly casual exploration, if I were a Placer County grape grower or winemaker I'd be sure my vineyard and cellar were devoted to such Rhone Valley varieties as viognier, grenache and mourvedre. Either as varietal or blend, they provided the spunkiest wines of the tour. Mt. Vernon Winery of Auburn has a new winner in its 2010 Cuvee Blanc, a 50/50 blend of viognier and roussanne packed with surprising spice as well as the honeysuckle and peach traditionally associated with the varieties. Vina Castallano of Auburn was pouring a 2006 mourvedre that was all earthy fruit and heavenly silk. Lone Buffalo Vineyards of Auburn had both a vivacious 2010 viognier and a perfumey and complex European-styled blend of syrah, mourvedre and grenache under the proprietary name "Where the Buffalo Roam." And Casque Wines of Loomis was pouring its newly released 2008 Calotte, a blend of grenache, syrah and mourvedre that combined deftly a briary earthiness with a bright cherry fruitiness. The grapes that went into these wines weren't necessarily grown in Placer County, but if not they were from neighboring foothill counties with similar growing conditions, underlining their chances of also doing well in and about Auburn. As to the grape and wine most closely associated with the foothills, zinfandel, it's also showing well in Placer County, with interpretations ranging from the ripe and rich at Dono dal Cielo Vineyard & Winery of Newcastle to the lean and spicy at Wise Villa Winery.

At Dono dal Cielo, Karen McGillivray shows that veraison is under way
 In Placer County, the wine trade still is family-run and hands-on. At every stop, the principals were behind the counter pouring samples, conducting exploratory and educational tastings, or leading tours into their vineyard. When they delegated a chore, it generally was to son or daughter, niece or nephew. There are no corporate wineries in Placer County. Vineyards and wineries almost invariably are owned by people who have been in the area for years. They've studied the terrain and the climate, and calculated that just maybe they could make a living - or supplement their living - by growing grapes and making wine here.

The longterm viability of the wine business in Placer County is still uncertain, but it shares with its foothill neighbors north and south similar soils, rainfall, exposures, temperatures and the like, so its prospects are positive.

No need to wait until next year's Placer County Wine Trail to visit the area's wineries, most of which are open at least on weekends. And without so many garage and yard sales competing for your attention now, you'll have more room in the car trunk for wine. Of course, you'll also miss the bargains we scored - four pairs of shoes, four candles, a new metal pull for the back gate, and a surprisingly unsoiled copy of "Gardening for Dummies."

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Bill Easton Lets Each Wine Speak For Itself

Bill Easton of Terre Rouge and Easton Wines
Earlier today I had my yearly lunch with Bill Easton. He's a longtime Amador County winemaker who owns two brands, Domaine de la Terre Rouge and Easton Wines. He's a rarity in that his wines don't reflect a singular house style, even though, ironically, he releases wines under a secondary label called House. Indeed, one of the five wines we shared was the House 2010 California Rose, based largely on grenache but also including mourvedre and roussanne. With clarity and balance, it fulfilled rose's traditional assignment, which is to be a wine uncomplicated, unchallenging and most of all just downright refreshing. It's the kind of wine I've come to expect to find at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op. Bill Easton just makes the wines, he doesn't market them, so he didn't know whether the Co-op actually stocks the wine, though the store has been a fan of his releases in the past. Though he isn't much into sales, I think he was headed in the direction of the Co-op as we went our separate ways.

But to get back to Easton's lack of a "house" style. One of the pleasures in tasting his new and pending releases is their variability. As you start to taste his wines you can't predict what's in store for your palate, unless you recognize at the outset that Easton is principally a student of place and time. He seeks to seize in his wines a sense of their origin, both their setting and their vintage. He's pretty much locked in to variety and clone at the outset, but beyond that he's careful to delineate ripeness, yeast, oak and other factors that contribute to a wine's overall statement.

As a consequence, each wine has to be taken on its own. Each has something different to say beyond the frame of reference provided by varietal. When you drive through the foothills, a new vista or something new in a familiar vista greets you at each curve, and that's what it is like to taste through a flight of Easton's wines. The Easton 2010 Sierra Foothills Monarch Mine Vineyard Sauvignon Blance was true to the varietal in its fresh and forward tropical fruit, but the two clones he used, the high elevation of the vineyard where the grapes were grown, and his fondness for keeping the wine for a long time on its lees resulted in a wine not far removed from key-lime pie in its tang and creaminess. The Terre Rouge 2008 Amador County Viognier wasn't over the top with honeysuckle, peaches and oil, as is common with so many California interpretations of the varietal, but leaned toward a more European take, its faintly apricot aroma and flavor bearing a spiciness both unusual and welcome.

Easton makes several zinfandels, but the Easton 2009 Fiddletown Zinfandel is a new addition to his portfolio. It's a departure from the standard definition of zinfandel in the foothills in its suppleness and elegance. The fruit runs as much to plums as the region's customary raspberries and blackberries. The tannins are more reserved than usual for the area. Despite its youth, it's ready to drink now, but it isn't shy; it has the backbone to stand up to sweet and juicy meats.

The most curious wine in his lineup was the last, the Terre Rouge 2006 Shenandoah Valley Sentinel Oak Pyramid Block Syrah. As with zinfandel, Easton makes several syrahs each vintage, but year after year this is my favorite. I can't recall an earlier version as rich, gamy, feral and even French as this. In its earthy and exotic smell, it will snap back your head, but it is so alluring you won't be able to help yourself, and you'll return time and again not only to sniff but to sip, then drink enthusiastically. It would be fun to see how this wine would do in a commercial wine competition. It could go either way. Judges could love it or loathe it, but I suspect that those with an open and adventurous mind would fall for it. Then they'd end up wagering among themselves just what estate in the Rhone Valley produced it.

We met, as we do each year, at the restaurant Spataro. I always go in there kind of holding my breath, not knowing what to expect in terms of service or food. The place was jammed, a good sign in these troubled economic times, especially today. Service started jerky but soon settled into a groove. As in the past, Spataro does a commendable job with fritto misto, the calamari and chickpeas crisp, the garlic mayonnaise fitting in weight and balance, but watch out for the slices of jalapeno chile peppers; if not for that heat, the sauvignon blanc, the viognier or the rose would be an ideal match. The Thursday lunch special each summer week is skirt steak with arugula, parmesan and fried onions; I don't know how they provide such a substantial and complete dish for $10, but the juicy sweetness of the beef was perfectly matched by both the bright berry fruit of the zinfandel and the savory exoticism of the syrah. I'm glad Bill Easton brought the wines; none of his wines, oddly, are on the wine list.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Harvesting The Online Vineyard

- Over at Palate Press, Robert Ehlert, a former colleague from The Sacramento Bee, emphasizes the positive from Friday's torrid wine tasting at the California State Fair. Scheduling and budgeting issues prompted the fair's executives to scale down the annual soiree (no restaurants were dispensing signature tastes this time around) and to move it from inside the Convention Center downtown to an outdoor setting at Cal Expo. It was a gamble, and it didn't pay off, especially by starting the event at 3 p.m., only about the hottest time of the day. Winemakers could have left their cork pullers at home, given that the heat did a pretty good job of pushing corks from bottles regardless of whether vintners wanted them open. Wine pourers were steamed, with several bailing out before the party was to end. Indoor space is difficult to come by at Cal Expo during the State Fair, and that isn't likely to change unless the city's often-discussed proposed basketball arena and entertainment complex is built on the fairgrounds. As a consequence, this year's experiment isn't likely to be attempted again next year; if it is, move the start to 6 p.m., and bring in about 100 more giant fans and misters.

- Yep. Yep. Nope. Nope. Yep. Yep. Nope. That's more of less my checklist as I read W. Blake Gray's posting about what he learned during his first trip to wine regions in Argentina and Chile earlier this year. Coincidentally, I also made my first trip to the two countries this spring (fall in the southern hemisphere). I suspect we visited different wineries, and that may explain why I don't agree with a couple of his observations. For one, most of the vintners I visited didn't suffer from a "house palate," by which I think he means that many winemakers in the two countries have an elevated perception of their flagship wines. By my experience, the vintners with whom I tasted seemed eager to learn about both the strengths and weaknesses of their wines, and rarely were they defensive if a wine was seen to be one-dimensional, overwrought, short and the like. And before our next trips to the two countries Blake and I need to swap the names of the restaurants we've visited. That way, I'll know which to avoid and he'll know where he can find succulent Argentine beef and finely handled Chilean seafood.

- For those of us who have lost track of the score in the wine community's continuing debate over the good and bad of rating wines by points, Paul Franson brings us up to speed with a timely and comprehensive report in Wines & Vines. Basically, his feature looks closely at a group of industry heavyweights who are circulating a "manifesto" urging wine enthusiasts to abandon the practice of relying on scores to buy or sell wine. Among other things, the manifestas claim scores are "clumsy," "condescending," "simplistic" and "often largely inaccurate." I agree with just about everything they say, and while I've never used scores and find them amusing in their hopeless precision and irksome in their proliferation, I just can't get too exercised about whether they should or shouldn't be used. Robert M. Parker Jr. may or may not have been the first to apply the schoolhouse 100-point scale to wine, but he's certainly largely responsible for popularizing it. Nonetheless, even he has pointed out that points are just a shorthand guide to a wine's overall quality, like stars in restaurant reviews. Just about everything the manifesto-signers want in a wine review - talk about structure, balance, tannin, fruit and so forth - is in the commentary that accompanies the scores given by Parker and other thoughtful critics. Just as no one should expect much depth from tweets, no one should expect much insight from scores.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Lake County Wines: Lean, Lithe, Luminous

At first glance, the vineyards of Lake County don't look exceptional. Granted, some struggle up fairly steep slopes, but for the most part they sweep across valley floor, angle up draws and curve over ridges in the same lush and tidy order as vines in most other California appellations.

With a closer look, however, you begin to realize just how different this setting is for grape vines. There's that lake in the middle of them all, for one, the largest freshwater body of water in California. Then you notice how red the soil is, much of it deposited by the county's most monumental physical landmark besides Clear Lake, the volcano Mount Konocti. What catches your eye next is the glint of sunshine off bits of obsidian in the soil, something you aren't likely to run across in many other California vineyards. Then someone will mention that Lake County's more than 8,000 acres of vineyards are among the highest in the state, starting at around 1,500 feet and stretching up to 2,400 feet. And then someone else will point out how clear the air is, and how intense the sunlight. That's when you realize that you haven't seen a shadow all day, the light being so blinding.

Lake County's 140 wine-grape growers and nearly 40 vintners are trying to get a handle on how this richly textured environment shapes their wines. They are convinced their wines stand apart from others in the state, but they're unclear on just what makes them distinctive and how to deliver that message to consumers. Thus, the 13 judges at the third-annual Lake County Wine Awards Competition late last week were urged to look not only for gold-, silver- and bronze-medal wines but for seams of familiarity that ran from wine to wine, regardless of varietal, blend, vintage and the like.

The exercise was complicated in that judges didn't generally know the appellation where a wine's grapes had been grown, other than it had to be in Lake County. In addition to the broad appellation "Lake County," the area has five sub-appellations - Clear Lake, Red Hills, High Valley, Benmore Valley and Guenoc Valley. They are widely scattered and widely variable in geology and climate.

So, broadly speaking, what distinguishes the wines of Lake County, regardless of specific source? If someone were scanning a shelf of wines from Napa Valley, Alexander Valley, Shenandoah Valley and various other California appellations, what could they count on in a wine from Lake County? After tasting half the 180 wines in the competition the first day of the judging, then all the gold-medal wines and the sweeptstakes nominees the second day, I felt that Lake County wines by and large stand apart for their lean structures, their firm but not unforgiving spines, and their dryness. With very few exceptions, there was no fat on these wines. They were lithe more than muscular, and with a stark clarity in their fruitiness. They were frisky wines; I can't recall one I would call tired. Among the whites, a hint of peach was often evident regardless of varietal. Among the reds, the fruit flavors were bright, pointed and red more than black or blue. The spiciness that emerged in several reds was reminiscent of pie spices.

When the results were unveilved, something else became clear: Lake County offers terrific value. This is largely because historically and to this day much of its fruit is sent to wineries outside the county, wineries in places like neighboring Napa Valley and Sonoma County, where it gets lost and unrecognized in blends. Lake County is a young California wine region, still scrambling to establish an identity for itself, and as it does the prices that consumers pay for its wines will rise. For now, you get a lot of wine for $10, $15 or $20 the bottle.

Lots of different grape varieties are grown in Lake County, but it is most closely identified with sauvignon blanc and cabernet sauvignon, though its zinfandel and petite sirah also attact avid followings. Sauvignon blanc is firmly established as the county's leading variety, yielding wines of uncommon assertiveness, complexity and length. The varietal's authority was reaffirmed at this year's competition when the white sweepstakes went to Jed Steele's Shooting Star 2010 Lake County Sauvignon Blanc ($11), a delightfully zesty take on the varietal.

The red sweepstakes round produced a surprise winner, the hefty and warm Chacewater Winery 2009 Lake County Red Hills Syrah ($18). It was a surprise in that Chacewater, based at Kelseyville, is a brand new winery, and in that syrah hasn't yet developed any more traction in Lake County than it has in most other California wine regions.

But maybe syrah is finding a happy home in Lake County. The rose sweepstakes went to the Ceago Vinegarden 2010 Clear Lake Del Lago Syrah Rose ($16), an extraordinarily juicy, spicy, balanced and long representative of the genre. It was nominated by the panel on which I sat, where it clearly generated the most unanimity of the day.

As to cabernet sauvignon, I'm mystified as to why it is so extensively planted in Lake County, and why growers and vintners talk it up so much. Maybe they have to, given that the varietal seems to have so little to say on its own. I confess, however, that I speak with something of a handicap. The panel on which I sat didn't judge cabernet sauvignons. The panel that did, however, sent only one to the sweepstakes round. While I rather liked its bright Bing fruit and its gracefulness, it finished far out of the running in the sweepstakes voting, behind wines made with petite sirah, barbera and Rhone Valley varieties like syrah and grenache, all of which may have more potential in the area than cabernet sauvignon, at least to judge by this year's competition results. Things don't seem to have changed much since I judged wine at the Lake County Fair in 1985, when not a single cabernet sauvignon won a gold medal. Neither did a sauvignon blanc, however, and look how far it's come over the past three decades, so maybe there's still hope for cabernet sauvignon in Lake County.