LONG before the Okanagan blossomed as British Columbia's favourite wine country, farther from home it was Napa and Sonoma that first lured Vancouverites to discover the joys of wine touring and of California wines in general.
That legacy remains firmly intact, and will again be celebrated in style when the Golden State returns as the theme region for the 2013 Vancouver International Wine Festival, Feb. 25 to March 3.
The choice of California for 2013 turns out to have been more than auspicious.
The demise of the Vancouver Playhouse itself last year might have placed the festival's future in jeopardy. But the event widely hailed as one of the continent's stellar consumer and trade tasting weeks has successfully navigated the turbulent waters of transition and emerged with a new (and well matched) arts beneficiary, Bard on the Beach.
It's auspicious because the very first Vancouver Playhouse Wine Festival featured California wines, and from just one winery at that, Robert Mondavi. How fitting that in this watershed year California should be the theme region. And, yes, the name Mondavi will again be on quite a few labels.
If you haven't checked out the range of tastings on offer (playhousewinefest. com), no time like the present, as the sell-outs are starting to roll in. The following are a couple of recommendations worth scooping up, although there's plenty more. Move really fast to grab tix to Ridge Revealed, with winemaker CEO Paul Draper, at Market, Feb. 28. If you're looking to taste iconic Zinfandel, it doesn't get much better than this, with mini-verticals of Montebello, Geyserville and Lytton Springs over several decades.
Another event guaranteed to live up to its name: Regional Superstars of California (March 1, at VCC West), with a panel of luminaries led by wine educator extraordinaire (and VanMag head judge) DJ Kearney. Book that one quick too!
A couple of other things occurred to me as I was reviewing my picks from a wide-ranging preview tasting last fall. It underscored the remarkable array of varieties produced and, for the most part, produced very well. In fact, as you'll see from my picks from the 64 wines poured, there really is something for every taste and budget.
My advice? Use this partial list as a guide when you get into the International Festival Tasting Room, and for a sweep through the onsite liquor store. Find full tasting notes and more recos at hiredbelly. com.
? Gloria Ferrer Sonoma Brut
One of the best Cali-bubbles you can buy. Previously reviewed (BCLS $27.99, 88 points). They're pouring all sparkling at the festival, including the very pretty and strawberry-toned Brut Rosé.
? Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc Viognier 2011
A blend of Chenin Blanc with a splash of Viognier. Think grilled scallops with fruit compote ($23.99, 89 pts.) Also of note: Pine Ridge Napa Cab 09.
? Isabel Mondavi Carneros Chardonnay 2010
From the Michael Mondavi Family Collection, this beautifully balanced Chardonnay sports oak and creamy pear-and-apple notes, good acidity and a touch of minerality (90 pts. $36.99).
? Marimar Estate Russian River Pinot Noir 07
Not your typical California pinot at all, so much so that it reminds me of some of the delicious aged tempranillo that you find in Spain; makes me think of perfectly barbecued lamb cutlets over open coals (90 pts. $58.99).
? Schug Carneros Pinot Noir 2010
Previously reviewed (BCLS $36.99, 92 pts.)
? Meiomi Belle Glos Pinot Noir 2011
From the makers of Caymus, a silky smooth California pinot bursting with red berries and spicy hints in a supple palate before a lengthy close ($24.99 89 pts.).
More on the festival and other recommendations to come next week.
Tim Pawsey covers food and wine for numerous publications and online as the Hired Belly at hiredbelly.com. Contact: rebelmouse.com/hiredbelly, on Twitter @hiredbelly or email email@example.com.