Mar 292012
 
FLIWC Wines

Photo Credit: Tracy Ellen Kamens

Dozens of wine judges descended upon Rochester, NY last weekend to participate in the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition, the largest charitable wine competition in North America. Beating all previous records, this year, the competition drew 3,298 entries, representing all 50 states, 5 Canadian provinces and 22 countries. The 64 judges themselves hailed from throughout the U.S. as well as Canada, South America and Europe. Another claim to fame were the 67 ice wine entries, thought to be the largest judging of ice wines anywhere.

If you read this publication with some regularity, you will have noticed that a few of the contributors have had the privilege to serve as a wine judge this year. However, my colleagues’ experiences judging at various competitions were likely much different than mine. Did we judge flights of Chardonnay? We sure did. Pinot Noir? You betcha. But, we were just as often served a flight of Concord, Muscadine, fruit wines or hybrids.

While most of the judges have been trained to evaluate American and French-American grape varieties, we were certainly stumped by a few and had to ask for some assistance as to what a perfect example of the variety might smell and taste like. Léon Millet, anyone? I think I met him once. Our table was a bit rusty on Marquette (aside from the fact that they have a good basketball team). But, all in all, it is precisely this exposure to these wines that bring many of the judges back year after year. And, certainly these wines deserve as fair an evaluation as their more well-known cousins.

This competition is also special in the way that it brings the Rochester community together, in more ways than one. Established with the sole purpose of raising money for Camp Good Days and Special Times, a summer camp for children affected by cancer, FLIWC attracts a significant volunteer base of locals to help out with uncorking, pouring, tabulating and glass washing, among the many Herculean tasks required over the two-day competition. Several years ago, the competition drew volunteers Jeff Stabins and Nancy McCullough together, who recently celebrated their third wedding anniversary.

It was on an equally celebratory note that the judges had the opportunity to visit a few of the award-winning wineries the day after the competition. Of course, as the bearers of such great news, they were thrilled to see us. And, despite having tasted over 200 wines each on the previous two days, somehow were just as eager to taste their wines and toast their success.

Mar 272012
 

Spanish wineJose asked me to be the translator for his seminar in San Francisco, and I was honored and delighted—the wines were all  “cepas raras:” rare vines from varietals that are only now getting discovered.  It was a real adventure tour through some of the lesser known regions of Spain, with vines that simply expanded our perceptions of what wine can be.

And we laughed. Jose is someone who loves a good story, and he knows how to tell one.  The trick was to try and capture his humor, while still staying true to the translation.  I am not sure I succeeded, but I sure had fun.

And in the end, Jose made a point of talking about wine in general.  He noted that there are lots of wines that are great for “tasting,” but those don’t always turn out to be wines that are great to drink.  So he has two classes of wines in his mind.  “Tasting” wines that show beautifully on their own, and impress everyone.   And wines for drinking, that he likes to drink with dinner.  While many of the wines in this tasting were not particularly perfect for the “tasting” category, they all offered some wonderful combinations with food.

After the tasting, we walked out to join the walk-around tasting, featuring more than seventy top Spanish wine producers all pouring their best wines. And I was able to talk a few of them into letting me take a bottle with me, so that I could teach about it the next day at the Culinary Institute of America.

The class?  The wines of Spain.  I figured that I’d done my homework on this one

Mar 232012
 

Jose PeninSince I met Jose a few years ago, we have become good friends.  And so when he came to SF to promote his book, he asked me to take him on tour of some of the more interesting wineries in Napa.  Interesting?  It was up to me to decide.

So we began with a visit to Walt and Bernie Brooks, who grow grapes out on Dry Creek Road.  Walt is quite literally is a rocket scientist, having lead major projects for NASA, and he is full of interesting ideas on growing grapes and making wine.  We spent an hour there looking at vines, tasting wines, and talking about everything under the sun.  And with Walt, I really mean everything under the Sun.

After we passed by Darioush to show Jose the Persian architecture, we then raced off to Ceja Vineyards, where Dahlia entertained us, and her mother Amelia told us story after story about their family and the wine business.  I knew Amelia’s mother-in-law 30 years ago at Cuvaison, so it was a real treat to see her again, as well.  And of course the visit included a meal cooked by all three generations of Ceja women…scallops, chicken in mole, and an amazing pear with mascarpone, all combined with Ceja wines.

Quick, back in the car!  We have a meeting with Warren Winiarski to talk about wine and philosophy.  While Warren drew geometric figures on a pad to illustrate his vision of perfection and balance (the rectangle combines perfection with tension), Jose wove his fingers together to explain the harmony of perfect wine (and each note plays a key role in the whole).

And then racing up to Palmaz Vineyards to meet with Florencia, whose Argentine Spanish added a romantic note to the day.  We toured the winery, from top to bottom, and admired everything from the amazing engineering to the perfect Porsches.  And tasted through their recent releases.  Jose’s finger wove together as he described them…

And then we were done.   From Rocket Scientist to a winery like a spaceship, with great food and conversation in the middle, it was a day to remember.

Besides,  I had to teach at Napa Valley College, and Jose had to get back to SF to  get ready for the big tasting tomorrow.

Mar 202012
 
Source: Disney-Clipart.com

Source: Disney-Clipart.com

Give us more grapes, more wine!  That seems to be the new M.O. for the wine industry this year. The “sky is falling” types even talk about grape shortages to the point where wine brokers and wine shops could replace the Black Friday Walmart stampedes in the news. That seems a little dramatic to us.

There certainly is increased demand for grapes and wine though.  Brokers are reporting in on it; The Wine Market Council says people are drinking more wine: over 291 million cases were consumed in 2011. Winery cellars are finally emptying of the stock built up over the last three tough years.  (And grape prices, by the way,  are subsequently going up to boot, says the 2011 California Grape Crush Report. )

Could a larger 2012 harvest help supplies at all?  To some extent, sure.  Just how is the 2012 growing season looking in its infancy?  TTB took a look around Napa Valley to see ….

John Williams at Frog’s Leap weighed in regarding their fruit in the Rutherford region:  “We have not yet had sauvignon blanc bud break (as of March 15th) although it looks like it’s just around the corner.  We are scurrying to get all the canes tied. Our observation is that we will be just about normal on timing. At one point given the dry fairly cold winter we thought we were going to be late but with recent warm rains the schedule appears to have advanced to normal. It should be pointed out that the decision to break bud is determined by the hormonal system of the grapevines roots which are less likely to be fooled by the variable temperature above the ground where we humans make our observations!”

In the Spring Mountain District appellation, up in the western hills of the Mayacamas mountain range in St. Helena, Francois Bugue of Cain Vineyard & Winery states that there is no sign of bud break. This is typical, though, for the sub-region, sitting at 2,000 feet above sea level.

Remi Cohen, the Viticulturist for Saintsbury Winery provided an in-depth look at the growing season in Carneros  (as of March 14th):   “With buds swelling all over Carneros, and some Chardonnay vines just beginning to grow, vineyard managers prepare themselves for another growing season. ….

Most of Saintsbury’s vineyards have not quite experienced budbreak yet, but will experience budbreak within the next week or so.  I have seen a little bit of Chardonnay that has started to grow in some of the earliest blocks.  This season is starting out a little bit early compared to ‘average,’ and significantly earlier than the two prior late years of 2011 and 2010…”

Time will certainly tell. We hope all the Chicken Littles of the industry will settle down until we can really tell how things will play out.

Mar 152012
 

Drink Local WineIt’s an amazing time to be in the wine industry in America.  Wine is now made in all fifty United States, and we’ve tasted some startling wines over the past few months.

This spring we are in the process of visiting wine conferences around the country: Illinois, Missouri, Texas, Michigan, Minnesota, Virginia, and beyond.

What fun!

We’ve tasted good wines from all those states, as well as from Oklahoma, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Connecticut, and North Dakota.

And yes, the wines were more than just “interesting.”. They were tasty, well made, balanced and delicious.

We’ve enjoyed Rieslings and Cabernet Francs, Vignoles and Nortons, Muscats and sparklers.

Even better, each of these wineries (and in most of the states above there are 100 wineries or more) is introducing new people and their communities to wine.  That’s good news for everybody associated with wine.

Want some fun?  Try Canadian Ridge or Whispering Meadows wines from Oklahoma.  Or St. James or Stone Hill from Missouri. Or…

Well, you get the idea.  If variety is the spice of life, the world of wine is getting spicier by the second.