Some things I think I think (apologies to the late, great Phil Musick)
The Quality Curve
I just finished writing a condolence letter to those wineries that didn't win anything at Sommelier Challenge V last month. In it, I pointed out that young wines are fickle and don't always show well. In the life of any wine, there is seldom straight-line improvement from release to peak maturity.
Failure to win a medal does not necessarily indicate a flawed or poorly made wine. I once opened a grand cru Burgundy at a restaurant and the wine was dead. I gave it away (it was from my own cellar) and ordered a wine from the list. Six months later I opened another bottle of the same grand cru Burgundy and it was glorious. It was a powerful lesson that left a lasting impression.
Wineries that fail to take a medal should take heart in this example.
A Silver Lining in Bordeaux?
The 2013 vintage in Bordeaux is shaping up as a disaster by all accounts. It all started with hail last spring and severe damage to the vineyards.
Though chateaux owners are wringing their hands and perhaps cursing the cruelty of nature, this might be a time for some of us priced out of the Bordeaux market in recent years to look for a silver lining.
First of all, bad vintages in Bordeaux aren't what they used to be. Improved viticutural and winemaking practices and techniques have given the vignerons of Bordeaux an ability to cope with adversity that didn't exist at one time.
I can assure you there will be excellent wines out of this chaotic vintage and I am fairly certain the prices we've seen in recent vintages will take a hit. Not that I expect Mouton or Ausone to lower their prices. I do expect that chateaux not on the short list of Bordeaux collectibles will have no choice.
This could be the best time to stock a bit of Bordeaux in the cellar in at least a decade.
The World's Best Bubbly
Sommelier Challenge V confirmed for me, as if I really needed confirmation, a closely held conviction that the finest sparkling wines on the planet come from three parts of the world -- northern Italy, specifically Trento and Franciacorta, California and, of course, Champagne.
That isn't to say you can't find delicious and satisfying sparkling wines elsewhere, but only northern Italy and California are remotely close to being on par qualitatively with the Champagne region. Champagne rules, IMHO, because of its remarkable structure. The Moet & Chandon vintage Champagne that was voted Wine of the Year at Sommelier Challenge was 20 years old, yet exhibited a freshness worthy of a much younger bubbly.
This is a towering achivement. But the other two sparkling wines in the championship round of Somm Challenge V -- the 2006 Ferrari Perle from the Trento region of northern Italy and the Domaine Carneros Cuvee de la Pompadour Brut Rose from California's Carneros district -- were certainly worthy contenders that had support from a number of the sommeliers.
What's appealing about that is the cost. The Ferrari Perle is a stunning bubbly yet at $42 it's a fraction of the price of the 2003 Moet & Chandon Grand Vintage Collection Brut at $140. And the Domaine Carneros Cuvee de la Pompadour at $32 is a steal in the realm of world class sparkling rose wines.
When I can afford it I will always reach for the Champagne. But when I can't, and I want a sparkling that's on par with Champagne, I will reach for something from northern Italy or California. Nothing else even comes close.
Sommelier Challenge Had International Flair
The results are in and the fifth annual Sommelier Challenge had a decidedly international flair. Six countries are represented in the Best of Show awards. The competition was staged over the final weekend of September in San Diego, with 16 exceptional sommeliers from around the nation evaluating 898 wines.
Wine of the Year
Best of Show Sparkling Wine
Moet & Chandon 1993 Grand Vintage Collection Brut, $140
Best of Show Red Wine
Castello di Gabbiano 2009 Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG, $22
Black Stallion 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, $27.99
Napa Valley, California
Best of Show White Wine
Dr. Konstantin Frank 2012 Riesling Reserve, $25
Finger Lakes, New York
Best of Show Rose Wine
Falkner Winery 2012 Rosato, Estate, $15.95
Temecula Valley, California
Best of Show Dessert Wine
Barboursville Vineyard 2008 Malvaxia Reserve Passito, $31.99
Inniskillin 2008 Riesling Icewine, VQA, $80
Niagara Peninsula, Canada
Best of Show Fortified Wine
Taylor Fladgate 20-Year-Old Aged Tawny, $54.99
Douro Valley, Portugal
Best of Show Spirit
Pilavas Tentura Liqueur, $24
An insider, Maurice DiMarino of the Cohn Restaurant Group, shares his persepctive as a judge at Sommelier Challenge V.
Agree to Disagree
The James Molesworth blog over at WineSpectator.com takes a stab at film criticism, throwing a wet blanket on Somm, the film that documents the quest of four sommeliers leading up to the challenging Master Sommelier exam.
To be fair, the subhead on the Molesworth blog called his a "minority" opinion, for the film has generally played to enthusiastic audiences and has a good buzz simply by word of mouth. What I liked about Somm was the very personal, very human element of the four subjects.
The film was technical enough without being so geeky that casual wine drinkers would flee the theatre in bewilderment. What everyone got from the film was a sense of the dedication required to pass the difficult Master Somm exam. The preparation is gruelling and many wonderful sommeliers do it and fail. Again and again.
I found the film inspiring, but I work closely with somms in the course of doing my job, and I respect their professionalism. Too bad James Molesworth didn't see it that way.
RRV Catching Up To Oregon Pinot
Over on the home page I'm very upbeat on the Dutton Goldfield 2011 Freestone Hill Pinot Noir, from what was a disaster of a vintage for most Pinot producers in the region. This vineyard is planted in the Salmon Creek sub-region of the Russian River Valley and it's a tremendous example of the strides California -- particularly the Russian River Valley -- has made with Pinot Noir.
It is accepted wisdom that the finest Pinots in America come from Oregon, and for most of the past three decades that was true. I no longer believe that to be the case, although I confess a fondness for Drouhin Oregon, Archery Summit and The Four Graces.
But no one in America is doing better work with Pinot than winemakers Gary Farrell at Alysian and Dan Goldfield at Dutton Goldfield. These two denizens of the Russian River Valley have consistently earned my highest marks for domestic Pinot Noir over the past couple of vintages. Throw Merry Edwards into the mix and you have a veritable Murderers' Row of Pinot Noir prowess.
I still have great respect for Oregon Pinot, although a recent sampling of a dozen different Oregon producers was hugely disappointing, and recognize that other zones in California -- Santa Barbara County, Carneros and Monterey's Santa Lucia Highlands -- are producing commendable Pinots, but my sense is the Russian River Valley has gained the upper hand in this all-important wine category.
Photo: Steve Dutton and winemaker Dan Goldfield of Dutton Goldfield.