Thursday, June 30, 2011

My favorite expensive American white wines last week

Yesterday I wrote about judging expensive white wines at Sunset magazine's Western Wine Awards, but I may have buried the lead: I didn't mention actual wines.

I don't know which wines won, even in our categories. Sunset asks each judge to rate each wine on a 20-point scale and tabulates the results later. But I can tell you which wines I liked best, and why. All of these I scored either 18 or 19.

Schramsberg "Mirabelle" North Coast Brut Rosé NV ($27) Order here
There's no pink category in the Sunset awards, so pink bubblies have to sit with the whites. I liked this one for its red fruit, smoke and citrus notes. This is actually Schramsberg's cheaper rosé, and I was surprised to learn that because I found it quite elegant. I don't think Schramsberg will do well in these awards because one of our tasters, who recognized the bottle said, "I'm not a Schramsberg fan." Well, I am, and have been for years. I guess it's a question of style: their bubblies are often richer and more complex than some others in California, although it's fair to say they don't sell them at bargain prices. But I wouldn't say that about this.

Corison Winery "Corazón" Anderson Valley Gewurztraminer 2007 ($30) Order here
One of California wine's defenders, Steve Heimoff, recently launched a rant against wine writers complaining about oversized California Cabernet in which he wrote, "stop, puh-leeze, trotting out Cathy Corison every time as your poster child for what you think Cabernet should be." True enough, but I think Corison earns this modest recognition on merit, not solely through writers' laziness, and the fact that I loved this wine when tasted blind -- and had forgotten she makes a Gewurztraminer -- validates that theory. What I liked about it is exactly what I like about her Cabs: it's elegant and not overdone. It's mineral-driven, with citrus fruits and ginger on a long finish. Hard to believe two things: 1) an '07 is the current release, and 2) it doesn't taste of age at all.

Robert Sinskey "Abraxas" Los Carneros 2010 ($34) Order here
We weren't given the fanciful name "Abraxas" for this, which would have revealed the winery. But we also weren't given the full blend, perhaps for space reasons: it's 43% Pinot Gris, 32% Pinot Blanc, 15% Gewurztraminer and 10% Riesling. Instead, all we knew was that we were tasting a 2010 "Vin de Terroir." We mocked the name, which seems both pretentious and a way of getting a high price for mixed grapes. But this was one of my three favorite wines of the day: dried apricot with mineral, ginger and floral notes. Great complexity, and it doesn't taste like anything else. There's some claptrap on the winery website about how the name comes from a Greek god I've never heard of: "Abraxas, with the head of a cock, the body of a man and legs of the serpent, was the overlord of the 365 spheres and (just in case you did not make the connection that Abraxas was responsible for the year) the Greek letters of Abraxas add up to 365." Yeah, yeah. I'm glad I didn't read that before tasting it. Nice wine.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Expensive white wines: made to be conservative

Perhaps the best wine I've tasted this year was a white that costs $2225, which I rated 99 points. So I can't be said to have a grudge against pricey white wines.

But realistically, I'm not going to spend my own money on that wine (Domaine de la Romanée Conti Montrachet 2008). Or even 4% of it. However, I will spend over $100 on a red wine in restaurants -- most recently for a 1991 Lopez de Heredia Bosconia at Heirloom Cafe. That wine is a steal at $80 retail. I'm not sure I've ever spent $80 retail for a white wine.

But some people do, which is why Sunset magazine has a very small group of white wines over $60 at its Western Wine Awards, and I ended up judging them.

It has become standard knowledge among Sunset's recurring group of sommeliers, wine buyers and writers that judging the "deep pocket" red wine category is a painful slog. This year, two busy, influential sommeliers showed up late, and judging the $100 Cabernets was their punishment. Spare the oak rod, spoil the sommelier. I laughed at them from my perch at the pricey white wine table. I knew I wouldn't be reaching for roast beef to scrape the tannins off my palate and complaining loudly about the incredible heaviness of being (body, oak, bottles). Not this year anyway.

Pricey whites weren't painful at all. Three of us -- me, a wine buyer and CIA sommelier Traci Dutton, who says our palates are completely different because she likes good wines -- started at $26 to $40, where we tasted (blind, of course) a number of wines I have actually paid my own money for. Then we moved up to $41 to $60, where we encountered a few wines I've paid for by the glass.

We were a little chatty by the time we got to the over $60 whites; wine does that. So we got to talking about the concept. We know what people look for in an $80 red. If they're a Pinot drinker, they want some tiny production wine from a great vineyard. If they're a Cab drinker in 2011, apparently they want their tongue bashed repeatedly by a fist in a velvet glove. You might think I'm being sarcastic, but I've seen the "fist in velvet glove" cliche on several expensive Cabs' marketing materials. (Expensive Cab drinkers, bondage submission fetishists -- same crowd?)

But what exactly do people want in a $75 white?

Monday, June 27, 2011

My argument for biodynamic and organic viticulture

Viticulturist Richard Smart made conventional winemakers around the world feel good earlier this month with a speech in Barcelona in which he appeared to attack organic and biodynamic viticulture.

I wish I had been in Barcelona for the speech and the tapas. All I have to rely on is Lucy Shaw's report for Drinks Business, which makes Smart sound like he's grinding a different axe entirely. The provocative headline reads "Dr. Richard Smart Slams Organics," but his point seems to be that climate change should be our main worry.

His main point against organic viticulture appears to be this quote: "When people buy food they don’t mind choosing products that have been grown on land treated with chemicals, so why should they care about how a wine has been treated?” He also said, "Many of the concepts behind organics and biodynamics are nonsense. They’re not good for the environment." He may have gotten more specific than that, but if so it was not reported.

It's easy to dispute his first quote, and if accurately reported, it makes him look ignorant. Yes, most people don't care about organic produce, but plenty of people DO care, and that's why organics are the fastest-growing product segment in the grocery industry.

I would dispute only one word in his second quote, but it's a crucial one. It's true that SOME of the concepts behind organics and particularly biodynamics are nonsense: the unlimited use of copper springs to mind. Stu Smith would like to add that just because a chemical preparation is organic doesn't mean it's not harsh and dangerous. Stipulated.

Here, in four words that wine businesses won't like, is the entirety of my argument for certified biodynamic and organic viticulture:

I don't trust you.

I'm sorry. I don't mean you Larry, or you Nicholas, or any of you other guys I know personally, whose vineyards I've visited, who I've broken bread with. There are dozens of conventional wineries I trust to not overload their vineyards with toxic chemicals that might be absorbed into the wine grapes because I have had personal contact with them.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Two Smiths, no Madrones at Smith-Madrone

Charlie and Stuart Smith
Visiting with brothers Stuart and Charlie Smith, owners of Smith-Madrone Winery, is like being on stage with a veteran comedy team. They don't tell jokes -- they bicker and prod each other -- but they're hilarious. The act is even better if you're opinionated about wine, because they sure are.

Stu, 63, and Charlie, 67, have been in the Napa Valley wine business since 1971 when Stu, then working as a lifeguard in Santa Monica, got the crazy notion to buy property on Spring Mountain with money raised from family and friends. Land was cheaper then, but Stu and Charlie put in a lot of sweat equity clearing forest that had retaken vineyard land abandoned during Prohibition.

They planted Riesling because they liked it and Cabernet Sauvignon because everyone recommended it for Napa Valley, and from their first vintage in 1977, they have done most of the work themselves, with a staff of only 4 full-time workers, tiny for a 3500 case/year winery.

Their efficiency has made their wines, year after year, one of the best bargains from Napa Valley. Their Cabernet Sauvignon is $45, and until now it has been their top-of-the-line, competing with Cabs from their neighbors priced more than three times as high. For years Stu mocked the idea of creating a higher-priced reserve wine, taking a vineyard's best grapes out of the main Cabernet.

However, they've finally made a reserve, which gave me the opportunity to give them the kind of hard time they give everybody else. (I mentioned the word "biodynamic" and got a 15-minute joust, after which Stu said, "I'm glad to hear your points so I can be better prepared for future arguments," and, "There are occasions when I'm wrong. But it's been a while.")

I'm going to try to capture the comedic flavor of a conversation with Stu and Charlie Smith, but to hear them yourself, check out the video (at the bottom of the post).

Me: I'm surprised and disappointed to see you're doing a reserve wine. Why do it after all these years?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A conversation with Albiera Antinori

Albiera Antinori enjoys biscotti and Vin Santo (who doesn't?)
As international companies go, Antinori is quite unusual. It's family run, and has been since the 1200s. It invests all over the world, but doesn't seem to do so with an eye toward the largest profits.

And it's mostly run by women: the three daughters of family patriarch Piero Antinori.

I had lunch with Albiera Antinori at the company's restaurant in Firenze, and over superb plates of roasted octopus and potatoes, followed by shrimp and squid with Tuscan white beans, we talked about her company's unusual choices of investment.

Beyond their 1800 hectares in Italy, they also have ventures in Napa Valley (Antica, as well as a partnership with Chateau Ste Michelle in running Stag's Leap Wine Cellars), Washington (Col Solare, also a joint venture with Chateau Ste Michelle) and Chile (Albis, a joint venture with local entrerpreneur Eduardo Matte). But that's not all.

"We have 80 hectares in Hungary, but it's not in the Tokaji area," she says. "We have 20 hectares in Romania. Romania has a long history of wine. But these wines are just for the local markets."

Me: But why do it? There aren't many family members to go around. Wouldn't you be better off concentrating where you know the area?

Monday, June 20, 2011

Bordeaux is all about anticipation

Ripe grapes from a great vintage
Bordeaux is all about anticipation. A little while after writing this post, I will open a wine to have with dinner. I don't know what it will be, but it won't be a Bordeaux: I haven't anticipated it enough.

When you have a great bottle of Bordeaux from a great vintage -- or better yet, a case of such bottles -- you put them in a special spot in your cellar. You don't want to move them too much, but you find yourself running your fingers along the box when you're nearby. Once in a while you lift a bottle, cradling it like a baby.

Unlike most wines, you're not thinking about what it might taste like now. You're thinking about the event that might spur you to open it -- a special birthday, a wedding anniversary. And you might even salivate thinking about how delicious it will be.

This post is an advertorial
In this way, it's possible to enjoy a bottle of great Bordeaux many, many times before you ever even open it, but of course your Bordeaux daydreams are never as rich and rewarding as the actual evening that you choose to experience it.

People buy Bordeaux futures for several reasons. There's tradition, because Bordeaux has been sold this way for generations. There are practical considerations, because if you don't buy Bordeaux pre-release, you'll pay a lot more when the bottle finally appears in stores -- if it appears at all. That's the primary reason to buy Bordeaux futures, especially from a highly touted vintage like 2010: To ensure that you can have your share. There's no other way.

But there's something more to buying Bordeaux futures than just commerce, security and tradition. There is … anticipation.

You don't know the exact day, a year or two from now, when the bottles will arrive. But you know that they will. You will have many knocks on the door between now and then, but in the back of your mind, every time the UPS man pulls up at the door, you will picture your bottles of 2010 Bordeaux. Of course they're not here yet; it's crazy. It's too soon. You haven't gotten the email, and of course you would have known, because the company you ordered them from has been very good about keeping you posted on all developments . In fact, you've even ordered some wine from them since. That delivery driver coming up the street, he can't possibly be carrying my 2010 Bordeaux.

Can he?

No, he's not. Maybe you got another wine shipment, from a different part of the world. Those wines, delicious as they might be, will all be drunk and forgotten before your Bordeaux arrives. They may have slots in your wine refrigerator, but they will never have the space in your mind.

It's true that ordering Bordeaux pre-arrival is the way to get the best prices. But it's an even better bargain when you consider the great bonus: You get as much as two solid years of anticipation.

Friday, June 17, 2011

PLCB price resistance proves government shouldn't retail

The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board is the largest of this country's state-run monopolies. It buys all the wine and liquor for the state, sets prices, and has enormous control on what Pennsylvanians can buy without driving to New Jersey.

On Wednesday, the PLCB proved it really doesn't understand wine.

The PLCB paid some money to PR Newswire to trumpet a press release in which it rejected more than 400 price increases from vendors. PLCB chairman PJ Stapleton called it a move to protect consumers.

Stapleton's press-release quote reads: "Too many Pennsylvanians are still living with significant financial strains, given the continued challenging economic environment. Maintaining current shelf prices ensures people can enjoy their favorite wine or spirit without sacrificing their family budget."

This is the problem: What if the producer of my favorite wine decides they'll just sell it to retailers in New York and California who accept their intended price increase?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Mendocino's greenness is largely unlabeled

Borrowed from Visit
Mendocino County claims to be America's Greenest Wine Region. But you'd never know it by looking at labels.

I visited the Taste of Mendocino event in San Francisco on Monday and counted brands. There were 67 wine brands represented.

11 had a certified organic or biodynamic claim on the label of at least some wines
56 did not

I'm not going to get into organic vs. biodynamic on this post, or whether or not a winery can be just as green without getting certified.

My point is simple: How can consumers believe Mendocino's collective green claim without the individual wineries backing it up?

I brought this up in front of the Yorkville Cellars booth, where owner/winemaker Edward Wallo had a sign celebrating 25 years of being certified organic. Zac Robinson, owner of Husch Vineyards walked over and said, "Organic is all or nothing if you want that certification. At Husch, 90% of our grapes come from certified vineyards. Nothing goes on the label because it's all or nothing."

I asked Robinson why he doesn't make at least some wines that are 100% from organic grapes, which wouldn't be hard if he's using 90% organic sources.

"What we're doing organic is the right thing for those fields. It's not necessarily the best for marketing," Robinson said. (If you don't think that's a real answer, neither did I.)

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Three Perfect Hours in Healdsburg

Hamachi sashimi with Asian pear and soy truffle vinaigrette, Shimo
Some years ago I wrote for "Hemispheres," the United Airlines in-flight magazine, where the signature travel feature is "Three Perfect Days." The idea is to give the highlights of a city, whether Milwaukee or Moscow. But if you actually followed the itinerary, it would be a three-day nightmare: rushing from museum to shopping to lunch to shopping to coffee to a short hike to shopping to dinner to ... STOP!

Healdsburg now has enough area attractions, when you include the wineries of nearby Russian River Valley and Dry Creek Valley, to merit such a grim three-day experience-a-thon.

But there's a better way to enjoy the downtown Healdsburg square, which I'm fortunate to visit several times a year. I was there Sunday, and I think I have the perfect formula for Three Perfect Hours in Healdsburg.

THREE PERFECT HOURS) Grab a stool in open-air Spoon Bar, just outside the main square, but with plenty of foot traffic to keep you interested if the Giants aren't on.

You can easily while away 15 minutes browsing the cocktail menu. The bartenders never pressure you to order because the choices are difficult, and the array of ingredients is right in front of you -- fresh herbs and flowers sitting in water, bowls of fresh fruit, and a back bar with artisanal booze heavily slanted toward the locally made.

My biggest regret at Spoon Bar is always that I can't have more than a couple of cocktails, when there are at least a dozen I want.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Gray Market is good for Port (with video)

Robert Bower (left, 8th generation Port shipper) and David Guimaraens
Most wineries complain publicly about the gray market for wine. But David Guimaraens is different. The 6th generation Port winemaker says the gray market in the US has been good for Port.

A little background: "gray market" means wines offered for sale that the retailer did NOT get through officially approved channels. In the most common example, New York retailers often buy French wines from UK distributors when they get them cheaper than their US counterparts. This has varying degrees of legality. "Gray market" also includes cult wines sold to retailers or restaurants by ordinary folks who bought them from a mailing list. This should be called "black market," as it's completely illegal, but "gray market" doesn't sound as wicked.

My blog was originally called "The Gray Market Report" as a "clever" pun on this phenomenon. Nobody got it, and I never report on the gray market, so recently I acted like the razor-wielding newspaper editor I used to be and removed an unnecessary word from the title.

But Guimaraens didn't get the memo; when I saw him last week in San Francisco, after he had been tasting Port all afternoon, he cheerfully said in his could-be-shouting British-Portuguese voice (Check out the video, below), "The Gray Market Reporter!" So we got to talking about the gray market, and he immediately told me he thought that -- contrary to what Bordeaux and Napa producers think -- the gray market has been good for Port wine.

He explains why on the video:

Guimaraens was in San Francisco to introduce the 2009 Port vintage, and it was very impressive. Even if you can't get a deal on the Gray Market, I recommend buying the Taylor Fladgate and Fonseca for your grandchildren. Or, if you plan to eat healthy and exercise regularly, for yourself.

Tasting notes

Taylor Fladgate Vintage Porto 2009 ($70)
Rich, powerful and concentrated with plenty of blackberry fruit. Gets more impressive as it goes on: very long finish dominated by blackberry, but with a leavening acidity and some high citrus notes. Excellent. (Although see the Vargellas note below)

Fonseca Vintage Port 2009 ($70)
Very sweet, but with enough acidity to carry it off. At this stage you mostly taste sweet, juicy blackberry fruit, but some licorice notes add interest on the long finish. Could be a great one in 20 years, but if you're going to rob the cradle, do so with the Taylor Fladgate.

Croft Vintage Porto 2009 ($60)
Not at the level of the other two. Cherry fruit with a murky, funky note that's kind of interesting, but not wholly pleasurable.

Taylor Fladgate Vargellas Vinha Velha Vintage Porto 2009 ($190)
An unusual release. Taylor Fladgate sometimes makes a Single Quinta wine from its Vargellas property in years when it doesn't release a vintage Port. But in 2009, the company decided to release this "old vine" (vinha velha) Port from five individual plots on the Vargellas property.
Philosophically I oppose this. The idea of not making a single quinta wine in a vintage Port year is so that all the best grapes go into the vintage Port. The press material for this wine says the grapes "seldom represent more than 2%" of the main vintage Port. But still, if that 2% is the property's most delicious grapes -- and this wine certainly indicates that they are -- then there's no way that the main Taylor Fladgate Porto release wouldn't be better with them in it.
That said, this is a delicious wine, the best in a good portfolio in a good year: ripe and rich blackberry fruit, with pretty rose petal and cassis notes that intensify on the long finish. You could drink it now; it's hard to imagine how delicious it might be in 25 years. One can only imagine how nice the Taylor Fladgate Porto might be with those rose petal and cassis notes.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Renato Ratti and single-vineyard Barolo

Pietro Ratti
Pietro Ratti's father Renato, a pioneer in Barolo, never pestered his son to work with him.

"My father always said, 'Have fun. Enjoy your life. Sooner or later you'll come to work'," Pietro said. "He didn't expect it would be so early."

Unlike almost every other Barolo producer at the time, Renato Ratti was not born into the industry, and thus didn't inherit any vineyards. His father was a veterinarian; his grandfather was a doctor.

"It was an isolated area, very traditional," Pietro Ratti said. "They were not changing anything. My father arrived here with opportunity and clear ideas. People were sleeping."

Renato Ratti followed a different Italian tradition: leaving a depressed country in 1955 for employment. He got a job at age 21 in Brazil, making Vermouth for Cinzano (see the video below). He spent the next 10 years learning about South American wine, which he needed to know well as the base for Vermouth. By age 31 he had decided he could go back home and do a better job with Barolo than his former neighbors.

Renato Ratti
"Living in a country as big as Brazil, it opened his eyes," Pietro Ratti said. "When you live in a small country like Italy, it closes your eyes."

When Renato returned, he was driving around the area when he spied a 13th century abbey in an undeveloped area. "He thought, if the monks built the abbey, it must be a nice spot," Pietro said. He bought the 1 1/2-acre Marcenasco vineyard below the abbey from an old man who lived next door, and rented the abbey from the village of Annunziata to use as his winery.

Renato's first innovation was to make a single-vineyard Barolo. Previously all Barolos had been blended.

"My father said, if I just make a Barolo, nobody will buy it," Pietro said.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

News flash: Spiders can get drunk!

I amused some friends over dim sum with this story and they thought others might get a chuckle. Also, I need something to encourage you to read my Wine Review Online column this month about Luxembourg wines. So here goes ...

I was in Luxembourg visiting wineries along with a French journalist who had the annoying habit many bloggers have of wanting to talk more about herself than the interview subject. At our last winery, we had spent nearly an hour tasting only 4 wines, while my colleague gave her opinions at great length on the grape varieties, how those varieties do in different parts of France, what the future for them is, how her husband disagrees with her about something, blah blah blah.

I noticed a bug crawling up my spit bucket. It was maybe 2/3 the size of my pinky nail and had an interesting color scheme: all black except for tiny bright yellow mandibles. I couldn't figure out the advantage of those: if it was black for camouflage, why give itself away with the yellow? Bored to tears, I paid it close attention.

It crawled over the edge to the inside lip of the spit bucket and I got an even better look (sorry, it was too small for my camera.) It had a large abdomen, all black, so I wondered if it had concealed wings and could fly. I poked it with the point of my pen a couple of times, and inadvertently knocked it into the previously-tasted wine. Sorry, bug! It paddled furiously, trying to get to the side, but when it got there it couldn't get purchase. It still beat at the wine, so I tore off a piece of napkin and pulled it out. But I appeared to be too late; its limbs had stretched out to their fullest and were still. This is how I learned it was a spider, as it had 8.

I felt guilty for drowning it in wine, but fortunately there wasn't a trashcan nearby so I just left it on the table and tried to see if the conversation had gotten more interesting. It hadn't. I pretended to pay attention for a couple minutes and then looked back at my friend and noticed one leg twitch, then another. Not dead!

Slowly the spider came to; the first time that it turned itself rightside-up, it took one step and fell over, still drunk. It staggered to its feet again and slowly walked in a not-so-straight line to the edge of the table. There, it looked over, as if wanting to get away from this painful place, but decided, "Nope, can't do it," and backed away. But after about a minute it changed its mind, and spun a short thread -- maybe 3 times its body length -- and hung upside down off the table, limbs fully extended, looking pretty much like I look when I'm too drunk and sprawled on the sofa. What a great hangover cure! Don't you wish you could hang upside down to clear your head? I wonder if they can work this into the next Spider-Man movie.

After a few minutes in this posture, the spider was apparently cured. It crawled back up to the table and immediately went for the spit bucket again -- also an easy act to anthropromorphize. But I realized it was following an instinct, and the yellow mandibles suddenly made sense. It must have been a vineyard spider, adapted to waiting in the grapevine for its prey, with its mandibles the color of grapes (Luxembourg grows 97% white grapes.)

So that's my tale. We eventually tasted a couple more wines, and I'll write more about Luxembourg in the near future, but today I had to release the news flash. No, not that some French writer's husband prefers Pinot Noir to Pinot Blanc with onion tart, depending on how much pepper is used, but also depending on the ripeness of the Pinot Noir, because from some areas it can be too fruity, and it's really grown all over the place these days, which means it's not Burgundy's anymore, but Burgundy is still the standard, although Burgundy has many challenges such as the laws about dividing property ...

Spiders can get drunk: who knew?

(If you want to read more about Luxembourg wines today, here's the WRO column.)

Monday, June 6, 2011

Is Nicolas Sarkozy a zombie?

And not just any zombie, the first modern zombie from the beginning of Night of the Living Dead!

"They're coming to get you Barbara ... look, there's one of them now!" But ... which one?

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Great by acclamation: Platinum wines from Critics Challenge

I voted for the wine at left. But the wine at right was tasty too.
Yesterday I blogged about my personal discoveries from judging at Critics Challenge. Today I want to highlight some of the great wines we tasted in the sweepstakes round.

I don't have tasting notes on these because we were in a rush to finish, so whatever I write below the wine is what I remember about it. These aren't anywhere near all the wines that got Platinum, which means at least one judge thought the wine should be considered for the best of the entire competition. Out of 1400 wines, platinums went to 4 bubblies, 16 whites, 2 pinks, 36 reds and 2 dessert wines. From that group, these were my favorites.

Pacific Rim Columbia Valley Dry Riesling 2008 ($11)
Pacific Rim just announced a writing contest with a $10,000 prize -- open to everyone but California residents. Those bastards. Don't ask me for a link to it; ask an Oregon resident. I loved this wine though.

Lucas Vineyards Finger Lakes Dry Riesling 2009 ($14)
It's not news that New York makes great Riesling. Wish we could get more in California. Keep the bagels, keep Snooki, send the Riesling.

Zonte's Footstep Sea Mist Langhorne Creek Verdelho 2010 ($14)
I gave this a Platinum on the first day of competition, one of three I awarded all weekend. At the banquet that night, wines which had been opened were available for us to drink. This was the only Verdelho on the table so I had a pretty good idea that it was the wine I loved, so I brought it to my table. Another critic was there, fairly far into a bottle of California sparkling wine. I poured it for her and she said, "It's OK, but I prefer Vinho Verde, and that's so inexpensive." I said, "Well it's not Vinho Verde but I think this is a pretty good wine. Her: "I like the flavors, but it's missing something." Me: "Missing what?" Her: "It doesn't have something, something I want. Something on the finish. Something missing." Me: "I think it's pretty balanced." Her: "It tastes good. But it's missing something." I spent much of the next day wondering if I had overreached. When it came time for the white sweepstakes, this tied for the most votes with the eventual winner (below), which I also liked. So we had a one-on-one runoff and the Riesling won 8-6. This shows a few things, not least that if you show somebody a not very attractive label of an Australian Verdelho, they're not likely to take it as seriously as a mysterious wine with no known region that already has a platinum medal -- and might be a Vinho Verde, which they know they like. So forget about the fact that it's from Langhorne Creek if you must: this is a great wine.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Great wines tasted blind: my golds from Critics Challenge

Jordan Vineyard & Winery is pure gold in my book. Aussie Shiraz may have never left, but for me it's back in a big way and better overall than California Syrah. I found a $5 Italian red and a $14 Australian white that I liked better than almost everything else. And spending $30 to $50 on Pinot Noir doesn't guarantee you a good or even acceptable wine.

These are a few things I learned when the more than 150 wines I tasted blind at Critics Challenge in San Diego last weekend were unveiled.

Critics Challenge is a hybrid of a personal tasting and a wine competition. The way it's structured, I don't have to convince anyone else to give a wine a medal, and neither do any of the other 14 judges. At the same time, I can't hide behind anonymity if I give Charles Shaw a Gold, because I have to give quotable tasting notes with every wine I medal.

How it works is this: 14 critics -- the cream of the wine critic profession (non-Parker class), you can look at the roster here -- sit at 7 tables. Each pair is poured the same wines, and we can discuss them or not, as I learned when I spent an afternoon tasting with Rapid Robert Whitley. But the discussion is just for fun, because if either of us gives the wine a medal, it gets the medal, even if the other taster thought it tasted like pickle juice. If both tasters medal a wine, it gets the higher medal.

We're told the general category of the wine, i.e. Blended Red Bordeaux Varietals, and sometimes (but not always) the price range. We can ask questions; when a wine was a little brown I asked for the vintage. I never wanted to know the region -- I'd rather judge them completely on their own merits -- but sometimes the other taster would ask, and I'd deal with the knowledge. Sometimes I asked for the price category, because I believe no consumer judges a $50 wine and a $10 wine by exactly the same standards, so I don't think I should either.

Whitley, who runs the competition, says wineries don't want bronze medals, and having been at competitions where a bronze means one judge tolerated it but others thought it was rancid, I can see why. We can give silvers or golds, and if we think a wine is a candidate for the best white, pink, red or sticky of the entire competition, we can give it a platinum and put it in the sweepstakes.

I don't think this is medal inflation; platinum has a different meaning than just "top medal." So I am stingy with platinums, but without looking it up, I believe I am an average awarder of golds and silvers. For me, a silver medal is a wine I would drink; a gold medal is something I think any fan of that type of wine should enjoy.

I only have my notes from two of my three tasting sessions, but I want to share them; if my tasting notes from the third session can be pried from the computer I'll post them later. I won't bother listing all of the silvers. These are the gold medals I awarded, with the original tasting notes. Commentary added for this blog post is in italics.

My gold medals:

Lafond Winery Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir 2009 ($27)
Nice clean cranberry fruit with good acidity.