We knew this year's California Wine Experience was going to get off to a good start before we even got to San Francisco. While we were boarding our plane from Newark, amid a bunch of people carrying wine-country guides and maps, we saw a woman in line sporting body art of grape bunches down her right shoulder. No doubt in our mind—that had to be one of ours. No one is more hard-core about wine than our attendees.
Indeed, even the lobby of the San Francisco Marriott was buzzing with excitement as we checked in, full of guests eager for the Thursday night Grand Tasting. (See our photo gallery.) By the time we got down to the tasting area, a substantial line had formed--and the doors didn’t even open for another 45 minutes. Inside the ballroom, winemakers and winery owners were taking a quick opportunity to mingle before guests came flooding in--among those we ran into getting in a some quick tastes in the Pinot aisle was Mary Colhoun of Landmark, one of California's Chardonnay stars.
The talk among winemakers was about how late this year's harvest is. Pinot producer Brian Loring reported that he's still got a few lots to bring in between now and Monday, and that his colleague John Alban had yet to bring in his reds. Terry Speizer of Domaine Alfred, who was pouring his 2004 Califa Pinot, said that they are seven weeks behind their typical harvest schedule. Despite that, Speizer said this could be a great vintage--and then slipped into a silly, “Hey, hey, hey” Fat Albert impression, to express how excited he was. Later he demonstrated his Daffy Duck, which was pretty good too.
Once the doors opened, the aisles quickly filled. We started out by checking out the section devoted to Pinot Noir producers, who had their biggest showing ever at the event this year, as the variety has experienced a boom in both quality and popularity. That area of the ballroom was packed by 7 p.m., with people jostling for tastes from wineries such as DuMol, Kosta Browne, Merry Edwards, Siduri and W.H. Smith. Over in the Cabernet section, Garen Staglin of Staglin Family Vineyards reported that he and his wife, Shari, went through a full case of wine in the first 45 minutes--a speed record for them at this event.
One attendee wandered up to Paloma proprietors Jim and Barbara Richards, who are best known for their phenomenal Merlot from Napa's Spring Mountain District, and said, “I can’t find your wine anywhere. I paid $1,000 just to come and see you.” Jim was flattered, but didn’t quite know how he could help the man, since Paloma makes such a limited quantity of wine every year. “Is there any way I can buy a bottle from you right now?” the man pleaded, but to no avail.
For yet another example of how hard-core our attendees are, John Dallesasse from Geneva, Ill., here for his second Wine Experience, even showed up carrying his own set of glasses. “If you’re drinking good wine, you need good glasses,” explained Dallesasse, who came prepared with three different high-end glasses of his own--a Cabernet Sauvignon glass, a Burgundy Grand Cru and a Montrachet--that he brought on the plane as carry-on.
Then the lights went out. Folks were stuck in darkness for about three minutes before the lights went back on with a cheer. “Nobody panicked, nobody moved. Nobody wanted to leave all the good wine!” observed Bennett Lane Winery proprietor Randy Lynch. In fact, vintners such as Ben Papapietro of Papapietro Perry continued pouring their wines for guests by the light of their cell phones.
When we were able to see again, we spotted celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck making his way through some of the hot Cabernet producers.
We also learned an interesting tidbit about Napa's Quintessa from managing director Jim Sweeney. We mentioned that, as a New Yorker, our first encounter with the wine was during a visit to San Francisco; when walking up famous Lombard St., we saw that someone had 16 cases of Quintessa stacked in their garage. He just laughed and said, “That’s [owner] Augustin Huneeus’ house.” He leaves the door up just for that reason, so people will remember Quintessa. “1 million tourists walk that street every year!”
Once the tasting drew to a close, winery owners and attendees hit the town for dinner. Not far from the Marriott, at Ame, chef Hiro Sone, known for Terra in Napa Valley, presided over a dining room full of industry big shots. Among those spotted at the tables were Gina Gallo, Jean-Charles Boisset and Naoko Dalla Valle, as well as former sommelier Larry Stone, who now oversees Rubicon Estate winery, meeting with Diamond Creek owner Boots Brounstein and chef Charlie Trotter. Sone also reported that Mario Batali was dining there that night. Talk about pressure!
Micheal Maloon — Diablo, CA — October 20, 2006 8:26pm ET
Dana Nigro — New York, NY — October 21, 2006 6:00pm ET
T Warner — London Canada — October 24, 2006 11:17am ET
Sips & Tips | Wine & Healthy Living
Video Theater | Collecting & Auctions