Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Judging the (Surprisingly Good) Wines of the San Joaquin Valley in California

Photo of a cluster of Chenin Blanc grapes.
Image via Wikipedia

So Lew Perdue (CEO of SavvyTaste) and I drove down from the San Francisco Bay area and Sonoma to the middle of California, most of the way down Highway 99, south of Fresno, to the hamlet of Kingsburg, a small farming community that serves as headquarters of the San Joaquin Valley Winegrower's

This area is also the center of the bulk-wine industry -- growing grapes to go into inexpensive wines, sometimes called jug wines because many are sold in half-gallon jugs. EJ Gallo, largest winemaker in the country, is headquartered here, for example.

For that reason, and because the Valley is a hot, flat, featureless plain lying between the Sierras and the Mountain Range, where most of the fruit, vegetables, and nuts in the western part of the U.S. is grown -- it has never been considered capable of producing a quality wine. Wine with 'character' and depth and complexity needs well-drained soils (which means hills and often rocky or sandy soil), and some cool weather, especially night and morning fog, to cool the grapes heated during the day.

The San Joaquin Valley, by contrast, is one of the flattest places on Earth -- it has a slope of only 1%, according to John MacPhee's book on the state. Coolness is something you experience if you are next to an air-conditioning unit. And the soil is rich, ideal for vegetables, but too luxurious for wines, which apparently have to be abused to do their best work.

But San Joaquin wine-grape growers beg to disagree, and have introduced novelties such as spraying the grapes to cool them down in order to produce wines of character. Or so they claim.

To give this claim some weight, they hold an annual wine competition -- local winemakers submit their best examples, and a dozen judges taste them blind and rate them as to whether they are any good.

By which we mean are they wines of character, with sufficient complexity and flavor to be enjoyable. Are they, in fact, wines that taste a whole lot better than you'd think they should taste, considering where the grapes are grown. In other words, are they any better than a Carlo Rossi half-gallon jug of "Burgundy" from the local supermarket?

Judge and Ye Shall Be Judged

The judges are a collection of wine distributors and wine writers from across the state, many from this area. Lew Perdue, my partner, is a longtime wine-industry inside commentator who publishes Wine Industry Insight for the trade. I am a wine blogger (this one), cofounder of the wine-advice site, and enthusiast who might be thought to represent the average wine drinker, in that I have no insider connections with the wine business.

The dozen of us gathered on a Friday morning in June at the ungodly hour of 8:30am at the Hye-Life Restaurant in town. We were divided into two panels, where we were to have the 88 submitted wines divided between us. We'd each be tasting-and-spitting 44 wines. Plus, as it turns out, retasting the top finishers to rank them for best-of-show. All the wines were tasted blind, in flights of similar types/styles/grapes.

As I say, we were basically trying to decide whether each wine we tasted was, basically, any good; not whether it was the best example of whatever it was we'd ever tasted. That made it easier for me; is this Syrah the best example of the winemaker's art of Syrah? I wouldn't know. Is it drinkable? Is it a decent wine? Is it worth recommending to a friend? That is a question I can answer--for my own tastes, anyway.

We dived in, with soda cracker and filtered water as the only palate clearers. I wasn't entirely surprised to find that almost everything I tasted was at least drinkable -- these were the winemakers' idea of their best efforts, so they ought to be at least decent.

Surprise Me, I Dare You

I was, indeed, surprised to find several submissions to be really, really good.

The eight Syrahs our panel tasted were outstanding! Big, gigantic, red-almost-black, cocktail wines I'd be happy to see at my table anytime, baby! Zowie!

To my surprise, the four Zins were disappointing. One of the judges said Zins are a grape that really needs poor soil tilted at an angle (hilly) to be any good. Apparently! If they can knock out blow-your-head-off Syrahs but wimpy Zins, it's got to be the fault of the Zins!

The real surprise for some of us was one of the two Chenin Blancs offered to us. In the U.S., Chenin Blanc is mainly a wine that brings a little acidic kick to jug wines, so basically, nobody takes it seriously. That is, U.S. Chenin Blancs; some French Chenin Blancs, on the other hand, are highly regarded, though pricey.

The Chenin Blanc we were served was absolutely delicious! We were smacking out lips and considering cheating by swallowing instead of spitting, it was so good. The judges around me kept exclaiming with pleasure as they sipped, and so was I. I'll take a case of that, please!

Another surprise, for me, was the Tempranillo. Now Temp is a funny grape: It can produce a full-bodied wine (Rioja in Spain, eg), but it all too often can be a thin, light, and, to me, less interesting wine. In California, it has often been used as a blending grape for jug wines. We were served the three Tempranillo's after the gigantic Syrahs, so I joked that we would hardly be able to taste them, after our taste buds had been bombed by the Syrahs.

I was wrong -- I admit that, ok? The three Temps were terrific: full-bodied, round, full of flavor.


Later we were emailed a list of the 51 wines (out of 88) that scored well enough to recommend. I searched the list to find what wonderful things I was tasting. Here are the best of the wines, as far as I was concerned:

Chenin Blanc, NV, Ehrhardt Estates, Clarksburg
Syrah, 2007 and the 2008 both, Cardella, Fresno County, Fundus Vineyard
Syrah, 2004, Silkwood, California
Syrah, Fresno State, 2006 Madera County, Fasi Vineyard, and the Syrah, Fresno State, 2006 Fresno Sounty, Saviez Vineyard.
Syrah, 2006, from Pasos Vineyards, Lodi, Alta mesa.
Syrah, 2006, Z Wines, Fresno Country, 1st Release. Z Wines is famed for their Zinfandels, but they didn't submit one of those, for some reason.
Tempranillo, Cedar View, 2007, Paso Robles
Tempranillo, South Coast Winery, 2007, Temecula Valley
Tempranillo, Sunfire Esate, 2006, Amador County

Also tasty were the 2006 Estate Viognier from Cedar View, the 2007 Grenache, fro South Coast Winery's Temecula Valley vineyards; the 06 Cab fro Sunrie Estates' Sierra Foothills; the Alicante Couschet from Cedar View (2006, Estate); and the Black Jack Port, NV, from South Coast Winery, South Coast.

Oh, there were two more surprises for me:

They served us a nice, light, refreshingly dry rose that turned out to be a White Zinfandel. Actually, that's unfair: It was actually a 2008 Dry Zin Rose, from Chateau Lasgoity in Madera. You can, of course, make an excellent rose of Zin without making one of those flabby white zins that are the bane of the wine-drinking world.

The other surprise for me was that, after our tongues were raw from the tannins in the big reds, especially the Syrahs, they served us -- bubbly! An NV Blanc de Blanc from South Coast Winery, an NV Sparkling Muscat Canelli from South Coast Winery, and an Almond Sparkling from Weibel, also nonvintage. Turns out, nothing refreshes and revives your taste buds after tannin abuse like sparkling wines! (Even the Almond Sparkling, which was pretty awful from our point of view -- it had the aroma of almond-scented hand soap -- yet for those who like flavored bubblies, it would probably be considered tasty, as would be the Raspberry Sparkling, also from Weibel.) So the next time you host a tasting, have sparkling wine or champagne on hand to refresh the flagging palates of your guests! (I tried this at the Pinot tasting in San Franisco last week too, though this time with Gloria Ferrar bubbly, and it worked again!)

There were a few we tasted that didn't make much of an impression, but unfortunately I don't know which ones those were, or I'd say so.

Conclusion: The Association has done a good job of demonstrating the truth of their assertion: San Joaquin Valley is capable of producing some great-tasting wines. Yes, they are.

So where do you get these wines, and what do they cost? That info was not given to us. A little work with Google gives me some info, but not all: Prices but not necessarily on the exact wine-year judged, little info on production size, little on where available. Here's a little:

Ehrhardt's Chenin Blanc seems to be around $12 a bottle.
Cardella's Syrahs: the 2004 is sold out at $23 a bottle, with only 100 cases produced - ouch; the 2005 was 200 cases and no price is given on their site; their more recent Syrahs aren't mentioned. Don't you hate it when the high scorers aren't available?
Silkwood's 2004 Syrah seems to be about $25, available online.
South Coast Winery's extensive online collection includes their Tempranillo at $20 a bottle. They also operate a winery-based spa, by the way. Temecula is about 50 miles east of LA, in the so-called Inland Empire.

Sunfire Estate, a tiny but interesting winery that produces one of the extraordinary Tempranillos, as well as pretty decent Cabs and other Reds, sells its Temps for about $45, which takes your breathe away to think of a Temp at that price -- until you actually taste it, and then you change your mind very quickly.

Cedar View produced a great Tempranillo, which they price at a bargain $18. They also submitted a tasty Alicante Bouschet ($18), and a nice Viognier ($17).

And finally, Fresno State Winery (which sounds like a ag college) produced a couple of the knockout Syrahs; their site sells only the 07, priced at $25.

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