So many wines, so little time
Special to The Union
For years, I have received a solicitation for Nevada City Winery to submit wines to something called The Wine Literary Award Tasting. The Wine Appreciation Guild, a company that sells wine books, sponsors the event, which for the last 17 years has taken place in San Francisco on the last Friday in April.
The event is strictly for wine writers and each year offers an award honoring the guild’s selection for best wine writer of the year. The enticement for a winery like Nevada City Winery to send wines to this tasting is the lure that some wine writer will stumble upon the wines as undiscovered gems and write about them.
No winery representatives are allowed. The wines and labels must speak for themselves.
I have sent wines to this event on several occasions wondering each time if it was worth it. Would a wine writer actually see them, or would they end up in some busboy’s knapsack to drink on their day off?
Perhaps you can imagine my interest, then, when an invitation to attend this year’s event as a wine writer tumbled into my mailbox. How could I not go?
How to taste all those wines?
The event was heralded as,”The Largest Tasting Of American Wines For The Press,” with approximately 1,000 wines from Hawaii to Florida (but mostly California) begging to be tasted.
They promised a quiet, hassle-free environment with other professionals, without the presence of winery representatives. I grabbed my Jimmy Olsen camera and Clark Kent glasses and left for San Francisco with no idea of what to expect.
The event took place at The California Culinary Academy on Polk Street. I opted for the daytime tasting, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. I collected my booklet listing about 900 wines representing 50 different varietals, not counting blends and dessert wines from 20 different states.
Between the center of the room and the perimeter (wine tables were on both sides) were several dozen round tables set for eight. On two walls on the outer side of the perimeter wine tables were big glass windows looking into the heart of the Culinary Academy’s world ” their kitchens.
With so many wines it is best to have a plan. There is no way to taste but 10 percent of them, so the
question becomes, which 10 percent?
I decided to focus on wines from outside of California. Indiana, Michigan, New York, Virginia and 14 other states would be my focus. I headed for the Rieslings and got to work.
The plan: Wines from outside California
I don’t think I spoke to anyone for the first hour and a half. I worked my way through the Rieslings, Gewurztraminers, Pinot Grigios, unusual white varieties and white blends. Throughout the morning more people arrived, but the room was decidedly uncrowded. Not only was there easy access to the wines, but we poured them ourselves.
I reflected back on some of the big tastings I have attended ” densely packed rooms with throngs of people shouting loudly over the din of the crowd. This had a quietly chummy, private club kind of feel about it. As it approached the noon hour, the buffet table was groaning under the weight of chilled shrimp and wafer-thin smoked salmon, canapes, cheese platters, neatly turned out savory treats and about a million calories of must-try desserts. We were, after all, at a culinary academy.
By now there were perhaps 50 people there, and I had the impression that most of them knew each other. I guess wine writers are a small circle. “Let me know if you come across something worth tasting,” one of them said to me, “either good or bad.” I could see the wisdom of dividing and conquering. There were so many wines. I pointed out a Traminette and Edelzwicker, both from wineries in Michigan, as worth a try.
Tackling the reds
I tried a few of the two dozens roses with lunch, had a half of cup of coffee and headed over to tackle the reds. This was more of a challenge. There were just so many and especially so many impressive California labels.
Unlike many tastings or competitions where there are lots of unknown labels looking for attention, this was a who’s who of California Cabernet and Pinot Noir ” names like Shafer, Silver Oak, Williams Seylem and Caymus.
Or should I stick with the Chambourcin from Indiana or the Norton from Missouri? Like I said, which 10 percent are you going to try?
There’s no question I was impressed with the tasting. But what about the odd assortment of wines I elected to sample? Michigan wines, especially the wines of the Leelanau Peninsula of upper Michigan, definitely got my attention.
The Leelanau Peninsula juts into Lake Michigan, and the combination of chalk soils, cool northern climate and the modifying lake effect coming from Lake Michigan make it a great spot for delicate whites like Riesling. Several sparkling wines from there, especially the Mawby Vineyards, were excellent. On the other hand, something called Smelly Sneaker Pinot Gris from a winery in Florida was a little too aptly named for its own good.
In general, I was pleased to find a substantial crosscut of good, well-made wines from around the country. Should California worry? Nothing I tasted from other states was as good as the best I tasted from California. But I tasted plenty of average wines from California that were matched by wines from other states.
In California, we’re currently happy to buy wines from Oregon or Washington but it’s time to start paying attention to Michigan, New York and Missouri. Texas is banging at the door. Bottle by bottle, we are turning into a wine-producing and a wine-consuming nation.
As I was leaving, I was saying goodbye and exchanging cards with several of the people I had met throughout the day. I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror and was horrified to see my purple-stained mouth, teeth and tongue, looking for all the world like a vampire just in from a late night out on the town.
I looked at the other writers and wondered if they had not tasted any red wines, their teeth were so white and clean. I realized there were still many parts of the brotherhood of the wine writer that I had still to learn. I wonder if they have a secret toothbrush?
Rod Byers is director of marketing at Nevada City Winery, is a CSW certified wine educator, teaches wine classes at Sierra College and is a California state certified wine judge. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 530-913-3703.
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