I recently had the honor of judging at the 2019 San Diego International Wine & Spirits Challenge (now in its 37th year!), the results of which have been published, allowing me to share some of my thoughts on a few surprises that my panel had the good fortune of tasting during the competition. When I wasn’t feeding errant seagulls who begged at my hotel room window, that is. It’s a long story.
Anyway, seasoned 1WD readers will recall that I’ve been infecting the Stay-Classy-San-Diego-based Critics Challenge competition for the last few years, but this was my first time joining much of the same well-heeled, finely-tuned crew for the SD Challenge. I’m happy to report that the SD incarnation is every bit as fun and professionally-executed as CC, and I’m already crossing my fingers that I’ll be back next year. [ By the way, if you’re curious about how the details on these competitions go down, listen to head honcho Robert Whitley dish on it over at the Wine Biz 360 podcast. ]
One of the most interesting – and fun… and humbling – things about judging wines blind is that occasionally some items surprise you, busting up your preconceived notions and turning you on to things you might otherwise overlook. The 2019 SD Challenge proved particularly generous in that regard. Here are a handful of vinous items that impressed my panel (Platinum medal winners all), the majority of which are over-achieving budget lovelies, tailor-made for Spring sipping by the San Diego seaside in a manner that would make Ron Burgundy himself beam with pride. Okay, before we start, let’s go over the ground-rules… No touching of the hair or face… And that’s it. Now FIGHT!…
When Fattoria Zerbina matriarch Cristina Geminiani talks about her Faenza area vineyards in Italy’s Romagna, she gives the distinct impressions that a) she knows what she is doing, and, b) isn’t prepared to take any sh*t about it.
At least, that’s the sense that I got when I got my feet into Zerbina’s 32 hectares of red clay and limestone soils during a recent press jaunt. Geminiani took over the reins of the family wine business (established in the `60s by her grandfather) in 1987, having studied at both the University of Milan and the University of Bordeaux.
Geminiani’s “puzzle” necessitates a pasticcio approach to crafting wine in this case, primarily from Romagna’s Sangiovese and Albana grapes) – combinations of alberello, gobelet, and trellised vine training, and often different pickings (sometimes within the same plots). Zerbina’s proximity to nearby rivers means that their Albana is prone to noble rot, which Geminiani understandably has totally run with for their passito wine, given her experience in Bordeaux.
Despite the fact that I have content to write up that spans more than a year of travel (including my takes on the wine scene in Israel, the southern Rhone, and Romagna), the thing that’s been rattling around in my brain and not letting the hell go stems from a much more recent excursion, when I had a brief, impromptu visit taken during my latest jaunt to Monferrato.
Specifically, to the as-of-right-now 219-year-old building (established the same year – 1900 – as the planting of the sort-of-famous tree in their backyard in Nizza) of Scarpa. My short-term obsession has to do with the impression that this relatively small (22 hectares, yielding about 120,000 bottles/year) producer is fascinatingly, anachronistically refreshing within the context of modern Italian wine. Time passing seems to have little impact on how Scarpa approach crafting wine in Piedmont.
Scarpa works only with indigenous Italian grape varieties, and is one fo the few regional producers that have been grandfathered in to the zonal production laws of Barolo. The rest of this short tale is literally told almost exclusively in liquid form, in the hopes that my written words can transmit the sense of nonchalant, almost insouciant joy that Scarpa’s winemaking style presents…
Among Idaho’s state slogans and motto (which have included Esto perpetua, “Great Potatoes,” “What America Was,” and “Tasty Destinations,”) was the phrase “Not California.”
There’s a slight air of desperation and defiance in defining your identity in the negative; though in the case of Idaho’s budding wine production scene, it’s not entirely inappropriate: despite 150+ years of winemaking history, this is a state whose first AVA (Snake River Valley) was recognized less than fifteen years ago (and is probably more famous for Evel Knievel than it is for wine). Idaho’s other two AVAs – Eagle Foothills and Lewis-Clark Valley – are less than five years old, and one of those is a sub-AVA. Despite its visually stunning expanses, the state has a mere 1300 acres of grapes planted, almost all of it in the Snake River Valley, and is home to just over 50 wineries (for some perspective: California has about 4400).
We can forgive Idaho for having a bit of a petulant-attention-seeking-middle-child chip on its wine producing shoulder, because there’s little reason that the state can’t make very, very good wines. Formed from ancient volcanic and flooding activity, Idaho’s soils are sandy, sedimentary and well-draining, and its climate is dry with cold winters; all of which are good conditions for reducing pest and disease pressure for grape vines (and in some cases, allow the vines to be own-rooted).
Actually, there is one very good reason why Idaho wine doesn’t get the media luv right now: there simply isn’t enough of it. As Idaho Wine Commission Executive Director Moya Shatz Dolsby told me when I visited the state last year, “our biggest problem is that we don’t have enough grapes.”
Following is a (very) brief overview of the wines that stood out the most to me during my Idaho travels. There are, I think, three basic themes that, like Idaho’s famous rafting rivers, run throughout the best of their vinous experimentation: a sense of purity (possibly helped by the lack of a need to graft on to American rootstocks), a pioneering spirit (sometimes to a fault), and a diversity that few American wine regions can legitimately claim to be able to match…
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