by Jonathan “Max” Davis
Saturday, May 17, was the 9th annual Uncorked SF wine festival in Ghirardelli Square, and I arrived with pen and pad on a delightful mission to survey the selection.
Beach Street was closed and lined with white-topped tents featuring close to forty different wine producers, and the weather was a perfect mix of clouds and sun as I exchanged my ticket for a wristband and tasting cup. Although there were several thousand people in attendance, the festival did not seem over-crowded, and whenever I lifted my nose, there was a beautiful view of the harbor.
Most of the wines at the tasting were from Sonoma and other areas of California’s North Coast, but the roster also reflected the growing number of urban wineries in San Francisco and Alameda. There were well-established large producers, like Buena Vista Winery and Gloria Ferrer, as well as some newer and more modest endeavors, and while I enjoyed retasting some old favorites like Robert Mondavi’s grassy, lean Fumé Blanc, I especially sought out the lesser-known, newer and smaller labels on offer and was often pleasantly surprised.
It is always an educational opportunity to have so many bottles open and available for tasting, but it’s even more interesting when you get to learn about the wine from someone directly involved in its production. The Wetzel family of Alexander Valley Vineyards were pioneers in this now-famous Sonoma subregion, having established their winery in 1975, and the affable and well-mustachioed John Wetzel was in the tentpouring several of my favorite wines of the day, happy to share his knowledge. The 2012 Alexander Valley Vineyards Estate Chardonnay ($18) was deliciously dry but singing sweetly, and struck me as the best deal of the day’s whites. The wine was mostly fermented in steel tanks, but blended with a portion vinified in oak and barrel-aged, adding just the right amount of nuttiness and toast to this smooth steal of a sipper. Equally impressive are their 2012 Alexander Valley Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon ($22), a serious wine that shows real structure and depth without being too heavy or tough, and the 2012 Alexander Valley Vineyards Syrah ($20), which is refreshingly tart and spicy.
Manning the Dogwood Cellars booth with what appeared to be his whole family was Mendocino winemaker Doug Hackett himself. Despite having the longest lines of the day, Hackett was gamely and engaging, serving up the goods with a sunny smile and as much technical information as you could wish for. His wines are not inexpensive, but balanced, distinctive and a good value for such carefully crafted quality. I especially enjoyed the 2010 Dogwood Cellars Russian River Chardonnay ($30) for its elegance, reserve and complexity. The grapes are from the McMinn Vineyard on the warmer east side of the Russian River and the juice is barrel-fermented to a refreshing 12.5 degrees of alcohol, resting eleven months in one-year-old French oak before bottling. There were only 165 cases produced, and the wine has a great balance of delicate fruit and fresh acidity with a savory flavor reminiscent of bay leaf and a hint of oxidation that softens the long finish.
I was looking forward to tasting the wines of another relatively new label, Calistoga’s Picayune Cellars, and I was not disappointed. Founded in 2011 by Claire Ducrocq Weinkauf and Jennifer Pollock Roberts, Picayune, like Dogwood and many other interesting new California producers, is a winery without a vineyard. They buy carefully sourced, quality fruit from local growers and then they concentrate on the winemaking. I really liked their 2012 Picayune Cellars Sauvignon Blanc ($21), which is a blend of grapes from Napa and Sonoma. It is fresh and herbaceous with citrusy fruit and subtle floral notes.
Also worth noting, were the 2009 Rosenblum Cellars Richard Suaret Paso Robles Zinfandel ($23), my favorite of several they presented and satisfyingly rich, dark and vinous; the 2010 First Crush Red Hills Grenache ($15), an uncomplicated, fruity wine made in Paso Robles from Lake County fruit, and a well priced quaffer; and from the only out-of-state participant, Aridus Wine Company, the 2013 Aridus Malvasia ($22), a light, crisply dry and uniquely perfumed white from Willcox, Arizona.
As the crowd thinned at the close of the festival and the sun dropped lower in the sky, many of the revelers sat in circles on the lawn by the harbor, laughing and talking and finishing their wine. Myself, I considered my day well spent, drank some water and headed for the bus.
Jonathan “Max” Davis discovered his love for wine decades ago while working at Chez Panisse Café and Restaurant, in Berkeley, and has been daily and devotedly tasting ever since. Having moved from restaurants to retail, he most recently served as the wine buyer for Smith & Vine, a boutique wine shop in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, and has written wine and book pairings for the 2013 National Book Awards Finalists.