It’s time I renew my commitment to keeping this blog fresh (and current). And so, now that I’ve put that most execrable year—2011—to bed, proverbially, let me plunge into the exciting slew of tastings and other wine events I have covered since the dawn of the New Year.
I realize I need to reinvigorate the content here. The arduous protraction in developing the sustainable wine bar/retail shop to which I have been slavishly (albeit happily) devoted for the past three years has created more than a bit of redundancy in the events I am covering, but recently renewed promise of catalytic investment means that a physical launch for Sostevinobile appears well within sight. And with that portent comes reinvigoration for Your West Coast Oenophile.
My first wine foray for 2012 came, as always, with ZAP, the Grand Tasting that introduced me to the pleasures of grand tasting some two decades ago. As I’ve documented many times, the nascent festival took place in the narrow confines of Fort Mason Mason’s Golden Gate Room before it mushroomed into a mammoth extravaganza, with nearly 400 wineries filling two exhibition halls. To be honest, the enormity proved intimidating even to those of us who had attended (nearly) every one of its twenty previous sessions, but for reasons that have yet to be made clear, this year’s session relocated to the Concourse Exhibition Center in San Francisco’s SoMa district. I had expected the space to be overbearing, if not oppressive. The numerous times I have attended West Coast Green, trying to navigate the Concourse has felt like wading through a crowded subway station; this day, with lines wrapping nearly around all four sides of the building before I arrived, I braced myself for even worse congestion. Surprisingly, the scene inside was anything but daunting. With its wooden floors and mezzanines, multiple partitions, raised roof and carpeting, the block-long facility insulated and dampened the cacophony that Fort Mason’s concrete warehouse amplifies. Moreover, the Concourse’s 125,000 ft.² easily dwarfed the combined 80,000 ft.² of the Herbst Pavilion and Festival Pavilion that ZAP has occupied for the past dozen or so Januaries, making this marathon feel more like a casual stroll. Because of my long-standing history with this event, only a handful of presenters had not been covered on these pages; only fitting, therefore, that I started off this iteration with Beekeeper Cellars, a single-wine project focused on one of Zinfandel’s most storied appellations, Rockpile. Fittingly, Ian Blackburn’s first vintage, the 2009 Zinfandel Madrone Spring Vineyard, proved absolutely stunning, a liquid paean to Clay Mauritson’s viticultural prowess. Over in Glen Ellen, Bucklin Vineyards represents a throwback to the heyday of California field blends, with Grenache, Alicante Bouchet, Petite Sirah, Mourvèdre, Syrah, Carignane, and Tempranillo interspersed among its Zinfandel vines. This random mélange was best expressed in Will Bucklin’s extraordinary and aptly-named 2009 Mixed, a wine that fell beneath the required Zinfandel threshold for ZAP but drew no complaints. His compliant entries, the 2008 Old Hill Ranch Zinfandel VOVZ (Very Old Vine Zinfandel) and its younger brethren, the 2009 Bambino Old Hill Ranch, proved exceptional wines in their own right.
Of course, I am usually blind to bottle prices as I evaluate wines at the various events and tastings I attend. Poignantly, not ironically, David Hunt of Paso Robles’ Hunt Cellars displayed a unique deftness with œnological skills unimpeded by his retinitis pigmentosa. Little doubt to his claim that his lack of vision accentuates his other senses, as evidenced by his array of Zins and Zin-based wines, starting with his delightful trademark, 2007 Zinovation Destiny Vineyards. From there, his vinification continued on an upward trajectory to include the 2007 Zinfandel Reserve Outlaw Ridge Vineyard and the superb 2007 Rocket Man Zinfandel. This trio was accompanied by hunt’s 2006 Thriller, a blend of Zinfandel, Merlot and Syrah, and the splendid 2003 Zinful Delight, a Tawny Port-style dessert wine.
|To the uninitiated, Cycles Gladiator may sound more like a counterpart to Segway Polo than a wine label, and while this Lodi branch of Santa Lucia Highland’s Hahn Estates derives its name from one of the classic Velocipede models from the late 19th century, its evocative label gives the wine a perceived style all its own. Unfortunately, though, $12 wine all too often constitutes a rather mundane effort, and both the 2009 Zinfandel Lodi and the far-too-early 2010 Zinfandel Lodi made for rather tepid offerings; an earlier vintage, the 2007 Cycles Clement Zinfandel proved only marginally better. Not that a wine need be inordinately expensive to wow me, as both the 2006 Alexander Valley Zinfandel and its successor, the 2007 Alexander Valley Zinfandel from Healdsburg’s Gann Family Cellars readily demonstrated.|
The Velocipede, as designed by brothers Pierre and Ernest Michaux
Many of the wines from Hunt take on a musical theme, no surprise given David’s successful career as a recording artist. Continuing this motif, Paul Hoffman’s Headbanger demonstrated that even at deafening decibel levels, Zins can not only rock but satisfy—to wit, the 2009 Sonoma County Zinfandel. I bypassed the usual culprits like R&B Cellars, Deep Purple and Sledgehammer, though I usually have an affinity for rock-oriented labels; canine labels, however, tend to nauseate me with their overt sentimentality. And I suppose I should hold cat labels with equal contempt, but Les Deux Chats, a whimsical, boutique producer out of Valencia deeply impressed me with their très bon 2010 Zinfandel Benito Dusi Vineyard. From an even more improbable locale, Jerome, Arizona’s eponymous Jerome Winery gave me yet another reason to question whether Sostevinobile should augment its roster with the Grand Canyon State, notably impressing with both their 2009 Colored Soldier Zinfandel and their library selection, the 2005 Cochise Willcox Zinfandel. Of course, there is little question Napa falls well within our purview; nonetheless, stellar efforts as those displayed by Mike and Molly Hendry, with both their 2009 R. W. Moore Zinfandel and the successive 2010 R. W. Moore Zinfandel, make this even more a moot point. Similarly, following in the heels of its highly acclaimed Zinfandel blend, The Prisoner, Rutherford’s Orin Swift affirmed its standing at ZAP with the 2009 Saldo, a whimsical mix of 80% Zinfandel with 9% Petite Sirah, 8% Syrah, and 3% Grenache. Old Moon was a curious participant at ZAP. Its 2010 California Zinfandel proved marginally drinkable, though incrementally better than its fellow Trader Joe’s exclusive offering, the famed Charles Shaw. Likewise, Unruly is one of the house labels contracted to BevMo, and while I personally respect wine buyer Wilfred Wong, I question the objectivity of his scoring their mediocre-at-best 2010 California Zinfandel at 90 points. Sostevinobile also scores the wines I sample, but on a much different scale that is not intended for publication; still, the 2008 California Zinfandel Soulmates’ Aggie Bonpua crafted in tribute to her late brother would easily cross this mystical threshold. Meanwhile, Victor Hugo Winery from Paso Robles nominally has no connection to the great French author (although proprietor Victor Hugo Roberts does bottle wines he calls Les Mis Rosé, and Hunchback); here, he excelled with his 2009 Estate Zinfandel and a late harvest Zin, the 2009 Quasi. Up north, the Terlato conglomerate attempted to stir up patriotic feelings with their The Federalist (a somewhat ironic designation, given their international billing). Nonetheless, their 2008 Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley proved both fiscally and viticulturally quite sound, while their 2009 Dueling Pistols, a further homage to Alexander Hamilton, constituted a deft blend of Zinfandel and Syrah (of course, were they to price this wine at an even sawbuck, that would only complete the allusion). Also vinting a superb Zin blend, Trattore’s 2009 Tractor Red combined 38% Petite Sirah with Dry Creek Zinfandel, while their 2009 Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley proved redolent of the famed AVA. Speaking of Petite Sirah, perhaps the most compelling wine of the afternoon was the 2009 Estate Petite Sirah Vince Tofanelli wasn’t supposed to be pouring; mellowed with 2% Grenache, this ink-dark wine showed sumptuously now and portend seven greater grandeur with aging. These same grapes also lent balance to his 2008 Estate Zinfandel, which more than complied with ZAP’s specifications. As much as I enjoyed the atmosphere and pace of this year’s event, I still could only wind my way to a mere fraction of the tables spread throughout this spacious complex. Among those that I did mange to sample, many truly excellent bottlings stood out, starting with the aforementioned Mauritson, which affirmed its status as the premier producers of Rockpile Zinfandel, starting with their 2010 Rockpile Ridge Vineyard Zinfandel. From another of their Rockpile plantings, the 2010 Westphall Ridge Zinfandel nearly matched this spectacular quality, while the nonetheless excellent 2010 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel seemed a slight notch below. Validating the reputation of another premier AVA for Zinfandel, Lodi’s McCay Cellars simply wowed with their 2010 Contention Zinfandel, a wine with a Turley price point and equal to the task.Also quite compelling—the 2009 Jupiter Zinfandel, also from Lodi. Napa Zins tend to lag behind their Bordelaise counterparts, in terms of public perception; along with Turley, St. Helena’s Brown Family Estate has staked its claim not with Cabernet but with astounding wines like their 2010 Rosemary’s Block Zinfandel. Nearly as luscious was their 2010 Napa Valley Zinfandel and the always popular 2010 Chaos Theory, where 35% Cabernet Sauvignon underlies 60% Zinfandel (along with 5% Petite Sirah). Several other wineries displayed superlative renditions of the grape, including such Sonoma stalwarts as Bella Vineyards, with their 2009 Maple Vineyard Zinfandel and Bonneau, with a near-foolproof 2009 Rockpile Zinfandel. Other killer B’s included Glen Ellen’s Baldwin Wines, pouring an enticing 2009 Slater Zinfandel and their 2007 Dawn Hill Ranch Zinfandel; Hopland’s venerable Brutocao Cellars, showcasing the 2007 Reserve Zinfandel Mendocino; and, from Ravenswood’s scion Morgan Peterson’s Bedrock Wine, the 2009 Dolinsek Ranch Heirloom Wine (60% Zinfandel, with Charbono, Petite Sirah, Alicante Bouschet and “a few other varietals”). My friend Ray Teldeschi’s Del Carlo once again showed their redoubtable command of this varietal with their 2008 Old Vine Zinfandel, while Hartford Family Wines once again proved their mettle with both the 2010 Highwire Zinfandel and, from their library, the 2005 Hartford Vineyard Zinfandel. Another Lodi standout, Harney Lane, showcased a jammy 2009 Zinfandel Lizzy James Vineyard, while Placerville’s Lava Cap, an inveterate Rhône specialist, excelled here with their 2008 Zinfandel Reserve, alongside an impressive bottling of the 2009 Zinfandel Spring House. Miro Cellars in Cloverdale usually stakes its claim with their catalog of Petite Sirahs, but here manifested equal versatility with their 2010 Grist Vineyard Zinfandel. Rock Wall, the successor to Zinfandel legend Rosenblum Cellars, extended their prodigious reputation with a striking 2010 Obsidian, an equal blend of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah. Keeping pace, Healdsburg’s understated Simoncini dazzled with their 2009 Estate Zinfandel. Another understated endeavor, Lodi’s Van Ruiten also impressed with their 2009 Old Vine Zinfandel. I finished up my rounds with a couple of long-standing familiars. Julie Johnson’s Tres Sabores flourished with their usual aplomb, matching the quality of their 2009 Estate Zinfandel with their proprietary 2009 ¿Porqué No?, a Zinfandel rounded out with Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Petit Verdot. And the peripatetic Starry Night poured their extensive lineup of Zins, headlined by the 2009 Old Vine Zinfandel Nervo Station, a superb selection.
I did manage to sample from another dozen or so wineries I have reviewed extensively here and could not fit in the other 150 or so spread out among this complex. No matter—their fare has been extensively covered in previous Sostevinobile entries and all will be given equally opportunity to present their wines to our tasting panel, once we begin acquiring inventory.
Spectacular wines aside, the true star of this tasting had to have been its new locale at the Concourse. Spacious, airy, well-partitioned, with abundant light, and, most significantly, dampened acoustics, this SOMA destination turned what had grown, frankly, into an overwhelming tasting into an event that approached manageability, albeit a few glitches that I am sure will be worked out when ZAP 2013 returns next year.
I had been lead to believe ZAP had switched settings this year to accommodate the long-awaited renovations to the piers at Fort Mason, but apparently other matters were at play. The next weekend, The Golden Glass returned to Herbst Pavilion after its 18 month absence, having taken a hiatus in 2011. Besides shifting to a winter time slot, this showcase for Slow Food had was compelled to alter its local wine focus, now that Taste of Mendocino has spun off into its own full-fledged event.
Golden Glass was once again dominated by Italian wines, not surprising given that my good friend and Slow Food San Francisco’s founder Lorenzo Scarpone imports wine through his principal business, Villa Italia. The California selection were but a smattering, with 10 wineries on hand, along with a small selection from the Central Coast’s Sustainability in Practice (SIP) certification ranks and several Golden Glass honorees, which were poured in absentia. One of the winners, VML, represented the latest incarnation of the former Belvedere Winery, coincidentally the facility where I bottled my first custom label some 22 years ago. Now part of H.D.D. Wines (the initials for Hurst Dolan Dolan), VML (the initials of winemaker Virgina Marie Lambrix) showcased an exceptional, biodynamically-grown 2010 Boudreaux Vineyard Pinot Noir. Also heralding from the Russian River Valley, La Follette medaled for both its 2009 Pinot Noir Van Der Kamp Vineyard and the 2010 Pinot Meunier Van Der Kamp Vineyard. I confess to having, on occasion, less than objective attitudes on certain matters. Most large-scale winery operations do not readily come to mind when I think of Slow Food and sustainability, and, as such, it was a tad surprising to find Wente and J. Lohr among the lauded labels here. Still, such preconceptions proved erroneous (Lohr’s operating slogan is “Respecting Nature, Nurturing Balance”) and in no way reflected on my appreciation for the quality of the wines they poured. I was particularly taken with Wente’s 2010 Riva Ranch Chardonnay, as well as J. Lohr’s 2010 October Night Chardonnay. I also cottoned to the latter’s 2010 Tower Road Petite Sirah and Wente’s 2009 Southern Hills Cabernet Sauvignon. An early proponent of biodynamic farming, Grgich Hills is no stranger to acclaim for its Chardonnay, as exemplified by the 2009 Chardonnay Napa Valley they poured here. Equally appealing: the 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley and their 2008 Zinfandel Napa Valley. Another early biodynamic proponent, Robert Sinskey Vineyards, offered an impressive trio from their inventory starting with their signature 2008 Pinot Noir Three Amigos Vineyard from the Napa side of the Carneros AVA. Sinskey’s hallmark is to craft their wines in Burgundian fashion, no matter what its origins; this restrained approach readily presented itself in their 2006 Marcien, a Right Bank-focused Bordelaise blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc.
Down from Folio Fine Wines, Michael Mondavi’s new Oberon Wines made its Golden Glass debut with a mix of wines that ranged from a passable 2010 Sauvignon Blanc to a fairly impressive 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon. In between, the 2007 Hillside Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon proved enjoyable but less than spectacular for such a universally consistent Napa vintage.
While I generally appreciate the overall validity of certain applied agricultural practices that constitute the core organic elements of Rudolf Steiner’s proscriptions for biodynamic farming, I am far less sanguine about embracing its numerous cosmological incantations, finding them far closer to the mystic theology and precepts of Gnosticism, or the transcendental enlightenment espoused by such noted Sri Chinmoy devotees as Mahavishnu John McLaughlin and Devadip Carlos Santana, than to precisions of quantifiable science. From this ætherial connection comes Sinskey’s 2010 Abraxas (Αβραξας), a striking vin de terroir from the Scintilla Sonoma Vineyard, blended from the four classic Alsatian white varietals: Pinot Gris, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Pinot Blanc. I felt similarly tepid about several of the other entrants here, including Think Tank Wines, which appeared here with a disparate selection of wines from random AVAs throughout California. Still, their effort was commendable for their 2008 La Encantada Vineyard Pinot Noir from the Sta. Rita Hills, the 2008 White Hawk Vineyard Syrah from Santa Barbara, and the 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon out of Napa Valley. Similarly, sister operations Loredona Vineyards, with their 2010 Viognier, and Noble Wines, with their 2010 446 Chardonnay, may well represent the evolution of Central Valley powerhouse Delicato Family Wines, but here made only slight impression. The representative wines SIP poured varied widely, as well. Always impressive—the 2008 Monterey Pinot Noir from Carmel Road. Less so—Tangent’s 2010 Albariño Edna Valley. In between—the 2009 Syrah Paso Robles from Templeton’s Pomar Junction. Another winery, pouring for itself, that has always impressed me is Santa Cruz’ Clos LaChance. Here their 2010 Estate Viognier served as a most worthy complement to the exceptional 2008 Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir. As readers here know, my friends from Clos Saron can vary incredibly with the outcome of their natural winemaking, a risk they proudly undertake. This afternoon, the selected wines were spot-on, in particular the 2006 Heart of Stone Syrah. Equally appealing were the 2009 Pinot Noir Home Vineyard and appropriately-labeled 2011 Carte Blanche, a stunning blend of Albariño, Verdelho, Chardonnay, and Petit Manseng, a varietal rarely found in California. The final California representatives pouring at Golden Glass, Ca’ Momi, offered a likable array of Napa vintages,ranging from the 2010 Napa Valley Chardonnay to a most striking 2010 Napa Valley Zinfandel. Both their 2009 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2009 Napa Valley Pinot Noir seemed a slightly less developed, but the NV Ca’ Secco, a sparkling wine derived from Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Muscat, proved quite intriguing. Ca’ Momi posed a bit on an anomaly at this event, albeit a pleasant one at that. As an offshoot of the Ca’ Momi Enoteca in downtown Napa, it enjoyed the enviable distinction of being both wine and food purveyor at this event. And to be honest, Golden Glass is not so much a wine expo as a guilty pleasure in indulging in some of San Francisco’s finest Italian restaurants: the authentically Neapolitan A16, Acquerello, Delfina, È Tutto Qua, Farina, Ristobar/Emporio Rulli, and Alameda’s C’era Una Volta. Once upon a time, this event was solely the purview of Italian cuisine, but its resurrection included other such Slow Food purveyors as Bi-Rite Creamery, perennial favorite Gott’s Roadside, Serpentine/Slow Club, Izakaya Yuzuki, Thirsty Bear, and Charles Phan’s new Wo Hing General Store.
Clearly Golden Glass is a celebration of sustainable wine and extraordinary cuisine that serves as an homage not just to how food ought to be enjoyed but to the indelible fabric of human society, whose foundation arguably stems from communal eating. Sostevinobile’s participation here isn’t merely an investigation into wine but a solidarity in the wish that the æsthetics embodied here extend far beyond a single day’s extravaganza and become incorporated into every day living.
Lest it seem that I glossed over the abundance of Italian wines poured at Golden Glass, I do hope my readers understand that I did sample many, even if I do not intend to include them in this blog’s roster of wines from California, Washington, and Oregon. My purpose, as always, is first to gain a broader understanding of the wealth of varietals being vinified and to develop an appreciation for the contrast one finds in the interpretations of the same grapes and blends made here with their counterparts in the Old World and other wine-producing regions.
I managed to attend two other Italian wine tastings after Golden Glass, Italian Wine Masters at Terra Gallery on Rincon Hill and Tre Bicchieri at Fort Mason. For the uninitiated (including myself), Tre Bicchieri is the highest classification awarded a wine by the prestigious Italian food and wine publication Gambero Rosso—somewhat analogous to earning a coveted three star Michelin rating. Oddly, though, I found the wines poured at Italian Wine Masters, a due bicchieri event, far more approachable, a phenomenon I attribute in part to having a California palate. And while many of the Chianti, Barolo, and Nobile di Montepulciano wines proved quite delectable, even with my pronounced predilection for Sangiovese, I could not say that I found any that would make me rue Sostevinobile’s restriction to wines grown within the 750 mile radius of our home base.
It could be argued that many of the wines at Tre Bicchieri, as well as Golden Glass and even Italian Wine Masters demanded food pairing in order to be fully appreciated. I have no problem conceding this point. Nonetheless, at the risk of alienating many of San Francisco’s notable sommeliers, wines served at a wine bar need first and foremost to be quaffable in their own right, with food friendliness, alas, being a subordinate quality. Not that a great wine can’t fulfill both criteria.
A couple of perennial tastings punctuated the mid-winter doldrums with their usual array of impressive wine. The always delightful In Vino Unitas took place at the revived Press Club, with 19 small, handcrafted wineries on hand to pour their directly distributed wines. This far-flung coalition includes winemakers from Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, Amador, the Santa Lucia Highlands, and Santa Cruz Mountains and ranges from venerable producers, like Heitz and Grgich Hills, to new ventures, like Kenzo.
This latter endeavor comprises a brand new, $100,000,000 Napa estate developed by Kenzo Tsujimoto, CEO of video game giant Capcom; Tsujimoto has enlisted the zenith of Napa luminaries from Hedi Barrett to craft his wines and David Abreu to manage his vineyards to having French Laundry’s Thomas Keller create his tasting room menu. Still, this lavish expenditure has yet to pay off in the quality of his wines, the 2010 Asatsuyu, a Sauvignon Blanc, and his Bordeaux blend, the 2008 Rindo; while both wines were indeed quite enjoyable, they did not rise to the level one might expect from such a prodigious undertaking.
As the remaining participants have all poured for Sostevinobile on one or more occasions, I of course had reasonable expectations for each, and failed to be disappointed by any, beginning with Buoncristiani, whose flagship 2007 OPC, a proprietary blend of 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Syrah, 17% Merlot and 10% Malbec, easily exceeded the several past vintages I have sampled. Also portending greatness: their 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon. St Helena’s Ehlers Estate scored as favorably with their 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon 1886, as did Far Niente, with their exceptional 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville Estate. Sister label Nickel & Nickel also shone with a glorious rendition of their 2010 Chardonnay Truchard Vineyard. Easily matching with their own Napa duet, the 2010 Unity Chardonnay and their trademark 2007 Coach Insignia Cabernet Sauvignon, Fisher Vineyards outpaced even themselves with a pair of remarkable Sonoma vintages, the 2008 Mountain Estate Chardonnay and the 2007 Wedding Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. Just when I thought I might have hit the apex for the afternoon, Heitz dazzled with it widely acclaimed 2006 Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. And their non-vintage Ink Grade Port, a deft blend of Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Sauzão, Tinta Cão, Tinta Bairrada, Tinta Madeira, Tinta Amarela and Bastardo, might well have met the criterion for perfection had they not poured the flawless 2001 Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, a library reserve. Meyer Family crafts their California Port purely from Old Vine Zinfandel, employing the Solera process, which consists of annually topping each barrel with subsequent vintages to create a continually-evolving non-vintage blend. Other artisans showcasing distinctive blends included Krupp Brothers, whose 2007 Syncrony Stagecoach Vineyard combined 45% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 43% Cabernet Franc, with 5% Petit Verdot, 4% Malbec and 3% Merlot, and Gemstone, which contrasted their Cab-focused 2009 Estate Red (71% Cabernet Sauvignon, 21% Merlot, 4% Petit Verdot, 4% Cabernet Franc) alongside their 2008 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Yountville. Napa Cabs did not necessarily dominate this tasting, but there was certainly a preponderance on hand, including both the 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford Dust Vineyard and the 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain Estate from Neal Family Vineyards and a more than amiable 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley from Jericho Canyon. The aforementioned Heidi Barrett’s own label, La Sirena made their presence known with her 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley, as well as with the 2006 Syrah Napa Valley. With his family’s label now in Gallo’s capable hands, Steve Mirassou has vaulted to the forefront of Livermore winemakers with his eponymous Steven Kent label; here, the 2008 Petit Verdot Ghielmetti Vineyard dramatically displayed redolence of the varietal’s intense character. Amador’s Yorba, a winery that blurs the lines between Italian, Spanish, Rhône, and homegrown varietals, flourished with their 2007 Zinfandel Shake Ridge Vineyards, as well as the 2007 Shake Ridge Red, an esoteric blend of Syrah, Primitivo, Petite Sirah, Mourvèdre, Malbec, and Merlot (of course, I’d be remiss in not citing their 2008 Barbera Shake Ridge Vineyard or noting that they have just planted my people’s Greco di Tufo, which will be ready for bottling in 20??) . Little surprise that their 2008 Chardonnay Napa Valley represented Grgich Hills strongest effort, though this vintage did not quite rise to the levels I have come to expect. More to my taste—the 2009 Chardonnay Premier Reserve Anderson Valley’s Navarro poured, alongside the striking 2010 Pinot Gris and their 2006 Late Harvest Cluster Select Gewürztraminer. Likewise, Los Gatos’ Testarossa shone most brightly with their 2009 Chardonnay Rosella’s Vineyard among the three Chardonnays they had on hand. The Central Coast was well represented by La Rochelle, a Pinot-focused effort also from Steven Kent Mirassou, highly impressing with their 2008 Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands and an extraordinary 2007 Pinot Noir Santa Cruz Mountains. On par with these vintages: the 2008 Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands that Caraccioli Cellars poured. Caraccioli did not participate in the San Francisco debut of the Santa Lucia Highlands Wine Artisans tasting in the Golden Gate Room at Fort Mason. Although this event mirrored much of September’s tasting in Walnut Creek, many discoveries could be made. I relished the 2009 Estate Chardonnay from Boekenoogen, as well as the 2010 Chardonnay Sierra Mar Vineyard that distinguished Roar. As per usual, Talbott excelled with their 2010 Chardonnay Sleepy Hollow Vineyard, while Pisoni’s Lucia label showcased both an impressive 2010 Chardonnay Soberanes Vineyard and the 2010 Syrah Garys’ Vineyard. A reassuringly reliable presence at tastings for this appellation, Manzoni poured a delightful 2008 Chardonnay Lucia Highland Vineyard and their 2010 Pinot Gris North Highlands’ Cuvée. Ray Franscioni’s Santa Lucia Highlands label, Puma Road, favorably contrasted his 2010 Unoaked Chardonnay Black Mountain Vineyard to its oaked counterpart while delighting with the 2009 Pinot Gris Black Mountain Vineyard (oak complexity not specified). Tondrē made a rare appearance, touting both their 2010 Chardonnay Tondrē Grapefield and a spectacular 2009 Pinot Noir Tondrē Grapefield. Testarossa returned here and added both the 2009 Pinot Noir Garys’ Vineyard and a superb 2010 Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands to their repertoire from In Vino Unitas. Another repeat attendee, La Rochelle augmented their earlier showing with their 2008 Pinot Noir Sleepy Hollow Block A. A previously unfamiliar winery, Mansfield-Dunne, debuted here with their 2010 Pinot Noir Peterson Vineyard; also new to Sostevinobile, Mooney featured a pair of Pinots, the 2010 Pinot Noir Boekenoogen and the 2010 Pinot Noir Vigna Monte Nero. Mooney also (clandestinely) featured a distinctive 2008 Mourvèdre Paso Robles, from where they also derive their Grenache and Grenache Blanc. I found it somewhat odd that more Rhône varietals were not grown in the Santa Lucia Highlands, given the prevalence of Syrah at this tasting. Emmanuel Kemiji’s Miura complemented their superb 2009 Pinot Noir Garys’ Vineyard with the 2007 Antiqv2s Syrah Pisoni Vineyard. Both the 2009 Syrah Doctor’s Vineyard and the 2009 Pinot Noir McIntyre Vineyard from Wrath proved extraordinary. Siduri held court with its usual aplomb, impressing not only with their interpretation of a 2009 Pinot Noir Garys’ Vineyard and a 2009 Pinot Noir Rosella’s Vineyard, but even more strikingly with their 2009 Syrah Rosella’s Vineyard under their Novy label. A perennial favorite, the 2008 Les Violettes Paraiso Vineyard from Pelerin proved once again a most delectable Syrah. Even more delightful: their 2010 Chardonnay Sierra Mar Vineyard and the 2008 Pinot Noir Rosella’s Vineyard. Other impressive Pinots came from Tudor, whose 2006 Pinot Noir SLH stood up to the far more recent vintages others poured here; Pessagno, with a double offering of their 2009 Pinot Noir Lucia Highland Vineyard and their estate-grown 2009 Pinot Noir Four Boys Vineyard; Sequana, whose sole representation consisted of their 2009 Pinot Noir SLH; and KORi, with their only bottling, the 2010 Pinot Noir KW Ranch. I would be utterly remiss in not in not giving special appreciation for the superb 2008 Pinot Noir Fâite that Paraiso pured alongside their estate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The SLH appelation’s leading advocate, Morgan, impressed with a 2010 Pinot Noir Twelve Clones, while McIntyre made their strongest statement with both the 2009 Pinot Noir Estate and their crown jewel, the 2009 Pinot Noir Block 3. Finally, Belle Glos rounded out the afternoon with the 2010 Pinot Noir Las Alturas Vineyard, while the ever-luxuriant Bernardus delivered a plush version of their 2009 Pinot Noir Rosella’s Vineyard. Regretfully, Hahn/Lucienne and August West had depleted their inventory before I could reach their tables, but I have had and will continue to have multiple opportunities to taste through their offerings. Kosta Browne had poured the last of their 2009 Pinot Noir Rosella’s Vineyard and 2009 Pinot Noir Garys’ Vineyard even before I arrived, but such will be my lot on occasion. All-in-all, I had probably sampled enough wines to get anyone through their winter doldrums. Or maybe not.
Nearly every trade tasting has a familiar corps of attendees, with an unspoken camaraderie that parallels the cooperative spirit that permeates the wine industry. Some are hardcore bloggers from whose meticulous notes I sometimes borrow when my own degenerated penmanship fails me. Some are wine buyers or sommeliers. Others may be entrepreneurs, like Sostevinobile, striving to put together the next Big Thing in wine, while others still are obviously poseurs simply out for a good time.
My point is not to delineate the legitimacy of my fellow œnophiles as it is to highlight that we all approach these gatherings with different agenda. For myself, it is as much a survey of attendee demographics, particularly during events’ public hours, as it is in making the acquaintance of as many wineries as I am able. As such, it was an exercise in crowd study that led me, at long last, to attend the gargantuan of public tastings, the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. Thousands of people attend this annual event. Thousands of wines are entered into the competition, and nearly as many thousand win some sort of medal. What does it mean to wine a Silver Medal for Riesling with under 1.49% Residual Sugar, a slam-dunk for Long Island’s Castello di Borghese, or the highly-coveted Double Gold for Merlot under $9.99, a coup for Hacienda Cellars, a rising star in Bronco Wine’s firmament, alongside its premium Charles Shaw and Salmon Creek labels. Gallo’s bulk superstar, Barefoot Cellars, formerly a fairly-respected label known as Barefoot Bynum, managed to garner an impressive 11 medals in various sub-$10 categories alone. But for every White Blush winner like the 2010 Austin St. Comanche Rose from Texas’ Brennan Vineyards, one could find a genuine gem like the 2009 Pinot Noir Willamette Valley from Oregon’s Brooks Wine or the 2010 Chardonnay from Dolin Malibu Estate.
My appreciation for what is billed as “the world's largest competition of American wines” is largely tempered by the realization that this isn’t an industry tasting nor an objective judging by a panel of professional wine writers, but a raw, commercial venture that seems geared toward preserving the phenomenon, with little regard for the finer details that demarcate the more respected events I have chronicled with regularity. The organizers neglected to provide a tasting program or table guide that might have enabled attendees to navigate the expansive exhibit hall, and far be it that any accommodations be made for trade and media.
Rather than shell out the $80 admission fee, I volunteered to man the other side of the table for my friends from Pomo Nation Wine, California’s first Native American-owned Winery. This Healdsburg endeavor boasts a lineup that includes a 2007 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, a 2006 Mendocino County Merlot, and a 2007 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel, but most distinguishes itself with their proprietary blends, the 2009 Bi Si (Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Viognier) and the 2007 Bi Du (Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Petite Sirah), an assessment with which The Chronicle Tasting judges apparently concurred, awarding both wines a Silver Medal.
Certainly there were new discoveries interspersed throughout the Festival Pavilion, had I the time and patience to locate them, but I nonetheless found great value in serving the throng, instead of navigating it. For while The Chronicle Tasting may have been more of a paean to dipsomania than to Dionysian precepts, the more salient observation was the pervasive appeal of wine across myriad and diverse cultural segments across the Bay Area. And if such revelries become the catalyst for a lifelong love and respect for, who can complain? After all, I started mine, way back when, washing down dips of fondu with 3-liter jugs of Almaden…