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A Wine Lover's Diary, part 193 (June 16, 2008)

The Wescott barn at Benjamin Bridge

Sunday, June 8: Flew to Halifax. Tomorrow I am to deliver the keynote address at the 3rd Atlantic Canada Wine Symposium in Wolfville. Peter Gamble, who consults to Benjamin Bridge – a new winery in the Gaspereau Valley that hasn't opened yet – meets me at the airport and drives us to valley, where he shows me new plantings of vineyards before we head to Benjamin Bridge. The vineyard here slopes down from the road dominated by a 58-foot-high Wescott barn that dates back to 1835. We are joined by John Stewart and his wife. John used to be Roger Dial's marketing manager for Grand Pre back in the 1980s and now runs a wine shop in Bishop's Landing in Halifax, as well as the family cattle business in London, Ont.

Peter Gamble in Benjamin Bridge's temporary facility

Gerry McConnell and his wife Dara, the owners of Benjamin Bridge, join us for a tasting in the temporary winemaking facility. Jerry shows us plans for the new winery to be built adjacent to the old barn, which will be reconstructed on the original shale foundation. To lead off the tasting, Peter explains that the goal of Benjamin Bridge is to produce sparkling wine on a quality level of Champagne's Grands Marques. To this end the McConnells have hired the French oenologist Rafael Brisbois, who has worked at Piper Heidsieck, Omar Khayyam in India, Mount Dome in Washington and Blue Mountain in BC. The first vintage, still on the lees, is 2002 but we start with the 2004 Brut. Peter and Rafael have also experimented with sparkling L'Acadie (the local white hybrid) and Vidal.

Benjamin Bridge Brut 2004 (45% Chardonnay, 35% Pinot Noir, 20% L'Acadie and Vidal): Deep straw colour, active mousse; a nose of honey, leather and apple with a light floral note; very fresh and tangy, lemon and crab apple flavours with a strain of minerality, very elegant and youthful with great length, ending on a grassy note. ****½

Benjamin Bridge Brut 2002 (70% Chardonnay, 15% Pinot Noir, 15% Vidal): Straw coloured with a lime tint; honey, barnyard, mature Chardonnay nose; broad with a lovely mouth feel, creamy and minerally at the same time, with a grace note of apple blossom; great length. ****½

Benjamin Bridge Blanc de Noirs 2002 (100% Pinot Noir): Old gold colour; toasty, brioche nose; dry, elegant and creamy with lively acidity. Great balance and length. *****

These sparklers would not be out of place in a tasting of champagnes. Can't wait to see them on the market.

Benjamin Bridge Sauvignon Blanc 2005: Golden colour with a green tint; beeswax, gooseberry and sweet nose, very intense; full-bodied sweet gooseberry and elderberry and lime flavours; tart finish. A great Sauvignon in Loire style but with more intensity and vigour. *****

Next we try a barrel sample of Marechal Foch 2006 (20 months in American oak, 50% free-run juice and 50% press): Dense purple-black; spicy, minty, blackberry; full-bodied, with a medicinal note; lively acidity. ***½

Benjamin Bridge Nova 7 (a blend of Muscat, Perle of Csaba): Moscato d'Asti style with less carbonic gas and livelier acidity – orange, tangerine and carnation on the nose; off-dry, beautifully balanced peach and orange flavours with a hint of sweetness. A unique wine. *****

Gerry takes us all to dinner at Tempest restaurant in Wolfville. We have an excellent meal accompanied by three wines:

Benjamin Bridge Marechal Foch 2005: Dense purple, vanilla, leather and black fruits on the nose; leafy blackberry and blackcurrant flavours with a note of dried roses; firm structure with lively acidity. Reminiscent of Teroldego from the Alto Adige.****

Benjamin Bridge Marechal Foch Reserve 2005: Deeper and denser than the 2005 just tasted; a nose of ripe plums and prunes; sweetish Amarone style, bold and mouth-filling with a lively spine of acidity. ****½

Benjamin Bridge Vidal Icewine 2004: Golden colour; intense apricot and honey with searing acidity; sweet grapefruit flavour and a brittle finish (reminded me of aspirins). Needs a few years in bottle. **** (***** with some bottle age)

Got back to the hotel (The Orchard Inn) at 11 pm and checked in.

Monday, June 9: Up at 6:45 am, which is a good thing, because my alarm call for 7:15 am never came. Breakfast with my old friend Sean Wood, who writes on wine in Halifax and is the MC for the Symposium. I haven't seen him since we traveled together to Israel last November. Delivered my paper to the delegates. (Embrace Acidity, celebrate your local grape L'Acadie, market your wines with your local food, design a bottle with your logo embossed on it – a lobster claw holding a wine glass. Encourage Agri-tourism with non-wine events in wine country. Don't compare yourselves with Ontario and BC. Think Loire Valley, Rheingau/Mosel, Trentino-Alto Adige. Above all Embrace Acidity.)

As I'm walking out an old gentleman with a cane comes up to me and introduces himself. "I used to be Sam the Record Man," he says, "Now I'm Sam the Wine Man. I have a vineyard in Prince Edward County." He has a new career at 88 years old. A car picks me up at 11 am to drive to Halifax airport. Buy a couple of cooked lobsters at the airport. Back home, walk Pinot the Wonder Dog in a rain storm and deal with emails. Dinner, lobster with L'Acadie 2006 (a Nova Scotia wine that won a gold medal at the All-Canadian Wine competition this year). A great match. Reminiscent of Grüner Veltliner. Pack for California and the State Fair Wine Competition.

Tuesday, June 10: Deborah drops me at the airport and I fly to Chicago. The onward United Airlines flight is delayed over a hour and I don't arrive in Sacramento until 9:10 pm local time. By the time I get the shuttle to the Marriott TownePlace Suites hotel it's 10:30 pm.

Pooch and his lady, Heidi

Wednesday, June 11: Up at 7:15 am and down to breakfast. Run into Dick Singer and Claudius Fehr, two of the other Canadian judges at the competition. Shari Mogk-Edwards, a VP at Vintages, has a rental car and drives us to the show grounds where the California State Fair competition is held. My friend Pooch has been running this competition for 24 years. This year he's experimenting with two judging panels entering their medal recommendations on iPod phones. If it works, says Pooch, next year everyone will use iPods. I haven't judged here for five years, since the dates usually conflict with the Ontario Wine Awards consumer tasting in Toronto. Pooch tells us that this year 2917 Californian wines have been entered and there are 68 judges.

Our panel: (l to r) Erick Schultz, Fred Nury, Tony, Michael Williams

I'm on a panel of four with Michael Williams, a wine wholesaler here, Fred Nury (who started judging in 1959), and Erick Schultz, the senior winemaker at Mondavi's Woodbridge winery in Lodi. We also have an aspiring judge to mentor – Maria Terry, a wine retailer from California. Today, all day, we are tasting Sauvignon Blanc and Fumé Blanc from the 2007 vintage. We taste 88 wines and give two gold medals and eight silvers. We taste in flights of about 30 using the Dick Peterson Method of judging (first smell all the wines, dividing them on the nose into three groupings: those that have good bouquets, those that are less intense and those that are flat. Then taste the best group first so that you don't tire your palate with inferior wines, leaving the least good to last). For dinner the judges and the volunteers assemble back at the show grounds for dinner. The gold medal wines from last year's competition are set out for us to taste. There is also an oyster bar, which attracts immediate attention.

I taste the following wines:

  • Schramsberg Rosé Brut
  • Stevenot Marsanne 2006
  • Robert Hall Sauvignon Blanc 2006
  • Rosenblum Roussanne 2005
  • Trinity Oaks Riesling 2006
  • Picket Fence Chardonnay 2006
  • Wilson Chenin Blanc Viognier 2006
  • Miro Petite Sirah 2005
  • Black Mountain Zinfandel 2005
  • Stevenot Tempranillo 2004

And then I had a beer.

The tree outside Java City, Sacramento

Thursday, June 12: Up at 6:30 am, still on east coast body time. Susan Reiner-Lyons, Karen Goetz, Peter Yeskoot and I drive over to Java City for coffee. This used to be a ritual last time I judged here with Susan. We would sit outside the giant oak tree and drink our coffee. We have to be back at the tasting room for at 8:30 am for the group photo. This morning our panel kicks off with a flight of 22 White Zinfandels – the bane of wine judges. I suggest that the way to avoid being on a panel for white Zins in future is to give all 22 double gold medals (a double gold is awarded when all four judges give a wine gold). In the end we award one gold for the flight. Before lunch we taste 26 Sauvignon and Fumé Blanc 2006 followed by a second flight of the same numbering 25, then 6 Sauvignon/Fumé Blanc 2005, one 2004 and one non-vintage. We give two golds after much discussion and stretching of points. By lunchtime the temperature is 95 and we hear that a tornado has touched down in Iowa killing four boy scouts at a training camp.

After lunch we taste the three gold medal Sauvignons to determine best of variety, then a flight of six gold medal Zinfandels – our first red wines of the competition. Back at the hotel I sit with Patrick Farrell MW, who has acquired some imported beers, which he shares with Steve Elphick, B. Alan Geddes and me – Samuel Smith, Kirin and Petrus from Belgium. The latter giving rise to much mirth. Michael Williams and his wife Teresa have invited me to dinner at McCormick & Schmicks Seafood Restaurant on J Street in downtown Sacramento. To get there, a lift from Earl Singer who drives Alan, Dick Singer (no relation, though Dick refers to him as Uncle Earl) and me. Michael, who supplies the restaurant with wine, has brought along a selection from his portfolio: Du Nah Chardonnay 2006 from the Russian River, Du Nah Pinot Noir 2005, Vilafonte Series C (Cabernet Sauvignon) 2003 (Selma Long's wine from South Africa), Two Hands Gnarly Dude 2006 from Barossa and Cliff Lede Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 from Stag's Leap. All delicious. I order cod.

Judges at the California State Fair competition

Friday, June 13: Up at 6 am. Forecast says 98 degrees today. This morning we are judging the best of region wines and the best of show. These are all either double gold or gold medal winners. I am on a panel with Dick Peterson (of the Peterson Method) and Roger Stockton, a wine writer from Nevada. Our first flight is 18 whites with a California State appellation. We have to vote for six wines that will come back as a flight of 6 (there are other panels who are doing the same wines) for us to choose two. Ultimately we chose one from the two wines that will go into the final as a regional winner. The second flight is 14 reds; we choose five and then two before coming up with the winner. Flight three (North Coast wines) is 7 whites from which we vote in two wines and then one. Flight four (North Coast) is 15 reds to be reduced to five and two, etc. Flight 5 (Other California appellations) is one white, which automatically goes into the final white flight. Flight 6 (Other California appellations) is 4 reds and we have to choose one. All of this happens simultaneously, so we are going back and fourth between white and red with all the wines left on the table in front of us. Finally we judge a flight of 12 whites to select the best white of the show. There are three sparkling wines, one Chardonnay, a Roussanne, two Viognier, two Riesling, Chenin Blanc, a Gewürztraminer and a Moscato. The top wine is a Riesling, although I voted for a Viognier. Next the reds: 12 wines – Sangiovese Rosé, two Pinot Noir, two red blends (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre; Charbono, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon), a Merlot, Zinfandel, three Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Shiraz and a Petite Sirah Durif blend. My top wine was the last wine but it was edged out by a Pinot Noir. We broke for lunch a 2 pm – ribs, beans, corn and salad – and said goodbyes, as many judges are leaving and back to the hotel. Dinner at Café Marika, a Hungarian restaurant on J Street. Michael Williams brings along more wine from his cellar:

  • Z'Ivo Pinot Noir 2003 from Willamette Valley (16% alcohol!)
  • Chateau Musar 1999
  • Chiarello Family Giana Zinfandel 2005
  • Fairview Pegleg Carignan 2003 from South Africa
  • Darioush Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 from Napa

Saturday, June 14: Up at 6:30 am and finish packing. The taxi comes at 7:30 am. The driver is Eddy, an Algerian, who asks me if I speak French. He wants to send his 14-year-old son to Canada for his education because he's worried about guns. On the plane, finished reading Benjamin Wallace's The Billionaire's Vinegar – a fascinatingly detailed study of the trading in rare wines and in particular the controversial Thomas Jefferson Lafite 1784.




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