Monday, June 3, 2013

Passaggio Wines 2012 Sauvignon Blanc--In Love Again!

Cynthia Cosco, Passaggio Wines
As I've mentioned in earlier columns, I came across Cynthia Cosco when she was tweeting as a manager of the Crushpad facility in San Francisco and later in Sonoma. I was extremely lucky to decide to show support for my Twitter friend by condescending to buy a bottle of her first wine, a 2008 unoaked Chardonnay under her personal label, Passaggio. I even paid $14 for the wine plus $16 for shipping because I just didn’\'t have time to drive over to The City to pick it up.

Little did I know how transforming this friendly purchase would prove to be. I was completely knocked out by her wine, and converted over to a white-wine enthusiast when I realized that there must be many winemakers trying, like Cindy, to do something fresh and new and flavorful with their white wines. I've never been so grateful for an accidental discovery in my life, and I've been a Cindy Cosco fan ever since. When she set up her full-fledged wine operation and started a wine club, I was one of the first subscribers.

Last year she moved Passaggio from Sonoma to the Wine Works on Third Street in San Francisco’s newly hip Dogpatch district. I went over there a couple of times recently, first for Passaggio’s welcome party, and the following week to the release party to pick up my shipment (I‘ve wised up about shipping).

Just as I had discovered from Cindy just how good a Chardonnay could be, this time I got another knock-my-socks-off experience with a white wine I've never gotten excited about before: Sauvignon Blanc.

2012 Passaggio ‘UNMARKED’ 'Probable Cause' Lake County Sauvignon Blanc $18

Sauvignon Blancs I usually find a little too sharp, especially the popular New Zealand style. But Passaggio's approach is completely different: rounder, without the sharp elbows. This smoothness lets the fruit come forward in a way I haven't tasted in other SBs, and it's wonderful. This SB is more thoughtful, with a longer finish, full and mouthfilling. It's the best Sauvignon Blanc I've ever had, and now I find myself enthused about what this grape can do -- in the hands of a master. I will be drinking a lot of this in the coming year. (I should buy a case of this soon, before she sells out.)

(One of the many wonderful things about wine is discovering new wines, new grapes, and new versions of wines you thought you knew.)

The "UNMARKED" label on this and Passaggio's Pinot Noir are tributes by Cindy to her former life as a Baltimore cop: A percentage of the sales of these two wines goes to a charity for families of fallen police officers.

2011 and 2012 New Generation California Unoaked Chardonnay - $23.
Cindy's 2008 Unoaked Chardonnay was my introduction to this winemaker, and it changed my wine-drinking habits. I had been strictly a Reds guy; whites were simply uninteresting. The 2008 Passaggio Chard changed all that – it was made not only unoaked, but also without malolactic fermentation – which I didn't think was possible. The result was a white wine with wonderful fruit, enormous flavor, and a long, long finish. I was entranced.

I liked the 2009 and the 2010 too, but the 2011 version wasn't quite as thrilling; still good, but leaner. Cindy tells me that  2012 was a great growing year, and as a result her 2012 California New Generation Unoaked California Chardonnay is the proof – a wonderful nose, clean and clear, full of flavor and fruit, and with that unique long finish. The price has gone up to $23, from the $14 of the initial release, but it’s unquestionably worth it. (I should buy a case of this, too….)

2012 Passaggio New Generation California Pinot Grigio $19
Pinot Grigio can be catch-as-catch-can, with lovely aromas and no real taste – a pretty water, in too many cases. Passaggio's version does not suffer from this problem – it has that charming, complex floral-and-pear nose, but the flavor is all there – light grapefruit and pear, a nice level of acidity (good for food), and a nice long finish (another rarity in Pinot Grigio). Great!

2012 Passaggio California "Rose Colored Glasses: Rosé $17

This is a tasty ‘deck’ wine – chilled, it will make a tasty summery drink for hot days.

That’s not to say this is a lightweight or non-serious wine. To the contrary, this saignee-style rosé, co-fermented 65% Merlot from Carneros and 35% Napa Cab, is a good example of what rosé does best: present a complex of brilliant flavors of dark cherry and raspberry and strawberry, nicely touched with a bit of acidity and tannin, and of course with the finish that tells you this wine is well made. If you think you don't like rosé , give this wine a chance to change your mind. It's a delight.

2011 Passaggio UNMARKED 'Code Seven' Pinot Noir,  Napa Valley, Single Vineyard, Fagan Creek, $45
I love Pinot in what I think of as the Burgundy style – light yet flavorful, with a long finish – in contrast to the beefier West Coast style that seems to be trying to make a Cab out of it. This Passaggio is more a Burgundy than an Oregon Pinot, thank goodness, but I wasn't as knocked out by it as by the other wines here. It seemed to me a bit lean, with a nice nose but not enough light fruit flavor. This is not really my style; I find many Pinots aren’t my style, so I'm not hugely surprised.

Bottom Line: This is a winemaker you must watch closely as she proves her talent and her unique perspective in winemaking again and again. I heartily recommend that you try her wines, see if you become, like me, an enthused member of the Cindy Cosco Winemaker Fan Club. Passaggio Wines, San Francisco.

P.S.!! I forgot to mention in my original post that Cindy also took several of us into the back to barrel-sample her upcoming Merlot. It was spectacularly delicious, full of fruit and flavor! I can't wait to taste it from the bottle, see how much of that fruit survives the bottling (barrel samples are sometimes more fruit-forward than the final product). 

Sunday, April 28, 2013

San Joaquin Wine Competition Tries an Interesting (and More Fun) New Judging Method

April  2013
By Mac McCarthy/SavvyTaste

I had the opportunity and pleasure to join SavvyTaste founder Lew Perdue in my third year of judging at the San Joaquin Valley 2013 Wine Competition, which was held at the Ramos Torres Winery tasting room in Kingsburg, south of Fresno, in the Central Valley of California.

This warm, flat, sunny land is the heart of California’s enormous productive farmland producing rice, fruit, vegetables, most of the almonds grown in the world, and is also the center of grape production. Most of these grapes go into cheap jug wines and box wines (and eating grapes), but also popular volume wines from Turning Leaf, Barefoot Cellars, Carlo Rossi, Weibel, and Naked Grape, among many others. The wineries in this area also offer, as it happens, some finer wines a considerable step up from the mass-market high-volume wines, and the annual San Ramon Valley Wine Competition is intended to highlight and publicize these efforts. I get a big kick out of driving out from the San Francisco Bay Area to see what their efforts are producing.

In previous years I've judged, the process was long tables with the judges sitting side-by-side tasting flights in unison and judging on their own, with little or no discussion or kibitzing. I have to say, it tended to be a bit boring, especially since you start tasting and spitting before 9 AM, finishing up at noon. The tastiness of the wines varies a lot; occasionally you taste a really good one but you don’t know whose it is because it’s a blind tasting – all you have is an ID number.

This year they have a new head of the competition and he made a radical change – and I like the change a lot.

We were seated around tables, four or six judges at each. Our orders were to reach a consensus of the table as to the wines we were tasting – to discuss each flight and decide what we thought. This turned the judging from a lone slog into an interesting, even educational social event.

The judging process was much simpler than in years past – instead of a 20-point scale of several dimensions, this time things were reduced to their simplest: We were to decide whether each wine we tasted deserved a medal – Gold, Silver, or Bronze – or no medal at all. Couldn't be simpler.

Our table included wine journalist and marketing consultant Mike Stepanovich; Jessica, a young woman who works in the Ramos Torres tasting room (I didn't get her last name; apologies); and a young winemaker, Nick DeHart, of Fasi Estate Winery in Friant, a tiny town in the foothills outside of Fresno.

Nick’s expert commentary on the wines as we tasted them was invaluable: He’d point out aspects and elements of the wines that helped us focus and form our opinions – especially when it came to the “balance” of the wine, a key aspect that really summarizes the whole wine. Nick’s quiet guidance was much appreciated; he didn't push his opinion or his expertise, he just pointed out this or that feature of the wines, giving us things to think about.

It was also interesting to see Jessica’s reactions. She often had a different take on the wines from the rest of us, liking some much more than we did, disliking others that we liked. Just as interesting was seeing how entirely self-assured she was in her tastes: She might have been considerably younger than two of us, and she wasn’t a winemaker, but she knew exactly what she liked, and was unfazed when her opinion varied from ours. I liked that about her, especially since our slogan here at SavvyTaste is “Drink what you like.”
To my disappointment, we got few whites and no Roses to taste. But we did get and appreciated the ’10 Alicante Bouschet from Cedar View Winery (which got a Gold), and the NV Alicante Bouschet from Silkwood Wines (Best of Class), the ’11 Chenin Blanc-Viognier Blend from Pepi (Gold), and the ‘09 Petit Verdot from Cardella (Gold).

So a good time was had by all. Though I could see that the approach in this competition would tend to yield more medal winners than a complex 20-point scale might, it was a lot more fun. And we didn’t give medals to any sub-par wines. I also recognize that this approach helps the competition hand out more medals, which the winemakers love, of course, because it helps move the merchandise, since so many casual wine buyers are much impressed by medals (as by 90-point labels).

Another purpose of this competition is a dual one: To persuade the public, over time, that the San Joaquin Valley is capable of producing fine wines in addition to jug wines and eating grapes – and to reward Valley winemakers who stretch to produce fine wines even when that’s not where the volume or big money is.
So how are they doing? The first competition I judged, four years ago, there were not many truly fine wines in the tasting; almost all were drinkable, but only a couple of Syrahs and a really fine Chenin Blanc were truly fine wines. The following year, the quality of the entries overall had noticeably risen. I missed last year’s event. This year I only tasted two wines I thought sub-par and a few that, while fun to drink, could not be considered high level. The majority were quite good; many were better than quite good; and a few were indeed fine wines.

The San Joaquin Valley is heading in the right direction. They aren’t Napa yet and, given their environment probably never will be; they aren’t even Lodi yet. But they are good enough that if you find yourself in the Valley it would be worth your time to search out a few tasting rooms and checking them out. I’d especially like to point out Nick’s Fasi Estate Winery in Friant, Saviez Family Estates in Fresno, Pepi in Parlier (near Fresno), and Cardella in Mendota (smack in the Central Valley between Interstate 5 and State 99). And especially Cedar View Winery in Sanger, just east of Fresno: their Syrah, Grenache, and Tempranillo are delicious.