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Tasting Event

Cabernet Shootout Highlights and the 2013 Cabernet Challenge

Every year, judging in Affairs of the Vine’s annual Cabernet Shootout introduces me to very good wines from wineries with which I’m unfamiliar. There are simply too many new wineries every year to keep up. Most of these wineries don’t have big marketing budgets. The Cabernet Shootout is an affordable way for them to get both exposure and critical feedback.

This year’s Cabernet Shootout finals took place on December 1 in San Francisco. We evaluated 64 wines that day. (There were two groups of judges, each blind tasting 32 wines.) This followed several weeks of preliminary judging which culled the field from several hundred.

You can taste many of the finalists for yourself, vote for your favorites and learn the judges’ top picks on January 19. The annual Cabernet Challenge, a public tasting, will run from noon to 4pm at The Winery SF on Treasure Island. I hope you’ll join me there.

Check out En Garde Winery

The most exciting find for me from this year’s Cabernet Shootout wasn’t a particular wine, but a winery with several excellent offerings. En Garde Winery makes  Diamond Mountain AVA Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, Russian River Valley Pinot Noir and additional varietals from other locations. The winery itself is in Livermore and they also have a tasting room in Kenwood.

csaba szakal
Csaba Szakal of En Garde Winery. (Photo: En Garde Winery)

En Garde winemaker/proprietor Csaba Szakal (he’s Hungarian) is making truly excellent wine. His Diamond Mountain wines were among the very best of the shootout. I didn’t get to taste the 2007 Diamond Mountain Reserve in the finals, but I rated it Very Highly Recommended in the preliminaries. It’s impeccably made: complex, bursting with flavor and full-bodied on the palate with rich, powdery tannins. Csaba will be pouring this wine at the Cabernet Challenge.

Other Wines of Note

There were a lot of very good wines in the finals this year. Of the 32 I judged, I would rate twelve Highly Recommended and another six Recommended+. Virtually all of the wines were predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon, but one of my favorites was a Cabernet Franc blend, the 2009 Vinoce Mount Veeder Estate [60% Cabernet Franc, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot]. It was full-bodied with flavors of black currant, currant leaf, toasted cedar, forest floor, chocolate and dark spice. Tannins were medium-plus and lightly chalky, the finish satisfying.

Tasting blind allows “popularly-priced” wines to be evaluated without bias. Matching my scoresheet up with the wine list after judging, I discovered some excellent bargains among wines I’d rated Highly Recommended.

The 2011 Angeline Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County ($18) offered well-balanced fruit, acidity and alcohol. Chewy plum and black currant were complemented by coffee, currant leaf and spice. Angeline is a label from Martin Ray Winery.

The full-bodied 2010 Mirassou California (just $12) had noteworthy concentration and lovely, powdery tannins with flavors of black currant, blackberry, moist eucalyptus, earthy spice and cedar.

The 2010 Shannon Ridge “High Elevation” Cabernet Sauvignon Lake County ($23) was full-bodied and replete with powdery and chalky tannins. The toothsome balance of black currant, currant leaf, mint, sweet and dark spice and licorice flavors was long-lasting.

Very good wines came from several different California AVAs.

The 2010 J Pilar Cabernet Sauvignon South Coast ($40) was easily the best Cab I’ve ever had from the San Diego foothills. It was a savory, mouth-filling wine with flavors of dry black cherry, dark spice, mint, earth and wood and lots of softly chewy tannins.

The ripe and powerful 2009 Eberle Cabernet Sauvignon Paso Robles ($34) was packed with cassis, red and black cherries, allspice and oak balanced by firm chalky tannins.

Also full-bodied with firm, chalky tannins was the 2010 Field Stone Staten Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley ($40) which poured on ripe black currant, mulling spices and oak.

Another Alexander Valley wine, the 2008 Rodney Strong Cabernet Sauvignon Rockaway Vineyard ($75) shows great potential with concentrated flavors of baked black fruit, dark spice, chocolate and very refined, yet substantial, fine powdery tannins. Let it’s complexity unfold in your cellar for a couple of years.

The 2009 Auburn James Cabernet Sauvignon Bella Vista Block 2, Napa Valley ($75) pleased with black currant, cherry, espresso, oak, chocolate, spice, medium-plus chalky tannins and excellent overall balance.

Jammy black fruit, licorice and spice were front and center in the potent and full-bodied 2008 Petroni Vineyards Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma Valley.

Two of my favorite wines of the day came from the newish Coombsville AVA of Napa Valley.

The full-bodied 2009 Great Dane Cabernet Sauvignon ($110) from HeartSmart Wine mingled flavors of clove, allspice, oak, blackberry and chocolate deliciously. Pleasantly chalky tannins a long finish made it a complete wine.

The 2008 Rocca Family Vineyard Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Collinetta Vineyard ($85) was long, full-bodied and delicious. Red and black cherry, five spice, redwood were framed by chalky tannins


Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to Copyright 2013 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.


Top Picks from the El Dorado Wine Association Tasting

Last Saturday, March 20, the El Dorado Winery Association held a tasting at Postrio in San Francisco. The public tasting was preceded by a trade tasting which gave me the opportunity to taste through quite a few wines and give them some focus. Nonetheless, there were way too many wines available for me to be able to taste them all.Below is a list of my favorite wines from the tasting. As always, any omissions from the list may simply be due to the fact that the wines weren't poured or that I didn't get to them. Non-inclusion on the list is not a recommendation against. On the other hand, I am fairly confident that you will enjoy most, if not all, of the wines that I do recommend.

About the El Dorado AVA
El Dorado is an interesting appellation. While the vineyards are united in being situated at fairly high altitude (1,200 to 3,500 ft), the varying slope facings and microclimates plus three primary soil types, etc. create a lot of diversity in growing conditions. Add to those variables the fact that almost 50 different wine grape varietals are grown there and you have quite a wide range of wine profiles. The most used varietals are Barbera, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Grenache, Merlot, Mourvedre, Petite Sirah, Roussanne, Sangiovese, Syrah, Tempranillo, Viognier, and Zinfandel. Of course, many of those grapes are heavily planted in California overall. But El Dorado also gives you the opportunity to try wines made from grapes less common in California, such as Charbono, Nebbiolo, Pinotage, and Vermentino.

The El Dorado AVA is part of the much larger Sierra Foothills AVA. The most important factor distinguishing El Dorado from other California AVAs is the altitude. While many vineyards in California are cooled by fog of breezes coming in from the ocean, El Dorado's vines are cooled by the altitude. This means that the grapes get full sunlight during the day, but still experience the necessary temperature drops overnight. I have found that the best of the El Dorado wines are very accessible young with ripe, but not over-ripe, fruit flavors and, in the reds, soft fruit tannins.

El Dorado is roughly 40 miles northeast of Sacramento. There are several towns in the AVA, but the largest is Placerville. El Dorado's next Passport Weekends are April 10-11 and 17-18. If you prefer to tour wineries when they're a bit less crowded, you can go up to El Dorado anytime though. Almost all of the wineries are open every weekend and several are open seven days a week. For more information, go to the El Dorado Winery Association web site..

Highly Recommended
2007 Auriga Cellars Zinfandel
2009 Boeger Sauvignon Blanc
2008 Boeger Barbera
2006 Boeger Petite Sirah Walker Vineyard
2007 Cedarville Viognier
2008 Cedarville Viognier
2008 Cedarville Grenache
2006 Colibri Primitivo
2008 Gold Hill Vineyard Viognier
2009 Holly's Hill Viognier Estate
2005 Madroña Vineyards Qunitet (Bordeaux varietals blend)
1996 Madroña Vineyards Qunitet (Bordeaux varietals blend)
2007 Miraflores Zinfandel
2006 Mount Aukum Vertigo
2007 Perry Creek Syrah Altitude 2401
2008 Sierra Vista Viognier
2008 Single Leaf Vineyards Viognier
2007 Single Leaf Vineyards Zinfandel Reserve

2006 Boeger Meritage Reserve
2007 Busby Cellars Zinfandel
2005 Colibri Mourvedre
2007 Crystal Basin Triumphant (Bordeaux varietals blend)
2007 David Girard Grenache
2005 David Girard Coeur Rouge (southern Rhone varietals blend)
2006 Gold Hill Vineyard Meriticious
2005 Gold Hill Vineyard Cabernet Franc
2006 Granite Springs Winery Estate Zinfandel
2006 Granite Springs Winery Petite Sirah
2007 Holly's Hill Vineyard Patriarch (southern Rhone blend)
2006 Holly's Hill Vineyard Wylie-Fenaughty
2006 Latcham Vineyards Cabernet Franc
2007 Latcham Vineyards Zinfandel Special Reserve
2007 Lava Cap Winery Barbera
2007 Lava Cap Winery Petite Sirah Reserve
2008 Madroña Vineyards Riesling (dry)
2007 Madroña Vineyards Zinfandel Estate
2005 Miraflores Syrah
2007 Narrow Gate Primitivo
2007 Perry Creek Viognier (unoaked)
2006 Perry Creek Petite Sirah
2008 Sierra Vista Roussanne
2006 Single Leaf Vineyards Malbec

Here is a list of all of the participating wineries:
Auriga Cellars
Boeger Winery
Busby Cellars
Cedarville Vineyard & Winery
Chateau Rodin
Colibri Ridge Winery & Vineyard
Crysal Basin Cellars
Fenton Herriott
Fitzpatrick Winery & Lodge
David Girard Vineyards
Gold Hill Vineyard
Granite Springs Winery
Holly's Hill Vineyards
Latcham Vineyards
Lava Cap Winery
Madroña Vineyards
Miraflores Winery
Mount Aukum Winery
Narrow Gate Vineyards
Perry Creek Winery
Sierra Oaks Estates
Sierra Vista Vineyards & Winery
Single Leaf Vineyards & Winery
Windwalker Vineyard

This article is original to Copyright 2010 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

Recap of Hospice du Rhone 2011 - Day One

This is summary of all the Rhone goodness that was Friday, April 29 at Hospice du Rhone 2011. More detailed articles on the seminars, top wines, etc. will follow. Don’t miss photo gallery at the end! Also check out my recap of day two.

The first seminar, Rhone Valley Wines, started at 9AM. There were some bloodshot eyes in the crowd. The previous night’s Rhone n Bowl event ran late into the night with plenty of wine and beer flowing. Judging by the loud conversation and laughter coming from rooms near mine at the Black Oak Motor Lodge, more than a few people joined after-parties at the hotel too. Nonetheless, seminar attendance was good. My rough count was around 650 people.

Even wine lovers who have not studied the Rhone in detail have heard of Chateauneuf du Pape and, probably, Cote Rotie. They may know that Hermitage as a great wine they can’t afford to drink. And they probably associate Cotes du Rhone with so-so red wine poured on international flights. The purpose of this seminar was to expose us all to unsung regions of the Rhone that deserve our attention and to do justice to Cotes du Rhone.

For the most part, the mission was accomplished. Attendees got a lot of detailed information about the Rhone growing area overall, especially the Cotes du Rhone AOC, the various named Cotes du Rhone Villages, some of those that have their own AOCs (Cornas and Gigondas), plus Costieres de Nimes. However, like my previous sentence, the seminar ran long. There was too much content for the allotted time and the final portion was rushed.

Here are some interesting facts about the Rhone, shared with us by moderator Christophe Tassan, sommelier at MIX in Las Vegas.

  • The Rhone Valley is France’s second largest wine region, comprising nearly 200,000 acres.
  • There are 6,000 vineyard owners and 1,500 wine producers in the Rhone Valley.
  • They fill 400,000,000 bottles per year.
  • 80% of that wine is red.
  • The U.S. is the largest importer of Rhone wine, having just passed the UK.
  • U.S. imports of Rhone wines increased 22% last year. [There are some great bargains to be had.]
  • The primary red grape of the Northern Rhone is Syrah, while Grenache is the main red grape of the Southern Rhone.
  • There are 18 cru AOCs in the Rhone Valley, plus 17 named Cotes du Rhone Villages.
  • An additional 78 villages without individual AOC status can contribute to more general Cotes du Rhone AOC wines.

Christopher Sawyer was moderator of the second session — Find Your MoJo. A journalist and the sommelier at Carneros Bistro, he energized the crowd and made sure the trains ran on time. After the obligatory Austin Powers impression, we learned that MoJo is not just for swinging British spies. We can get it ourselves it by drinking good Syrah! And we can spell it by taking the first two letters from the names of Morgan Twain-Peterson and Joey Tensley. Not coincidentally, those guys make kick-ass Syrah.

Tensley said his wines are all about the vineyard. The primary focus for him is Syrah. We were treated to tastes of three single-vineyard Syrah from cool climates in Santa Barbara County, plus a blend from all three vineyards.

Morgan Twain-Peterson believes terroir is crucial as well. But he also experiments with various winemaking techniques. He offered one wine that was aged in massive (600 liter) barrels with double-thick staves. Oak influence was minimized because there was a lower ratio of oak surface to wine volume. The lower ratio and thick staves also decreased water evaporation, keeping alcohol percentages lower than they would otherwise have been. Another wine was fermented with 90% whole clusters. He barrel-fermented yet another a lot of new oak to achieve an “Aussie style.” That wine wasn’t everyone’s favorite, but I thought it was excellent.

Find Your Mojo was a very interesting seminar. It also featured some great wines. (If you aren’t on the Bedrock Wines mailing list, you should be. Subscribers were recently offered the delicious 2009 Bedrock Sonoma Coast Syrah for just $20. Consider that my “Wine of the Day” recommendation.

Interesting take-aways from this session included:

  • Both winemakers agreed that site is more important than clone.
  • Twain-Peterson believes that, while Syrah is a tough sell now, the future should be good as “wine consumers are better educated than they ever have been before... with more access to information and a huge educational curve that bodes well.”
  • Joey Tensley said, “Dollar for dollar, what you can get in Syrah is much better quality than from other varietals in the U.S.” [I totally agree.]
  • Chris Sawyer emphasized the variety of California Syrah available. As a sommelier, “the great thing about [pouring] ten Syrah is that you can be all over the map.” He added, “In Sonoma, we have 118 different types of soil, more than in the entire country of France.” Then Chris was shot by an enraged French wine publicist. I might be lying about this last bit. Or not.

After tasting 20 wines before noon, some of them burly, we were all ready for rosé. Fortunately, the thoughtful people of Tavel only make rosé and they bring mass quantities of it to the lunch that they sponsor each year at Hospice du Rhone. I tasted some but, with an afternoon at the massive, three-hour Rhone Rendezvous tasting ahead of me, chose to glug gallons of the provided Fiji water. [Thank you Fiji!] I also loaded up at the healthful lunch. Filling up on roasted vegetables provided a good base for tasting. And, after the previous night’s Kobe beef corn dogs and steak tartar sliders, I felt obliged to go sans meat.

The Rhone Rendezvous is a big walk-around tasting at which the participating wineries break out wines that they don’t normally pour at big walk-around tastings. This year, the Hospice du Rhone organizers asked them to bring older vintages. VINTUS offered 1997 and 2001 Guigal Brune et Blonde Cote Rotie. I love the way they take direction!

Two California wineries proved Rhone variety whites can age, even when made here. Qupé broke out a 2001 Roussanne Alban Vineyard. Kenneth Volk doubled down with a 1999 Equus Roussanne James Berry Vineyard and a 2001 Equus Viognier. I wish that I had any of them in my cellar.

Among those strolling the aisles, glass-in-hand, was Emilio Estevez, low-key and trying to remain under-the-radar. I was surprised to see him there. That’s because I don’t know a thing about wine from Malibu. He and his partner, Sonja Magdevski, are the proprietors, vine tenders and winemakers of Casa Dumetz. It’s one of a dozen or more wineries in the area. Malibu is hoping to get it’s own AVA designation before too long. Now that I know about it, I’m looking forward to trying some of the wines.

The final event of the day was the Sommelier Soirée. It’s a party to which the sommeliers participating in Hospice du Rhone bring some of their favorite magnums of Rhone variety wine. Hard to go wrong with that. However, I chose to have a more low-key evening. My party of four headed over to Villa Creek for dinner. It’s an “early California cuisine” restaurant owned by winemaker Cris Cherry. Villa Creek is where everyone goes to party in Paso Robles when there is not a Sommelier Soirée going on. Looking around me, I saw that Patrick Will (VINTUS) and Clyde Beffa (K&L Wines) had also opted for quiet dinners. The food at Villa Creek was good, the portions large (you have been warned), and the wine list attractive. Check it out!

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Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to Copyright 2011 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

A Taste of the 2010 ZAP Grand Zinfandel Tasting

Two massive halls were filled by 211 wineries and roughly 8,000 consumers and wine professionals, all of them focused on the red wine called Zinfandel. A few wineries poured a single wine. Most poured two or three. Others offered as many as eight.

I wasn’t able to taste every, or even most, wines. Nobody could. In the end, I sampled and scored 97 wines. Some were from wineries offering their first ever vintage, others were from producers that led California Zinfandel to prominence decades ago. I tasted from a range of geographies, styles and price points.

All Pinots Great and Small

”It’s not the size of the Pinot that matters, but the magic you make with it,” said my drink coaster. I was at a tasting dinner organized by Pinot Days 2011. The quote, from Adam Lee of Siduri, neatly captured the evening’s theme.

logo2Twelve Noble Stars: Celebrating Pinot’s Diversity of Style was a tasting and food pairing for consumers, as opposed to trade, industry insiders or critics. The idea was to expose non-professional Pinot Noir enthusiasts to a very broad range of Pinot Noir styles and let the wine drinkers decide for themselves what they like. There were fourteen Pinot Noir — that’s right, the “label” said twelve but the real number was higher. The wines ranged from opulently high-octane to lean and, ever so slightly, mean.

Several times throughout the evening, host Lisa Rigisich asked the question, “How many points did this Pinot get?” She would quickly answer her own question, “Who cares?” Essentially, she and Steve Rigisich (the organizers of Pinot Days) were staging a small-scale intervention between Pinot-loving consumers and those wine pundits who want to tell them what to like.

The debate over what constitutes excellence in California Pinot Noir has gone on for years. And on. And on. Does this state’s Pinot Noir need to emulate the weight of Burgundy? Or should the wines proudly wear the power and concentration that sunny California allows? Critics weigh in on both sides. The dispute will never be resolved. Regardless of how much opinion leaders suggest otherwise, it is simply a matter of personal preference. The same is true, by the way, about similar wrangling over Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, etc.

But the arguments do have an impact on consumers who are often unsure of what they are “supposed to like.” There is nothing wrong with having the discussion and nothing wrong with consumers hearing both sides of the story and forming an opinion. But consumers should also be given a chance to taste the wines and decide what appeals to them based on the wine itself, not just numbers or philosophies.

At the Twelve Noble Stars Tasting, opinion was split among the consumers I talked to. Some reveled in the darkest, boldest wines. Others preferred those wines so “elegant” that you could read a faded love letter through them. Still others, like me, gravitated to wines that split the difference.

Several upcoming events will expose your palate to a variety of Pinot Noir. Some, due to regional focus, will tend toward one end of the Pinot Noir spectrum or the other. Pinot Days 2012 offers the full gamut.

These gatherings are great opportunities to make up your own mind about what you do and don’t like in Pinot Noir. Dozens, sometimes hundreds, of wines will be on hand for sampling. Yet, wineries know that the average wine drinker lacks confidence in their own taste. Some will want to tell you the scores or what to look for in their wine.

Don’t let them do that to you. Try not to look at the tasting notes. If a pourer starts to tell you too much about a wine before you can taste it, politely ask them to wait. They can give you the rundown after you’ve had a chance to sniff, sip, consider and spit.

Russian River Valley Passport to Pinot — June 9 & 10 at Russian River Valley wineries

Taste of Mendocino — June 11 in San Francisco

Pinot Days 2012 — June 16 in San Francisco

West of the West — August 3 - 5 in Occidental

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to Copyright 2012 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.