Buongiorno. This past Saturday I joined some very happy sold-out crowds at Fort Mason sampling the winners of the prestigious San Francisco Chronicle wine competition. I wanted to see how my favorite NorCal winemakers fared among the stiff competition: 4,235 wine entries from 1,500 US wineries judged blind by 55 industry experts. New releases and first-time discoveries made for a truly memorable event - you just can't find this level of quality across the board under one roof elsewhere. I have to tell you, if you enjoy wine, make sure to get your tickets at least two weeks early next year.
First of all, I want to thank the winemakers who master a tricky craft to create these wines, and a special thanks to the NorCal producers: you make my choice to drink only local vintages very easy. There are some excellent California and Italian varietals growing in Sonoma these days, so I don't mind waiting to drink Italian until my annual trips home. To my 9 favorite award-winning local vintages I say: Salute!
Muscardini Cellars Sangiovese, Dry Creek Valley, 2006. This wine begs for food: cinnamon and raspberries, with a whiff of tobacco and very soft tannins that can stand up to a robust Italian first course without flinching. Plus, Michael is always so excited to talk about wine, he wins me over every time. We discovered this small-production Sangiovese visiting his new Kenwood tasting room a couple months ago and stocked up before the big win: nick of time! Grazie for this one, Michael.
Caliza Winery Syrah, Russell Family vineyards, 2006. A full-bodied, aromatic red that's like a roadside blackberry bush on an hot August day: ripe and ready. Only 200 cases were produced, and you can only get it from the winery. This one accompanies well-caramelized roasts or braises with wild mushrooms: a carnivore's favorite winter wine.
Canihan Family Cellars Exuberance Syrah, Sonoma Valley, 2006. Organically farmed and robust yet very silky, with raspberries and white pepper rounding out the aromas. A long finish reminds you who's in charge: hint hint, it's not the food.
Claudia Springs Zinfandel, Mendocino Ridge, Valenti Ranch, 2006 and signature Zinfandel, 2006. I have to say, I tried at least three different Zins from Claudia Springs, and each was completely different but highly worthwhile. They're produced in small batches and priced to sell out: : the 2006 Zin is $22. Buy directly from the winery while you can...
Quivira Vineyards Syrah, Dry Creek Valley, Wine Creek ranch, 2006. Only 244 cases of this inky, intense Demeter-certified biodynamic beauty were produced. This cedar- and violet-scented new release is available directly from the winery at $28 a bottle: such a steal.
Ottimino Vineyards Zinfandel, Von Weidlich Vineyard, 2005. A versatile Zin from Russian River, with a deep black cherry flavor perked up with a zing of white pepper. In Italian translation, the name has a double meaning: "the eighth," but also "the little exceptional one." I'll second that.
Claiborne & Churchill Pinot Gris, Central Coast. At the event, people were going for the reds and overlooking some exceptional whites. This well-structured, very dry Alsatian-style Pinot Gris is a welcome exception to the industrial-standard sweet white Zin. This would be ideal paired with the last Dungeness crab of the season, or a rich egg dish with Hollandaise sauce for Sunday brunch. The prices are better for whites too: this one goes for $12-18 a bottle, depending on where you buy it.
Amazon Ranch Viognier, Damiano Vineyard, 2008. Viognier is the perfect go-to white for weeknight dinners, and this one delivers strong mineral notes followed by orange and lemon zest. Enjoy it with a risotto, and use it in the recipe as well to balance the creaminess of risotto. Score it for $10.80 a bottle when you buy a case from the winery.
Dulcis in fundo (the sweetest comes last): Geyser Peak Winery Barrel Aged Tawny Port was a Sweepstakes winner: no small feat, since this honor is given to only six wines. Wellington Vineyards white port is still my favorite Port, but this balanced blast of butterscotch, vanilla and yes, bananas holds its own with salted caramels or chocolate or as dessert. Good for Geyser Peak: they're a major producer, but they're still trying daring new small-production wines. Try this port with dark chocolate gelato, and thank me later.
Oh, one last thing: for you pâté lovers, Marcel et Henri's South San Francisco offerings are a must-try. People were swarming around the pork with truffles, but I was just as impressed with the country-style pork with burgundy wine and the coarse-textured venison pâté with burgundy wine and juniper berries. My favorite? Coarse duck with cognac.
Enjoy and cin-cin!