Food & Drink

Notes from Chronicle wine contest

The Grapev ine

There was good news and bad news at the world’s largest competition involving American wines, held recently in Sonoma County. More than 4,900 wines, from places as diverse as California, New York, Michigan and even South Dakota, were entered in the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, and there was a lot to like among some of the categories that I evaluated.

GOOD NEWS: Outstanding wines are being produced all over the country.

In the sweepstakes round, where judges pick the best of the best, 80 percent of the 81 wines were from California. But there were also big winners from New York’s Finger Lakes region (five wines), Washington state (five), Oregon (four) and New Mexico and South Dakota (one each).

The top wines in the sparkling ( non-vintage J Brut Rosé, $35), pink ( 2008 Bray Barbera Rosato, $17) and red ( 2007 Graton Ridge Paul Family Vineyard Pinot Noir, $40) divisions were from California, but the best white was a 2008 Keuka Spring Gewurztraminer ($17) from the Finger Lakes, and the best dessert wine was the 2008 Watermill Late Harvest Gewurztraminer ($14/375ml) from Washington.

I judged a riesling category that was chock full of good wines from New York and Michigan; the best-of-class winner was the 2008 Willamette Valley Vineyards Riesling ($12) from Oregon. Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to buy many of the out-of-state wines unless you order them.

BAD NEWS: Merlot producers need to pick up their game. I evaluated 53 merlots priced from $20 to $24.99, and many of the wines were shockingly bad. My tasting notes included observations like “stinky and tart,” “brutally tannic,” “terrible oak” and —my favorite — “smells like fish.” Astringency and aggressive tannins were frequent problems.

Please understand that I’m not saying that people shouldn’t drink merlot. But I think you have the right to expect better quality, especially when you’re paying 20 bucks a bottle. A couple to try are the best-of- class winner, 2007 Frei Brothers Reserve Merlot ($20), and the 2007 Hook and Ladder Merlot ($24), which I also liked.

GOOD NEWS: Domestic pinot noir continues to improve. I judged 58 pinots priced from $35 to $39.99 —not cheap but far from the most expensive category. Fourteen of them were awarded gold medals. The best of class was the 2007 Hook and Ladder Third Alarm Reserve Pinot Noir ($35), an intense, ripe Russian River pinot with black raspberry fruit and firm structure. Other highlights included a local wine, the 2008 Kelsey See Canyon Pinot Noir ($35), with its blackberry pie flavors and firm structure; the elegant, slightly earthy 2006 Clary Ranch Pinot Noir ($39.50); and the complex, smooth 2008 De La Montanya Tina’s Vineyard Pinot Noir ($39).

Next week, I’ll tell you about some more good news: the strong performance by some Paso Robles petite sirahs.