Finger Lakes Wine Competition Results: Truly International, Truly Top Flight

This post was written by guest-blogger Steve Somermeyer, assistant winemaker at Chateau Thomas Winery, Indianapolis, Indiana.

Steve Somermeyer, Judge
Finger Lakes Intl Wine Competition
The FLIWC (Finger Lakes International Wine Competition) just keeps getting bigger and better.  This year there were almost 3300 commercial entries from 22 countries, 5 Canadian Providences, and all 50 states (for the 3rd year in a row I believe).  This places it in the top 3-4 competitions in the country when commercial entry totals are compared and clearly the largest ice wine competition in the world.  I was one of the 64 judges which made for a fairly crowded judging room.  Judges represented 15 countries which made for interesting chats over meals and in the evenings.  The FLIWC benefits Camp Good Days and Special Moments, a camp located on one of the Finger Lakes dedicated to providing a great camp experience for kids fighting cancer.  All of the backroom staff are volunteers and are dedicated to the camp.  A number of the judges, myself included, donate their travel expenses to the camp.  The organizers - Peter, David, Ron, Chris, and many others - go out of their way to make the judges feel very welcome and take very good care of us. 

If you want to see the detailed results for yourself the website for the FLIWC 2012 results is:

Every year at FLIWC I make new friends and my new panel members quickly became friends.  Aaron Mandel, an attorney from St. Louis, Fred Stabins, a certified AWS judge (like Aaron) from Rochester, and Shari Mogk-Edwards, Vice-President, Merchandising and Vintages, LCBO (Liquor Control Board for Ontario).  We enjoyed the competition and learned new insights from each other.  We had 15-20 minutes to work through a flight of 8 wines and enjoyed 12-13 flights per day.  That's plenty of sniffing and spitting for each day.  For the judges that can stay, the organizers take us on a bus ride to the Fingers Lakes on Monday.  One of the things that makes it special is that they don't pick the wineries to visit until after the competition so that wineries that do well are selected.  Usually the bus - 2 this year because of the large number of judges - stops at Camp Good Days so we get a sense of what the camp is.   It's a great day to unwind from judging with time to chat with fellow judges and some award winning winemakers.

The FLIWC doesn't award a single Best-of-Show trophy but it does award nice trophies for Best Ice Wine, Best Riesling, Best Chardonnay, and Best Cabernet Sauvignon.  The winners:

Best Ice Wine - 2008 A Capella Ice Wine from Black Star Farm near Traverse City, MI
Best Riesling - Also from Michigan and the Leeanau Peninsula, Chateau Fontaine with their 2011 Dry White Riesling
Best Chardonnay - Merryvale Vineyards from Napa Valley, 2010 Chardonnay
Best Cabernet Sauvignon - Washington's Chateau St. Michelle with their 2009 Canoe Ridge Estate Cabernet Sauvignon

I've always felt that wines judged in the first flight of a competition suffer from being the first wines to be judged - judges are getting breakfast tastes out of their palates, working to get calibrated to fellow panel judges, and getting into the pace or rhythm of the competition.  With our panel for instance, Shari is used to evaluating many wines in a very short time frame to make purchasing decisions for the LCBO and Fred is a very deliberate judge searching for every nuance while Aaron and I fell somewhere in between.  Because of our Midwestern judging experiences, Aaron and I also had more experience with fruit wines so we had a number of amicable discussions as we worked through the wide assortment of wines.  It took us several flights to adjust our pace to each other.  As mentioned previously I always worry about the results of the first flight of wines so I was very surprised, pleasantly so, when our panel discussed our impressions of the flight of Pinot Gris/Grigio wines and we not only awarded a gold medal to a Michigan Pinot Gris but also a double gold to a Pinto Gris from the Slovak Republic.  So much for my pre-conceived notion!

Another pleasant surprise for our panel was a double gold Frontenac blend from Quebec, 2010 Mystere Rouge from Vignoble d'Oka.  We had a nice flight of Cabernet Franc's with 4 silvers and 2 gold medals - 2010 from Six Mile Creek Vineyard in Ithaca, NY, and non-vintage blend Americus from LaBelle Winery in New Hampshire.  An unfamiliar grape to all of us, Roesler, yielded another double gold medal with 2009 Roesler Reserve from Schachl Harlad in Austria - truly this was an international competition.  Our flights of Riesling didn't let us down with a double gold going to the 2010 Riesling from Sandbanks Estates Winery in Ontario and a gold medal to Gallo's 2010 Polka Dot Riesling - a 'value' wine. 

Some of the new vintage white wines suffered because of the timing of this competition as many had just recently been bottled and the sulfur aroma that is quite common in newly bottled wines was evident and a distraction.  As I reviewed my judging score sheets, there was generally a SO2 comment on each flight of whites.

We also had a nice flight of Syrah/Shiraz with a double gold going to 2009 Stymie Syrah from Steele Wines in Lake County, CA, and a gold going to 2009 Syrah Reserve from Tulip Winery in Israel. 
The flight of Cabernet Sauvignon produced a double gold - Kenneth Volk Vineyards 2008 (Volk founded Wild Horse Vineyards in Paso Robles, sold it to Beam, and now has started this winery) and 2 gold medals - J. Lohr Hilltop 2008 and Domaine Napa Wine's 2010 Forest Glen Cabernet Sauvignon, another 'value'.  Our Red Bordeaux Blend flight yielded a double gold from Sandbanks Estate Winery in Ontario with their 2009 Shoreline Red plus golds from Paltine Hills Estate Winery in Ontario and Santa Julia Magna from Bodega Santa Julia in Mendoza, Argentina.   We also found a double gold in the Merlot class from Cardella Winery in California near Fresno with their 2008 and a gold with 2008 Dvoracke Merlot Barriqu by Vinarstvi Dvoracek in the Czech Republic.

Switching to fruit wines we found 2 double golds in our flight of Blackberry wines - Tomasello Winery in New Jersey and Lagoda Ridge Winery in Missouri.   btw, Lagoda Ridge also won gold medals for 2 other fruit wines: a Peach and a flavored Cherry wine, Chococherry Kiss.

Our flight of Ice Wines yielded a double gold from Quebec, Vignoble Riviere du Chene's 2009 Mondo Ice Wine.  It also contained a pair of gold medal wines from the same winery - rose-colored Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc from Royal DeMaria Wines in Ontario.  Our last flight of the competition was a flight of artificially frozen 'ice wines' /late harvest wines and we ended up with a bang  with two double golds.  One was a 2010 Pear from Georgian Hills Vineyard in Ontario and the other was a 2003 Traminette Steyer Vaneja by Steyer Vina in Slovenia.

All in all, we had some excellent wines along with a few stinkers.  We awarded 14 double golds which was quite a bit above the average but felt lucky as numerous friends from other tables complained about the 'average' wines they judged.  At least one panel didn't find a single double gold among the 200+ wines they judged.  I've judged with several from that panel and certainly didn't feel that they were hyper critical when I judged with them.

One can find excellent wine everywhere these days.  If you look at the list of the double gold medal winners on the website, you will find winners from 18 states, 3 Candian providences, and 3 other countries.  Extending the search to include gold medals would increase these numbers. 

Let's look at the results and highlight the wineries that did very well:

A favorite of mine from previous Indy Internationals, Maryhill Winery at the eastern end of the Columbia River Gorge on the Washington side, took a double gold with their 2008 Barbara and golds with
 2009 Proprietor's Reserve Zinfandel and 2010 Pinot Gris.

Previously mentioned Lagoda Ridge in Missouri and their fruit wines (see above)

Bending Branch Winery in Texas took a double gold with their 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon and golds with their 2009 Tannat and 2009 Souzao.

Trump (Yes, that Trump) Winery in Virginia got 2 double golds with their 2009 Red Bordeaux Blend New World Red and their sparkling 2008 Blanc de Blanc

 Indiana's own Oliver Winery entered quite a few wines and received 2 double golds - 2010 Creekbend Chambourcin and a new label for them 2010 Vintage Sun Cabernet Sauvignon from Mendoza (?) plus a gold medal for their 2011 Creekbend Vidal Blanc.

As mentioned previously Kenneth Volk Vineyards received a double gold from our panel for their Cabernet Sauvignon and also one for their 2008 Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir plus a gold medal for their 2009 Touriga.

E & J Gallo entered a number of their national brands and their Barefoot wines did very well.  Hard to beat in the 'value' (quality:price ratio), Barefoot won golds for Pinot Grigio, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, and Moscato plus one for the 2010 Alamos Red Blend from Mendoza, the Poka Dot Riesling (from our panel), and the Naked Grape Pinot Grigio.  They also won 28 silver medals.

Sandbanks Estate Winery in Ontario won double golds from our panel with their Shoreline Red plus their 2010 Riesling.

Merryvale Vineyards from Napa not only won the best Chardonnay trophy but also got double golds with their 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2011 Starmont Sauvignon Blanc.  Chris O'Gormon, who is their Marketing head and judges at FLIWC every year is a great guy and I enjoy interacting with him.

Gloria Ferrer Caves and Vineyards in California won 3 gold medals for

If you'd like to learn more about the FLIWC and Camp Good Days, visit the website to see how you can get involved/help.  It's a great cause and it's attracted great people.  I'm priviledged to be one of the wine competition judges.


Trying and Buying: SF Vintners Market performs for Sierra Foothill Wines

“It’s the only event I will always pour at,” said Larry Aderman, owner and marketing director of Frog’s Tooth Vineyards, Calaveras County. 

He’s talking about the San Francisco Vintners Market events held at the Fort Mason center in San Francisco.  Billed as “a farmer’s market approach to wine shopping”, this is one of the rare events where consumers can both taste wines and buy them on the spot at tasting room prices, and without having to make the drive to the tasting room.
This was the 5th Vintners Market, and the crowds at the two day event (April 14-15) were testimony to its popularity.  Started by Cornelius Geary and Jeffrey Playter, founders of Wine 2.0,  in April 2010, these twice-yearly events offer a good opportunity to combine tasting and buying into one convenient trip. 

“With market conditions enormously difficult for many smaller wineries, we realized the need for vintners to get even closer to their customers and offer their wines to larger auidiences than can be found in small tasting rooms in wine country”, the organizers said.  “So the idea was born to bring the tasting room to San Francisco and help smaller brands find even more wine lovers in the city.”
General admission tickets are priced high enough to keep out the I-wanna-just-get-a-buzz-on crowd, and a surcharge on the ticket allows consumers to access a “reserve section” where wines priced at $50/bottle or higher are poured.  Oh yes, you do get to keep the commemorative wine glass.

Most important,  this format works for small wineries.  I talked to, and tasted, at the tables of three Sierra Foothill wine enterprises:  Clos Saron (Yuba County), Murphy Vineyards (sources grapes from Placer County), and Frog’s Tooth (Calaveras County).
Larry Aderman,
Frog's Tooth Winery
Larry Aderman of Frog’s Tooth was pouring his 2010 Torrontes, which won “Best in Class” at the California State Fair in 2011.  Delicious, light, aromatic.  “It’s low in alcohol and has aromas very characteristic of Viognier with subtle flavors of peach and apricot,” said Larry.  “A great  pairing with spicy foods.  11.5% alcohol, $16/bottle.   

He also shared some of his 2009 Barbera Sierra Foothills.  He only produced 230 cases of this yummy Barbera
, which is a nice ruby-red color, with flavors of berry.  A very food-friendly wine and nice for upcoming BBQ events you might be thinking about for the summer.   15.3% alcohol, $24/bottle.

Frog’s Tooth winery will be pouring at the Barbera Festival at Cooper’s Vineyards on June 9, by the way…. A festival NOT TO MISS!
VIP blogger "LusciousLushes"
tastes Gideon Bienstock's wines
Gideon Bienstock of Clos Saron is known for his innovative blends and his flavorful wines.  He has a fervent group of followers who bring themselves to Yuba county for his events.   He poured a 2011 Carte Blanche, which is comprised of 30% Albarino, 30% Verdelho, 30% Chardonnay and the remainder Petit Manseng.  This is his first release of what is basically a new wine: Organically grown, sourced in Lodi and south of Marysville.   Only 988 bottles bottled,unfined.  It’s part of Gideon’s “Unique Cuvee” series, and website notes this wine to be:  “Light, lively, and brightly aromatic, with a concoction of flowers and fruits. Dry & elegant, very food friendly. 12.5% Alc. Total amount of sulfur added: 10 mg/l. No inoculation, adjustments, or new oak.”  $25/bottle.

Gideon also poured his “A Deeper Shade of Blue”, a blend of Cinsault, Syrah and Roussane.  Not on his website yet, it has taste of pepper, black brambly fruits, and is a bit tannic.  75 cases produced.  12.8% alcohol, $32/bottle.

Peter Murphy,
Murphy Vineyard
A relative newcomer in the Sierra Foothill grape scene is Peter Murphy, whose basic business is vineyard management in Napa and the Sierra Foothill.  He brought a 2005 Syrah Sierra Foothill to the Vintners Marketplace.  These grapes were sourced from Placer County:  “I’m very impressed with the quality of grapes in the Sierra Foothills, and so decided to produce some wines with them.  My hunch was right – and I already have an award winner.”   He made 400 cases of this Syrah, and won a Gold Medal in the 2008 Riverside International Wine Competition, and a silver at the 2007 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.  80% Syrah Sierra Foothills (Auburn’s Monarch Mine Vineyards), 18% Cabernet Franc Sierra Foothills(Loomis).  Smokey aroma with clove and cherry notes, flavor of black cherry and allspice.  Medium body, made in a light style.   14.4% alcohol, $16/bottle.

I also tasted Murphy Vineyard’s Sierra Red 2005.  This is a 50/50 Syrah/Cabernet Franc blend.  300 cases made… and a great barbeque wine!   14% alcohol.  $16/bottle.
Didn’t get to the Vintners Market?  Try the winery websites and let your fingers do the walking until the next Vintners Marketplace.
p.s. Couldn't resist this photo opp from the Spirits tasting section...this guy is SERIOUS about staying close to his beverage of choice...

A great group of wines: 10 Hot Small Brands, selected by Wine Business Monthly

Writers for major wine business magazines taste thousands of wines a year so their recommendations are pretty good.  Relatively unknown is the annual selection of ten “hot small brands” by Wine Business Monthly.  Wine drinkers rarely see industry magazines, but they are vital to those of us who want to know what’s behind the label.

I tasted them all. Yummy. If you can’t find these specific wines, try others from these wineries.

Joe Dobbes,
Wine by Joe
From Wine by Joe: Dundee, Oregon.  2010 Joe’s Secco.  This sparkling wine is a blend of Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Muscat, with flavor of green  apple, a slight honey hint, and almonds.. Nice and dry, a bit tart, and very refreshing. $16/bottle.  13 percent alcohol.

Cecchetti Wine Company: Sonoma, CA.  2009 Line 39 Sauvignon Blanc, Lake County.   This could be your new aperitif wine.  Refreshing and light, with flavor of lime, lemon, grapefruit, and a nice acidity on the finish.  $10/bottle.  13.5 percent alcohol.
JC Cellars:  Oakland, CA.  2008 The Imposter. One reviewer called it a “Provencal-styled red”.  With rich flavors of pepper, spice, blueberries, cherries, it is a blend of Zinfandel, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Tempranillo and Carignan. $35/bottle, 15.5 percent alcohol.
Truett Hurst: Dry Creek Valley, CA.  2009 Red Rooster old vine Zinfandel.    A really delicious zinfandel, a classic Dry Creek wine. Flavor of dark berries, pepper, a bit of smokiness too. $29/bottle, 15.8 percent alcohol.
Barnard Griffin:  Richland, Washington. 2008 Grenache.   Taste of tropical fruit with  a touch of oak and some rich dark berry flavors , with pepper and black tea. Great with spicy foods!  $25/bottle.  14.4 percent alcohol.
Bennett Valley Cellars:  Sonoma County, CA  2009 Pinot Noir. Taste of red fruits and berries, with a medium finish.  $39/bottle.  14.5 percent alcohol.
Talbott Vineyards:  Monterey County, CA.  2009 Logan Chardonnay, Sleepy Hollow Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands.  A fruity and structured wine, it is full bodied, with nectarine, kiwi, honey and some oak.  $22.50/bottle.  14.9% alcohol.
Veritas Vineyard & Winery:  Afton, Virginia.  2009 Petit Verdot, Paul Shaffer 3rd Edition, Monticello.  Petit Verdot is primarily used in Bordeaux blends, but if you like it by itself, this is a classic.   $30/bottle.  13.7 percent alcohol.
Barrister Winery: Spokane, Washington.  2009 Cabernet Franc, Columbia Valley.   It is fruit forward with a silky mouthfeel, soft tannins and a long finish. It is a blend of 88% Cabernet Franc 12% cabernet sauvignon. $28/bottle.  14.9 percent alcohol.
Lone Madrone: Paso Robles, CA.  2007 Tannat.  This is a Rhone varietal generally used for blending, but the pure blueberry taste of this wine, with a hint of tobacco, makes it special by itself.  $40/bottle.  16.8 percent alcohol.

Zinfandel- a Great Variety for the Sierra Foothills

“Why Zin?” was the question I asked the 18 Sierra Foothill wineries who were at the yearly ZAP event in San Francisco.  Bill Easton of Terre Rouge and Easton Wines gave a great short answer:  “It has shown itself to be a great variety here in the Sierra Foothills;  it’s been 150 years in the region.  Zinfandel makes great complex wines with aging potential.”  

Zinfandel’s history in the Sierra Foothills is long and colorful.  Scott Harvey of Scott Harvey Wines notes,  “Our 1869 Vineyard off Steiner Road in the Shenandoah Valley is probably the oldest documented Zinfandel vineyard. We know the vineyard was planted in 1861. Then there is my grandfather’s vineyard, planted during prohibition.  I guess you’d have to say my grandfather was a bootlegger;  I have his “still” yet today.”

There are so many great wines to taste at this ZAP event. Here are a few picks for you to try. 

Scott & Jana Harvey,
Scott Harvey Wines
Scott Harvey’s 1869 Zinfandel is ruby-red in color, with black fruit aroma of raspberries and black cherries.  It has a complex flavor profile: raspberry, cherry, blackberry, a hint of allspice and black pepper.  The finish is long and a real palate pleaser. 14.5 percent alcohol. $45 the bottle.

Joan Kautz of Ironstone
Ironstone 2008 Amador “Deaver Vineyard” Reserve Old Vine Zinfandel.  The grapes come from a 90 year old vineyard located at 1,100 feet.  Pepper and spice are integrated into this big rich wine, with flavors of raspberries and cranberries and hints of chocolate and cherries.  15 percent alcohol.  $28 the bottle.

Beth Jones, Lava Cap Winery
2009 Lava Cap El Dorado Reserve Zinfandel, estate bottled, has lush blackberry and plum flavors and balanced tannins with a spicy pepper finish. Lava Cap is regarded as one of the premier zinfandel producers in the region.  15.1 percent alcohol, $20 the bottle.

Bill McGillivray,
Dono dal Cielo
The 2006 Donodal Cielo Zinfandel is a classic Zinfandel, reminiscent of the great Zinfandels from the late 70′s and 80′s. It has bright fruit notes with aromas and flavors of cinnamon, allspice and anise.   14 percent alcohol.  $28 the bottle.

Jonathan Lachs,
The 2009 Cedarville Estate Zinfandel, a blend from Cedarville’s four estate Zinfandel vineyard blocks with 8% Petite Sirah added for depth,  is a well-balanced wine with blackberry aromas and a long finish.      14.9 percent alcohol, $22 the bottle

Chaim & Elisheva Gur-Arieh,
C.G. Di Arie Winery
C. G.Di Arie’s 2006 Zinfandel, Shenandoah Valley, is an elegant, well-balanced wine with good structure.  It’s got a little muscle.   14.6 percent alcohol, $25 the bottle.

Chris Leamy, winemaker,
Terra d'Oro Winery

Zinfandel Port
from Terra d’ Oro was a taste treat.  Using traditional Portuguese port-making techniques with Zinfandel yields a Port that’s a bit lighter in flavor,  with a raisiny character.    19 percent alcohol, $24 the bottle.

For more on Sierra Foothills wines and wineries, go to

Syrah and The Sierra Foothills

Syrah from the Sierra Foothills is a treat for anyone who loves this grape.  I had a chance to taste several fine examples at the SyrahDay tasting sponsored by the El Dorado Winery Association recently.  Eight wineries poured:  Boeger Winery, Crystal Basin Cellars, David Girard Vineyards, Grace Patriot Wines, Lava Cap, Mount Aukum Winery, Shadow Ranch Vineyard, and Sierra Vista Vineyards & Winery.

Syrah is a wine that is not without controversy.  Eric Asimov, wine writer for the New York Times, blogged this:  “The real issue is why Americans don’t buy syrah. This question has caused great heartache and controversy, especially in the California syrah business,” Asimov noted.  “This, I suggest, is why American don’t buy a lot of syrah: Too many of the wines seem generic, a blend of fruit and oak that may be vaguely pleasant but could come from anywhere and be made of any grape.”

“Conversely, the best American syrahs, in my opinion, are made by producers who have been inspired by the great traditionalists of the northern Rhône,” he said.

Sierra Foothills winegrapes come from terrain that is reminiscent of the northern Rhone, which is why they do so well both in the vineyard and on the palate.  “The future of Syrah is all about fruit and getting that fruit - with the smoky meat, pepper and berry aspects that mark the variety - into the bottle,” said winemaker Mike Owen of Crystal Basin Winery.  

Mike and Melissa Owen,
Crystal Basin Winery
Crystal Basin (Camino, CA) made 311 cases of their 2009 Syrah El Dorado 'Reserve', using grapes sourced from BushBrothers Sumu-Kaw Vineyard, El Dorado County. It’s packed with rich ripe fruit and blackberry flavors with a touch of spiciness. Aged for 18 months in neutral French and American barrels, this wine has soft tannins and 15.5 percent alcohol. $22/bottle at the winery or 

Lava Cap Winemaker,
Tom Jones
Lava Cap Winery, Placerville, poured its 2009 Estate Bottled El Dorado Syrah. Winemaker Tom Jones produced 816 cases of this wine, which has complex flavors of dark cherry and plum, with a hint of carob and spice. It’s a wine with intensity and depth. 14.7 percent alcohol, $21/bottle at the winery or

Barbara & John MacCready,
Sierra Vista Winery
John MacCready of Sierra Vista Winery, Placerville,   poured his Fleur de Montagne (syrah based) and his /Reserve Syrah, Red Rock Ridge Syrah.  “Over the years the Red Rock Ridge Syrah has been compared favorably to some of the best of Cote Rotie by those who have tasted fine Syrah from Cote Rotie,” said John, winemaker and owner.  Frankly, Sierra Vista’s Fleur de Montagne is one of my all-time favorite wines, so I am so pleased he is pouring it.  It’s a delicious rouge Chateauneuf-du-Pape style blend. $29/bottle at the winery or

The Red Rock Ridge Syrah is Sierra Vista Winery’s flagship Syrah, and very reminiscent of a Cote Rotie. Winemaker’s Notes on the 2005:  “Deep purple in color with a wonderful bouquet of red berry and violets, the ripe, juicy raspberry and cherry flavors marry well with hints of oak and medium tannins. This wine will age nicely over the next 6 to 12 years, “ $32/bottle at the winery or

Check out El Dorado Winery Association’s website for other nearby upcoming events:

The must-do visit in Argentine wine country- Catena Zapata

Absolutely positively no visit to the wine region of Argentina is complete without a visit to Catena Zapata. I hardly know where to begin, but if you read Laura Catena’s book, Vino Argentino,  you’ll begin to sense what I mean. That inkling of just how important this winery is was blown into full awareness when I visited Bodega Catena Zapata located not far from Mendoza, Argentina. This visit courtesy of WineBow, which imports these fine wines into the USA.

Nicolas Catena and daughter Laura
The wine library
When Nicolas Catena set out to make Argentine wines, and his wines in particular, able to compete with other world class wines, he was very serious. One index of his determination is the Wine Library he has created at the Bodega. In it are 5000 wines from all around the world, selected from the best growers and regions. These he uses as his comparison and benchmark.

The vineyard profile brochure which Catena Zapata provides to visitors explains the characteristics of the soils in the 6 districts from which they source their wines: Angelica (Lunlunta District), La Piramide (Agrelo District), Adrianna (Gualtallary District), Domingo (Villa Bastias District), Nicasia (La Consulta District) and Angelica Sur (Eugenio Bustos District). Part of the legacy which the Catena Zapata family leaves to Argentine winemaking is that they pioneer viticulture in undiscovered regions for grapegrowing – the Adrianna Vineyard at 5000 feet elevation in the Andean foothills is one example.
Red ribbon for
special vines

Known for their Malbec, time and again the family selected the highest quality Malbec vines to nurture. When our group visited the vineyard near the Bodega, we saw this practice still in action, as Zapata Vines are still physically marked with a red ribbon to assure great attention to detail. Grapes from these carefully-nurtured vines form the foundation of the Catena Zapata wines.

Vineyards with Andes backdrop

The architecture of the winery is wondrous. The structure blends with the backdrop of the Andes, with a strong nod to ancient South American religions.

I can go on and on, but seriously, you should read the book. The history is fascinating, and there are recipes and restaurant recommendations as a bonus! Let me just end the dissertation with a direct quote from Laura Catena, a fourth-generation Catena Zapata Family vintner:

“We are a family winery with 100 years of experience growing Malbec in Mendoza. From father to son, brother to sister, we have passed on the tradition of tending vines and winemaking. In the 1980’s Nicolas Catena changed the history of Argentine wine when he dared to believe that a wine could be made in Mendoza that would stand with the best of the world. Planting Malbec at an altitude where no one thought it would ripen, studying climate and soil to the smallest detail, developing the first ever clonal selection of Argentine Malbec, my father and I have embarked on a journey to make a wine with soul, a wine of character, a wine that will age for generations to come, from our five cherished vineyards: Angelica, La Piramide, Adrianna, Domingo and Nicasia.”

Of course the talented winemakers at Bodega Catena Zapata make more wines than just Malbec. Our WineBow group tasting included the following:

• Catena Alta Chardonnay 2009
• Catena Alta Cabernet Sauvignon 2008
• Catena Alta Malbec 2008
• Catena Zapata Malbec Nicasia 2008
• Catena Zapata Malbec Adrianna 2008
• Catena Chardonnay 2011
• Catena Cabernet Sauvignon 2010
• Catena Malbec 2010
• Catena Zapata Malbec Argentino 2008
• Nicolas Catena Zapata 2008 (a blend of 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Malbec)
• White Stones Chardonnay 2008 (available only at the winery)
• White Bones Chardonnay 2008 (available only at the winery)

All of these wines were world-class, but I have zeroed in on the few that I particularly enjoyed.

Catena Alta Malbec 2008. MY TOP PICK. This is 100% Malbec, sourced from several of their vineyards. It’s a dark violet color, Winemaker notes: “The nose offers freshly ground, ripe berry fruits with layers of wild flowers, mocha and tobacco. The mouthfeel is full with excellent weight and concentration with a soft and silky texture. The mid palate offers rich cassis and black currant fruit flavors interwoven with hints of chocolate, vanilla and black pepper. It finishes with a wonderful minerality, finely grained tannins and lively acidity.” 14.% alcohol, $55 suggested USA retail.

Catena Zapata Malbec Nicasia 2008. When the money tree falls on me, this will be my house wine! Grapes for this very special wine are selected from clusters plant-by-plant, and the grapes are manually de-stemmed. That begins to give you an idea of how special this wine is. Winemaker notes: “Catena Zapata Nicasia 2008 is a dark red violet Malbec. Ripe black fruits, sweet spices and thyme are some of the aromas that we can appreciate from this special malbec from one of the Catena´s highest family vineyards. Very complex and expressive palate, with lovely violet flavors, dark berries, licorice, bitter chocolate and spicecake.” 14% alcohol. $135 suggested USA retail price. It is now being pre-sold on some internet sites for ~$100, but doesn’t ship until after tax day. Use your refund money and get some of this great wine.

I found one wine, the Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, from the Catena line to be spectacular and well-priced. The Catena line is the core of the winery’s portfolio. The vintages of 1990 and 1991 created waves in the worldwide wine industry, and some say that these vintages changed Argentine wine history.

Catena Cabernet Sauvignon 2010. This is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, with grapes sourced from vineyards at three different altitudes above 3000 feet. The rocky soils in the Lujan de Cujo and Tupungato vineyards, combined with the high elevation, have resulted in a wonderfully aromatic wine. Tupungato region vines contribute spicy aromatics and pepper notes of the Domingo vineyard (3,700’ elevation): notes of black pepper and sweet spice, medium body and well-structured tannins. Lujan de Cuyo region vines contribute the black currant and cassis fruit flavors and ripe, sweet tannins of the La Pirámide vineyard (3,100’ elevation) and provide a full yet soft mouthfeel. 13.5% alcohol. $18 suggested USA retail.

Top it all off with lunch at a grassy area near a pond where Laura Catena’s children play hide-and-seek in the soft Mendoza autumn… a spectacular experience.

Ernesto Catena of Argentina’s Alma Negra Winery – the Breakaway Kid

Ernesto Catena is a winery owner with a mission – to induce consumers to like wines not because of labels, brands, or terroir, but because of how they taste. It’s contrary to the way wines are marketed worldwide currently, but he just may be onto something. In conjunction with winemaker Bernardo Bossi, Ernesto Catena is producing some fine wines from the wine estate he founded in 2003: Alma Negra.

Ernesto is a renegade and our WineBow group was totally unprepared for Alma Negra Winery and Ernesto – at least, I was. Ernesto’s philosophy is his own, and an amalgam of biodynamics, Zen, and just plain common sense. Regardless of his independent style and attitude, Ernesto is part of the Nicolas Catena winemaking family and has wine in his bloodline and passion in his enterprise, just as you would expect from a Catena. He founded his wine estate in 2003.
The grapevine labyrinth
Ernesto and family

Ernesto supplies his media visitors with a CD full of great photos, wine technical sheets, and a biography that attempts to explain this complex young man. Here are excerpts: “Ernesto Catena would like to live in the here and now, doing the things he likes doing, like roaming through the vineyard, cooking for his family, playing instruments, harvesting, tasting wines, sleeping naps under the shade, other words, living the life of an artist, or at least of an artist as he sees it. Being far from perfect, Ernesto has a weakness for symbols, icons, and all kind of representations of beauty, dead or alive, which is why he runs an art gallery with his wife Joanna, and can never stop adding labyrinths, gardens, and exotic trees to his farm.”

An idyllic life, yes, but Ernesto is practical too. The apple does not fall far from the tree, and making good wine is important to him. The bio acknowledges this: “Luckily, there are other people in the company who are very adept with breaking through the challenges of commercial winemaking, and thus free Ernesto and company to the more enlightning and rewarding chores of wine making.”

Outdoor tasting in the
pergola by the lake
“Beauty is my guiding star, most of the times,” notes Ernesto. And his wines have a beauty of texture and taste that reflect his philosophy. One part of his philosophy is NOT to emphasize varietals: “It’s scary how much weight people give to varietals,” he said at one point in our tasting.

Storage and racking
From our tasting
Ernesto Catena Vineyards grows many varietals, and our group believed that they detected hints of the following varietals in the Alma Negra we-don’t-reveal-the-varietal-therein blends, including Malbec, Bonarda, Syrah, Viognier, Tempranillo, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. The winery produces 120,000 cases total now. You can enjoy their wines in the USA, as they are imported by WineBow. Our wine tasting was focused on five wines: Alma Negra Malbec Rose 2011, Alma Negra Misterio Blanco 2011, Alma Negra “M” Blend 2010, Alma Negra Misterio 2009, and Alma Negra Gran Misterio 2009. Of these my favorite was the Alma Negra “M” Blend 2010.

Alma Negra Malbec Rose 2011 was a refreshing citrusy wine, perfect for enjoying with appetizers in the Pergola near the winery. The composition is 85% Malbec and 15% Pinot Noir, with all grapes coming from the Mendoza appellation and in particular the vineyards of Tunuyan, Vistaflores; Ernesto Catena vineyard; Tupungato; and Adriana. 60,000 bottles made. 12.7% alcohol.. $24 suggested retail USA.

Alma Negra Misterio Blanco 2011 is a white wine with a minerality and somewhat citrus taste. $24 suggested retail USA.

Alma Negra “M” Blend 2010, my personal favorite, had aroma of cherry and taste was savory but of very fresh fruit. Soft tannins and a nice mouthfeel. A blend of Malbec and BonardaThis is a high-elevation wine, with elevation averaging 3,600 fee for the vineyards from which the grapes are sourced: Tunuyan, Vistaflores; Ernesto Catena vineyard; Tupungato; Adrianna Vineyard. . Just delicious! 120,000 bottles made. 13.5% alcohol $24 suggested retail USA.

Alma Negra Misterio 2009 had the darkest color of all the reds. A blend of Bonarda, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. 13.7% alcohol. $34 suggested retail USA

Misterio bottle: image
Alma Negra Gran Misterio 2009 had a briary-brambly-raspberry aroma. Cherry was the predominant flavor, and this is a bold and full-bodied wine. A blend of Bonarda, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, and Syrah. 14% alcohol. $90 suggested retail USA.

The Ernesto Catena vineyards and Alma Negra winery in Vistaflores, Mendoza, Argentina are accessible. Ernesto and company welcome visitors, as they did the day our WineBow group visited. The visitors on this particular day were friends of Ernesto, all business owners and artists of various kinds, and all riding vintage motorcycles on a long trip around Argentina. Alma Negra was a planned stop for a barbeque, wine and just general blowing off steam after a day on the road. If you visit, keep an open mind… ring the bell, and, who knows, you might be offered a glass of wine, a ride on Ernesto’s motorcycle, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll get to ride his horse.

Llama herd at the winery;
Andes in the background

Ernesto and his bike