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March 31, 2008

Idle Thoughts: The Brunello Controversy and Champagne Prices

Random thoughts on a busy Monday morning . . .

You can read my take on the controversy surrounding Petroni Vineyard's use of the term "Brunello di Sonoma" for its spendy ($65) Poggio alla Pietra, a Sangiovese produced at Lorenzo Petroni's Sonoma Estate, over at "The Dish" at WhitleyOnWine.com.

The Consorzio di Brunello di Montalcino isn't very happy about having its good name applied to a California wine. Can't say as I blame the folks of Montalcino . . .

Maybe it's my imagination, but it seems to me Champagne prices are coming down a bit. They had zoomed out of sight as the dollar continued to sink against the euro, but I've been seeing some very decent non-vintage brut Champagne recently for less than $30 a bottle, which had become something of a rarity.

Could be the very savvy large Champagne houses are willing to take smaller margins to protect their share of the U.S. market.

Come to think of it, shouldn't the top U.S. bubbly producers -- such as Schramsberg, Mumm Napa, Domaine Carneros, Roederer Estate, Argyle, J, etc. -- be moving in on the U.S. Champagne consumer with strong marketing campaigns designed to finally wrest away a big chunk of the market for domestic sparkling wine?

The quality has been there for some time, but not the buzz. Just a thought.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 1:31 PM

March 28, 2008

Whitley On Wine Radio Profiles Rosenthal The Malibu Estate

My topic today on the Whitley On Wine radio show is Rosenthal - The Malibu Estate, a unique winery situated along the Southern California coast not far from Hollywood, of all places.

Christian Roguenant, the talented Frenchman whose base of operations is the Baileyana winery in California's Central Coast, makes the Rosenthal wines -- classic varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay.

These superb wines routinely garner praise -- and medals -- at the numerous wine competitions that populate the California landsape at this time of year. I will chat with Rosenthal Director Neil McNally about the unique microclimate of Malibu-Newton Canyon (just four miles from the Pacific) that provides a hospitable environment for the heat-seeking likes of Cabernet Sauvignon.

A Certified Wine Educator (CWE), Neil will take us through the history and evolution of this unusual wine estate, owned by movie mogul George Rosenthal.

You can listen live at 2 p.m. PT, 5 p.m. ET or podcast Whitley On Wine at SignOnSanDiego.com, the website of the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Photo: Neil McNally.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 12:05 PM

March 25, 2008

Behind the Scenes at the San Diego International

We're coming down the home stretch for the 2008 San Diego International Wine Competition, but there remains a great deal of work behind the scenes as we prepare for the April 19-20 event.

Over the Easter weekend we processed the more than 1000 wine entries that came in just last week alone. These photos show members of the SDIWC cellar crew hard at work opening boxes, sticking coded reference labels on each wine and tucking them away in the appropriate slots so they can be easily accessed the weekend of the competition.

Most wine judges -- who evaluate the competition wines "blind" -- know very little about this aspect of the process. They show up, sit down and are served glasses of wine with coded stickers that correspond to actual bottles of wine in the back room.

The cellar crew makes this happen seemingly effortlessly, although the process is anything but. By the time the competition rolls around the cellar crew will have touched more than 10,000 bottles of wine, placing each bottle in its proper slot on its way to the judging.

It's not rocket science, but it does require tremendous attention to detail from our volunteers on the cellar crew. I salute them!

Posted by Robert Whitley at 11:36 AM

March 20, 2008

Apstein Awarded Les Grands Jours de Bourgogne Press Trophy

It gives me great pleasure to announce that Wine Review Online columnist Michael Apstein was awarded the Press Trophy last week in a ceremony at the Domain de Suremain in Mercurey, France, during the 2008 Les Grand Jours de Bourgogne.

Michael was honored for his Wine Review Online column "Pouilly-Fuisse: The Bargains of Burgundy in 2005." The column was published Sept. 25, 2007. Other nominees included Allen Meadows of Burghound for an article entitled "Terroir Focus: Volnay -- A Basic Primer"; Bill Nanson of the United Kingdom for a profile of Gevrey Chambertin; and Raoul Salama of Revue de Vin du France, for the piece "Les joyeau de la Bourgogne."

Organziers of Les Grands Jours de Bourgogne established the Press Trophy in 1998 to "pay tribute to an informative report presenting the wines of Burgundy." The nominations are judged by a jury of Burgundy wine professionals.

Previous winners inclide our good friend Stephen Brook of Decanter, who will be visiting the United States in a couple of months to judge wines at the fifth annual Critics Challenge International Wine Competition; Bernard Burtchy of Gault Millau; Jean Aubry of Le Devoir (Montreal);, Uwe-Lothar Muller, from Franco-German Television; and Frederic Courant and Jamy Gourmaud for an episode of 'Vin sur vin'  aired on France 3 Television entitled, 'C'est pas Sorcier."

Congratulations to all of the nominees, but most of all to our very own Michael Apstein.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 9:39 AM

March 19, 2008

Monterey '08: Spotting the Emerging Stars

I've collected a few final, and hopefully useful, thoughts on the 2008 Monterey Wine Competition. This was the first of the three major wine competitions that I will seriously scrutinize this year. The other two are the San Diego International in April and the Critics Challenge in May. I am the Director of all three, and frequently draw upon the results for insights into emerging wineries and industry trends.

At Monterey this year I was focused on the outstanding performances of wineries that are either new or have been flying underneath my radar, therefore making them new to me.

For example, I first noticed Edward Sellers of Paso Robles, a relatively new winery, when it emerged with a number of medals from the 2007 Monterey competition. After it repeated that feat with strong performances in the San Diego and Critics Challenge competitions of the same year, I duly took note that this was a winery to watch.

And Edward Sellers didn't disappoint this time around, taking six medals in the '08 Monterey competition, including a couple of golds for its 2005 Selectionne Syrah ($32) and its 2006 Blanc du Rhone ($29). But Edwards Sellers wasn't the only Paso Robles winery that was impressive this year. Bianchi Winery swept to eight medals, including a gold for its 2005 Gary Vineyard Pinot Noir from the Santa Maria Valley. At $25 this is a fabulous value for a top-flight Pinot. And Ronan Cellars, another newbie from Paso, won gold medals for its reserve 2005 Cabernet Franc and a Lakeview Vineyard (Monterey County) Syrah. Both wines are modestly priced at $15.

Paso Robles - located in California's Central Coast halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco - has quadrupled its number of bonded wineries over the past ten years, and with that explosive growth comes a steep learning curve. Not all of the new wineries produce swell swill, but obviously Edward Sellers, Bianchi and Ronan are on a successful path.

The Pacific Northwest also had a good weekend in Monterey, with strong performances from Tsillan Cellars and Bernard Griffin. Both wineries are from Washington's Columbia Valley. Bernard Griffin took four medals, including a gold for its 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon ($17). It backed up the gold with three silvers. Tsillan didn't win a gold, but had a superb showing nonetheless with eight medals overall, including four silvers.

I had neither seen nor heard of Tsillan Cellars before this year's Monterey competition, but the wines I tasted over the judging weekend lead me to conclude Tsillan is a winery with a very bright future.

East Coast wineries also had their day in the sun. Goose Watch and Heron Hill, both from the Finger Lakes region of New York, each bagged a slew of medals.

Goose Watch excelled with the 'stickies', winning gold medals for its 2006 'Finale' White Port ($18) and its Triple Cream Sherry ($15). Throw in a couple of silvers and a couple of bronzes and it was a very nice competition performance for Goose Watch.

Heron Hill won two golds and two silvers and demonstrated a proclivity for Riesling, with three of its four medals going to wines made from the Riesling grape, including gold for its 2006 Semi-Dry Riesling ($13). The other gold was for a Vidal Blanc ($18).

Wineries from the great heartland were well received by the judges, too, though the top performers - St. James and Stone Hill wineries of Missouri and Mary Michelle winery of Illinois - are anything but newcomers. They are perennially among the finest wine producers located in the Midwest.

St. James claimed a dozen medals, two of them gold, and showed best with a couple of its least expensive wines - 2005 Chardonel ($11) and a Riesling made from purchased Columbia Valley grapes ($10).

Stone Hill, like St. James a perennial winner at major wine competitions, took three gold medals with wines made from hybrid grapes - a 2005 Chambourcin ($16), a 2006 Chardonel ($11) and a 2007 Vignoles ($16). Stone Hill won eight medals overall, and placed two wines (the Chambourcin, a stunning good red wine, and the Vignoles) in the 'sweepstakes' round of voting for the best-of-show awards.

Mary Michelle won five medals, four of them silvers.

Finally, for those value-minded readers seeking exceptional quality at a reasonable price, there were these stellar performances: Parducci Wine Cellars, with eight medals, all priced at $9.99; Black Swan of Australia, six medals, line-priced at $8; Cypress, five medals, all at $10.


Posted by Robert Whitley at 12:50 PM

March 16, 2008

Who Will Become the Next Wine Value King?

Dr. Apstein, with his column on wine pricing, has inspired an interesting debate among the partners here at Wine Review Online.

As you know by now, Apstein believes in a free market that establishes value based on the perception of worth. WRO Editor Michael Franz, who plans to respond to Apstein's thesis in a column this week, strongly disagrees. Franz would like to see the price more in line with what it cost to produce and distribute the wine, plus a reasonable profit.

I'm more in the Apstein camp on this, but my interest in the topic is fixed on the impact the currently wobbly economy and weak dollar will have on the faces of wine. It's not like we haven't been here before.

It was out of a weak, recessionary economy and a huge dip in the stock market that the term "fighting varietals" was born. This was the period in the early 1980s when we were still recovering from the inflation and high interest rates of the 1970s.

Jess Jackson was an obscure producer (and a lawyer by day) from Lake County when his Kendall-Jackson brand took the everyday wine world by storm with the ultimate "fighting varietal" of the day, the popular Kendall-Jackson "Vintner's Reserve" Chardonnay.

This wine not only catapulted Jackson to fame and considerable fortune, it turned Jess into a veritable juggernaut. I think it's safe to say no other one person controls as much fine-wine production in the United States as Jess Jackson. Gallo is bigger and certainly has many top-drawer wines, but Jackson has more juice at the high end of the price spectrum. Ironic considering his humble "fighting varietal" beginnings.

So we are once again facing an economic squeeze and wine enthusiasts are thinking about tightening their belts without sacrificing quality or selection. And this begs the question: Who will become the next Jess Jackson?

Just wondering.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 1:59 PM

March 15, 2008

America's Finest Sangiovese

I have known Leon Santoro, the winemaker, for the better part of 20 years. I met him shortly after he arrived at what was then called Thomas Jaeger Vineyards, a small winery located north of San Diego near the Wild Animal Park.

This seemed such a strange place for Santoro to land. He had been owner and winemaker at Quail Ridge in the Napa Valley, when Quail Ridge was a new, ambitious winery project and not just a price-sensitive supermarket brand, as it is now.

Before that he had made the wines at Warren Winiarski's Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, and remains close to Winiarski to this day. And before that he worked with Mike Martini at Louis M. Martini, another Napa Valley icon.

So Santoro had tasted life in the fast lane of California wine. Thomas Jaeger was different. The tasting room was little more than a metal shed with a couple of wine barrels standing on end. It had once been the San Pasqual Winery (the winery sits in the San Pasqual Valley) and very few wine enthusiasts had singled it out for its great potential.

Santoro, however, had an idea and a plan. This area of Southern California reminded him of his native Italy. Santoro was born and raised in Abruzzi, on the Adriatic side of the Italian boot. The San Pasqual Valley brought back memories of southern Italy and the Mediterranean climate of his youth. It occurred to Santoro that Mediterranean grape varieties might thrive in such a place.

He got busy planting Sangiovese, Syrah and Viognier, grapes that were relatively new on the California landscape. Now, if you've tasted much California Sangiovese you might be thinking 'What an idiot!'

There is little about California Sangiovese that resembles good Chianti, which is made largely from the same grape variety, or, heaven forbid, a Brunello. A few stand out, but most of them are bland and wimpy, unworthy of the comparison.

Then there is the Sangiovese of Leon Santoro, whose winery became Orfila Vineyards after being sold shortly after his arrival. I mention this because the Orfila Sangiovese is a remarkably good wine from a grape variety that has not achieved anywhere near the success it enjoys in Tuscany.

The loudest complaint is that California Sangiovese doesn't taste anything like the real thing. Orfila Sangiovese is different. In fact, I would argue it is among the finest Sangiovese made on these shores, and has been for a long time. One vintage even won a Platinum award at the Critics Challenge International Wine Competition, a noteworthy accomplishment considering it was being tasted alongside several outstanding examples of Chianti and Brunello.

That was several years ago, and there is a new vintage making the rounds. I drank the 2005 Orfila Sangiovese ($22) a few days ago and marveled at its consistency over recent vintages. At the same time I lamented the fact that so few people know about this wine, and that among those who know still fewer appreciate it.

Blindfolded, I suspect most avid consumers of Italian wine would guess it was a Brunello, because it has structure and depth only found in the top riservas of Chianti Classico. It has firm acidity - you're first clue that it must be Italian - and dusty tannins, beautifully integrated with rich, layered black cherry fruit and spice.

Yet this is a wine that does not always impress at first taste. It's tight and brooding. Almost tart. Let it breathe, decant it, serve it with food and watch it come alive. This is so Italian!

Of course, the peril of enjoying this wine is that it is almost unobtainable. Tourists visiting the Wild Animal Park stop at the winery and snap up most of it. Orfila does not have a national distributor. It's even difficult to find in San Diego despite a growing audience for fine wine and an influx of new wine bars and restaurants that go to the trouble to employ a sommelier.

Who could imagine that great wine might be made halfway between the Pacific Ocean and the Anza-Borrego desert? Well, Leon Santoro for one. And me, for another.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 11:23 AM

March 14, 2008

The Wine Judging Enchilada

Kimberly Charles is a veteran of many years in the wine communications business. When I first met her in 1992 or thereabouts she did public relations for the New York-based importer, Kobrand.

She later moved to California to represent Gallo before eventually founding her own wine PR firm, Charles Communications, in San Francisco. At one time Kimberly had ambitions to study for the Master of Wine exam, but I suspect the demands of the daily job overtook her.

Yet she has a wonderful palate and a tremendous understanding of and appreciation for all the world's wines, which is handy for a wine judge. Kimberly blogged recently over at All the Swirl on her tasting experience at the Monterey Wine Competition, where she has been one of our most respected palates for many years.

"Wine judging sounds like an easy job. It ain't. When I first heard of the Monterey Wine competition, I conjured up in my recent urban transplant kinda way, an idyllic setting of getting up in the town of Monterey on the coast at 9 AM, having a leisurely jog and coffee followed by a 10 AM wine judging with few wines, plenty of breaks and lots of espresso.

"Little was I prepared for what greeted me those eight years ago, when I arrived in King City, California 145 miles south of South Francisco… a no nonsense and proud agricultural town and the heartbeat of the nearby Salinas Valley where the fairgrounds are the setting for the competition. Intense rounds of wines, sometimes number over 100 in a day create a whole new definition of stamina. We are fueled by the collegiality, the friendly ribbing of our friends and colleagues in the wine industry but most of all by the chicken enchiladas of Rosa, who has been making Mexican home cooking for our grateful judges every Saturday for at least 10 years.

"Sorry, there has to be some pay off for the grueling judging work…you can only have Rosa's food if you're a judge or you worm your way into her heart. Good luck."

Posted by Robert Whitley at 10:14 AM

March 11, 2008

The (Napa Valley) Cream Also Rises

While it's always popular to point out the steals among the gold-medal winners at the Monterey Wine Competition, I would be remiss if I didn't make note of the extraordinary loyalty to the spirit of competitiveness and excellence exhibited by a number of the wine world's pretty faces from the Napa Valley.

Cakebread Cellars caught my eye by entering one wine, a 2005 Pinot Noir ($49) made from grapes grown in the Napa Valley's Carneros region. One entry, and Bingo!, one gold medal for the cause!

Hess Collection Winery, the superb Cabernet house from high atop Mt. Veeder, also bagged a gold medal with its 2006 Mountain Cuvee ($35), a Bordeaux/Rhone blend that is among the finest wines of its type. Hess never shies from the competition, and always seems to hold its own.

Kudos in that regard also go to Grgich Hills Cellars, which is supremely confident in the quality of its wines and is never afraid to take its chances in a blind tasting. Grgich has been entering wine competitions for as long as I can remember. This year the 2004 Grgich Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($60) and the 2006 Napa Valley Fume Blanc ($28) took well-deserved golds.

And, of course, there is always V. Sattui, the Napa Valley's best-kept secret only because all of its wines are sold exclusively at the winery. Sattui won gold with three 2005 Cabernets -- Mt. Veeder ($38), Vittorio's ($42) and Sattui Family ($22) -- and its 2006 Los Carneros Chardonnay ($25).

The V. Sattui Vittorio's Vineyard Cab was voted Best of Show red wine, for just a little icing on the cake.


Posted by Robert Whitley at 12:47 PM

March 8, 2008

Recession-Busting Gold Medal-Winning Wines!

I've just completed my 15th year as Director of the Monterey Wine Competition in what has become my annual rite of spring. As is my custom, I have perused the results and taken away a number of what I believe are outstanding value wines - gold medal winners retailing for $25 or less, a price point that is remarkably low for quality vino in today's world.

Gold medals are a precious commodity on the wine competition circuit. The Monterey judges - 24 wine professionals plus Chief Judge Linda Murphy of Decanter Magazine - evaluated more than 1200 wines over two days (March 1-2) and awarded fewer than 5 percent of the wines a gold medal.

I've chosen a few of the gold-medal winners that stood out for value, in my humble opinion:

Alexander Valley Vineyards 2005 Syrah, Alexander Valley ($20) - This winery has long been famous for its Cabernet Sauvignon and the red Bordeaux-style blend, Cyrus. To take a gold with this modestly priced Syrah is a feather in the cap.
Angove's 2006 Red Belly Black Chardonnay, South Australia ($12) - Angoves is best known perhaps for its Nine Vines wines, but the Red Belly Black Chardonnay was an eye-opener.
Bernard Griffin 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley ($17) - Besides this gold, Bernard Griffin had a good competition with three additional medals, all silver. What I like about this wine is its balance. It's not an overripe fruit bomb. Amen to that!
Bianchi Winery 2005 Garey Vineyard Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley ($25) - Show me a gold-medal winning Santa Maria Valley Pinot and I say snap it up. This is a great price for Pinot in today's world. Bianchi also made a huge statement with eight medals overall.
Big Ass 2006 Zinfandel, Sonoma County ($15) - When you consider that some Zins that sell for twice as much aren't even half as good, you know this winery is kicking some booty.
Biltmore Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, American ($20) - Yes indeed, this North Carolina winery has been making excellent wine for a number of years. Finding the wine is the problem.
Blackstone 2005 Pinot Noir, Sonoma Reserve ($20) - See my Bianchi comment above.
Bogle 2005 Petite Sirah Port, Clarksburg ($18) - This is a typical California Port-style wine, showing ripe fruit and soft tannins for drinking now.
Bogle 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, California ($11) - At this price point, one of the top two or three Cabs in California.
Fetzer 2007 Pinot Grigio, California ($9) - Fetzer may be an industrial-size value winery, but it consistently puts quality in the bottle at a modest price. Its 2006 Valley Oaks Sauvignon Blanc ($9) also took gold.
Ficklin Old Vine Tinta Port, Madera ($15) - If the rising euro and declining dollar are scaring you off Ports from Portugal, Ficklin's many and varied bottlings make a terrific substitute.
Five Rivers 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, Paso Robles ($10) - Like the Bogle Cab, a steal at this price and one of the top value reds produced in California.
Geyser Peak 2007 Sauvignon Blanc, California ($12) - Dollar for dollar the best everyday Sauvignon made in America, in my humble opinion.
Gloria Ferrer Sonoma Brut, Sonoma County ($20) - One of the finest and most consistently satisfying non-vintage brut sparkling wines made in California. Gloria Ferrer had a banner competition, winning Best Sparkling with its 2000 Royal Cuvee Brut, Carneros ($32).
Hardy's 2006 Nottage Hill Chardonnay, Southeastern Australia ($11) - The Aussies have always delivered good quality Chardonnay for not much money, and this Hardy's vintage is merely more of the same.
Hayman & Hill 2005 Merlot Reserve, Napa Valley ($15) - Hmmmm, a gold-medal winning Napa Valley Merlot at a dirt-cheap price? Might have to jump all over this.
Heron Hill 2006 Semi-Dry Riesling, New York ($13) -This winery from New York's Finger Lakes region took four medals overall and two golds, including this delicious off-dry Riesling and a Vidal Blanc ($18).
Kendall-Jackson 2005 Grand Reserve Merlot, Sonoma County ($26) - These new K-J Grand Reserve wines are really, really good and the price is a bargain given the quality in the bottle.
Mont-Pellier 2006 Viognier, California ($6) - This is one of the great secrets in white wine. It's not this good every year, but it frequently blows your socks off for less than $10. It's one you buy by the case and pour for family and friends with abandon!
Navarro 2006 Late Harvest Gewurztraminer, Anderson Valley ($19) - The Best of Show Dessert wine this year and a real beauty. Navarro reaped 13 medals overall, including three golds.
Orfila 2005 Coastal Cuvee Merlot, California ($18) - Winemaker Leon Santoro is one of California's most underrated vintners, largely because he operates in relative obscurity in Escondido, about 30 miles outside of that famous wine region, San Diego.
Peter Lehmann 2005 Shiraz, Barossa Valley ($15) - A great Aussie wine brand that bottles nothing but quality and manages to keep prices modest.
Stone Hill 2005 Chambourcin, Missouri ($16) - Wow, I tasted this wine during the sweepstakes voting for Best of Show red wine and fell in love with it. Might well be the best Chambourcin I've ever tasted. Stone Hill won eight medals overall, including two other golds.
Swedish Hill 2006 Dry Riesling, Finger Lakes ($15) - It's so easy to overlook the Finger Lakes wines because they're not easy to find, but these are some of the finest Rieslings produced in North America.
Hogue 2006 Riesling, Columbia Valley ($9) - Hogue is another top-notch producer (especially for white wines) that continues to deliver quality while holding the line on price. Bravo!
Ventana 2006 Riesling, Arroyo Seco ($16) - The Best of Show white wine also won a double gold at the San Francisco Chronicle wine competition in January. That's consistency. Consistently brilliant.
Woodbridge 2006 Viognier, Lodi ($14) - It's my contention that many of the less expensive Viogniers are the better ones because they aren't as overblown as the high-priced offerings. This is a good example of what I mean.


Posted by Robert Whitley at 10:57 AM

March 7, 2008

WOW Radio: Ventana's Reggie Hammond, Gloria Ferrer's Eva Bertran

Winemaker Reggie Hammond of Ventana Vineyards will be my guest today on the Whitley on Wine radio show, 2 p.m. PT, 5 p.m. ET. You can listen live or podcast the broadcast, which originates from the SignOnSanDiego studios.

Hammond crafted the sumptous 2006 Ventana Riesling that was voted Best of Show white wine at the 2008 Monterey Wine Competition, staged last week at the Salinas Valley Fairgrounds in the heart of Monterey County.

Reggie will talk a bit about the Riesling and the 2005 Ventana Syrah that took a Double Gold medal at the San Francisco Chronicle wine competition in January. I, on the other hand, hope to find out from Hammond why Riesling is suddenly the hot white grape variety. His was the first Riesling to win Best of Show white in the 15-year history of the Monterey competition.

Hammond will join me for the second half-hour of the show. I will open with Gloria Ferrer VP Eva Bertran, to chat about the 2000 Royal Cuvee Brut, the top sparkling wine of the Monterey competition. The Royal Cuvee won similar honors at the San Francisco competition and appears to be on a roll.

While I have her on the phone, I also plan to pick Eva's brain on exciting food pairings with California bubbly. This is one of her specialties.

Should be a great show. Don't miss it!

Posted by Robert Whitley at 10:34 AM

March 4, 2008

Monterey's Big Winners: Ventana, V. Sattui, Gloria Ferrer & Navarro

My favorite moment in every wine competition comes during the "Sweepstakes." That's when all of the judges taste all of the wines that have been nominated for a prestigious Best of Show award, and the big winners of the competition emerge.

We had an excellent "Sweepstakes" round Sunday at the conclusion of the 15th annual Monterey Wine Competition, staged at the Salinas Valley Fairgrounds in the heart of Monterey County.

The MWC has accepted international entries for at least 10 years, resulting in a number of the biggest trophies being taken by the imports. That was not to be the case this year, however, as domestic wineries swept all of the top prizes.

The most contentious battle came in the vote for Best of Show white wine, which was won by the 2006 Ventana Vineyards Riesling, from nearby Arroyo Seco. The Ventana entry narrowly defeated (by one vote) the 2006 Vionta Albarino from the Rias Baixas region of Spain.

Both are superb wines and either would have been a worthy winner. But it was the second huge triumph this year for the Ventana Riesling, following a "Double Gold" medal at the San Francisco Chronicle competition in January.

The other major MWC winners had a bit more breathing room. Gloria Ferrer's 2000 Royal Cuvee Brut (Carneros) won Best of Show sparkling by acclamation; V. Sattui's 2005 Vittorio's Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley) claimed Best of Show red wine; and the Navarro Vineyards 2006 Late Harvest Gewurztraminer (Anderson Valley) was an easy winner in the Best of Show dessert wine category,

(Editor's note: Gloria Ferrer's Eva Bertran and Ventana Vineyards winemaker Reggie Hammond will be my guests on the Whitley on Wine radio show Friday, 2 p.m. PT, 5 p.m. ET, to chat about their winning wines. You can listen live here or sign up for the podcast!)

Overall more than 600 medals were awarded from the more than 1200 entries that were evaluated by 24 wine professionals, plus Chief Judge Linda Murphy of Wine Review Online and Decanter Magazine.

PHOTOS: Judge Wilfred Wong of Beverages & More (top) makes copious tasting notes; the judging tables (bottom) are spread out to give the judges elbow room in the main tasting hall at the Salinas Valley Fairgrounds.




Posted by Robert Whitley at 8:33 PM

March 3, 2008

Do Yourself a Favor: Choose a Decent Glass!

Over the holidays I was pleasantly surprised to come across a great deal on a Riedel crystal decanter at Target. That's when it hit me. Everyday people - not just wine geeks like me - have discovered the aesthetic of fine stemware.

Here is the simple truth: The wine tasting experience is enhanced by the use of a decent glass. The glass doesn't have to be Riedel, Eisch or Schott Zwiesel. Any glass with a fairly generous bowl and a thin lip will do when you've been used to small, clunky glasses with a fat, rolled lip.

Georg Riedel, who aggressively marketed his stemware by stressing the improved taste of wine sipped from the proper shape for a particular grape variety, might explain the technical aspects of this phenomenon, but the casual wine enthusiast has made this transition anecdotally, I think.

You're dining out and order a good bottle of red wine, eye the cheap industrial 5-ounce glass before you, and instinctively ask the waiter if there is the option of a better glass. Restaurateurs know the drill, and generally will produce finer stemware upon request.

Why do we do this? Because the wine tastes better. The most critical aspect of glass selection is the size and shape of the glass. In general a larger glass, somewhere between 12 and 15 ounces, is the most useful and practical because that's a good size for both red and white wines.

The larger bowl allows for a generous pour - say five ounces - without filling the glass. This leaves plenty of room for swirling, which will aerate the wine and bring out flavors and aromas that would otherwise be muted.

There is a common misconception that a good glass might improve a mediocre wine, but that's not the case. A good glass will simply allow a wine to achieve its full aromatic potential, whatever that potential might be.

And decent wine glasses needn't be horribly expensive. Hand-blown Riedel stemware can cost upwards of $75 per stem, and Baccarat even more. But there is no reason to go there unless the goal is to impress someone.

Every major department store, and discounters such as Target, now carry above-average stemware, often well below $10 per stem. And most of these are dishwasher safe, although the thinness of the glass and the delicacy factor require cautious handling.

At two of the major wine competitions I manage we use Riedel's Vinum stemware (which is widely available and priced modestly). All of the glasses are washed in a large industrial hotel dishwasher without any serious issues over breakage or scratching.

And I should point out our wine judges taste reds, whites and sparkling from the same glasses. My good friend Ed McCarthy, author of Champagne for Dummies, even recommends drinking fine Champagnes from what would normally be considered 'white wine' glasses rather than the traditional Champagne flute.

The added capacity allows for the swirling that unleashes the delicate aromas of Champagne and shows off the complexity of a top-notch sparkling wine. Don't try that with a flute!

Posted by Robert Whitley at 3:18 PM