Calls in California for Balance and Nature (and dinner with a “national treasure”)

Above: dinner with “national treasure” Darrell Corti (right) and Josh Greene, editor-in-chief, Wine & Spirits Magazine at Sacramento’s Waterboy.*

Tuesday morning I headed up from La Jolla to Sacramento to attend the opening sessions of the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium. The convention represents California’s largest gathering of winemakers and wine-grape growers and I was lucky enough to receive an invitation to the 34th annual meet of CAWG (the California Association of Winegrape Growers) where Darrell Corti — one of the nation’s foremost authorities on American and European wine — was guest speaker.

Earlier in the day I ran into Napa Valley public relations legend Pamela Hunter, who had just come from Corti Brothers, Darrell’s grocery and wine shop. We were introduced by another wine professional and when we made the connection that he was our mutual friend, she pointed out rightly that Darrell ought to be considered a “national treasure”: his worldly erudition, encyclopedic wine and food knowledge, and unwavering graciousness are matched only by the cornucopia of foods and wines he has introduced to the U.S. through his taste-making however modest store. Ruth Reichl and Colman Andrews have called him the man “who knows more about food and wine than anyone else in the world.”

Above: Unified Wine & Grape Symposium participants.

In his address, Darrell asked the CAWG members to reflect on the “tradition” of California winemaking, warning them not to become complacent. In California, he said, “we can make whatever we want wherever we want”: he urged them to consider replacing ubiquitous Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon plantings with other international grape varieties that will show better in the warm Californian climate. Aglianico, he suggested, might represent an alternative to Cabernet.

He reminded the group of wine-grape growers and winemakers of the “concept of 10.5 – 13.5% alcohol table wines” and the era before “overripeness and terroir became confused” (in an episode now dubbed “Zingate,” Darrell made headlines last year when he announced that he would no longer sell wines with an alcohol content over 14.5%).

“Have we abrogated the quality of wine to the wine press?” he asked, urging growers to reel in brix levels (the brix scale is used to measure the sugar content of grapes; simply put, the more sugar in the fruit, the higher the potential alcohol content of the wine). “You have to grow good grapes to make good wine,” he told them. And “as they say in Italian, buon vino fa buon sangue,” literally, “good wine makes good blood,” in other words, good grapes and good wine make us healthy.

Above: our unforgettable repast began with a Webb and Farinas 1970-1998 Sherry, “Blended Fino and Baked Fino Solera,” one of the last bottles ever made by the University of California at Davis, Darrell told us.

Before I caught a plane back to San Diego the next morning, I managed to find a seat among the 800+ audience at Wine & Spirits ed-in-chief Josh Greene’s “State of the Industry” talk. Josh spoke of the new trend of younger sommeliers who are “hand-selling” once exotic international grape varieties to the Cabernet-Merlot-and-Chardonnay set. The Loire Valley, he said, represents the most alluring wine-producing region for this new generation of restaurant professionals. Naturally made, food-friendly wine from Italy and France, he told the group, is becoming more and more popular among America’s wine directors and he urged producers to consider natural winemaking.

“It’s a risky way to make wine,” he noted. “You can’t always make wine commercially like this, but there’s a growing market for it. The question is how to make a wine that’s balanced, has concentrated flavors, and a distinct expression of its place… and then figure out how to make money doing it,” he added, drawing a chuckle from the packed house.

Gauging from the positive reception of Josh’s excellent talk, there might be hope for Californian wine after all.

Click here to read Josh’s notes from his address.

Above: this 1986 Mount Pleasant Semillon from Darrell’s cellar blew me away. It was full of life, brilliant acidity, and vibrant minerality. But the show-stopper was a magnum of 1983 Cepparello by Isole e Olena, a great bottling of (pre-barrique) Sangiovese from a vintage overshadowed unjustly by 1985.

I loved the session title ““How to Have a Mostly Worry-Free Interaction with TTB Resources” (the TTB or Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau regulates wine sales in the U.S.).

Grass-roots organizers were also in attendance.

I can’t reveal whose car this is (but I bet you can guess). I really dig the old-school blue California plates.

* On my way out, one of the waiters told me that the restaurant was named after the band The Waterboys, but I’m not sure I believe her.