CLOVERDALE, Calif. - The hottest emerging wine region in the country was getting a lot of buzz at the largest American wine competition here last month: Paso Robles.
The massive wine region between San Francisco and Los Angeles, known for its lusty Rhône-style reds and zinfandel, recently took half the top awards at the 2011 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition: a Thacher 2008 Triumvirate zin and a 2008 Lock Vineyard cabernet from Ecluse shared best red. A 2009 late harvest sauvignon blanc from Alapay took best sweet.
There were also kudos for bottles from up-and-coming regions such as Washington and New Mexico.
Under the radar, perhaps, but of equal interest to me, one of the competition's few East Coast judges, were surprising successes from the cranberry bogs of South Jersey, the slate-rich slopes of the Pennsylvania Alleghenies, and the searing-hot jalapeño pots of North Wales.
OK, before we continue: Yes, there is an actual winery in the suburban Montgomery County borough of North Wales, called Boyd's Cardinal Hollow; and there is such a thing as jalapeño wine, and it's not nearly so horrible as it sounds - owner Christopher Boyd's spicy effort took a silver medal in the "other" category, alongside other such eccentrics as "Skookumchuck," "Red Chocolate," and a class-winning green-chile wine from New Mexico.
True, the majority of the 5,050 wines here still came from the more familiar vineyards of California, and a fair portion were safe-bet chardonnay (600-plus). But if there's anything to be learned when the largest competition of American wines ever is assembled from 23 states to be blind-tasted by 60 professional judges, it is that the nation's wine scene, fueled by career-changers and a nation obsessed with all things locavore, is growing in every corner of the country, and in unexpected ways.
Pennsylvania has doubled its number of wineries to nearly 150 in just the last five years, according to Mark Chien, a viticulture educator for Pennsylvania State University's Cooperative Extension. In New Jersey, that number has grown from 12 to at least 40 during the last decade.
For Ollie Tomasello of Plagido's Winery in Hammonton, N.J., whose cranberry wine took Best of Class in the fruit-wine category, and for Tod and Jean Manspeaker of Briar Valley Winery in Bedford, Pa., whose dry riesling won a gold medal, their relatively new wineries have been a way to keep old family farms intact. For Boyd, a water-equipment sales manager during the week, there was a deep desire to take his longtime personal hobby to the next level, "before I get arrested."
"I want to make wines you won't find at a normal winery," said Boyd, who in his off-hours also makes wine from cocoa beans and cherries, watermelon and pineapple (as well as grapes) at his four-year-old winery. "I want you to remember me."
Granted, chile wines are an oddball niche that may not be remembered fondly by all. Boyd's wine is a golden blaze of pepper essence - the almost fruity heat reminiscent of the juice from a pickled jalapeño jar, though without the briny tartness. It's not awful - a triumph in its own right - but it's more of a pepper-head's parlor trick than something to pair with dinner (unless, of course, you're heading to the Tex Mex Connection nearby.)
Fruit wines have a broader mass appeal, especially on the sweet-tooth East Coast, where the Pineland's berry bogs are a natural source for native fruit. Plagido's winning cranberry has a vivid ruby hue and a fruit-forward, sweet-tart nose, but also shows a refreshingly dry finish that distinguishes it from much of the treacly competition.
Plagido's, which also won a silver for its blueberry, has been making wine (including grape varieties, though I wouldn't recommend those yet) since 2007. The transformation from produce to vineyard for this fourth-generation farm was the collaboration of Tomasello and his father, Ollie Sr., who died in 2009. Tomasello, who has worked full-time at the winery since being laid off from his casino job, was beaming at their first success in an out-of-state competition: "My father would be very proud."
What the local wine industry really craves, though, is recognition for the more traditional dry grape wines that area winemakers have been increasingly producing.
Briar Valley's dry riesling was the only locally produced grape wine to win gold at this year's Chronicle show - though it may simply be a matter of numbers related to economics. Only two Pennsylvania wineries and three from New Jersey submitted entries to San Francisco this year, with the total cost of fees and shipping averaging about $100 a wine.
With grapes planted only in 2006 on the Manspeakers' family farm just outside of Bedford (and their vineyards growing soon from three to 15 acres), Briar Valley has won numerous other awards recently, including the Governor's Cup and Best in Show for its 2008 gewürztraminer at the 2010 Pennsylvania Farm Show. The winery is a way for this couple, who also own an industrial-cleaning business, to do something they love and keep their family's farm in agriculture.
"Every year since 1950, when Tod's parents bought [the farm], somebody would stop by the front door to ask to buy an acre to build a house," Jean said. "They resisted their whole lives, and now we're going to do the same."
Most intriguingly for wine lovers, Chien says Briar Valley's early success shows the largely untapped potential for the growth of aromatic white grapes in the slate-rich rolling hills of Bedford County west of Harrisburg, as well as in the Lehigh Valley and Endless Mountains.
"Most of the wineries are in the eastern part of the state, and we don't have the benefit of a 'wine trail,' " says Jean. "We're the lost children of the Alleghenies."
Not so lost anymore, now that they've received national recognition. Such accolades have, indeed, come in years past to Jersey wineries such as Sharrott in Blue Anchor, whose cab franc took gold in last year's Chronicle competition. Alba Vineyard, near Milford in Hunterdon County, has also won Chronicle golds for its gewürztraminer and dry riesling. (This year, Alba won silvers for its chardonnay, gewürztraminer, and cabernet franc.)
"It had a tremendous impact," said Larry Sharrott Jr., recalling the buzz that followed news of the winery's Chronicle award. Of course, the winery's sales are still largely driven by local traffic - not visitors from California. But for small East Coast wineries trying to carve out a place in consumers' considerations, winning significant national competitions is still one way to deliver something just as important: "credibility in customer's eyes."