Spitting my Way Thru the Family Winemakers 2015 Tasting

wine glasses

“It’s Sunday, people should be brunching!”

Greg is mystified as we hungrily walk with Ken through downtown Pomona, searching in vain for some food before the colossal Family Winemakers wine tasting event we’re about to attend.

Sunday morning. No brunch. No food.

However, when we arrive at the Pomona Fairgrounds Conference Center, we see that the organizers had the foresight to provide piles of La Brea Bakery bread, cheese and crackers. Crisis averted. No crowds. No lines. No brunch, but there’s cheese!

Oh, the joys of a huge wine tasting event that is not oversold! The tasters here are comprised mainly of professionals: distributors, retailers, restauranteurs and media. As the name suggests, the participating wines are mainly small production labels looking to increase the visibility of their brand.

2015 Family Winemakers

The map of participating wineries is clearly posted at the entrance. This allows us careful planning of our maneuvers amidst an abundance of choice.

In truth, I’ve heard of only a handful of the 200+ labels, which fills me with trepidation as well as excitement. With the prospect of so many unfamiliar wines beckoning, I know I need to avoid the soft focus alcohol haze that resembles the before shot in a Claritin commercial– rendering one incapable of distinguishing nuances beyond red, white and rosé. In order to taste as many wines as possible, I realize I will have to spit.

Up to this point in my wine journey, I have strictly practiced only the swallow. I was unsure about my ability to appreciate the wines fully with only a sniff, swirl and spit. I needn’t have worried– my palate adapted beautifully.

Proper technique is also a concern. I’ve attended many wine tastings where I’ve eyed professionals bending over spit buckets and frankly thought the procedure unladylike.

Not to mention dangerous. When alcohol is involved, it just seems to leave too much margin for error in aiming for one of those slush-filled spittoons. The solution for me was to carry my own little plastic cup (as my personal discreet spit aid). The only drawback is that I occasionally (absentmindedly) offer the wine makers my spit cup instead of my wine glass.

Good sports that they are, they’re prepared to pour into the wrong container without asking embarrassing questions like, “How drunk are you?”

The astounding array of wines found at the 2015 Family Winemakers event includes something for everyone, from Rhône style reds and whites, to the wildly popular Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon– a veritable A to Z of Albarino to Zinfandel. Given that a single winemaker using the same varietal sourced from different vineyards can produce wines of completely different flavor profiles, it’s magical how themes crop up: a lot of the whites appear a little too enthusiastically infused with effervescence; a good selection of Chardonnays thankfully lean away from oak and butter bombastics to flutter instead with fruit and minerals making them beautifully drinkable and food friendly; a hefty percentage of the Pinot Noir push the high end of alcohol at 14% finishing with a little too much heat in the back palate. Other Pinot Noirs appear to be having an identity crisis by impersonating big, black fruity wines with lashings of anise– many of them delicious, but lacking in the elegance and food pairing virtuosity of the purest expressions of the grape. When I finally happen upon a delicately crafted, fruit/acid balanced 2012 Pinot Noir from Frostwatch it makes my taste buds sing Brigadoon!


A special mention should be given to the beautifully balanced 2010 and 2011 Thorne Pinot Noir.  2010 is superb, with mushrooms and Bing cherry on the nose and with a burst of fruit and sweet basil on the palate. The 2011 holds its treasures a little tighter but contains all the building blocks of the 2010 and will soon be as glorious. The Thornes, Bobbie and Graner, own the Rio Vista Vineyard in Santa Rita Hills and sell their fruit to big names such as Ken Brown, Hitching Post and Brewer-Clifton. It all starts with the grape.Thorne Vineyards

“Wild Thing,”Ken was excited to try the Carol Shelton wines on offer. She’s best known for her single vineyard designated expressive Zinfandel. Carol’s representative was pouring five very different expressions of that grape. The 2011 old vine Zin from Mendocino County, “Wild Thing,” was named in Wine Spectator’s top 100 last year. The 2012 I tasted did not disappoint, with an approachable wave of velvet and green pepper.

In a past blog post, I touched on the notion of masculine and feminine wines. Though not all wines are overt about their gender, indeed many are completely androgynous, but in general, a feminine wine will be fruity and floral on the nose and perfectly balanced and voluptuous on the palate. Masculine wines have a strong backbone of tannins, aromas of herbs, leather, meat and smoke. They can often appear tight and reserved but promise to open up and take their tie off at a future date. Here, however, was a whole family album of Zinfandel: Mother (Karma), Father (Monga), The Metrosexual Golden Child (Rocky Reserve), The Maverick Child (Wild Thing), and The Sweet Granny (Black Magic), a dessert wine made from late harvest Zinfandel. The completely different nature of each wine one again confirms the ultimate importance of terroir.

Blair Pinot Gris Ken, who was not spitting, had motored through his shortlist of wines at this year’s Family Winemaker tasting and was debating whether he had a second wind in him when we discovered Blair Estate Wines from Arroyo Seco. Without knowing too much about Blair Estate we assumed we were going to tread water with a light pour of an entertaining and accessible Pinot Gris, when wham-bam, the rescue helicopter arrived and beckoned us aboard.

The grapes for this amazing Pinot Gris were sourced at the historic Meador Estate Vineyard and in winemaker Jeffrey Blair’s hands become a serious wine: structure, personality, fruit and minerals combining to astonish Ken’s weary tastebuds with a dry splash of extraordinary. And it doesn’t stop there. Blair’s Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are like drinking a Bruno Mars concert from the front row: big, gorgeously structured wines full of personality and fruit.

I may well have missed oodles of additional gems, but through the immense amount of wine and a kaleidoscope of varietals, I must mention the Fiddlehead Pink Fiddle rosé of Pinot Noir, which is a refreshingly dry infusion of sumptuous strawberries and rose petals. I could drink this all Summer long.

1_116243750_4_3In conclusion, I am pleased to report that spitting works. Despite all the wines I had tasted, I was barely buzzed by the time it was time to go, so I decided to drink one whole sip down for the road (Greg was our designated driver, thank you, Greg xo). What did I choose to swallow all the way? Opolo Vineyards, 2012 Sangiovese from Paso Robles. I love a good Sangiovese, and this one from Opolo is very good indeed, medium-bodied, friendly, well balanced with notes of plum and spice. The only drawback from an afternoon of spitting became evident when I looked in a mirror… all that swishing around the mouth had turned my teeth purple. Small price to pay for the lack of hangover ☺. HELEN

We were invited to this event as the guests of Family Winemakers, all opinions are our own.