Those of you who follow this blog closely know that a few weeks ago I played hooky from work and drove over the mountain into Lake County to be a judge for the Lake County People's Choice Wine Awards.
Now, wine competitions are definitely not my thing, in general, but this competition was an interesting one because we weren't giving out any of the medals I so despise; because we were just narrowing the field of wines to a few top wines per category that the public then gets to taste blind and judge themselves; and finally because more than most competitions, this one offered a fairly comprehensive set of wines for the region, which meant I had the opportunity to taste the vast majority of Lake County wines in a single sitting -- an educational opportunity that was hard to pass up.
I'm not sure how many Lake County wines I had tasted before I sat down to the nearly 150 wines I tasted over the two days of judging, but the number was probably somewhere around 40 or 50. This competition was an opportunity for me to both calibrate my palate for what Lake County "tasted like" and what it was capable of.
I was somewhat surprised by what I found.
Every emerging wine region (and Lake County seems to fit that description in my book) seeks to define itself somehow, often through its "signature" grape or winemaking style. Those regions without significant historical precedent, have somewhat of an empty slate on which to write their viticultural personality, at least within the bounds of reasonable climatological and geological appropriateness.
Lake County seems to have settled on three signature grape varieties: Sauvignon Blanc, Petite Sirah, and Cabernet Sauvignon. By settled I mean that these are the wines that, through a combination of critical acclaim and marketing push by the region, have become known as the things that the region does well.
Well I'm here to tell you that I disagree. While I tasted some decent, even excellent examples of all three, the wines that excited me the most in the tasting were the white and red Rhone varieties, but in particular the whites. While not nearly as many of them are being made as these other wines, the Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier, Grenache, Syrah, and Counoise that I tasted were far more interesting and distinctive (not to mention, higher quality, in my opinion) than most of the Sauvignon Blanc, Petite Sirah, and Cabernet Sauvignon that passed my lips in the course of the judging (though there are some excellent examples that I note below).
Our judging was done blind, with the exception of the grape variety, and the wines that were eventually selected as finalists were those that received the highest average scores from both panels of judges. The scores were calculated by taking an average of each individual judge's score for the wines.
The official finalists have been announced, so you can check those out, but what I'd like to do is provide you with the complete set of my personal scores for all the wines I tasted, as well as some tasting notes for my top wines.
Lake County is certainly a wine region to watch. While the wines are still a mixed bag, there are some very nice ones out there, suggesting that it may be only a matter of time before the region turns out its first seriously blockbuster wines. Provided, of course, that global warming doesn't turn up the (already high) temperatures there.
2008 Shannon Ridge Morine Ranch Roussanne, High Valley
Light greenish-gold in the glass, this wine smells of honey and wet stones in a really compelling way. In the mouth it offers smooth, silky textured flavors of apple, melon, paraffin, and bright juicy appley acidity. Sexy texture, lovely. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $20. Click to buy.
2008 Writer's Block Roussanne
Pale greenish-gold in the glass, this wine smells of melon and spiced baked apple. In the mouth it is juicy, bright and delicious, with apple and mineral flavors, and a spicy woodiness that is quite compelling. Great balance, excellent food wine. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $15. Click to buy.
2009 Six Sigma Sauvignon Blanc
Pale gold in the glass, this wine has a classic gooseberry driven nose with hints of green melon and cucumber. In the mouth the wine has a bright profile of gooseberry, lime, and green melon. Clean finish, exactly what you want in a Sav Blanc. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $20. Click to buy.
2009 Hess Select Sauvignon Blanc
Pale gold in the glass, this wine has an intriguing floral quality to it with hints of citrus juice. In the mouth it is exceedingly delicate and bright, with perhaps a touch less acidity than I would like, but a wonderful balance and detail that is admirable. Score: around 9. Cost: $11. Click to buy.
2008 Brassfield "Susan's Passion" Riesling, High Valley
Light yellow-gold in the glass, this wine smells of sweet, bright honey and white flowers. In the mouth it is beautifully textured, with soft silkiness and a nice weight on the tongue. Moderately sweet with flavors of clover honey and orange peel, the wine has nice acidity that keeps it from being cloying. Very nicely done. Score: around 9. Cost: $??.
2008 Gregory Graham "Bartolucci Vineyard" Viognier
Light greenish gold in color, this wine has a nose of bright rich white peach fruit. In the mouth the wine has a fresh peach quality that is delicious, with a smooth, but not oily (as sometimes Viognier can be) mouthfeel. Hints of orange peel filter into the finish. Excellent wine. Score: around 9. Cost: $20. Click to buy.
2008 Moore Family Winery RosÃ©, Red Hills
Light ruby in the glass, this wine has a nose of bright mineral and tart bright red berry aromas. In the mouth the wine offers bright strawberry, watermelon, and mineral flavors, with a bright juicy acidity and nice long finish. Excellent. Score: around 9. Cost: $??
2008 Writer's Block Grenache
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and strawberry jam, with a dose of wet stones. In the mouth the wine is nicely balanced with a good mineral backbone, and flavors of strawberry, cherry, cedar, and wet stones. Somewhat restrained in its flavors, this is an interesting wine and a nice take on the grape variety. Very tasty. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $12. Click to buy.
2008 Moore Family Winery Syrah, Red Hills
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of rich cassis and black cherry with a hint of violets. In the mouth the wine is bright and juicy, with cassis, cherry, and black raspberry fruit that linger in a crystalline quality through the finish. Fine grained tannins hang in the background and add some complexity with the perfectly balanced acidity. Excellent. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $??
2007 Six Sigma "Cuvee Pique-Nique" Red Blend
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of bright floral, cherry and violet scents. In the mouth the wine has wonderfully fine grained tannins, an excellent acid balance, and fantastic earthy flavors of cherry, cassis, mulberry mixed with a charming wet dirt note. Blessedly lacking the signature of sweet oak, the winemaker has been very judicious here, much to my great pleasure and relief. A blend of 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Franc, and 2% Petite Verdot. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $25. Click to buy.
2006 Langtry "Tephra Ridge Vineyard" Cabernet Sauvignon
Dark garnet in color, this wine has a very pretty nose of cherry and cedar aromas. In the mouth it has a clean, bright quality to it that is quite disarming. Crystalline cherry fruit with plum notes burst juicy and lively on the tongue while drying tannins linger through a long finish. The wine needs age for the tannins to soften, but if they soften, the wine will show really well. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $40. Click to buy.
2007 Sol Rouge "Gypsy Rouge" Red Blend
Dark garnet in the glass, this blend of Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah, and Petite Sirah has a nose of cassis and cherry fruit with a spicy chocolate quality. In the mouth the wine offers juicy and spicy cherry, cedar, and blackberry fruit with nice powdery tannins. Good acid lingers through the finish which has a briary quality. Score: around 9. Cost: $??
2006 Brassfield "Volcano Ridge Eruption" Red Blend, High Valley
Very dark garnet in color, this blend of Mourvedre, Grenache, Syrah, and Petite Sirah smells of woodsmoke, cassis and blueberry fruit. In the mouth the wine has a lovely texture, with suede-like tannins and flavors of woodsmoke, wet dirt, cassis and black cherry that linger in a fine grained finish. Score: around 9. Cost: $18. Click to buy.
2007 Shooting Star Syrah
Dark garnet in color, this wine has a nose of slightly meaty blackberry and black cherry fruit. In the mouth the wine is restrained and really beautifully balanced, with hints of sweet oak, but mostly black cherry, cassis, and wet dirt flavors. A hint of cedar and vanilla emerge on the long finish. Great acidity and texture. Score: around 9. Cost: $15. Click to buy.
2006 High Valley Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, High Valley
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry, cassis, and tobacco. In the mouth, intense dark cherry and cassis fruit layer in the mouth with power and finesse. Thick tannins envelop the wine, and suggest a few years in the bottle might be warranted before cracking open this quite tasty wine. Score: around 9. Cost: $??
2008 Shannon Ridge "Terre Vermielle" Barbera, High Valley
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of plum, tobacco, wet dirt, and a hint of mulberry. In the mouth the wine is bright and has the bright, acidic sharpness that Barbera should have, with nicely integrated oak, plum, black cherry, and mulberry flavors. The long finish has a sour cherry quality. Score: around 9. Cost: $24. Click to buy.
2007 Cougar's Leap Zinfandel
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of blackberry, dried flowers, and cassis. In the mouth the wine has a bright juicy quality to it, with wonderful rich blackberry and cassis fruit flavors. Light briary notes and suede-like tannins creep into the finish. Very nice. Score: around 9. Cost: $ . Click to buy.
2007 Red Lava Vineyards Syrah, Red Hills
Inky, opaque garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of black cherry and cedar fruit. In the mouth, fleshy, leathery tannins wrap around a core of black cherry and cassis fruit that is quite rich and appealing. Blackberry flavors, and the faintest hint of alcoholic heat creep into the finish. A burly, rich wine, that will please many who like their reds big and assertive. Score: around 9. Cost: $22. Click to buy.
2006 Gregory Graham "Crimson Hill Vineyard" Syrah, Red Hills
Inky garnet in color, this wine has a shy nose of black cherry and kirsch. In the mouth the wine is deep and rich, with a smoky blackberry and cassis body that is quite appealing. Rich cassis and smoky flavors linger with thick muscular tannins in the finish. Score: around 9. Cost: $20. Click to buy.
2005 Six Sigma Tempranillo
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of nice cherry fruit with a darker, earthier note. In the mouth the wine has a dark earthy complexion, with a wood bark bitterness and powdery tannins that wrap around cherry and chocolate. Excellent. Dark and delicious. Score: around 9. Cost: $35. Click to buy.
ALL THE OTHERS
What follows below are my scores for all the other wines tasted in the tasting. Note that these are my personal scores, (which were normalized to the 100 point scale for averaging with other judges).
WHITE WINES SCORING BETWEEN 8.5 AND 9
2009 Robinson Lake Vineyard Glamazon White Blend
2009 Brassfield "Serenity" White Blend, High Valley
2009 Steele Viognier
2009 Shannon Ridge Chardonnay
2008 Shooting Star Riesling
2009 Brassfield High "Serenity Ranch Vineyard" Sauvignon Blanc, High Valley
2008 Langtry "Genevieve Vineyard" Chardonnay, Guenoc Valley
2009 Wildhurst Vineyards Reserve Sauvignon Blanc
2009 Six Sigma "Michael's Vineyard" Sauvignon Blanc
2009 Bell Sauvignon Blanc
2008 Wildhurst Vineyards Orange Muscat
WHITE WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 8.5
2009 Guenoc Sauvignon Blanc
2009 Ceago "Kathleen's Vineyard" Sauvignon Blanc, Clear Lake
2008 Gregory Graham "Rolling Knolls Vineyard" Sauvignon Blanc, Red Hills
2009 Ceago "Del Lago" Muscat Canelli, Clear Lake
WHITE WINES SCORING BETWEEN 8 AND 8.5
2008 Gregory Graham "Roumiguiere Vineyard" Riesling
2009 Wildhurst Vineyards Reserve Chardonnay
2009 Shed Horn Cellars Sauvignon Blanc
2008 Robledo "The Seven Brothers" Sauvignon Blanc
2009 Brassfield "High Serenity Ranch" Pinot Grigio, High Valley
2008 Wildhurst Vineyards Muscat Canelli
WHITE WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 8
2009 Line 39 Sauvignon Blanc
2008 Langtry "Lillie Vineyard" Sauvignon Blanc, Guenoc Valley
2008 Guenoc Chardonnay
2008 Six Sigma "Michael's Vineyard" Sauvignon Blanc
2009 Shannon Ridge Sauvignon Blanc
2008 Moore Family Winery Sauvignon Blanc, Red Hills
WHITE WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 7.5
2009 Moore Family Winery "Muscat Love" Muscat Canelli
WHITE WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 7
2009 Noggle "Squirrel Hollow Vineyard" Sauvignon Blanc
2009 Shannon Ridge "Falconer Ranch" Riesling
WHITE WINES SCORING BETWEEN 6.5 and 7
2009 Robinson Lake Vineyard "Glamazon" Sauvignon Blanc
2009 Shooting Star Sauvignon Blanc
2008 Encanto Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc
PINK WINES SCORING BETWEEN 8.5 AND 9
2009 Six Sigma RosÃ©
PINK WINES SCORING BETWEEN 8 AND 8.5
2009 Gregory Graham "Crimson Hill Vineyard" RosÃ©
2008 Sol Rouge RosÃ©
PINK WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 8
2009 Steele Cabernet Franc RosÃ©
2008 Gregory Graham "Crimson Hill Vineyard" RosÃ©, Red Hills
PINK WINES SCORING BETWEEN 7.5 AND 8
2008 Six Sigma RosÃ©
2008 Brassfield "High Serenity Ranch" Pinot Noir RosÃ©, High Valley
RED WINES SCORING BETWEEN 8.5 AND 9
2007 Dusinberre "100 Percent" Petite Sirah, Red Hills
2007 Cougar's Leap Petite Sirah, Red Hills
2008 Steele "Catfish Vineyard" Zinfandel, Clear Lake
2007 Writer's Block Syrah
2007 Writer's Block Petite Sirah
2007 Guenoc Petite Sirah
2007 Gregory Graham "Crimson Hill Vineyard" Grenache, Red Hills
2006 Obsidian Ridge "Half Mile" Red Blend, Red Hills
2006 Brassfield "Round Mountain Volcano" Zinfandel, High Valley
2007 Shed Horn Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon
2007 Gregory Graham "Crimson Hill Vineyard" Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Hills
2007 Sol Rouge Syrah
2006 Brassfield "Volcano Ridge" Petite Sirah, High Valley
2008 Shooting Star Barbera
2009 Writer's Block Counoise
2006 Steele Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Hills
2007 Obsidian Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Hills
2007 McDermaid Family Vineyard Malbec, Red Hills
2007 Sol Rouge Mourvedre
RED WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 8.5
2006 Robledo "El Ray" Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Hills
2006 Eden Crest Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Hills
2006 Snows Lake "Two" Red Blend, Red Hills
NV Rosa D'Oro Dolcetto
2006 Six Sigma Tempranillo
RED WINES SCORING BETWEEN 8 AND 8.5
2007 Steele Merlot, Clear Lake
2007 Wildhurst Vineyards Reserve Zinfandel
2007 Dusinberre "100 Percent" Malbec, Red Hills
2007 Rosa D'Oro Primitivo
2008 Shooting Star Pinot Noir
2009 Brassfield "High Serenity Ranch" Pinot Noir, High Valley
2007 Steele Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
2007 Sol Rouge Cabernet Sauvignon
2008 Shannon Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon
2006 Noggle "Old Long Valley Vineyard" Cabernet Sauvignon
2008 Diamond Ridge Vineyards Petite Sirah
2007 Writer's Block Cabernet Franc
2006 Six Sigma Cabernet Sauvignon
2007 Line 39 Cabernet Sauvignon
2007 Gregory Graham "Crimson Hill Vineyard" Syrah, Red Hills
2006 Langtry "Serpentine Meadow Vineyard" Petite Sirah, Guenoc Valley
2007 Rosa D'Oro Dolcetto
RED WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 8
2007 Writer's Block Zinfandel
2008 Gregory Graham "Crimson Hill Vineyard" Zinfandel, Red Hills
2005 Brassfield "Round Mountain Volcano" Syrah, High Valley
2007 Shooting Star Merlot
2007 Sol Rouge Zinfandel
2006 Derenoncourt Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Hills
2008 Wildhurst Vineyards Reserve Petite Sirah
2007 Rosa D'Oro Barbera
RED WINES SCORING BETWEEN 7.5 AND 8
2006 Steele "Stymie Founder's Reserve" Merlot
2007 Diamond Ridge Vineyards "Aspects" Red Blend
2007 Wildhurst Vineyards Reserve Syrah
2008 Shannon Ridge Petite Sirah
2007 Dusinberre "100 Percent" Petite Verdot, Red Hills
2007 Six Sigma "Christian's Vineyard" Pinot Noir
2007 Wildhurst Vineyards Reserve Merlot
2007 Ceago "Field Blend" Red Blend, Clear Lake
2007 Steele Cabernet Franc
2007 Beaver Creek "Horne Ranch" Cabernet Sauvignon
RED WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 7.5
2008 Guenoc Cabernet Sauvignon
2006 Fore Family Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Hills
2006 Steele "Stymie Founder's Reserve" Syrah
2008 Shooting Star Zinfandel
2008 Shannon Ridge Zinfandel
2007 Tulip Hill "Delirious" Zinfandel
2005 Blue Wing "Obsidian Ridge Vineyard" Syrah, Red Hills
2007 Shed Horn Cellars Petite Sirah
2007 Beaver Creek "Horne Ranch" Petite Sirah
RED WINES SCORING BETWEEN 7 AND 7.5
2007 Shooting Star Cabernet Sauvignon
2008 Moore Family Winery Zinfandel, Red Hills
2006 Snows Lake "One" Cabernet Sauvignon
2008 Tulip Hill "Canino Ridge Vineyard" Petite Sirah
RED WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 7
2006 Ceago "Winemaker's Blend" Red Blend, Clear Lake
2008 Shed Horn Cellars Zinfandel
2007 Big Valley Zinfandel
2007 Beaver Creek Zinfandel
RED WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 6.5
2008 Writer's Block Malbec
RED WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 6
2005 Sly Dog Cellars "Bin 92" Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Hills
2006 Big Valley Syrah
2008 Robledo "The Seven Brothers" Tempranillo
RED DESSERT WINES / PORTS*
2006 Guenoc "Serpentine Meadow Port" Petite Sirah, Guenoc Valley. Score: between 8.5 and 9.
Non Vintage Wildhurst Vineyards Port Sweet Red. Score: between 8.5 and 9.
2007 Gregory Graham Cluster Select Sweet Zinfandel, Red Hills. Score: between 7.5 and 8.
2007 Steele Syrah Port. Score: around 7.5.
*Note that while it is currently illegal to label wines with European protected place names like Port, some of these producers have been doing so for so long that they have been grandfathered in, and can continue to use the term on the products that they have been making historically.