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California Wines Showing More Balance: SF Family Winemakers Tasting

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Family Winemakers of California is the primary trade association for the state's wineries. They lobby -- for increased market access, fewer taxes and fees, and less regulation -- and they assist members in marketing their wines. The primary way they assist in marketing is through organizing large tastings for the trade and media. The biggest of these tastings is the annual two-day event at San Francisco's Fort Mason Festival Pavillion, which took place on Sunday and Monday this week.

Buyers fly in from around the country for this event, which I've attended for several years now. Last year over 300 producers were on hand. This year, however, following months of reports showing significant post-recession recovery in fine wine sales, there were less than 250 participating wineries. Even among those who had reserved tables at the event and been announced as participants there was a significant number of no shows -- over two dozen. These absences were presumably due, in most cases, to the fact that this year's event fell two weeks later than usual, coinciding with harvest activities that commenced early in this year of generally favorable weather conditions.

Although it is impossible for a single person to taste even half of the wines poured at this event, I always prepare a detailed target list, aimed at taking me to as many new producers and first-time participants in this event as possible, as well as to many reliable producers -- like La Jota, Paloma and Turley -- who usually participate in few, if any, tasting events other than this annual affair.

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Christina Turley of Turley Wine Cellars

To reach a manageable number, I eliminate from my list producers whose wines I've sampled recently at other events -- like Pinot Days, the recent West of West Festival, and a comprehensive tasting of Lake County producers that occurred the day before this tasting. I usually end up with a target list of about 100 wineries, and ultimately make it to about 70 percent of those.

That was exactly the case this year. By the end of nine hours of tasting from Sunday through Monday, I had sampled 244 wines from over 70 producers.

I can't claim the wines I end up tasting -- which this time represented close to one-third of what was poured -- are a representative sampling of California's wine production. Since I focus about equally on producers that are new to me and producers I know well, with proven track records, I tend to taste a lot of good things, as well as a lot of average to mediocre wines. Nonetheless, after sampling over 20 dozen wines, mainly current releases, from wineries located all over the State, one walks away with a comparative sense of recent vintages and some possible trends.

If California were a country, it would be the world's fourth largest wine producer, after Italy, France and Spain. California has long been heavily planted to Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, but Zinfandel, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc are very big varieties for us too.

This event always seems to me to be heavily dominated by Cabernet and the other varieties associated with the red wines of Bordeaux -- Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot. Once again, many of the best and most ageworthy wines at this event were Cabernets and Bordeaux blends.

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Winemaker Jim Duane of Seavey, producer of some of the best Cabs at this event

What was noteworthy for me among the wines I tasted was a decline in the overripe versions of these wines that had come to dominate production over the last two decades. Due, I'm sure, to the relative coolness of the last few vintages in California, as well as to a conscious aim for higher acid, more balanced wines by an increasing number of winemakers here, the Cabernets I tasted this year were noticeably more balanced and lower in alcohol. These wines--with their tart currant, menthol and tobacco flavor profiles -- reminded me a lot of the typically balanced, ageworthy Cabs we produced here prior to the mid-1980s.

A mini-trend I noticed was an increasing percentage of Petit Verdot in the meritage blends I tasted. There were even 11 single-variety bottlings of Petit Verdot represented this year, more than double the number poured only two years before.

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Darms Lane bottled a delicious Petit Verdot

I'm a big fan of black fruited, structured Petit Verdot, with its signature pencil lead notes. It's a grape many Bordeaux producers are very fond of, but in too many years it doesn't get ripe enough there to play much of a role in their blends. In the warmer, drier conditions of California, by contrast, this grape seems to be doing very well, and I suspect we're going to see it playing an even bigger role in our state's meritage offerings. (As of 2011, it was the 14th most planted black grape in California, but stood tenth in tonnage of black grapes crushed.)

The coolness of recent vintages also appears to have had a salutary effect in promoting balance in wines made from other grapes that tend toward ripeness and high alcohol levels, like Zin and Petite Sirah.

Of the over 70 producers whose wines I sampled at this tasting, the 23 producers responsible for one or more wines I rated 92 points or higher were Adastra, Ancien, Black Sears, Cain, Culler, Darms Lane, Field Recordings, Freemark Abbey, Keenan, La Jota, Lamborn Family, Mauritson, Merryvale, Paloma, Saxon-Brown, Seavey, Sojourn, Spring Mountain, Tablas Creek, The Terraces, Turley, Vino Noceto and Wallis Family. None of the couple dozen producers that were new to me at this tasting made the list above, although I did taste some good wines from newer producers like Anakota, Cowan Cellars, Galerie, J. Rickards, Patel, Petroni, Tayson Pierce, Trombetta Family and Wait Cellars.

The very best of the Cabs and Meritages, for me, came from Black Sears, Mt. Brave, Robert Keenan, Seavey, Spring Mountain and Wallis Family. The top Zins at this event that I tasted came from Black Sears and Turley.

For my recommendations and tasting notes on the 244 wines I sampled, see the complete report on my blog here.