Here’s what was in the air at the Aromatic White Wine Festival

Husch Vineyards owner Zac Robinson, right,  and his brother-in-law, winemaker Brad Holstine, with the winery’s gewurztraminer vines. (Photo courtesy of Husch Vineyards)

Pinot noir gets most of the love in Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley. But I’ve long thought of the valley as “the American Alsace.” The grape varieties commonly associated with France’s Alsace region – especially gewürztraminer, riesling and pinot gris – thrive in the valley’s cool, ocean-influenced climate; gewürztraminer was even among the early plantings there, in the mid-1960s.

These are niche wines, to be sure, especially compared to pinot noir, but the valley’s vintners decided to promote them with an annual festival, formerly known as the International Alsace Varietals Festival. For this year’s festival, the 13th, it was renamed as the Anderson Valley Aromatic White Wine Festival.

Why the change? John Cesano, executive director of the Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association, said the new name was meant to be more inclusive. “Folks from Germany were so incredibly unhappy with that name,” he joked, and he said he hopes that the name change will attract more vintners from Old World countries that have a history with, say, riesling or pinot gris/grigio. The group also wanted to engage in a little branding and get “Anderson Valley” into the name.

Not many wines from Germany are being poured yet at the festival in Boonville – there were a few at a food-and-wine pairing seminar, and a California winery, Smith Story, poured a Rheingau riesling that it produces – but California was well-represented. (Especially – no surprise – the Anderson Valley.) There were also wines from Oregon, Alsace and New Zealand.

The festival’s definition of “aromatic whites” encompasses riesling, gewürztraminer, pinot gris, pinot blanc and muscat, but I focused on the first two during the grand tasting. A few random notes about some of the best wines I tasted, starting with those from the Anderson Valley.

The gewürztraminer is as good as it’s ever been at Husch Vineyards, which became the valley’s first licensed winery in 1971. Gewurztraminer was among the first grapes that Tony Husch planted in 1968. (The valley’s first gewürztraminer was planted a few years earlier by Donald Edmeades.) Husch is now run by Zac Robinson and his sister Amanda Robinson Holstine, whose grandfather bought the winery from Tony Husch, and they produce high-quality wines that are ridiculously good values. For example, the 2016 Husch Dry Gewurztraminer ($15) has some weight and fleshiness to go with the typical gewurz overtones of rose petals, lychee and spice. There’s also a luscious 2014 Late Harvest Gewurztraminer ($25/375ml) that has nice freshness to balance the intense sweetness.

Navarro Vineyards is another longtime purveyor of Alsatian (sorry, festival organizers) grape varieties. When Ted Bennett and Deborah Cahn started their winery in 1974, they wanted to specialize in something that was out of the ordinary, Cahn once told me, so they settled on gewurztraminer, which they wanted to make in a dry, Alsatian style. Navarro’s estate gewürztraminer ($22) is always exemplary; 2016 is the current vintage. (Soon, Navarro will be releasing a 2016 Deep End Gewurztraminer for $29 that has more weight and richness.) The 2016 Navarro Riesling ($22) is pretty and fresh with candied lime flavors.

Riesling and gewürztraminer are also important players at Handley Cellars. The 2016 Handley Riesling ($22) offers zippy lime, lime zest, spiced apple and wet stone notes, while the 2016 Gewurztraminer ($22) has excellent varietal character.

Goldeneye is focused on pinot noir, but the winery also produces a tiny amount of gewürztraminer. The 2016 ($36) is excellent, if pricey. Other noteworthy Anderson Valley gewurzes included the 2017 Toulouse ($24) and the somewhat fleshier 2016 Phillips Hill ($24).

The Mendocino Ridge appellation, above Anderson Valley, is the source of some good rieslings, such as the dry, very racy 2016 Cartograph Riesling ($29) and the 2016 Phillips Hill ($25), which tastes just off-dry. The best-known riesling from Mendocino Ridge is Greenwood Ridge ($20); the current vintage, 2016, is off-dry but very fresh, with a stony note. At a kickoff dinner for the festival, Greenwood Ridge founder Allan Green poured some older riesling vintages, including a sensational 1985.

Finally, a few highlights from wineries outside the Anderson Valley. Ryan Stirm and Mike Callahan are riesling true believers. Both specialize in single-vineyard bottlings from distinctive Central Coast vineyards. Stirm poured two wines from his Stirm Wine Co.: the 2016 Kick-On Vineyard Riesling ($22) from Santa Barbara County and the 2016 Wirz Vineyard Riesling ($30) from San Benito County ($30); the latter is made from vines planted in the early 1960s. Both wines are very dry and stony, with lime zest and slight petrol notes. Stirm also makes riesling in a can under the Companion label; the 2017 ($9 for a 375ml can) is full of fresh lime and wet stone notes.

Callahan’s riesling project is called Maidenstoen, and he poured three single-vineyard offerings during a seminar. My favorite was the 2016 Maidenstoen Coast View Vineyard Riesling ($22) from an extreme site in the eastern hills of Monterey County. The wine is very precise, with racy lime, lime zest and a trace of petrol. Sadly, that was the last vintage; the vines have been grafted over to other varieties.

Claiborne & Churchill in Edna Valley, outside San Luis Obispo, makes more mainstream wines like chardonnay and pinot noir, but it has a following for its riesling and gewürztraminer. The 2015 Estate Riesling ($28) is fleshy and slightly sweet with some mineral notes and lovely texture, while the 2017 Dry Gewurztraminer ($22) is very fragrant, fresh and, yes, dry.

Finally, at the Dutton Goldfield table, I overheard someone at the tasting express surprise at the notion that there’s wine from Marin County. Indeed, Dutton Goldfield produces a delightful 2016 Riesling ($30) from Chileno Valley Vineyard in Marin. The wine displays racy lime flavors and just a whisper of sweetness.


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