The March 2011 Family Wine Makers Tasting consisted of two parts, one at Del Mar Fairgrounds, on Sunday March 13, which initially accommodated media and industry and later allowed general public attendance; and a second at the Pasadena Convention Center, on Tuesday March 15th, which was open to media and industry only. Both locations enjoyed a large number of attendees, perhaps 500-1500 at once, with a total attendance of over 2000 each.
With over 200 hundred wineries, and some wineries only attending one of the two sessions, it was helpful to attend both sessions. Furthermore, it allowed repeat tasting of the wines I really enjoyed, helping to solidify my opinions.
Overall, the wines are evolving closer and closer to what I would call a restrained or old world standard, meaning that fruit is not necessarily overpowering or even a dominant component in the overall experience. Case in point is Tablas Creek, where their 2006 Syrah has a large acid component.. In fact, it was almost too acidic — and can be described as “acid forward”. This is quite a feat in the often hot climate of the central coast of California, where summer heat can literally cook grapes on the vine making them super sweet, while destroying the sugar/acid balance in the process.
That is not to say that there weren’t any “fruit forward” wines at the tasting. In fact, wineries such as Hall and Justin produced multiple bottling that follow in that style. On the other hand, there were plenty of wineries on the opposite side of the spectrum, best exemplified by Dragonette (2009 Pinot Noirs) and Longoria (2007 Pinot Noirs) wines with a playful balance of acid and fruit, with no single component predominating.
Some wineries pushed the envelope with unusual blends, such as L’Aventure’s 2008 Cote a Cote, a GSM (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre) containing a high amount (20%) of rich, tongue smacking Mourvedre, causing one to stop and contemplate. This is no ordinary GSM—its eclectic, engaging, raw, yet composed with good acidity to tie it all together. Similarly thought-provoking is L’Aventure’s 2008 Estate Cuvee, a blend of 50% Syrah, 36% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 14% Petit Verdot. It doesn’t taste like Syrah, or Cabernet Sauvignon, or anything really identifiable except for the purple, velvety–yet focused–Petit Verdot element, which will probably integrate into the wine’s broader components over time. Yet, even without belaboring unusual academic percentages and traditional categorizations, it works, and works well.
Having so many varietals spanning so many wine growing areas in this tasting allows the taster to compare and contrast single varietal wines, from single vineyards or growing areas. In this case, I tasted through a number of Pinot Noirs from Solomon Hills, the western-most vineyard within the Santa Maria vinicultural area which sits on a slope with direct exposure to cool breezes from the Pacific Ocean. With such fine terroir, it is instructive to compare winemaking styles from individual estates while still seeing common as terroir elements permeate through.
A perfect example on the influence of winemaking style can be seen when comparing Summerland’s 2008 Solomon Hills Pinot Noir with Tantara’s 2008 Solomon Hills Pinot Noir. Tantara seems to emphasize the earthy, spicy, and richness of the terrior while cradling a round and polished fruit element that is a mix of mostly ripe cherry with a tinge of blueberry, all balanced and integrated with the acid and the alcohol. Summerland, on the other hand, puts the fruit forward of the terroir, while still paying homage to it, allowing the spotlight to showcase the fruit, and allowing the terrior and acid to remain in the background. As a side note, both wines were tasted after being open for approximately 90 minutes to 120 minutes in order to allow for these individual expressions to become more pronounced.
Similarly, one is able to compare and contrast Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon (grown at elevation of 600 to 2200 ft in Napa) versus Napa Valley floor fruit (grown at elevation of 50-200 ft). Quite an educational “compare and contrast” example. Cornerstone produces a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, an all-Howell Mountain fruit Cabernet Sauvignon, and a Cabernet Sauvignon with a blend of both fruit sources. By keeping the wine making consistent, the comparison is much more revealing. In this example, the Cornerstone Cellars Cabernet (vintage) from the Napa Valley floor had richer, denser fruit, with a less of an acid profile, while the Cornerstone Howell Mountain Cabernet (vintage) had more elegant, refined fruit, with a higher minerality, higher acid, and more subtleties of terroir on the palate and on the nose. I noticed other Howell Mountain Cabs, such as those from Outpost, which I sampled outside of this tasting have similar characteristics, where fruit is not as dominant, allowing subtleties of minerality and terroir to showcase themselves.
Lastly, a similar interesting comparison is found in Ladera’s 05 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon and their 06 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Rarely is a wine maker able to satisfy the in-laws on both sides of the family. Here, the family from Europe that likes complexity of earth, wafting smoke, dark fruit, yet good acidity with a depth of character will enjoy the Howell Mountain version, grown in volcanic, iron-rich soils, while the Napa Valley floor purists will enjoy the Napa Valley Cabernet, bright, big, dense fruit handed to you on a silver platter with fewer “distractions”.
Overall, it is rare to find so much to try in one tasting–so many varietals, so many regions, so many possible cross-comparisons–all in a venue that allows enough time for the wines to breathe and open up. The lines are not prohibitive, wine makers abound to answer questions, distributors, and wine reps freely exchange tasting notes and ideas. What more could you want…
I wish to that the participating wineries, staff, and management for another successful pair of tasting events. Their passion to bring the diversity of product and a quality wine tasting experience to both the industry professional and general public alike is greatly appreciated.