The tasting is such a hot ticket that we were cautioned to bring not only tickets but also photo IDs and were issued sticky name tags that promptly fell off. Toothbrushes might have been more in order as 10 minutes into the afternoon tasting, everybody looked like extras from a blood-sucking vampire movie. Those intensely pigmented reds make quite the statement.
Tables were arranged around the room alphabetically and at Qupé, Bob Lindquist, one of the founding fathers of the Rhone Ranger movement, held court. Across the aisle, Larry Schaffer of Tercero in Los Olivos, whose wines I first encountered at the Garagiste Festival: Southern Exposure in Solvang, was pouring his 2012 Viognier from White Hawk Vineyard ($25) and his 2010 Mourvèdre ($35).
At a big tasting like this, it's impossible to taste everything. My strategy was to make it around the room, stopping at tables of smaller producers and those new to me.
Martian Ranch & Vineyard had a crisp, flowery 2013 Grenache Blanc "Mothership," at just $22. In fact all the wines from Nan Helgeland's biodynamic estate in Los Alamos are under $25, including a quite lovely, very quaffable 2011 Syrah "Red Shift."
I got the last glass of a wonderfully expressive 2013 rosé from Kale Wines in Napa ($22), and wanted to savor every sip of their lively 2011 red blend "Home Run Cuvée" Kick Ranch ($45). It has everything going for it — great fruit, minerality, earthiness — and yet it's beautifully restrained.
Margaret Foley, who owns the 2.5-acre organically farmed estate Petrichor Vineyards in Sonoma with her husband Jim, was pouring just two wines, their "Les Trois" from two vintages, both stunning ($48): the 2011 is a blend of 70% Syrah and 30% Grenache, while the 2012 is 50% Syrah and 50% Grenache. Both are elegant and balanced, with a distilled minerality. Their winemaker is Duncan Arnot Meyers (of Arnot-Roberts), their viticulture consultant Steve Matthiasson.
Wines from the brand new Paso Robles winery Law Estate Wines are impressive too. All four are 2011, priced at $65 right out of the box and bear names like "Audacious", "Beguiling," "Sagacious" and "Intrepid." I guess you could apply those adjectives to any of these stylish reds, though my vote goes to the Intrepid Syrah for its chiseled structure and long, yes, let's say it, beguiling finish.
Over at Donelan Wines from Santa Rosa, Cushing Donelan tells me the wines are all named after family members. Guess your sister gets a wine named after her, then everybody in the family needs to have a wine. The 2012 white blend "Venus" ($45) is mostly Roussanne with tiny amount of Viognier, which gives the wine is perfume of flowers and white pepper. The 2012 red blend "Cuvée Moriah" ($50) gets big points for its minerality and taste of berries and earth, but the wine I wanted to go home with is the 2011 Syrah from Obsidian Vineyard ($90) in Knight's Valley.
Summerwood Winery of Paso Robles was pouring a terrific barrel sample of its 2011 Mourvèdre ($75): 100 cases will be bottled next month. But they also had a fine 2011 Marsanne ($40) from grapes grown at a higher elevation. This white is full-bodied enough to make a great match with the Thanksgiving turkey. And my favorite of the four wines that Thacher Winery of Paso Robles was pouring is its 2011 red blend "GSM", which stands, of course, for Grenache-Syrah-Mourvèdre ($42). This one is the winery's big dog, with lots of character and spice.
Maybe I'm just not coordinated enough, but I found it tough to balance wine glass, notebook, pen and spitting cup as I made my way around the room. My suggestion for next year: sherpas — and toothbrushing stations. Those old confessional booths would do just fine.