The Anderson Valley Alsace Varietals Festival, graciously and expertly hosted by the Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association (AVWA), may be able to claim the best weather for an Alsace Festival ever with temperatures in the mid-60s°F on February 9th and 10th and cloudless skies. The temperatures in Alsace at the same time were frigid in the very low 20s°F. About 300 very happy oenophiles made the breathtakingly beautiful drive to the Boonville Fairgrounds in the Anderson Valley for this 8th Annual festival. As in previous years, the International Alsace Fest celebrated Alsatian varietals such as Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir, Sylvaner and Muscat. For so many wine lovers, dry red wine is de rigueur, so participating in a fest that is almost totally white wines and that includes off-dry as well as dry white wines is a welcome deviation in this mid-winter event.
Traditionally Alsace wine or Alsatian wine (Vin d'Alsace in French ) is produced in the Alsace region in France and, as mentioned above, are primarily white. These wines have a strong German influence as this region has shifted back and forth between France and Germany over the centuries. As noted in Wikipedia, "They are produced under three different Appellations d'Origine Contrôlées (AOCs): Alsace AOC for white, rosé and red wines, Alsace Grand Cru AOC for white wines from certain classified vineyards and Crémant d'Alsace AOC for sparkling wines."
Perhaps the most popular of the Alsace wines in America are the dry Rieslings and dry Gewürztraminer. Many Anderson Valley vintners have specialized in these varietals including Claudia Springs Winery, Esterlina Vineyards, Greenwood Ridge Vineyards, Handley Cellars, Husch Vineyards, Londer Vineyards, Navarro Vineyards, Philo Ridge Vineyards, et al. Additionally, winemakers from all over California participated. Some of the most recognizable included: Robert Sinskey, Thomas Fogarty Winery and Trefethen Family Vineyards. Less well known to this writer but of note were Barra of Mendocino, Claiborne & Churchill, Cutruzzola, Stoney Hill and Tatomer.
For this writer, the Dry Gewürztraminer from Londer Vineyards (they offered a 5 year vertical) had the most aromatic and rich fruity notes. Bone dry and fermented in stainless steel, Larry and Shirlee Londer have years of experience making this wine and it shows. They also poured a Sweet Gewürztraminer. Both of these wines were exceptional.
Also pouring very nicely were the dry and off-dry Rieslings from Esterlina Vineyards in the Anderson Valley. Both were made with grapes from the Cole Ranch vineyard near Ukiah which is America's smallest American Viticultural Area (189 acres) and is owned by the Sterling family who also own Everitt Ridge Vineyards & Winery in the Dry Creek Valley.
Other US regions made strong showings: Oregon (Anne Amie, Brooks, Foris Vineyard Winery) and Michigan with many from Traverse City and the exceptionally beautiful Old Mission Peninsula above Traverse City (Chateau Grand Traverse, Bowers Harbor Vineyard, Left Food Charley). Unfortunately, the wines from the NY Finger Lakes region (Fox Run Vineyards, Lamoreaux Landing Wine Cellars, Sheldrake Point Winery, Red Newt Cellars, Wagner Vineyards) got held up in transit and were not available for the event. Each of these states have the terroir to grow the Alsatian varietals and the expertise to produce the wines. They represented a wide range of flavor profiles and levels of sophistication that made tasting them all fascinating and at times delightful. As an aside, a New York Finger Lakes winery Keuka Springs Vineyards won Best of Class White wine and was also the Sweepstakes winner for its 2011 Riesling at the 2013 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition held in January.
International participants filled out the 46 wineries at the fest and they came from New Zealand (Forrest Estate, Giesen Estate, Lawson's Dry Hills Winery, Misha's Vineyard, Te Whare Ra, Seifried, Greywacke), Germany (Valkenberg, Joh.Jos.Prum, Two Princes, Weingut Johnnishof, Reichscraf von Kesselstatt) and offering true Alsatian credibility, Domaines Schlumberger of Alsace (interestingly this family is related to the Michel Schlumberger who established the winery in the Dry Creek Valley).
Alsatian wines, of course, are meant to be enjoyed with food and the festival Grand Tasting had a powerful combination of treats to pair with these wines. Favorites were the Porkbelly offered by Chef Marc Dym of the Little River Inn, Little River on the Mendocino Coast; Tomales Bay Oysters shucked and provided by Markofer Catering Company, Albion, CA; the Rock Cod with Peanut Sauce with recipe provided by Joyce Goldstein (see below); a selection of pizzas from Piaci, Fort Bragg ; a dazzling array of international cheeses from Boontberry Farms, Boonville and artisan chocolates from Essence by Chocolate. Scrumptious and all paired beautifully.
On Saturday morning, prior to the Grand Tasting, the festival included educational sessions on winemaking and grape growing specifically for Alsace varietals. This upfront and personal chance to interact with winemakers and growers is one of the attractions of these very personal educational events. Topics like botrytis management (the noble rot), a “Gastronomic Tour of Alsace,” and a 3 decade retrospective tasting of Greenwood Ridge Vineyard Rieslings. These were followed by an intriguing and especially informative wine and food pairing and preparation demonstration by Joyce and son Evan Goldstein who were elegantly introduced by chef legend, author and the "Father of Wine Country Cuisine", John Ash.
During his introduction, John said, "When good food and good wine come together everything is elevated and it results in an epiphany" for the beneficiary. Listening to his intro and then observing the Goldstein's demonstration was also an epiphany regarding perfect pairings of wine and food. Evan Goldstein, a world renowned food and wine industry veteran and the youngest American, at the time in 1987, to pass the Master Sommelier examination. He began his food and wine career in Paris at the age of 19 and has become a prolific writer including "Perfect Pairings: A Master Sommelier's Practical Advice for Partnering Wine with Food". Evan employed his Quick Reference Guide for perfect pairings to highlight his thoughts about understanding wine and food as you approach the partnering of same. As he said, "Alsatian wines have a wide range of acidity, sweetness and alcohol" content but not so much for tannin and oak (his 5 keys to understanding wine). One take-away was the principle that food flavor profiles should parallel or mirror the wine flavor profile, when pairing. Joyce Goldstein, Chef, Author and Culinary Consultant, is best known for her recipe development expertise. She prepared a Spicy Peanut Sauce for a Rock Cod that would be paired with a dry Riesling from Handley Cellars. Joyce reminded all that you need to 'taste as you prepare" a recipe because the seasonality of ingredients make them more or less potent thereby allowing for a potentially unbalanced final flavor profile. The Goldstein's demonstration was widely attended and was both educational and fun. The best part was the availability of this recipe for tasting along with the perfectly paired wine during the Grand Tasting.
The rest of the weekend included a variety of events including winemaker dinners, of course the Grand Tasting from 1-4pm on Saturday and Open Houses at many of the participating Anderson Valley wineries on Sunday. There was also a silent auction during the Grand Tasting that was a fund-raiser for the Anderson Valley Housing Foundation and the Steve Pitcher Memorial Foundation for Alsace Varietals which helps to promote and continue the heritage of Alsace varietals in the Anderson Valley.
Next year's dates have yet to be confirmed by the Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association but it will likely be the second weekend in February which would be February 8 & 9, 2014. Mark your calendars so you won't miss this unique and very enjoyable fest in the Anderson Valley.