Among other annual signs of spring is the surge in the number of commercial wine competitions around the country.
They've been under way since January, true, but between now and the start of summer no fewer than seven will be in California alone. Some are large and some are small, and none is smaller than the Fiddletown Wine Competition in Amador County.
The Fiddletown roundup generally draws around 20 wines and involves just four or five judges, and its results don't generate much in the way of attention in the wine media. Its scope, focus and intimacy, however, not only are instructive but provide a sensible model that I suspect will become more emulated in time.
Up to now, wine competitions almost without exception have attempted to grow in the number of entries they attract each year, with a handful of them vying to lay claim to being the nation's or the world's largest.
The Fiddletown judging would like to grow, too, but it has no aspirations to compete in the number of entries with even the nearby Amador County Fair, itself hardly large.
The Fiddletown competition is strictly for wines from within the Fiddletown appellation, which is tiny and not expected to grow appreciably anytime soon. Indeed, it almost always will be small. Therein lies its allure and authority.
Twenty wines tasted over a few hours gives judges plenty of time to evaluate and discuss their merits and drawbacks, a luxury larger competitions can't usually offer. Judges at Fiddletown need not fear palate fatigue, also a very real concern at larger competitions.
Most important, the judges at Fiddletown ponder the wines within an important context: terroir, or place.
All the wines are from within an enclave whose boundaries were drawn up in the belief that its topo- graphy, climate and culture added up to grapes and wines somehow distinctive as a group from wines in other nearby appellations, such as Shenandoah Valley and Fair Play.
This notion of basing a wine competition on regional identity isn't novel, but the sense it makes looks to be expanding in appeal to even much larger judgings. Thus, even some international competitions that get thousands of entries have begun to restructure themselves to base the evaluation of wines by place of origin as well as by the more traditional standards of varietal and style.
I've sat on panels, for example, for which all the petite sirahs were divided and judged by appellation, such as Russian River Valley for one group, Lodi for another, and where all the wines were from Napa Valley, though arranged by cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel and the like.
That latter strategy is the approach of the Fiddletown Wine Competition, the latest edition of which was last fall at Helwig Winery in Amador County's Shenandoah Valley, just a strong toss of a grape stake from neighboring Fiddletown.
I did say that Fiddletown was small, didn't I?
At that time, two of the five zinfandels in the competition were awarded gold medals, and one of them actually was a double-gold medal, meaning that all four judges agreed that the wine deserved gold (most gold-medal wines at any competition involve a split vote). That wine was the Sobon Estate 2009 Fiddletown Lubenko Vineyard Zinfandel.
The Fiddletown appellation long has been recognized for producing unusually fresh and lithe zinfandels, zesty with juicy raspberry fruit, racy acidity and peppery spice. The Sobon fit that profile, but with a ripeness and richness that threatened to break the mold. The wine's spiciness included suggestions of cinnamon as well as black pepper, and its tannins, while firm, were easily manageable. Though the wine packs 15.2 percent alcohol, it tasted neither hot nor awkward.
As if to reaffirm the wine's combination of authority and restraint, it went from a double-gold at the Fiddletown Wine Competition in October to best in its class at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition in January. At the Chronicle competition, the Sobon was in a class defined not by region and varietal but by price and varietal. It was in the group priced $20 to $24.99. So were 97 other zinfandels. Of the 98, just seven were awarded gold medals. From that field, the Sobon was our panel's unanimous choice for best-of-class.
In the sweepstakes round, the Sobon zinfandel was up against 51 other wines for best red, including eight other zinfandels. My notes from the competition indicate that the Sobon lost none of its allure between October and January, and still stood out for its rare combination of richness and vibrancy, the persistence of its finish, and its classic zinfandel structuring, which is to say that while it is a husky wine it isn't overwrought, maintaining equilibrium as well as freshness.
My notes from the sweepstakes round at the Chronicle competition say the wine suggests in its sunny richness the finer zinfandels of the Sierra foothills, but I didn't peg it to Fiddletown. I need to mention here that both the Fiddletown and Chronicle competitions were "blind," meaning that judges didn't know the identities of the producers, which were revealed only afterward.
The grapes that went into the Sobon zinfandel were from the historic head-trained vines of Lubenko Vineyard, which dates from around 1910. The Sobons started to make a zinfandel from Lubenko in 1983, and six years later bought the vineyard itself to assure themselves of fruit from the cherished plot. ("Lubenko Vineyard" is declared only on the back label, with "Fiddletown" on the front.)
The family winemaker, Paul Sobon, credits the prettiness and sturdiness of the zinfandel to the 2009 growing year, which yielded "perfect ripening," he said. He blended in 6 percent petite sirah and aged the wine in a combination of American and Hungarian oak barrels, 40 percent of which were new.
Whether the wine continues to show exceptionally well in upcoming competitions remains to be seen, but it is selling so briskly that there may not be any left to enter.
2009 Fiddletown Lubenko Vineyard Zinfandel
By the numbers: 15.2 percent alcohol, 1,852 cases, $22
Context: Paul Sobon recommends the wine with either a traditional or vegetarian chili that isn't too assertively seasoned; also pastas and beef. "Had it with lamb shank the other day wow!" he added.
Availability: The wine is sold at Total Wine & More and Nugget Markets, and is poured by the glass at the restaurant Grange in the Citizen Hotel.
More information: Visit the winery's website www.sobonwine.com or its tasting room, 14430 Shenandoah Road, Plymouth, open 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily.