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Monday, Mar. 14, 2011

A tale of two wines


I don't know that two red wines could be more opposite than Pinot Noir and Petite Sirah.

One is classy, the other brash. One is a poet, the other a rocker. One is a ballerina, the other a pole dancer. One is Ichiro, the other Hulk Hogan. One is Jacob, the other Esau.

One I adore, the other I crave. One I love, the other I desire.

Perhaps I can more deeply understand yin yang through Pinot Noir and Petite Sirah. Or why men and women are so utterly different yet so fully capable of affection for each other.

To me, a perfect day of wine tasting would start with Pinot Noir and conclude with Petite Sirah. That perfect day was Jan. 6.

As I do nearly every year, I trekked to California soon after New Year's Day to participate in the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, the largest judging in North America. It's held in Cloverdale, a wide spot along Highway 101 in northern Sonoma County. I like to drive because it gives me about 30 hours in the car to listen to music, it's easier to bring back wine in a car than on a plane, and the Redwood Highway is one of the most beautiful drives in America.

Many competitions ask each judge ahead of time what they might be interested in tasting. Everybody puts down Pinot Noir, and nobody puts down Chardonnay. The running joke at every competition is you'll probably end up with Chardonnay - and never what you request. I put down Pinot Noir, Petite Sirah and Riesling. I'm happy to taste anything, even Chardonnay, but these are the three varieties I'm most interesting in judging.

After a couple of days tasting Cabs, Syrahs and red blends, our panel found wine-judging nirvana - at least my version of it: We had 85 high-priced Pinot Noirs before lunch and 50 upper-end Petite Sirahs in the afternoon.

(Before you say, "How in the world can you taste so many wines!" just know that this is an ordinary day at a wine competition and is surprisingly not difficult.)

I had a feeling this was going to be a memorable and glorious day, but I didn't think it would be the greatest day in my wine judging career. Our panel of five looked forward to spending the morning with Pinot Noir. Its plush elegance, modest tannins and refined complexity were welcomed at our table.

Honestly, my opportunities to enjoy Pinot Noir are more rare than you might expect. I adore the grape, but my wife does not, even though she grew up in the Willamette Valley. I lovingly refer to her as my "bad Oregonian" because she eschews Pinot Noir in favor of Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Her parents, who still reside just south of Portland, also prefer Washington reds for their quality and value.

So my personal collection of Pinot Noir grows and languishes, awaiting the day my bride will have an epiphany and begin to share my love for the greatest of grapes.

On this sunny day in Northern California, the Pinot Noirs did not disappoint. In fact, the first wine out of the chute earned a unanimous gold medal from our panel. To provide insights on the rarity of this, it is nearly impossible to get two judges, much less five, to agree on Pinot Noir. At a California competition many years ago, I had to physically restrain two judges who nearly came to blows over Pinot Noir.

On this day, there were no such theatrics, only harmony as we worked through the 85 wines, which were priced in that sweet-spot range of $30 to $34.99. We found many to like and few to discard at this price point. Most were from 2008, a superb vintage up and down the West Coast, and they were majestic. I thought I knew Pinot Noir, but this day took me to a greater level of understanding the majestic grape. These were not overripe, over-extracted, Syrah look-alikes. These were what Pinot Noir was supposed to be. They were dancers on another plane of existance. They were purity. They were sublime.

During lunch, I salivated at what the afternoon would bring. Many think of Petite Sirah as a brutal taskmaster. I view it more as a long-haired, leather-clad demon on wheels, a free spirit pushing its way along a winding highway. Petite Sirah is Hunter Thompson writing Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It is bold, bombastic and in your face. It makes no excuses or apologies, nor should it.

We attacked the afternoon session with gusto, knowing we would end the day with hobolike blackened teeth. I found a kindred spirit in Christopher Sawyer, a California sommelier and fellow judge who shared my lust for Petite Sirah. Buoyed by the wines before us, Christopher and I bullied the others into awarding gold medals to deserving wines. We were as unconstrained as the Petite Sirahs before us.

On a nearby panel was Dan Berger, California's renowed wine writer and notorious Petite Sirah lover. A few years ago, the California Petite Sirah trade association was looking for a catchy name, and Berger suggested, "P.S. I Love You." The Petite Sirah advocates liked it so much, they took it as their name. On this day, there was no love for Petite Sirah. It was pure lechery, and Christopher and I decided we wanted to change the name of the group to "P.S. I Want You Bad."

By the time we were through, I was nearly breathless yet still energized from what I'd just experienced. This was the greatest day of my wine tasting life, even if it didn't include Riesling.