Recapping the California Wine Fair


Say what you will about Californian wine: they sure know how to make solid Cabernet Sauvignon.

This year’s edition of the California Wine Fair rolled through town a couple of weeks ago. Most Edmontonians know this event as the Citadel Theatre’s annual fundraiser, and indeed that’s when the majority of people attend: at the swanky evening affair, when it’s as much about sampling Californian wine as it is about shameless people-watching. (Granted, people tend to be better-behaved at this wine event than at the Rocky Mountain Wine and Food Festival and especially Winefest, the latter of which is held on Valentine’s Day for maximum alcohol-fuelled ogling.)

I know the California Wine Fair mostly through the decidedly more subdued trade tasting portion, held earlier in the day. Alongside my fellow wine industry workers, I sampled through dozens of wines to get a feel for what’s going on in California these days.

In many ways it’s much the same as it has been for years: a slew of Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons, most of which are fairly unremarkable and undifferentiated from the ones sitting on the next table. Some of them did stand out, however, and there was some other interesting stuff scattered throughout. California is indeed a diverse region (or rather, set of regions), but you have to wade through a lake of homogeneity to discover this.

One thing the fair made very evident, by virtue of all those bottles lined up beside each other, is that the flashier the label, the less interesting the wine. (Granted, this is true not just of Californian wines but pretty much of wines from everywhere.) There are exceptions, of course, but at this event it was certainly true that when a really funky label caught my eye, most of the time I was underwhelmed with what landed in my glass. It makes perfect sense: if the producer is putting an obvious effort into showy marketing, they probably aren’t expending the same effort in their winemaking. Simpler labels usually indicate more complex wines.

Here is a selection of wines from the California Wine Fair, in no particular order whatsoever:

Domaine Chandon Rosé: fresh strawberries and plum skin. Fine bubbles are just crisp enough to be eminently refreshing, but not so much that it strips the enamel from your teeth. Lovely.

Gloria Ferrer Sonoma Brut: another delicious sparkling wine, with a great mix of ripe pear, fresh raspberries and vanilla toastiness.

Silver Saviezza Sangiovese 2009: Italian grapes can do quite well in California, and this wine certainly supports that. It had the classic Sangiovese aroma I simply describe with the admittedly not-so-useful moniker “Italian funk.” In a good way.

Ridge Geyserville 2012: one of California’s longest-standing producers, Ridge’s wines are pricey but tasty. The Geyserville stood out from their other Zinfandel blends for its high-toned, elegant fruit: cranberry, pomegranate.

Bell Town Cabernet Sauvignon 2012: come for the classic Californian varietal, stay for the gorgeous floral nose.

Lucas & Lewellen Pinot Noir 2012: proving that not all Californian Pinot Noir is overblown cherry pie filling and unbalanced alcohol. This is everything a Pinot should smell and taste like: no more, no less. Sometimes typicity is all you really need, anyway.

Ravenswood Old Hill Zinfandel 2012: this wine smells like you’re walking through an herb garden on a hot summer day: sun-baked thyme and warm sage, followed by a beautifully textured palate of well-structured tannins and balanced fruit.

Maggio Petite Sirah 2012: there was so much smoky tobacco on the nose of this wine I think it gave me second-hand smoke.

Saldo Zinfandel 2013: the big red boldness of this wine is belied by its label, which is possibly the most austere, minimalist wine label on the planet. Rich and juicy. V

Mel Priestley is a certified sommelier and wine writer who also blogs about wine, food and the arts at

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