Are we back yet?

In forming Sostevinobile, Your West Coast Oenophile dedicated this still-nascent venture not only to creating a singular temple for wines produced along the entire stretch of the North Pacific’s West Coast (Baja California—British Columbia), but committed these efforts to the highest level of sustainability we could attain. My personal dedication to this latter facet of our business is to cycle as much as possible, instead of driving, notably throughout the confines of San Francisco proper, as well as points attainable over the Golden Gate Bridge. At least as long as my increasingly wobbly knees will withstand.

And so, one might assume that I regarded the dramatic reduction of automobile traffic, particularly at the start the damned pandemic, as a boon. But, as it turned out, the remarkably clean air proved quite the annoyance. As soon the sun began settling past the meridian, the blinding glare became overwhelming, making any kind of westerly route unbearable, if not hazardous. Dare I say I actually began to miss the air pollution?

Heading to Paso Robles earlier this month, my route required that I pass through the confines of the tech jungle for the first time since 2019. Much to surprise, in the offing to my left, there hovered the famed San José smog along the Diablo Mountains that bifurcate Santa Clara County. Could this be an omen that the end of COVID-19 was finally within sight? Could foul air mean congested traffic mean a return to normalcy? It’s enough to make a wine guy want to learn how to plot an algorithm!

But nothing that Legoland (my derisive term for Silicon Valley) offered could dissuade me from reaching my destination for the weekend. Various complications had kept me from visiting Paso since 2018, so the opportunity to return for the revived Garagiste Wine Festival proved too compelling to miss. Arriving the day before the Grand Tasting, I spent the afternoon reacquainting myself with the township.

For the past several years, ground zero for cutting-edge winemaking in Paso Robles has been the eclectic collective known as Tin City. But what had been a relatively underground enclave had blossomed into a full-fledged destination, overflowing with wineries and tasting rooms, as well as breweries, cider plants, restaurants and artisan food purveyors. Not to mention teeming with locals and tourists alike. As Dorothy Gale might have said, “I’ve a feeling we’re in Kansas anymore!”

A sign of COVID times, simply dropping in on a Tin City tasting room no longer is an option, a change that severely hampered my modus operandi. Nonetheless, I was able to schedule a special trade appointment with Giornata, Paso Robles leading producer of Italian varietal wines. Brian and Steffi Terrizzi are both fellow members of NEB, so, not surprisingly, their 2018 Nebbiolo Luna Matta—for the uninitiated, Nebbiolo, the grape that constitutes both Barolo and Barbaresco, is known among cognoscenti as the wine for when Pinot Noir drinkers grow up—proved extraordinary, as did the 2018 Aglianico Luna Matta.

Giornata’s Fatto a Mano series of wines might be deemed “natural,” but the term hardly does justice to these painstakingly crafted wines that are aged in amphorae. Standouts among these selections were the proprietary white blend, the 2020 Bianco Estate, a deft mélange of Trebbiano, Friulano, and Ribolla Gialla, and their esoteric red, a co-fermented 2020 Grenache Moscato, produced with Moscato Gialla and an early picked Grenache Rouge.

As much as I enjoyed these two wines, my eyes nonetheless gravitated toward the 2020 Falanghina, my first experience with this varietal as a skin-contact wine. But, of course, I could not overlook the flagship 2020 Ramato, easily the intensely orange Pinot Grigio I have ever experienced. An utterly superb bottling!

Even after two hours, I could have stayed on—and perhaps should have, after learning that the renowned Luna Matta Vineyard, the crown jewel of Italian varietals in Paso Robles, was being replanted with Cabernet Sauvignon—a most egregious development in my book. But the Grand Tasting for Garagiste beckoned, and even without cohesive directions to the Paso Fairgrounds, I reluctantly departed.

COVID-19 has been so devastating, in so many ways. For like myself in the wine sector, its impact on trade tastings has been particularly arduous, not just stifling all aspects of our business practices but depriving us of the camaraderie these gatherings foster. Since California’s putative lifting the pandemic color coding system, there has been a slow reemergence of trade events, though most have been a pallid vestige of their former incarnations, with reduced attendance capacities, substitute pourers, a dearth of trade/media passes, and astronomical ticket prices—particularly in Napa, where some four different AVA events sought ~$175 for a two-hour tasting.

A number of imported wine events have resurfaced these past six months, including St. Emilion, Portugal, Georgia, and the annual Simply Great Italian Wines, though almost all were represented by their American distributors. While these events help as a point of comparison and often attune my palate to varietals like Saperavi or Alvarelhão that have scant plantings here in California, they offer little in the way of reigniting Sostevinobile’s core mission.

Since June, I’ve been happy to attend the inaugurals of both the Chardonnay Classic and the Cabernet Classic at Vista Collina, as well as Healdsburg Crush, the revamped rendition of Pinot on the River, all of which still were generous enough to accommodate select media and trade. And I was most please to be once again selected as a judge for USA Wine Ratings. But it wasn’t until Garagiste that I felt a true sense of return to normalcy.

The true beauty of these tastings is the opportunity to discover an array of small producers whom I might not have otherwise encountered. This time, after a 2-year hiatus, the list of newcomers was bountiful, with 23 wineries to add to the Sostevinobile database. Layout of the Paso Event Center lent itself to an easy alphabetical navigation, which I followed in reverse order. Just because…

Here’s a brief synopsis of the wineries I discovered:

  • Zanoli Wines, a local, 350 cases project focused on Rhône varietals. Standout selections included their 2019 Mourvèdre Glenrose Vineyard and the 2018 Red, a Syrah-dominated GSM blend
  • The Wine Boss, a winery & custom-crush facility in Paso Robles, offered an amiable 2018 Fortunate Youth Cabernet Franc
  • Executive Director for Rhône Rangers, Kim Murphy-Rodrigues, poured both a 2020 Picpoul Blanc and a 2018 Grenache Morro View Vineyard that may have been the afternoon’s best selection, for her family-owned Vigo Cellars
  • Thibido Winery, a new Paso Robles producer, showcased their 2020 First Date Grenache Blanc and the superb 2020 Just Because Carbonic Syrah—just because…
  • Another new endeavor, St. Eva Hill, seemed a decidedly mixed bag, but I did cotton to their 2019 Estate Petite Sirah, as well as the 2019 Estate Rosé
  • Bakersfield’s San Rucci, a truly boutique effort, impressed with their 60 case bottling of the 2019 Cabernet Franc
  • RF Fine Wines delighted with their 2015 Riserva Primitivo, but their forte was in a trio of Paso Robles Cabernets, most notably the 2018 Legacy Cabernet Sauvignon
  • From Turley’s vineyard manager, Brennan Stovall, the intriguingly-named Quench & Temper is uniquely focused on blending Graciano with Rhône varietal grapes, exemplified by the 2019 Chapter IV (+ Grenache) and the 2019 La Cantera (+ Syrah)
  • I was vastly impressed with Nenow Family Wines, another Paso-based Rhône producer, with excellent selections across the board, particularly their GSM blend, the 2018 Elevens and an astounding 2018 Syrah Kimsey Vineyard
  • In Atascadero, south of Paso Robles, John Merrick’s Mea Wine presented a cross-section of Italian, French, And Spanish varietals, and while I am wont to favor his 2019 Estate Vermentino, the 2018 Revelation, a Syrah-Tempranillo blend, proved equally compelling
  • In recent years, Paso has been home to California’s renewed interest in Mourvèdre, the proverbial Holy Ghost of the GSM Trinity. Here, Loma Seca best exemplified the stunning versatility of this varietal with their 2019 Estate Mourvèdre
  • Mourvèdre can also be known as Mataro or Monastrell. Like Grenache, aka Garnacha, it is popular as both a Rhône grape and a Spanish varietal, too. Still. it is uncommon for both grapes to be blended with a pair of more distinct Spanish plantings, Tempranillo and Graciano, but this quartet comprised a most distinctive wine, the 2019 La Macha. from Paso Robles’ Hayseed and Housdon
  • The familiar refrain, Don’t Call It Frisco, doesn’t apply if that happens to be your surname. Nor is it an apostasy for Frisco Cellars to produce their 2018 Blanc du Rouge, a painstakingly handcrafted white Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Because I can speak Italian, I was able to deduce the meaning of Familia Hicks, as it varies only slightly from our term famiglia. But were it not for this Paso Robles micro-boutique, I would not have known that their 2019 Kazoku, a Templeton Gap Syrah, also means family (in Japanese)
  • This name only seems like a typo. Etnyre Wines heralds from Pismo Beach and produces 200 cases of coastal reds, displayed here with both the 2016 Pinot Noir Quin’s Vineyard and the striking 2016 Syrah Quin’s Vineyard
  • Orion Stang partnered withColorado winemaker Richard Crockett to create Emercy , a Paso Robles winery on eclectic blends, like their 2019 Grenache/Cabernet Sauvignon/Petite Sirah, whose unimaginative name belies it’s extraordinary complexity
  • I vaguely recall Dracaena from their incubation at San Francisco’s former Crushpad facility, but now they have grown to a full-fledged Paso Robles operation, producing a noteworthy 2019 Classic Cabernet Franc, alongside their Rosé and Chenin Blanc offerings
  • Of course, even if your name really is Demeter, your wine should be biodynamic, but their 2015 Sangiovese Javadi Vineyards muted any criticism I might have had
  • On the other hand, I can’t saying specifically what a winery named Crush Vineyard ought to produce, but their 2017 Inception, a GSM blended with Tannat, proved most intriguing
  • I had met Paige Wilson at Concur’s Tin City facilities on the previous day, but, despite her libertarian proselytizing, promised to taste with her husband Patrick at Garagiste. Happy to report that there was nothing laissez-faire about the 2018 Tank, a Mourvèdre-focused GSM blend
  • I suspect I would have found Bushong’s wine selections as compelling even if it weren’t for their intriguing label designs. Certainly, both their superb 2019 Tannnat Vineyard 1010 and the 2019 Same Deep Water, a Spanish varietal blend of Cariñena, Tempranillo, and Garnacha proved complex wines that could overshadow even the blandest packaging
  • Similarly, Karin Langer’s Bolt To Wines matched the sheer excellence of her 2019 Chardonnay Sta. Rita Hills and 2018 Syrah Ballard Canyon withcevocative renditions of Central Coast flora and fauna
  • Given its resurgence in Paso Robles, I would have expected to find quite a number of Malbecs being poured this afternoon. Nonetheless, the 2018 Malbec Paicines AVA (San Benito County) from Arianna Wines was enough to suffice, while her 2020 Torrontés Alta Mesa was a perfectly refreshing white with which to wrap up this hot afternoon

I wish I could have remained in Paso Robles for several more days, but I had committed to the revival of the West of West tasting being held in San Francisco. Held amid the hyper-elegant confines of The Battery, this intimate gathering assembled all the hallmarks of a well-appointed professional tasting, compact yet easily navigated, hampered only by its lack of a printed program. To be honest, there was little revelatory to this event; given the narrow focus (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, with a splash of Syrah) of the West Sonoma AVA, I have long been familiar with the selections each winery has to offer. My attendance here was primarily to show my support and to reconnect with the winemakers on hand after the arduous 20 months of pandemic separation.

Granted, these two events were not 100% back to pre-COVID status, but things finally felt close enough to declare “we’re back!” But then Taste Washington announced they were compelled to cancel for 2022, South Australian Shiraz: Iconic and Ageworthy postponed until January (or later) due to shipping difficulties, and up pops the Omicron variant. Sempre lo stesso…

 

Without wine, Western civilization would not exist

Your West Coast Oenophile is inordinately fond of the truism “senza la cultura italian, la civiltà occidentale non esisterebbe.” The ethnic pride we extol throughout Italian Heritage Month every October underscores how the foundation of Western civilization is derived from Italian achievements in science, literature, music, painting, sculpture. couture, the culinary arts, engineering, agriculture, and more from Roman times to the present. The Italian people may not be able to claim having developed viticulture, but we are responsible for making wine an integral part of our culture, our daily lives, and the fabric of our society.

Which is why the return of Healdsburg Crush this past weekend proved such a joyous gathering. Like its predecessor, Pinot on the River, this revived annual gathering focused on Pinot Noir, along with its Burgundian alter ego, Chardonnay, with some 60 wineries on hand, not only from the Russian River Valley AVA but as far away the Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County. But what drew Sostevinobile to this event wasn’t so much the prospect of  sampling through an array of ultrapremium wines as it was to partake in the throes of a (soon to be) post-COVID revival. 

The pandemic has not estranged me from enjoying great wines—if anything, it has only increased my indulgence. But the pleasure of wine is not merely the act of imbibing, but sharing the experience with old friends, new friends, and business colleagues. Now twelve years into my second wine career, I find new insights and revelations a bit of a rarity, having catalogued nearly 5,000 labels here on the West Coast. Grand Tastings now serve primarily as a fundamental social gathering, uniting the people who make great wine with the people whose enjoyment of such make it possible for wineries to thrive. And in this regard, Healdsburg Crush did not disappoint.

Ticketholders, of course, partook in the craft of renowned winemakers rarely featured at events of this scope—producers like Bob Cabral, Ernest, George Wine Co., Merry Edwards, Roederer Estate, Rochioli, and Williams Selyem, to name but a few. Still, the abundance of great vintages proved merely a backdrop to the sheer pleasure of renewed camaraderie that even the pending onset of rain showers could not dampen. For me, as well as for the 700+ attendees, this wine gathering proved a much-needed respite from the lingering woes of the pandemic and the semblance of a return to normalcy after 20 months’ miasma. The kind of civilized encounter that only wine can bestow.

I’D RATHER FIGHT THAN SWITCH

Name two billionaire megalomaniacs with a 5-letter surname beginning with G-A. Most of my professional associates know that Your West Coast Oenophile is referring to Ernest GALLO and Bill GATES. Enormous similarities in their business practices abound, but, at their core, both thrived by inundating the market with inferior product, then ruthlessly destroying their competitors cheap, dirty tactics.*

Ever since I started Sostevinobile, I have used the Workday mail client provided with my Web account. A couple of weeks ago, GoDaddy announced they were phasing out this application and switching their customers to Microsoft 365. To me, this was a declaration of war.

I am considered fairly savvy with software and computers, reluctantly serving as the go-to guy for Apple support with all too many friends and family. Although educated as a Creative Writer, I trained myself to be a graphic designer, as well, and have been quite versatile in programs like Quark Xpress, Illustrator, Photoshop, Acrobat, Keynote, etc. for more than 30 years.

In 1989, I properly concluded that MS-Word was the most execrable, unfathomable piece of software ever published and have since declared that there will be no Microsoft products on any of my or my company’s devices (business-wise, this has not handicapped me in the least). Nonetheless, over the course of the past three decades, I have been intermittently exposed to the current version of their Office suite, and each time I have found it to have become more bloated and obtuse.

And so, my mild-mannered façade took a back seat and I ripped into GoDaddy’s designated Migration Team, letting them know, in a number of expletive-filled tirades that there is no way I would allow them to foist their Microsoft garbage upon me. Over and over, they gave me the same song & dance: Workday was being discontinued, but they were providing two free months of Microsoft 365 before I would have to pay for this subscription. And, of course, they were happy to help me transition my Sostevinobile email over to this vile substitute.

“No,” I informed them. “I want you to provide an alternative platform that will preserve all of my domain plus legacy emails and help me migrate over to that.” Each time their response was like a broken record. Finally, faced with the possibility I might have to derail my business of the past twelve years, I resorted to the demand one should always make immediately when confronted with the faceless apparatchiks that man these help lines: “Let me speak to your supervisor.”

Of course, the migration assistant insisted her manager would only tell me exactly what she had already said, but I persisted. After the usual fifteen minutes of waiting on hold, the manager finally came on line and asked what my problem was. “Well,” he told me. “You can switch to Microsoft or you can simply port your email over to the built-in email that comes with your C-panel account.” BINGO!

He not only walked me through this transition, but helped me link up Apple’s Mail on my computers, iPad, and iPhone with the new settings. Sostevinobile remains intact, with nothing lost, and most importantly, I remain Microsoft-free.

Rest assured I did not celebrate my victory with a Big Mac, washed down with a glass of Hearty Burgundy.

*RIP California Cooler. RIP Netscape. The list goes on…

I have good news and I have bad news

If years could be encapsulated as a wine, 2020 would unarguably be a bottle of Hearty Burgundy (now six months beyond its expiration date). And so it was with the same exultation as when one, at last, moves onto a more quaffable bottling that Your West Coast Oenophile finally reengaged Sostevinobile with the wine realm at the recent 2021 Chardonnay Classic.

This three-day conference at Napa’s Meritage Resort, home to Trinitas Cellars and tasting room collective Vista Collina, included an afternoon Grand Tasting to which the trade was invited. The wine being poured, however, played an almost ancillary role to the liberating atmosphere of the event. Outdoors! Self-serve charcuterie and hors d’œuvres! No masks! No social distancing! Physical contact with other human beings!!

Not that the 14 wineries that shared their current releases by any means slackards. Juxtaposed against the warm afternoon sunshine and the wafts of fresh spring blooms, these Chardonnays were redolent of the lush characteristics that can make this varietal the perfect complement to an outdoor meal or a delicate seafood entrée. Standout included the 2016 Pellet Estate Chardonnay Sunchase Vineyard (with its distinctive heraldic label), Artesa’s Estate Vineyard 2018 Selection 92 Chardonnay, an ever-reliable 2018 Signature Chardonnay from Darioush, and Oregon contribution to the event, the 2017 Elsie’s Chardonnay from Stoller.

I would be remiss in not citing the 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon that host Trinitas Cellars added to the mix. An exceptional wine that belied its modest (for Napa) $60 price tag. And with his 2019 Cépages d’Or, a deft blend of Marsanne, Roussanne, Picpoul Blanc and Viognier from his Terminim joint venture, as well as the 2018 La Rivière Chardonnay from his new Maritana label, Donald Patz showed he has not missed a beat from his Patz & Hall tenure. But perhaps the most surprising revelation of the afternoon came from renowned Judgment of Paris winner Château Montelena, their 2010 Chardonnay. Poured from its magnum bottle, this wine put to rest any notion that a Chard cannot be cellared and aged.

As a wone professional, I am eager yet daunted to confront the new realities of the post-pandemic wine realm. Having trade tastings revived is not only good news but gives hope that I will be able to resuscitate my visions for Sostevinobile. But if the price tag Chardonnay Classic sought for its conference is harbinger for the industry, my optimism may prove unfounded. Public tickets for an industry tasting, like ZAP or Family Winemakers geneally have run in the $75-95 range. And those events typically feature over 120 wineries. Tickets for this Grand Tasting were $250!!

Granted, Chardonnay Classic is an incipient venture, and higher prices abound everywhere in the wake of the 15-month economic setback we all have endured. Still—and I speak as someone who produces major tastings—I would expect such a premium price to feature not only an enormous selection of Chardonnay wineries but a strong presence of its premier producers. Where was Kistler? Where was Peter Michael? Aubert? Arista? Kongsgaard?

Alas, if pricing like this is the new norm, I fear the rebound for the wine industry will be long in the making…

The new NAPV

Your West Coast Oenophile has never pretended to be a prognosticator. But I can’t even begin to guess what the post-pandemic future holds, not just for Sostevinobile, but for society at large, particularly here in San Francisco. Granted, I am veering toward the side that believes we are finally seeing light at the end of the tunnel, but even if we return to normalcy, the economic realities of the post-pandemic era could be sobering (all puns intended).

Before the quarantine began, I was on the verge not only of committing to a deal finally to develop the long-awaited brick & mortar operations for Sostevinobile, but also to launch a specialized wine bar & caffè to be known as Piccola Liguria, which would focus exclusively on Italian varietal wines produced on the West Coast. Both projects could still be resurrected, in roughly the same pre-pandemic format, but I am not at all certain that they would be viable in this new environment. The latter establishment had been designed to operate as a cornerstone for reviving San Francisco’s historic North Beach, which had already dwindled to a vestige of its former self when it had been the most visited and dynamic destination in the City. In the aftermath of COVID-19,  I need to ask “is such a Herculean task even feasible?”

As for opening Sostevinobile, I have not come this far to abandon the dream, but I am contemplating a radical revision of its focus, something I will detail in a subsequent post if it does move forward. What will not change, however, is our exclusive focus on sustainably-produced wines from the West Coast. But times have changed since I first launched this ambitious endeavor, and with new technological developments, as well as the overall growth of viticulture in our region these past 12 years, I am broadening the scope of what will constitutes our wine program.

One of the tenets of sustainability has long been the effort to reduce one’s carbon footprint by restricting the range of delivery for both outgoing shipments and incoming resources. For Sostevinobile, this has meant staying within a 750 mile radius of San Francisco for the wines we consider. But with the advent of zero-emission transports like the Tesla Semi, we can, in good faith, expand our scope.

This does not mean, however, that we will now feature “American wines.” This may sound parochial, but, with isolated exceptions, I have found viticulture east of the Sierras overwhelmingly to be wanting. More germane, our focus on wines of the West Coast has always been predicated on ecological, not a political boundaries. In this regard, the entire expanse of the northeastern Pacific is its own niche, an ecological continuum spanning from Baja California to Alaska.

Transcending national boundaries, the North American Pacific Viticultural (NAPV) area comprises not merely the California-Oregon-Washington axis, but the emerging regions of British Columbia and  Baja Norte, like the Okanagan and Guadalupe Valleys, where exceptional wines are starting to be produced. As climate change impacts the entire planet with increased alacrity, this entire expanse is bound together by the conditions of our environmental unity and the solutions we must achieve together. Thus, Sostevinobile’s definition of sustainable wines from the West Coast should and will reflect this reality.

The Weight

Take a load off Fanny
Take a load for free
Take a load off Fanny
And (and) (and) you put the load right on me

Some twelve years ago, Your West Coast Oenophile coined the name Sostevinobile, a portmanteau from the Italian terms for sustainable + noble + wine. Among its myriad deleterious effects, the wondrous COVID-19 pandemic has reduced my opportunities for discovering and reviewing new wines to a paucity. As such, let me veer the focus of this blog toward the less-frequently cited cornerstone of my ongoing effort, our dedication to sustainability.

As I will note in my next post, certain criteria for sustainability have evolved over the past dozen years, while the urgency of reducing our carbon footprint has only become more acute. Which should lead producers to explore all avenues for limiting the environmental impact of their viticultural practices. Certain practices, like monitoring power consumption, reclaiming water, or eschewing non-biodegradable materials like Styrofoam should be no-brainers that pose any compromise to the potential quality of their wine. Others may have minimal æsthetic impact but offer significant savings, both monetary and environmental.

As with screwcaps, there is a perception that lighter bottles = a cheaper product. In 2021, there is no longer any basios for the presumption that a heavy glass bottle is the mark of a superior wine. As a judge for last year’s US Wine Ratings competition, I was startled by the sheer weight of one of the bottles I had to sample and evaluate, so I put together a random lineup and propped each onto my kitchen scale.

The weights of these seven bottles varied widely, with a range of 22.54 oz (1.41 lbs):

La Honda = 21.20 oz
Coventina = 31.11 oz
Erostasia = 24.80 oz
19 Crimes = 19.93 oz
Imperio = 42.47 oz
Yuniko = 29.07 oz
J = 31.08 oz

Granted, I found the lightweight glass of 19 Crimes almost flimsy, but the next lowest bottle, the La Honda seemed standard and still weighed less than half of the Imperio. Now, if I hadn’t had to forsake my gym and upper body routine during this dreary pandemic, I might not have felt so strained in pouring this ponderous Primitivo, but still its bottle seemed far more substantive than need be. But brachial strength does not address its impact on sustainability.

A 750 ml bottle of wine contains ~28 oz of wine by weight. The glass in several of these bottles surpassed that. Wine is typically shipped by the pallet, a tightly-wrapped stack of 56 cases, or 672 bottles. The liquid weight of this shipment is 1176 lbs., or more than half a ton. The variation in bottle weight means, however, that the heavier bottles add 947 lbs. to the overall weight of the pallet, a significant increase in their impact on the carbon footprint, as well as shipping costs.

Is the price of such vanity worth it?

 

Remains of the day

Your West Coast Oenophile was thrilled to be chosen as one of the judges for this year’s USA Wine Ratings competition. Coupled with being named a Top 100 Food & Beverage Leader by the 2021 Global Summit on All-Things Food, it feels like Sostevinobile is finally receiving major professional recognition.

It’s no revelation that little, if anything, has been normal in 2020, and wine judging has been no exception. Rather than gathering at a central hall or facility and having wines pour for us, judges had to handle all their designated wines individually and remotely. Though enjoyable, these new (and hopefully temporary) parameters proved rather laborious, and the lack of camaraderie did somewhat dampen the process. Nonetheless, I diligently made my way through the entire process, as verified by the volume of my spill bucket after judging 72 wines this past weekend. 

And no, I am not about to try chugging it. Admittedly, there are superficial similarities: balding, bearded, Ivy educated, underappreciated writer, oenophile. But I do NOT look like Paul Giamatti—though many have insisted.

A few years ago, I finally made it to Hitching Post, the renowned Buellton restaurant prominently featured in Sideways. As I walked into the bar, I announced “if anyone calls me Miles, they’re getting punched out!”

Just to be sure, I ordered a Merlot.

 

The Robert Oppenheimer of mixology

Although Sostevinobile has been exclusively focused on wine, Your West Coast Oenophile began dabbling with other libations long before my embarking on my current pursuit. In fact, even before I attempted to launch Thousand Points of Light Wines and the would-be predecessor to Ca’ del Solo, Château Lompoc, I had crafted the renowned Fook Yu (福于) at the dim sum restaurant where I bartended during my starving artist phase. A variation on the classic Slow Comfortable Screw Against the Wall, this potent concoction never failed to exact peals of laughter from my waitstaff any time someone would order one.

I’ve dabbled with other cocktails over the years, at home or with restaurants, including the Tai Da (太大) I have chronicled here previously. But my Holy Grail remains The Manhattan Project, or, as I fondly describe it, an atomic-strength Manhattan. The recipe is somewhat simple: Sweet Vermouth, bitters, and a Rye (or bourbon) in the 140° range. Commercially, I’ve had a fondness for Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye, which has come in as high as 132. or its fellow Buffalo Trace Antique Collection bourbon, George T. Stagg, which topped out at 144.1° in 2016.  Since my plan, however, is to release this blend as a pre-mixed cocktail in a fitting countertop dispenser, I am prone, however, to contract a local craft distillery for an unlabeled, proprietary cask-strength whiskey.

Throughout the time I have been nurturing this concept, I have been hung up on finding (or creating) the perfect bitters to go into this cocktail. My choice for Vermouth, however, as never wavered: Quady’s VYA Sweet Vermouth. Andy Quady may have shifted his personal focus to his Oregon facility, Quady North, where he produces still wine, but his Madera (not to be confused with Madeira) facility still produces the finest selection of  artisanal apéritifs in California.

During this damned COVID-19 lockdown, I began experimenting with different blends for my eventual release, including alternative vermouths from California. To be honest, Gallo’s Lo-Fi Sweet Vermouth left me looking somewhat askance, and while their and Steven Grasse’s restrained approach has merit, it would definitely require a strongly-flavored bitters to give this cocktail any semblance of distinction beyond its hotness. To my surprise, however, the complexity of Andy’s blend obviated the need for bitters at all—in fact, when I added bitter in some trials, they marred the flavor of the drink.

So now my path forward is clear. Select a craft distiller and find a 3-D model maker to design a polished version of my Fat Man dispenser. If onluy the pandemic would hurry up and end and let bars reopen…

 

 

 

 

GSM or FSG?

Your West Coast Oenophile is still struggling to figure out how Sostevinobile can emerge once this seemingly inexorable pandemic comes to an end and the unbearable restrictions of the New Normal have subsided. Current conditions have made visiting wineries untenable for me—I normally drop by without onerous reservations and engage the owner or winemaker for extended discussions, not formal tastings.

And so I am currently reduced to serendipitous discoveries through diurnal culinary exploits—my lockdown “hobby”—from my haphazard search for undiscovered wines at San Francisco’s sundry liquor purveyors. Know that long before I started Sostevinobile, I have been an impassioned champion of Mourvèdre. My first serious exposure to this varietal came from one of the sporadic offerings of Mataro from Ridge, further cementing my belief that their bottlings of various Rhône varietals and other deviations from their Monte Bello and their renowned Zinfandel program really constitute the hallmarks of this winery.

Whether a wine is labelled Mourvèdre or Monastrell or Mataro, the grape is still relatively rare to find as a single varietal here in California, though there has been a notable recent resurgence, particularly in Paso Robles and with specialists like Hardy Wallace’s Dirty & Rowdy. Most people will probably recognize Mourvèdre as a component in GSM blends here and in Château-Neuf  du  Pape or Côtes du Rhône. But nearly all of these wines are Syrah or Grenache focused, with Mourvèdre relegated to relative obscurity. In other words, the Holy Ghost of the GSM Trinity.

I tend to think of Mourvèdre as a wine meant to be enjoyed on its own, like Lagrein or Charbono, not primarily as a complement to food. But with more time on my hands than I often know what to do with, I find myself tinkering with even my tried & true recipes. An abundance of ripe Heirloom Tomatoes at Golden Gate Farmers Market in the Outer Richmond allowed me to substitute for Roma Tomatoes in my regular marinara sauce, with extraordinary result. This easily proved to be the most sublimely balanced sauce I can recall ever making.

But the true revelation came with the bottle of Mourvèdre I casually selected for my pasta that evening. On its own, Cline’s 2018 Ancient Vines Mourvèdre stands as a perfectly amiable wine, sourced from the Contra Costa AVA that produces a number of distinctive Rhône bottlings (though the region does not feature an abundance of wineries, its grapes are highly prized and sourced throughout the North Coast). I easily could have put up my feet and polished off a bottle while watching Netflix, but the food pairing proved utterly transformative. Not in the way one normally thinks of an astounding food-wine blend, the way many Italian wines are made to produce. Rather than balancing the wine, the pasta seemingly changed its character, from the smooth, slightly fruity uniformity I seek in a Mourvèdre to the rich complexity of a Cabernet Sauvignon. Had I not known what was in my glass, I might even had guessed it was a Meritage.

I made Pizza Napoletana a couple of night later, using the same sauce. True to form, the pizza exceeded all my previous endeavors, but the wine merely held to its varietal character, however. Guess I should have picked up a second bottle of the Cline.

Helter Shelter (in place)

Your West Coast Oenophile realizes Sostevinobile has been absent from the blogosphere for quite a few months now. And to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure it will emerge from the pandemic lockdown intact. My design for our looming brick & mortar operations has always been large-scale; can it be adapted to the “New Normal” successfully? How long will the burdens of social distancing be upon us?

The absence of trade tastings since March has been a major nadir of the pandemic. So, too, has been the onerous restrictions placed on wineries and their tasting rooms. From my standpoint, I cannot conduct my usual business with winemakers with free interaction curtailed, nor can I justify seeking trade accommodations when the availability of paid tastings is so dear.

So while I while my time waiting for the wine world to return, I have been reviving my culinary chops. Over the past three months, I’ve dabbled with an eclectic mix: pasta, pizza, ravioli, risotto, sushi, Wonton soup, stir fry, calamari, scungilli, octopus, sturgeon, oyster, clams, pesto, marinara, Char Siu, teriyaki, mignonette, fennel, green papaya, olive bread, jackfruit bread, cake, ice cream, gelato, spare ribs, sausage, bone marrow, wild boar, tripe, veal cutlets, and, most recently, duck.

THE DUCK DID NOT DIE IN VAIN!

My favorite market on Clement Street features fresh, whole duck at $2.99/lb. After deftly butchering the carcass, I wound up with the constituent parts for two Seared Duck Breasts,  two Char Siu Duck Legs, ½ cup of rendered Duck Fat, and three quarts of Duck Stock. (Frankly, I am disinclined to try my hand at cooking the feet. And as for the head, it wasn’t offal)!

If the duck hadn’t come gutted, I could have made paté from its liver and braised the gizzard, the true delicacy this bird offers. Every year, on the Friday before Thanksgiving every November, Peter Palmer and Farallon puts on PinotFest, a comprehensive but by no means exhaustive tasting from 60 of Oregon and California’s premier Pinot Noir producers. For me, however, the absolute highlight this annual event has long been the Duck Gizzard Meatballs, sourced from Sonoma County Poultry in Petaluma.

I was first introduced to Jennifer Reichardt as the fiancée of Mike Dmytrenko, the assistant winemaker at Radio-Coteau, a standout winery at PinotFest and one which I featured when I produced Brown & Its Winemakers for my grad school’s alumni association. I would have happily cottoned to her simply because her father is the founding farmer behind the Liberty Ducks that Sonoma Poultry exclusively raises, but subsequently she has established her own label, Raft Wines, as one of California’s leading Italian varietal producers. (So now will she tell me where she sources her Molinara, Corvina, and Rondinella)? 😁

I suspect New May Wah Market obtains its ducks, though quite fresh, from a different supplier, but since this was my first time working with water fowl, I coöpted Jim Reichardt’s recipe for the spice rub. Served with Wild Rice I simmered in a crab broth, this turned out to be one of the finest dinners so far in my COVID-19 culinary renaissance.

I frequently raise the hackles of my fellow wine professionals by citing the specter of  Pinot Fatigue in referring to its inundation from 700+ producers on the West Coast. That, and my umbrage at being compared to Miles Raymond—I do NOT look anything like Paul Giamatti—cause me a bit of aversion when it comes to selecting a wine to accompany my dinner. But with Grocery Outlet selling off its allocation of Moshin Vineyards’ 2013 Pinot Noir North Coast for $8.99 (vs. $58!), I could hardly refuse.

The pairing proved splendid enough I  actually shelled out for another bottle to go with the Duck and King Oyster Mushroom Sausage I cranked out from the meat I flayed from the left over bones.