Thursday, September 27, 2012

Mount Veeder: Cabernets Of Authority And Grace

"Napa Valley" is the most readily identifiable American Viticultural Area, but it's also the silliest. To be accurate, the appellation  should be "Napa County," not "Napa Valley," but "Napa County" doesn't ring with the same color and romance as "Napa Valley." "Napa County," well, sounds amorphous, bureaucratic and political. In reality, the same could be said of "Napa Valley."

There is a Napa Valley, but it isn't the appellation "Napa Valley," which as conceived, developed and marketed includes a whole bunch of terrain beyond Napa Valley itself. Look at a map and you will find that the Napa Valley appellation includes four mountains and two other valleys, which while close to Napa Valley aren't really of the valley.

Whether because of embarrassment, insecurity or pride, various grape-growing and winemaking groups within the "Napa Valley" appellation recognized many years ago the absurdity of the appellation's broadly embracing boundaries and took it upon themselves to correct the matter. They created sub-appellations more in keeping with the spirit of what an American Viticultural Area is to be, which is to say an enclave whose grape-growing environment - soil types, elevation, sunshine, rainfall and the like - are so compact, consistent and distinctive that the resulting wines are somehow markedly different than wines from even nearby areas.

Tasting and talk were the order of the day
Today, "Napa Valley" includes 16 such sub-appellations. One is Mount Veeder, established in 1990. As an appellation, Mount Veeder stretches north/south through the Mayacamas Mountains just to the west of the city of Napa. Sonoma County is just on the other side of the ridgeline. Vineyards within the appellation tend to be small and scattered, adding up to only about 1,000 acres total. In elevation, they range from 400 feet to 2400 feet. Cabernet sauvignon accounts for nearly two-thirds of the appellation's production, but 16 other varieties are grown within its boundaries. There actually is a Mount Veeder, rising 2,670 feet in the northwest quadrant of the appellation, named after a German Presbyterian pastor, Peter Veeder, who lived in Napa during the Civil War era and who liked to hike in the hills west of the city.

Winemaking commenced in the range at about the same time that Peter Veeder was getting his exercise. Today, some 30 wineries exploit the appellation, producing a total of around 45,000 cases of wine per year.

So what distinguishes Mount Veeder from Napa Valley generally and its 15 other sub-appellations? On paper, the difference largely is soil. It's sedimentary, a former seabed, while the soil of  Napa's other mountain districts is volcanic. Given its elevation, the region tends to get more sun and less fog than much of the rest of Napa Valley. Given its proximity to San Pablo Bay, it's cooler than most other Napa Valley enclaves. It's growing season is longer, with harvest usually commencing later than in other Napa Valley areas. And its stingy soils yield little more than two tons per acre, about half the Napa Valley average, say appellation officials.

But what of the wines? What sets them apart from others in Napa Valley? That's what I wanted to know, and why I jumped at a chance to attend last weekend's 13th annual Mount Veeder Appellation Wine Tasting. For three hours Saturday afternoon, 26 wineries within the appellation poured past, current and pending releases at tables around the sculpture garden of The Hess Collection, one of the first wineries you reach as you drive into the appellation from the south.

In my first trek through the circuit, with the blues band The Hummingbirdz performing off to one side, I concentrated solely on the appellation's flagship varietal, cabernet sauvignon. They were largely from the 2008 and 2009 vintages. As a group, they were dry, medium-bodied and balanced. The typically low yields for the region was represented in concentrated fruit flavors, mostly from the blackberry and cherry families. A few were warm from alcohol, but none singed the palate. Tannins were supple. By and large, winemakers respected the purity of the fruit by not overlaying it with too much oak. These were wines built to last, and I came away feeling that several would hit their stride only after five or so years in the cellar. The few older vintages on hand confirmed that Mount Veeder cabernets can retain their fresh-fruit attributes with remarkable grace.

Some newer releases stood out more than others, for various reasons. A couple were exceptionally aromatic, their smells assertive and beckoning. The Y'Rosseau Wines 2009 Mount Veeder Le Roi Soleil Cabernet Sauvignon ($65) was one, its smell running to essence of blackberry, beseeching the taster to return again and again for another sip. The Rubissow Wines 2008 Mount Veeder Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($125) was another, the juiciness of its aroma just the gate to a garden lush with berries and cherries. The Rubissow also stood apart for an unusual yet compelling current of peppermint, spearmint or juniper that coursed through it.

While Mount Veeder cabernets were easy to appreciate for their direct fruitiness, a few stood apart for their complexity, including traces of flinty minerality that must evolve from the ancient seabed in which Mount Veeder vineyards are planted, none moreso than the Mount Veeder Winery 2008 Mount Veeder Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($80); this is one formidable wine not likely to hit its peak for another five years. Another was the vibrant and gracefully layered The Hess Collection 2008 Mount Veeder 19 Block Cuvee, a marvelous blend of Bourdeaux grape varieties that at $36 the bottle was the best buy of the tasting. And no wine was more complex than the Fontanella Family Winery 2009 Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon ($52), which for its elegance and power was another exceptional buy.

For the most part, the cabernets didn't possess particularly long finshes. A couple were downright blunt. An exception was the O'Shaughnessy Estate Winery 2009 Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon ($100), which had the longest finish of the day, testifying to the expansiveness and richness of its mouth-filling fruit, herbs and spices.

While Mount Veeder is largely cabernet territory, other varietals are showing well on the appellation's shadowy slopes. Lagier Meredith eschews cabernet sauvignon, yet may have generated the most buzz of the day with the authority and length of its meaty and spicy Lagier Meredith 2010 Mount Veeder Syrah ($48) and with the charm and snap of its Lagier Meredith 2010 Mount Veeder Mondeuse ($42), a rare black grape which here produced a wine so powerfully suggestive of marionberries coated with several twists of black pepper that it could trigger an explosion of planting across California. Another variety that looks to have potential on Mount Veeder is albarino, to judge by the pretty, spicy, vibrant and refreshing The Hess Collection 2011 Mount Veeder Albarino, a wine so limited in production at this point that it is available only at the winery. Chardonnay, of course, is tended on Mount Veeder, but the results tasted Saturday were less than enthralling, with the exception of the gloriously fruity and endearingly spunky Spotted Owl Vineyards 2010 Napa Valley Chardonnay ($45).

In conclusion, I suggest that wine enthusiasts keep an eye out for these kinds of regional tastings. They're more limited than tastings that corral as many producers as they can, but that's their appeal. Rather than ramble from producer to producer, region to region and style to style, a defined regional tasting lets you zero in on the one or two types of wine for which an appellation is recognized, and thereby truly find what a place has to say. Besides, smaller and more manageable tastings appeal to winemakers because they can engage customers and potential customers more meaningfully. You could see a lot of that at the Mount Veeder tasting, a model worth emulating.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Fear Not The German Wine Label

As it became clear that Germans could design and assemble cars of incomparable power, efficiency and reliability, they realized they needed something else with which to tinker in their spare time. Their solution was the German wine label, seen by many Americans as the modern equivalent of a moat surrounding a castle, a wide, deep and confounding barrier  to keep outsiders from enjoying all the beauty, romance and joy inside.

That isn't how it was intended. Germans surely thought they were building an intelligent and considerate drawbridge, and to seasoned German-speaking wine enthusiasts that's precisely what the German wine label is. For others, especially those whose language is English, the heavy Gothic typography, esoteric shields and symbols, elaborate estate paintings, and obscure terminology of the traditional German wine label is more hindrance than help. You practically need a degree in viticulture and enology from the German wine school at    Geisenheim to understand them. What's more, for all the tweaking that the German wine trade does with its label regulations you'd best enroll in refresher courses every couple of years.

Until I made my first visit to Germany recently, that's a view I shared. I still do, though I now have a better understanding of what the German wine trade is trying to accomplish with its elaborate, precise and ever-evolving wine-label standards, which is to give consumers ever more insight into the nature and quality of the wine in the bottle. German wine consumers really seem to cherish all this information, and they account for nearly half the annual sales of German wine.

Old World style...
Besides, the widely held view that the challenging German language and the overwrought German wine label inhibits the sale of German wines in English-speaking countries may not be entirely valid, at least to judge by sales. The United States and the United Kingdom are Germany's two principal export markets. Granted, sales of German wine in the United Kingdom last year fell 14 percent, and were off nearly half a percent in the United States, but the recession and a small crop from German vineyards in 2010 may have had more to do with the slump than the mysteries of the German wine label. Note that the European price of a typical bottle of German wine has nearly doubled over the past decade, from slightly more than 15 euros in 2002 to almost 30 euros today.

German vintners are of two schools of philosophy when it comes to their labels. One wants even more detailed and significant information on the label. With the current vintage, for example, the nearly 200 members of the trade group "VDP. Die Pradikatsweinguter," responsible for enforcing strict quality standards, will start to use a restructured classification system modeled after Burgundy. The term "grosse lage," for example, is to be the equivalent of Burgundy's "grand cru," designating a wine that has been determined by a tasting panel to show discernible characteristics of the terroir in which the grapes were grown. Already, another relatively new label designation, "grosse gewachse," frequently shortened to "GG," is more obvious to signify dry wines from a grosse-lagen vineyard. How enthusiastically this classification and its terminology will be embraced by winemakers in Germany's various regions remains to be seen. As it is, VDP estates account for only about two percent of the country's annual crop, though eight percent of the nation's sales, and are widely perceived as the nation's most dedicated wine properties. Steffen Christmann, president of the VDP, concedes that German wine labels may succeed too well, giving wine enthusiasts too much information. "It's the perfect system for people who have studied German wine, but not for consumers," says Christmann, himself a winemaker in the Pfalz region southwest of Frankfurt.

...and New World, both of Germany
On the other hand, wine consumers in the United States are seeing more German wines that eschew altogether the clutter of the customary German wine label in favor of labels that are clean, direct and, frankly, almost too spare of information. In recent days, I've picked up several German wines with minimalist labels. One simply gave the name of the producer (Selbach), the varietal (riesling) and a proprietary name that while in English made no more obvious sense than if it were in German ("Incline"); no vintage and no region were indicated, though the back label made clear it was a 2011 from the Mosel and that it had one more bit of significant information; it was designated "qualitatswein," certification that the wine had gone through specifically defined production and sensory evaluations aimed at assuring its quality. Another wine simply had the name of the producer (Eva Fricke), the vintage (2011) and the region (Rheingau); not even the varietal (riesling) was on the front label, though it was on the back.

So, regardless of whether we're talking traditional and intricate German wine labels or those that are modern and sketchy, what should the wine consumer interested in exploring Germany's fine wines look for while browsing about shelves and bins? Here are a few tips:

- Producer, vintage and region all are significant, of course, but at the outset they aren't particularly important to know well. With experience and study, certain producers and regions will become more valued than others, and the variables of the vintage by region and even by vineyard will become more meaningful. For now, as to vintage, most German rieslings in the American market today - and riesling accounts for about two-thirds of Germany's wine production - are from the 2010 and 2011 harvests. The 2010 growing year was troublesome for Germany's growers, who in some regions faced hard spring frosts and then too much summer rain; the overall yield was its lowest in three decades. Some very fine wines emerged from the 2010 vintage, but from vintner to vintner the nature and aesthetics of the wines will be more uneven than releases from the more benevolent harvest of 2011. Bottom line: If you are looking for an entry-level German riesling, go with an example from the 2011 vintage.

- The complexities of the German wine label constitute just one of the two principal reasons why German wines purportedly aren't more popular in the U.S. The other is that the country's premier wine, riesling, is just too sweet for American palates. Actually, that is how Americans historically have wanted their riesling, and it's been only relatively recent that the pendulum on the sugar scale has swung more to dry interpretations of riesling. This turnaround is especially evident in Germany, where wine enthusiasts increasingly prefer their rieslings dry, or without evident residual sugar. In 1985, only 16 percent of German wines were classified dry, while 64 percent were sweet and 20 percent were semi-dry. Since then, the proportion of German wines labeled dry has risen steadily. Last year, 41 percent of German wines were dry, while 36 percent were sweet and 23 percent were semi-dry. Bottom line: If you want your German riesling dry, look on the label for the word "trocken." If you would rather it be a little sweet, look for the word "halbtrocken," which more or less means "semi-dry," though it also can be intrepreted to mean "semi-sweet." Increasingly, another old term to indicate sweetness is showing up on German wines, sometimes on the front label, sometimes the back. That would be "feinherb," which, depending on the winemaker, can mean either semi-dry or semi-sweet, not that there is much difference in the two to begin with. Indeed, when I asked one winery principal at the Rheingau Wine Festival in Frankfurt to define the word "feinherb" on his label, he said, "It's the same as halbtrocken, medium-dry." Historic terms to designate intensifying sweetness, ranging from "kabinett" to "trockenbeerenauslese," still are being used but look to be fading away. Finally, to help determine a wine's approximate sweetness, check the back label for the scale being promoted by the International Riesling Foundation. In an easy-to-grasp graphic, it shows where the wine in the bottle falls between dry and sweet; even some German wine producers are using this New World tool.

- "Qualitatswein" and "Pradikatswein" are two other label terms worth keeping in mind. Qualitatswein, often abbreviated as "QbA," means, among other things, that the wine is from one of Germany's specified wine-growing regions and that it has passed an analytical and sensory evaluation. Pradikatswein, which translates roughly as "quality wine with special attributes," means the wine has met even more stringent standards than QbA wines. What's more, Pradikatswein wines still are likely to use the old qualifying terms of ripeness and sweetness - kabinett, spatlese, auslese and the like.

- For me, the smallest type on the back label has become one of the more valued indicators that I will find the wine in the bottle a reliable if not exceptional representative of the type. It's the name of the American distributor who has imported the wine. For me, to see "Terry Theise Selection," "Chambers & Chambers" or "Rudi Weist Selections" in fine print on the back label of a German wine almost always is a guarantee that I will find the wine a worthy investment and a memorable expression of the varietal, vintage, region and estate. Bottom line: If I'm totally perplexed about a wine I'm staring at, the name of the importer is apt to be enough for me to retrieve the credit card from my wallet. When you like a bottle of German wine, note the name of the importer, then look for it during subsequent shopping.

There, I've written a post about the German wine label without once mentioning another favorite term, "spatburgunder," but that's a whole other story, best saved for another day.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Robert M. Parker Jr. Is In; What Now?

In July, the headline over an item I posted here read, "Robert M. Parker Jr.: Has His Time Come?"

Today, we learned the answer. Yes, it has. That posting dealt with Parker's nomination to the Vintners Hall of Fame at the Napa Valley campus of the Culinary Institute of America. The news today was that he is one of four nominees who gathered enough votes to join that prestigious assembly.

Congratulations to Robert M. Parker Jr. and to the three others who are to be inducted into the Vintners Hall of Fame in February: farm-labor organizer Cesar Chavez, Sonoma County vintner Meredith "Merry" Edwards and wine writer Frank Schoonmaker. All have made pivotal and enduring contributions to the nature and quality of California wine; all deserve this acknowledgement of their achievements, which, in the case of Merry Edwards, continues. Chavez and Schoonmaker are deceased, and Parker essentially is retired, having turned over responsibility for critiquing California wine to another member of his staff at the influential wine newsletter The Wine Advocate.

While I'm happy for those elected, and for the process and the institution that has taken the initiative to help enrich California wine culture with an historical context, I'm feeling letdown in two respects. But first, a qualification: I'm on the committee that nominates the candidates on the ballot sent previous inductees and wine writers, who in turn elect the new additions.

First, I'm surprised by how few candidates were elected. Granted, we submitted an exceptionally rich slate of nominees. In addition to those elected, the ballot included such fundamental players in the California wine culture as the distinguished wine writer Bob Thompson; vintner Jed Steele, who has been instrumental in raising the profile of Mendocino and Lake counties as fine-wine regions; San Francisco Bay Area restaurateur and radio personality Narsai David; the winemaker most closely identified with the high standing of Paso Robles as a region for memorable wines, Gary Eberle; and Jerry Lohr, rocket scientist turned progressive vintner, a man not only crucially responsible for establishing Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties as fine-wine regions but for continually pushing his colleagues to study and adopt new methods and strategies to improve California wine. Yes, I'm disappointed that none of them will be inducted into the Vintners Hall of Fame this winter, but hope they again will be on the ballot and ultimately recognized for their role in enhancing the state's wine trade.

Secondly, I'm perplexed that only 81 past inductees and members of the wine media cast ballots in this year's election. More than twice that many people received ballots. Why such a lousy turnout? Perhaps many in the wine media and even past inductees don't consider the Vintners Hall of Fame relevant enough to make time to review the testimonials for each candidate - brief as they are - and to complete their ballot. Maybe summer isn't the best time to canvas the electorate. Could it be that newer members of the wine media - I'm thinking bloggers, tweeters and other new-wave social-media types - are too preoccupied with the now to reflect on and celebrate the past? I really don't think that, given that some surely did vote this year, and the results largely are a toast to the past.

When next winter's inductees were revealed today, San Francisco wine writer W. Blake Gray, who chairs the nominating committee, said: "It's interesting to see the two most argued-about candidates of recent years, Robert Parker and Cesar Chavez, going in at the same time...My only regret is, what will we argue about next year?" Here's a thought: How about a discussion on what can be done to generate more interest and involvement in the Vintners Hall of Fame, starting with a get-out-the-vote campaign to persuade more members of the wine media to weigh in?

Despite Hard Weather, Oregon Pinot Noir Soars

In the latter half of the 1960s, we lived in Oregon's Willamette Valley. At that time in that place, mushrooms, blueberries and Christmas trees were the most eagerly anticipated crops of summer and fall. They're still in demand today, but a comparative newcomer, wine grapes, just might eclipse them in popularity and romance.

As a measure of the growth and esteem of Oregon's vineyards over the past half century, some 70 Willamette Valley vintners occupied the Golden Gate Club on the sprawling grounds of San Francisco's Presidio the other day to show off current and pending releases.

Mostly, they poured pinot noir from the 2009 and 2010 vintages. Other grape varieties are grown in the Willamette Valley, but pinot noir is the big duck on the pond. Of the 20,400 acres planted to wine grapes in Oregon, 12,560 are dedicated to pinot noir, 90 percent of which is in the northern Willamette Valley, stretching 100 miles south and west from Portland.

Since 2008, which was a long and gentle growing season in Willamette Valley, yielding pinot noirs of exceptional authority, elegance and charm, Oregon has weathered a succession of difficult vintages. The 2009 growing year was hot, producing a crop that exceeded 40,000 tons total for the first time. Poor fruit set in the spring of 2010 was followed by an unusually cool summer, cutting production by 22 percent and leading to the latest harvest on record. That record stood for only a year; 2011 was even cooler and damper, pushing the picking of grapes even later and exacerbating issues with powdery mildew and bunch rot.

After those obstacles, did Willamette Valley's vintners have much to brag about in San Francisco? To judge by my tasting tour through the Golden Gate Club, I'd say they do. Despite the hardships the valley's growers and winemakers have faced in recent years, and despite the relative youth of the Oregon wine culture, several of the wines showed that the region's more northerly setting, generally balmy days and cool nights - and not as much rain as often suspected - provide a splendid if occasionally dodgy environment for pinot noir. My experience with Willamette Valley pinot noir, even after tasting 40 of them in San Francisco, is too limited to draw any broad conclusions about how they compare stylistically with Californian or Burgundian interpretations of the varietal, but on their own they more often than not spoke to the vibrancy and complexity for which first-rate pinot noir is celebrated.

This much was clear, however: The Willamette Valley is a region where the variables of the vintage are readily apparent in its wines. By and large, the 2009 pinot noirs being poured were notably heftier and warmer than the 2010s. It's an area where accumulated experience and knowledge pay off in more reliable and proud expressions of the grape; in other words, start your exploration of Oregon pinot noirs with vintners who have been working in the area for many vintages. And it's an area where marked differences in interpretation of pinot noir can be traced at least in part to the distinctive features of the valley's six sub-appellations, which include Chehalem Mountains to the north, Eola-Amity Hills to the south, McMinnville over on the west, and tiny Ribbon Ridge tucked into the north-central reaches of the valley.

The variables of the vintages aside, the pinot noirs generally had an appealing clarity and spunk to them. Fruit flavors were fresh and charming up front, while finishes tended to be invigorating if not especially long. I've mixed feelings about the use of new French oak in the valley. Much of it is heavy-handed, upstaging the delicacy of the fruit but admittedly producing a style lush, sweet, smoky and robust that isn't without its exotic appeal. All that French oak, coupled with the challenges of growing grapes in a region susceptible to setbacks that can range from herds of deer to early and persistent fall rains, helps explain why Oregon pinot noirs tend to be pricey; rare is the Willamette Valley pinot noir that has something erudite to say that isn't priced at least $30.

At any rate, here are my favorites from the tasting; they may not be readily available in California, though participating producers generally have North State distributors and were confident that at least a few cases would make it south of Yreka:

- Omero Cellars 2011 Ribbon Ridge Pinot Noir ($35): This was one of the few 2011s on hand, and it won't be released until January. Ribbon Ridge is new to me; it's a small appellation more or less between the towns of Yamhill and Newberg west and south of Portland, and reputedly is warmer and drier than the valley floor. Omero Cellars is a relatively new winery, only about four years old. Nevertheless, and contrary to my earlier advice that consumers unfamiliar with the Oregon wine scene stick to the releases of longtime players, this pinot noir, while still tight from its recent bottling, was invitingly expressive in both smell and flavor, with a beckoning current of smoke and an overall equilibrium that made it one of the major hits of the tasting.

- Antica Terra 2010 Eola-Amity Hills "Antikythera" Pinot Noir ($100): OK, this was my favorite wine of the day, a conclusion I reached before checking the price. This is one magnificent pinot noir. When pinot noir is described as a "noble" wine, this is what they have in mind, and not a mere prince, but the king himself. It's a bit eccentric, but that's what we expect in kings, right? In its richness, earthiness and enduring complexity, it contradicts the notion that only wines of finesse and restraint can be expected from the vintage of 2010. I wish I'd talked more with Antica Terra winemaker Maggie Harrison, the former assistant winemaker at highly regarded Sine Qua Non of Ventura, where owner Manfred Krankl must have been a mentor worth emulating. She left reluctantly for Oregon in 2006, but came to recognize that Willamette Valley could yield "incredibly powerful" pinot noirs, and she concluded that she wanted to be instrumental in harnessing that power. "I saw that Oregon was capable of producing wines that would be incredibly special, and if someone was going to do it I wanted it to be me," she says today. She has. The wine is to be released in November. She made 190 cases. Maybe 12 cases will make it to California.

- Chehalem 2010 Willamette Valley "3 Vineyard" Pinot Noir ($27): Winemaker Wynne Peterson-Nedry dealt with the difficult vintage of 2010 by paddling upstream, contrary to the growing practice of vineyard-designated wines. She blended fruit from three different vineyards, thus the broad "Willamette Valley" appellation for this wine. The wine highlights the beauty of pinot noir. It is deceptively light in color, but in nose and on the palate delivers all sorts of complexity, from sweet cherry and berry fruit to earthiness suggestive of a damp forest on one of those drippy mushroom-hunting excursions we pursued back in the day. What's more, the wine packed one of the longer and more twisting finishes of the day.

- Colene Clemens Vineyards 2010 Chehalem Mountains "Victoria" Pinot Noir ($58): An inviting lesson in how to deal with a vintage that gives you a lighter wine than you'd like - get the grapes as ripe as you dare, then put the wine into a whole bunch of new and little-used oak barrels. The result is a highly aromatic wine lush with strawberry, raspberry and cherry fruit and enough smoke to set off the fire alarms in any restaurant in which it is poured.

- Domaine Drouhin 2009 Dundee Hills "Laurene" Pinot Noir ($65): The folks at Domaine Drouhin knew what to do as the heat of 2009 lingered; they picked early, and as a result they retained their reputation for pinot noirs of sublime elegance. No heavy use of oak here as vintners respected the brightness and delicacy of the fresh berry fruit they were able to gather from a vintage recognized largely for muscle and heat.

- The Eyrie Vineyards 2010 Dundee Hills Estate Pinot Noir ($35): The Eyrie Vineyards, the true pioneer of pinot noir in Willamette Valley, starting in 1966, continues to benefit from its devotion, not letting the troublesome vintage of 2010 obscure its mission to release pinot noirs assertive and complex. Very little oak was applied to this wine, letting the fruit deliver a message of both robustness and elegance with rare equilibrium.

- Iota Cellars 2010 Eola-Amity Hills Pelos Sandberg Vineyard Pinot Noir ($36): Don't let the moderate color and restrained alcohol (12.9 percent) fool you, this is one fully developed pinot noir. The integration of fresh sweet fruit and smoky oak was pulled off with exquisite dexterity.

- Penner-Ash Wine Cellars 2010 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir ($45): Another example of the pricise dovetailing of clean fruit and new oak, yielding a wine with classic pinot-noir aroma followed by fruit in equal measures of candor and grace.

- Sokol Blosser 2009 Dundee Hills Pinot Noir ($38): Light in color for such a heavyweight vintage, but nevertheless true to Oregon's reputation for veins of minerality running under fruit and herb flavors suggestive of peppermint, strawberry and rhubarb.

- Soter Vineyards 2011 Oregon Planet Oregon Pinot Noir ($20): By far, the best buy of the tasting. It's light in color and lithe in structure, but its bright fruit is punctuated with a dash of pepper and a staple acidity that will show why pinot noir is considered one of the more adaptable and accommodating wines at the dinner table.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Pairing Food And Wine? Consider Weight First

If dinner is...

...seared scallops with almonds and a julienne of pears, serve a ripe, oak-accented chardonnay with invigorating cool-climate acidity, such as the Wente 2010 Monterey River Ranch Chardonnay.

...a salad of roasted beets layered with goat cheese, drizzled with a mustard vinaigrette and topped with curls of fried shallots, serve a moderately sweet white wine, such as the Ruffino 2011 Moscato d' Asti.

...braised rabbit with wild mushrooms, serve a supple, freshly fruity and lightly spiced and smoky pinot noir, such as the Lincourt 2009 Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir.

...mushrooms with a hash of red lentils, chevre, duck and red currants, serve a pinot noir electric with suggestions of strawberries and cherries, gorgeously fruity up front and strapping in the finish, such as the Morgan 2010 Santa Lucia Highlands 12 Clones Pinot Noir.

These, at least, were my favorite combinations at what I like to think of as the main event of the annual Lake Tahoe Autumn Food and Wine Festival at the Village of Northstar just outside of Truckee. I was one of five judges who for breakfast last Sunday tasted our way through 22 dishes prepared by 22 restaurants, 21 of the 22 paired with a different wine. Our task was to find the best white wine, the best red wine and the best marriage of food and wine. We weren't told the identity of restaurant or wine.

By the end of the competition - and just in time for lunch! - our panel had concluded that the best pairing of food and wine was the mushrooms, lentils, chevre and duck that had been served alongside the Morgan pinot noir. The dish had been prepared by the chefs of Granlibakken Conference Center and Lodge of Tahoe City.

Why did dish and wine work so well together? For starters, neither was overstated. Each was graceful and balanced. From such harmony came more harmony. Mostly, they were of equivalent weight. They were in the same class, the dish not overly spicy, the wine not overly woody. They danced together without a misstep. This wasn't a brawl. Many principles of pairing food and wine have been formulated over the years, but for the most part their compatibility comes down to one guideline: Consider the overall heft of the dish, then select a wine of comparable mass. Another guideline worth keeping in mind: Seasonality. Mushrooms, lentils and duck constitute a dish fitting for early fall, just as temperature and leaves start to fall. A pinot noir of the clarity and structure of the Morgan is similarly forthright without being ponderous.

There were other fine pairings, to be sure, but again this year I was struck by how often the competing chefs hadn't seemed to taste the wine with which their creation was paired. If they had, would they really have chosen the wine that accompanied their dish to the judges' table, I asked myself several times. Too often, the weight and complexity of the dish overwhelmed the graceful leanness of the wine. A ginger-poached salmon just killed the fine-boned riesling with which it was paired. A broad chardonnay retreated in shyness from wonderfully meaty mussels redolent with saffron and vanilla. And an equally forthright chardonnay failed to stand up to spareribs sweet and spicy with a chile-pepper glaze. (That a chardonnay would be paired with spareribs just might tell you that the restaurant was thinking more of the popularity of the varietal than the aesthetic appropriateness of the match.)

For the record, the best white wine in the competition was the vigorous, mouth-filling Wither Hills 2010 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc; the best red wine was the rich and long Frank Family 2010 Napa Valley Pinot Noir; and the best dish all on its own was the finely balanced seared scallops with almonds and pear, prepared by the chefs of Jake's on the Lake at Tahoe City.

Judges also weighed in on another category - the best pairing of food and beverage other than wine. Just one combination was entered in that division, but it was so well-conceived and well-executed that it easily won the gold medal: Jason Gronlund, executive chef of Hard Rock Cafe International, teamed up with Marko Karakasevic, distiller for Charbay Artisan Winery & Distillery, to pair a rich and spicy shrimp burger with a refreshingly citric Negroni cocktail based on Charbay's blood-orange vodka. With a slap on the back, it couldn't have said "Welcome, neighbor!" with more assurance and generosity.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Cocktail Hour

The 27th annual Lake Tahoe Autumn Food and Wine Festival got under way Friday evening with...a cocktail reception. Actually, it was a cocktail competition called Mix It Up. Seven bartenders from restaurants in the Lake Tahoe basin, San Francisco, Truckee and Reno mixed it up on a patio of The Ritz Carlton Lake Tahoe, tucked into the forest just above the Village of Northstar, where most festival events will resume this afternoon.

Aside from the occasional Sazerac, Negroni and Paloma, I'm not much of a cocktail guy, but went to the showdown thinking one of the competitors might have created a wine-based cocktail. None did. All they shared in common was Wild Turkey 81 Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, a sponsor of the event. Beyond that, the ingredient list was wide open, and included honeysuckle bitters, rose petals, blueberries and honey, not all in the same blend.

By and large, the bartenders were big on using local products and on creating a beverage appropriate for the segue from summer to fall. Lots of apple cider was involved.

Everyone was a judge. Guests were to sample all seven, then vote for their favorite. My favorite was Gail Oversteg's "Mela Melange," a rich, solid and spicy mix of sweet vermouth, Boulard Calvados and Barsotti cider from Apple Hill in El Dorado County. I think she may have had some cinnamon and cloves in there, too, giving the drink distinctive autumnal snap while respecting the mellow warmth of the bourbon. Oversteg, shown here, is the sommelier and bartender at the restaurant Manzanita of The Ritz Carlton Lake Tahoe, so she had something of a home-field advantage.

Two other bartenders, however, finished in a tie for first place - Kelly Luchs of West Shore Cafe & Inn with a deft use of rose water, honey, sugar and rose petals as well as the bourbon, and Nicole Barker of Cin Cin at the Eldorado Hotel Casino in Reno, who finished her balanced bourbon-and-cider blend with a wedge of homegrown pear.
Today, it's back to wine with a tasting of releases from Paso Robles.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:North Lake Tahoe

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

From The Ashes, A New Oakstone Takes Flight

Oakstone Winery is back in business less than two months after fire destroyed the facility, but with a twist or two.

John and Susan Smith, who founded Oakstone in 1996, have turned over operation of the reborn winery to Steve and Liz Ryan. Steve Ryan has been Oakstone's winemaker since 2007, while Liz Ryan has been the winery's general manager. As the harvest of wine grapes commences in the Sierra foothills, the Ryans will operate out of what has been Oakstone's nearby sister winery, Obscurity Cellars. Obscurity will continue as a brand, but the facility that housed it henceforth will be known as Oakstone. The original Oakstone was leveled by a blaze of undetermined origin on July 7. The Smiths will continue to own both brands.

John Smith, in the meantime, is retiring, though he will remain active as a consultant to the Ryans and as overseer of his and his wife's vineyard on their 54 acres that spread about both wineries. The Smiths established Obscurity Cellars in 2003 to pursue their interest in making wines from "neglected, misunderstood and off-the-beaten-path" grape varieties, such as alicante bouschet, carignane and charbono. Since then, through awards on the wine-competition circuit and sales, they've shown that a market exists for varietals far out of the mainstream. Unlike the Oakstone inventory, Obscurity wines weren't destroyed in the fire and sales will resume as the Ryans open the facility for tasting this Friday through Sunday.

In a newsletter released earlier today, Smith included a rendition of Oakstone's slightly tweaked new label. With the release of the first wines from this year's vintage, it will include a sketch of the Phoenix, the mythical bird reborn from the ashes of its nest.

John Smith has retired before, but this time he's sticking with it, he vows. " I used to joke that all my 'retirement' announcements had quotation marks around them; this one is real," he says in today's newsletter.

With his retirement, Oakstone's most popular wine, an everyday blend called Slug Gulch Red, also is being retired. Even before the fire, its days looked to be numbered, given the rise in grape prices, which is making quality California wines costing less than $10 more callenging to produce. Though Slug Gulch Red is history, the Ryans are expected to continue to make an inexpensive blend with the same sort of irreverence and value, though it is apt to cost a bit more. They just might call it "Phoenix Rising Red."

Because the new Oakstone is much smaller than the original, with parking for just five vehicles, the Ryans are asking that visitors first schedule an appointment, particularly on weekends: (530) 620-5303. The winery, 6470 Irish Acres Road, Fair Play, is to be open for tasting 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday through Sunday.