By Jim Boyce | Students perched in front of glasses perched on place mats that identify the wine in each vessel. That’s the typical wine class, a tried and true system. But California Wine Institute did something a bit different this month by asking students to guess the grape variety of seven wines. And we had no easy picks like Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay or Zinfandel. Instead, they were all “unexpected” varieties from The Golden State and they came from areas outside the most famous region of Napa.
Such efforts can be tricky. A few highly knowledgeable people—like the Master of Wine candidates or top sommeliers in our group—might lead others to be silent for fear of making mistakes. But while many were quiet, I think it was due more to contemplativeness than caution. Most people I talked to found the class valuable.
The grape varieties included Vermentino, Viognier and Petite Syrah from places like Lodi, Sonoma and Santa Barbara. For me, the star was a Tempranillo under the label Acha, the Spanish word for ax. It had vanilla, ripe dark berry and cola aromas paired with rich fruit, a slight graininess and a nice finish. The grapes hail from Lake County, due north of Napa.
The tasting gave us the chance to learn more about the possibilities of California wines, with commentary from a panel that included Chris Beros (CWI), David Duckhorn, Michael McCheane, David Shoemaker and Mike Loberg, with translation by Fangfang Gong.
I only scored 1.5 points out of 7: I guessed Riesling (my pick for the first three wines!) and Symphony as part of a blend since it is one of the few “unexpected” California grapes I know. Symphony is used for a wine called Obsession, made by Ironstone and available in Beijing. We learned the grape is a cross of Grenache Gris and Muscat of Alexander, created in 1948 at UC Davis but only used commercially decades later.
Besides Obsession and Acha, the other wines were Seghesio Vermintino, Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc-Viognier, Fess Parker Riesling, Stags’ Leap Petite Syrah (not the same as Stag’s Leap!) and Flux Grenache-Syrah-Mouvedre.
After the tasting, we headed to the Shangri-la Hotel ballroom for a walk-around that featured hundreds of wines. My favorites included De Loach “Forgotten Vines” Zinfandel and the wines of Wente, particularly ‘Morning Fog’ Chardonnay. Boneshaker (see label below), a Zinfandel from Lodi, refers to the bicycles of old that gave very bumpy rides. And it’s always fun to guzzle Schramsberg, the bubbly consumed when Richard Nixon and Deng Xiaoping met.