An Italian werewolf in San Diego and a Seyval Blanc from Wisconsin that I loved

Above: Organizer of the San Diego International Wine Competition Robert Whitley (right) is a “larger than life” kinda guy. The best part of the event was his telling the story of almost getting his lights punched out by Joe Namath in 1969 at Broadway Joe’s NYC bar Bachelor III in 1969. Duncan Williams (left) is the senior winemaker at Fallbrook Winery in northeastern San Diego. He makes an awesome Sangiovese Rosé (no kidding, I tasted it with him a few years ago), writes a column for the San Diego Union-Tribune, and I was stoked to be on the same panel as he.

What does a guy like me feel like at the San Diego International Wine Competition? Like an Italian werewolf.

As flattered as I was to be asked to sit as a judge and as curious as I was to taste such a far-reaching sampling of American wines, I was probably the most unlikely candidate for the job. But I tried to embrace my duties with an open mind and heart: as I judged the wines with my tasting group — Duncan Williams (above) and Ron Rawilson of Ortman Wines (super cool dude) — I tried to evaluate them for the intention of the winemaker and the category for which they were created.

Above: I was psyched to catch up with fellow judges GlobalPatriot (left, author of an awesome geopolitical food and wine blog) and SF publicist extraordinaire Kimberly Charles whom I’ve known since my earliest days of food and wine writing back in NYC more than a decade ago. Nice folks…

Of the 191 Chardonnays submitted to the competition (the largest category), I was faced with the onerous task of tasting 32 of them — all of them barriqued. In the wake of the tasting, I needed a toothpick to extract the oak chips from my tongue.

I regret to report that Chardonnay and Merlot represented the two top categories submitted by the mostly American winemakers. Are we stuck in the 80s? Oops, I forgot to take down the Nagel from my living room.

Above: Linda McKee is a winemaker in Pennsylvania and very simpatica lady. It was really cool to hear her talk about Elmer Swenson, a legendary grape breeder who developed hybrids for American viticulture.

The pleasant-surprise wine for me was a Seyval Blanc (yeah, you’ve never heard of it either) grown in New York and vinified in Wisconsin: Prairie Fumé (ha!) from the Wollersheim winery in Prairie du Sac, WI.

The wine, which happened to land in one of our flights, tied for “best in show white.” It was delicious, with bright (clean, not acidified) acidity, good fruit, and balanced alcohol (11%, yes!, according to the fact sheet on the wine). I was thoroughly impressed and I am evermore convinced that hybrid grapes (Blanc du Bois in Texas, for example) are the key to making good, honest wine (that doesn’t need to be “corrected” in the cellar) in our country.

Above: Was it a sort of contrapasso that I had to taste 32 barriqued Chardonnays and 19 barriqued Merlots? And don’t forget the 17%+ Zinfandels. I think I’ve paid my dues at this point!

All in all it was a great experience — if only for the schmooze factor — and I was geeked to finally get to meet and taste with Robert, whose palate and schtick I greatly admire.

The moment that sticks out the most in my mind was when Duncan asked rhetorically, why do winemakers still make Chardonnay like this? It’s really such a neutral grape that doesn’t perform well in this style.

It led me to coin a neologism: ChardonNO!

The Summer Winter of Our Disconnect: 12.5% Cabernet? And other good stuff we ate and drank in California

chino farms

Above: Both my buddy John Rikkers and I ordered the “Market Salad” at Market in Rancho Santa Fe. It’s no longer on the menu but they’ll make it for you on request. All the lightly blanched ingredients are sourced from San Diego’s legendary Chino Farms farmers market.

Everywhere you go in California, people are complaining about the cool summer weather. By most accounts, it’s the coolest summer we’ve had here for more than 70 years.

On Sunday, Vinogirl (who authors my all-time favorite California wine blog, Vinsanity) didn’t mince words: “Actually, I am very surprised that [veraison, i.e., ripening] is happening at all as it only managed a whopping high of 70F today,” she wrote plaintfully. “So far, the weather in 2010 has been pathetic!”

mea culpa

Above: I’d never had the Bouvier grape, known as Ranina in Slovenia, until last night at Market, where sommelier Brian Donegan always has something by the glass that will surprise and delight the adventurous wine lover, like this 2007 Mea Culpa by Kogl. I would have guessed it was a dry Muscat but it had some gentle orchard fruit notes seemed to speak a Slavic as opposed to Romance language.

Yesterday, in a fantastic post, one of America’s wine industry social media pioneers Tom Wark (and all-around nice dude) wrote and asked rhetorically, is this a bad thing?

    If this weather keeps up, it’s entirely likely that some winemakers are going to have to learn how to make good Napa or Sonoma Cabernet with an alcohol content of (brace yourself)…12.5%. […]

    Clearly 2010 is looking to be a better vintage for early ripening grapes like Pinot Noir. But even the Pinots are likely to suffer a diminishing alcohol content. The question is this: is that a bad thing? I think it might be for many winemakers, particularly those that tend to produce big, fat, huge unctuous Pinots with high alcohol content.

ettore germano

Above: The acidity in Ettore Germano’s Chardonnay was, as Tracie P likes to say, “tongue-splitting.” It’s not like me to order Chardonnay from Italy (outside of Friuli) but I must say that I dug this wine completely. Very mineral, very bright acidity. Always something good by the glass at Market.

Of course, the mystery of California’s unusually cool summer begs the question among its “red state” populace: with summer temperatures like these, how can the pinkos still cling to their claims of global warming?

seaweed salad

Above: Seaweed salad at Zenbu in La Jolla.

I’m sure I imagine that Tom would agree with me: anyone who works in the wine industry and spends times with grape growers will tell you that European winemakers — even the most conservative among them — believe that global warming is indeed taking place. In Tuscany, where the grapes used to ripen in October, grape growers will tell you that they now ripen as early as late August (although this year, at least in Sant’Angelo, grapes are ripening about a week behind schedule).

California roll

Above: One of the thing I love about Zenbu is the playful California creativity in the menu, with items like the “Jackie Chan” roll and the “Mexicali” roll. That’s the gorgeous sashimi roll (a contradiction in terms?). There’s nothing worse than boring sushi!

Once, when I interviewed a famous winemaker in Piedmont for a commercial writing gig of mine, he unabashedly told me, referring to the remarkable string of great vintages in Piedmont spanning 1996-2001, “global warming has made me a very rich man.”

Above: French Toast at Jaynes Gastropub in North Park (San Diego).

To those who claim and believe global warming is part of a secret left-wing conspiracy, I say: who cares whether it’s true or not? At 43 years of age, I’m old enough to remember the first “energy crisis” in the 70s: whether or not you believe in global warming, there’s no denying that it’s high-time to “clean up our act.”

bellyup tavern

Above: My childhood and a best friend Charlie George created this “White Trash” gift basket raffle item for a benefit for local musician Michael Muldoon last night at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach, where Charlie and a bunch of other friends of mine performed.

So whether (weather) you’re sweating your nuts off in the rest of the country, wearing a sweater in Sonoma, or getting ready to pick grapes in Tuscany, don’t forget to turn off the lights! And be sure to eat your California leafy greens…

Thanks for reading!