Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Only a Little Bit of Wine @ the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo

February is rodeo season, and it kicked off during the first full week of February here in  San Antonio. Normally, I don't go in for the Rodeo; here it is more about the carnival -- overpriced rides -- and the concerts -- I'm not a C&W fan. Well, last year marked the first time wine played a role at the Rodeo. So this year, Sean and I headed out during opening weekend to visit the 2nd annual Rodeo Wine Garden and taste the wine competition winners.

Front of the Garden facing away from the foot traffic

Local grocery giant HEB sponsors the Wine Garden at the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo. This little oasis in the dust and buzz is hidden back from the foot traffic as visitors leave the exhibit halls and special tents for the carnival. In fact, the nearby ARMY recruiter is easier to spot. This out of the way location is indicative to how the wine portion of the Rodeo is seen: it is the red-headed step child of the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo.

I don't wish to be mean. I'm glad our Rodeo is taking a page from more established and recognized ones, like the Houston Rodeo. However, it just doesn't get any respect. Right now, it has a lot to be desired. One of the wine competition volunteers told me the wine competition and garden ranked low among the Rodeo's exhibits and events. And to be honest, this feeling was evident. So like the red-headed step child, we want to like it but it isn't quite what it could be.

View from and of the Garden

To be fair, it has some good points. The best part about the Wine Garden is the "Garden." In the back of the tent, a comfortable garden area is set-up for visitors to sip on their wine and talk -- a rare commodity with all the loud noises drowning out a normal conversation. The patio seating is beautiful and for sale; it is also well placed around the garden space to allow for a sense of privacy. Plants of all types fill the space, a nice break from the dust and road. There is even a pleasant waterfall. This ornament provides a nice setting: a way to drown out carnival noise and a way to keep the dust down. Sitting out in the garden enjoying a glass of wine on a beautiful warming sunny day was exactly what I had hoped when I arrived.

The waterfall in the back center of the Garden

Also recommending the garden was the friendly staff. The four young ladies that were pouring the wine were all very nice and approachable. But that was also the first sign of a problem; none of the stewardesses knew anything nothing about the wines (and in some cases, wine in general). During the first part of our tasting, we not only told the girl about the wines (as she and the others had not tried them), but we also informed her about how wine tastes. She was eager to learn, but I found it disappointing that those people most in contact with the visitors knew almost nothing. To make matters worse, they couldn't even tell anyone which wines were Texas wines; yes, I saw to that VERY quickly.

The tasting bars

To help with the lack of info, the Rodeo had a large number of wine competition volunteers roaming about. We were greeted by one not long after we entered, but after I introduced myself as a blogger, he decided not to keep talking with us. We later spoke to another gentleman who was eager to share his love for wine; I just wish I met him sooner. There were a number of others, but they seemed more intent on socializing with one another than the Garden's visitors. This was disappointing. They did one good thing though. They came around with chocolates to pair with the wine. The sample Sean and I got was quite good and paired well with the rich red blends.

Inside the tent

As for the wines, that is a whole other story. I recently spoke to someone involved with the judging, and she wasn't too happy about the whole thing. I can see why. Though the winners were good, it seems most were merely safe choices. The Cupcake Petite Sirah -- a non-vintage mass produced Malbec -- did well at the competition. I am not saying this isn't an enjoyable wine, but it isn't what I expect of a competition winner. The Red Rock Malbec (BRONZE, Top of Class), a better placed winner, was a better choice. It and the Red Rock red blend (GOLD) were two of the most intriguing wines Sean and I drank. They had some complexity in flavor and some progression, but they weren't wines to sit and slowly savor and ponder over. These weren't the something special I had expected; I was disappointed.

One of our favorites

To make matters worse, Texas wines did poorly at this wine competition. This is a shock compared to the successes they had at the other, more established Rodeo wine competitions (the Houston Stock Show and Rodeo had a great Texas turn out), as well as their showing at the San Antonio Wine Festival. At the Garden, only three were available and they were not properly presented: Messina Hof's Reserve Cabernet Franc (they were serving the Barrel Reserve though it was the Private Reserve that won), Messina Hof's Sophia Maria Rose (a semi-dry that they had put in the dry white category), and McPherson's Viognier (which was in the Sweet Wine section). The lack of Texas wines and the mistakes made presenting them was rather sad. And this went on. While we were there, a visitor asked to try all the Texas wines. He was disappointed to only find three; he left quickly.

Award winning Texas wine from Messina Hof

Sean and I did our best to look past the slight to Texas wines and try to find out the stand-outs, like the Red Rock. However, it was hard. Recently, I spoke to another visitor to the Rodeo who complained about this issue. First, the tastings were $2 a piece and were maybe 1 ounce pours. It didn't take long to spend a lot (we stopped at 6 tastings each, a total of $22). This is where the wineries and other festivals stand out. For $10, I could get at least five 1-ounce pours (probably 2 ounces) and a glass. This didn't match up. The mark-up didn't end there. The two glasses Sean and I chose were $10 each. Not really bad, except these bottles retail at $10. This was poor mark-up. Add to that one more problem: not enough. Even by opening day the Garden was out of many wines, especially the champions. Add all of this up, and it was no wonder people didn't stay long or drink.

All this said, I am glad that the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo is trying to be something more. However, it has a ways to go. In fact, the GOTEXAN areas were generally marginalized at the Rodeo, especially the Wine Garden (which also had so little to do with Texas). And I know I am not the only person unimpressed. While at my favorite wine shop recently, I chatted with some folks who had recently visited as well. They were disappointed by the lack of quality, as well as the lack of available wines (they went opening night and a number of the featured champion wines were already "SOLD OUT"). I hope that the Rodeo learns more every year and that the Wine Garden gets better. And since it is the Rodeo, I hope they will start to feature Texas wines more prominently. Here is hoping for next year will be brighter.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Meditation in a bottle: Santa Maria Cellars' 2011 Malbec

On a dreary November afternoon, I stepped into Texas Wine Cellars Etc. The part that stood out most, besides the hustle and bustle, was Martin and Angela Santamaria offering wine samples. On that day, I chanced to sample the 2011 Malbec. As a Malbec lover, I was thrilled to taste another pure Texas Malbec. What was even better was that it was a unique Malbec that invited me in.
Signed bottle of Santa Maria Malbec

The Winery and the Wines

I have to admit, I wanted to visit this winery for awhile; it was part of  my New Years resolution from 2012. Several weeks ago, Sean and I made a trip to the unassuming homestead and tasting room on Highway 16 between Kerrville and Fredericksburg. While at Santa Maria Cellars, we enjoyed the Malbec, but we also got a chance to see more of Martin's vision as a wine maker.

Martin uses all Texas grapes -- mainly from the Texas High Plains Viticultural region (i.e. near Lubbock) -- like many wineries. However, he goes for varietals that are less noted as Texas wines. Some, like the Pinot Grigio and Muscat Canelli, can be found at wineries, but they are not common (like Viognier). And then there are the varietals that can be interesting when grown in Texas but will not be like their Californian or French cousins -- Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot. Then there was the varietal I was not expecting but enjoyed for its unique flavors, Pinot Noir (with tobacco and chocolate fruit).

From these grapes, Martin is mainly making single varietal wines -- Malbec (2011), Pinot Grigio (2011), Cabernet Sauvignon (2009), Pinot Noir (2011), and Muscat Canelli (2010). There are also two nice blends. The Red Moscato combines the Muscat with some Merlot to make a light and sweet wine that is reminiscent of strawberries. The newest is a 2011 Cabernet-Petite Syrah blend. This wine has a soft fruit forwardness with that pepper and strength of a Texas Cab.

Tasting the Malbec

When Sean and I went to visit Santamaria Cellars, we went with one thing in mind, the Malbec.

After a few swirls, one is greeted with a strong sense of dark chocolate, refined and controlled. Berry and fruit, especially cherry, also is pronounced. To me, these are the smells of Valentines.

The aroma is a moment of indulgence that is met with bold flavor. The actual taste, however, is first dominated by the berries. This berry flavor is underlined by a strong current of cherry. This creates a rounded fruit flavor that is dark and distinctive rather than heavy berry or fruity sweetness.

As one moves on, the fruit softens, bringing back the chocolate tones from earlier. However, now this chocolate is subtle. It is a dark chocolate hidden in the other flavors, not proud and dominate like in the aroma. There is also a bitterness here, like warm, fresh green tea, that grows to lead the chocolate flavor. This is something I know all to well. When I have fresh green tea and pair it with a good dark chocolate of 60-70%, the bitterness in the chocolate is more the bitterness in the tea, allowing the chocolate to be a separate entity from its bitter component. Though I love dark chocolate, it has a habit to be strong, where the bitterness of the cacao is stronger than the richness. When one pairs it with tea, the tea's bitterness stands out more, and this bitterness has an earthy quality. That earthy bitterness comes through with this wine and is accentuated by the rich, smoothness of chocolate.

Visual Tasting

I lounged with this wine for a while. I had to sit and sip, eyes closed, to allow myself to see this wine. Though it was predominate with the berry and earthiness so often found in Argentinian Malbec's, it didn't quite taste like them. It was as I sat and contemplated that I finally found the difference. There is a ruggedness here lost in the Malbecs of Argentina. There is also a note of solitude and fulfillment here. Once I finished my first glass I knew what I was experiencing: my first trip to Red Rocks in Colorado.
Red Rocks Amphitheater, Coloardo
 Even before the amphitheater comes into view, the rocks are the center of attention. Their dark red shades, from orangish to deep burgundy, cut brilliantly into the often bright blue sky. They seem to loom above as well as pierce the sky. This wine feels that way. The berry and cherry, its brilliant reds, loom ahead, but it is the way the chocolate and bitterness pierce that sensation that matches the landscape.
Leading up to Red Rocks Amphitheater

When I visited Red Rocks, a chilly breeze blew down from the mountain tops; I have heard it is even that way in summer. At the time of year I visited, it wasn't consistent, but would sweep down without warning, catching everything up in it and sending the collection every which way. Then, just as the wind arrived, it was gone, leaving a calm that settled in. The wine's final notes are much like this. They come without warning, pushing the drinker to keep up with them, but before long, they settle in and allow one to appreciate them and the new sense they leave behind.
Looking down into the amphitheater at Red Rocks

With the wind, there are echoes. Sounds ring throughout the amphitheater, making it a great location for concerts -- too bad I never got to see on there. A single sound echoes along the sides, up and down, until it fills the space. Even as new sounds join, it isn't a jumbled, jangly mess; instead, the sounds resonate and hum, building into a single sound that speaks of parts. The flavors in the never quite fade away, even the fruit. Each sensation, berry, cherry, chocolate, tea, fill the space together, providing a harmony and yet distinct flavors.

The shadows from the stage at Red Rocks

One thing that is clear about Red Rocks, and the Malbec, is its meditative nature. When the amphitheater is not in use, its emptiness is quite pronounced. The sky above is blue, often a white blue, and the sun is a soft yellow. These colors seem lighter, faded almost, next to the dark, startling red of the rocks. It makes the world seem farther away, as if one is truly hidden away from the rest of the world. Even the shadows, ranging from a reddish black to a gray-pink, lengthen and grow, making the place seem empty. This is a sense of solitude, a place away. Here is a place where one can sit and think, to contemplate the world below. The Santa Maria Malbec is no different. One is transported, left following each flavor until everything else just isn't there. It seems all that is left are thoughts. I find this wine to have a calming effect.

Red wines have predominate flavors. It is not common to find berry or cherry. I often find chocolate, and from time-to-time tea. But it is how the flavors present themselves that make this wine one to return to. They invite me to slip away, they sweep me up and leave me in awe. They soften the world and find peace. This Malbec is like no other I have had. I am glad that this Malbec is Texas.

*NOTE: If you are interested in a different sort of visual tasting of this fascinating wine, check out Jim Baker's color based tasting at Texas Wine Geek.