Monday, January 14, 2013

From The Chronicle, Mostly Highs

Virtually every wine region in the country got something to brag about at the 2013 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, spread over four days in the northern Sonoma County hamlet of Cloverdale last week.

Sorelle Winery's winning rose
 Lodi got to boast that it produced the best pink wine, the Sorelle Winery 2011 Lodi Sangiovese Rosato ($16). New York's Finger Lakes district yielded the best white wine, the Keuka Spring Vineyards 2011 Finger Lakes Riesling ($14). And Sonoma County scored a rare double when two of its wines tied for best red wine, the Terlato Family Vineyards 2010 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($60) and the Wilson Winery 2009 Dry Creek Valley Molly's Vineyard Petite Sirah ($38).

The big winners were drawn from a final field of 82 wines that had been nominated for the sweepstakes round. All earlier had been judged the best of their class. They included nine pinot noirs, eight cabernet sauvignons, seven zinfandels and seven chardonnays. Why so many of each of those varietals? For one, the numbers reflect the huge popularity of those varietals among both consumers and judges, who were to send a best-of-class wine to the final round only if they felt strongly that it was an exceptional candidate. Second, the Chronicle competition divides entries in the larger classes into price niches, at least eight for cabernet sauvignon, nine for pinot noir and so forth.

I didn't vote for any of the major winners, not because I have anything against those varietals but because I liked other candidates a bit more. Among the whites, I was pulling for the lone gewurztraminer in the field, the steely Castello di Amorosa 2011 Mendocino County Ferrington Vineyard Gewurztraminer ($27). Among the reds, I favored the least expensive zinfandel in the finale, the plush and sweetly fruity Pezzi King Vineyards 2010 Dry Creek Valley Old Vine Zinfandel ($24).

Several wineries in the Sacramento area produced best-of-class wines, but just two wineries were responsible for two each: Renwood Winery in Amador County's Shenandoah Valley for its 2011 viognier ($23) and its 2001 Amador Ice zinfandel ($35), and Gianelli Vineyards of Jamestown in Tuolumne County for its 2009 dolcetto ($24) and its 2010 aglianico ($27).

Aside from the sweepstakes round, here are my random impressions as our panel of three - my colleagues were veteran Alameda vintner Kent "Dr. Zinfandel" Rosenblum and Santa Rose wine writer and sales consultant Sue Straight - proceeded through class after class...

    Sacramento vintner Stuart Spoto
  • Yes, there really is a class called "white blush," a contradiction in terms. It apparently means pink wines with one percent or more residual sugar, to distinguish them from the class of rose wines with less than one percent residual sugar. At any rate, we tasted 27 "white blush" wines. We gave 10 of them gold medals, a remarkably high proportion. Two of the 10 were white zinfandels, both showing that this frequently maligned style is quite capable of yielding refreshing interpretations that adroitly balance sugar and acid. Best-of-class honors, however, went to a fleshier, spicier and sweeter moscato that probably has a big summer following in the Midwest. It turned out to be the Rose n Blum 2011 California Pink Moscato ($12). Whether it's related to Kent Rosenblum, I have no idea, but here might be the place to note that judges only know the wines they are evaluating by a number, and that their identities aren't revealed until after the competition.

  • Becuase the Chronicle divides wines of a type into classes by price, the class called "Italian blends" was split in two, one of entries priced up to $24.99, the other of entries priced at $25 or more. Remember, this competition is devoted solely to wines made in the U.S. Thus, "Italian blends" means wines made with grape varieties whose homeland commonly is regarded as Italy, such as sangiovese, nebbiolo, barbera and so forth. We weren't told the composition of the blends. We weren't far into our class before concluding that we didn't really care to know. This was the most dispiriting class we faced over three days. Fortunately, just 17 were entered in the class. By and large, they were awkward, tired and blunt. Aside from one or two, the typically sunny charm of Italian wine wasn't to be found in these state-side impersonations. We did give two gold medals, and elected a best-of-class, but balked at sending it up for sweepstakes consideration. Overall, I came away feeling that these wines were blends of desperation more than forethought.

  • When told we would judge the competition's 33 gewürztraminers we thought our patience with the "Italian blends" was being rewarded. Ordinarily, that well may have been the case. These gewürztraminers, however, apparently came from less than ordinary vintages, or a disproportionate number were made with grapes grown in places unsuitable for the variety. By and large, they lacked the varietal's traditional zest and complexity. You might get gewurztraminer's typical suggestions of lychee in one entry, and its essence of rose in another, but rarely were they together in a single release. Several tasted as if they were being shored up by other varieties, like muscat or sauvignon blanc. By the end of the session I was surprised to see we'd awarded gold medals to 10 of them. Our best-of-class wasn't my first choice, but it is a gewürztraminer of notable assurance and persistence, a rarity for its vivid and seamless presentation of roses, lychee and grapefruit, all in balance, with refreshing persistence. It turned out to be the Castello di Amorosa 2011 Mendocino County Ferrington Vineyard Gewurztraminer ($27), also my favorite white wine in the sweepstakes round. My favorite gewurztraminer in our class was the spicier Brandborg 2011 Umpqua Valley Gewurztraminer ($18).

    A few of the reds during the sweepstakes round
  • The funnest class was "all other red varietals," which translates as "all those red wines so obscure and made in such small quantities they don't deserve a class of their own." Maybe someday, but not yet. We're talking wines made from grape varieties like touriga nacional, blaufrankisch, teroldego, carignan, charbono, pinotage, refosco and tannat. They may be esteemed elsewhere, like South Africa, Uruguay and Austria, but in the U.S. they're pretty much limited to small experimental vineyards. These vineyards likely were planted by growers who remember liking such wines on their travels and who felt that the same sort of results could be cultivated here. And, yes, the vibrant freshness of several of the 51 we tasted reinforces their optimism. We gave gold medals to 13, and sent to sweepstakes a lagrein that while inky and firm also was aromatic, juicy and sleek. It turned out to be the Alapay Cellars 2011 Paso Robles French Camp Vineyard Lagrein ($30).

  • In contrast, class 411 - zinfandels priced $20-$24.99 - was hardly any fun at all. We had 80 of those babies, and gave just eight gold medals. OK, that's a 10-percent return, which is pretty high by the standards of most any wine competition. But consider, zinfandel owns California. No other state - no other country, for that matter - has had as much time and experience with zinfandel. Granted, the competition includes the entire country, not just California, but it's fair to assume that more than 90 percent of the zinfandels at Cloverdale were from California. And granted, while we didn't know the vintages of the wines we were judging, most probably came from the difficult growing years of 2010 and 2011. Still, aside from the golds and silvers we bestowed, this was one grim class, with a disproportionate number of wines stemmy, grippy and downright foul in one way or another. The message to consumers is to buy carefully in picking a zinfandel in this price range from a recent vintage, which amounts to putting your trust into a merchant who selects his or her inventory studiously. That said, we did settle on a best of class, an interpretation that proclaimed with clarity and nuanced power that this is a zinfandel as it is meant to be, packed with jammy fruit, spiced with pepper, big but balanced in build, and lingering in the finish. It turned out to be the Pezzi King Vineyards 2010 Dry Creek Valley Old Vine Zinfandel ($24), the same wine that was my favorite entry in the red-wine sweepstakes.

  • By the same token, consumers also need to be wary in selecting a current pinot noir, especially if it is priced less than $20. The 59 we tasted ranged in color, flavor and structure all over the place, from thin and bland to silken and dramatic. We gave 11 of them gold medals, and the one we chose as best of class was noble in every respect, from the brilliant depth of its color to its lasting finish. In the flight in which it first appeared I gave it gold on the strength of its smell alone - rich, fresh and focused, so compelling I balked at moving on until prodded by my fellow panelists. It turned out to be the A by Acacia 2011 California Pinot Noir ($14).

  • And then we came to the final class of the competition, 59 zinfandels priced $30 to $34.99. This was a happy siege, largely because the nature of recent vintages and the challenge of recent economics seem to have forced vintners to dial back on both ripeness and oak in the wines. For the most part, alcohol was tempered and the influence of new wood was moderated, resulting in zinfandels that spoke with the confident character they should in this price category. We gave 12 of them gold medals, and the rest of the field far more silvers than bronzes. While fellow panelist Kent Rosenblum and I occasionally disagreed on whether this or that zinfandel warranted a gold medal, we concurred that an interpretation that was both powerful and elegant should go to the sweepstakes round as our best of class. It turned out to be the DeLoach Vineyards 2010 Russian River Valley OFS Zinfandel ($32).

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