Random notes from yesterday evening's Grape & Gourmet gala at Cal Expo, the annual bash where California State Fair officials reveal the major winners of the fair's commercial wine competition:
- Despite my aversion to crowds, this event is growing on me. Maybe they didn't sell as many tickets as they have in the past, or maybe they've expanded the space, but the tasting didn't seem as congested as it has been in earlier years. Also, more tasters have caught on to tasting etiquette, particularly the point about getting your taste and then getting out of the way so others can get their pour. Good showing, gang! On the other hand, too many winery representatives still think such tastings are their opportunity to kibitz among themselves, oblivious to why they are there, which is to make that all-important personal connection with a curious public. Next year, do your socializing among yourselves before or after, and during the event focus on the paying public.
- OK, the best-of-show red wine of this year's State Fair judging was the Castle Rock 2006 Mendocino County Pinot Noir ($12). I was more impressed with it during the State Fair judging than I was last night, but at a time when the popularity of pinot noir is prompting many producers to charge more for examples of the varietal than is warranted by their quality, the Castle Rock still is a remarkably good buy. It's true to the varietal, it's balanced, and it's sweetly fruity, with an emphasis on the sweetness. It's perfectly pleasant, and worth every cent.
- The most memorable wine I tasted all evening was the Calcareous Vineyards 2005 York Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon ($34) from Paso Robles, judged the best cabernet sauvignon in the competition. It's a wonderfully elegant example of the varietal. In contrast to so many cabernet sauvignons these days, it was fresh and lithe, with a clean cherry fruitiness, a touch of spice, a sinewy build, and a lingering minerality. It's made for the dinner table, not the competition circuit, and I'm encouraged that a cabernet of such refinement was recognized and acknowledged by the judges. What were they thinking? Refreshment and character, I suspect.
- A close second was the Jekel Vineyards 2007 Monterey County Riesling ($12), which tied for best riesling in the state at the competition. Despite one percent residual sugar, it tasted unusually dry for a California riesling, and certainly dryer than earlier vintages. It's shot through with apricots, peaches and an intriguing stoniness. The wine it tied with is the Loredona 2007 Monterey County Riesling ($12), which went on to be elected the fair's best-of-show white wine. If Loredona was represented at last night's tasting, I didn't spot its booth. In wine shops and grocery stores, the Jekel also should be easier to find; nearly 36,000 gallons of the Jekel were made compared with 12,000 gallons of the Loredona.
- The biggest surprise was a silver-medal wine, the Jeff Runquist 2006 Lodi Silvaspoons Vineyard Touriga ($22), a red table wine whose light color and lean structure were deceiving. It had wonderfully vibrant fruit, possessed of both juiciness and a tantalizingly subtle complexity. Touriga is a Portugese variety, traditionally used for Port, but here yielding a delightfully angular and zesty table wine that easily could play the role often taken by pinot noir. The release of the wine is pending, and when it is it likely will be available only at Jeff Runquist's winery in Amador County's Shenandoah Valley, given that he made only 118 cases.
- Wines weren't the only product recognized last night. The State Fair also has a commercial handcrafted beer competition, for which the best-of-show brew was the Drake's Brewing Co. Drake's Blonde Kolsch out of San Leandro. Wow, what a terrific beer - balanced, refreshing and mellow without being reserved. I liked its fastidious interweaving of freshness, nuttiness and maltiness, which actually tasted more of malt than sugar. The person doing the pouring wasn't sure where it would be available hereabouts, but suggested I look for it at Nugget Markets and BevMo.
- Other high honors bestowed last night were best-of-show dessert wine, the Navarro Vineyards 2007 Anderson Valley Mendocino County Late Harvest White Riesling ($39); best sparkling wine, the Mumm Napa Napa Valley Blanc de Noirs ($19); best value, the Castle Rock pinot noir that also won best-of-show red wine; and the Golden State Winery of the Year award, which went to South Coast Winery of Temecula for best overall performance in the competition, which it won by winning one double-gold medal, five gold medals, 13 silver medals and 12 best-of-class honors.
- State Fair officials also honored three veteran California winemakers with lifetime achievement awards: Mary Ann Graff, the first woman to graduate in the viticulture and enology program at UC Davis, now owner of the wine lab Vinquiry in Healdsburg; Mike Grgich of Grgich Hills Winery, who has been making wine in Napa Valley for 50 years; and Warren Winiarski of Stag's Leap Wine Cellars in Napa Valley, which he and his family sold last year after establishing the brand as one of the world's more esteemed producers of cabernet sauvignon.
- A searchable database of the State Fair's award-winning wines is available at this page of The Bee's wine Web site, www.sacwineregion.com.