Monday, January 23, 2012

New Players On The Los Cabos Wine Scene

Ricardo Martinez in the new El Wine Shop
 I see that northern California finally is getting some rain and wind to go with winter's typically chilly temperatures. That means, I'm sure, that more northern Californians will be flying south to take advantage of the sunny and balmy weather here, in Los Cabos, at the southern reaches of Mexico's Baja peninsula. For wine enthusiasts among the immigrants, I'm here to help.

Here's what to expect if you plan a winter retreat or spring break in Cabo San Lucas, San Jose del Cabo or one of the resorts or timeshares along the 20 miles of coastline between the two settlements:

- Argentine and Chilean wines dominate the local market, in both restaurants and grocery stores. By and large, their quality is superb, their value even more impressive. Solid South American brands like Cono Sur, Morande and Santa Julia readily are available in such stores as Costco, Soriano, City Club, Chedraui, La Europea and Mega.

- California wines almost solely are limited to such mainstream producers as Kendall-Jackson, Sutter Home and E.&J. Gallo, in particular Gallo's Barefoot brand. By and large, brace yourself for sticker shock even for wines that in the United States generally are priced at $15 or less. They're apt to cost a third more here, largely because of permit fees and taxes levied by the Mexican government, as well as shipping costs.

- Cabo San Lucas has a fine wine shop in the expansive if somewhat stuffy and dear Vinoteca along the Carretera Transpeninsular on the north edge of the city; it's right in front of the Home Depot set back from the west side of the highway. The only branch of Costco in Los Cabos also is in Cabo San Lucas, also on the west side of the four-lane, not far from Home Depot.

- The real retail wine action in Los Cabos, however, is concentrated along a short stretch of the Carretera Transpeninsular in San Jose del Cabo, just a short walk from such beachfront resorts as Barcelo, Cabo Azul, Posada Real and Holiday Inn. Within about a mile along the east side of the highway are four stores whose selections of wine are extensive enough and intriguing enough to delight just about any enophile.

The four, incidentally, include Walmart. I'm not kidding. In Mexico, Walmart officials seem to have adopted a far different wine-marketing attitude than they have in the United States, where the selections run to mass-produced wines that while cheap also are pedestrian. The San Jose del Cabo branch of Walmart, on the other hand, has one of the broader and deeper wine departments in the region. Yes, it includes plenty of cheap brands, including Beso de Vino, 3 Blind Moose, Black Swan, Lucky Duck and Barefoot, but it also includes an almost equal number of premium releases, such as a Mexican cabernet sauvignon under the Teziano label for 621 pesos (about $50 in U.S. currency at the current rate of exchange) and the reserve "409" Ribera del Duero from the producer Condado de Oriza for 1,209 pesos (about $93). I've yet to see those kinds of choices at a Walmart in the U.S., but I wouldn't be surprised if Costco's success in the marketing of premium wines is giving Walmart's directors an incentive to head in that direction.

- This short stretch of the four-lane also includes Carlos Fernandez's La Casa Del Vino, where he stocks only wines made in Baja California, principally from the Valle de Guadalupe just northeast of Ensenada. At any given time he's apt to carry more than 100 wines, providing anyone curious about the state of Mexican wine with plenty of material for tasting.

El Wine Shop, San Jose del Cabo
 - The newest player among wine merchants along this concentrated stretch of the Carretera Transpeninsular is El Wine Shop, a small but snazzy store tucked between the Mega supermarket and the cluster of galleries called Villa Valentina. Open just a month, El Wine Shop is an outgrowth of the wine importing and distribution business ECM de Vinos in Los Cabos. Business partners Ricardo Martinez and Alberto Cubilla had talked for years of opening a wine shop, and the San Jose del Cabo branch is the first of five or so that they hope to launch throughout Mexico over the next few years.

Here, their selection is drawn from throughout the world, with California represented with more variety and more upscale brands than is found in other wine shops in the area. When I stopped by the other day for the first time, a bottle-shaped blackboard that takes up much of one wall listed the Caymus Vineyards 2006 Napa Valley Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon for 2,400 pesos (about $185 U.S.; in California, BevMo sells it for $160). Other choice West Coast wines include the Pahlmeyer 2008 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay for 1,680 pesos ($130), Randy Dunn's Feather 2006 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon for 903 pesos ($70), the Morgan 2009 Santa Lucia Highlands "Highland" Chardonnay for 420 pesos ($32), the Rubicon Estate 2006 Rutherford Cask Cabernet Sauvignon for 1,404 pesos ($108), and the Hess Collection 2009 Napa Valley Chardonnay for 399 pesos ($31). To balance out the selection, Martinez and Cubilla carry several everyday wines, such as the Delicato white zinfandel for 133 pesos ($10).

Their goal is to stock more than 200 wines, and their inventory already looks to be nearing that total. Still to arrive is a selection of wines from Berkeley wine importer Kermit Lynch, as well as a new stockpile of zinfandel from Lodi's Klinker Brick Winery, for which Martinez and Cubilla have found a surprisingly strong local market.

Many of the wines they carry also are available in Los Cabos restaurants, but not necessarily in other wine shops, with which they don't want to compete out of concern about jeopardizing the distribution branch of their partnership. Several Italian, Spanish and French wines are available only at El Wine Shop. Among Mexican wines, they carry several releases by one of the more experienced wineries in northern Baja's Valle de Guadalupe - Monte Xanic. They also offer an assortment of artisan Mexican beers (Rosarito Beach, Bufadora, Cucapa and Tempus), as well as brews of the local Baja Brewing Co., and they are just starting to stock small-lot tequilas.

The design of the place is a light interpretation of industrial chic, with wines displayed in shipping crates and the counter and its backdrop built with wooden slats salvaged from about 40 forklift pallets. El Wine Shop is open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. daily except Sunday.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Competition Results Reinforce Reputations

As mosaics go, the 84 glasses in front of each judge formed an intricate, colorful and telling picture of the nation's wine trade at the start of 2012. The arrangements constituted the sweepstakes round of the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition in Cloverdale this past Friday. Each of the 84 was a best-of-class wine, deemed worthy of serious consideration for one of the competition's five top honors - best sparkling wine, best white wine, best pink wine, best red wine, and best dessert or specialty wine.

Of the 84, more than half - 52, to be precise - were red. Of the 52, nine each were cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel, eight were pinot noir, six were merlot, five were syrah/shiraz, and four were blends based on traditional Bordeaux grape varieties such as cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot. Why were so many nominees from these six styles? The breakdown reflects the production and popularity of the six, which the Chronicle competition aims to make manageable by dividing into price categories, such as pinot noirs $30 to $34.99, and zinfandels $50 and above. In contrast, less-popular varietals generally were grouped into one class, regardless of price, such as tempranillo, sangiovese and barbera, with only one each going into the sweepstakes round. That would seem to improve their odds of winning the big prize as partisans of one or the other of the mainstream varietals split their votes over their favorite interpretation of, say, zinfandel or pinot noir.

Best red wine
That isn't how it worked out this year, however. The red-wine sweepstakes went to a cabernet sauvignon, the McGrail Vineyards & Winery 2008 Livermore Valley Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($36). This outcome won't surprise anyone familiar with the Livermore Valley's long history of growing cabernet sauvignon of both force and finesse. The McGrail wasn't even the only Livermore Valley cabernet sauvignon in the sweepstakes round. Another was the Bent Creek Wines 2009 Livermore Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($25). Just one of the cabernets was from Napa Valley, widely regarded as the nation's most esteemed producer of the varietal. That just one cabernet from the area made it to the sweepstakes stage also should come as no surprise, however, given that Napa Valley vintners generally are loathe to enter their pricier cabs in blind competitions, calculating that they have nothing much to gain if they win and a whole lot to lose if they don't. Also not surprisingly, the only Napa Valley cabernet in the sweeps was the most expensive take on the varietal, the Black Stallion 2008 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($65).

Three of the cabernets in the finale, incidentally, were from the northern Sonoma County appellation long respected for especially lush yet graceful takes on the varietal, the Alexander Valley. They were the Carruth Cellars 2009 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($32), the Dutcher Crossing Winery 2008 Alexander Valley Cooney Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($43) and the Trione Vineyards & Winery 2007 Alexander Valley Block Twenty One Cabernet Sauvignon ($58).

In several other instances, the sweepstakes round also verified the high standing of particular regions for particular varietals. Five of the eight pinot noirs in the finale were from the Russian River Valley. Of the nine zinfandels, four were from Dry Creek Valley and two were from Lodi. The only gewurztraminer in the running for best white wine was from the Finger Lakes district of New York, and it ultimately was declared the competition's best white wine; it was the Dr. Konstantin Frank 2010 Finger Lakes Gewurztraminer ($25). Of the 12 chardonnays in the running for best white wine, five were from various appellations of the Napa Valley, four were from the Central Coast. The only barbera to compete for best red wine was from California's Sierra foothills, the region generating the most buzz for the varietal. It was the Boeger Winery 2009 El Dorado Barbera ($17), a wine featured in my weekly column for The Sacramento Bee this past fall. In all, 54 barberas won medals in the judging, 26 of them from the Sierra foothills.

Of the 84 best-of-class wines up for sweepstakes consideration, 18 were from Sacramento's backyard - the Sierra foothills, the Delta and Lodi. Two each were from Michael-David Winery of Lodi and McManis Family Vineyards of Ripon. Among best-of-class wines, however, the strongest performance by a local winery was turned in by Charles B. Mitchell Vineyards of Fair Play in El Dorado County, which had three wines in the sweepstakes round: Charles B. Mitchell Vineyards Fair Play Estate Madame Omo's Pure Sunshine ($12), Charles B. Mitchell Vineyards Fair Play Monsieur Omo's Red Sunshine ($12) and Charles B. Mitchell Vineyards Fair Play Cotes du Consumnes ($12).

In addition to the sweepstakes winners already mentioned, the Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards 2006 Carneros Blanc de Blancs ($28) won as best sparkling wine, the Bernard Griffin 2011 Columbia Valley Rose of Sangiovese ($12) won as best pink wine, and the Castello di Amorosa 2010 Anderson Valley Late Harvest Gewurztraminer ($35) won as best dessert or specialty wine.

A total 5,667 wines from 1,379 American wineries were entered. California wineries, naturally, were responsible for most of the entries, but wines from 24 other states also competed, giving an indication of the spread of the nation's wine trade. A public tasting of award-winning wines will be at Fort Mason in San Francisco on Feb. 18; for more information, check out the competition's website.