One of the wilder if more tasking assignments to come my way on the competition circuit rolls around each summer. The Long Beach Grand Cru is an international wine judging that leads up to a posh culinary festival that benefits the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles.
While other judges sit four to a panel and debate the merits of wines set before them, I’m off by myself at a corner table in the Long Beach Petroleum Club, the venue for the weekend competition. Here, I’m to jot down a line or two about every wine that the panelists deem worthy of a gold medal.
Runners bring me each wine blessed with gold. I taste, then tap my impressions into my tablet. I hardly ever ask myself: “What were they thinking?”
None of us knows the identity of the wines, just their code and the kind of varietal or style each is meant to be.
About 1,000 wines were entered this year. On the first day, 103 gold-medal wines were sent my way. The next day, 67 were delivered. Finally, I got to taste 55 of them again during the sweepstakes rounds to determine best sparkling wine, best white wine and so forth.
As I dashed off notes I kept a separate tally of wines I found especially fascinating. I’ve whittled that list down to wines I figure can be found in the Sacramento area.
▪ Hagafen Cellars 2012 Napa Valley Methode Champenoise Brut Cuvee Rose Sparkling Wine ($39): Dry and lean, with a very expressive aroma, a build that celebrates equilibrium and a flavor that runs to tiny wild strawberries. On top of that, it is just pretty to look at.
▪ Barefoot Bubbly (non-vintage) California Berry Fusion Sparkling Wine ($10): Deeply colored for a bubbly, its purple-edged ruby yielding to a roadside growth of blackberries just begging for a passing motorist to stop and start picking.
▪ Terra d’Oro 2014 Santa Barbara County Pinot Grigio ($16): A profound pinot grigio? Don’t laugh; it is possible, as this interpretation shows by its structure, layering and unusually long finish, all without sacrificing the varietal’s expected friendliness.
▪ Rex Goliath (non-vintage) Australia Sauvignon Blanc ($7): The wild child of sauvignon blancs – surprising for its freedom from expectations, unpredictable for its complexity; it bends but doesn’t break the mold for sauvignon blanc in its definition of both grassy and fruity.
▪ Ventana Vineyards 2013 Arroyo Seco Sauvignon Blanc ($22): Vivacious, charming and enduring for its dry yet concentrated sense of melons and peaches, its note of zesty lime and its overall complexity and persistence, rare for the breed.
▪ La Chertosa Old World Wines 2013 Sonoma Valley Chardonnay ($25): A rich and flamboyant chardonnay that defines what “queenly” means when it is applied to the varietal – it lives forever.
▪ Vino Noceto 2012 Amador County Shenandoah Valley Sangiovese ($24): Sangiovese is the Jo Nesbø of the American wine market; just where are we going here? Don’t have a clue, but this interpretation is forthright and encouraging in its balance and subtly complex intrigue.
▪ Trecini Cellars 2013 Russian River Valley Merlot ($30): Merlot isn’t expected to punch you in the face for its assertive fruit and muscular follow-through, but this does while holding on to the varietal’s reputation for fruity juiciness and relaxed tannins.
▪ Hawley Winery 2013 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($40): Dry, lean and reserved, but don’t dismiss it; the qualities that make pinot noir so esteemed – unfussy fruit, unapparent structure, a sense of permanence – are all captured here.
▪ Bodega Andeluna 2014 Mendoza Tupungato Malbec ($16): Wow! Anyone partial to black pepper – not necessarily an attribute strongly associated with malbec – will love the generous dose here.
▪ Vina Ventisquero 2012 Valle Colchagua Carmenere ($14): Lamb on the menu? Pick up a bottle of this for its structure, perseverance and most of all its rosemary-threaded and meaty fruit.
▪ Havens Winery 2013 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($25): If this isn’t from Napa Valley I’m buying vineyard land wherever it originated. What a beauty – juicy, lush, vital.
▪ Daniel Gehrs 2012 Central Coast Rocker Rarities ($30): Gorgeously ripe and layered aroma is a promise immediately fulfilled with an abundance of fresh fruits sprinkled generously with white and black peppers. (Of 24 wines in the red-wine sweepstakes round, this was the winner.)
▪ La Chertosa Old World Wines 2013 Amador County Zinfandel ($35): Brassy style, packing heat, muscle and an attitude that will get even rib-eye to back off. An herbal thread suggests it has some Ivy League styling.
▪ Four Vines Winery 2012 Sonoma County “The Sophisticate” Zinfandel ($25): Steps outside the usual zinfandel box for its leanness and politeness, showing why zinfandel can be so easily confused with cabernet sauvignon after a few years of age, though this is just a youngster.
The competition’s complete results, including brief notes concerning the gold-medal wines, can be found at the website www.longbeachgrandcru.com.
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 email@example.com.