Monday, September 26, 2011

Holiday Wines Rolled Out In Old Sacramento

Old Sac/West Sac, yesterday meeting the future
In Sacramento, the year-end holiday season doesn't start with Thanksgiving or even Halloween, but when a local wine distributor holds a tasting of new releases from its portfolio of wineries. This year, that honor goes to Astoria Wine Group, which this afternoon convened at The Firehouse restaurant in Old Sacramento a tasting of wines from 16 client wineries. Its lineup of producers is impressive, including such highly regarded brands as Preston of Dry Creek, Grgich Hills, Rombauer, Boeger and Ridge.

Most of the attendees were restaurateurs and wine merchants from the greater Sacramento area. If I were in their shoes, I know which wines I'd be ordering to enhance wine list and store shelf as the holiday season draws near:

- Just about anything from Frog's Leap Winery of Napa Valley. Its reputation for wines of clarity and finesse was reaffirmed by its snappy 2010 Rutherford sauvignon blanc ($18), its wiry yet vibrant 2008 Rutherford merlot ($34), and its remarkably complex yet approachable 2008 Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon ($42). Owner/winemaker John Williams has been recognized for decades for crafting wines of understated elegance, their alcohols restrained yet their voice profound. The merlot, for example, contains just 12.9 percent alcohol, yet it's difficult to imagine an interpretation of the varietal with more fresh and lasting juiciness.

- Under the brand Pey Marin, Jonathan Pey has been showing for years that California can yield a riesling of abiding European flavor and structure, but until today I wasn't aware of another label under his command, Textbook. With Textbook, he aims to provide consumers with wines of Napa Valley quality and stature, but at prices more likely to be associated with Sonoma, Mendocino or Lake. He does it by buying fruit from growers he regards highly, locking up longterm contracts, and crushing the fruit in borrowed quarters. In other words, his overhead is low. Thus, he can turn out a 2009 Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon chock full of cherries and mocha, yet with pliable tannins and refreshing acidity, and at just $24 or so the bottle. He calls it a "Tuesday night" cabernet, but it has such imperial breeding (Rutherford, Atlas Peak, Yountville) that no one will turn it away from the Saturday table. Pey also makes a wonderfully intense and long pinot noir under a third label, The Forager; his 2010 Sonoma Coast pinot noir under that label sells for only around $25, even though it is packed with the sort of concentrated fruit expected of the varietal at about twice that price.

- Late last week, I visited Preston of Dry Creek in northern Sonoma County, but in the tasting room I somehow passed up the 2009 L. Preston. I was able to correct that oversight at the Astoria tasting. The L. Preston ($38) is a blend of grape varieties traditionally associated with France's Rhone Valley, such as syrah, cinsault, carignane and grenache. This wine is a holiday party all in its own; it has brightness, glamour, drama and complexity. Imagine the most mysterious yet alluring guest you can meet at a crowded soiree; by way of introduction, all you have to say is, "L. Preston, I presume."

- Everybody seemed to congregate at the end of the table where Ridge Vineyards was pouring its Monte Bello, which year after year is perhaps California's most eagerly anticipated and highly acclaimed cabernet-based wine. The 2007 that was being poured lived up to expectation with such monumental yet balanced proportions that it should be put in the cellar for the next decade to experience just how grand it ultimately will be. But Ridge also is recognized for its zinfandels, which provide a lesson in just how varied California's terroir is. The 2008 Geyserville ($35) is a study in ripeness and suppleness, while the 2007 Pagani Ranch ($35) is all brutal sunshine and abiding earth. But the Ridge zinfandel I'd put first on wine list or shelf is the 2009 Ponzo ($28) from Sonoma County's Russian River Valley, where the dicey conditions of the vintage yielded a take on the varietal that slaps you in the face with its prickly raspberry fruit, but doesn't sting you so much that you don't ask for another taste, and another after that; here's a zinfandel to appreciate today for all the freshness and spiciness the varietal can delivier, but it also has the acidity and equilibrium to age well for the next five years, if you can hold on to any of it for that long.

- Boeger Winery in El Dorado County has built its following on a quality-to-value ratio that must be the envy of the trade. In short, you almost always get more than what you thought you were paying for when you picked up a bottle with Boeger on the label. That was reaffirmed at the tasting with both its 2009 barbera ($16), characterized by no less fruit but brighter acidity than earlier vintages, and the 2008 tempranillo ($12), which with its light earthiness and essence of tobacco made it the perfect companion for a plate of tapas heavy on the rich smoky meats.

Let the partying and the gift giving begin.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Back To The Future In Sonoma

Judge Jill Ditmire during a break from the competition
Sonoma County can run from its history, but it can't hide. In recent decades, Sonoma County vintners have tried to raise their esteem by promoting most ambitiously their cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and pinot noir. They are the noble grapes, much more highly regarded than plebian zinfandel, the native son so responsible for establishing Sonoma County's reputation for solid, forthright wines. Zinfandel, however, doesn't come with the breeding or polish to sit comfortably alongside cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir at a handsome dinner table in an ornate chateau.

For sure, Sonoma County has such varied topography and such wide-ranging microclimates that the more cherished grapes have found settings in which they excell. Just consider the cabernet sauvignon of Alexander Valley, the pinot noir of Russian River Valley, the chardonnay of Carneros.

Several examples of each varietal were in the running for sweepstakes honors at this week's Sonoma County Harvest Fair commercial wine competition in Santa Rosa. In the end, however, a marvelous zinfandel, specifically the big, juicy and unusually spicy Wilson Winery 2009 Dry Creek Valley Sawyer Zinfandel ($36) won the red-wine sweepstakes, arguably the most eagerly sought of the three highest awards the competition bestows.

The populist bent of the sweepstakes judges continued with the white wine sweepstakes, where a zippy pinot gris won their palates over four chardonnays, two sauvignon blancs and such fashionable newbies as viognier and albarino. The winner was the Kenwood Vineyards 2010 Russian River Valley Pinot Gris ($16).

The specialty-wine sweepstakes, in which various styles of wine, from sparkling to late harvest are grouped, was won by the brassy and balanced Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards 2007 Carneros Brut Rose ($42).

In an earlier posting here, I speculated that the gorgeous petite sirah our panel sent to the sweepstakes had originated in the Russian River Valley, in large part for its floral smell, lush fruit and supple tannins. Had I wagered on that, I would have lost. The wine is the Carol Shelton Wines 2008 Rockpile Reserve Petite Sirah ($40).  Rockpile is a small appellation that parallels much of Lake Sonoma just to the northwest of Dry Creek Valley. Of our six gold-medal petite sirahs, whittled down from an original field of 38, the Carol Shelton was the only one from Rockpile. Four of the six were from Dry Creek Valley, and just one was from Russian River Valley.

Our panel also judged pinot noirs priced $35 or more. We had 74 of them, and gave gold medals to 10. From that group, we named one best of class, making it eligible for sweepstakes consideration. I've no idea where it finished in the voting, just that it didn't win. Of the 10 gold-medal pinot noirs, eight were from Russian River Valley, including our sweepstakes candidate, the T.R. Elliott 2008 Russian River Valley Burgonet Pinot Noir ($42). It's one big pinot noir, but not with a whole lot of the cherry/berry charm I look for in the varietal. My votes for best of class went to the silken yet august Balletto Vineyards 2009 Russian River Valley Burnside Road Vineyard Pinot Noir ($40) and the sweetly juicy and adroitly balanced Morris Ranch 2009 Sonoma County Middle Block Pinot Noir ($48). (Our panel chose its best-of-class wines by acclamation voting, meaning each of the five panel members could vote for as many or as few of the candidates as he or she wanted; the T.R. Elliott got three votes, while four other wines got two each.)

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Sonoma Pinot Noir: Why The Excitement?

As I said in a post earlier today, our five-person panel at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair wine competition would spend much of this Thursday judging perhaps the most cherished class of the event - pinot noirs priced $35 or more. Why should this class prompt more excitement than any other? Well, while Sonoma County is respected for the assertiveness and grace of its zinfandel, its pinot noir generates the most buzz among wine geeks these days. The county, after all, encompases such highly regarded pinot-noir districts as Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast and Carneros. And any wine that sells for at least $35 better deliver juice of extraordinary caliber; after all, many wines priced at half that or less can be more than just satisfying. At any rate, we just completed our assignment.

I wish I could say we were more excited about the high-end pinot noirs than we were. We were pleased with the candidate we nominated for Friday's sweepstakes consideration, but I doubt that any of us came away from the table convinced that we had an overall winner, or that we even would lobby aggressively for its consideration as the best red wine in the competition. It's a fine pinot noir, but not characteristic of what Sonoma County is capable of producing. That's my opinion, not the panel's. Other judges to my left and right well may feel differently.

As a group, the 74 pinot noirs we judged were concentrated, muscular and truly representative of the strawberry and cherry fruit that the varietal can yield at its best. We ended up giving 10 of the wines gold medals, a pretty high percentage for any class. That said, I nevertheless left the chamber wishing that the wines had expressed more complexity, intricacy, uplift and focus than what we found. By and large, the wines were true and lush, but their charm was all up-front, without subtlety, complexity and longevity. There were exceptions, certainly, but as a group they didn't articulate why so many Sonoma producers are so high on the varietal, particularly for releases priced $35 or more, and I have a hunch that many of these are priced at much more than $35. At that price niche, I expect pinot noirs of more layering, complexity and elegance than what we found today.

That said, the fog has lifted, the temperature is balmy, and tonight's barbecue looks to be a highlight of the gathering. Now I have to go check on how the Dow did today.

Sonoma Bright Spot: Petite Sirah

Yesterday, our panel at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair wine competition tasted 106 wines. Our smallest class consisted of six gewurztraminers, our largest 38 petite sirahs. All 1,000 wines in the judging must come in bottle or box bearing a label with one of Sonoma County's many officially recognized wine appellations. We were told that; we won't see bottles and boxes until after the judging, which is conducted entirely blind. All we are told is varietal or style and in some instances the price category. None of California's wine counties is as diverse as Sonoma, which includes such highly regarded districts as Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Alexander Valley and Chalk Hill. That makes this competition especially exciting.

For me, the most enlightening and encouraging opening-day class was the petite sirahs. I'd no idea Sonoma County is turning out so much petite sirah, though the grape long has played a significant role in the county's wine development. Of the 38 petite sirahs, six got a gold medal. After tasting through four flights, we chose our best of class, which will go up for sweepstakes consideration on Friday. The voting wasn't close. All five judges of our panel agreed that a petite sirah we know only as No. 9 in Class 24 was the best in the group. It's a wonderfully supple take on the varietal, with bright fruit flavors, approachable tannins, refreshing acidity and a note of spice. Bring on the cassoulet. Mostly, it was one graceful wine. As to appellation, I'd wager on Russian River Valley, recognized more for chardonnay and pinot noir than petite sirah, though past experience has taught me not to disregard the area in looking for petite sirahs of lushness and equilibrium.

Other classes weren't so enthralling. We struggled to come up with gold medals in the class of merlots priced under $25 (just one out of 22 entries) and the class of cabernet sauvignons priced under $25 (just one out of 30 entries). Why were the wines such a letdown? I can't speak for the other judges - Deborah Parker Wong, Ann Littlefield, Wildred Wong and Paul Lukacs - but for me too many entries in both classes didn't pop with varietal clarity. The merlots generally were pleasant but without distinction, the cabernet sauvignons bulky, warm and ripe, with little lift; I think it safe to say that we were expecting more from Sonoma County, even at that price range.

As I write this, fog clings to the hills about Santa Rosa. The Dow is down nearly 300 points. But aside from that, it will be a bright and uplifting day, I'm confident, if for no other reason than that our panel has been told that our assignments today include a class of pinot noirs priced above $35; we're to judge 74 of them. Given Sonoma County's reputation for much of the more captivating pinot noir in California, how can we miss?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A Riesling Scrum

New Zealand: Sauvignon blanc. End of story.

Not so fast, says David Strada, longtime U.S. marketing manager for the trade group New Zealand Winegrowers. Actually, he didn't precisely say that. But his actions did.

Every once in awhile, Strada convenes a tasting of New Zealand wines in San Francisco. His latest, at the Vietnamese restaurant Ana Mandara in Ghirardelli Square, didn't include a single sauvignon blanc. He also didn't include pinot noir or chardonnay, two other varietals generating buzz for New Zealand's young wine industry.

Instead, Strada presented a lineup of what he likes to call "the aromatics" - white wines distinguished in part for their forward, delarative scents. We're talking gewurztraminer, pinot gris and riesling. In today's marketplace, they're underdog wines, much like Namibia, Georgia and Japan in the Rugby World Cup, which, coincidentally, is under way in New Zealand.

Nevertheless, Strada is confident that New Zealand's "aromatics" can find a place in the American wine scene. After tasting through most of the wines, I don't share his confidence so much for pinot gris as I do for riesling. The most inventive wrinkle to the tasting was the "Riesling Challenge." Twelve New Zealand winemakers were delivered riesling grapes harvested virtually simultaneously during the 2010 vintage from a single block of Mound Vineyard in Waipara Valley, an appellation of varied topography and soil just north of Christchurch, the capital of South Island.

The 12 winemakers were free to make wines in their own individualistic styles. Not surprisingly, therefore, the results showed significant variation in the nature of the wines. A couple were dry, but most were off-dry to downright sweet. Several were fat, a couple were lean. Most were New World fruity, while a few were shot through with the petrol notes often associated with European riesling. What they tended to share in common was their voluminous aromatics, their blustery fruitiness, their surprising length, and their refreshing acidity, regardless of whether they were plump or slim.

Beyond that, what did they say of the Waipara Valley terroir for riesling? The currents I found from wine to wine ran to generally sunny aromatics, builds more medium bodied than either muscular or slight, and flavors that were rich without being weighty. As a riesling enthusiast, I'll look for an example of the varietal from the Waipara Valley when I want a riesling to accompany the sort of spirited food that was served after the tasting - a modern approach to Vietnamese cooking that included steamed dumplings of pureed edamame with truffle oil, laughing buns filled with sweet sauteed beef, tuna tartare with a hint of wasabi, and shrimp potstickers.

When the "Riesling Challenge" was conducted formally in New Zealand, the wine made by Matt Donaldson of Pegasus Bay Winery was declared the overall winner. He also probably took the most inventive approach to the grapes he received. They'd been picked earlier than the riesling he customarily uses from his home vineyard. His solution was to freeze the bunches, therefore effectively raising their sugar content at press. The resulting wine was decidedly sweet, even borderline cloying. I favored a leaner and less sweet interpretation by Ant McKenzie of Te Awa Winery of Hawkes Bay and a forthright and steely take by Paul Bourgeois of Spy Valley Winery of Marlborough.

Aside from the "Riesling Challenge," the tasting included several current and older releases of the varietal, including a 2004 from the Wairau Valley that showed with its complexity and enduring freshness that the varietal is as capable of aging as handsomely as riesling from longer established areas; it was made by the winery Forrest Estate. Current notable releases worth watching for in the California market include the foresty and limey off-dry Forrest Estate 2009 Doctors Riesling from Marlborough, the refreshingly crisp Spy Valley 2009 from Marlborough, the stony and elegant Waimea 2009 Classic from Nelson, the peachy, slatey, angular and persistent Mt. Difficult 2009 Roaring Meg from Central Otago, the understated and crisp Villa Maria 2010 Dry Cellar Selection from Marlborough, and the exotic and spicy Waimea 2010 Edel, which is actually a blend that includes pinot gris and gewurztraminer as well as riesling.

Make no mistake. Sauvignon blanc is well entrenched as the varietal most closely identified with New Zealand. Eight of every 10 bottles of wine exported from the country is sauvignon blanc. It accounts for nearly 70 percent of the nation's wine production. Of the 33,600 hectares planted to wine grapes in New Zealand, sauvignon blanc amounts to half. In contrast, riesling is far down the list of the country's leading varietals, accounting for just 1,000 hectares. It's the underdog, but don't count it out. Just look at little ol' Ireland, which over the weekend upset mighty Australia in the Rugby World Cup.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Pinot Noir's Versatility Rules The Day

A couple of things I learned this weekend at the 26th annual Lake Tahoe Autumn Food & Wine Festival in the Village at Northstar just outside of Truckee:

Smoked duck with caramelized fig, by Six Peaks Grille
- Pinot noir really is the most congenial wine at the dinner table. I didn't actually just learn that. But that longstanding lesson was reinforced during a festival competition in which 23 restaurants teamed up with 23 wineries to see which could create the best pairing of food and wine. I was one of five judges to spend Sunday morning sipping this wine and tasting that dish and doing it once or twice more for each of the 23 entries before submitting our scores for best wine, best dish and best pairing. We were given a brief description of each dish, but beyond that we weren't told the restaurant, the winery or even the style or varietal of the wine. When our scores were tabulated three hours later, pinot noir played a key role in three of the five top honors. A pinot noir not only was judged the best red wine of the day (the Santa Barbara Collection 2008 Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir), pinot noir also accounted for the best white wine of the day (the Scott Harvey Wines Jana Napa Valley Blanc de Noir Brut). Finally, another pinot noir was the wine in the best pairing of the day, a camembert crostini topped with smoked duck breast and caramelized fig, prepared by cooks of the restaurant Six Peaks Grille at the Resort at Squaw Creek in Squaw Valley. The smokiness of the duck and the sweet earthiness of the fig were matched precisely by the fresh strawberry fruitiness and the leathery tone of the Villa Maria Winery 2008 Marlborough Pinot Noir from New Zealand. Yes, several other varietals were in the competition. Aside from four pinot noirs, the field included cabernet sauvignons, chardonnays, cabernet franc, zinfandel, petite sirah, barbera and merlot. The two awards that didn't involve pinot noir were the best pairing of food with a beverage other than wine - a rich take on the Vietnamese sandwich bahn mi, prepared by Hard Rock Cafe International, coupled with green-tea lemonade made with a spirit by Charbay Winery & Distillery of St. Helena in Napa Valley - and the single best food of the day, a selection of house-cured meats by the restaurant Hawks in Granite Bay, which also was the runnerup in the pairing category by matching its meats with the Jana sparkler made from pinot noir.

Lars Kronmark leads tasting seminar
- There is, after all, a place at the table for high-octane wines, but maybe only when barbecue is on the menu. At a festival seminar appropriately called "Some Like It Hot," Lars Kronmark, an instructor at the Napa Valley branch of the Culinary Institute of America, walked participants through a series of tastings in which the weight and heat of both grilled ribs and the accompanying zinfandels intensified. When the meat had little or no barbecue sauce, the lighter zinfandel hung in there, but as the sauce increased in richness, complexity and spice, the attending wine also had to rise in ripeness and alcohol to stay in the game. By the end, the ribs not only were draped with a sweet and fiery sauce, they were splashed with Tabasco, and only the porty zinfandel with 16.1 percent alcohol still was hanging with the ribs. If you want to put that lesson to your own taste test, the wine was the Rosenblum Cellars 2008 Sonoma Valley Monte Rosso Vineyard Zinfandel.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Pay To Play: New Wave Wine Writing?

When I read of Sam Kim, my first thought was, "Damn, why didn't I think of that?"

My second thought, which followed in a nanosecond, was that while Sam Kim's business model makes sense when it comes to making money, it rubs me the wrong way.

Kim came to my attention through a column posted by wine blogger and wine-trade publicist Tom Wark. The headline on Wark's posting sums up his views of the issue: "Pay to Play Wine Reviews...It's All Good."

Sam Kim
Kim is a New Zealand wine critic. As such, he publishes a wine newsletter, Wine Orbit. To have a wine reviewed in his newsletter, Kim charges vintners a "submissions fee" of $34 in New Zealand currency per wine (about $28 U.S.). The wines are reviewed blind, according to Kim and to Wark, and Kim writes up only those wines that on his palate deserve 80 points or more. This behavior is so antithetical to the standards of  a group called Wine Writers of New Zealand that it has "ostracized" Kim from the organization, reports Wark. That's a shame, suggests Wark. After all, he notes, Kim is showing "(wine) critics how to make an honest living."

Kim is showing wine writers how to make a living, all right, but how honest is his approach? Has any independent observer, for one, verified that his tastings are blind? Also, what proportion of the wines he reviews score fewer than 80 points? For the moment, let's assume Kim is entirely aboveboard, that his palate is astute, that his tastings are blind and that a fair number of the wines he tastes don't warrant his blessing. What, then, is the problem? Well, it goes to accepting payment from people who produce a product that you, as a critic, ostensibly are reviewing independently. I suspect that subscribers to Wine Orbit think the opinions they are buying are free of any self-serving influence exerted by the trade the critic is criticizing. Maybe I'm a simpleton, but if I subscribe to Connoiseurs' Guide to California Wine, Dan Berger's Vintage Experiences, The Wine Advocate or any other wine newsletter financed soley by subsribers I expect that publication to be free of any conflict of interest or even any appearance of a conflict of interest. Kim's approach doesn't measure up to that standard.

Wark suggests that what Kim is doing is no worse than the behavior of wine writers who accept invitations to dinners, tastings and junkets underwritten by wineries or trade groups. He likes to refer to these gatherings as "perks," which suggests that he and possibly critics themselves see them as an entitlement or a fringe benefit of writing of wine. True, such soirees can be pretty damn nice, and I occasionally take advantage of such invitations. I'm pretty judicious in my selections, however; my bottom line isn't remuneration but whether the outing will provide something of value to my readers, real or imagined. Sometimes, such treks don't provide posting, column or feature at all; I strike out. They're a gamble, something I want to do, and to a certain extent need to do, but they're more work than leisure. If an outing provides me with material, I almost invariably put the tasting in context, which is to say I'm transparent about the staging. I've never been paid a cent by any winery or trade group.

Something else that bothers me about Kim's method is that it potentially locks out from consideration wines from small producers who may not be able to afford his fee. If that's the case, is he not only denying mom-and-pop operators a chance for exposure but limiting his own perspective to just those wines from producers who willingly pay up? (This also concerns me about wine competitions, where more and more, it seems, large international wine corporations dominate the list of entries while smaller producers are dropping out; maybe it's time for a competition to base its entry fees on scale of production rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, but I digress.)
I've been fortunate. I've never had to rely solely on writing of wine for my livelihood. For much of my career, it was one of the three or four legs to support the chair that kept me at the keyboard, and in retirement I continue to write of wine because I enjoy the culture, people, issues, trends, history and, naturally, the wine.

Kim has a model that addresses one of the enduring vexations of writing of wine: How do you do it and remain solvent? Thus, his strategy no doubt will be emulated by countless aspiring wine writers who love what they do and would like to make a living at it. Few writers support themselves only by writing articles and books about wine. Many have a vested interest in the trade, such as sommeliers, importers, retailers and the like, which also raises questions of propriety and transparency. There are probably more poets making their living by only writing poetry than there are wine writers supporting themselves by only writing of wine. Kim has a solution, and its appeal could spread, but I don't have to like it.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Marriages Made In Heaven (Lake Tahoe Branch)

As educational, helpful and fun as wine competitions can be, they are hampered by a logistical obstacle: The wines almost without exception are judged in a culinary vacuum, which is just the opposite of how wines generally are consumed, which is at the table, with food.

An exception is the competition at the yearly Lake Tahoe Autumn Food & Wine Festival. While judges will select their favorite wines, the principal award will go to the winery and the restaurant that come up with the best pairing of food and wine. Because of this twist, the judging, which will be Sunday at the resort village of Northstar at Tahoe, is a competition I especially anticipate each fall. Often, the matchings are inspired. Occasionally, on the other hand, you have to wonder whether winemaker and chef actually collaborated and tasted their pairing before it was delivered to judges, who know neither restaurant nor winery. Customarily, between 25 and 30 wineries and restaurants vie for honors. Most of the restaurants are in the Lake Tahoe basin, while the wineries generally are in a North State appellation. The competition is closed to the public, but guests can size up the pairings for themselves at the festival's finale, the Grand Tasting, 1-4 p.m. Sunday, during which the best pairings as determined by the judges will be announced. Tickets for the tasting are $75 online through Friday, $90 at the door.

Lars Kronmark on grilling at last year's festival
Aside from the tasting, visitors who sign on for the festival - this year's is the 26th - have an opportunity to be brought up to speed on a wide spectrum of the culinary arts. Lars Kronmark, a cooking teacher at the Napa Valley campus of the Culinary Institute of America, and a frequent popular instructor at the festival, will conduct a seminar on matching "big, bold California wine" with staple dishes of the American barbecue ($45, Saturday). Lara Ritchie, chef/owner of the Nothing To It Culinary Center in Reno, will conduct a class involving parents and children making Thai spring rolls ($10, Saturday). And distiller Marko Karakasevic and his wife Jenni of Charbay Winery & Distillery of St. Helena will be back to introduce their latest spirits, which for this year will be whiskeys distilled from popular Sonoma County beers ($65, Saturday).

The festival also provides wine enthusiasts with a chance to catch up on what's going on in several California appellations without driving all over the North State. Vintners from Napa Valley's Spring Mountain District, the Santa Cruz Mountains and Lake County will conduct seminars and tastings Saturday, ranging from $40 to $65.

While tickets are needed for most programs, several cooking demonstrations are free, including Saturday sessions by Douglas Dale of Wolfdale's Restaurant in Tahoe City, Jason Gronlund of Hard Rock Cafe International, and Mark Estee of Moody's Bistro & Lounge and Burger Me, both of Truckee.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

This Crew Has Faith In Tempranillo

Today is the first International Tempranillo Day. This recognition is the inspiration of the Tempranillo Advocates Producers and Amigos Society, or TAPAS, a trade group hoping to raise the profile of wines made with grapes traditionally identified with the Iberian peninsula. Chief among these is tempranillo, the backbone for the proud red wines of Spain's Rioja and Ribera del Duero regions.

From left, John and Lane Giguiere and winemaker Dan Cederquist
Strictly by coincidence, I spent a few hours yesterday with John and Lane Giguiere, among the first grape growers and winemakers in California to release a tempranillo made in the United States. They've had faith in the variety since 1990, when they started to plant the grape. At the time, they owned R.H. Phillips Wine Co. at Esparto in northern Yolo County. In those days, they weren't known so much for tempranillo as they were for a wildly popular chardonnay marketed under the name "Toasted Head."

In 2000, however, with annual production approaching a million cases, they sold out. In the years immediately after, they hung around in executive capacities, but by 2005 they'd retired. That lasted a year. Eager to start over in the trade, they established Crew Wine Company in 2006. After two years of making wine in borrowed facilities, they built their own winery in the gently rolling Dunnigan Hills just outside of Zamora, about 35 miles northwest of Sacramento. Their new facility, a cluster of simple steel structures equipped with the latest winemaking equipment, is four miles southeast of R.H. Phillips, now vacant after its current owner, Constellation Brands, relocated winemaking to Lodi; R.H. Phillips lives on as a brand for Constellation.

I'd gone to Zamora to catch up generally on the Giguieres, but the conversation quickly centered on tempranillo, helped along by a tour through one of the couple's tempranillo vineyards. In the years immediately after they planted tempranillo, the Giguieres' enthusiasm for the variety lagged. It just wasn't as exciting as they'd hoped. For the most part, they blended it into other red wines.

At Crew Wine Company, tempranillo is nearly ready to pick
Their curiosity about tempranillo was reignited, however, when they got a new clone from Marcus Bokisch, a Lodi grape grower and winemaker specializing in Iberian varieties. They've been delighted with the results, first under their brand EXP at R.H. Phillips and now under their brand Matchbook at Crew. They now tend 40 acres of tempranillo - does any other grower in the state even come close to that total? - and directly across Road 92B from their winery they're ripping the soil with plans to put in 30 more acres of tempranillo.

Given their experience with and faith in tempranillo, the Giguieres and their winemaker, Dan Cederquist, seemed the ideal source for a reality check on the wine's prospects, especially on the eve of International Tempranillo Day. You see, I'm conflicted about tempranillo. Few have excited me with bright fruit, racy acidity, winking complexity and a lingering finish. Too often, they've been shallow and listless, or, on the other hand, overly ripe, overly tannic, overly woody and overly alcoholic.


At Crew, the crew tends earlier vintages in barrel

TAPAS, eager to help vacilating wine writers like me warm up to tempranillo, recently sent me six samples of the wine from vineyards in Northern California. This was on the heels of the group's annual tasting in San Francisco about three months ago. Because that tasting was just before the start of summer, I dwelled primarily on white wines. Before I left, however, I did sample several tempranillos. As a group, they were less than enthralling. Many were heavily extracted and highly tannic, best stashed in the cellar for several more years in hopes they would soften. A few were pleasant, with a freshness to their fruit and a buoyancy to their body that made them not only immediately accessible but downright charming.

As to the samples that TAPAS shipped me, I opened them, tasted them and poured them in pairs with dishes that ranged from sausage-and-cheese ravioli in tomato sauce to chicken curry. By the end, the six were about evenly divided between a style lithe and bright and a style ripe and dense. I gravitated to the lighter interpretations, which is to say that the fruit was fresh, the acidity snappy and the alcohol generally well tempered. The heavier style was characterized by ripe flavors pushing the prune and raisin end of the fruit spectrum, intrusive whiffs of vanillin and smoke from oak barrels, and the chesty warmth of high alcohol.

My sense is that American winemakers still are learning their way with tempranillo, by and large. Those who have been at it the longest, such as the Giguieres and Chuck Hovey, former winemaker at Stevenot Winery, now with his own eponymous brand in Calaveras County, are turning out interpretations of both substance and finesse. And the promise in tempranillo is that they aren't alone.

If I were to take some time this International Tempranillo Day to shop for a tempranillo of balance and length, I'd look for examples turned out under the Matchbook, Hovey, Bokisch, Berryessa Gap, Yorba, Wilderotter, Boeger, Harney Lane, Turkovich and Alta Mesa brands, all Northern California wineries. Recent tastings of tempranillos from these producers, whether at home, the TAPAS gathering in San Francisco, or a vineyard in the Dunnigan Hills, showed that the variety has much potential in California. While recent releases from these producers varied slightly in density and weight, they all spoke to a vibrant strawberry, raspberry and cherry fruitiness, with textures supple, acidity bracing and a finish lingering. They were tempranillos of balance and intricacy, providing a diverting labyrinth of multiple scents and flavors - lavender one moment, dried yet sweet cranberries another - that could be enjoyed just on their own or matched with a wide range of spirited foods.

As an example of just how versatile tempranillo is, John Giguiere noted that the single most popular account in the nation for the couple's Matchbook tempranillo is the midtown Sacramento restaurant Biba, which sells a stunning 100 cases of the wine a year. Remember, Biba is an Italian restaurant, with an extensive list of Italian wines. Its clientele, however, has found just how flexible and satisfying a finely honed tempranillo can be.