Thursday, May 24, 2007

Wine Country Unplugged

Carneros Region, Sononoma Valley, Napa Valley et al. What is the difference in these AVA's ? (American Viticultural Areas or a "delimited grape growing areas") Believe it or not, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms determines these through distinctive geological differences in climate, soil, elevation, physical features etc.

After traveling through these regions, I could see a distinction between Carneros than the others. Located just south of the town of Napa off Highway 29, this region is one of the oldest wine producing areas in California and yet is one of the newer appellations. Here, there seems to be a spirit of cooperation than the competition that exists between the Napa and Sonoma vintners.

Our guides talked about the rivalry between Napa and Sonoma. How those in Napa think that those in Sonoma are less "refined". Visually, not many differences are apparent. But a small vineyard with a simple ranch house on the Napa Valley side of the road can demand a higher price point for their bottle of wine than one on the Sonoma Valley side. Is this fair? Not really. But names on labels do seem to matter in the marketplace.

Our first stop was at the Cline vineyards for a very quick tasting of five wines outside their 1890 farmhouse tasting room. They were a 2006 Pinot Grigio/Chardonnay blend, a 2005 Four White blend of Palomino (a white grape variety used to make sherry), Gewurztraminer, Malvasia (a white grape variety originally from Greece and Italy) and Viognier, a 2006 Mouvedre Rose, a 2005 Five Red blend of Zinfandel, Syrah, Mouvedre, Petite Syrah and Alicante Bouschet (one of a few red flesh varieties) and a 2005 Zinfandel. These were poured so darn fast that we hardly had time to evaluate them or to ask any questions. Shame on Terry, the tasting room geezer who didn't have a clue. I asked him a few things that he had trouble answering and then I knew, not all wine country folk should work in the industry.

Also, they wanted us inside to buy additional tastings and perhaps a bottle or two. The one we purchased was their Ancient Vines Mouvedre. Not many folks grow this particular grape variety whose slight sweetness was perfect with the barbecue ribs and hot wings I served this week.

The quaintness of the Cline location was contrasted by the faux Tuscan villa of the Viansa vineyard. Founded in 1989 by Vicki and Sam Sebastiani, this food and wine marketplace overlooks a 90 acre waterfowl preserve. The grounds are planted with olive and cypress trees and they pride themselves on producing Italian varietals. We had a brief tour and were once again inside the tasting room for a three wine flight. Their 2005 Cento per Cento Chardonnay was awarded double gold in the 2007 San Francisco Chronicle's Wine competition and deserved the honor. Of the wines we sampled, this was the clear winner. Soft gold in color, with apple, peach and hints of white pepper. It was dry on the palate and rich in mouthfeel with a complex and long finish. The other two were completely forgettable. We did purchase a 4 wine flight for $5 that included the 2003 Piccolo Sangiovese, a 2003 Nebbiolo, the 2003 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2003 Cabernet Franc. Of all of these, the Sangiovese was a favorite, but I have a prejudice for that varietal.

The Loxton tour was held in the refurbished race car garage that housed the barrels of fermented juice sourced from multiple locations. It's winemaker, an Australian, was one of the new generation vintners who was making his mark without a significant financial property investment.

The California wine country was vastly different than those I saw in Italy. It seemed like they were trying hard to look "Old World" but actually look more like a Hollywood production. It is not that I was not impressed, I was. But history, tradition, antiquity speak volumes.