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“Tough To Spit” (Dispatch From 2014 San Francisco International Wine Competition)

Vinted on July 10, 2014 binned in elegant wines, going pro, sexy wines, wine industry events, wine review

Every once in a while, you get a gig that is so good, you just have to pinch yourself to test if it’s all real and you’re actually getting paid to have so much fun.

Such was the case at the 2014 San Francisco International Wine Competition, which wrapped up a couple of weeks ago and recently announced its results. Over 30 countries and 26 U.S. states compete in this competition, which is billed as America’s largest such international vinous battle royale. The pinch-inducing vibe came courtesy of my lucky draw in amazing wine competition panel-mates, which included cult winemaker Heidi Peterson Barrett (small tidbit of advice: do not get between her and shoe shopping!) and competition organizer Anthony Dias Blue. The latter meant, of course, that at some point our panel would probably be getting some of the better wines entered into the comp, and that indeed did come to pass when we kicked off the second day of judging and were greeted with the wine lover’s breakfast of champions: a stellar flight of mostly vintage bubbly.

Did I mention that I love my “job?” Well, I do.

As for the specifics: the judges were divvied up about 3-4 at a table, tasting several related flights blind, knowing basically only the residual sugar, grapes, and price points of each wine. A splendid time was had by all (at least as far as I could tell), and I was happy to have leant my judging palate to a competition that was so well-organized, well-run, and that represented such a stellar group of wine-biz-insider-type judges. As always, I felt that I was bringing the overall class levels down a few notches by my attendance, though I think I made up for it in humor (we laughed a lot at our table…).

Anyway, here are a few of the stellar picks from that stellar bubbly lineup that had my table more-or-less swooning..

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There’s A Wild Man In My Head (Cayuse Recent Releases)

Vinted on June 5, 2014 binned in elegant wines, kick-ass wines, on the road, wine review

“And I’m
Not sorry for
The things I’ve said
There’s a wild man in my head
There’s a wild man
In my head”

Morrissey, “I’m Not Sorry”

Christophe Baron, the short, edgy, high-energy force behind Walla Walla’s controversial Cayuse, is sniffing dirt. And – in a very thick French accent that betrays his Charly-sur-Marne heritage and belies his nearly twenty-year stint in the Pacific Northwest – he’s imploring me to do the same.

“C’mon! You’ve come all this way to Cayuse! You’ve got to SMELL IT!!!”

Just moments before, a burly and beautiful Belgian draft horse was turning over this soil (in a vineyard named, for obvious reasons, “Horse Power”), so I am less than totally enthusiastic about the possibility of getting horse shit up my nostrils. But this guy’s energy is such that he makes me seem calm, so I acquiesce (as if I had a choice). These newer plantings were “designed for the horse,” Baron explains, with three-feet between the rows. “With the horse, you can’t rush it, you can’t force it. But the texture of the soil is like couscous… This is the reason why I’m here.”

Spend any appreciable time with Baron and you will not only sniff horse-powered dirt, you will hear impassioned proclamations such as “I am not a winemaker;” “Let’s all take off our clothes and get naked;” “There are a lot of things about Biodynamics you cannot quantify… you cannot quantify the smile on a beautiful woman;” “I’m like a dealer, I sell pleasure… liquid pleeeeeasuuuuuure;” and “no pictures on Facebook!” not all of which you might fully understand or be able to distinguish as serious or jovial.

But there’s one thing that is easy to understand: why Baron’s wines are controversial. Garnering stratospheric scores from The Wine Advocate and skyrocketing in secondary market prices after release, Cayuse offerings can be stunning, odd takes on Rhone-styled reds; often demanding, beguiling, and off-putting all at the same time. If you’ve ever watched a movie – or read a novel – that seems brilliant but has disturbing scenes in it, the kind of scenes that haunt you later but without which the central themes of the work wouldn’t be nearly as powerful, then you’ve got an idea of what it’s like to come face to face with Cayuse’s juice.

To understand these take-no-prisoners wines, you need to understand the background of the take-no-prisoners Baron, and Walla Walla’s take-no-prisoners geographical landscape…

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Enthralled With Pinot Noir (Thralls Family Cellars Recent Releases)

Vinted on May 29, 2014 binned in elegant wines, overachiever wines, wine review

It’s funny (as in “refreshingly interesting,” and not as in “ha-ha, I almost peed my pants!” or “ewww, well… that’s weird) how success in the wine business keeps getting redefined and reinvented.

To wit: by now, we shouldn’t be surprised that we’re seeing wine lovers migrate from the online wine world into viable writing and winemaking careers, but for whatever reason the Hardy-Wallace-type stories still seem oddly out of place in the wine biz. Oh, wait, it’s for “whatever” reason; the reason is that the wine world is still woefully behind on understanding that the online world is populated by actual human beings with actual passions, talents, and funding. Okay, whatever.

We can add another online-wine-wonk-to-promising-offline-wine-producer story to that growing lineup: that of Ed Thralls, who recently sent me samples of his personal project, Thralls Family Cellars.

A refugee from the east-coast (Atlanta) financial tech industry, Thralls was blogging and tweeting at the handle @WineTonite for some time, all the while building up real-world wine chops through an internship at Holdredge Wines, a stint in the Viticulture & Enology program at UC-Davis, and completion of the Certified Specialist of Wine qualification.

The result of Ed’s foray into personal wine branding is tiny quantities of Pinot Noir juice crafted from grapes purchased from interesting spots in Northern California, with an eye towards clonal selection, light use of new French oak, dollops of whole cluster and unfiltered processing, and generally trying to get the results under 14% abv. It’s Pinot that is promising – and elegant – enough that Thralls’ efforts probably ought to be considered for a seat at the “cool kids” table of In Pursuit Of Balance (and similar modern temples to the anti-largeness Pinot crowd; hey, I’m not complaining, I dig both styles)…

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What We Drank With The Greeks When We Had Greek (And Italian) Wine

Vinted on May 8, 2014 binned in crowd pleaser wines, elegant wines, wine review

You know you’re in a great neighborhood when what’s supposed to be a five minute stop-and-say-hello visit at a neighbor’s house while dog walking turns into a multi-hour, home-cooked dinner (with several wines imbibed, naturally).

Another blessing to count, and another reason why we love where we live (yeah, even if it’s in the North Korea of U.S. alcohol control states, and more or less the new ground zero for Lyme disease; whatever). The neighbors in this case were the Voutsakis clan, a Greek family whose hospitality know few boundaries when it comes to helping – and feeding – their family and friends. So after a few glasses of ouzo, extended playtime among the kids of both families became an invitation to dinner.

The last time this happened, I was totally unprepared in terms of having zero Greek wines on hand in the sample pool (not that we suffered by any measure, but it would’ve been nice to pair the ethnic cuisine with its spiritual wine accompaniment, right?).

But this time… this time the sample pool was ready. This time, we had a bit of vinous Greek love to spread around…

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