Over Christmas weekend, my family held our annual "Wine Camp." This is an extremely vinonerdy exercise in which we pour several wines blind and say, "Tell me what this is." Over the years, it has taken on an air of one-upsmanship and competition, and it is always a helluva lot of fun.
My main protagonists are Dave Johnson and Ed Oldfield. Dave is my brother-in-law's brother-in-law, a relation twice-removed by marriage; Ed is Dave's close friend. Both are prominent doctors in the Hampton Roads-Norfolk region as well as avid wine collectors. They both are extremely skilled at finding exclusive wines of small production and (usually) high point scores that are not widely available - their network of retailers and winemakers across the country is impressive. One year, Dave wowed us with a $20 Aussie Shiraz that had everyone opening their wallets, while Ed, a devoted Dooniac, stunned with a bottle of 1984 Bonny Doon Vin Gris de Cigare - the inaugural vintage of the original Rhone Ranger wine.
Naturally, I can't compete in this crowd, so I bring outlandish wines that no one will expect. Last Spring, I surprised Dave and Ed with a delicious Dragon's Hollow Chardonnay from China, of all places. (Being a wine writer gives me the advantage of some unusual samples.)
This year's lineup included Isabel Sauvignon Blanc 2002 from New Zealand, still showing well without the stewed asparagus flavors old NZ SB can get. A 2000 Hunter Valley Semillon from Rothbury Wine Scoiety (my offering) was not as fully developed as I would have liked; it had appealing lime flavors and still tasted young, but was not harmonious. (I went back to it 3 hours later and thought it delicious, but by then I had been enjoying about ..... THIS many wines, so who knows?)
Dave then opened a 2006 Poets Leap Carmina Burana Cask Aged Riesling from the Long Shadows project in Washington state's Columbia Valley. I guessed the wine and the winery, but only because its Riesling character was obvious and I knew Dave's fondness for Long Shadows. (It pays to know your adversary!) Ed then opened a Retour Pinot Noir 2007 from Oregon, which matched nicely the Carabella 2005 I had brought.
You get the picture - the evening continued through the 2005 and 1996 Quilceda Creek Cabernets, and a Cab Franc comparison of Horton Vineyards "Tower Series"2007 and a 1985 Channing Road from Napa. Ed showed his Doon colors with a 1986 Old Telegram.
I had a surprise wine in reserve and was despairing that the evening was getting late and I wouldn't be able to present it against so many stellar, older wines. Then Dave brought out a young California Syrah, a Tensley 2008 Colson Canyon - lush and opulent with abundant fruit and high alcohol (over 15%) noticeable but not enough to dominate the wine. I saw my chance and brought out my ringer. It was similar, and yet clearly different in style - more earthy and dense, less obviously fruity than the Tensley. Dave and Ed immediately pegged it as Syrah, young, aged in French oak, and from California. My brother-in-law thought Washington state, figuring the concentration in the wine indicated Columbia Valley.
"You are all right except for one detail," I said, pulling the bag off the bottle. "It's from Maryland." I showed them the Black Ankle Vineyards 2007 Leaf Stone Syrah.
Such games are not what wine is all about, but they are devilishly fun and a great way to experience wine. I suggest some other ways of exploring the grape in my column today in The Washington Post, along with my monthly Recession Buster recommendations.