Late last year, I had the pleasure (once again) of pretending to be an all-growed-up wine pro judging alongside some very notable palates at the 38th annual San Francisco International Wine Competition.
Judging the SFIWC almost always ends up being one of my favorite events of the entire year, and despite quite a bit of behind-the-scenes personnel changes, the competition didn’t skip a beat; I had a blast, with the only downer being the inundation of the city streets by the ominous smoke from the nearby Camp Fire (terribly, California’s deadliest and most destructive to date).
The results of the 2018 SFIWC have been announced, so I am officially allowed to share them with you. Here are some thoughts on the Best In Show winners, which are determined after going through 1) two days of normal judging panels, 2) “super tastings” of judges from multiple panels (meant to whittle down the field of wines deemed excellent enough to potentially vie for Best In Show ), and finally 3) a lively and spirited sweepstakes round in which the the most awarded wines are pitted against one another…
Sometimes, the wine business is a very, very small place. Also, I am about to talk about jellyfish. You’ve been warned…
While in San Francisco recently for the SF International Wine Competition (more on the results of that in a couple of weeks), I caught up with wine marketing maven Tim Martin. Longtime 1WD readers might recognize Tim’s name from way back in 2012, when apparently (according to Tim, anyway) I was the first person to write about Tim’s Napa Valley project, Tusk. “We’ve got a ten year waiting list on Tusk now,” Tim mentioned, which I suppose is much more a tribute to that brand’s cult status, and the prowess of winemaker Philippe Melka than it is to my influence. I mean, as far as I know, even my mom doesn’t read 1WD.
After Hidden Ridge patriarch Lynn Hofacket – who planted the vineyards on the steep hills of that estate (some of which literally match the great pyramids in slope percentage) – passed away, his wife Casidy ward eventually (though not without some trepidation, as I’ve been told) sold the vineyards to what would become the team behind what would become Immortal Estate (Hidden Ridge winemaker Timothy Milos remains a part of the team).
It was Hofacket’s passing, which nearly coincided with the death of Martin’s father, that became the genesis of Immortal’s brand name. “I started to think about legacy, and what we leave behind” Martin told me, and he noticed that Wine Advocate’s 100-point review of the 2013 Hidden Ridge Impassable Mountain Cabernet included the phrase “This wine is nearly Immortal.” And thus, a brand (or, at least, the idea of one) was born.
[ Editor’s note: here’s one more from the vault of pieces sent to a magazine that didbn’t publish it or pay me; I’m running it here so that it’s not lost to posterity. Enjoy! ]
One of Tuscany’s most dynamic – and endangered – wine regions is hiding in plain sight
Donatella Cinelli Colombini could be your Italian grandmother. Affable, generous, and quick-witted, Colombini is the matriarch of Fattoria del Colle, her family estate in the almost unbelievably charming area of Tuscany’s Trequanda, replete with accommodations on an estate that dates back to the late 1500s, cooking classes, three pool, a spa, and an upscale-farmhouse restaurant. She also also oversees production of the Tuscan wine label that bears her name.
But Colombini has another job: in some ways, she’s trying to save the future of what the Consorzio del vino Orcia calls “the most beautiful wine in the world.”
Donatella Cinelli Colombini
“The landscape here is a perfect harmony between history, man, and nature,” she remarks. “We have to preserve that. Every month, every wine producer here receives a call from a realtor asking them to sell.”
While you will almost certainly have heard of the winemaking gems of Montalcino and Montepulciano, you probably aren’t familiar with Orcia, the winemaking area that sits between them near Tuscany’s southern tip. The problem isn’t that Orcia’s twelve municipalities, formally recognized as a wine region in 2000, don’t make excellent wine; in many cases, Orcia’s reds rival those of its more famous neighbors, planted on vineyards that have been literally designed from the ground up for producing small quantities of high quality fine wine grapes, primarily Tuscany’s “native son” of Sangiovese. The problem is that Orcia is almost too amazing of a place in and of itself.
Thermal baths in Orcia
Orcia boats the kind of beauty that makes you think that you’ve stepped directly into a scene from Under the Tuscan Sun. Think sun-drenched hillsides lined with cypresses, dotted with tiny ancient towns like Pienza (housing a terracotta museum), terme thermal spas like those in S. Casciano dei Bagni and S. Quirico d’Orcia (yes, some of the spa treatments involve wine), and no shortage of gorgeous castle tower ruins along the routes between them all, replete with deep history and past political intrigue (the region once played host to the duke of Tuscany, who ordered the draining of the the valley in the 1700s to spur agricultural growth, but also used his time there to liase with his mistress). Orcia has seen travelers since the time of the Etruscans, and its castle and fortress ruins are a testament to the popularity of the routes within the area, where bandit attacks once were frequent. It has hosted religious pilgrims, popes, poets, archbishops, mercenaries, dukes, the Medici clan, and even Charlemagne. The landscape has remained relatively unchanged for the last four hundred years…
[ Editor’s note: Following is a piece that a wrote for a magazine, but after waiting over a year for them to publish it and pay me, I’m giving up and putting it here so that it can see the light of day and you can get some insight into a region that doesn’t see a lot of media play. Enjoy! ]
Northern Spain’s “Small California”
Why your next favorite Cab, Merlot, or Gewürztraminer might just be coming from Somontano
Take a second or two, and think about your favorite Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, your go-to Chardonnay, even your last Gewürztraminer.
What region was emblazoned on the labels of those tasty wine? Paso Robles? Washington? Chile?
Chances are very good that the word “Somontano” was not the area printed on the label. And yet, chances are also very good that this relatively small northern Spanish Denominación de Origen has been growing those same fine wine grapes longer than the more famous regions that produce your favorite versions of those same wines.
Somontano’s ancient Alquézar
Like most of the wine regions in Western Europe, viticulture in Somontano was probably established by the Romans, and also probable predates reliable written history, extending back to the second century BC. That it took the region until 1984 to become an officially recognized Denominación de Origen (DO) is, in a way, indicative of the minor identity crisis that defines the modern Somontano. At a time when “uniqueness” is the marketing battle cry of most luxury fine wine regions, Somontano is the odd man out.
Of the grapes officially permitted in the DO, only three (the white Alcañón, and reds Moristel and Parraleta) are indigenous. A few others (such as Garnacha and Tempranillo) are Spanish in origin but not native to Somontano. The rest are a hodgepodge of some of the wine world’s most famous – and decidedly not Spanish – grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Pinot noir, Chardonnay, and Gewürztraminer.
What makes Somontano such an awkwardly difficult topic in marketing meetings is the same thing that makes many of its wines so good: the place has a great climate growing famous international grape varieties. As winemaker Jesús Artajona Serrano, from Enate (one of the founders of the Somontano DO) puts it, “we are in a small California…”
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