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The 2006 California Wine Experience: From Arnold to Zinfandel

The annual event returns to its starting point in San Francisco to explore the evolution of California wine

Dana Nigro
Posted: October 24, 2006

With nearly 200 of the United States' top wines gathered in one room, Wine Spectator's two evening Grand Tastings each drew more than 1,800 people from across the country and as far away as Australia--all there with the intent to sample as many collectible and hard-to-obtain offerings as possible. The lure of the wines was so great that on Friday evening, startled attendees looked up from their glasses to find a Hollywood action star and the country's hottest TV chef shaking hands in the middle of an aisle of limited-production Pinot Noirs.

In a show of support for his state's wineries, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger paid an unannounced visit to this year's California Wine Experience, held in San Francisco from Oct. 19-21. Taking a tour of the Friday Grand Tasting with Wine Spectator editor and publisher Marvin R. Shanken, the Terminator star and wine lover chatted with Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards and Bill Harlan of Harlan Estate before tasting a range of Cabernets, Pinots and Syrahs, then running into celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse, whose food has even been served in outer space.

Schwarzenegger wasn't the only one turning heads that weekend. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, whose charm, style and good looks helped earn him a Vanity Fair spread and a spot on Esquire's best-dressed list, drew his share of admiration at the Grand Awards Banquet, where he was presented with Wine Spectator's Distinguished Service Award. Though the mayor has made a national name for himself by championing controversial causes, he was on hand because of his accomplishments as a founder of the PlumpJack winery, restaurant and retail empire. Among his most noteworthy steps have been selling wine with minimal markups at his restaurants and endorsing screw caps on a $135 Napa Cabernet. (Talk about controversy!)

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Marvin R. Shanken sample some wine at the Grand Tasting.
"Thank you for coming back to your place of birth," said Newsom, welcoming banquet guests to San Francisco, where the California Wine Experience started in 1981 at the Fairmont hotel. Last held in the city in 1998, the event has traveled to New York, Las Vegas and Chicago since then. Now in its 26th year, it has come a long way.

The Wine Experience raises money for the Wine Spectator Scholarship Foundation, which so far has given out about $8 million to support wine and culinary education programs, including more than 400 scholarships to viticulture and enology students at the University of California, Davis.

Along with the Grand Tastings, this year's event drew more than 1,000 guests for the full weekend of seminars, where they could taste along with some of the world's most famous vintners and chefs. "To date, we've served over $40 million worth of wine," said Shanken as he kicked off the first seminar on Friday. "We'll use 64,000 glasses this weekend."

Although Newsom and Schwarzenegger remained good politicians and didn't disclose their favorite wines, the rest of those on hand weren't shy about their preferences. Indeed, the San Francisco Marriott was buzzing with excitement as guests lined up outside the doors to the opening night Grand Tasting, plotting out their strategy on the floor maps so they could hit all their top targets. Along with the ever-popular Cabernet and Chardonnay, this year saw the biggest showing yet from producers of Pinot Noir, as the variety has experienced a boom in popularity. The lineup was filled out by California Syrah, Zinfandel, sparkling wine and more, as well as a selection of the top wines from Oregon and Washington.

More than 1,000 people packed the tasting seminars.
Once the doors opened, winemakers who had moments before been commiserating about the lateness of this year's harvest suddenly faced packed aisles. Garen and Shari Staglin, whose Staglin Family Vineyards is among Napa's top Cabernet producers, reported that they went through a full case of wine in the first 45 minutes--a speed record for them at this event.

Then the lights went out. For about three minutes, vintners were pouring for guests by the light of their cell phones, but as Bennett Lane winery proprietor Randy Lynch observed, "Nobody panicked, nobody moved. Nobody wanted to leave all the good wine!"

A little darkness isn't about to put off people who have earned the moniker Wine Warriors. Every year at the Wine Experience, a devoted band of wine groupies awakes while it's still dark out--no matter how much wine they consumed the night before--just to be the first in line to enter the tastings and claim the choice seats.

Bill Harlan poured Harlan Estate at the Grand Tasting and the Cabernet seminar.
Since 2001, Wine Spectator has been throwing a 7 a.m. breakfast to honor them (or perhaps test their devotion) and handing out bright red Wine Warriors hats. This year, a whole table of guests showed up wearing their own Wine Warrior shirts--all bright red, of course, and bearing the slogan "Veni, Vidi, Bibi" (I came, I saw, I drank). Others sported temporary Wine Warrior tattoos being given out at the door. While coffee was the most popular beverage, the hour didn't deter anyone from indulging in the glasses of Veuve Clicquot being passed out. As executive editor Thomas Matthews put it, "There's no better way to start a day with 250 wines in your future than a glass of Champagne!"

California's rising star, Pinot Noir, kicked off the impressive lineup of seminars, with a selection of 10 wines from Burgundy, New Zealand, Oregon and some of the Golden State's hottest young boutique producers, such as Siduri and DuMol. "I'm really happy that Pinot Noir is getting its due," said senior editor Bruce Sanderson, who described the grape as "wearing its heart on its sleeve" for the way it transmits the character of its site. The selected wines showed everything from minerality and firm structure to lush, ripe seductiveness, ensuring that there was something for everyone.

The four chefs--Emeril, Mario, Wolfgang and Charlie--take on Thomas Matthews.
Contributing editor Matt Kramer, who brought California's often-overlooked Santa Cruz Mountains into the spotlight with his humorous insights and colorful characterizations, then roused the crowd with his emotional appeal for "wines of conviction," wines that truly express the land from which they come. Tasting the 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon from Kathryn Kennedy, a winery threatened by the development spreading outward from Silicon Valley, he explained, "We are drinking an endangered species." With his tribute to founder Kathryn Kennedy's refusal to sell her land, for which she could collect a fortune, he brought the audience to its feet to cheer her on.

The atmosphere turned raucous when chefs Mario Batali, Wolfgang Puck, Emeril Lagasse and Charlie Trotter returned to the stage for their now-annual culinary competition, full of pork, fat, foie gras and plenty of barbs and off-color jokes. While Trotter transformed veal heart, chicken gizzards and crayfish jelly--what he teasingly called "all the kitchen scraps we couldn't use for anything, not even a family meal"--into the sublime, Puck pulled off yet another foie gras indulgence and Lagasse evoked New Orleans in a cup of warm blue crab with celery root rémoulade. And where else can you hear a chef explain the reasoning behind his food-and-wine pairings as Batali did? "The pork is the sugar daddy. The wine on the left spanks the pork a bit. The wine on the right caresses the pork."

The 2001 Yquem was a Top 10 hit.
For many, the highlight of the day was a lineup of top California Cabernets--a grouping that even the producers had probably never tasted all together--that illustrated the diversity among Napa Valley's most famous variety. Eyes widened at the sight of the servers parading out with bottle after bottle of Harlan Estate and Screaming Eagle, wines that are nearly impossible to obtain. Also included were cult favorites Araujo and Colgin, veterans Paul Hobbs and Robert Foley, Schrader Beckstoffer To-Kalon Vineyard from one of the valley's famous vineyards, and newcomers Merus, Gemstone and Sloan.

On Saturday morning, attendees walked into the ballroom to find themselves faced with an intimidating lineup of 30 glasses apiece--all to be tasted before lunch. Undaunted, they tackled the task with relish, inspired by the remarkable wines in the Top 10 of 2005 tasting. The Wine of the Year, Joseph Phelps Insignia Napa Valley 2002 (96 points, $150), faced stiff competition from the Château d'Yquem Sauternes 2001, which scored 100 points and costs $400. Guests were actually stealing leftover sips of the famed sweet wine from their neighbors' glasses. But the real showstopper was California vintner John Alban, who cracked up the crowd when he pulled out a giant piece of "bling"--a large, sparkling "6"--in honor of the ranking for his Alban Syrah Edna Valley Reva 2003 (96 points, $56).

Robert Drouhin wowed the audience with his Montrachet.
Next up, Burgundy producer Robert Drouhin charmed the audience with his modesty and his generosity in pouring six vintages of the Maison Joseph Drouhin Clos des Mouches red, including the 1976, and four of the tiny-production Montrachet Marquis de Laguiche, including the 2002 vintage (97 points, $315 on release) and the 1992 vintage (94, $200). When he received a standing ovation, he responded by toasting the audience of wine lovers as "our best link between our two great nations."

Wrapping up the seminars was the first Wine Experience seminar ever devoted entirely to the wines of Spain, including the renowned Álvaro Palacios Priorat L'Ermita from 2001 and Peter Sisseck's Dominio de Pingus Ribera del Duero from 2000. The tasting was a fascinating look at how Spanish vintners are combining the old (traditional grape varieties from old vines) and the modern (new winemaking techniques, new French oak) to create a style unique to each of them.

From left: Peter Sisseck, Thomas Matthews and Alvaro Palaçios at the Spanish tasting
By the end, the audience had polished off nearly 26,000 bottles of wine (except what was to come with lunch and dinner) and worn out a cadre of the country's top sommeliers--including David Gordon, Larry Stone, Richard Betts and Joseph Spellman--who screened every bottle to ensure they were poured in perfect condition.

After 30 wines, the crowd was ready for some food. And they got it--from 15 of San Francisco's finest chefs, at the Wine Experience's first walk-around lunch and wine tasting. Gary Danko, Michael Mina and Hubert Keller of Fleur de Lys were on hand plating and serving, along with the chefs from Ana Mandara, Bacar, Boulevard, Delfina, Fifth Floor, Julia's Kitchen, Kokkari Estiatorio, La Toque, Masa's, the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, Viognier and Yabbies Coastal Kitchen. While the previous evenings' festivities had already spilled over into those restaurants, this was a chance for everyone to hit all the hot spots they hadn't yet managed to squeeze into their weekend.

Wine-friendly restaurants were also the focal point at the final event of the weekend, Saturday night's Grand Award banquet. When Wine Spectator first created the awards program, Shanken explained, "the hope was to encourage more restaurateurs to take wine more seriously." And they did. Today, there are more than 3,770 award-winning restaurants, including 76 that hold the highest honor.

Melissa Perello of Fifth Floor was among the 15 top chefs at the San Francisco lunch.
Three new restaurants received the Grand Award this year: Tennessee's Blackberry Farm, owned by Sam Beall; New Jersey's Restaurant Latour, owned by collector Gene Mulvihill (who quipped that "it took 40 years of accumulation to get this") and Sona in Los Angeles, run by David and Michelle Myers. "This is very much a dream of mine," said David, "something I aspired to even before I had a restaurant."

Shanken also honored the 2005 Wine of the Year, Joseph Phelps Insignia Napa Valley 2002, of which he said, "one sip makes the most persuasive argument for California Cabernet." Both he and winery chairman Bill Phelps, on hand to accept the award, paid tribute to founder Joseph Phelps, now 79, "who in his quiet and unassuming way has been a pioneer," his son said.

Newsom, who Shanken described as "an energetic entrepreneur" who has "a knack for innovation" then took the stage to receive the Distinguished Service Award. "We have honored owners, winemakers, chefs, educators and industry leaders," said Shanken. "Tonight for the first time, we honor a politician."

Newsom, who first opened PlumpJack wine shop in 1992 at 23, described his philosophy as being "about authenticity, audacity, marching to the beat of the proverbial internal drummer …." With the backing of family friend Gordon Getty, his business expanded to include PlumpJack winery in Napa Valley, PlumpJack cafés and other restaurants (three of which hold Wine Spectator awards for their wine lists), two hotels, a nightclub and clothing stores.

Classical Mystery Tour got the Grand Award banquest guests dancing to Beatles hits.
Though his holdings are in a blind trust while he is in office, as mayor, Newsom continues to support the wine industry, and declared Zinfandel Appreciation Week in San Francisco this past January. Despite having accomplished so much at a young age, he said he felt humbled at earning an award held by so many "living legends."

The evening concluded with a nostalgic look back at the era of the Beatles, whose last live concert was in San Francisco at Candlestick Park. The costume-clad members of Classical Mystery Tour, backed by the Santa Clara Symphony, took the rapt audience on a tour through the band's greatest hits from "Hard Day's Night" to "Yellow Submarine" to "All You Need Is Love." As he began the first notes of "I Am the Walrus" at the piano, "John" quipped, "Here's a delightful little ditty … I believe it was written after drinking much wine."

As the band played "Imagine," the head table was waving its arms in the air, and by the time they broke into "Twist and Shout," everyone--from Emeril to Newsom--was up dancing, and the crowd was chanting for more.

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