In 1976, Parisian-based British wine merchant Steven Spurrier hosted a historic wine tasting that became known as the "Judgement of Paris." The blind wine tasting pitted some of the best French Burgundies and Bordeaux against what were then essentially unknown California wines including those from a little upstart region called Napa Valley. To everyone's surprise, and to the near-horror of French wine buffs, California won both the red and white categories, and forever changed the scope of the world of fine wines.
Pitting your product, blind, against the competition is always a risky endeavor. Particularly when you invite media and sommeliers from some of New York City's best restaurants and wine bars to conduct the tasting. But that's exactly what Michelle Reeves of David Family Wines—a small producer exclusively of Pinot Noirs—did in June. In the seminar room of the elegant Tribeca shop 24 Hubert Wines, Reeves opened her young label up to intense and uncensored scrutiny, pitting it against some of the most popular cult California Pinots (and one Burgundy "ringer") on the market. The event was dubbed "David vs. Goliath: A New Generation of Pinot Noir."
"We always thought our wines were good," Reeves told the crowd of a dozen or so wine enthusiasts. "And our frends tell us our wine is good, but they're our friends. They have to say that." The small label completed its first bottling in 2006, sourcing grapes from the coveted Santa Lucia Highlands AVA in Monterey, CA in 2006, and sold it in 2009. They've since added expressions from Anderson Valley in Mendocino. Both regions are highly commended for their balanced and nuanced Pinot Noirs.
"We wanted to see what would happen if we left it up to you guys," said Reeves. "We said, 'let's put our heads on the chopping block." Having invited sommeliers from Lamb's Club, Eleven Park Madison, Morrell Wine Bar and other NYC hotspots for the grape, it certainly seems like the axe could come down.
The tasting wasn't a massive undertaking, but it did pit a couple of vintages of David Family against other, more established cult Pinot Noir producers from Sonoma, Anderson Valley and Napa Valley, with well-regarded labels like Kistler, Flowers, Cherry Pie and Cirq Treehouse. Rather than taste and rank all nine wines together, the tastings were broken into flights of three, such that each wine was only pitted against two others. According to Reeve, the order and grouping were unknown to her, organized by the general manager at 24 Hubert. Nevertheless, the audience was frank in its discussions and opinions, especially as "sipping and spitting" gave way to "sipping and drinking."
The results were generally surprising, with some highly sought-after labels under-performing, and the votes in each flight were solid enough to be convincing, if not in any way statistically significant or ultimately definitive. Below are my thoughts and notes from each of the three flights, along with the rank each wine earned from the tasters in each flight (my personal ranking is in parentheses):
Rank 1 (me: 2): David Family Anderson Valley 2012 ($90)
Color: Ruby-purple, light in depth and transluscent.
Nose: Fruit and vegetal notes up front, with ripe plum, blackberry, fresh grass and light oak dominating.
Mouth: Medium to medium-light bodied with brisk, medium tannins and good acids. It is bright and fruit-driven, with plum, black cherry and a hint of spice. Very drinkable and enjoyable, and should age well.
Rank 2 (me: 1): Cirq Treehouse - Russian River Valley 2012 ($165)
Color: Deep burgundy plum with bright color at the meniscus.
Nose: Surprisingly less fruit-forward than expected, with notes of clean wood and clean humaceous earth leading. Those aromatics are followed by deep ripe fruite and spice notes of cherry and cinnamon.
Mouth: Medium to medium-full bodied with lush, medium tannins and acids. Unlike the aromatics, fruit is right up-front on the palate,w ith notes of fresh black cherry, plum, blackberry and light oak. (Reeves later observed that the Cirq and Cherry Pie wines were the hottest wines in the tasting as far as consumers and collectors are concerned).
Rank 3 (me: 3): Flowers Sonoma Coast 2012 ($53)
Color: Orange-gold tinged plum to brick red.
Nose: Complex aromatics that change significantly over time in the glass. It is fruit-forward with notes of candied cherry and raspberry.
Mouth: round and lush, medium bodied with bold tannins but medium to medium-light acids. Lots of purple fruits on the palate, with a short finish. Despite it being a 2012 vintage, it gives the impression of being several years older based on its color and richness.
Rank 1 (me: 2): David Family Santa Lucia Highlands 2011 ($70)
Color: Deep ruby to brick red, medium depth
Nose: Vibrant aromatics with fruit and chocolate up front. Notes of ripe currants, blackberry, strawberry and hints of choclate, malt, butter and nutmeg. Very complex.
Mouth: Round, rich and creamy, with mild acids and tannins. A very lush mouthfeel. Though not overly complex on the palate, it is a beautiful wine with a bit of a short finish. Good after dinner, with a cheese plate instead of dessert.
Rank 2 (me: 1): Patz & Hall Sonoma Coast 2012 ($44)
Color: Deep purple with notes of brown. Bright in color but opaque in depth.
Nose: Mild, subtle aromatics, but all are lush. Deep notes of coffee, stone, artichoke and blackberry.
Mouth: Less sweet on approach than expected, with notes of ripe blueberry, apple and grape with hints of cumin and spice. This is a great food wine.
Rank 3 (me: 3): Kistler Sonoma Coast 2012 ($70)
Color: Medium-dark burgundy with a hint of gold.
Nose: Less aromatic and mostly earth notes: Hints of wood, slate, mineral leading, with hints of light blackberry, blueberry and fresh earth following.
Mouth: Round and vibrant, medium to light tannins, medium to medium-high acids. On the mouth, it is fruit-forward, but mild and easy-going, not jammy. Blueberry dominates, with hints of spice on the finish.
Rank 1 (me: 1): William Selyem Burt William's Morning Dew Ranch, Anderson Valley 2011 ($162)
Color: Deep ruby-brown to velvet purple.
Nose: Clean aromatics and lush, with fruit and slate opening, then lush ripe plum with hints of pumpkin and baking spice.
Mouth: Round and lush. It boasts big fruit notes but is not jammy. You'll find rich ripe plum, wild strawberry, blackberry, currants and cranberry juice. It is full to the brim with fresh fruits.
Rank 2 (me: 3): Cote de Nuits-Villages La Montagne, Domaine Jean-Jacques Confuron 2011(Burgundy) $55
Color: Ruby-purple, not too deep.
Nose: Bright and aromatic with notes of mint, blueberry, pine and bubble gum.
Mouth: Brash and tannic, with fruit notes of cherry and blackberry almost subdued by the tannins and very earthy as well. It's surprising how completely different this French Burgundy "ringer" was from the California Pinot Noirs. It was also definitively clear this wine was not yet ready to drink, and holds much potential.
Rank 3 (me: 2): Cherry Pie "Stanley Ranch," Napa Valley 2011 ($66)
Color: Brick red, medium depth with a light, translucent color shining through.
Nose: Earthy, funky and "warm." Hints of mint, horse, banana, tropical fruits. Old World meets New.
Mouth: Round and vegetal, with mild tannins and medium acids. Vegetal notes along with rich, ripe fruits. Another wine that feels as if it is older than it is.
When all was said and done, Reeves was pleased with the results, her wines having ranked above the competition in the two flights they were in. She noted that such tastings are subjective and flexible. "Your impression of a wine is affected by what you had for breakfast, or how much sleep you got the night before. We know these results might be totally different if we do them over again tomorrow."
She should take heart: In a 30-year anniversary event, the same vintage wines from the Judgement of Paris were again pitted against each other for a rematch. Many french wine judges were clinging to the hope that California wines wouldn't age as elegantly as their French counterparts. Not only did the American wines that won in 1976 maintain their ranking, but five of the top ten rated wines were from California. Perhaps David Family could reconvene in a decade or so for another face-off...
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FTC Disclaimer: The author sometimes receives product samples for review, which carry no cash value and cannot be re-sold, and sometimes attends press events such as lunches or cocktail parties, designed to promote a given product. The author is not paid by any alcohol manufacturer, retailer or distributor, or provided compensation apart from revenue from an assigning publishing company for editorial publication. Opinions are the author's own. By the way, you should be 21 or older to read this page. Author was invited to participate in the David vs Goliath tasting. While much more experienced and talented sommeliers offered up their best guesses, before each reveal, as to which wine was which, the Author knew enough to keep his inexperienced, yet very large, mouth shut. For once.