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Written by Nikitas Magel   

The Family Winemakers of California 2008 Wine Tasting Event

Over 400 wineries under one roof is, by no means, a small number.  But what sets the Family Winemakers of California apart from other associations of wine producers and their tasting events isn't really its size.  Rather, it's the sheer diversity of the varietal wines, than when taken together with the number of wineries represented, makes for a vast array of wine styles produced, just alone in the state of California.  From all the international heavyweights — Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, and Syrah — to less common, but up-and-coming varietals like Barbera, Malbec, Roussanne, Verdelho, and Tempranillo  — there was something for everyone at the Family Winemakers' 18th Annual Tasting Event.  I attended with an open mind, an eager palate, and (truth be told) somewhat of an overzealous sense of expectation as to how many wines I could reasonably taste in one afternoon.

I arrived at the Festival Pavilion of San Francisco's Fort Mason, about 20 minutes after the event began at 1 o'clock that afternoon.  It was a familiar site, given that the majority of large wine tastings in the Bay Area occurs here.  But what surprised me was that, so soon after the opening of its doors, the pavilion was already quite crowded, giving me the distinct feeling that I should have been as aggressive in getting there even earlier to share in the 'head start' that many of my tasting colleagues clearly planned for in advance.  After checking in, I charged forth, spit cup in one hand, wineglass in the other, and with a couple of free fingers left, managed to clutch the impressively comprehensive printed program that listed the plethera of wineries pouring at the event.

Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I began with the full intention of "tasting one white and one red from every table," as I explained to the first few winery reps that I spoke to.  I was invariably met with incredulous smiles, and even one loud guffaw punctuated with a good-luck wish.  But I continued undiscouraged.  Nearly three hours into the five hour event, though, to my horror, I suddenly realized that I had barely visited half the seemingly endless network of tables arranged throughout the cavernous warehouse.  And I was tasting yet only one white per winery.  Part of my problem, I suppose, is that I don't simply zip from table to table, shoving my empty glass in front of me with a grunt or two, demanding a speedy pour, and finishing with a quick spit.  Instead, I take advantage of the opportunity to do what, in my opinion, is really what makes these events such a valuable learning experience, time after time: I converse with winemakers and sales reps about their marketing strategies, the vineyards, and of course, the wines themselves — especially the ones I find particularly noteworthy, of which there were many that afternoon.  Needless to say, though, my initial, lofty ambition needed a very drastic reality check.  I decided to stick with at least the first half of my plan, though, by continuing to taste white wines, more than likely forgoing the reds altogether.  Admittedly, I'd wished I could clone myself many times over, and then deploy the armada of me out in different directions throughout the pavilion.  But as it is, winery reps already deal with enough abuse at events like this — tasters very quickly turn into drunken revelers — so I can only imagine the site of more than one of me would have pushed them over the edge.

As if the experience of biting off more than I could chew (sipping more than I could swallow?) weren't humbling enough, as I tasted wine after wine, I quickly came to the realization that I was in the presence of a great deal of winemaking talent — all at a single place and time, from nearly every conceivable wine producing region in the state of California.  Concentrating on a couple of varietals at a time is, I now understand, the best way to get the most out of an event of this magnitude.  The experience then allows for a focused comparison of wine styles, the likes of which are afforded at very few other occasions in the wine world.  Couple that with the unique opportunity to engage directly with the professionals behind the collectively stellar winemaking, and you've got what amounts to, in my opinion, among the best of California wine experiences.

Inevitably, though, there are producers who manage to stand out from the crowd, by virtue of their wines which express unique character, exhibit varietal typicity, and manifest beautiful balance overall.  Quality-to-price ratio (QPR) is, in my opinion, also a deciding factor.  Given all that, following are what I feel were the standouts among the white wines poured at this year's event:

Deserving of separate mention were a few wines that stood out alone for their show-stoppingly high QPR.  Although it bears acknowledgement that a producer's prices are often predicated not only on the quality of the wines themselves but also on the value of the land on which the vines are grown, at risk of stating the obvious, good value wines warrant the consumer's attention.  In an era when imports from Europe, South America, Australia, and New Zealand have consistently proven to be fiercely price competitive, it continues to be an inordinate challenge to find California wines under $12 that are worth more than the glass in which they're bottled.  I was more than pleasantly surprised to discover a handful that, without doubt, were among the best examples of white wines poured at the event, retailing at this lower price point:

Memorable wines notwithstanding, the event overall left me with the distinct feeling that Calfornia's wine industry not only continues to expand, perhaps even exponentially, but more significantly, continues to mature.  I saw clear evidence that different regions are actively experimenting and progressively discovering ideal sites in which to grow particular varietals — a practice that results in increasing specificity and specialization of the state's viticultural areas, which ultimately translates into terroir-mindedness.  Regions once deep in the shadows of higher profile ones are now coming into their own, rendering the renown of more established regions less relevant with regard to varietals that often excel elsewhere.  In this developing scenario, everybody is a winner.  And to see such a sizable number of them come together to showcase the fruits of their hard labor and deep love, was truly inspiring.

For more information on the association and its annual tasting event, visit Family Winemakers of California online or email FWC directly.