Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A Dallas Reality Check For Napa Valley

Went to Dallas but came home feeling as if I'd spent the holiday weekend in Napa Valley. The posh accommodations of The Four Seasons Resort, the addictive bread pudding in the hotel's Cottonwood Room, and the artistic duck dish at Urbano Cafe all had something to do with that sense of displacement, but mostly, of course, it was the wines.

The event was the Dallas Morning News and TexSom Wine Competition, an international judging that drew 3,269 wines, up nearly 600 from last year's total. For the first time, Rebecca Murphy, who founded the competition 28 years ago and who has produced it annually ever since, organized entries principally by place of origin. That is, for example, all syrahs made in Washington state were judged concurrently by a single panel. At most large competitions, all wines of a particular varietal or style are grouped together regardless of where they originated. Thus, syrahs from Washington state, the Sierra foothills and Barossa Valley all might be evaluated together, without judges knowing where they originated.

Within the wine-competition community, however, a move is afoot to arrange classes of wines by appellation as well as by varietal or style. Murphy and other competition directors who are heading in this direction believe that results will be more meaningful to vintners and consumers alike if wines that emerge from a roughly similar climate and culture are compared side-by-side without intrusions by entries from far different winemaking environments. It's putting into practice the belief that a wine should say something of its "terroir," or place of origin. "We've made this change because we believe it is more fair to the wines, and our goal is to highlight the best wines being produced in each region," said Murphy at the outset.

Judges embraced the concept, but not without qualification. Some wondered whether knowing the place of origin for a class of wine might prejudice judges to instinctively look more favorably on varietals from regions with reputations for doing especially well by them (such as pinot noir and Russian River Valley) and less favorably on varietals from shakier terrain (chardonnay out of the Sierra foothills). Ultimately, a detailed analysis of the Dallas results may indicate whether that happened, but even then I suspect any differences will be slight and insignificant, given that seasoned judges are programmed to continually calibrate their perspective. Nevertheless, all we have to go on right now is speculation and anecdote.

By some quirk, I got assigned to the panel that for two days was to taste and rate only wines from Napa Valley, perhaps the nation's most highly regarded appellation. My fellow panelists were all Texans: Dave Reilly, winemaker of Duchman Family Winery in Driftwood, Texas; Christopher Shipp, wine manager of Goody Goody Liquor in Little Elm, Texas; and Don Brady, who grew up in Abilene but now is the winemaker for Robert Hall Winery of Paso Robles.

Napa Valley means cabernet sauvignon, and we had plenty of them. Of the 210 wines we tasted, 90 were cabernet sauvignon. We gave gold medals to 14 of them, or 16 percent, which is somewhat high by customary wine-competition standards, though some Napa Valley partisans are likely to think that's shockingly low. Other members of the panel may disagree, but I think we went into the cabernet-sauvignon class thinking it would be more favorably impressive overall. Our gold-medal cabernets - as well as several silver-medal winners - generally were praised for the generosity of their fruit, their deft integration of oak, their firm spines, and their roundness and accessibility. Almost all the golds were by split votes; those on which the panel agreed most quickly and unanimously tended to share bright cherry flavors, a persistent finish and were more lithe than heavy. At the other extreme, 44 cabernet sauvignons got no medal at all. If I were a Napa Valley winemaker, this is the figure that would concern me most. Why such a disappointing showing by nearly half the field? Few of the wines were clearly flawed, but those that got spurned almost without exception were off balance - tannins were too showy, oak was too dominant, the heat of alcohol too searing. Where notes of eucalyptus and mint might appear, we found instead stalkiness.

The cabernets were mostly from the 2008 and 2009 vintages, 34 of the former, 27 of the latter. Six gold medals went to each, which suggests, in an entirely superficial way, that 2009 is the superior of the two years, though I hesitate to make that flat-out assessment, given the power and grace of so many Napa Valley cabernet sauvignons I previously tasted from 2008. To me, the biggest surprise of the class was that one gold medal went to a wine from 2010. This is really early for a Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon from that harvest to be entered in a competition. (When competition results are released publicly I will do a follow-up posting to identify award-winning players.)

Bill Pfeiffer tracks another panel's ratings
If the class of cabernet sauvignon left us less that awed, the class of blended red wines based on traditional Bordeaux grape varieties like cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot and malbec left us ecstatic. Of the 13 entries, five got gold medals, an exceptionally high 38 percent. Another five got silver medals. Each gold-medal wine delivered what we were looking for in the cabernet-sauvignon class but only occasionally found - a combination of heft and vitality. These were wines with more moves than "Dancing with the Stars," more persistence than the winning team on "The Amazing Race." Their core was earthy and meaty, their fruit rich yet bright. More than once, "Old World" came up to describe their styling; these were not "fruit bombs," all assertiveness, but spoke more of finesse and complexity. In this competition on this weekend, these blends represented both glory and potential for Napa Valley.

Aside from a "textbook" pinot grigio, a couple of vibrant sauvignon blancs, and a surprisingly strong class of chardonnay (22 entries, five gold medals, five silvers), the rest of the Napa Valley field was pretty much a letdown. Only four pinot noirs and two syrahs were entered, and none won a gold medal. Merlot was the most disappointing class. We tasted 24 and gave just one gold medal; 16 got nothing at all. All the metal the eight zinfandels could muster was two bronzes.

Bottom line: If I actually were to visit Napa Valley on a shopping expedition in the near future, I'd concentrate on Bordeaux-inspired blends and cabernet sauvignon, and leave the pinot noir and zinfandel for other regions.

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