I frequently see people milling about in the wine section of the local supermarket -- or even in the area's better wine shops -- reading the promotional hang tags or shelf-talkers while juggling several bottles indecisively. You can practically see their minds at work: Should they gamble on the $14 Australian Shiraz they've never heard of but which, according to the hand tag, is "boldly filled with jammy blueberry flavors"? Or stick with that $12 California Merlot they've been drinking for years?
We all hate the disappointment of trying something new that doesn't appeal to us. But those ubiquitous advertising blurbs in restaurants and retail shops -- on shelf talkers, table tents, hang tags -- make everything sound good. It would be great, wouldn't it, if you could try dozens of widely available wines at one time and compare them to each other and get a sense of what you really like.
This might be the best reason to go to the Cincinnati International Wine Festival: You'll have lots of opportunities to try a wide variety of wonderful wines that you'll then be able to buy with confidence over the next year -- because you'll know from experience that you like them. By tasting these wines now, you'll quickly build a list of products in your price range that you enjoy, those that appeal to your palate.
The festival kicks off Thursday night with wine dinners at various restaurants around town. At many of these events you can meet actual winemakers and taste their products paired with fine food prepared by some of the best chefs in town -- Jean-Robert de Cavel at Pigall's, Sean Kagy at One Restaurant and Lounge, David Cook at Daveed's at 934.
On Saturday afternoon, participate in the festival's Charity Auction and Wine Luncheon at the Hilton Netherland Plaza, where you'll have the chance to purchase rare and older vintage wines donated by local collectors that might not be available for any price through any other source. You'll also have a chance to bid on special dinners, vacations and more. The auction begins at 11 a.m.
But the main events are the Grand Tasting sessions on Friday and Saturday at the Duke Energy Center.
Here you'll find over 600 wines from more than 130 international wineries in every imaginable category -- widely available mass-market brands; products from smaller, value-priced producers; even rare and expensive wines that you've only read about before.
I recommend staying fairly focused at the Grand Tastings. There are a lot of wines open and you will not be able to get to all of them -- even if you attend every session. So it helps to have a game plan.
When you arrive, take a few minutes to review your official Wine Festival Tasters Guide, which comes free with admission along with a Riedel wine glass. Mark the wines you absolutely have to try and stay focused until you get to all of them. After that, start branching out. If you like Napa Cabernets or Russian River Chardonnays, then refer back to your guide for selections that match your preferences but which might not sound familiar; you might discover a hidden gem. Also plan on visiting tables sponsored by distributors like Vintner Select and Cutting Edge, which tend to have interesting, less-familiar selections on display.
Perhaps the most compelling reason to attend is that the festival has donated $2.25 million to area charities over the past 16 years. Past beneficiaries include AIDS Volunteers of Cincinnati (AVOC), Dress for Success, Hamilton County Special Olympics, Rape Crisis & Abuse Center of Hamilton County and Ronald McDonald House.
Clearly there are plenty of reasons to get out of the house this weekend and head downtown for the many events associated with the Wine Festival.
Among the many fine wineries that will be on hand this weekend, there's one that I'm particularly excited about seeking out because of its unique connection to Cincinnati. Kelley and Steve Styring founded their own eponymous winery in Oregon's upper Willamette Valley in 2003 after years of planning and research.
"We're very analytical, technical type people," Kelley says.
And they share a passion for the "artisan, handcrafted nature of fine wine." Together they decided that they could learn to make wine -- and set their sights on crafting world-class Pinot Noir.
"If that's your goal," Kelley remarks, "you either go to Burgundy or Oregon."
So they went to Oregon and fell in love with the wine country there.
"It's a great environment," she says, sounding content with her new surroundings. "And there's so much collegiality and collaboration among the growers and winemakers."
In 2003, they planted six-and-a-half acres of Pinot Noir on 40 acres in an area well known for producing fine wine; their nearest neighbors include Beaux Frères, Brick House and Patricia Green. The first useable fruit from those vines was harvested in 2006 and will represent their first estate wines when they're eventually released. Their current releases are produced from contract vines in older vineyards.
"But we're responsible for crop management on those vines," Kelley, a self-described control freak, assures me. "We determine things like when and how much fruit to drop, canopy management, harvest time."
Right now production is still quite small.
"We're starting out slowly," Kelley says, "doing everything by hand. We know the nuances of every barrel from every vintage and use that knowledge in blending our Reserve wine and the regular Pinot."
They intend to ramp up production slowly so as to maintain the same standards of quality.
"We expect to be (at) about 2,500 cases in five years," she says.
By comparison, the 2003 release amounted to only about 500 cases in total, including 125 cases of their 2003 "Wit" Reserve Pinot Noir; 102 cases of their 2003 "Whimsy" Dry Riesling; 50 cases of their "Forest Grove" Chardonnay; and just 75 cases of an unusual Pinot Noir "Port-Style" dessert wine that comes in half bottles.
Kelley says their wines "don't typify the expected style." She describes them as "big, dark, structured Pinots with a lot of character. These aren't light, thin Pinots." They use 20 percent new French oak to age their wines for about 18 months, and source many of their used barrels from Beaux Frères, down the road. They also allow their wines to rest significantly before release, so they're ready to drink when you get them home.
Interestingly, Ohio is the only state outside of Oregon where Styring Wines are available.
"We met the folks at Solera, our distributor, through the Wine Merchant in Hyde Park," Kelley says. "Working with the sales team, we just really got the impression that they appreciated what we're trying to do, using high-caliber traditional practices to craft a true artisan product that expresses the natural fruit and the vineyard with minimal intervention."
Take the opportunity to try some of these handcrafted, artisan products this weekend. She'll be on hand all weekend to talk about her wines -- at the Grand Tastings and at a special wine dinner prepared by Paul Sturkey at mesh in West Chester.
"I just couldn't be more excited about coming to Cincinnati," Kelley says.
CINCINNATI INTERNATIONAL WINE FESTIVAL takes place Thursday-Saturday. For more information, go to www.winefestival.com.