On Friday night, as part of the ninth annual Pigs & Pinot fest at the Hotel Healdsburg, H2, and Dry Creek Kitchen, two local wines took home the first and second prizes in the annual blind tasting known as the Pinot Cup.
It's a weekend of lots and lots of Pinot drinking, and constant discussion of the merits of this or that vintage of the notoriously delicate and hard-to-grow grape. And you might think there was some favoritism at play in the judging of the Pinot Cup, given all the Sonoma winemakers in the room and the nature of this homegrown event thought up by chef Charlie Palmer – and given that part of the proceeds go to benefit local schools and charities. But, as Palmer told us, "This is probably the only truly honest blind tasting left in this country. I'm serious." The odds are, however, heavily weighted in the direction of Sonoma and the Russian River Valley in particular because the majority of the bottles entered in the competition came from here.
The judges this year were a highly qualified trio: wine writer and veteran wine competition judge Wilford Wong, who's the man behind the point ratings at BevMo; Meridith May, the executive editor and publisher of The Tasting Panel Magazine; and master sommelier Michael Jordan, who currently works for Jackson Family Fine Wines, the parent company of Kendall-Jackson.
Out of 60 Pinot Noirs and Burgundies tasted, representing multiple Sonoma appelations but at least a dozen from New Zealand, Oregon, and France as well, the judges narrowed it down to two examples they thought represented the best expressions of the grape. The winners: First place went to Healdsburg's own MacPhail Family Winery for their 2010 "The Flyer" from the Russian River Valley ($59, available on their website); and the runner-up this year was Twomey Cellars for their 2011 Bien Nacido Vineyard Pinot, grown in the Santa Maria Valley (though Twomey has its headquarters in Healdsburg). That wine is currently sold out on their website.
The MacPhail bottle is an elegantly rounded Pinot with plenty of red fruit appeal, but it's always hard at this event after tasting 25 other Pinots to appreciate the subtleties of the winners by the time they're announced. The Twomey bottle is a bit more Burgundian in style, with slightly more tannins and darker fruit notes. By most accounts, the crowd was relieved to have the prizes both go to hometown wineries given that the past few years have seen winners sneak through from New Zealand and France (gasp!).
Also on hand for the festivities this past weekend was one of Palmer's proteges, Bryan Voltaggio, returning for his third time at Pigs & Pinot, as well as New York chefs Amanda Freitag (Empire Diner) and Frank Crispo (Crispo Restaurant), along with Aureole Las Vegas chef Vincent Pouessel and Dry Creek Kitchen chef Dustin Valette. All the chefs cooked bites for the tasting event Friday, as well as for a gala benefit dinner Saturday night – the seats at which get harder to get every year as Palmer has kept the event small, hosted in the dining room at Dry Creek Kitchen. At sister restaurant Spoonbar down the street, recent Top Chef contestants Louis Maldonando (the executive chef at Spoonbar) and Carrie Mashaney (Seattle's Aragona) cooked the Swine and Wine Dinner Saturday, featuring wines from Banshee Wines and Flanagan Wines.
Though Palmer helped propel Pigs & Pinot to national fame by bring a Pigs & Pinot-themed challenge to Top Chef back in 2009, he still thinks of it as a small-town affair and a weekend to celebrate heritage pigs along with their perfect compliment. "I still remember sitting around one night, eating pork and sipping some Russian River Pinot in Dry Creek Kitchen and saying, 'This is just the perfect pairing. We should do an event that's all about these two things.'"
Tickets for next year's 10th anniversary celebration will go on sale in January, and will, as usual, sell out extremely fast.