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A Big Day for Petite Sirah

Yesterday, I attended the 10th Annual Petite Sirah Symposium. I came away with excellent technical information and historical perspectives, tasted several wines I can happily recommend and made some new friends. And I poured a magnum of history myself.

Petite Sirah has a long history in California. An Alameda County acreage report from 1885 identified it by name. Concannon Vineyard released the first varietally-labeled Petite Sirah in 1964 (from the 1961 vintage). Today there are nearly 850 producers of Petite Sirah varietal wines. Acreage has climbed to 8,354, the most since a dramatic, but short-lived, spike in the 1970’s. Growth in planting has been gradual, but steady and seemingly sustainable, for nearly 20 years now.

The attractions of Petite Sirah — deep color, mouth-filling dark fruit punctuated by exotic spice, firm yet approachable tannins — make it ideal for the way most Americans eat. The wine is happy to tuck into burgers and ribs, grab a burrito, call out for pizza or bring home Chinese. More and more, it’s showing up in restaurants featuring other ethnic cuisines: Thai, Moroccan, Persian, Ethiopian, Greek. Steak will be just fine too though.

For those people who like aged wine, Petite Sirah is a good candidate. Some of my favorite bottles of it have been Concannon wines with 10 years or so in the cellar. Just for fun, I brought a magnum of venerable wine to share at yesterday’s lunch.

I had purchased the 1965 Concannon Vineyard Petite Sirah recently from K&L Wines. They had gotten it in the acquisition of a private cellar not too long ago. A good friend and fellow lover of old California in a bottle, Rich Meinecke, pointed it out to me online and I snapped it up right away. Thanks again, Rich!

A magnum of 1965 Concannon Vineyard Petite Sirah Livermore Valley.      
Photo: Melanie Gameng

Jim Concannon, Fred Swan & John Concannon at Concannon Vineyard, July 31, 2012.
Photo: Melanie Gameng

It was fun to be able to share the wine with so many people passionate about Petite Sirah. Jim Concannon remembered 1965 as a good vintage and showed the bottle to friends. Clark Smith came pretty close to identifying the vintage blind and called out a lemony flavor he often gets from aged Livermore Petite Sirah. It brought back memories for acclaimed winemaker Nils Venge who worked at Concannon for a time in the early 1960‘s.

This particular bottle’s was in its golden years but was an enjoyable companion for our barbecued ribs. We drank it happily and enjoyed it’s evolution in our glasses. Bottled at just 12% alcohol, this Petite Sirah still had plenty of elegant tannins, neatly balanced by acidity and rich, baked fruit. And there were attractive spice notes, a touch of earth and more — including Clark’s lemon which I'll make a point of looking for in the future.

After lunch, we headed into the barrel room to taste current releases of Petite Sirah from numerous wineries. Stay tuned for my report on that. It will highlight some truly delectable bottles.

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.

Blending Zinfandel at Sausal Winery


So, how hard could it be to blend Zinfandel? I mean, don’t you just fill a beaker halfway with Zinfandel and then fill it to the top with... Zinfandel? Um, no. You don’t.

The 2010 Cabernet Shootout

This past Saturday, I served as a judge in the California finals of the 2010 Cabernet Shootout. Organized by Affairs of the Vine, this final tasting included sixty-four wines, narrowed down from hundreds of wines by earlier trials. Judges were divided into two groups, each of which evaluated thirty-two wines in four flights of eight. The first flight I tasted was Cabernet Franc or blends predominantly based on that grape. The rest of the wines were predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon but could include other grapes within the blend. The top scoring wines from Saturday's competitions will go on to a consumer tasting this Fall in Chicago.

The tasting was, of course, blind. This was the first of these shootouts in which I've participated. Purposely, I didn't look at what wines had been evaluated in past shootouts, where they were from, etc. I wanted my judging to be as completely blind as possible. This also made my perusal today of the roster of wines I tasted more interesting. All but one of the wines tasted were what I would consider to be from current vintages, 2005 - 2009. The outlier was a 2004 which, tasting blind, I described as tired. I suppose that's a fair description for an 04 in a field of very young wines. I have a bottle of the same wine in my cellar and it will be interesting to taste it again and see if I agree with myself under different circumstances.

The wines were from a wide range of price points and regions too. I'm not going to name many of the wines, because I don't want to steal any thunder from future Affairs of the Vine announcements. But it's interesting to look over my scoring sheet, the wine list and  see what springs to mind. First, I notice that I gave low scores to the two least expensive wines. Selling for $8 and $10, I scored them both at a level which I'd associate with slightly below-average mass production wines. Sorry folks, there were no bargain basement miracles in my flights.

By the same token, price does not necessarily indicate quality. Of the wines priced at $50 or higher, five would get "recommended" status at NorCal Wine and two would be "highly recommended." The final wine in that category and the most expensive of all was the sneaky 2004. Based on the glass I tasted, I wouldn't recommend it at all. That's not a bad showing for the pricey wines, but not stellar either.

There is good news for bargain shoppers. The two wines I rated most highly — they would also get "highly recommended" status at NorCal Wine — were priced at $23 and $32. They also confirm the logic that, for excellent value, one might do well looking away from California's most prominent regions. One of the wines was labelled "Central Coast" and the other was from the Livermore Valley. As it happens, I recently tasted  a Petite Sirah from the same Livermore winery and it was quite good as well. I can see that I need to do a feature on Crooked Vine Winery soon.

There were eight wines that I scored just one or two points below the two mentioned above, they too would be "highly recommended." Among them were three Paso Robles wines, two from Dry Creek Valley, two came from high-altitude appellations within Napa Valley and the final one was from Washington State. The lowest priced wine among these was $22 and the highest, at $75 each, were the Napa wines.

Before and after the tasting, I had a good time chatting with several of my fellow judges, include Eric Hwang, Steve Heimoff, Thea Dwelle, John Drady, Jason Mancebo and Laura Ness. Eva Swan from NorCal Wine was also a judge, tasting the thirty-two wines I did not, but we've not had a chance to compare notes yet. I also enjoyed speaking with Barbara Drady who, as organizer, was not judging. She and her volunteers did a tremendous job with everything: structuring the event, pouring, keeping things on schedule and keeping the judges palates fresh with good bread, etc. She also rewarded us for our efforts with tasty pie afterward!

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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 Facebook. Also check outour 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 2010 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

Reality, Perception and Potential

We all want to reach our potential. And we hope others’ perception of us at least matches the reality of who we are and what our potential might be. It’s nice when perceptions go reality one better. That creates expectations we must strive to meet. Motivation.

But what happens when the perceived quality of something, say a wine growing region, is lower than the actual quality? In that situation, the sales of grapes and wines may be lower in both dollars and units than deserved. Lagging perception also has an impact on the area reaching its true potential. If people dismiss the existing products and refuse to pay a fair price, will investments in even better products be rewarded?

This problem has been faced by most wine growing regions at one time or another. There may be a few exceptions, Burgundy for example. But I think it’s fair to assume that every single viticultural area in the New World has faced it due to OId World bias. Very few — Napa Valley, Marlborough, etc. — have completely blown past this phase. One might argue that even those regions still have perception issues.

This was my train of thought as I drove past acre after acre of characterful ancient vines, their roots reaching dozens of feet deep into unique, extremely well-drained soils. I was pulling into Lodi for three days of intensive vineyard visits, tastings, and meetings with growers and winemakers. Fortunately, Lodi has spent the last 20-something years focused on simultaneously improving the real quality of its products and the consumer and critical perceptions of that quality.

[Note: You may see a Lodi ad running to the right of this article. That is being served by the Palate Press ad network and the placement is entirely coincidental. I do not get any direct revenue from the Lodi or any other region or winery and this article is not sponsored in any way whatsoever.]

One of the many old vine Zinfandel vineyards in the Mokelumne AVA, nested within the Lodi AVA.
Photo: Fred Swan 

The raw materials were there. Lodi had century-old Zinfandel and also Carignane, Cinsault and more. There’s a multiplicity of soil types, most conducive to excellent grape quality. There is plenty of sun and warmth but also surprisingly stiff and cooling breezes, a big Delta air-conditioner. Perhaps the most important element though was a generation of growers and vintners who believed in the phrase “a rising tide lifts all boats.”

They thought cooperation, collaboration and mutual investment would help both farmer and producer. Successful marketing could make Lodi a nationally-known and sought after AVA. Outside producers could be convinced to designate the AVA on labels. Consumers would learn to taste the difference and eventually pay more for Lodi wines. That incremental revenue, if invested in improving quality from vineyard to bottle, would continue the cycle. They were right.

Two decades after that effort began, the vines are a little older. The soil and the weather haven’t changed. But Lodi’s wines and grapes are different — better. Consumers do seek out Lodi wines based on the AVA, not just the winery brand. Grower and producer revenues are up, as is the number of wineries. There are dozens of tasting rooms and Lodi has become not just a good source but a legitimate destination.

Even with these improvements across the board, the Lodi AVA is still working to get better.  That’s what you do, especially when the potential is so high. (It really is.) There were bumps and uphill climbs on the road to betterment and there will be more. There is also a lot of positive momentum and a new generation of people who have grown up within and fully embrace the process. I’m looking forward to sharing specifics with you about some of the most intriguing wines, vineyards and people in the Lodi wine region.

The timing of this article, just days after the announcement that the Mendocino County Winegrape and Wine Commission will be dissolved, is coincidental yet appropriate. When Mendocino County set up the group six years ago, the area already had more critical acceptance than Lodi did at the founding of it’s commission. And, while Mendocino’s road forward was appropriately twisty, progress was definitely being made. The area has been getting much more press. New tasting rooms have been built and Mendocino is now thought of as much for wine tasting weekends as for whale watching and peaceful retreats.

Yesterday’s Taste of Mendo, held in San Francisco, was a great reminder of the diversity of Mendocino wines. At one point I sampled six consecutive rosés, all good and none made from the same variety as another. There were some excellent Pinot Noir of course, but also very fine Syrah. I found compelling Sauvignon Blanc in three distinct styles. And there were plenty of other highly recommendable whites, including Albariño, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc.

However, the wine business is intensely competitive. (See the first part of this recent post by Randall Grahm for some excellent thoughts on that.) There are countless wine regions, wineries and drinks conglomerates all fighting over a finite amount of available mindshare and revenue. The Mendocino County wine industry has to find a way to get everyone working together again or it will not only fail to reach its potential but the perception of its quality and relevance will slide backward.

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. Photos by Fred Swan. All rights reserved.

Free: Hospice du Rhone 2010 iPhone App Available

I'm really looking forward to Hospice du Rhone this year. it's coming up soon, April 29 - May 1, in Paso Robles. To help people like me, and you, get up to speed on everything that will go on there, the wineries involved, etc., the HdR organization has put out an iPhone app. This is the first event based iPhone app i've seen.

I downloaded it as soon as it hit the Apple App Store on Monday. There's a lot of cool stuff in there that could well be of use to you regardless of whether or not you go to the event. There's winery and varietal information, Rhone wine quizzes and more. And the price is right. Free!

Sonoma William posted an in-depth HdR 2010 iPhone app review at Simple Hedonisms if you want to learn more.