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The wines of TAPAS defy convention...


At the TAPAS Grand Tasting in the City by the Bay

First, just the facts, ma’am:

Over 1,900 wine and food lovers attended the TAPAS (Tempranillo Advocates Producers & Amigos Society) Grand Wine Tasting in San Francisco’s Fort Mason this past Saturday, June 4; making this the third year in a row that attendance to this once modest affair has doubled.

Out of that 1,900+, some 75% of those attendees were clearly younger than 35, giving the organization’s wineries (about 80 of them), growers and card holding “amigos” (another 30+) a strong idea of where their pan is currently being buttered.


... and as we all know, when it comes to fashion, food and wine, very often the other consumer segments follow the younger crowd.   It often takes the older folks a little longer to catch on to a good thing like this: the appreciation of wines and foods associated with grapes of Spanish and Portuguese traditions.

Second, your come-to-Jesus caveat:  these wines do not lend themselves to the same ol’ qualitative assessments to which mommy and daddy, gramps and granny used to subscribe, and blindly follow.  You cannot put a number like “95” or “85” on, say, the 2007 Abacela Umpqua Valley Estate Tempranillo – grown, as it were, by TAPAS founder Earl Jones in the rolling hills of Southern Oregon – as dark, buoyant, concentrated, fraise-like, fleshy or wild beasty a red wine as you may perceive it to be.

Abacela proprietors, Earl & Hilda Jones

Fact of the matter is, an Abacela Tempranillo knows no stinking numbers when you actually drink it the right way, with something like herb roasted leg of lamb. a whole pig, or grilled, pungent portobellos or eggplant.   It’s when you experience such wines in culinary context that meaty flavors and complexities your senses have no way of detecting when tasting the wine on its own suddenly emerge and knock you upside the chin, and then you are visited by this epiphany:  wines crafted from Spanish and Portuguese grapes cannot, should not, and absolutely will not be pinned down by concepts as odiferous as 100 point scores, as well meaning as people who dole them out may be.

Judging from the crowd at the TAPAS tasting in San Francisco, we think this “new” way (actually an old way, since wine historically evolved within culinary cultures) of appreciating wine may finally be sinking in:   people there for an experience of good wines, not to make judgements, or to rush home afterwards and tear out those dreary magazines or dive into online reviews droning mindlessly on with “ratings” as if good drinking wines were appliances awaiting their Good Housekeeping seals of approval...

That is... hey, teacher, leave those TAPAS producers alone!

This off our chests, let’s talk about a few things that went down in San Francisco, particularly in terms of Lodi grown grapes, since this American Viticultural Area has recently emerged as the largest and most serious source of these Iberian grapes, whether vinified by local producers like Bokisch Vineyards or Alta Mesa Cellars, or produced and bottled outside the region by wineries like Fenestra Winery in Livermore Valley, Quinta Cruz Wines in Santa Cruz, or Odisea Wine Company in Murphys, Calaveras County.

Savoy's halibut pineapple seviche with Harney Lane Albarino

Perhaps it was meant to be:  that Lodi’s Harney Lane Winery happened to positioned right next to the table manned by Oakland’s Savoy Events, where chef/owner Mica Talmor Gott was dishing out a halibut pineapple seviche, tinged with the fresh licorice flavor of tarragon, pungent cilantro, and mildly green-spiced notes of chopped poblano, on oven crisped, red spiced tortilla chips and topped with milky, bouncy queso blanco fresco.

The funnest foods, of course, are balanced by exhilarating sensations exactly like that, and the match with the 2010 Harney Lane Lodi Albariño – a steely dry white wine of lemony and mineral-toned dexterities offset by flowery fresh perfumes – not only made you want to grab more of these seviche chips and throw them in your mouth, it also made you wanna cry as if the intricacy of such simple, quiet yet effective sensations had suddenly eluded you all your pitiful life.

Another TAPAS Grand Tasting highlight was a cooking demo put on by chef/owner James Campbell Caruso of La Boca in Santa Fe, who put out a dish of calamari seared in Spanish olive oil and lemon juice, served with rice cooked with dabs of tinta calamar (black squid ink) and refreshing specks of chopped tomato.  If there ever was an earthy seafood dish bursting with the smell and taste of the ocean, this was it; and it was these sensations that brought out an almost revelatory saline, and umami driven, side of the intrinsic minerality found in the grape of the varietal bottlings of both the lime and honeyed almond scented 2010 Bokisch Clements Hills-Lodi Albariño and the slightly fuller yet lemony crisp, honeysuckle and tropical fruit nuanced 2010 Abacela Umpqua Valley Albariño.

Countdown to ecstasy:  Bokisch Albarino, Spanish olive oil & squid ink

Hammering the lesson home: these really are food wines, and as such, phenomenal in themselves, whether or not this is understood by members of the mainstream wine press who traditionally abhor wines, or winemaking, that even hint at culinary purposes.

But it was, after all, a very large and public tasting; and in that situation you walk a floor, jostle with a jovial crowd at the tables, and take your best shot at some kind of mnenomic discernment of the wine samples splashing in your glass.  Luckily we have plenty of experience at that, and the fact that we actually write down notes. Some of the other high points of that day:

Alta Mesa/Silvaspoons' Ron Silva

2009 Alta Mesa, Alta Mesa-Lodi Verdelho – There were a number of outstanding Verdelhos shown; and out of all of them, this one grown by Ron Silva’s Silvaspoons Vineyard might have been the most palate slaking:   its flowery perfumes – suggesting peach skin, lavender, lime and lemon verbena – levitated by citrusy acidity and a moderate, slinky body.  That said, in a similar vein, the 2010 St. Amant Amador County Verdelho seemed just as sleek, suggesting sweet/tart pears as much as citrus.  While even riper toned and fuller in feel, the 2009 Quinta Cruz Verdelho (also sourced from Silva’s Silvaspoons) had the lacy, leafy green, lemon verbena notes found in the Alta Mesa, along with the soft, nutty, mildly bitter taste suggesting Marcona Almonds.

2010 Jeremy, Lodi Albariño – Many say Albariño should be lighter and zestier than what has been produced for the most part on the West Coast; and unquestionably, the higher latitude length of days in Oregon’s Umpqua Valley and the Delta cooled terroirs of Lodi have a propensity to produce Albariños of somewhat lavish perfumes (although deliberate earlier and earlier picking have lightened recent vintages by Abacela and Bokisch quite significantly).  But if for a more pristine, puristic, light and lively Albariño you pine, the Jeremy gives you that, with slivers of apricot and twists of lemon in lithe, limber sensations.  Not too far off in a similar, light and unfettered vein, the 2010 Odisea Dream Clements Hills Albariño – grown by Markus Bokisch in his La Cerezas Vineyard – was tasting more starkly floral, with more of a green apple rather than lemony tartness.

2009 Odisea, Two Rows California Garnacha – Sourced from both Mendocino and Lodi’s Clements Hills AVA -- the latter, farmed by Gregg Lewis, the proprietor/grower of Dancing Fox -- this red wine stood out for its blast of bright, red, strawberryish fruit, luscious in the nose and meaty in the mouth, even when tightening in the middle with firming tannin and chewing tobacco-like juiciness.  Granted, the accessibility of this wine is somewhat mainstream (wine geeks or critics can easily grasp its “opulent” fruitiness); but in the vein of a good TAPAS style wine, its moderately scaled bottle would also make it “awesome” with food (we’re thinking simple gazpacho or rustic pan con tomate – toasted bread rubbed with garlic, chopped tomatoes, olive oil and rock salt).


2009 Odisea, Unusual Suspects – A blend of 50% Carignane farmed by Gregg Lewis in Lodi, with Grenache (from Mendocino) and Tempranillo (also from Lodi’s Lewis Vineyard), this fruit forward red is teeming with bright cherry aromas and flavors, soft and lush in the entry, solidifying into a smoky meatiness towards the finish.  Think of this as like a cross-dressing Pinot Noir – it wants to be all pretty and perfumed, but the larynx is deepening and the shoulders too wide for the top – and as such, you can probably do things like stuff a steak with oysters, or simply rub it with olive oil, grill with cracked pepper, and lay it all out with thick slices of beefsteak tomato dressed in ribbons of basil and a variation of yellow Spanish rice.

2007 Fenestra, Silvaspoons Vineyards Lodi Touriga - Made from roughly equal parts Touriga Nacional and Touriga Francesa — the former known for making robust, full tannin reds, and the latter for lighter, more perfumed and finesseful reds — this is a generously black fruited red, dense and muscular down to the core, yet plummy, almost sweet toned around the edges.  While fluid in fleshiness, the feel is beefy, and the finish tinged by some coffee ground tannin.  Definitely a carnivore’s red; yet different, more visceral, from that of, say, a Cabernet Sauvignon drinker’s red:  you wanna to drench your meats with more olive oil or pungent Mediterranean herbs with a wine like this to bring out the slightly raisined, sun inflected notes, or utilize more aromatic aged cheeses made from sheep’s mile (Manchego or Pecorino) to coax out more earthen bass notes.  However which way you do it, this is a wine sharpened by awareness of food, not a wine critic’s pen.

Harney Lane's Kyle Lerner with St. Amant's Stuart Spencer

2008 Harney Lane, Lodi Tempranillo – For all intents and purposes, the Tempranillo grape epitomizes the TAPAS culture, producing red wines of quality that might be hard to fathom by conventional standards, particularly if you have trouble weaning yourself off, say, grapes of French origin, which are generally easier to define in terms of “varietal” character.  The Harney Lane is typical:  it is full and it is savory; yet it is not big and feels soft in the middle.  The nose suggests red fruit, but the mind isn’t identifying strawberry, cherry or raspberry in particular.  The phenolics seem to give toothsome, faintly chewing tobacco-like sensations; but in the end, the taste is not unlike how winemaker Chad Joseph describes it:  like a “chocolate brownie.”  Finally, as mentioned earlier, this is a wine that changes on a dinner table: the textures becoming meaty, and the fruit qualities taking on feral, almost animal-like sensations that are absent in the initial perception, sans food.

Or can we just agree Harney Lane makes delicious Tempranillo?  So does St. Amant, for that matter (the 2008 St. Amant The Road Less Travelled Amador County Tempranillo tasting particularly wild – like a snorting, black, musclebound bull – in San Francisco), as well as Bokisch Vineyards (a sensual 2008 Bokisch Liberty Oaks Vineyard Jahant-Lodi Tempranillo currently laced in black cherryish, somewhat strawberryish, or maybe blackberryish fruit tones... or is it nothing at all?).

Markus Bokisch workin' it at the TAPAS Grand Tasting

We could go on about other fine renderings shown by the TAPAS producers in the City by the Bay.  Totally unprecedented wines like the startlingly dark, sinewy, teeth rattling 2008 Alta Mesa Cellars Alta Mesa-Lodi Tannat.   Classically inspired wines like the sumptuously sweet, neverending 2007 Abacela Umpqua Valley Port (crafted from Touriga Nacional, Tinta Cão, Tinta Amarela, Bastardo and Tinta Roriz).   Or wines coming seemingly from places unbenownst to the conventional world, like the St. Amant Amador County Tawny Port (an amazing yet strangely Madeira-like, blondie of a sweet fortified wine, regaling the senses with a head shaking storm of vanilla extract, raw honey, preserved lemon, crème caramel and orange peels punctured by cloves).

But let us just give thanks to these intrepid oenological pioneers, embrace their thought process, and celebrate their success!

Chains at San Francisco's Fort Mason

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