The Tasting Panel magazine

October 2013

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CALIFORNIA WINE Long-Lived BENCHMARK TASTING FOR LAKE COUNTY'S OLDEST WINES Lake County by Deborah Parker Wong / photos by Nathan DeHart W Foreground to background: Denis Malbec, Gregory Graham, Mark Newman and Peter Molnar evaluating Steele Viognier. Winemaker Jed Steele. ine quality has been on the rise in Lake County and winegrowers there have their sights set determinedly on the future—and it's a very bright one at that. Driven by increased demand for high-quality Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Sauvignon Blanc, the value of the region's wine grapes climbed by 20 percent in 2012, reaching a ten-year high, while yields inched up by just three percent. Here at THE TASTING PANEL, we've been following winegrowing in Lake County closely for the last five years. When questions arose about the ageability of the region's wines, we were quick to take up the challenge. More often than not, exposure to Lake County wines is limited to the supporting role they play in blends from nearby appellations. When this point was raised during a technical seminar hosted in June at MacMurray Ranch by the appellation's winegrowers, Steele Wines' Joy Merrilees had answers at the ready but no proof positive that the region's high-elevation wines can withstand the test of time. Taking Stock Clearly, the time was right for taking stock of some of Lake County's oldest designated wines. Merrilees and I teamed up to organize a technical tasting, designed both as a discovery and as a formal benchmarking session that took into consideration factors impacting wine quality including vintage conditions, winegrowing and winemaking practices. Twenty-five wines were assembled with collector and vintner Todd Hagen contributing a vertical of Barberas, vintages '89, '91–'95, made by Mike Martini from what was the Snow's Lake Vineyard (now owned by Gallo) as a starting point for the evaluation. Winemaker Jed Steele contributed the lion's share of wines including a vertical of Viognier from '99–'01 and a '07 Riesling along with '95 and '96 Zinfandel, '91,'94,'97 and '02 Merlot, '97 and '02 Syrah, and '94, '03, '05 Cabernet Sauvignon, all of which had aged in his warehouse not 50 feet from where they were bottled. Foley Family Wines winemaker Eric Stine offered '93 and '96 Cabernet Sauvignon and '99 Petite Sirah made by Malcom Seilby from Langtry-Guenoc's cellar. Steele's long history in the region provided a wealth of context about the evolution of winegrowing and perspective on vintage conditions. "All of the '94 and '95s reds still have a good backbone of tannin," he said. "These wines are a perfect example of the develop- 86  /  the tasting panel  /  october 2013 TP1013_066-107.indd 86 9/23/13 10:35 PM

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