Trend Spotting at the California Wine Fair

by the WineAlign Team

The California Wine Fair rumbled through southern Ontario, drawing about 2,500 trade and consumers between events at Ottawa’s Westin Hotel on March 30 and Toronto’s Royal York Hotel on April 2. In Toronto there were over 600 wines opened from over 130 wineries, many of them presented by winemakers and export directors, who came to see what all the fuss is about. For over 25 years the California Wine Fair has been the friendly giant of wine events in both cities – the place to be – helping California maintain its dominant market share in the province at the LCBO (4th after Ontario, Italy and Australia) and particularly at Vintages, where California remains #1.

Evan Goldstein

Evan Goldstein

The California Trade Luncheon has helped cement the relationship between California and the LCBO, largely thanks to a deft PR move where each year the LCBO is invited to address the wine trade, trotting out all the recent sales stats.

There is also a guest speaker from the U.S. to provide perspective on a wine world that is not viewed through the LCBO fish bowl.

This year Evan Goldstein, a California based wine educator turned brand consultant, laid out the top ten trends.

Top Ten California Trends
1) The resurgence of white wines led by pinot grigio and moscato.
2) The chardonnay renaissance and the death of the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) movement.
3) The rise of natural wines.
4) The growth of alternative varietals (non-cabernet, chard, pinot, zin).
5) The rise of new cool climate terroirs “at the edge of ripeness”.
6) Rethinking the traditional wine list and restaurant wine service.
7) Redefining palates with new styles and blends.
8) Wine on tap.
9) The rise of bloggers and social media.
10) Sommeliers becoming winemakers.

WineAlign critics in both Ottawa and Toronto did some trend-spotting of their own. Many of the wines they found are not available at the LCBO or Vintages. We have linked those wines that have been reviewed at WineAlign, and provided links to our Wine Agent database to help you track the others. Here are their reports, beginning with an overview by Margaret Swaine, who was out of the tasting room nursing a broken wrist but still able to make some notes at lunch.

Margaret Swaine on A Few Key California Wine Trends 2012

The economic recession south of our border brought California wine prices down and has pretty much kept them there over the past several years. At the same time wine diversity is growing and many wineries are paying more attention to quality by keeping oak and alcohol levels in check. However light harvests in 2010 and 2011 will likely dry up most of the excess stock that’s played a role in the aggressive discounting of the past several years. Pricing going forward is likely to go up.

Sales of U.S. wines (95 per cent of which come from California) are up over 11 percent in Canada from the previous year. The top three sellers nationally namely Gallo White Zinfandel, Carlo Rossi Burgundy and Barefoot Pinot Grigio fall into the cheap and cheerful under ten dollars category. However in fourth position, Folie à Deux Ménage à Trois Red which has an average selling price across Canada of nineteen dollars, has enjoyed huge sales increases in the past year. A newbie on the market Apothic Red is sixth in sales volume. This bold blend of zinfandel, merlot and syrah, (average national price $14.75) came from nowhere to sales of close to 100,000 cases. Not yet in the top ten but with huge gains in sales is Mirassou Pinot Noir.

Currently over 1,500 growers and vintners have adopted the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance’s Code of Sustainable Winegrowing Practices representing almost 70 per cent of the state’s vineyard acreage and wine case production. Parducci has gone as far as naming a wine Sustainable Red. This robust blend comes from grapes grown on family farms using sustainable practices, with green power, earth-friendly packaging and made in the first US carbon neutral winery.

Sara D’Amato on Moscato, Sparkling and the Chardonnay Renaissance

California has an undeniable appeal to Ontarians. The wines of California are now the bestselling category in Vintages and sales in every varietal category are increasing with remarkable zeal. This year’s California tasting showcased a slew of new trends among producers and consumers that prove that California is indeed cutting edge and a competitive tour de force. Watch out world ‘cause California is dreaming big!

The rise of muscat was a topic all abuzz by representatives and winemakers beyond high-rolling Napa and Sonoma. A relatively inexpensive grape to produce that has a proven track record in California since at least the 70s, it is quickly rising to favor among consumers and producers alike. This has driven sales of this fragrant, flirtatious varietal to the number two spot in US whites. Muscat is an incredibly versatile variety and produced in a plethora of styles across the globe including the frizzante, dry, semi-sweet and dessert wines. The varieties of muscat are even more varied but one thing they all have in common is a richly perfumed nose and a playful, friendly nature.

Eberle Muscat CanelliGary Eberle of Eberle Winery has been producing muscat since 1978, and suggests pouring it over fresh fruit for a simple, satisfying dessert or as an ethereal aperitif like Eberle Muscat Canelli 2010, Paso Robles ($21.95). Muscat Canelli is more commonly known as muscat blanc and is most famously used in the Italian Moscato d’Asti. Like WineAlign colleague Janet Dorozynski (below), I was also impressed by winemaker Jim Moore’s Uvaggio Moscato Secco 2010 ($19.95), which exhibited delightfully fresh tropical fruit, ginger, succulent lime and was one of the few dry styles of this variety.

Quady Essensia Orange MuscatQuady Elysium Black MuscatOn the other end of the muscat realm is the Quady Elysium Black Muscat 2010, a half bottle dessert wine steal at $14.95. Black Muscat is used as a blending table grape throughout southern and eastern Europe, but is expressed most beautifully in the sweet dessert wines of California and also Cyprus. Try it with chocolate for an indulgent treat. Quady Essensia Orange Muscat 2010 ($13.95) is also worthy of a taste and is available through Vintages.

 Iron Horse Wedding CuvéeChandon Blanc De Noirs Sparkling WineSparkling wine also appeared to be trending, if the many delectable examples and ample prattle among the trade was any indication. Two appealing Méthode Traditionelle sparklers proved California’s ease in competition with other cool climate specialists. First was Iron Horse Wedding Cuvée 2007 ($21.95), a Pinot dominant blend with such surprising grace and restraint from a region traditionally known for its bold appeal. Domaine Chandon also shone with a fresh, elegant example full of subtlety: Chandon Blanc De Noirs Sparkling Wine 2009 at $24.95.

Davis Bynum ChardonnayIf California’s soul lies in cabernet and chardonnay, then these last few years of ‘anything but chardonnay’ have surely been a nuisance. Thankfully, chardonnay is stepping up to the plate and redefining itself in California. Progressive styles focusing on purity of fruit, acidity and the expression of terroir through this rather neutral grape are taking form and seducing wine drinkers all over again. Davis Bynum Winery, a subset of Rodney Strong has their finger on the pulse. Davis Bynum Chardonnay 2010 ($29.95) uses only French oak, leaves no residual sugar after fermentation and is bottled without filtration. The resulting wine is delightfully crisp, pure and aromatic. Stefen Soltysiak, Director of Education for Rodney Strong, mentions that over the next few years, the winery plans on ratcheting down the level of oak so that consumers are able to gradually adapt to this new, reformist style.

California is nothing if not innovative. Its capitalist undercurrent keeps it afloat competitively and it is constantly evolving despite the fact that its admirers are perfectly happy with the region’s typically hefty cabernets and buttery chardonnays. It is because Californians are one step ahead that they rarely waver far from the top.

Janet Dorozynski on Eberle, Heitz and Uvaggio

Held at the Westin, the Ottawa leg of the tour had slightly fewer wineries than in Toronto, but nonetheless featured a representative showing of producers of all shapes and sizes: from the largest and well known, to wineries who produce less than 10,000 cases a year. It was encouraging to see the turnout of about 300 to 400 participants during the trade portion of the stop in Ottawa.

The one wine that did it for me was the 2008 Eberle Côtes-du-Rôbles (represented in Ontario by Lifford/Prevedello & Matthews). I used to drink this wine by the case when I lived in Belgium in the 1990s, so I was glad to taste it again and learn that it will be released through Vintages this fall. Gary Eberle was responsible for putting the Paso Robles appellation on the map and was the original Rhone Ranger (sorry Randall Grahm), having first planted syrah in Paso Robles in 1975 and producing the first US syrah in 1978. It is believed that a significant proportion of Californian syrah can be traced to the original plantings in Eberle’s Steinbeck Vineyard, which is one of the few remaining ungrafted vineyards in the State. The Côtes-du-Rôbles 2008 is a blend of mourvedre, syrah and grenache, with depth of fruit and concentration, though not at all jammy as some California Rhone blends can be. The Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, which is the winery’s flagship, was also a show standout and will be released through Vintages on April 28.

The wines of Heitz made me think back to what great California wines were several decades ago, having both grace and power, before alcohol and levels of extraction rose into the stratosphere for many Californian wines. The 2006 Estate and Trailside Cabernet Sauvignon, display intense concentration and depth of fruit, with the restrained elegance that Heitz has always been known for. The 2010 Sauvignon Blanc and 2009 Chardonnay, were dry, crisp and balanced, with zesty fruit and well-integrated oak in the case of the Chardonnay. Heitz wines are available through Lifford Wine Agency in Ontario.

Uvaggio Moscato SeccoUvaggio, producing mainly Italian grape varieties in Lodi, was a discovery for me with well-made and well-priced wines. It also reconfirmed just how well-suited Italian grape varieties are for many of California’s wine regions. Uvaggio is the largest producer of vermentino in California and their spicy, minty white is coming to Vintages April 14. They were also pouring that delightful Uvaggio Moscato Secco 2010, made from moscato giallo, a grape that is not widely grown or even officially recognized under U.S. wine laws, so hence the wine being labelled Moscato Secco. This wine is dry, floral and intensely flavourful and head and shoulders above some of the other moscatos appearing in the market now. I was also impressed with Uvaggio’s rich and fleshy 2010 Primitivo and 2009 Barbera, which will hopefully make their way into our market as well.  Until then, Uvaggio is represented in Ontario by Wine Lovers Agency.

Steve Thurlow on Pinot Noir and Thomas Fogarty

During the trade luncheon it was announced that sales of California pinot noir at Vintages had grown by 139% in the last year. Now that is a big number given the state of the economy! I do not normally need an incentive to taste these beautiful red wines; but my mission for this day became clear. Just what was going on with pinot from California that might explain this surge in popularity. Off I went, glass in hand into the tasting room.

I had tasted about 25 pinots by the time I got to Dierberg Estate Wines and was delighted with the Dierberg 2008 Pinot Noir Santa Maria Valley. Dierberg is based in Santa Ynez sharing quarters with Star Lane (see David’s notes below), but the pinot is grown in estate vineyards near Santa Maria. This is a superb wine with a degree of elegance and purity rarely experienced. Also from Dierberg, the less expensive Three Saints Pinot Noir 2009 offers great value. Both are available by the case from the Kylix Wines.

Aquinas Pinot NoirIn the 1990s when I was an import agent, I represented wineries from the Santa Barbara part of the Central Coast in California. I was reminded of just how great their pinots can be; and it was not just by the wines of Dierberg. The trend that I spotted is for light to mid weight, elegant, structured pinot noir mostly from cool coast regions like Santa Barbara, Monterey and the Sonoma coast. Most of the best are more than $30 but well worth it. Now that’s a lot of money for many wine lovers so I decided it was time to see just what you can get for less than $20 in pinot from California. After trying a few that really did not deliver I stumbled on Aquinas Pinot Noir 2009 from Napa Valley; a bright lively fruity pinot with some complexity and decent length. Moreover, I was delighted to discover, since I spend a lot of time seeking value, that it will arrive on the LCBO shelves this summer for only $17.95. It will be on my WineAlign shopping list and should be on yours.

Dr Thomas Fogarty

Dr Thomas Fogarty

While still on my pinot hunt, I came upon the Thomas Fogarty Winery and Vineyards table where I met Tommy Fogarty, so I got a bit sidetracked.  I have long admired his wines from the cool Santa Cruz Mountains area. He was pouring four wines each of which in its own way was excellent. It is rare at an event like this that you like every wine on the table. Gewurztraminer 2009 from Monterey is pure and fresh with lifted aromas and a ripe rich fruity palate and at $17.00 is a good buy. Pinot Noir 2009 from Santa Cruz Mountains shows excellent varietal character and is also a good buy for $26.00. Lexington Meritage 2006 also from Santa Cruz Mountains is well structured elegant cabernet merlot blend that will come to Vintages in September 2012 and is well worth its $47 price tag. The fourth wine was my favourite for sheer value for money plus it is the easiest to buy since it is on the LCBO shelves in many stores. Chardonnay 2009 is a modern styled, slightly oaked wine with a lovely nose and a lively pure creamy palate and very good length. And it’s only $24.40. I love cool climate chardonnays like this, which are a pleasant change from the over-oaked over-ripe buttery old style ones that still seem to make it into our market.  (Thomas Fogarty is represented in Ontario by Intra Vino Inc)

David Lawrason on Merlot, Red Blends and Alt Reds

Happy Canyon, Star Lane Vineyard

Happy Canyon, Star Lane Vineyard

Ever since merlot had sand kicked in its face by that big bully pinot noir in the movie Sideways, the once popular middle-of-the-road grape has been sidelined, at least by trend-spotting trade and media types. On a visit to California in January when I tasted close to 200 wines only six merlot were presented, and likewise in the media tasting room at the California Fair, only four merlot were being shown. At lunch I had been very impressed by 2008 Star Lane Merlot (represented by Kylix Wines in Ontario) from Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara. (Only California could have a place called Happy Canyon). This was rich, ripe complex and very elegant with impressive depth. Although Santa Barbara’s coastal vineyards are much better known for chardonnay, pinot and syrah, the warmer inland areas are ideal for Bordeaux varieties, and this new venture proved a revelation. I also really very much enjoyed the rich, powerful 2007 Twomey Cellars Napa Valley (Halpern Enterprises) and the more Bordeaux inspired 2007 Beringer Merlot (Treasury Wine Estates). I feel a longer article on merlot coming on.

Beringer Merlot

My main mission was to explore California’s red blends. Given the importance of so many red varieties in California’s Mediterranean climate, surely there is a lot of dynamic blending going on. Well there are more and more all the time, but blends still have a long way to go to rival the popularity of cabernet sauvignon. In the media preview tasting room set up in Toronto there were about 20 red blends presented, and well over 40 cabernets. The red blends were roughly divisible into three camps – the Bordeaux blends, the Rhône blends, and the Bordeaux-Rhône (or cab-syrah) blends. More importantly, quality was all over the map, and swung completely on price.

Among the more expensive Bordeaux based blends my favourite was 2007 Star Lane Red (see the merlot above) from Santa Ynez, actually very good value at $44 compared to Napa reds. The 2009 Signarello Padrone (Profile Wine Group) from Napa is also excellent but it is way up there at $159. Among the Rhône based blends I was mightily impressed by Deep Sea 2008 ($24.95) from a new-to-Ontario unrepresented brand from Conway Family Wines which is sourcing all its wines from maritime vineyards on the Central Coast and Carneros. My top cab-syrah inspired blend was – by far – 2009 Justin Isoceles ($73.95), a thriller from Paso Robles that we can look forward to at Vintages. (The 2008 Justin Vineyards Isosceles is currently out of stock.)

Stags' Leap Winery Petite Syrah

And finally, I dabbled among some “other reds”, a catch-all category for everything else. One of the most impressive was the solid yet refined Stags Leap Winery Petite Syrah 2008 at $44.95. The last nod goes to Oakville Ranch 2007 Cabernet Franc (Profile Wine Group), which is too expensive at $99, but it provides a glimpse of what can be done with the grape that most California vintners fear to try lest their wines actually have some greenness.

For a complete list of wines from our California Wine tour click here.