Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Family Winemakers of California Tasting

When you walk into a large wine tasting, as I did yesterday, there is both an air of excitement and trepidation. Before you lay hundreds of wineries, pouring thousands of their best wines. You're handed a glass for tasting and a plastic cup for spitting. Small tables of bread and cheese dot the floor, along with bottles of water. You want to try everything that is there, but you know full well you won't get to half as many as you want.

The Family Winemakers of California held their annual tasting during the past few days at Fort Mason in San Francisco. The venue is a huge airplane-hanger sized hall, formerly used to stage troops heading off for Pacific battles during WWII. Since then, it's become home to many large events, such as Family Winemakers, ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates & Producers) and Golden Glass, to name a few wine tastings I've been to there this year alone.

While I love the opportunity to try thousands of wines, it can be difficult to sort out which ones you really like after a while. I'm no super-taster like Robert Parker, with the ability to distinguish within seconds a cornucopia of fruits, flowers, herbs and chemical scents and flavors bursting out of my glass. I usually drink a bottle of wine over the course of several days, and I like to sit and enjoy each sip, trying to break down what I'm smelling and tasting slowly with each taste. I'll write some notes down each night on a post-it, and then write up my blog post when the bottle's done.

But at these events, you feel rushed, with only a quick sniff, sip and spit per wine. If the event centers on one type of wine, such as ZAP's focus on Zinfandel, you can taste a few wines that really stick out from the bunch. I remember tasting Klinker Brick's Old Ghost Zin that blew me away because of a cool mint flavor the wine had. My mouth had been full of Zinfandel for hours, and while I could tell some differences between them, most just started tasting like, well, Zinfandel. The Old Ghost easily stood out because of that one flavor note, and I'm eager to try it again to see if I even notice it without having my tongue stained from so many other wines.

At Family Winemakers, each winery was offering pours of their entire lineups, from whites, roses and reds, so there's no real base standard to sort from as you go booth to booth. I stuck mostly to the reds, but even then, it's hard to compare one Syrah to the next after also having a tannic-heavy Cab followed by an old-vine Zin in between. Plus there are different vintages for each wine, adding to the complication.

I did come to the event with some plan on what wineries I wanted to target, because if you don't, it's easy to feel overwhelmed. My thought was to check out the wineries with Howell Mountain grapes. I really like the wine I've had from there, especially a Howell Mountain Zin from Outpost Wines. It's difficult to grow grapes there, but if done right, they produce intense wines with beautiful flavors. The SF Chronicle had a good article about the AVA a few years ago, see it here.

I was also excited to see Bryan Kane again, the winemaker behind Sol Rouge, whose Lake County Cab I liked so much. Kane is also involved with Vie Winery, and he was pouring wines from both, so I hung out there for a good portion of my time.

Overall my experience was that the wines were good to great, with only a few misses. I'm not going to detail every wine I tasted in this post, but I do plan on following up with some individual tasting notes in a subsequent post when I have more time to go over my notes from the event.

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