An afternoon at the San Francisco Vintners Market
November 20, 2012
In Argentina, no one drinks anything but Argentine wine. When an American visitor once expressed surprised that we didn't drink any Chilean wines, we pointed out that no store stocks foreign wines. Now that we have relocated to California, the whole world of wine is available to us — all the way from nearby Napa to New Zealand, with varietals as common as Chardonnay to upstarts like Californian Tempranillo.
We have continued our tradition of recording and ranking all the wines we try. Since we are on a budget, we aim to spend about $10/bottle on average, about the equivalent of what we were spending in Argentina toward the end of our stay. Unfortunately 45-60 pesos is a much higher price point in Argentina than it is here. In Argentina we could enjoy good-quality Malbecs from top vineyards at that price; here we have mostly been drinking a fairly generic selection of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
(Side note: I find it disappointing how few wines from Argentina we've found here, even at upscale stores. Most carry the same couple of Malbecs from the big vineyards, and nothing else, which is a shame because Argentina makes a lot of great wines.)
But we're trying to explore California wines, not find our favorites from Argentina, so we took two steps lately to expand our palates. First, we signed up for the WSJ wine club. For $90 we received 15 bottles of wine (it was supposed to be half white and half red, but an order mixup left us with 15 reds). Second, we attended a showcase of local wineries at the San Francisco Vintners Market.
Our $40 tickets gave us unlimited pours from the nearly 100 wineries in the main hall (for more money, you could buy a ticket to the reserve selection, but we weren't in the market for $100 bottles of wine). Knowing nothing about any of the wineries, we simply made our way in a circle around the perimeter of the room, trying two or three wines at each booth.
For the first hour, we progressed slowly, trying a fairly standard sampling of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. After a break for lunch, we decided to focus our efforts on wines that were either a) unusual or b) a good value. We had tried plenty of wines we liked, but at $25/bottle, we weren't going to take most of them home.
A few of our discoveries:
Gewurztraminer: The winery Aubin Cellars introduced us to this varietal, which is a typical wine of Alsace. The Verve Janka Gewürztraminer 2010 is a sweet floral wine. In contrast, we also tried a dry Gewurztraminer from Londer Vineyards in Anderson Valley, perfect for pairing for Thai food. We enjoyed both and are excited to go up to Anderson Valley in February for their Alsace Varietals Festival.
Vermentino: We bought a bottle of this traditionally Italian varietal from Bailiwick in Sonoma. Bailiwick says this about their 2011 Vermentino: "Lively and appetizing. A crisp bouquet of citrus and herbs is complemented by a lush mouthfeel of ideally ripe fruit, followed by brisk acidity at the finish." We're excited to try it with pesto.
Cabernet Franc: Bailiwick also made a Cabernet Franc that we enjoyed — it reminded us of the Gran Pulenta Cabernet Franc at Pulenta Estates in Mendoza. Cabernet Franc is common in blends, but isn't usually used as a single varietal, so we like to try it when we run into it.
Barbera: We purchased our second and final bottle from BellaGrace — a 2010 Barbera. According to Wikipedia, Barbera is the third most-planted red grape variety in Italy, known for its deep color, low tannins and high levels of acid. A workhorse table wine, perhaps, we liked the contrast to the reds we've been drinking and it stood out for us when considering what we wanted to take home.
Zinfandel: Though Zinfandel is one of the most common and famous varietals in California, we never drink it, perhaps put off by the scorn directed toward white Zinfandels. We greatly enjoyed the 2009 Old Vine Zinfandel by BellaGrace, though we couldn't spring for a bottle.
Sparkling: Other than on Christmas Eve, I don't drink much champagne, but we both enjoyed the Prosecco-style sparkling Ca' Rosa and Ca' Secco wines from Ca'Momi Winery, which were less yeasty than traditional champagne.
Red blends: We were both surprised and impressed by the Troubadour red by Tayerle Wine, a blend of Grenache and Petite Sirah. But the winery wasn't listed on the official program, so we forgot to consider buying a bottle when we made our rounds at the end.
And talk about good marketing: The Clif Family Winery was selling their Zinfandel blend (63% Zinfandel, 21% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Syrah, 2% Merlot, 2% Petite Sirah) for $6, which made it stand out for us among the more expensive competition. We would happily buy a case of that wine for the price.
Cameron Hughes Winery: Another good value proposition, Cameron Hughes buys excess wine from producers and resells it for bargain prices. We were surprised to see a bottle of Torrontes, an almost exclusively Argentine grape with little international recognition, for $12. We also enjoyed a Napa Valley Meritage and a California Field Blend, though a rosé was nothing special.
A few final notes: We thought Calstar Cellars made an interesting Chardonnay and a Pinot Noir with a nice finish, we appreciated the earthy Pinot Noir from Bennet Valley by Cowan Cellars, as well as the Contessa de Carneros Pinot and the 2009 Pinot from Desmond Wines (much more than their newer bottles). We liked the Zinfandels from Dutcher Crossing Winery and Navarro Vineyards (though I have no specific tasting notes), as well as the Chardonnays from Dutcher Crossing and Tayerle. I have yet to warm up to Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling, though Ben enjoyed a Riesling by Cutruzzola Vineyards (and I appreciated the smokiness of their Pinot Noir).
We rounded out our purchases with a bottle of freshly pressed olive oil from Cloud 9 Olivery.
In the end, we only visited about 25 of the 100 or so booths, which leaves us plenty to try at future events and on our upcoming weekend trips to wine country.