The verdict is in on Northern California’s best politically correct wines
Reese Erlich, East Bay Monthly, June 2016
The right wing has hijacked the term “politically correct.” It has become a catch-all insult to hurl at anyone left of center who dares to stand up to their bullying.
The media mashers at Fox News, for example, propagate the myth that leftist professors enforce political orthodoxy on university campuses, and environmentalists impose crippling regulations on private businesses.
The left doesn’t impose its views on people. The right-wingers just can’t stand the idea that people might voluntarily agree with leftist ideas. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with political correctness if it means people acting voluntarily in socially responsible ways.
So as a thumb in the eye to Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, and other purveyors of right-wing values, I organized a wine tasting to determine the best politically correct wine in Northern California. Vintners submitted wines that met socially responsible criteria, such as growing organic grapes, using sustainable farming techniques, or having unionized workforces. In early May three distinguished judges gathered at Oliveto restaurant in Oakland for a blind taste testing. Narsai David is food and wine editor at radio station KCBS; Holly Corr works for Oliver McCrum Wines in Berkeley; and Travis Fretter was founder of Fretter Wine Cellars in Berkeley and is now retired. The judges tasted each wine not knowing the name of the winery nor what socially responsible criteria it met.
“California has long produced some of the best wines in the world,” said David before the event. “Now we’ll be able to determine those which are both high quality and socially responsible.”
I was determined to find out if wines produced in a politically correct way could also please the palate and, if possible, the pocketbook. I was pleasantly surprised.
The judges agreed that the best wine was a 2014 Chardonnay from Trefethen family vineyards in Napa. The judges awarded a Gold Medal with notes indicating it had a “silky smooth taste with a nice balance of flavors.”
Trefethen generates all its electricity through solar power, reuses wastewater, and employs soy diesel and electric batteries to power many of its company and farm vehicles. In 2012, Trefethen won the Botanical Research Institute of Texas International Award of Excellence in Sustainable Winegrowing. The winning Chardonnay retails for $36.
I wasn’t surprised that a pricey wine took top honors. But a big shock came from Anthony’s Hill, a label produced by Fetzer in Mendocino. Anthony’s Hill’s Riesling, Chardonnay, and Merlot picked up bronze awards. Each 1.5-liter bottle, which is twice the size of a normal bottle, costs $11! Definitely the best taste for the buck.
The Hopland winery producing Anthony’s Hill uses solar power for 100 percent of its energy and has won awards for its zero-waste policy. “In 2015, we diverted 99.1 percent of all waste from landfills thanks to recycling, reusing, and composting our used materials,” said Margaret Leonardi, winemaker for Anthony’s Hill.
Balletto, St. Supery, and Scheid wineries took home silver and bronze awards, and all are unionized. The question of unionization is controversial among vintners, with many believing they provide good wages and working conditions without unions. The United Farm Workers and other unions have organized only a tiny fraction of California wineries, a reflection of the antiunion climate in the United States, particularly in rural areas.
But Armando Elenes, national vice president of the United Farm Workers, argues that the union’s total package of wages and benefits is better at union wineries. Union workers at Scheid, for example, get 95 percent medical, 100 percent dental, and 100 percent vision coverage for themselves and their families. Qualified seasonal workers are rehired each year based on seniority.
While some employers see unions as an unnecessary interference in their business, Elenes points out that unions help promote a stable and productive workforce. “Workers become invested with the winery” and produce better wine, said Elenes. “When they know someone cares for them, they have to take care of the vineyard.”
Elenes has only recently learned to appreciate good wine himself. “It’s a new thing for me,” he said. He takes his wine recommendations from those who pick the grapes. The workers became “wine drinkers themselves. The longer-term workers learned to love wine. It’s our product.”
So the politically correct wine competition showed that policies that favor workers and the environment can produce fine quality wine. And in some cases, the politically correct wine provides great quality at bargain prices.
So, Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly, you got a problem with that?’
The judges based their decisions on the quality of each wine and did not rank the wines in competition with each other. So some categories had more than one silver and/or bronze winner. Wineries provided the retail prices; discount liquor stores may offer better bargains. Unfamiliar with wine terminology? Wine Enthusiast magazine offers an online glossary: http://www.Winemag.com/glossary.
Here’s a list of all the winners:
Schramsberg, 2013 Blanc de Blancs, $30
Elegant and charming. Well-balanced. Fine texture with toasty, brioche aromas. Since 2009 Schramsberg has been certified by Napa Green Winery, a program that promotes use of sustainable agriculture techniques.
Domaine Chandon, Chandon Rose, $24
Austere, dry, excellent taste. Domaine Chandon is Napa Green.
Anthony’s Hill, NV Riesling, California, $11 per 1.5 liter
Nice nose and vibrant aroma. Cucumber flavors. Compares well with German-produced Rieslings. The Fetzer winery producing Anthony’s Hill uses all solar electricity and recycles 99 percent of its waste.
Balletto, 2014 Pinot Gris, $18
Very light, long and savory finish. Austere with clean, crisp aromas. Finish refers to the taste of the wine on the palate after swallowing. The longer the finish, the better the quality. Balletto’s fieldworkers are members of the UFW.
Scheid, 2014 District 7 Sauvignon Blanc, $16
Resembles a good New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Grassy and hints of pepper and papaya. Classic aromatics. This wine has elbows—it’ll push you around. Scheid fieldworkers belong to the UFW. The winery is certified by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance.
CHARDONNAY — $11-$25
Paul Dolan Vineyards, 2014 Chardonnay, $15
Very pleasant wine with clean, delicate, and well-balanced taste. Oaky with low acidity. Nice nose with hints of celery. Paul Dolan makes wine with grapes from California Certified Organic Farmers.
Balletto, 2015 Chardonnay, $20
Fragrant and crisp with good acidity. Good finish.
Anthony’s Hill, NV Chardonnay, California, $11 per 1.5 liter
Good acidity, heavy layers of fruit with a short finish. Great wine for a modest price.
Scheid, 2014 James Bryant Hill Chardonnay, $16
Easy to drink, grassy, light with hints of wood spice.
St. Supery, 2014 Napa Valley Oak Free Chardonnay, $25
Intense flavors tasting of papaya and mango. Interesting texture. High alcohol.
Scheid, 2014 Ranch 32 Chardonnay, $19
Good nose. Like a good white Burgundy. Nice acidity. Flavors of green apples.
CHARDONNAY — $26-$50
Trefethen, 2014 Chardonnay, $36
Silky smooth taste with nice balance of flavors. Low acidity. Great nose with white flower aroma. Trefethen uses only solar power, reuses wastewater, and uses alternative fuels for farm vehicles.
Grgich, 2013, Chardonnay, $43
Good nose, nice pale color, and oaky flavor. Smells and tastes like a Chardonnay should. Grgich grapes are organic, and the winery generates most of its electricity with solar power.
Fetzer, 2014 Shaly Loam Gewürztraminer, $9
Late-harvest Gewürztraminer, nutty flavors with a long finish. Fetzer reuses 100 percent of wastewater, composts all grape waste, and solar power generates all electricity at its Hopland winery.
Balletto, 2013 RRV Pinot Noir, $29
Fresh, clean with a good palate. Big nose with charming, fruit-forward taste.
Scheid, 2014 District 7 Pinot Noir, $17
Modest nose and big mouth. Lots of fruits but not too woody. Leathery mouth. A good Pinot Noir has flavors of leather from the proper aging of tannins in the barrels.
MERLOT — $9-$25
Bonterra 2013 Merlot, Mendocino County, $16
Modest nose. Savory fruit flavors, well-balanced. Great potential if cellared for 10 years. It really tastes like a fine wine. In my opinion, an excellent wine for the price. Bonterra is the largest U.S. producer of wine made with organic grapes.
Anthony’s Hill, NV Merlot, California, 1.5 liter, $11
A simple, austere wine. Intensely varietal with fruity flavor. Tastes like a Merlot should. In my opinion, a real bargain at this price.
MERLOT — $26-$50
Trefethen, 2012 Merlot, $40
Austere, fruity nose. Nice flavors and good tannins. Modest in the mouth.
St. Supery, 2012 Rutherford Estate Merlot, $50
Intense with a big, rich quality. Nice fruit and appropriate tannins.
Bonterra 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, $16
Well-balanced with light fruit flavors. Gritty with hints of black currant.
Fetzer, 2014 Valley Oaks Cabernet, $9
Pleasant and fresh taste. I think it’s an excellent wine for the price.
Paul Dolan Vineyards 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, $20
Fresh with a good cabernet identity. Clean, young wine. Very silky.
Scheid, 2014 Ranch 32 Cabernet Sauvignon, $20
Big cabernet identity; lots of young fruit. Not well-balanced. A well-balanced wine produces harmony between the fruit, tannins and acidity.)
Paul Dolan Vineyards 2014 Zinfandel, $15
Potpourri nose and big mouth. Tangy acidity with modest tannins. Powerful and out there! Excellent wine at an affordable price.
St. Supery, 2012 Petit Verdot, $50
Intense, full-fruit flavors. Pleasing balance with soft finish. One judge said, “I’d buy that wine.”
Oakland journalist Reese Erlich writes this arts and culture column every month. Follow him on Twitter @ReeseErlich, on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/reese.erlich) or contact him by email, ReeseErlich2@hotmail.com