Berger: Obscure wine from Italy fools the judges

At a major wine competition last week, all of the judges were poured a warm-up wine and asked to identify it.

Since these were theoretically skilled judges, the task sounds like it would have been simple. After all, the different grape varieties do have different aromatics, taste profiles, and textures.

For instance, most pinot noirs (at least the very good ones) rarely have as much tannin, color or body as, say, far weightier cabernet sauvignons or syrahs. And Gewurztraminer is most decidedly a lot more floral than, say, Rousanne.

The white wine we were all poured was slightly floral and had nice texture. It was dry and would have worked nicely with a wide variety of lighter foods.

I guessed it was a pinot gris. So did about a third of all those in the room. Other guesses were Vermentino (from about four persons), Riesling and sauvignon blanc.

I was wrong, as were more than 20 other guessers. The wine turned out to be a Vermentino, a rare grape of Italian heritage. So little Vermentino is planted in California that the USDA's 2012 Grape Acreage Report doesn't even show any of it planted in California!

I'd guess total acreage in the country to be about 100 acres or so.

No question this is an obscure white grape, though successful versions of it have been made by a handful of California wineries. Among the best are from Tablas Creek in Paso Robles, Mahoney Vineyards in the Napa Carneros, Uvaggio Vineyards in Lodi, and Thornton in Temecula. I have had all four and like them greatly.

That 70+ professional wine judges couldn't identify the wine is no surprise. First, it's not a mainstream variety and as such its aromatic and taste profiles do not return from the recesses of the brain very readily.

Also, each of the four California Vermentinos listed above differ from one another in ways that are easy to see. That's because the grape apparently displays different characteristics based on the different locales in which it is planted.

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