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Tom Hill

A self-admitted wine geek, Tom lives in Northern New Mexico and works as a computational physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory doing numerical neutron transport & large scale code development. He has been tasting wines since 1971, participates locally with a couple of large tasting groups in his area, and is practically a fixture at most California wine festivals, such as the Hospice du Rhône, Rhône Rangers, and ZAP. Other interests: Tom is heavily into competitive sport fencing (foil & epee), biking, cooking, basketball, skiing, backpacking, mountain climbing.

    Twenty-First Taos Winter Wine Festival - January 23, 2007

    The Taos Winter Wine Festival launched yesterday for the twenty-first year in a row. With all the recent storms providing an ample base for skiing, I expect this year's event will bring record attendance. In today's column, I'll highlight some of the activities that attracted my attention.

    The Taos WWF has grown enormously from the inaugural back in 1987 when Chris Stagg invited a few of his favorite winemakers out to Taos to ski, in exchange for pouring some of their wines apres ski. The professional management brought to the table by Greg O'Byrne has lifted it from its humble beginnings to a first rate event. Even so, it is a small, cozy festival that attracts some of California's best winemakers... at least among those who love to ski. Several years ago, I recall trying to keep up with Ridge Vineyard's Paul Draper, a man more than a few years my senior. He carves turns just as skillfully as he carves out top notch Zinfandels from great grapes.

    The Festival spans nearly two weeks. The first week is devoted primarily to the wines of National Distributing; the second those of Southern Wines and Spirits. Wines from the smaller distributors are sprinkled throughout both weeks. During the week, there are a series of seminars in the late afternoon, and winemaker dinners in the evening. On the two Friday afternoons, there are the Grand Tastings with the opportunity to sample wines from all the present wineries. High point of the event is the Great Chefs of Taos dinner on Sunday at De La Tierra restaurant led by the very knowledgeable Craig Dunn.

    One of the big attractions of the event is its size. Large wine events can be sort of a zoo, with little opportunity for personal contact. At Taos, you can often ski a few runs with a winemaker, or quiz them on their latest release on the lift ride up. The dinners often are intimate enough that you can grill them to your heart's content. And this one- on-one interaction is what most winemakers thrive on.

    Yesterday's seminars included Josh Jensen's Calera Winery. Josh, a tall, lanky, raw- boned Clint Eastwood look-alike, is one of the premier winemaker skiers. His vineyards carved out of rocky limestone soil near the bucolic town of Hollister yield some of California's greatest and most Burgundian Pinots. Moreover, he turns out one of the most Dolly Parton-ish in style Viogniers that is a perennial favorite of mine. And his taste in colorful sweaters makes him one of the most fashionable figures in all Taos!!.

    This afternoon's Zinfandel panel is always a hit with the Zinfanatics, a particularly passionate breed of wino. Kent Rosenblum cranks out a plethora of stunning Zins from a cavernous locomotive repair shop on the old Alameda Naval Air Station using several dozen premier vineyards throughout California. His former marketing director Kevin Brown, will be showing wines from his small R&B operation as well. Susan Ridely will be discussing the wines from the famed George Hendry Vineyard, source of one of the great Rosenblum Zins. George, in addition to being a meticulous farmer, also builds in a barn on his ranch...get this...proton accelerators, a last link to his earlier days at the Berkeley Laboratory Bevatron!! Not your usual sideline for a clod-busting grape grower.

    The panel will also include Michael David of that eponymous winery. He grows wine in Lodi an area that's an up and coming star for Zinfandels, as more winemakers discover the very old Zin vineyards located there. Filling out the panel will be Peter Mathis of Ravenswood, a winery whose Zins I've followed from the very start in 1976.

    Saturday's seminars will star Craig Williams, longtime winemaker for Joseph Phelps. His Insignia Cabernet is regarded as one of California's finest. Not being a Cab fan, I'm usually more interested in his Rhone-style wines. He and Josh Jensen were two of the first Viognier producers in California. His Le Mistral Rhone blend is a bargain and demonstrates that cool Monterey County can, indeed, produce fine California Rhones.

    My curiosity was particularly piqued by the "Wines of Spain" presentation next Wednesday. Ray Vigil owns a brand-new wine importer and distributorship here in New Mexico called Vin Iberia. This country has a multitude of interesting wines from obscure regions available for those making the effort to root around in the rural backwaters. I'm interested in seeing what new Spanish wines Ray's portfolio has to offer.

    A week from Saturday will be Brian Larky's "Great Wines of Tuscany." His Della Terra portfolio (www.dallaterra.com) of Italian wines has more gems on it than Elvis Presley's gaudy white jump suit. An accomplished skier and outdoor adventurer, his Northern Italian wines are always some of my must-trys.

    In addition to many of the winemakers mentioned above, the two Grand Tastings have a number of tables I'm eager to visit. Tomorrow's lineup includes Baileyana (Scott Woodward's Syrah from the Edna Valley is exceptional), Maryhill (some very fine Washington Syrahs), Sineann (Peter Rosback's Oregon Zins are unusual and exceptional, his Pinots very good), and Zaca Mesa (Clay Brock's Rhone varietals are hitting on all cylinders).

    The following Saturday's list includes Arcadian (Joe Davis' Pinots and Chardonnays are some of the finest available in New Mexico), Crawford Malone Wines (a distributor of a large range of fine California wineries. I'm dying to try their Basket Case wine!!), Marietta (Jake Bilbro's Old Vine Red, Lot Number...umpty-ump now, is one of my all-time favorite value reds), Zealer Cellars (based in Carmel, their Syrah, Napa Cab, and Sonoma Zin are exceptional wines and very good values), and our very own Vivac Winery (Jesse and Chris Padberg are making some of New Mexico's most interesting wines up in Embudo. Stop at their tasting room on your trip up and buy some of Liliana's superb chocolates...to die for).

    Information on the Taos WWF and ticket ordering can be found at www.SkiTaos.org or 505/776-2291 Ext 1427.

    The tasting venue at the two Grand Tastings can be a bit crowded at times, especially when clumps of people stand at a table and block other's access to the wines. Proper tasting etiquette calls for you to step up to the table, receive your pour, and then step back to sample the wine, so others can receive their pour. If you wish to discuss the wine with the winemaker, they'll usually be more than happy to step aside and hear you out. This protocol seems to be widely ignored here in New Mexico. If some curmudgeonly grump carrying a red spittoon, with a look of purpose in his eye and on a mission, asks you to step aside....that'll probably be me!! .

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