Monday, July 30, 2012

Robert M. Parker Jr.: Has His Time Come?

Fifteen candidates are on the ballot for possible induction into the Vintners Hall of Fame next February. This total is important to keep in mind because just one candidate - wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. - is generating buzz. This is his third time to be nominated, and, as the saying goes, the third time is apt to be the time he adds this charm to a bracelet already heavy and loud with acclaim.

I've no strong feelings one way or the other about whether Parker should be a member of the Class of 2013, which I suspect he will be. He's an influential and contentious character. While some praise his astute and embracing palate, others criticize him negatively for his popularization of the 100-point scale of wine rating and for what often is perceived as his single-handed impact on wine styles, an influence that is overstated and for which he isn't solely responsible. (If elected, in his acceptance speech will be acknowledge the role played in his standing by wine merchants, sommeliers and vintners who have surrendered their own judgment and instinct to Parker?)

Parker has been generous with me over the years, and his critiques of wines and wine regions deserve more discussion and reflection than his popular 100-point scale, but my concern is that the current debate over whether he should or shouldn't be in the Vintners Hall of Fame is distracting from the 14 other candidates who share the ballot.

It's important to note here that the Vintners Hall of Fame, which is housed at the Napa Valley campus of the Culinary Institute of America, should actually be thought of as the California Vintners Hall of Fame. Its intent is to honor the men and women who have had a profound and lasting impact on California's standing in the wine world, whether as grape growers, winemakers, educators, merchants, writers and so forth. That Parker has helped popularize California wine is without question, but on the world stage I think his impact has been more dramatic and lasting in his writing of Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhone Valley, none of which is a California appellation.

In past elections, the five to seven top vote recipients have been inducted into the Vintners Hall of Fame. Given that record, and given the strength of this year's ballot, Parker's election isn't guaranteed. A quick scan of the ballot reveals at least half a dozen other candidates whose contributions to the development of fine wine in California have been no less significant than Parker's, even though their names might not be as readily recognized as his. They include Vince Petrucci, a professor of viticulture and enology at Fresno State for 45 years, during which he helped educate no less than two generations of California winemakers; Cesar Chavez, the non-violent labor leader largely responsible for improving the working conditions and pay of the state's farm workers; Gary Eberle, the grape grower and winemaker who not only introduced syrah to the state but was instrumental in creating and popularizing the Paso Robles appellation; Merry Edwards, a highly successful pioneer in Sonoma County's Russian River Valley, revered for her pinot noirs and sauvignon blancs; Jerry Lohr, who while closely indentified with his wineries and vineyards in Monterey County, Napa Valley and Paso Robles has long worked diligently, quietly and successfully on public-policy issues, marketing strategies and cutting-edge research for the entire California wine trade; and Jed Steele, who as a winemaker for 44 years has shown that both unhearalded wine regions and relatively obscure grape varieties deserve a place at the table.

Parker isn't the only writer on this year's ballot, and even in that niche he faces formidable competition. One other candidate is Frank Schoonmaker, who successfully persuaded the country's wine trade to use varietal identification rather than regional designation for domestic wines and to adopt educational back labels to better inform a largely non-wine-drinking population. The other candidate is Bob Thompson, who over the past 40 years authored or co-authored several books on California wine, and who was one of the nation's first wine writers to be given a regular column in a major American newspaper, reporting on wine with authority, candor, warmth and wit; to randomly open and scan a book by Thompson, even at this far remove, is akin to running across the movie “The Godfather” while surfing TV channels - no matter where you come in, you can’t leave - each paragraph, like each scene, unfolds with compelling insight and nuance. Well, I guess that gives away where one of my votes is going.

Ballots, incidentally, are sent to around 200 wine writers and previous inductees into the Vintners Hall of Fame. For whatever reason, fewer than half the recipients return a completed ballot. I wonder if they are the same commentators who carp about this or that candidate not being inducted.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Another Sweepstakes Win For A Cooper Barbera

Some people in Southern California sure love barbera from Dick Cooper's ranch in Amador County's Shenandoah Valley. That those people are wine judges only will enhance the vineyard's already high standing.

The latest panel of judges to endorse barbera from Cooper's plot convened this weekend for the Long Beach Grand Cru, which drew some 1,400 commercial wines from throughout the world.

In the competition's final session Sunday afternoon, the Helwig Vineyards & Winery 2010 Shenandoah Valley Cooper Ranch Barbera ($28) was elected the best red wine in a field of 25 nominees. The voting wasn't even close as the juicy Helwig attracted 20 votes, eight more than its closest runnerup, a peppery blend of Rhone Valley grape varieties grown in California, The Messenger Telegram Red Wine Number Two ($17).

The Helwig win was the third high honor at a Southern California wine competition this year for a barbera from the Cooper vineyard. This spring, the Jeff Runquist Wines 2010 Amador County Dick Cooper Vineyard Barbera ($26) was named best red wine at both the Riverside International Wine Competition in Temecula Valley and the Pacific Rim Wine Competition in San Bernardino.

Helwig won two other gold medals in Long Beach, for its 2010 Shenandoah Valley Petite Sirah ($28) and its 2011 Shenandoah Valley Rose de Shenandoah ($20).

Other Sacramento-area wineries to take high honors were:

- Fiddletown Cellars of Fiddletown in Amador County, best of class for its 2010 Amador Old Vine Zinfandel ($19), and gold medal for its 2009 Amador Bent Bow Zinfandel ($25).

- Scribner Bend Vineyards of Sacramento, best of class for its 2009 Clarksburg Tempranillo ($16), and a gold medal for its 2011 Clarksburg Fiano ($13).

- Drytown Cellars of Drytown in Amador County, best of class for its 2010 Amador County Estate Petite Sirah ($18).

- Chatom Vineyards of Murphys, gold medals for its 2009 Sierra Foothills Touriga ($24) and its 2008 Sierra Foothills Zinfandel ($20).

- Boeger Winery just outside Placerville, gold medal for its 2009 El Dorado Barbera ($17).

- Casey Flat Ranch in Yolo County's Capay Valley, gold medal for its 2011 Capay Valley CFR Sauvignon Blanc ($23).

- Harlow Ridge Winery in Lodi, gold for its 2010 Lodi Cabernet Sauvignon ($7).

- Peirano Estate Vineyards in Lodi, gold for its 2010 Lodi The Heritage Collection Merlot ($13).

- Renwood Winery in Amador County's Shenandoah Valley, gold for its 2010 Amador County Timberline Zinfandel ($100). Renwood also won four silver medals and two bronze medals for other zinfandels in the competition.

The competition sets the stage for a benefit tasting on behalf of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, to be Aug. 18 at Rainbow Lagoon Park in Long Beach. For more information and tickets, visit the event's website.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Flames Level Highly Regarded Foothill Winery

John Smith just saw fire destroy his winery, but he was taking a long and philosophical view of the loss: "The only real damage is emotional. Nobody was hurt and we are fully insured, but it was very hard to see all that wine and all that work we put into it go up in flames," said Smith on Sunday morning, a day after the blaze gutted his Oakstone Winery in the Fair Play district of southwestern El Dorado County.

Fire guts Oakstone; photo via owner John Smith
Cause of the blaze isn't expected to be pinned down for a couple of days, but Smith is speculating that it will be found to be electrical.

He estimates that the total loss will be in the neighborhood of $3 million. In addition to the hillside structure that housed production facilities and tasting room, the losses included 4,000 cases of wine from the past three vintages. Some 2,000 gallons of wine in stainless-steel tanks alongside the winery, which were to be bottled Tuesday, were ruined by heat and debris from the fire. "They will not survive," says Smith.

Crews of the Pioneer Fire Protection District responded at about 4 a.m. Saturday. A neighbor who was walking his dog saw the glow of the blaze and alerted firefighters. The explosion of a five-gallon propane tank on a forklift subsequently awoke other neighbors.

A few vines close to the winery were singed by flames but this year's crop was largely undamaged. Smith isn't sure how he will handle this year's harvest. He owns a second winery nearby, Obscurity Cellars, but it likely is too small to accommodate this year's crop, and it lacks a tasting room. Also nearby is the old Granite Springs Winery, now dormant, so he may be able to lease space there pending reconstruction of Oakstone.

John and Susan Smith built Oakstone in 1996 and opened it in 1997. Since then, Oakstone has been recongized by wine critics and wine competitions for its steady and clear interpretation of such Sierra foothill signature wines as zinfandel and petite sirah, as well as varieties not usually identified with the region, like cabernet sauvignon and merlot. Oakstone's single most popular wine is an everyday blend marketed under the proprietary name Slug Gulch Red, after the road in front of the winery. In May, the Oakstone Winery 2011 Lemley Ranch Vineyard Pinot Grigio was named the best El Dorado County wine in the El Dorado County Fair commercial wine competition. Since then, in hopes of spreading his dwindling stockpile of the wine through the summer, Smith had taken the unusual step of limiting sales of the wine to two bottles per person. The 100 or so cases of the wine that he still had on hand was lost in the fire.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Alicante Bouschet, Dead Or Alive?

Alicante bouschet, Mohr-Fry Ranches
For years, the Lodi wine trade has made a big deal of billing its vineyards as "sustainable." It's a sketchy term difficult to interpret, but thanks to this frank and balanced account of what's going on in one of Lodi's more historic and respected vineyards, we now have a fixed definition: $2,500 per ton. That's what it will take to sustain the historic 12.5-acre block of alicante bouschet in the vineyard of Lodi's Mohr-Fry Ranches. The owners, however, aren't getting it, so they are planning to bulldoze the plot, planted in 1921. This year's crop could be the last.

Granted, alicante bouschet isn't the most popular grape on the California wine scene these days. Yet, it's shown itself to be quite capable of producing red wines of such character that they win high awards on the competition circuit. Two months ago, the weekly wine column I contribute to The Sacramento Bee focused on one such wine, the Harmony Wynelands Winery 2009 Lodi Alicante Bouschet, the only interpretation of the varietal to get a gold medal from our panel at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition in January. The wine was wonderful, a straight-forward take on the blossoming perfume, rich jamminess, uncommon complexity and exquisite balance that alicante bouschet can yield when grown and manipulated affectionately. You know where this is going, correct? The grapes that yielded the wine were grown on the Mohr-Fry Ranches, in the very block destined to be bulldozed.

Despite such and similar acclaim, alicante bouschet just isn't destined to be a major player on the California wine scene. There simply isn't much of it planted, and the effort that will be needed to nurture it into fine wine and then to educate a consuming public unfamiliar with it just may be too costly and daunting for farmers and vintners to tackle.

But as the Harmony Wynelands alicante bouschet shows, it's a grape and a wine worth keeping around; surely, awards like the one bestowed by the Chronicle judging will help raise its esteem, perhaps even to the point that the grape can command $2,500 or more per ton. Maybe the folks at Mohr-Fry should give it at least a few more years. The plot already has been around for 91 years, so why not wait until its 100th anniversary to see where things stand?

Incidentally, when I wrote of the Harmony Wynelands wine I heard from another producer of alicante bouschet, John Smith of Oakstone Winery and Obscurity Cellars in the Fair Play district of El Dorado County. In January, I'd written in The Bee about his Obscurity Cellars 2009 Fair Play Serendipity Hill Vineyard "Alice’s Biscuits" Alicante Bouschet. You can tell that I rather like the varietal.

At any rate, John Smith chastized me for giving the impression in the column about the alicante bouschet from Harmony Wynelands that only two examples of the varietal had been entered at the Chronicle competition. True, the panel on which I sat judged just two, the two entered in the class "Rhone Other Varietals & Blends" priced more than $20. Unbeknownst to me, two other alicante bouschets had been entered, but in a class not judged by our panel, "All Other Red Varietals/Blends" priced more than $20. That's where John Smith and one other Mother Lode vintner had entered their alicante bouschets. Smith's alicante bouschet got a gold medal in the Chronicle to go along with other gold medals it won at the Orange County Fair and the California State Fair. Two things are clear here: One, vintners aren't sure how they should enter alicante bouschet in wine competitions; should it be considered a Rhone Valley varietal or not? Second, other judges also really like alicante bouschet.

When I contacted the executive director of the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, Bob Fraser, he explained at length about how the classes have grown so complicated and potentially confusing. I won't go into the historical details here, but just point out that with the Chronicle's next competition in January alicante bouschet and other minor varietals will be assigned to classes of their own. "No stand-alone varietal wines (will be) merged with the blended categories," says Bob Fraser. "We will have additional varietal categories and a catch-all 'all other red varieties' for the obscure varietals," he adds.

Thus, all's well on the alicante-bouschet front, at least as far as the Chronicle competition is concerned. There's still that Lodi matter that needs a happier solution. Let's run the figures. The alicante bouschet portion of the vineyard yielded 1.45 tons per acre last year, 2.37 tons per acre the year before. If someone were to pay $2,500 per ton for the alicante bouschet, they'd likely be investing between $45,000 and $75,000. I don't think I can persuade my wife to let me tap into the retirement reserves for that kind of money for that kind of gamble. On the other hand, as I say, alicante bouschet is rising in esteem. Stay tuned.