Monday, April 30, 2012

Notes From The Calaveras Gold Rush

Entries bagged and ready to pour
Results of the Calaveras County Fair commercial wine competition, held Friday at Frogtown on the southern outskirts of Angels Camp, confirmed old suspicions, revealed promising newcomers, and validated the standing of a couple of oldtimers:

- While the Sierra foothills occasionally can produce a notable chardonnay or cabernet sauvignon, the region by and large just isn't receptive to the two. Nevertheless, whenever you tour tasting rooms in the Mother Lode you don't have trouble finding chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon. That's because many vintners reconize the immense popularity of the two, and can't resist their market appeal. They also fear that they can't be seen as serious winemakers unless their lineup includes at least one of California's two most highly regarded varietals. However, as further evidence that the two grapes just aren't at home in the foothills, aside from a rare exception, consider that of the 11 chardonnays in the Calaveras judging, none won more than a silver medal, and just two of those were awarded. And of the 18 cabernet sauvignons in the competition, only one got a gold medal, the Chatom Winery 2007.

- And speaking of Chatom, one of Calaveras County's pioneering wineries, it hasn't generated much buzz in recent years, in part because it's on the market and its future is uncertain. Nevertheless, it clearly generated buzz during the competition, winning four gold medals - for its 2010 semillon, 2008 sangiovese, 2007 "Esmeralda" syrah and 2008 touriga.

Best Calaveras County wine
- No winery stirred up more excitement than the relative newcomer La Folia, based in Murphys. It's the brand of Ryan Teeter and his wife Sara. He's the assistant winemaker at Lavender Ridge Winey of Angeles Camp; she's executive director of the trade-group Calaveras Winegrape Alliance. They're making just 1,000 cases of wine a year, but six of their wines won gold medals, the 2010 pinot grigio, the 2009 sangiovese, the 2009 zinfandel, the 2009 red blend called "Madness," the 2009 barbera, and the 2011 moscato called "Masquerade," the latter of which went on to be acclaimed the best Calaveras County wine in the judging, though the grapes that went into the wine, it needs to be noted, were from the Fair Play district in El Dorado County.

- Another newcomer to cause excitement was Mineral Winery of Angels Camp, which won three gold medals, for its 2010 viognier, 2009 merlot and 2009 petite sirah, as well as a silver medal for its 2009 "Meritage," a red blend based on grape varieties traditionally associated with Bordeaux. Mineral is the brand of Brett Keller, who also is the wineamker at Twisted Oak Winery in Murphys.

- Another relative newcomer on the foothill wine scene to do well at Frogtown was Amador County's Convergence Vineyards, which won gold medals for its 2010 zinfandel, 2010 petite sirah, 2010 carignane, 2010 barbera and 2010 "The Ranger," a red blend of traditional Rhone Valley grape varieties. The gold medals for the zinfandel and the carignane actually were double-gold medals, only awarded when judges of a panel agree unanimously that a wine merits a gold medal.

- While the results didn't do anything to boost the standing of cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay in the foothills, they did reaffirm that the region is well suited for such warm-climate varieties as petite sirah, zinfandel, sangiovese and barbera. All 12 petite sirahs that were entered won a medal, five of them gold. With 41 entries, zinfandel accounted for the largest class; 10 of them won gold medals. Nine sangioveses were entered, with every one winning a medal, two of them gold. The results for barbera were mixed; 16 were entered, with just four winning gold medals, though one of the gold-medal barberas, the 2009 from the Amador County winery Shenandoah Vineyards, went on to be declared the best-of-show red wine. (Shenandoah Vineyards also won a gold medal for its 2008 tempranillo, while its sister Amador County winery, Sobon Estate, won a gold medal for its 2009 Fiddletown Lubenko Vineyard Zinfandel; I recently wrote of the Sobon zinfandel in the weekly wine column I contribute to The Sacramento Bee.)

- To me, one of the more intriguing development in the foothill wine trade in recent years has been the emergence of outstanding blended red wines based on traditional Rhone Valley grape varieties like syrah, grenache and mourvedre. At the Calaveras competition, curiously, just two were entered. Both, however, won gold medals, the Sierra Vista Vineyards and Winery 2010 "Fleur de Montagne" and the Convergence Vineyards 2010 "The Ranger."

The 262 entries were drawn from throughout the Mother Lode - Mariposa County north to Nevada County - with Calaveras County understandably the largest contributor. The fair's directors, however, owe a shout out to vintner Charles Mitchell, who owns three wineries in El Dorado and Amador counties, where he gets most of his grapes. Nevertheless, he entered 39 wines in the Calaveras judging, and did well, winning seven gold medals and 15 silvers.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

At Pacific Rim, Bubbles Rule

Gloria Ferrer, left, with other best wines
A sparkling wine doesn't often win the sweepstakes award at a commercial wine competition. They often get nominated, but when the votes are counted a competitor with more weight and concentration usually ends up with the highest honor. Not today, however. The delicately pink and downright elegant Gloria Ferrer Caves Carneros Blanc de Noirs wasn't to be denied at the Pacific Rim Wine Competition in San Bernardino, where out of around 1,400 entries it survived a series of votes over two days to emerge as the Grand Champion. Today alone it was up against eight other styles of sparkling wine, each a best of class, vying to be named the best bubbly in the competition. (One of its rivals in the voting for best sparkling wine was an Australian blend of chardonnay and semillon sold in 250-milliliter cans in Japanese vending machines, marketed under the brand Barokes.)

In the sweepstakes round, the Gloria Ferrer was up against the best white wine (21 Brix 2011 Lake Erie Brick House White), the best red wine (Jeff Runquist Wines 2010 Amador County Cooper Vineyard Barbera), the best rose wine (Wollersheim Winery 2011 Prairie Blush), and the best dessert wine (Rancho de Philo Cucamonga Valley Triple Cream Sherry). Of the five top wines in the competition, two were from out of state; Wollersheim Winery is in Wisconsin, 21 Brix is in New York.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Day One, Pacific Rim Wine Competition

The Pacific Rim Wine Competition, conducted by the National Orange Show in San Bernardino, got under way this morning. The panel on which I sit tasted 106 wines. Not a single one was made from oranges. Nevertheless, we had an enlightening time as we made our way through such classes as "merlot from the harvest of 2010 priced more than $25" and "zinfandel from 2010 priced $15 to $25."

No class was more enthralling, exciting and surprising, however, than the pinot blancs. The what? I know. Pinot blanc is a varietal so out of fashion even wine enthusiasts have to pause to remind themselves whether it's a white, red or pink wine. For the record, it's a white wine. For the past few decades in California, vintners have looked upon pinot blanc as some sort of understudy to chardonnay, figuring that if they exposed it to a whole bunch of new oak barrels that consumers couldn't tell the difference, or care much if they did.

That's the rap on pinot blanc: On its own, like chardonay, it just doesn't have much to say. That, at least, is the conventional wisdom. We learned differently today. Unbeknownst to me, and apparently to my fellow panelists, several vintners quietly have been reevaluating the essence and prospects of pinot blanc and concluded that on its own merits it may appeal to American consumers. Thus, they've dialed back their use of oak, thereby giving the fruit more opportunity to express itself.

And just what does that fruit have to say? Nothing particularly dramatic, but something more quietly compelling. On its own, pinot blanc is rather austere, lean in build yet a stand-up wine. It isn' blustery, and certainly not arrogant, but it has the backbone and spirit to fill in for sauvignon blanc, gruner veltliner, pinot grigio and even chardonnay when scallops, halibut, dorado or shrimp are on the menu, especially when the preparation is uncomplicated and the presentation direct.

We tasted just six of them, but we awarded three gold medals, an exceptionally high percentage for any class of wine. What won us over? The cleanliness of the fruit, certainly. Their generally refreshing acidity. Their subtle complexity. Their suggestions of pineapple, apple and lemon, which while quiet could not be ignored. Overall, the pinot blancs simply were wines of finesse and assured spirit. Of course, we tasted them blind, and won't know their identities until after the judging ends tomorrow.

As a footnote, however, I'm flashing back to last night, when judges were welcomed with a reception during which they could help themselves to tastes from last year's award-winning wines. The judges a year ago did well, to judge by the wines I tasted, though none of them was pinot blanc. I found myself most impressed by the award-winning releases from the Australian producer McGuigan. They included an exceptionally complex yet refreshing semillon, a racy riesling and a cabernet sauvignon shot through with just the sort of eucalyptus herbalness I savor in the varietal. McGuigan - there's a brand I'm going to watch for in wine shops and on restaurant wine lists.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:San Bernardino

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Wines From Thailand To Madeira

Good grief! More than two weeks have elapsed since my latest post in this here blog. I have at least two good reasons for my lapse: grandchildren Rayden-Light Kanah-Dunne and Kaheala-Night Kanah-Dunne, visiting with their parents from Bangkok. They're asleep here, giving me an opportunity for a photo that wouldn't be just another blur as they scurred about Fairytale Town, chased the cat Miyagi, and chalked up the sidewalk out front.

Nevertheless, their visit wasn't without wine, though their own thirst ran mostly to apple juice. Their father and mother, our son Justin and his wife Mohana, brought with them, for one, a bottle of Thai wine, the Mythical Garden Mangosteen Fruit Wine. The wine was a surprise in several respects. Wines made from fruit other than grapes in the U.S. almost invariably are sweet. The mangosteen, however, was dry. It was a strikingly colored wine; depending on the light, it could flash amber, gold, red-orange or mahogany. It smelled of fresh tropical fruit, a touch floral, and with hints of leather and spice. While solidly structured and even somewhat rich in texture, the flavor was delicately yet refreshingly fruity. The alcohol came in at 12 percent. The mangosteen is a small fruit with a thin but sturdy skin that conceals bright white juicy flesh.

Alas, Mythical Garden apparently is no more. The facility housing production was on a bank of a canal in Pathum Thani, just north of Bangkok. First, the winemaker left, then last year's prolonged floods in central Thailand inundated the property, wiping out everything on the site. Last I heard, it's been abandoned, despite the quality and promise of the wines. Corti Brothers in Sacramento was stocking the line, and may still have some on hand.

Because this was the first reunion of our family in six years, it qualified as a special occasion, calling for a rare wine to conclude our last dinner of the gathering. That role was filled wonderfully by a Malvasia Madeira, vintage 1942. The wine was dark caramel in color, with rich suggestions of caramel and nuts on the palate. It was both luxuriously and liltingly sweet, age having only improved its exquisite harmony and length. We paired it with small wedges of an Amish gorgonzola; no one complained. Specifically, the wine was the Vinhos Barbeito Reserva Velha Malvasia Madeira 1942 Quinta Mae Dos Homens, imported by the Rare Wine Co. of Sonoma. I don't see the 1942 in the shop's current catalog, but a 1948 Barbeito Malvasia Madeira is listed for $295 and an 1834 Barbeito Malvasia Madeira is available for $695, among several other vintages. Corti Brothers in Sacramento also has an extensive selection of Madeiras.

Soon, I'll be off for the Pacific Rim Wine Competition in San Bernardino, to be followed Friday by the Calaveras County Wine Competition in Angels Camp. I'm anticipating that they will provide me with material enough to resume posting here with more frequency.

Monday, April 9, 2012

A Little Whining About FedEx

Kids, don't try this: Ship wine from California to Mexico. Apparently, unlike in many states of the United States, individuals in Mexico can't take delivery of wine at their casa. If a winery wants to ship wine to an individual in Mexico it must first go to a distributor or dealer in Mexico. I'm learning this the hard way.

A California winemaker said he wanted to ship to me in Baja California Sur a couple of his newly released wines. I advised against it. A past attempt to have wine shipped directly to me in San Jose del Cabo eventually worked out, but only after the parcel wandered around the north of mainland Mexico for a couple of weeks and only after someone claiming to be a customs agent said I'd have to pay an approximate $50 fee to accept delivery, this for a bottle of wine with a suggested retail price of about $10. I reluctantly agreed to pay the fee, but the delivery guy seemed so relieved to hand over the package when it finally arrived a few days later he didn't say a word about any charge. And you know how bad my Spanish is, so I didn't have a chance to ask him whether he wanted the additional levy in dollars or pesos.

Now, another California winemaker who sees challenge or fun or both in attempting to get wine to someone in Mexico has dispatched a package containing what I believe to be two bottles. I've been tracking its progress, marveling at the wonders of contemporary shipping. FedEx picked up the parcel March 26. It arrived in Oakland that evening, and left the next morning for Memphis, where it arrived a little after midnight the next day. In less than two hours it took off again, bound for Toluca, Mexico, back across the continent, where it landed less than four hours later. Pretty impressive. Since then, however, it's languished in Toluca because of an undefined "clearance delay." The package's original anticipated time of arrival in San Jose del Cabo was March 30, then it was updated to April 2, now it's disappeared altogether.

We got a call last week from someone saying he was with FedEx in Toluca. The package can't be delivered to San Jose del Cabo, but it could be returned to the winery for an additional charge of $68. Only in Toluca, apparently, did FedEx realize the parcel contained wine, which, again, can't be accepted by private individuals in Mexico.

I contacted a FedEx representative in the U.S. to see about our options. At first, she said it could be returned to the sender or "abandoned," which I believe is Spanish for "beach party." When she then mentioned that wine shipped to Mexico must be delivered to an authorized dealer, I asked if I could arrange to have a distributor accept the package. She said someone would get back to me on that in one to two hours. In the meantime, I asked a local wine distributor if he would accept delivery of the parcel. "Sure," he said. In the meantime, I've received no call back from FedEx, whose "one to two hours" has now stretched to six days. FedEx generally is good at getting parcels delivered; clearly, however, it isn't so good at other aspects of customer service.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Best Wine Blogs You've Never Heard Of

As often happens, comments that follow a blog post can be more provocative and helpful than the original posting. Thus, thanks to Paul Mabray of Vintank, a Napa-based "digital think tank for the wine industry," I've been introduced to several stimulating wine blogs. They are the spinoff of a list that Mabray posted a few days ago under the intriguing headline, "The 9 Most Important Wine Bloggers in the US."

At first, I thought Mabray might be pulling our leg. Surely, both that headline and his opening claim suggests he was setting us up for April Fool's Day: "They are the most influential to both the trade and consumers. Their voices influence thousands of other wine personalities and tens of thousands of wine professionals," he says of the annointed nine. Who knew there were "tens of thousands" of wine professionals? In reading the post, however, I find nothing to substantiate his conclusions. I was hoping to discover hard evidence to convince me why these nine are the most influential wine bloggers in the country, but there was none, not a bit. The folks at Vintank may do a lot of thinking, but based on this example of its research it isn't the Rand Institute when it comes to backing up its conclusions.

Nevertheless, I agree with Mabray that the nine are hard-working, stimulating and entertaining, which is why I include on this blog links to six of them. Now I may have to make room for a few more, only one of whom Mabray mentions, and not as one of the nine but as "one to watch." The others were suggested by readers who followed Mabray's commentary with a few comments of their own, often along the lines of, "Hey, you forgot to include...."

In cursory fashion, I checked them out, and found a few I'll be reading again, and who you also might enjoy:

- Wine Without Worry is the blog of Jameson Fink, an erudite Seattle wine enthusiast, which explains his focus on wines of the Pacific Northwest. His frequent posts are tightly written, light, smart and helpful. Anyone planning a trek to the vineyards of the Northwest would be wise to spend some time first at his blog.

- Girl With a Glass is the blog of Alana Gentry, about whom I know nothing. By a quick reading of her recent posts, I can't even tell where she is based. Her view is broad, in other words, as well as even-handed and non-intimidating. She posts fairly often, and her writing has a tone both cerebral and jaunty.

- Cheap Wine Ratings is the blog of two Cincinnati chaps, Tim Lemke and David Germano. As its name suggests, it's all about everyday wines, which they think shouldn't be priced more than $20, though they occasionally include recommendations slightly above that threshold. The point is that they write of wines that deliver value, and the wines they write of are approached with a sense of joyful discovery, without prejudice concerning varietal, region, style or so forth. I'm sure they write of Ohio wines, but in my brief scan of their material I didn't see mention of a single one. Instead, their view is ecumenical, their perspective fresh. Their choice of wines is timely and varied, their attitude breezy but informed. And their blog is a model of organization and maneuvaribility. And note that they note the wines they receive as samples, a nice touch of transparency.

- RJ on Wine is written by Richard Jennings, a passionate, self-described "wine geek" based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has an unrelated day job, but you wouldn't know it by the comprehensiveness and reach of his tasting notes, which are numerous and long. How does he make time to do all that? His tastes are diverse, his tone serious, and he obviously enjoys providing readers with deep background on the history, region or style of wine he is addressing in his latest roundup. His photos are boring, and he avoids prices, but he's endearingly enthusiastic, with no axes to grind, no positions to defend.

- Simple Hedonisms is a collaboration of several Sonoma County contributors, most notably vintner William Allen. While the attitude is enthusiastic and the focus is Sonoma County, this isn't a booster blog. The evaluations of wines are diverse and they ring with knowledge and candor. The information they provide is pragmatic and empowering, with the kind of confidence and balance that makes you eager to go out and grab a bottle to experience the wine for yourself.

It's interesting to me that two of these five, as well as others mentioned in the comments attached to Mabray's remarks, are decidedly regional in their focus. It's just a hunch on my part, but I suspect that the day is drawing near when regional wine blogs will have the most influence on the wine community. Why? Well, let me pull a few thoughts out of the air. The locavore movement is cultivating more appreciation of goods produced close to home, for one. Secondly, the world of wine is so wide, deep and diverse that no one person adequately can cover it all; this realization is fostering the rise of wine critics/columnists/bloggers who are content to study, experience, and report on specific regions, whether they be as big as Chile or as small as Napa Valley. There will remain a role for wine writers with a national or international platform like the New York Times and the Wine Spectator - provided, of course, there's still a New York Times and a Wine Spectator - but for everyday information on what's fermenting in their backyard I suspect wine enthusiasts will look closer to home for most of their guidance. I've no statistics, analysis, metrics or anything but intuition to back up this prediction, which pretty much qualifies me to be a fellow at the think-tank Vintank.