Posted on 20 September 2010 by dubs
Words by Adam Saake
The 5 o’clock crowd filed into the Convention Center in downtown Sacramento for the annual Grape and Gourmet, an event that boasts, “The largest tasting of California gold medal winning wines under one roof.” With over 200 wineries present, serving 700 different wines that were California Sate Fair winners, along with 80 restaurants from the Sacramento region, I was, to say the least, feeling a little overwhelmed.
After I checked in with the Submerge crew, wine glass in hand and weird plastic cafeteria plate to accompany, we proceeded to the double doors that marked the entrance to a sea of foodie heaven. The first thought that came to mind is a funny little rumor that I heard while I was backpacking in Paris a while back. Supposedly, if you stopped to look at every piece of art in the Louvre for 10 seconds, it would take you over a week to see everything contained within its walls. There are variations on this, but you get the idea. Before me was row upon row of wineries and restaurants, poised and ready to fill my glass and occupy my plate. I took a deep breath and said myself, “Just relax, tiger. You love food and wine. Just pace yourself.”
I warmed up with a 2006 Frank Family cabernet sauvignon from the Napa Valley. This big red from a winery whose name and reputation precedes them showed heavy oak and spices and was very “jammy” with distinct notes of blackberries and dark cherry. As much as I wanted to finish my pour, my new motto these days was “sip and spit.” Remember, 700 wines. I was determined not to be blacked out by winery number eight. Lucky for me there was plenty of food to partake, and I quickly spotted the MIX table where they were passing out a delightful little tortilla chip with a cold mix of shrimp and avocado.
I was over the initial shock and now I was ready to get down to business. My good friend and rising sommelier-to-be Leon Moore had been roaming the event for a few hours, so when I linked up with him he had a list of gold stars to hit. Or should I say, gold medals. One of the first we hit was Senders, who produce wine from Carneros, Russian River Valley and the Napa Valley. Their 2007 Carneros Pinot Noir Reserve received the gold medal at the California State Fair and was awarded 94 points. Shiny alloys and essay scores aside, they make good wine that has shown well all across the board. Some may question the results of competitions like the one held at the State Fair, but owner and winemaker Craig Senders brought up a good point.
“As a person who enters wine in different contests, I would say there is some validity to the question of whether there’s some randomness to how awards are given,” said Senders. “One of the conclusions [the judges] reach is they know what they like and what they don’t like.”
Basically, if it’s good then it’s good no matter how it scores in one competition compared to the next. Senders went on to say that if a wine isn’t quality, it doesn’t matter how many times it’s judged–it isn’t going to show well consistently. For me, this only reaffirms another very important argument, which is the never-ending question of why you should drink a certain bottle of wine in the first place. You be the judge. If you like it, then drink it.
Moore pulled me aside and said, “Navarro Vineyards. The guy is pouring a late harvest gewÃ¼rztraminer that isn’t on the table. Come on, I’ll get you a taste.” Turns out, the late harvest would be the icing on a very good cake. I tried all six wines on his table including a pinot noir and a chardonnay that were some of the best wines I had all day. Following the six, James Greaves reached into a red cooler behind the table and pulled from the ice what would be the best wine I drank that day. It was a sweet, complex white wine with a name that I can hardly pronounce. I had to know how they make it.
“Well first of all, we only make it in years where we have a natural botrytis condition,” explained Greaves.
Moore always says to me after a good bottle, “All that from rotting grape juice,” and apparently from diseased grapes as well. Botrytis, commonly referred to as the “noble rot,” is a fungus that deprives the grape of water and therefore concentrates the solids like sugar, fruit acids and minerals. What you get is a very sweet grape. The workers at Navarro then go through and hand-select these specific clusters from the vineyard. About one percent of the whole vineyard makes it into the bottle. You’re drinking pure, fungus-ridden love.
For attendees of Grape and Gourmet like Shannon Harlan and Karen Chang of Sacramento, the draw is “lots of food and wine in the same place.” That’s the real advantage for both local businesses like Sacramento’s Babycakes or Handley Cellars from the Anderson Valley; a chance to see thousands of people all at once. The trick is to make them come to you the next time, so it’s all about the “wow factor.” This was being accomplished by wineries sometimes offering access to every varietal and blend in their library and by restaurants showcasing on-site cooking and prep of their appetizers being served. Placerville’s Sequoia teased my taste buds with a sautÃ©ed mushroom plate that was wafting through the crowd. Sandra Dee’s line for what looked like a solitary rib was 20 deep each time I walked by, and some wineries were plum out of juice by the time I made my way over to their booths. That could be a quantity thing, but if it was good, then word was spreading fast. Alex Szabo of Szabo Vineyards, a boutique winery located in the Sierra Foothills, was experiencing this firsthand.
“I just had 10 people come up before you, plus five of the judges and say, ‘We want your primitivo,’” said Szabo. “It’s amazing how word of mouth goes around.”
I finished the day off with a chocolate cupcake and a sip of port in the spirit of some well-deserved finale I had earned. I did as most who attended, I’m sure, and walked away with a deeper passion for California wines and Sacramento area cuisine. Salud.