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.

I wanna take you higher?

Contrary to what many may have believed back in the day, marijuana was never the vice of choice for Your West Coast Oenophile. Not that I didn’t occasionally indulge during my boarding school and college days; it’s just that it always made me tired and, frankly, was quite harsh on the lungs. In edible form, the experience was far more pleasant, though it didn’t exactly enhance the flavor of brownies. Or caramel. Recently, however, I inadvertently tried a cannabis gummy with 10 mg. THC. Tasty, yes, but as for the effects…

I don’t know whether my friend mentioned it was infused when she offered me a “candy” or if  I wasn’t paying attention. Shortly thereafter, we took off on a shopping expedition, in search of the shrimp and oysters I needed for my Cajun pasta specialty. We combed the seafood and produce markets throughout the Inner Richmond portion of Clement Street, arguably the best food shopping district in San Francisco (even if their prices for Dungeness crab remain extraordinarily inflated this season). As per usual, New May Wah Supermarket amply met our needs and then some, filling our bags with an assortment of Korean pears, star apples, and other exotic fruits.

From there we ventured to the in-store pharmacy at the nearby Lucky’s, where I get my prescription for “rejuvenating pills” filled. Normally, this would be a two-minute stop, but a glitch with my new insurance turned it into an excruciatingly long excursion. As I waited for the druggist to resolve the computer issues, it seemed like things were getting blurry, while mu head started throbbing the way it typically does when I stand for any prolonged period under fluorescent lighting. Only the lighting here wasn’t fluorescent.

I tried to shrug it off and figured I would feel OK once I left the store—my usual remedy in these situations. But the fogginess only grew stronger. The drive back to my flat seemed interminable. I knew where I was heading and had little issue with operating my vehicle, but the 10-block route back to Lower Pacific Heights seemed to go on for miles. Inside, I struggled to see clearly—why couldn’t the dimmer switch turn up full? Becoming exceedingly irritable, I came close to shouting at my companion for crowding me, or so it seemed, in the kitchen as prepped the sauce and cranked out the angel hair noodles on my Atlas pasta maker.

How I completed this undertaking remains a mystery to me still. I coated the pan with olive oil, instead of butter, compelling me to start the sauce from scratch once again. Next I managed to sauté the garlic and onions far too long, browning the slivers beyond the point of palatability. I overcooked the shrimp and nearly forgot to stir  in the spices I had meticulously blended beforehand. Worst of all, my pasta dough refused to congeal easily; I landed up with mounds of fragmented 3″ strands, instead of elegant, attenuated noodles that I anticipated rolling out.

The meal would never have passed muster in a fine dining establishment, but my guest seemed indifferent to its flaws, perhaps on account of over  2½ bottles of wine that we polished off throughout the dinner. Whatever got us through the meal, we eventually had our fill and toddled off to bed.

In the morning, I felt no worse for the wear and even managed to brew an artful pot of coffee while fixing a couple bowls of instant oatmeal. Over the course of breakfast, I mentioned how weird I had felt that evening and apologized for having been so testy. “It was probably the cannabis gummy I gave you,” she proffered. And thus, it all came into focus—in a manner of speaking.

But here’s the takeaway from this episode. Even if I had knowingly ingested this dose of THC, I would not have enjoyed the experience. The effects were not relaxing. I was disoriented at a level I experience when greatly overindulging with wine or with cocktails, not the pleasant yet coherent mood alteration a glass or two may bring. And the effect was not gradual or immediate; rather, it crept up on me unexpectedly after considerable delay (the packaging, which I subsequently read, advises that the THC may not take effect until two hours after it is consumed), then hit me full-force

In other words, cannabis does not portend to displace the consumption of wine. The conviviality of imbibing, the relaxation of one’s mood, and the sheer magic of wine’s interaction with food is not replicated with this alternative intoxicant. Neo-Prohibitionists, vegan chauvinists, health pseudoscientists, and Juul-puffing Millennial poseurs foreshadowing the demise of alcohol be damned—the grape is here to stay! And Sostevinobile vows to remain resolute in our original vision of the most comprehensive venue for sustainable wines from the West Coast.

Entering a new decade. Reflecting on an old millennium.

Happily, Your West Coast Oenophile is still in business, having surmounted the series of setbacks that nearly sent Sostevinobile to the dustbin of history last fall. I am starting off 2020 with renewed optimism, having (potentially) revived not only the NOPA site for our long-delayed brick & mortar operations but the overseas financial deal on which our funding depends. Also, I am looking forward to reinvigorating Risorgimento, the Italian varietal trade organization we launched last year. And I have put in motion two new wine projects I hope to discuss here later.

But first let me start off this new decade with a reflection on my top wine from 2019. If only Valley of the Moon’s 1999 Sangiovese were still available, I’d be tempted buy out the entire stock. But when the current ownership, which operates Quails’ Gate Winery in Kelowna, British Columbia took possession of the Madrone Estate facility in Glen Ellen, they relinquished rights to any of the wines formerly produced under the original Valley of the Moon Label that predated Madrone. As such, my sampling was a one-time-only treat.

Still, my one-ounce pour easily rated a Too Good to Sip & Spit—and a slow, deliberate sip at that. The wine proved remarkable for a number of reasons. Normally, I wouldn’t consider Sangiovese a wine that would be ageable beyond a decade, especially if it hasn’t been blended as a SuperTuscan, but, here, 20 years later, this bottling was still hitting its stride, with nary of a hint of having peaked. Moreover, Sangiovese in California was still struggling to find its expression in the 1990s; I can’t recall a memorable vintage before Piero Antinori’s 2000 Reserve Sangiovese  from his original plantings at Atlas Peak.

Back in the 1990s I would have looked to Imagery or Viansa for Italian varietals in this corner of Sonoma County. To have found a Sangiovese this complex then from Valley of the Moon would have been serendipitous; twenty years later, this wine proved a revelation.

Noted

Mon dieu! Could it be that Your West Coast Oenophile is going to switch his allegiance to Bordelaise wines? Will Sostevinobile become a paean to the vignerons of France?

There are numerous reasons I attend trade tastings for imported wines, despite my unyielding commitment to serve only sustainably-grown wines from the West Coast (meaning British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, California, Baja Norte, and perhaps a little pocket across the border in Arizona), including sourcing accounts for my trade tasting venue, familiarizing myself with varietals that have only a small presence here, like Canaiolo, Saperavi, Assyrtiko, Dreirebe, Chasselas Doré, Mencia, to name a few, or simply to socialize with other wine trade comrades. Rarely, however, do I leave one of these events feeling that I am perhaps missing out on something with my attenuated focus. But, in the interest of objectivity, I have to concede that last month’s showcase of the 2016 vintage from the Association de Grands Crus Classés de Saint-Emilion was truly spectacular.

The homage California pays to French viticulture is, of course, centered on Bordeaux, but within this spectrum, the focus falls predominantly on the Left Bank and the prestige of the Premier Cru houses, which skew towards Cabernet Sauvignon. But among the AOCs of the Right Bank, Merlot predominates, as exemplified by what, until the recent Pinotphile craze, was annually the world’s most expensive wine, Pomerol’s Château Pétrus.

Saint-Emilion lies to the south of Pomerol and is distinguished by wines that blend Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Principal protagonists here include Château Ausone and the legendary Château Cheval Blanc, whose namesake bottling is generally acclaimed as the greatest wine ever by wine cognoscenti worldwide, the only debate being a preference for the 1947 or 1961 vintages. Malheureusement, neither of these houses nor their fellow Premiers Grands Crus Classés A wineries, Château Angélus and Château Pavie participated in the San Francisco tasting. And though none of Saint-Emilion’s Premier Grand Cru Classé B chateaux were on hand either, 18 of the 64 Grand Cru Classé houses poured their 2016s, along with a library wine of their own choosing.

Across the board these wines were uniformly excellent, a testament to their third-tier status that only could make one wonder what the various Premier Cru Classé wines might offer. My preference leaned heavily toward those wines that married a higher percentage of Cabernet Franc or even featured Merlot as the secondary varietal. And given the leanings of my California-honed palate, the relatively high (14-15.5%) alcohol content of most, compared to the restrained (12-14%) level of Médoc’s Premier Grand Cru, certainly factored into the appeal.

Unfortunately, I cannot provide further details or observations on the individual wines. The promoters of this event did not correlate the printing of their program guide with the number of RSVPs; as such, attendees like myself, who strive to take meticulous notes at tastings were left to our own devices, something that can be extremely onerous when having to deal with a foreign language (mon français est un peu faible ces jours). And so I took none, leaving these wines to the recesses of my memory.


At least Team Balzac designed a guide for their event, which they subsequently emailed to attendees. Two other major tastings I attend last month eschewed printing programs altogether. Given that these events both commanded steep ticket prices, I could take the promoters to task for not allocating a portion of their gross revenue for such a relatively inexpensive production (I am well aware of this expense, have personally designed the brochures for every wine tasting I have curated). But the issue here isn’t cost, but the difficulty such an omission creates in trying to enjoy the wines, notate them, and navigate the entire event with the degree of alacrity it demands.

Many readers here know that, after my first career in winery Mergers & Acquisitions, I spent nearly 25 years wallowing in the recesses of the advertising & marketing industry. Though nominally a copywriter, I was compelled to learn graphic design, and with that, acquire a concomitant fluidity in numerous word processing, page layout, and desktop design programs. Yet even with a high degree of expertise in these softwares, navigating the mobile versions, particularly on an iPhone, is cumbersome, if not outright challenging. There are no easy shortcuts to this process—being confronted with having to record an event on Notes requires typing out every single word, all while trying to balance a glass, maintain a dialogue with the winemaker, and keep from hogging space at the table from other attendees. Plus, this is just as much an imposition on the wineries, who are paying fees and donating bottles with the expectation of having the rapt attention of trade individuals, either for purchasing their wines or promoting them.

This is not to say that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy Carlo Niboli’s second staging of CabFest at the Westfield. Given my struggles with producing wine events like CalAsia these past two years, I can only defer to the success of his efforts, which included the first public tasting (as far as I know) of Napa’s mythic Ghost Horse, the wine that has eclipsed Screaming Eagle’s claim to California’s top pricing. Here, the 2015 Fantome, merely the fourth tier of Todd Anderson’s Cabernets (priced at a meager $1500/bottle), proved an extraordinary wine well worth its rarefied claim. Even so, a lofty price does not ensure exclusivity, as the 2004 Harry’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon from Hesperian proved a worthy counter. Also as impressive: the 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon from Alison Green Doran’s Hoot Owl Creek and the 2015 Red Wine Blend, an equal marriage of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, produced by Laurie Maurer Shelton’s CAMi.

I found the 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon Emily Kestrel from Summit Lake exceptional, as was the 2017 Stagecoach Cabernet Sauvignon from newcomer Stringer Cellars. On a more bittersweet note, Cabfest marked what will likely be the last public tasting for Battle Estate Vineyards, which has decided to cease operations after the devastation of the Kincade Fire. Wines like their 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon from Alexander Valley will be sorely missed.

And while I did not miss tasting the wide range of other Cabernets, Cab Francs, and Bordeaux blends at this event, awkwardness of trying to record my impressions with a virtual keyboard on a 5.5″ display, while striving to balance my glass and continue conversing with the winemaker left most of my notes in shambles, despite generally favorable impressions of Chiron, Obvious, Zialena, V, Howell at the Moon, Ballentine, Stonestreet, Angwin Estate, Ron Rubin, Guarachi, Robert Young, Medlock Ames, Sutro, Lancaster, and Patel.


I had hoped not to confront the same dilemma the following weekend at the debut of Wine Call SF at the Old Mint. The two-day tasting featured over 50 wineries, predominantly from the West Coast, and selected from the leading proponents of the natural wine movement. It seemed incomprehensible that an event of this scale would not feature a guide—and a professionally designed program at that. But alas, I once again was compelled to wing my way through with my iPhone, this time starting by pasting the winery roster featured on the Website into a Pages document.

An utter catastrophe! Though I am highly skilled in this app on my MacBook Pro and can navigate the differences in the mobile version on my iPadcusing a keyboard, here there is no way to paste text into the text field without copyng its formatting, which, in this case, included the hyperlinks that launched a Web page nearly every time I tried to navigate the cursor. Which, in turn, meant it took three times as long to type, once I finally got things placed where I needed them.

But then entire sections of my document were somehow deleted, which compelled me to return to the various wine stations and re-record ratings on what they had poured. Not impossible, of course, but enormously frustrating to the point that, were it not for my reluctance to shell out another $1,000 to replace it, I came close to flinging my iPhone across the room.

More importantly, the struggles with my note-taking consumed an inordinate amount of time, so much so that even with three separate trips to The Old Mint over Saturday and Sunday, I still missed sampling half a dozen of the wineries. Insurmountable impositions like this hurt not only attendees like Sostevinobile, but penalize all the winemakers who put in the time and effort to make an event succeed.

Nonetheless, I did manage to salvage a good portion of my observations. The absolute standouts had to be the 2018 Flaws, an impeccable Abouriou from Absentee, who ironically was away from his table while I was sampling, and and a luxuriant 2015 Carignane from Faith Armstong-Foster’s Onward, which, along with sister label Farmstrong, specializes in this wondrous Rhône varietal.

Close behind, four other wines astounded, as well, starting with another of Onward’s remarkable bottlings, the 2017 Pétillant Naturel Rosé of Pinot Noir. Even though he has now already sold out, Hank Beckmeyer produced a near-flawless 2018 Viognier at his La Clarine Farm in Somerset. Having partied on Friday with Anna & David Delaski at the Pretty in Pinot Prom—following a full day at the annual Pinotfest, I was struck by the contrast of Solminer’s 2018 Dry Riesling Coquelicot Vineyard, one of the several Germanic varietals they are producing. Trekking from Oregon, Division Wine Making Company also proved a formidable presence here, making a statement its 2017 Granit Cabernet Franc.

If my notes had stayed intact, I could go into finer detail on the remaining wines, but, as it were, numerous others made significant impressions, including Sacramento’s Haarmeyer Wine Cellars, with their 2017 Riesling Wirz Vineyard and the ever-reliable Old World Winery with yet another standout vintage, their 2015 Luminous, a luscious Abouriou from Sherry Martinelli vineyard in Windsor.

Shaunt Oungoulian’s Les Lunes featured a pair of intriguing bottlings, the 2017 Carignane Arnold’s Block and a deftly blended 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot Coplan Vineyard. His former winemaking partner, Martha Stoumen, now well into her connubial bliss, tributed her recent marriage with the 2018 Honeymoon, a Colombard blend with 15% Chardonnay. Likewise, Breaking Bread, an offshoot of Kokomo, debuted their 2018 Zinfandel Redwood Valley with considerable aplomb.

The splendidly-named Caleb Leisure specializes in fermenting their wines in qvevri, the traditional Georgian buried clay pots (and killer Scrabble word!), exemplified here with the 2018 Other Hand, a Chalk Hill Cabernet Sauvignon. A bit of an anomaly, Ruth Lewandowski, a winery based in Salt Lake City but sourcing its grapes from Mendocino, featured its eclectic blends, highlighted by the 2018 Boaz, a mélange of Carignane, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Grenache. And hailing from Los Alamos—California, not New Mexico, Lo-Fi Wines showcased their 2018 Sparkling Rosé, a Pét-Nat rendition of Cabernet Franc.

The much-lauded Carboniste only produces sparkling wines, exemplified best by the 2018 Mackerel, a Pét-Nat Pinot Grigio. Further to the south, in Escondido, J. Brix featured this varietal as a ramato, the 2018 Nomine Amoris Skin-Contact Pinot Gris. Returning north, Keegan Mayo’s Assiduous Wines offered a less avant-garde yet equally appealing rendition, their 2018 Pinot Gris Regan Vineyard.

Wine Call SF featured keynotes both days by Tegan Passalacqua, whose Sandlands Vineyards underscored his authority on natural winemaking, evidenced here with two superb  offerings: the 2018 Grenache and the 2018 Cinsault. Tegan is one of the leading proponents of the next wave of vineyardists in Lodi; Abe Schoener’s Scholium Project, recently relocated to Los Angeles, sourced their Zinfandel from Passalacqua’s plantings there for their 2017 FTP-Z Kirschenmann Ranch. Meanwhile, their excellent 2012 Delta Blend identifies neither the Sacramento vineyards from which it is sourced, nor its varietals (though I beleive Verdelho was a major component). Also sourcing from the Delta, Maître de Chai selected its grapes from Wilson Vineyards for its 2018 Sparkling Chenin Blanc. Its 2017 Kiekegaard Chenin Blanc, however, comes from the same Sonoma vineyard Leo Steen utilizes.

Last but not least, Craft Wine Company trekked from Oregon to feature its 2018 Origin Chenin Blanc. And even further north, Washington’s Swick Wines produced a panoply of Italian varietal wines, notably the Barolo-worthy 2018 Nebbiolo.

Washington tends to be the preferred West Coast domain for Riesling, with notable exceptions like Santa Cruz’s Stirm Wine Company, which produces a number of different bottlings. But here Ryan flourished with a relatively obscure, though formerly prolific grape, with his 2018 Mission. Another Santa Cruz winery, Florèz, may not tend toward exotic varietals or blends, but comported itself memorably with their elegant 2017 Chardonnay.

Some may prefer to call it Mourvèdre or Monastrell, but the 2016 Mataro Del Barbra Vineyard from Erggelet Brothers was still a masterful wine. And it seems fitting that my final entry comes from Amador’s End of Nowhere, with a stellar 2018 #1 Crush Rosé, a Zinfandel rendering and their 2017 Nemesis, a Yolo County Barbera.


I suppose if I had been able to take notes easily, this column might have run on until 2020, so perhaps there is a silver lining here. But as long as trade tastings resort to the expediency of not printing programs, I will keep harping on this issue.