I buy California wines, but I certainly don’t buy as many as I did twenty or so years ago, and this past week I tasted three wines that represented perfectly why this is so.
An old friend of mine asked me to join him on a trip to California a few weeks ago. He wanted me to help him select wines that may still be unknown in Manhattan, where he operates three businesses that sell wine: a retail shop, a wine bar, and a restaurant.
My task was to set up a few meetings for us to taste and maybe to meet the producers. Since I have always appreciated the wines of Sonoma and Mendocino Counties over those of Napa, I suggested we concentrate on the two former rather than the latter. He, however, has a friend in Napa so we were going to spend at least a day there.
We took the trip, we tasted and met, and I believe my friend now has at least a start in the direction he set for himself. On my end, as I expected, wines from the Russian River area of Sonoma and from Mendocino County interested me much more than the wines I tasted from Napa.
One of the people I wanted to meet works at a California winery further south, in Paso Robles. Since we couldn’t make it there on our schedule, the winery sent to my home three bottles for my friend and I to taste.
I could tell that the first wine that we opened was Zinfandel first by the name of the grape on the label, and then by the description of the wine on the back label.
When I tasted the wine, it did not fit the back label description, which spoke to classic Zinfandel rustic bramble-like qualities, although I did detect raspberry-like flavor. Had I been served the wine with my eyes closed I might have thought it a framboise eau de vie, an impression that would have come from raspberry meeting with the 16.8 percent alcohol of the wine.
I did not like the wine at all.
Next, I opened a Carmenere. The alcohol was lower, much lower. In fact, it was within the legal definition of table wine in the United States—between 8 and 14 percent by volume, I believe.
Except for a couple of Carmenere varietals from Chile, my limited experience with the grape has yet to give me a sense of its varietal character, but that didn’t seem to matter in this case. Mostly, the wine was too woody for me. After tasting it without food, I put the wine alongside some spicy chili and it completely died there, tasting mostly astringent.
Finally, I opened the Syrah.
I have had experience enough with Syrah that I should be able to pick out its spicy chocolate and peppery varietal character, but with this wine, I simply could not, with or without my eyes closed. I did manage to identify that the wine was quite woody, and also extremely alcoholic. I could take no more than two minuscule sips of the wine.
I know it’s not right to issue blanket condemnation of a complete wine region after tasting just a few wines, but over the years I have had far too many experiences similar to the above, and that’s what keeps me from thinking California when I go wine shopping.
Copyright November, 2008
Thomas Pellechia, all rights reserved.