Bay Area Wine Events

San Francisco and Northern California Wine events and places of interest to wine lovers posted before this blog was born (November 2009) appear on this page, after links to more recent posts in this category:

Willi’s Wine Bar, Santa Rosa

5 October ’09

Destination restaurant in Northern Sonoma Wine Country. Real delight. Just south of Healdsburg off 101. Features inventive small plates, extremely well-prepared, and carefully chosen wine list with some unusual items by-the-glass.

About seven years old, this charming country inn gets a lot of the northern Sonoma wine rendezvous business because of its location on the outer edge of the biggest city in the county. You have to fight the traffic coming from the south, but coming from the north or west you arrive just as the cars start that ol’ stop-n-go. Why not have a glass of wine and wait it out? Take the Fulton Rd – Mark West Springs exit off the 101 freeway. About a block going east past the Luther Burbank Events Center, then turn right on Old Redwood Hwy. Maybe half a mile further on your left, just before Cardinal Newman High School.

The wine list is small by big city standards, but it is extremely well-chosen. There is a Graciano from Santa Barbara and a Verdelho from Amador. Also an excellent German Riesling and a fine Austrian Gruner Veltliner. As one might be more inclined to expect, there are several really good Sonoma County Pinot Noirs, and a fabulous Zinfandel from Mendocino. Figure 50-60 wines in total; slightly over 20 by the glass, or by the two-ounce taste. Appropriate changes in glass shape for the different wine types. Wonderful cheese selection and/or charcuterie.

The part that really sets Willi’s in a class by itself is the food menu. It ain’t cheap, but it’s really innovative and extremely well-prepared. Figure $8 to $15 for any of the 25-30 small plates. Sounds reasonable, but the menu is so enticing, you end up ordering a lot of them. No regrets; everything is really tasty. Lobster in creamed corn, soft-shell crab, foie gras on brioche, duck rolls, rabbit rillets… even the spinach salad was an eye-opener. Most small plates would give 5 or 6 people a bite or two. Figure two plates per person plus some shared desserts, with lots of great wines to go around. It’s definitely worth a little ‘sticker shock.’

Reservations are a good idea (707-526-3096). Not related to Willi’s Wine Bar in Paris

CA State Fair Wine Competition .1

15 June ’09

A critique of the inner workings of the wine competition at the CA State Fair by a long-time judge.

The California State Fair wine judging was held last week in Sacramento. I’ve been a judge for longer than I care to remember (think decades). There are negative aspects to the Fair judging, yet on balance these are far outweighed by the positive aspects. I enjoy the camaraderie ~ seeing friends, particularly those from exotic places like Canada and San Diego ~ but in large measure the State Fair’s most positive features involve Chief Judge G.M. Pucilowski’s annual efforts to improve the quality of the Competition results.

It is a difficult task. Prestige wineries have more to lose than they have to gain at a U.S. wine competition. If Opus I were to get a bronze medal might be an example of this risk. Hence, established high-quality wines, and/or expensive wines, rarely enter. Most of the entrants could be fairly described as “on the make.” And, of course, all the tasting is done blind by panels of four judges, several of whom work for factory-sized wineries or for big distributors or retailers. The day-to-day occupations of these judges may help explain how Two Buck Chuck occasionally goes home with a big prize.

But Pooch, the Chief Judge, keeps refining and improving the process. He has started to bring on-board young Apprentice Judges. New blood is always a good idea. Pooch has steadily decreased the number of wines tasted each day, hoping to improve consistency ~ i.e. if a judge votes a wine a Silver Medal in the morning, and that same wine is brought back incognito that afternoon, s/he should vote it a Silver Medal again. This year we tasted about eighty wines per day; half of what we were doing ten years ago. And we’ve adopted a technique named after its innovator, Dr. Richard Petersen. This method involves bringing 30-40 wines at once, rather than breaking the varietal category up into flights. Each judge then quickly smells each glass and divides the field into positive, neutral, and negative batches. It is remarkable how accurately an experienced judge can perform this simple discrimination at an almost subconscious level. Our brains know much more than we are aware of (cf: Malcom Gladwell’s book Blink). Importantly though, this initial division of the field allows each judge to then revisit each glass more attentively while comparing the best to the best, and so on through the line-up.

Most revolutionary for wine competitions, however, is the fact Pooch has been secretly testing his judges for consistency over the last five years. I’ll comment on the preliminary results next week.

Corti Bros

11 May ’09

Sacramento gourmet. Darrell Corti writes the most erudite deli newsletter in US, and has charmingly peculiar encyclopedic knowledge of international food and drink.

Corti Brothers gourmet grocery, 5810 Folsom Blvd, Sacramento, CA ( Darrell Corti is legendary in California wine circles for a great many reasons, not the least of which was his seminal role in resurrecting the Sierra Foothills districts back in the 1970’s by having an old-vine Zinfandel from Deaver Vyds in Amador County made for sale in his store. But that particular move was not at all unusual. Every year Darrell instigates scores of wonderful, one-of-a-kind gourmet products for sale at his family’s gourmet emporium just off Hwy 50 in the southeastern corner of Sacramento. Olives from Spain, pasta from Genoa, tea from Hong Kong, rice from the Sacramento Valley ~ all unique, high-quality products packaged especially for Corti Bros. Darrell has long been recognized for his encyclopedic knowledge on so many different subjects related to food and drink. I visit his store regularly. But I have to be careful. Browsing the shelves is such a fascinating experience for me, I’ve never made it in and out in under two hours.

What many people who know Darrell by name don’t realize is that he writes a newsletter four or five times per year. You really do want to get on this mailing list ~ Corti Brothers, PO Box 191358, Sacramento, CA 95819. The newsletter is an extremely erudite compendium on the background behind many of the unusual items produced for Corti Brothers, and on how to use them. Lemongrass – ginger sauce; herbed salt from Sicily; a thin-skinned cannelloni bean grown in Pescadero; Sherry vinegar from Spain; Persian cookies; where to dine in Tokyo; a creamed honey ~ these are just a smattering of the topics in the latest newsletter alone. It is about the only piece of promotional mail that I always look forward to reading.

Santa Cruz Mtn Vintners

06 April ’09

Attempt to characterize Pinot Noir flavors by district in the Santa Cruz Mtns appears more promotional than factual. Santa Cruz Mtn wineries make damn fine Pinot Noir, but over-reach in their promotional attempt to characterize flavor profiles by district.

Pinot Paradise is a weekend put on by the Santa Cruz Mountain Winegrowers in late March to showcase the grape around which they are collectively building their reputation. There is a passport-type self-conducted tour of wineries on Saturday, then a seminar at Villa Ragusa in Campbell on Sunday morning, followed by the Grand Tasting (with participant restaurants) on Sunday afternoon. I attended the seminar, which was billed as a ‘technical’ event, but which never strayed far from its promotional purpose.

The highlight of the seminar was supposed to be a presentation by Clark Smith explaining the flavor profiles of six sub-regions in the Santa Cruz Mtns AVA. Clark has some cachet as a former wine instructor at Napa Valley J.C. and former proprietor of a wine consulting firm which famously specialized in ameliorating wine flavors with additions of tannin/pigment extracts. He now does marketing work for Appellation America signing up wineries to receive consumer exposure on their website. His presentation purported to have drawn its conclusions about the flavor profiles of the Santa Cruz Mtn subregions from extensive blind tastings by his Appellation America panel. The presentation also included a hearty advertisement for Clark’s employer aimed at the participant wineries.

I can only go so far in agreeing with Clark’s conclusions about the flavor profiles ~ at least as evidenced by the six wines shown to us by representatives from each sub-region. Clark clearly got the acidity call correct for the Skyline district as shown in Fogarty’s 2007 Block M Pinot Noir, and I’ll even give him kudos for predicting a little citrus nuance. But he claimed the Mt. Eden clone of Pinot Noir has a truffle characteristic, which I think is clearly a leesy smell from Mt. Eden (Saratoga district) winemaker Jeff Paterson’s practice of never racking his wine once it goes into barrel. That characteristic, incidentally, was also prominent in the Beauregard Vyd 2006 (representing Ben Lomand) which had received the same hands-off winemaking technique. Clark got the high alcohol nature ~ he called it big-body ~ in the Muns Vyd wine representing the Summit Road district, and he perceptively called the fruit character from the district floral. But I think he just phoned in his descriptions for both Corralitos and the Coastal Foothills. Both are lower elevation on the ocean side of the mountains, and the examples put in front of us were dramatically different due to the winemakers’ preferences. The 2006 Cumbre of Vine Hill (Coastal Foothills) was considerably less ripe, with a tomato-vine scent. Clark called the profile for that district big and fruit-forward. He styled Corralitos as mineral with pronounced acidity. The example shown (Storrs 2006 Wildcat Ridge) had received a very long hang-time, and turned out plushly full-bodied.

At the end of the day Pinot Paradise demonstrated that winemakers’ style clearly overcomes what few commonalities may exist between nearby vineyards in a mountainous region such as Santa Cruz. Equally telling, no effort was made to identify commonalities in Santa Cruz which would distinguish the AVA from Santa Barbara, from Sonoma, or from Oregon.