Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Alsace in America: Mendocino Memories

So, what if there were a wine festival which was unpretentious, fun, not the least bit crowded, where international winemakers and their wines congregated together, all set in beautiful surroundings and was, well, just way cool? Well there is. The International Alsace Varietals Festival arrives each February in Mendocino (slightly north of Sonoma), and with it, a die-hard contention of Riesling, Gew├╝rztraminer, Muscat, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris enthusiasts. And we’re not talking flabby sweet wines which taste like packets of Equal mixed with water. We’re talking serious non-sweet, semi-sweet and luscious sweet white wines which will literally change your mind about what a white wine can be. There has long been a belief that these kinds of wines are simplistic and that “serious wine drinkers drink red,” but that is nothing more than a short-sighted, myopic view, plagued by insecurity. All wines, white, sweet, red and bubbly, have a place on your table.

Life is not all Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, it can be, but frankly, aromatic white wines should be part of what you are drinking on a regular basis. This is a small conference but it packs a mighty punch. It begins with a technical conference; a kind of wine-geeky gathering of detailed, though interesting, information on these wines with about 100 people. This is followed by a grand tasting, with winemakers on hand to pour and talk about their wines. And this is the inherent beauty of this particular festival; it’s small, accessible and dedicated to, not to a wide variety of wines, but a focused presentation of a select few, which gives you the chance to really hone your understanding of these varieties. The technical conference also presents unique one-of-a-kind opportunities. For 2012, the New Zealand Riesling Challenge allowed attendees to sample 12 different iterations of Riesling, made by 12 different winemakers from New Zealand who each made Riesling from grapes from a single vineyard. Given there were so few cases produced, and the majority of those were kept inside the country, this was a rare and very cool chance to taste how 12 people interpret one wine made from one plot of land.
Fresh made pizza is at the Festival

But Mendocino is not just aromatic whites. Many of the wineries which line Highway 128 are making some killer juice. Foursight Wines, located in Boonville, is a prime example of this. Making Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Pinot Noir, their bottle prices range from $20 to $46 and since this is a family-owned operation, one of the family always staffs the small tasting room. They are fourth-generation farmers, producing fewer than 2,000 cases of wine, and the tasting room sits on the site of an old farm house when this land used to be a sheep ranch. Probably an anomaly for the region in terms of aromatic whites, they don’t often produce one. Owner Kristy Charles and her husband Joe Webb started by making wine for themselves at first, just one barrel actually, sharing it with their friends, then slowly expanded to a commercial venture. They are the first tasting room in Boonville and a highly recommended stop. The tasting fee is a mere $5.
Kristy Charles at Foursight Wines
Up the road, just passed the blink-and-you-miss-it town of Philo in what is called the “deep end” of the Anderson Valley (a cooler more fog-laden area) Handley Cellars has been making wine for three decades here. Chardonnay, Riesling and Pinot Noir are their strong suits and with diurnal swings of 50 degrees (the extreme highs and lows of a daily temperature flux) there is a clear acidity in their wines which is crucial for wines which work well with food. I was fortunate enough to taste 10 year-old Rieslings with co-winemaker Kristen Barnhisel, and I mention this because the Rieslings held up stunningly well. They make 12,000 cases a year, using a dedication to a restrained style of wine. These are not big alcohol bombs, but, true to the region, are delicate wines, both whites and reds. I also barrel tasted through several Pinot Noirs. Their bottle prices range from $15 up to $52. Both Handley and Foursight farm their vineyards as certified organic and are definitely worth a visit when you head to the Anderson Valley.
Kristen Barnhisel of Handley Cellars

For additional info on the Mendocino wine region, get a paperback copy, or download an e-book copy of my travel book, “California Wine Country.” Copies are available nationwide, and at:

Fresh shucked oysters are always a hit at the Alsace Festival

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