Thursday, June 28, 2012

Nebbiolo: Is There Charm Beyond The Wall?

With the nervous energy of a small flock of hungry birds, "nebs" descended on Karmere Vineyards & Winery in Amador County's Shenandoah Valley the other day.

Vintner Paul Bush approves his rose for pouring
Under a bright white marquee on a patio just outside the tasting room, they first chirped inquisitively, apprehensively and affectionately about their favorite black grape, then they hopped over to tables on which were spread some 20 examples of wines made from the grape. They looked into their wine glasses as if searching for sediment they could read like tea leaves, hoping to find answers to the question that has puzzled California grape growers and winemakers for decades: Does this grape and the wines made from it have a future in the state?

"Nebs" are members of Nebbiolo Enthusiasts & Believers (NEB), a casual group of farmers, vintners and wine enthusiasts who, as their nickname suggests, form the leading tip of a movement to better understand the grape they regard with an abiding admiration and curiosity, nebbiolo.

Nebbiolo is grown principally in Italy, mostly in the northwest province of Piemonte, where it is responsible for the wines Barbaresco and Barolo, widely seen as the most noble grapes the country produces, though growers and winemakers in the Chianti Classico district of Tuscany are likely to quibble with that conclusion.

Though nebbiolo is grown in a few places outside Italy, its wines from elsewhere haven't come close to receiving the acclaim given Barbaresco and Barolo, but the "nebs" are undaunted, hopeful if not quite convinced that the grape and the wines it yields someday will find a receptive place and audience in California.

They're a stubborn group, preferring to look beyond innate difficulties in tending nebbiolo's vines and in the uneven history of wines made from them in California. Indeed, the impetus to create NEB came about a few years ago when noted wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. claimed that nebbiolo was a failure in California, recalled Tom Hill, a longtime New Mexico wine enthusiast who has been instrumental in rallying nebbiolo boosters. (He's being assisted by Ken Musso, winemaker/partner of the winery Due Vigne di Famiglia of Napa, which has a stand of nebbiolo at Garden Valley in El Dorado County.) Parker's remark irked a handful of California growers and vintners who see possibilities in nebbiolo. As a consequence, three years ago they began to meet to swap insight and to measure the varietal's progress in the state - or lack of it - by opening and tasting several bottles.

Grocer Darrell Corti lectures the "nebs"
At the Karmere gathering, about 20 examples of nebbiolo wines were tasted, including a couple of rare antiques contributed by Sacramento grocer Darrell Corti, who at the outset of the session lectured on the history and aspirations of nebbiolo. His conclusion on nebbiolo's prospects in California: Whatever comes of it here, it won't be Barbaresco or Barolo, but the wines probably could be very good, especially if they are made somewhat in the style of pinot noir - light, graceful, charming. "It may be possible to make a new product, a good wine, and sometimes it may be like Barolo," said Corti at his most optimistic.

He'd brought along an unfair ally to drive home his point, a bottle of the 1970 Gaja Barbaresco, which demonstrated with its dark, haunting, multi-layered concentration and enthralling vitality just how grand a nebbiolo-based wine can be. Nebbiolo virtually was unheard of in California when the Gaja was made. Corti also brought alone the oldest example of California nebbiolo he could find in his cellar, a 1975 made by Cary Gott, founder of Montevina Winery not far from Karmere. It was a genuine antique, to be admired for its workmanship and its sturdy, enduring lines, but it wasn't a wine of complexity, freshness or charm. It had good bones, but the flesh that may have made it alluring early on was sagged and pale.

As to more contemporary California takes on nebbiolo, they represented the full range of nebbiolo's strengths and weaknesses. Nebbiolo produces an orange-tinged wine so faint of color that it often can be taken - or mistaken - as a rose. Nevertheless, its tannins are as rigid and demanding as an old-school nun. They're forboding, but beyond them lurks a core of playful cherry fruitiness. Many of them echoed an 1885 assessment of nebbiolo by California wine authorities that Corti mentioned; it predicted that nebbiolo yielded wines too tannic, too low in color and too high in acidty to succeed in California.

Participants help themselves to assorted nebbiolos
Nevertheless, several interpretations were bright colored and aromatic, their smell often more floral than fruity. At their best they possessed a nuttiness in flavor not far removed from sherry, and a structure that would make them perfect foils for the juiciest sausages and richest rib-eye steaks. Their fruit could be ripe and sweet if fleeting, while their tannins almost without exception were grippy. Their finishes were more abrupt than lingering. Even a 10-year-old nebbiolo brought by Paul Bush of Madrona Vineyards on Apple Hill in El Dorado County was still as hard as Sierra granite, though not without sunny fruit.

Might rose be nebbiolo's best shot at establishing a following in California? Perhaps, to judge by both the plushness and length of a 2006 rendition by Rosa d'Oro in Lake County, still very much alive after all these years, and a surprisingly accessible and fresh 2011 by Madrona Vineyards. I suspect, however, that nebs won't be happy to have nebbiolo relegated to rose stature; it produces a seriously sophisticated wine in Piemonte, and California fans aren't likely to be satisfied with anything less, even if it isn't Barbaresco or Barolo.

The wines were tasted open, and as I made my way through the lineup I was most surprised to find that the smoother, more complex, more accessible and better balanced California nebbiolos tended to be from San Luis Obispo County. It could be that nebbiolo in San Luis Obispo County generally is planted in areas that while warm nonetheless are influenced by at least occasional fog, as are nebbiolo vineyards in Piemonte. The name "nebbiolo," in fact, is thought to stem from the Italian "nebbia," for "fog" or "mist."

While several of the California wines struggled to butt into the conversation with a coherent comment, the Italian contingent on hand was at ease with what it had to say, which generally ran to statements about sweet cherry fruit, a quiet complexity, and a stretched-out finish, despite their grippy tannins. Whether nebbiolo grown in California can produce similarly cohesive and approachable wines remains to be seen, but the nebs are confident it can and already are planning a migration next year to Paso Robles.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Big Problems, Or Big Opportunities?

Next flight, recent Central Coast Wine Competition
Ask to see my list of how wine competitions can be improved. Just make sure you have plenty of time to spare. It's a long list, but drawn with affection. I judge at around a dozen commercial wine competitions a year. My interest is largely selfish. I'm looking for wines, trends and knowedge with which to inform my wine writing. Competitions are fun and stimulating, as well as exhausting and, at times, frustrating. They by no means are the perfect way to evaluate wine, guide consumers and enlighten the trade. Thus my list, which I'm pretty much keeping to myself until some editor offers me a chunk of change to speak up.

Earlier today, fellow wine blogger Steve Heimoff posted a provocative commentary under the headline "Big wine competitions have lots of problems." Some of his conclusions hit the mark, some don't. He doesn't judge at wine competitions, thus is unaware of efforts by several to raise their standards to improve the credibility and consistency of their results. Granted, some of those efforts are halting, but at least the competition circuit, not the most introspective of institutions, is showing signs of stirring from its old and dated comfort zone.

The springboard to Steve's remarks is an article about a recent Pacific Northwest competition written by Rick Steigmeyer and published in The Wenatchee World. It's unclear from both the article and from Steve's post how many wines each judge tasted, but both suggest that the panelists each evaluated 220 wines in a single day. I suspect, however, that because there were eight judges and two moderators, each judge evaluated no more than 110 wines. Regardless of the total, even 110 wines is too much to give each wine a fair shake. For Steve, the total should be no more than 60. I agree that that would be ideal, and maybe some day we will get there. A few conscientious competitions are attempting to lower the total number of wines a judge will face in a day; at the California State Fair, the goal is around 70 wines. A few others are taking another tack to help keep judges alert and nimble. Rather than assign a single panel a large class of one kind of wine, they are spreading that class across several panels. Another strategy is to alternate red, white and pink classes, a technique that I've found to be surprisingly effective at keeping my palate fresh, or so I feel. Still, I'd like to see the overall daily number of wines that a judge tastes reduced to the 60 to 70 range.

Steve also objects to wine competitions on the grounds that medals are awarded by the vote of a panel. In the debate leading up to the vote, the more vociferous and celebrated judges have an advantage over the quieter and more hesitant, he argues. This is an old criticism of competitions, and judges are so aware of it today that any judge who tries to impose his or her will on the others is fair game for generally good-natured ribbing. Steve sees more authority in the voice of a critic who has evaluated wines on his or her own, without any outside influence, and there is a solid argument to be made for that approach, as well. At a wine competition, on the other hand, a panel is likely to be composed of a winemaker, a wine retailer, a wine educator and a wine writer. Each brings a different frame of reference to the table, and from that collaborative exchange is likely to emerge a strong consensus on the merits or shortcomings of each wine. A judge or critic evaluating wine on his or her own may be consistent, or he or she may be locked into preferring just one style of wine, unable to see other possibilities.

Yes, as Steve notes, leaner and more subtle wines well could be overlooked by judges working their way through a battery of 100 wines in a day. That can happen if a person were judging just three wines, with the leaner and more subtle example sandwiched between two that are more dense and robust. Judges on the competition circuit have become more aware of this danger in recent years, and from what I have seen are taking the initiative to correct themselves in hopes of justifiably rewarding wines not so much for their concentration and muscle as for their finesse and restraint.

Steve takes a couple of cheap shots at wine judges, suggesting that during their deliberations they're apt to be "drunk" or "half in the bag." The influence of alcohol on judgment is a serious concern. It should be as much a concern to the solitary judge working his or her way through 50 wines as a panel evaluating that many and more. Judges are aware and respectful of the impact of alcohol. They don't like it, but the exposure comes with the territory, and judges do their darnedest to mitigate the impact. You think you've seen people gulping water during a workout at the gym? Amateurs compared with the amounts consumed by wine judges. (Note to self: Add to my list the need for competitions to do away with plastic water bottles, replacing them with reusable pitchers and glasses.)

Nope, there's no precise and perfect way to judge and recommend wines. Wine competitions do provide a forum where a body of wine enthusiasts can taste the same wines, swap their hopefully informed opinions, and reach a consensus on those they would buy and suggest to friends. Do they have big problems? In one person's perspective; to another, big opportunities.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Dispatches From The Competition Front

Random thoughts from the competition circuit over the past week:

- The Central Coast Wine Competition in Paso Robles covers a slice of the California landscape about as long and slim as Chile, from Monterey to Ventura. Within that spread is a diverse range of sub-appellations that reflect just how varied the Central Coast is in terms of terrain and climate. One is Edna Valley, a tiny region that runs up against the Pacific Ocean just south of considerably warmer Paso Robles. Because of frequent and dense morning fog and cool marine temperatures, Edna Valley has built its reputation on pinot noir and chardonnay. That standing was reaffirmed when the rich and peppery Alapay Cellars 2010 Edna Valley Jamieson's Vineyard Reserve Pinot Noir won Best of Show honors at the Central Coast Wine Competition. But it wasn't the only wine in the judging to enhance the reputation of Edna Valley. The best white wine to emerge from the field of 560 entries was the vital and lasting Zocker 2009 Edna Valley Paragon Vineyard Riesling. Other cool-climate varietals from Edna Valley up for best white were the forward and nicely balanced Claiborne & Churchill 2011 Central Coast Dry Gewurztraminer, the lean and sharp Zocker 2011 Edna Valley Paragon Vineyard Gruner Veltliner, the relaxed Tangent 2011 Edna Valley Paragon Vineyard Viognier, and the trim and feathery Trenza 2011 Edna Valey Paragon Vineyard Blanco, a blend of grenache blanc and albarino. Want to escape the heat of Sacramento this summer? Edna Valley looks to offer some mighty fine summer wines as well as a respite from high temperatures.

- Though vintners complain at length about how difficult it is in a varietal-centric market to sell wines blended from a variety of grapes, and bearing unfamiliar proprietary names, they also recognize that such blends often represent their craft at its most inventive and expressive, thus they can't resist the challenge. As a consequence, the range of proprietary blended wines is on the rise. Our panel at the Central Coast Wine Competition judged a class called "Other Blends." These weren't blends based on grape varieties long identified with the Rhone Valley or Bordeaux; they had their own classes. We had 37 "Other Blends." The term "Other Blends" suggests uncharitably that these could be desperation wines, made by vintners tossing together whatever wines were left over when they finished bottling their varietals. Some tasted like it; most didn't. We gave five of the wines gold medals, a respectable proportion. Our Best of Class - the plummy, lush and long Shale Oak Winery 2009 Paso Robles Ku, a blend of zinfandel, syrah and petite verdot - didn't win Best Red Wine, but it was a contender in a tight field of 17 candidates, affirmation that there is a place in the market for well-conceived proprietary blends.

- At the San Francisco International Wine Competition, as at most competitions, a "double-gold medal" is awarded when all judges of a panel agree that a wine deserves a gold medal. Most gold medals are the result of split votes. And most double-gold medals come about only after some discussion. Rare is the double-gold medal that develops spontaneously and instantly, with each judge around the table saying "gold" in succession, without any additional talk. That's why I especially loked forward to learning the identity of the wine in glass "L" of our first flight of varietal roses. We only knew that it was a pink wine made from grenache grapes harvested in 2011. It's the kind of spicy, crisp, slightly sweet and persistent rose that explains why pink wines are so popular nowadays, and not just during the summertime. It was our best of class, qualifying it for Sunday's sweepstakes finale, which involved 90 other wines whittled from an opening field of some 4,500 entries. Alas, it not only didn't win the sweepstakes, it wasn't even named best rose. That honor went to the delicate Pech Merle Winery 2011 Dry Creek Valley Ivy Rose of Syrah ($17). Our double-gold rose turned out to be a local wine, the Midsummer Cellars 2011 Yolo County Grenache Rose ($19).

- As befits a competition that calls itself the San Francisco International, more than half of the 91 sweepstakes nominees came from regions beyond California. Two were from the Czech Republic. One was from Brazil. Australia, Argentina, Germany, Portugal, Canada, Italy, France and Spain were well represented. States other than California that sent wines to the finale included South Dakota, Washington, Florida and New York. The Best of Show Dessert Wine was from Virginia, the nutty and citric Barboursville Vineyards 2007 Malvaxia Passito ($30). Five of the seven sauvignon blancs in the sweepstakes round were from New Zealand, reaffirming that that country pretty much sets the standard for the varietal. The sauvignon blanc to be elected the best in the judging, however, was Californian - the assertive and snappy South Coast Winery 2011 Temecula Valley Musque Clone Sauvignon Blanc ($14). It wasn't the only bargain wine to perform well. The best chardonnay was the Five Rivers 2010 California Chardonnay ($11). The best viognier was the Honey Moon 2011 California Viognier ($6). The best-of-show white wine was the sweet and lively Maryhill Winery 2011 Columbia Valley Riesling ($10). The best moscato was the Cameron Hughes 2010 Sori Lot 319 Moscato from Italy ($14). The best gewurztraminer was the floral, spicy and sweet Vinarstvi Libal 2011 Select Gewurztraminer from Czech Republic ($14).

- The local angle: The Bumgarner Winery 2008 El Dorado County Tempranillo ($27) was elected the best example of the varietal in the competition. Eighteen other tempranillos were in that class, including five from Spain, where the varietal long has been entrenched. McManis Family Vineyards of Ripon had two candidates in the sweepstakes round, its 2011 California River Junction Chardonnay ($10), and its 2010 California Petite Sirah ($11).

- One final note: The Hearst Ranch Winery 2009 Paso Robles Three Sisters Cuvee ($20), which was named Best of Show Red Wine at the California State Fair commercial wine competition less than two weeks ago, was named the Best Red Rhone Wine in San Francisco. At the Central Coast Wine Competition in Paso Robles immediately before the San Francisco judging, it won a silver medal.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Central-Coast Wineries Shine At State Fair

Adventurous, surprising, diverse. That's California, so it's only fitting that the results of the Californnia State Fair commercial wine competition reflect those traits, especially when it comes to the competition's top awards. The latest installment of the State Fair competition was convened last week at Cal Expo in Sacramento. In the opinion of the judges, here are the best wines the state has to offer, drawn from an initial field of nearly 3,000 entries:

Best of Show Red Wine: Hearst Ranch Winery 2009 Paso Robles Three Sisters Cuvee ($20). What's this tell you? Well, you have that Hearst name, which in California is historic, dramatic and romantic. Then you have Paso Robles, perpetually the bridesmaid, never the bride, though that's changing; Paso Robles just may be the state's most dynamic appellation; at the least, it's the most unpredictable. You just never know what varietal or style of wine will generate the latest buzz out of Paso Robles. In this case, the Three Sisters Cuvee is a blend of three grape varieties most closely identified with France's Rhone Valley - syrah (50 percent), grenache (35 percent), mourvedre (15 percent). In its fresh and inviting smell, spunky fruitiness, ticklish spice and lingering finish, this wine shows the promising future of California wine. Yes, blended wines with imaginative and often downright obscure names are difficult sells in a wine culture reared on wines that generally go by the name of their dominant grape, but the rising authority and acclaim of wines like the Three Sisters Cuvee seem to say that forthrightly blended wines have more to express than varietals.

Best of Show White Wine: Kenneth Volk Vineyards 2011 Lodi Alta Mesa Silvaspoons Vineyard Torrontes ($24). That's right, the best white wine in California this year, at least as determined by judges at the California State Fair, is from Sacramento County, not generally ranked among the state's more highly regarded grape-growing regions. Nevertheless, the juiciness and balance of this wine show that exceptional wine can be grown most anywhere in the state when the grower is unusually passionate and precise (Ron Silva of Silvaspoons Vineyard at Galt) and when the vintner is as equally as intense and daring (Kenneth Volk, whose winery in Santa Barbara County specializes in both mainstream varietals and little-known "heirloom" grapes). Torrontes is a green grape most closely associated with the Iberian peninsula and Argentina, where it yields a wine intensely floral, viscous and persistent, which pretty much sums up Kennth Volk's interpretation.

Best of Show Dessert Wine: R.A. Harrison Family Cellars 2008 Napa County Nobility ($75 per 375-milliliter bottle). For Roger Harrison, this is a return trip to the winner's circle. Two years ago, his 2007 Nobility won the same award. Then, the wine was a blend of 78 percent sauvignon blanc and 22 percent semillon. This year's mix is 50/50 sauvignon blanc and semillon, the balance he originally anticipated when he started to make the wine in 2006. In 2007, however, birds raided the vineyard providing his semillon, thus reducing substantially the fruit he got. Either way, the wine is a honeyed California interpretation of the dense and golden Sauternes of Chateau d'Yquem in Bordeax.

Best Value Wine: Oak Grove Wines 2011 California Viognier ($8). Haven't tasted this wine, nor yet learned much about it. The "California" appellation indicates the grapes could be from anywhere in the state. The award is sure to give a boost to a Rhone Valley varietal that could use the endorsement. The wine reportedly is stocked by Ralphs supermarkets and the chain Total Wine and More.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

State Fair Needs An App For 'The Matrix"

State Fair's primitive scoring matrix in action
Matrix or labyrinth? Officials of the California State Fair commercial wine competition now under way at Cal Expo call it "the matrix," as if it were this year's most eagerly anticipated ride along the midway. But remember, we're dealing here with an institution of the State of California, where things aren't necessarily as clear and simple - let alone exciting - as they seem at first look. Intention may be well meant, but the path to the goal can get awfully wiggly. That's when matrix becomes labyrinth.

This is how it goes at most wine competitions: Panels of three to five judges each taste through a flight of wines, make their notes, draw their conclusions, and gather to discuss and decide what kind of medal - if any - each wine warrants. It's worked that way for decades, with few complaints or issues.

Ignoring the maxim that "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," and hoping to impose more structure and standards on this practice, State Fair directors a few years ago came up with "the matrix." In short, it's a large chart that outlines every conceivable combination of medals that a panel of four judges could give a wine. Imagine: Three judges score a wine "gold minus," which basically means they like it a lot but have reservations about whether it really warrants a gold; the fourth judge thinks it worthy of only a bronze medal. According to "the matrix," the wine automatically would be awarded a silver medal. In times past, judges would hash out their differences and come to an agreement all on their own. Chances were pretty good that they also would concur that the wine deserves a silver medal. On the other hand, after debating and retasting the wine, they could agree that it really does warrant a gold medal after all. Or maybe most of them might realize that they were overly generous early on and now feel that the wine justifies just a bronze medal. That sort of second-guessing still is possible at the State Fair, but first "the matrix" has to be consulted, and by the time its determination is calculated judges are so distracted that they just want to get on to the next wine.

Conception of "the matrix," I suspect, was driven at least in part by the State Fair's desire to assign point scores to each wine. Wineries love to brag that this or that wine got 90 or more points, regardless of who gave the points. It's a marketing tool, going back to our school days, when 90 or more points was good enough for an "A" in a math test, the best a student could hope to achieve. By the same token, 90 or more points from the State Fair suggests that the wine got a gold medal, but that isn't necessarily the case; a wine awarded a silver medal also can get 90 or so points, according to "the matrix." Judges who face 80 or so wines during the day would rather spend their time and energy deliberating on the merits or shortcomings of each wine than parsing whether a given entry deserves 90 points or 91 points. "The matrix" takes that chore out of their hands by assigning points to each eventual outcome.

Can you tell that after I spent much of Wednesday at Cal Expo tasting and grading 84 wines I came away a bit miffed about "the matrix?" It's the same feeling I get when dealing with other government agencies - this whole process could be so much faster and simpler and just as reliable if only....

So, a modest proposal: Keep "the matrix," if you must. But bring it into the 21st century. Give each clerk who records each judge's score an electronic tablet programmed with "the matrix." He or she punches in each judge's score as it is given and instantly both clerk and panel will see the consensus medal and score. If they agree with the conclusion, move on to the next wine. If they don't, they can reconsider, debate and refine their judgment. Judges will be happier. State Fair officials should be as tickled; they would get results faster and no less reliably. Consumers? They may not recognize any change, but I've a hunch the results will be more consistent because judges will be devoting more time to pondering the wines and less to figuring their way through the labyrinth.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Just In: The Numbers Behind A Gold-Medal Wine

If you make zinfandel in California and you want to win a gold medal at the State Fair, what should you do? Pay attention to the numbers, but don't fret if the wine comes in at 15.4 percent alcohol. Rather, shoot for a pH of 3.65. And stop the fermentation when the residual sugar hits .5 percent.

That was the take-away lesson last night when directors of the California State Fair commercial wine competition conducted an instructional seminar for judges. Judges typically have passed a sensory examination to qualify to evaluate wines at the State Fair, but the test could have been administered years ago, even decades. In hopes of keeping judges up to speed on the various factors that affect the nature and quality of wine, State Fair officials convene this sort of refresher course on the eve of each annual competition. This year's judging starts this morning. Thus, last evening, some 40 judges sat down to six glasses of red wine to gauge their sensitivity to various levels of pH, color and residual sugar.

Veteran winemaker Scott Harvey, a member of the State Fair's wine advisory committee, conducted the session. He'd taken a zinfandel from this past fall's harvest and manipulated it to provide judges with six variations of the original base wine. The pH levels ranged from 3.55 to 4.15 and the residual sugar ranged from .2 percent to 2 percent. Judges were told at the outset that the wine was made from Vineyard 1869 in Amador County and that the original sample packed 15.4 percent alcohol, .2 percent residual sugar and a pH of 3.5. The glasses were arranged randomly, and judges weren't told the pH and residual-sugar levels of each until after the tasting.

By then, they'd voted on which wine they'd award a gold medal. The clear winner, with 29 votes, almost double the number cast for the runner-up, was the wine identified only as sample D. I voted gold for the wine's fresh berry flavor, balance and length. Because of its alcohol, it was warm, but not scorching. In short, it simply said "zinfandel." By the numbers, it was the sample with 3.65 pH and .5 percent residual sugar. Of the six wines, it was the second lowest in both pH and residual sugar. The wine with the lowest pH and lowest residual sugar was the runner-up, sample B, with 17 votes. It was also the lightest in color, though the winning wine was just a couple of shades deeper. Sample B was just too slim and austere to get a gold-medal vote from me.

Harvey's exercise was inspired by his conviction that wines that tend to win gold medals and other high awards in a competition are made in a decidedly "New World" style. They are wines that show the most weight, ripeness, sweetness and concentration, characteristics measured by higher pH and residual-sugar levels. By comparison, "Old World" wines usually are leaner and gentler, with lower pH and residual-sugar levels. As a consequence, "Old World" wines tend to be overlooked by judges when evaluated alongside their weightier brethern. Last night, however, the "Old World" wines ruled, perhaps because judges were alert to the game being played, perhaps because they hadn't yet faced flight after flight of wine, or perhaps because they generally were well-seasoned panelists, with long experience at evaluating wine.

During the discussion that followed, Harvey and judges sounded as if they agreed that both styles have a place in the market. Some consumers may favor the bigger style while others may favor the more delicate. Whether the experiment affects the perspective of judges won't be known until Friday, when the competition concludes. Even then the numbers behind the award-winning wines likely won't be known for several days.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Stalwarts Of The Amador Wine Scene Recognized

Tradition and tenacity were honored Saturday in three of the four wines to win top honors at the Amador County Fair's 30th annual commercial wine competition in Plymouth. The three were made by vintners who long have believed in the styles and who have worked diligently for decades to show that they have a place in the Sierra foothills, even if none was a zinfandel, a barbera or a syrah, the varietals most closely identified with the region.

The wine judged Best of Show, and also honored as Best Amador Italian Wine and Best Red Wine, was the ripe and rigid Vino Noceto Winery 2009 Shenandoah Valley Misto Sangiovese ($28). Any given vintage, Jim and Suzy Gullett are apt to make half-a-dozen wines based on the black Italian grape sangiovese, with which they established their place in the Shenandoah Valley in 1987. The Misto is their emulation of Tuscany's Chianti Classico, for which sangiovese is the principal grape. The wine is 90 percent sangiovese and canaiolo nero and 10 percent malvasia and trebbiano, green grapes often used in making Chianti Classico.

In the final voting for Best of Show, the Misto edged by one vote the lithe and long Amador Foothill Winery 2011 Shenandoah Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($12), earlier elected the competition's Best White Wine. While winery owners Ben Zeitman and Katie Quinn are regularly recognized for their European-styled sangioveses and zinfandels, sauvignon blanc long has been a staple in their lineup. They regularly reinforce the structure and intensify the complexity of their sauvignon blanc by adding a substantial portion of semillon - 25 percent of the wine in 2011. The result is a sauvignon blanc husky yet crisp, its flavors ranging from grass to grapefruit, fig to pimiento.

The third candidate up for Best of Show was the Best Dessert Wine, the floral and viscous Shenandoah Vineyards 2009 Amador County Black Muscat ($12 per 375-milliliter bottle), a laser-shot of concentrated blackberries spiced up with a dash of black pepper. It's one dark, lush and sweet wine, weighing in with 16.5 percent alcohol and 6 percent residual sugar. The Leon Sobon family has been making the Black Muscat since shortly after it arrived in the Shenandoah Valley in 1977, and while it has a loyal following the breadth, complexity and concentration of the 2009 will bring a whole bunch of new fans eager for a bottle or two from the 192 cases that were made.

The fourth candidate vying for Best of Show was the Best Blush Wine, the citric, sweet and snappy Helwig Vineyards & Winery 2011 Rose de Shenandoah ($20), a refreshing blend of syrah and zinfandel. Helwig is a relatively new player on the Amador County wine scene, perhaps drawing more notice for its concerts and caves than its wines, though this kind of recognition is apt to help change that perspective. Helwig also won a gold medal for its 2010 Shenandoah Valley Zinfandel. According to the winery's website, the Rose de Shenandoah is available only to wine-club members.

A couple of other notes from Saturday's competition:

- Representatives of Ren Aquisition Inc., which a year ago bought financially troubled Renwood Winery in the Shenandoah Valley, have been talking the talk about how they intend for the recast property to set the standard for vineyard-designated zinfandels. At Saturday's competition, they pretty much showed that they're ready to walk the walk. Of seven zinfandels that Renwood entered in the judging, five won gold medals, while the other two won silver. All five gold-medal zinfandels carry an Amador County appellation, along with such proprietary or vineyard names as Timberline, Gold Crest, Grandpere and Ingenuity.

- The Jeff Runquist Wines 2010 Amador County Dick Cooper Vineyards Barbera, named best red wine at two large competitions in Southern California in recent weeks, didn't win any high honors on its home turf, but it didn't do too badly, either. Both it and Runquist's 2010 Amador County Barbera won double-gold medals, meaning that all judges on the panel to evaluate the wines agreed that they warranted gold. Runquist also won gold medals for its 2010 Amador County Pioneer Hill Vineyard Sangiovese and its 2010 El Dorado County Lemley Ranch Vineyard Charbono.

- No class was more competitive than zinfandel, which drew 81 entries. This reflects zinfandel's long standing in Amador County's vineyards. By the end of the day, just one stood alone as the Best Amador Zinfandel, and that would be the solid and lively Terra d'Oro Winery 2009 Amador County Zinfandel.

- The Amador County Fair iself runs July 26-29. This year's theme rocks: "Barn in the USA."