You are so lucky, many people say when I tell them I'm heading out to a wine tasting. And I am, I know it. If you are at all interested in wine, there's no better way to learn about it than to taste, and then taste some more, keeping an open mind, not paying much heed to labels, and listening for the concise and blunt insights of your guide.
Last night, Sacramento grocer Darrell Corti was the guide. For the second straight year, he'd been asked to nominate six American "cool-climate" syrahs to go up against 12 Australian and New Zealand syrahs from appellations with similar climates in a showdown to be staged in Australia later this year.
Corti had rounded up 39 syrahs from the 2003 and 2004 vintages, almost all of them from California, especially coastal areas such as San Luis Obispo County, Santa Barbara County and Monterey County.
We gathered in a large, warm and dark room in the back of Corti's grocery store along Folsom Boulevard, not far from the clanky machine that compresses boxes into flats of cardboard for recycling. It's a good reminder to spit. You don't want to get tipsy and run the risk of falling into that thing.
Corti arranged the wines in a single line around the edge of a long and narrow table. Each of the five participants circulated quietly about the table, pouring a sample, examining it, sniffing it, sipping it and eventually tasting it, then spitting into large buckets on the floor along two sides of the table.
About 90 minutes later, Corti convened the group and polled each participant on their preferences. The tasters agreed unanimously on only one wine, the Sonoma Coast Vineyards & Winery 2003 Sonoma Coast Syrah, which customarily sells for about $45. I liked the wine for its expressive smell, representing the blueberry and smoked-meat sides of syrah with clarity and freshness. It's a fairly lush wine - dry, balanced and with a measure of complexity missing from many of the other candidates. The oak on the wine was a bit heavy handed, but it had the ripe fruit to stand up to all that wood. Just 395 cases were made. Almost certainly, the wine will be one of the six to be shipped to the competition in Australia, though Corti first had to check with the winery to make sure a few bottles still were available.
Opinion was widely divided on the rest of the field, and Corti wanted to consider his notes, ponder the opinions of the other tasters, and check on availability before determining what other candidates would make up the American team.