At the start of a new year, I customarily find myself seated with two to four other judges in a curtained cubicle of a barny building on the Citrus Fair grounds in Cloverdale, Sonoma County. We usually constitute one of about 20 panels at the annual San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, the nation’s largest such judging, which in recent years has drawn around 7,000 wines, all made in the United States.
This January, however, I took on a new role at the competition. Seated by myself at a desk in a back room far removed from other judges, my assignment was to taste every wine declared to be the best of its class and then write a few remarks about each.
Unlike other judges, who taste blind, I was handed the bottle from which their pours had been drawn, so I knew the producer, vintage, appellation and so forth.
From that experience, I’d like to share some of my favorites, qualified by my confidence that consumers can find them in Sacramento, or nearby.
A class of wines, incidentally, can vary widely in size. In the roundup below, for example, the Andis grenache was up against just three other entries in the class of grenaches priced up to $19.99. The Shadow Ranch grenache, on the other hand, competed with 59 other entries in the class of grenaches priced $20 and up.
Korbel 2013 Sonoma County Russian River Valley Natural’ Champagne ($16): Accomplishes the rare combination of expansiveness and centering, the former due to vibrant fruit, the latter to the tempering of precise blending and the wine’s slap of crisp acidity. Korbel gets a lot of flak for continuing to exploit the word “Champagne” for its sparkling wines, but in its defense it does use the traditional French “methode champenoise” in making sparklers. The dry and snappy Natural’ went on to be declared the competition’s sweepstakes sparkling wine.
McManis Family Vineyards 2015 California River Junction Chardonnay ($10): The next time a recipe calls for lemon peel or zest and the pantry is fresh out of lemons, just add a splash of the McManis. This is one fun, unassuming chardonnay, bargain priced for everyday drinking but with enough citric character and complexity to open without hesitancy on a Saturday night when the boss is over for dinner.
Fetzer Vineyards 2015 Monterey County Shaly Loam Gewurztraminer ($10): Kudos to Fetzer for the accuracy of its back-label “flavor profile,” which describes the wine as “medium sweet.” That’s what it is, and just, with the sugar equaled by the wine’s energized acidity, assuring that this gewürztraminer is lively and not at all flabby.
Noble Vines Collection 2015 Monterey San Bernabe 152 Pinot Grigio ($13): The “152” of the label refers to a strain of pinot grigio that originated in Alsace, long celebrated for exceptionally vital white wines. That heritage is represented here with a pinot grigio that charges across the palate with unusual assurance, then lingers like a caressing fog, at once mysterious yet enticing.
Bokisch Vineyards 2015 Lodi Clements Hills Terra Alta Vineyard Albariño ($18): Check it out – 12.5 percent alcohol – proof that a wine need not pack 14 or 15 percent alcohol to possess seductively frisky fruit and the kind of stimulating acidity that invites several follow-up tastes.
Delicato Family Vineyards Bubo 2014 California Pinot Noir ($9): “Bubo,” says the back label, is Latin for “owl,” which grape growers like for helping to control pests. Here, “Bubo” translates as a lean and peppy pinot noir vibrant with cherry fruit and lashings of leather and peppery spice.
Trinchero Family Estates Three Thieves 2015 California Republic Pinot Noir ($8): So-called “serious” pinot noir isn’t supposed to be found at this price point, but this dry, medium-bodied, frankly fruity interpretation of the variety turns that perspective on its head.
Story Winery 2015 California Shenandoah Valley Sangiovese ($19): Dry, lean and angular, the Story comes laced with both the cherries and the walnuts that characterize sangiovese out of Amador County’s Shenandoah Valley. It’s a pretty wine, its character relying more on finesse than power.
Boeger 2014 El Dorado Barbera ($18): Justice is served whenever the Boeger family wins a high award for its barbera, which it was instrumental in pioneering in the Sierra foothills. The 2014 is a plush take on the varietal, but the weight of its characteristic cherry, berry and plum fruit is offset by the variety’s spirited acidity.
Jessie’s Grove Winery 2013 Lodi Ancient Vine Carignane ($32): The helpful front label notes that “carignane” is to be pronounced “cah-reen-yawn.” The pronunciation is there because carignane is such a distant outrider on the American wine scene. It won’t be for long if other vintners faithfully emulate this downright elegant interpretation. The wine is lithe and sharp, with sweet insistent fruit punctuated with suggestions of licorice stick and olives. Carignane just might also be pronounced “Lodi’s pinot noir.”
Jeff Runquist Wines 2014 El Dorado County Fairplay Serendipity Hill Vineyard Alicante Bouschet ($29): This is a forceful echo of California’s winemaking history, an alicante bouschet aggressive in its floral and fruity smell, sassy in its expression of berries and cherries, massive in construction and peppered with spice.
Andis Wines 2014 Amador County Grenache ($20): Typically light in color and body, with fleeting fruit and little potential to age well, grenache often is blended with other grapes to make it interesting, or released on its own as a playful rosé. In the Sierra foothills, however, it is becoming more recognized as the region’s pinot noir for its pleasing suggestions of pomegranate, its transparent statement about place and its versatility at the dinner table. The Andis is dry and lean, with a resolute yet flexible backbone, and with more echoing suggestions of pomegranates and raspberries than generally seen in grenache.
Shadow Ranch 2014 El Dorado Grenache ($24): Out of the Sierra foothills romps a grenache sumptuous with red fruit, sturdy of spine and complicated with surges of earth and spice. It’s a wine that by its heft and assertiveness insists on a rich cassoulet for accompaniment.
Sean Minor Wines 2014 North Coast Nicole Marie ($22): Fittingly, a pretty name for a pretty wine from Sacramento’s Sean Minor; Nicole Marie is his wife, a third-generation Italian who lobbied for this kind of friendly and graceful blend during visits with her family in Italy, where such mouth-watering, vivacious and lingering wines are staples of the dinner table. The plummy freshness of merlot dominates, but petite sirah, petit verdot and zinfandel bring welcome structure, elaboration and acidity to a composition surprising in the finesse of its stratification.
Oak Farm Vineyards 2014 Lodi Petit Verdot ($30): Here’s a representative of petit verdot highly scented, uncompromising in fruit and abiding in the force and equity of its structure.
Bokisch Vineyards 2014 Lodi Tempranillo ($23): The historic knock on tempranillo is that more often than not it produces wines of relatively benign character, relying on other varieties and aging in oak barrels for its personality. The Bokisch family, however, has been working with tempranillo with sensitivity and smarts for years, and as this release shows, they knows how to capture the variety’s dry cherry fruit, polish it with just enough oak to support that fruit without dominating it, and then release it when it is at its prime for pairing with classic dishes of the Iberian peninsula.
Delicato Family Vineyards Bota Box California Merlot ($23): It comes in a box, packs just 13.5 percent alcohol and is ridiculously inexpensive – the equivalent of about $6 for the regular-size bottle – yet the Bota Box merlot glints with mature but nimble fruit, adding up to both a friendly sipper between casts of the fly and a versatile companion to the trout once it is landed and fried.
Francis Coppola Diamond Collection 2014 Ivory Label Cabernet Sauvignon ($19): Ripe yet buoyant, the Ivory Label’s dark red fruit is interlaced with threads of forest and granite.
Alexander Valley Vineyards 2014 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($24): If anyone needs a lesson in why cabernet sauvignon is so highly regarded from Bordeaux to California, introduce them to this meticulous interpretation. This cabernet sauvignon testifies to the Wetzel family’s longtime dedication to producing wines of value and character, and to the Alexander Valley’s innate ability to yield cabernets that inspire both command and respect.
St. Amant Amador County Lot No. 9 Tawny Port ($35): Monumental in self-assurance, accommodating in balance and endlessly satisfying in the richness of its fruit and the lift of its spice, here’s a port safe and satisfying in any storm.
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The award winners
A tasting of award-winning wines from the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition will be held Saturday at Fort Mason in San Francisco. Tickets – $70 per person – can be purchased online at www.winejudging.com until Friday.
Also this weekend, the 125th Cloverdale Citrus Fair in northern Sonoma County is under way: www.cloverdalecitrusfair.org.