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Tasting Impressions: Food & Wine Magazine 2009 American Wine Awards

Wine Reviews
Written by Fred Swan
Saturday, 10 October 2009 02:12

Wednesday, I described the Food & Wine Magazine American Wine Awards event that took place on October 6 in St. Helena. Today’s article covers the wines themselves. As it happens, you might consider the article a shopping list.


Best Wines $20 and under

Sauvignon Blanc: 2008 Hanna Winery Russian River: This is the wine for which Hanna is best known, and rightly so. It’s really good and widely available [25,000 cases were made] at an affordable price. It is an unoaked Sauvignon Blanc that is all about the fruit, both citrus and tropical. It’s crisp, refreshing, less than 14% alcohol and good for sipping by itself or paired with food. Of all the winners in this competition, this is the least surprising.

Pinot Gris/Grigio: 2008 Sineann Pinot Gris: Rich fruity and slightly viscous but not sweet. I’ve recommended this wine previously myself and have not had a better Pinot Gris this year. They also get extra points in my book for using a glass stopper rather than cork and for making plenty of half-bottles available.

Chardonnay: 2008 Luli: Another wine that I’ve previously recommended, the Luli Chardonnay is very light on oak so that the fruit shines through. It approaches full body and offers a core of ripe stone fruit with accents of pear and lemon peel. I haven’t had a better sub-$20 Chardonnay this year.

Pinot Noir: 2007 Siduri Sonoma County: Siduri makes exactly 3 million different Pinot Noir. At least it seems that way. Yet, each wine is distinctive. Its two lowest-priced wines, the Willamette Valley and Sonoma County blends always offer extremely good value. This particular iteration includes large amounts of fruit from two of my favorite Pinot Noir vineyards, Van der Kamp and Hirsch, along with Sonatera. The final 5% of the fruit comes from a blend of Russian River Valley vineyards. The result is very complex wine, far different from the simple fruit profile you would expect at this price point.

Syrah: Copain Tous Ensemble: This is another bargain wine that blends fruit from two of my favorite vineyards along with others to create an appellation wine that offers quality well above it’s price. In this case, the grape is Syrah and the vineyards are Alder Springs and Eaglepoint Ranch in Mendocino. Also included are McDowell Valley and Hawks Butte vineyards. It should not be surprising that the Copain Tous Ensemble Syrah actually shares many of the characteristics of the Arnot-Roberts Alder Springs which took top prize for Syrah over $20. And it wouldn’t surprise me if many people actually prefer the Copain. As a blend, it is obviously less of a portal to a specific vineyard and more a wine with something for everyone. It’s more approachable, but still complex.

Merlot: 2006 Chateau Ste. Michelle Indian Wells: I did not taste this wine.

Cabernet Sauvignon: 2006 Twenty RowsThis enjoyable Cabernet Sauvignon is distinguished primarily by it’s price. I don’t mean that in a disrespectful way. Rather, it is a very good example of Napa Valley Cabernet that hits all the marks and is priced at least 50% lower than it might be. There are Napa Cabs out there with more pizzaz, but they cost a lot more too. This wine has everything that you would expect, but you can effectively get two for the price of one. That’s a good deal.

Zinfandel: 2007 FoxgloveI did not taste this wine.

Best Wines over $20

Sparkling: 2005 Domaine Carneros Vintage Brut by Taittinger: I was a little surprised by this choice. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a very good sparkling wine. However, I would have expected that there might have been something even better in the tasting at a higher price point. This wine goes for just $26. It’s a great bargain. It’s also a safe choice for weddings and other special group events because it is not at all polarizing. It is neither bone dry nor noticeably sweet. It has good acid but isn’t zippy. It gives you the toasty brioche you might look for, but not to the point of being yeasty or detracting from the fruit. In other words, it’s a very nice, balanced sparkling wine for at least $20 less than you’d pay for comparable quality in a Champagne. Score!

Sauvignon Blanc: 2007 SpottswoodeThere a few different approaches to Sauvignon Blanc taken in Napa Valley. Some go the route most often associated with the term “Fumé Blanc.” These wines see a fair amount of time in oak barrels. They are a bit round and certainly taste of oak and can be delicious, but not refreshing. Other wineries push ripeness as far as they can. These wines envelope you in tropical fruit but lack citrus notes. These wines can pack a wallop too. Alcohol well over 15% is typical. Spottswood has taken a third route, one that reminds me of the wines of Graves in Bordeaux. Indeed, there is some Semillon in the blend as you would also find in Graves. The flavors are of ripe stone fruit, mostly nectarine and peach, yet there is that grassy nose that signals Sauvignon Blanc. It’s smoothed out by a bit of oak, just enough to tame but not mask the acidity. Unfortunately, the production was only a bit more than 1,700 cases and you can only get the wine if you’re on the mailing list or find it in a restaurant. If you’re interested in experiencing the general style, I would recommend a Graves such as Chateau Malartic-Lagraviere. You can find that at KL Wines.

Rhone-style White: 2007 Tablas Creek Vineyard Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc: In a way, it’s only fair that Tablas Creek win this category. They essentially created it and have been one of the primary driving forces behind the overall Rhone movement in California. Those varietals, and there are many, get interpreted in diverse ways throughout the west coast. However, Tablas Creek tends to make wines that have not only the grapes but the spirit of genuine Rhones. They are balanced wines with fresh acidity, and aspects of minerality, spice, flowers and more to complement the fruit. This wine is in keeping with that style. A complex blend of Roussanne, Grenache Blanc and Picpoul Blanc, all vinified separately, it shows very little obvious oa. It comes in at just 13.5% alcohol and is suitable for aging. If you want to lay it down though, you’d better buy a case because you’ll want to drink some right away too.

Chardonnay: 2006 Tandem Porter-Bass Vineyard: First the bad news, Porter-Bass will be keeping all the Chardonnay for their own label in the future so this is the last time that Tandem can offer this wine. Now the good news, while I like a lot of different California Chardonnay, I can’t remember the last time I was as excited about one as I am about the 06 Tandem Porter-Bass. It proves there are still California wineries using California fruit to produce wine that a Frenchman might confuse with a white Burgundy. It also shows that California Chardonnay does not have to be unoaked to be lithe, fruity and refreshing. Just a touch of new French oak goes a long way and that’s what this wine got. Of all the wines at the event, this is the one that I  most look forward to trying again. You might find me at their tasting room tomorrow. Seriously.

Pinot Noir: 2006 Peay Vineyards Scallop Shelf Estate: This was more saturated and fuller in body than I would expect from the Sonoma Coast and was more so than either the Siduri Keefer Ranch or the Anthill Farms Peters Vineyard too. That said, it was well balanced, complex and offered a long finish. It is not at all one of those California Pinots that seem to wish they were Syrah. This is a very good Pinot Noir and ready to drink now, though I suspect it will a real knockout in five or six years.

Syrah: 2007 Arnot-Roberts Alder Springs Vineyard: Like some of the Cabs and Merlots at the tasting, and the Chateau de Beaucastel that Vineyard Brands brought to the party, this is a wine that would have been more generous with some decanting and/or in a larger glass. Unlike the Cabs and Merlot, it was still very clear that, despite the circumstances, this is a seriously good, deeply complex wine. It will stain the sides of your glass and probably your tongue as well. The aromas and flavors are on the Northern Rhone side of Syrah, brooding and meaty with rich fruit and accents of smoke, pepper, spice and dark flowers. This is a wine for the patient and cellar-keeping among you, but one I could also happily swirl and sniff in a big glass over a long evening now.

Merlot: 2006 Pride Mountain VineyardsOn Tuesday, this wine was a perfect example of how dangerous it can be to make lasting judgements about a wine, especially a young red wine, based on a single tasting. I first tasted this wine in November of 2008. It was an explosion of red fruit with spice, pepper and some oak, a very good wine that needed some time in bottle or a decanter to be at it’s best. Tuesday, the wine was an explosion of oak with some oak and perhaps a hint of oak. This is not unusual for Pride Merlot nor a bad sign. When young, they vacillate between fruit and oak. If Tuesday’s had been my only taste or were I less familiar with Pride, I might have left the party confused. This is indeed a very good wine, but one that you will want to hold for at least 5 years or decant for at least 4 hours.

Cabernet Sauvignon: 2006 Hourglass Blueline Estate Vineyard: The winery recommends decanting this wine for 2 - 6 hours. I had one taste in a small glass out of a fresh bottle. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that I found it closed and monolithic. It is probably a very good wine, but I can’t testify to that at the moment. I am going to seek out the opportunity to taste it more appropriately. Stay tuned.

Zinfandel: 2007 Seghesio Family Vineyards Home Ranch: Seghesio have been making Zinfandel in the Healdsburg area forever. They offer a wide range. Their wines are neither the least nor the most expensive. They are neither the lowest nor the highest in extraction, oak usage or alcohol. But, though they are toward the middle in many areas, quality is a notable exception. Seghesio routinely makes Zinfandel that are not routine. They are exemplary. To be honest, when it comes to drinking Zinfandel with dinner, my personal preference is for a slightly lighter and leaner version. However, this Home Ranch is not too big for that and is perfect for the kind of flavorful BBQ Seghesio serves up during their winery parties. You get briary blackberry and sweet raspberry. There’s pepper and spice, charred oak that is nice, and a rich mouthfeel that calls out for grilled rib eye. It’s a Zin fan’s Zin.

Most Promising New Winery: Anthill Farms Winery, Sonoma County: This type of award is even more subjective than “best wine.” I can only judge Anthill based upon the 2007 Anthill Farms Peters Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir poured last night. It’s the only Anthill wine I’ve ever had. It was really, really good. The wine clearly showed off the cool climate Sonoma Coast that has become one of my favorite Pinot regions in the world. The wine was lighter in body and higher in acidity than most California Pinot Noir these days and its oak treatment much lighter. The glass was bursting with red fruit, light spice, dried herb and mineral. I recently spent a full day tasting through a wide range of red Burgundies. This wine would have fit in neatly with those.

Conclusions: How did the judges do with these awards? Their batting average was very high. I think that the large number of judges and blind tasting format lead to selections that are very good, if a bit conservative in some cases. That is probably for the best given the wide demographic served by Food and Wine Magazine.

There are also some very positive messages conveyed by the choices:

  1. There are still truly great Chardonnays to be found in California
  2. You don’t have to spend a lot to get an exceptional California wine, white or red.
  3. While the big red winners are chewy, they are not extreme.
  4. People looking for excellent California wine should not ignore whites.
  5. Don’t forget about Oregon and Washington.

My four favorite wines among the award winners were the Spottswoode Sauvignon Blanc, Copain Tous Ensemble Syrah, Anthill Farms Peters Vineyard Pinot Noir and Tandem Porter-Bass Vineyard Chardonnay. It is the last wine in particular that I keep thinking about now, three days after the event.

For more information on these wines and the competition, I encourage you to check out the October issue of Food and Wine Magazine. The issue is heavily focused on wine and very good. I subscribe to at least two dozen magazines that cover wine and/or food. This particular F&W contains more interesting and genuinely useful information about wine than some entire issues of wine-centric magazines.

This article is original to Copyright 2009 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

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