Monday, March 15, 2010

Cincinnati International Wine Festival: Year 2

"By the end, I was exhausted, my palate and the rest of me was tired, but I was pleased. I was pretty intimidated when I walked into the place, but I felt like I held my own among the wine cognoscenti. Can't wait for next year. I could get used to this..." -- Mike Rosenberg, The Naked Vine, 3/15/2009

"Whatever." -- Mike Rosenberg, returning home, 3/12/2010

Last year, I wrote a breathless paean to the trade tasting of the Cincinnati International Wine Festival. As a first-timer, the experience was Chanukah, Kwanzaa, Christmas, and Saturday night rolled into three hours on a Friday afternoon. I gleefully hopped from booth to booth, sampling wines from across the globe from wildly varying price points, having good conversations with pourers and winemakers alike.

To reset the scene for you -- 40,000 square feet of wineries, wine distributors, and various other wine and food related companies showing off for wine store owners, restaurateurs, bar owners, and one gloriously bald wine writer. I spoke to any number of winemakers who were friendly, chatty, and willing to carry on conversations while pouring. I got a lot of good information for the Vine and have carried on some extended conversations, met some cool folks, and got pretty jazzed by the whole experience.

This year, the vibe was noticeably different. The winemakers seemed almost surly this time around. Any number of them, seeing that I wasn’t in the market to purchase mass quantities, clearly decided that I wasn’t worth speaking with. (The best was the pourer with a popped collar, sweater tied just-so around his neck, comparing golf swings with a buddy behind the counter while I stood patiently waiting for a pour.)

Even what was being poured was different. There were a lot of the usual suspects – lots of “Vine range” wines that I’d seen in every store in the area, a few local distributors showing off their portfolios and that sort of thing. There seemed to be an inordinate number of winemakers from Napa hawking expensive, overdone (to my palate) cabernet. All of these folks seemed particularly tense – they were either nervously chatty to anyone in earshot or seemed a little high and mighty. I muddled through the three hours, tasting here and there – but I didn’t leave the place feeling like I’d made nearly as many new, notable discoveries as last year.

When I got home, I wasn’t in a particularly good mood – as the Sweet Partner in Crime can attest. Couple this with me getting blindsided by a few…shall we say…questionable ethical decisions by some folks in the wine community, and it added up to an experience that should have been uplifting becoming annoying instead.

On the following Sunday, I opened the paper to find a story with the headline “Napa winery operators struggle to stay solvent.” The story noted that the prices on these wines have skyrocketed as they gained “boutique” status. (Google “Screaming Eagle wine” if you want to know what I’m talking about.) Between the economic downturn of the last couple of years and the fact that there’s a heck of a lot of good wine that’s relatively inexpensive, the demand dropped sharply. Like the overvalued housing market, eventually the demand curve brings things back to earth. No wonder so many of these folks had those attitudes – many of them are literally fighting for their futures. (Judging from their service orientation, several will lose.)

All that said, the day wasn’t a total loss. I still managed to come across a few tasty bottles amidst all the gloom:

Gruet – Not the first time that I’ve mentioned this New Mexico winery in this space. Gruet makes a very solid line of inexpensive sparkling wines produced in the methode champenoise style. This event was the first time that I’d been able to try both their demi-sec (a slightly sweeter version of their sparkler) and their sparkling rosé, made from pinot noir. I thought the rosé was particularly good.

Tarrica – Last year, I discovered Maryhill Winery from Washington – a winery that made a wide spread of varietals which were all very solid wines. This year, the “Hey, I like and can afford all of these!” award goes to Tarrica. They’re from Paso Robles, which is quickly becoming one of my favorite American growing regions. Of special note for me were the pinot grigio (which had structure and weight unlike a lot of pinot grigio I run into) and the merlot. The merlot was the real champ. It wasn’t the tepid fruity creation you’ll see a lot of at around $12. This had some power, a lot of tannin, and I guess would improve over the next couple of years. Highly recommended.

Benton-Lane – From Oregon comes this small-production winery with the potential for a big, big future. They currently only produce “pinot” varietals – pinot gris, pinot blanc and pinot noir. The gris was fruity and approachable with a really nice level of acidity. I pictured this with any number of fish dishes that I’d whip up. But the star was the pinot noir. Their “regular” pinot goes for $26, but is well worth the investment. Their high end pinot noir, called “First Class,” was exactly that. The single best wine that I sampled the entire day. Really well put together, and if you’d fed it to me blind, I would have guessed high-end Burgundy instead of Willamette Valley.

Eberle – Also from Paso Robles, Eberle means “little boar” in German. Nothing pig-like about these wines, though. Many of the California chardonnay producers are finally stepping away from the “buttered charcoal” flavors, seeing instead more of an evenhanded approach. Their chardonnay was a mouthful of balance. Their cabernet was very solid and their single vineyard Zinfandel was an absolute rockstar.

Truchard – The best white that I tasted was the Truchard Roussanne. Not a grape that shows up often as it’s usually a blending grape, but more and more single-varietal versions are showing up. This particular wine was a lovely honey and pear flavored concoction that continued to show changing flavors sip after sip, finishing with a little spiciness. A great wine for showing off at a dinner party as an aperitif.

Maybe I just took an unfortunate path through the booths. Maybe there was just something in the air. In any case, I’ll give it another run next year and hope for bluer skies.

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