Mea maxima culpa

Admittedly, it’s quite the conundrum. The persistent commitment of Your West Coast Oenophile to launch a full-scale brick & mortar operation has meant resorting to a number of alternative paths for funding Sostevinobile. I began this venture anticipating that I might very well employ the knowledge I accrued to other, tangentially-related wine ventures—consultancies and such—as means to sustain myself should my plans not meet their ambitious target date. These alternative, decidedly ephemeral ventures did not include a return to the Mergers & Acquisitions practice that launch my wine career back in the 1980s, but as I gained a reputation for my pervasive knowledge of the West Coast winery landscape, along with a concomitant impasse with conventional fundraising, I found myself lured back into facilitating these transactions.

At least, I was attempting to facilitate these transactions. Much as I had during my previous tenure, I soon found myself feeling like a ping-pong ball perpetually hurtling between the volleys of buyer and seller, all semblance of control over my destiny subject to the precarious whims of the principals at play, a hapless projectile, alas, on the brink of shattering any given moment. But regardless of whether any of these acquisitions consummated, the overarching question remained: should I even involve myself in these matters?

Apart from the elusive promise that I might fully fund Sostevinobile in one fell swoop, I still need to weigh the impact of these deals on the welfare of the winery being sought, the impact not only on the quality of its wines but of the welfare of the people who make them. Or, to look at matters in another way, these transactions may be above-board and legitimate, but are they right?

ChateauStJeanA couple of recent developments in the wine realm have raised the red flag for me. First came the dénouement of Château St. Jean, the storied Kenwood winery that essentially pioneered vineyard-designate wines through its partnership with Robert Young Vineyards. When the Merzoian family first decided to sell this landmark estate, I counseled the Visalia partnership that came second in the frenzied bidding war that ultimately saw Suntory acquiring the property and label for triple its actual value. St. Jean has changed hands several times since, and now is part of behemoth Treasury Wine Estates’ California portfolio. Treasury is currently on a frenetic pace to streamline its US holdings, selling off 12 of its lower-end labels at “book value” just this week, after having unloaded its Paicines winery, along with several small vineyards, a little over a month ago.

Sandwiched between these two headlines, however, lay a cautionary tale of acquisition by a major conglomerate. Like its predecessor Diageo, who folded production for its crown jewel (and $180 million acquisition) Rosenblum Cellars in Alameda into its factory-line operations in Oakdale, Treasury recently announced it was terminating wine production at St. Jean and rolling its operations into their larger facility at Beringer. This cost-cutting measure may seem prudent, if not viable, to many, but the autonomy promised St. Jean will surely be but ephemeral. Will the brand be diluted maintaining its core distinction yet subjected to the ignominy of a mid-range, mass-produced Coastal label like BV and Robert Mondavi? Or will it be rendered unrecognizable, losing its traditional identity to corporate directives, as is happening at Viansa?

Meanwhile, the recent uproar in Paso Robles could be heard as far away as San Francisco. Storied Cabernet producer Justin had been in the forefront of sustainable winemaking, but was purchased a few years ago by the Resnick family, billionaire producers of Fiji Water, arguably the foremost source of plastic bottle waste on the planet—a disparity putatively as inconceivable as The Donald eloping with Hillary. Following his acquisition on Justin, the Resnicks purchased the 750-acre Hardham Ranch on the southeastern edge of Paso Robles. These fields, historically maintained for grazing and dry farming, were quickly covered by miles of new grapevine plantings, deep wells, and huge lined storage reservoirs (hardly the best & highest use of land in this drought-starved region). But their most recent and greatest transgression was the deforestation of hundreds of oak trees from Justin’s property at 750 Sleepy Farm Road in Paso in order to construct an agricultural reservoir that would have been filled by pumping in 6 million gallons (20 acre-feet) of groundwater.

oak removal 1The Resnicks subsequently atoned for this “oversight” by abandoning their reservoir scheme and donating the 380 acre parcel on which this clear-cuttting took place, to a Paso Robles land conservancy, but much of the environmental damage has already been incurred. The lesson here for me is equally clear, and I must seriously take into consideration all the potential consequences of my efforts to finance Sostevinobile through winery Mergers & Acquisitions.

After all, the election of Trump will only promulgate such behavior…

Pecorino, Palomino, and Pedro Ximénez

As readers of these sporadic postings realize, Your West Coast Oenophile continues to plug away in discovering off-the-map wineries and nascent wine labels to add to the comprehensive database Sostevinobile is creating for our wine-by-the-glass and reserve lists. I would really prefer to be on the road far more often than I have been, visiting all the various AVAs that dot the three West Coast states—not to mention possible inclusions of such bordering regions as the Guadalupe Valley and Okanagan BC. Fortunately, the various major trade tastings, like next week’s Rhône Rangers, afford me the opportunity to visit with numerous wineries from regions I have only explored peripherally.

Recently, a couple of my affiliated wine undertakings—building wine programs for a handful of local restaurants and producing wine tastings for Ivy league alumni groups—redrew my attention to a slew of wineries producing Italian varietals in Riverside’s Temecula Valley. Many of my fellow members of the Nebbiolo Enthusiasts and Believers (NEB) hold a deep skepticism over the potential of this region, and I concede I am hardly in a position to refute them. Much to my chagrin, I have scant little familiarity with most of the wines produced here, and have only visited a small sliver of the AVA on a drive-through several years before I launched Sostevinobile.

Still, I want to believe Temecula can become an important wine producer. Not surprisingly, the AVA is abundantly planted with varietals generally associated with warmer climates, like Vermentino, Tempranillo, Nero d’Avola, and Sangiovese. But here you also find wineries like Cougar and Ponte that are in the vanguard for a number of decidedly esoteric varietals planted nowhere else on the West Coast: Falanghina, Coda di Volpe, Ciliegiolo, Piedirosso, Lambrusca di Alessandria, Brachetto d’Acqui, and—is it a wine or a cheese?—Pecorino. Sound like high time I hit the road.

To many readers, these varietals may seem adventurous, perhaps even esoteric (some, I’m sure, regard any Italian varietal, other than Pinot Grigio, as esoteric). For many others, the divergent selections poured at the recent rendition of Seven % Solution, constitute eclecticism. Sostevinobile, of course, is on a mission to source as many of these wines as we can find; as such, exotic is not a term that comes to mind with any of the wines I have encountered. Nonetheless, I would categorize a handful of producers as niche specialists, wineries that eschew the mainstream categories of still wines and limit themselves to crafting wine variants. Though technically a distillery, Ukiah’s Germain-Robin is probably the most reputed of this lot, pioneering the production of varietal alembic brandies (actually, a cognac, were it not for the restrictions of the 2006 EU pact). Also in Mendocino, Scharffenberger and Roederer make superb sparkling wines, while Napa’s St. Barthélemy bottles an array ports fortified with specialized distillates from the same varietal. Other North Coast producers include Prager Port Works in St. Helena and Sonoma Portworks in Petaluma. Unique even among this subset, Quady Winery in Madera only produces infused and fortified wines, ports, vermouths, and even a sherry (though, curiously, not a Madeira).

I have known Andy Quady for several years now and have long championed his Vya Vermouth—the sweet version, along with 136° Thomas Handy Sazerac, forms the base of my atomic cocktail recipe, The Manhattan Project. For sheer decadence, however, his dessert wines, based on a range of Moscato varietals are without peer. I have enjoyed earlier vintages of the 2014 Elysium, 2014 Essentia, 2015 Electra, and 2015 Red Electra on numerous occasions, but was only introduced to their seductive apéritif, the NV Deviation, an Orange Muscat infused with Rose Geranium and Damiana, at the recent Wine Warehouse trade tasting a couple of weeks back. Granted, the setting at Fort Mason hardly allowed for experiencing “the aphrodisiac powers of Damiana,” but the effect was perceptible.

Andy’s other revelation this afternoon was his homage to Amontillado, the NV Palomino Fino, a barrel-aged sherry produced from this relatively-obscure varietal. I could wax Poe-etically about this wine interminably, but suffice it to say that it has been progressively produced as a solera since its inception in 2002.

Only a handful of wineries in California vinify a solera-style wine, including Tackitt in Templeton, a Tempranillo from Geyserville’s Mercury, Lodi’s Berghold, Heritage Oak, and OZV, Cabernet soleras from ZD Wines in Napa and Le Cuvíer in Paso Robles, and a Late Harvest Zinfandel Vineyard 29 identifies as a “modified solera.”

Several weeks back, while attending CUESA’s grape-growing panel, How Green is Your Wine?, at the Ferry Plaza Building, I came upon a 400-case boutique venture from Santa Cruz, the whimsically macabre-named Condor’s Hope. There, alongside his biodynamically-farmed Syrah and Zinfandel, vintner Steve Gleissman produces a solera-style sherry from his Pedro Ximénez! This varietal, of course, is in no way related to José Jiménez, but in all my years developing Sostevinobile (plus the previous 25 years I spent with other wine involvements), I had never come across this grape. But, just as I was about to concede that Steve had finally stumped me, I discovered that Bill Nachbaur’s Alegría Vineyard contains Pedro Ximénez vines, as well as Palomino, among the 60 varietals he has planted!

Unfortunately, that leaves me with 25 more varietals yet to be sampled and catalogued for our eventual roster…

An austere wine, with an alluring bucket

Long before developing Sostevinobile, even prior to my original career in the wine industry, Your West Coast Oenophile pursued a much loftier vocation. Hubristic though it may sound, I truly believed I could elected the next pope.

Driving up the coast from Pacifica on a warm September evening in 1978, I heard the news that Pope Paul VI had just died. The broadcast further stated that the next Pope would assuredly be “younger, male, Italian, and allied with neither the liberal nor the conservative wing of the Catholic Church.” In other words, me.

With little time to mount an extensive worldwide campaign, I resorted to a decidedly grassroots effort, greeting people everywhere I went and exhorting them to write their favorite cardinal to support my candidacy. Hard to tell exactly how well I placed, as the balloting remains secret, but I finished a healthy runner-up to Venetian Cardinal Albino Luciani.

Ioannes Paulus PP. I proved a genial, albeit inferior, choice, as attested by his untimely death a mere 33 days after his installation. Seizing this renewed opportunity, I immediately took to the streets with a more aggressive campaign, this time pledging, with utter fidelity, “I won’t die in office!” Of course, I realized I didn’t need to worry about facing any consequences if I did break my promise. And if somehow I had managed to keep it, well…
Giampaolo

As I’m sure everyone knows, I wound up losing that election to Karol Wojtyla and his 27-year interregnum as Ioannes Paulus PP. II. Thereafter, the abrupt resignation of his successor, Benedictus XVI, dispelled any hope I could run once more on my immortality platform, though my apostasy still contends that, the Universe being merely a figment of my imagination, I cannot be allowed to die. Nonetheless, owning to reality, I am resolved to live at least as long to hear some hotblooded twentysomething admonish his friend “Dude, c’mon! That chick is too old! She’s got tattoos!!

Moreover, after recent Facebook rumors had reported my likely demise—compounded, I suspect, by three months’ absence in attending to this blog—I composed a bucket list of wineries I still craved to try. While my selections may lean heavily towards several of the renowned “cult Cabernets,” they also reflect, by omission, the vast number of these wines I have already had the pleasure of sampling.

Scarecrow Without trying to seem boastful, I have delighted over the years in such legendary producers as Harlan, Maybach, Dalla Valle, Bond, Opus One, Scarecrow, Shafer, David Arthur, Ovid, Kapcsándy, and the obligatory Screaming Eagle. Aetherial Chardonnays from Peter Michael and Kongsgaard have crossed my lips. Château Pétrus’ alter ego, Dominus, has been a perennial favorite, along with classic bottlings like Joseph Phelps’ Insignia and Ridge’s Montebello.

I’ve enjoyed deep velvet Zinfandels from Turley and Martinelli’s Jackass Hill. astounding blends from Paso Robles’ L’Aventure and Daou that depart from orthodoxies of Bordeaux and the Rhône, and luminescent Pinot Noirs from the Sta. Rita Hills’ Sea Smoke and Oregon’s Domaine Serène. But partaking of the latter’s storied Monogram remains the first of many elusive quests. After that, my bucket list most certainly includes the Santa Cruz Mountains’ clandestine Pinot Noir producer, Rhys, and Vérité, whose three wines have all repeatedly garnered perfect 100s from Robert Parker.

My must-taste list includes a slew of a stratospherically-priced Cabernets, including Colgin, Bryant Family, Grace Family, Dana Estates, Futo, and Harbison Estate, wines for which one must apply to receive an allocation. Legendary labels include Araujo (now owned by Château Latour) and Abreu, Napa’s premier vineyardist, as well as Chardonnay virtuoso Marcassin. True viticultural connoisseurs will certainly recognize Todd Anderson’s ultra-elite Ghost Horse from St. Helena and the coveted Sine Qua Non, the cult Rhône producer from Ventura County. Lurking in the wings, Grace Family’s winemaker, Helen Keplinger produces a line of Rhône blends under her own eponymous label that seem destined for legend.

Some may find Cougar an anomaly amid such vaunted company, but I have included it for their pioneering efforts to transform Temecula into the leading destination for Italian varietals in California —who else here is growing Falanghina, Ciliegiolo, or Piedirosso? I intend to visit this burgeoning AVA on my next swing down to San Diego and explore how it is being transformed after an infestation of the glassy-winged sharpshooter nearly eradicated all of the region’s vineyard plantings in 2001.

Last month, just after compiling this list, I did manage to venture fairly far south to visit a number of Central Coast AVAs Sostevinobile has inadvertently neglected; this trip, in turn, led to a two-week sojourn of non-stop wine tastings, during which I surprisingly managed to encounter six wineries from this roster.

I will cover my swing through Paso Robles, Temecula, Lompoc, Santa Barbara, Solvang, Buellton, Santa Ynez and Arroyo Grande more thoroughly in a subsequent post. Having the advantage of a holiday weekend that coincided with the Garagiste Fest Santa Ynez Valley, I arranged to veer southward to the Wine Collection of El Paseo, a cooperative tasting room in the heart of downtown Santa Barbara, where I met with Doug Margerum, winemaker for Cent’Anni, a Santa Ynez Valley winery I had discovered after Mick Unti had challenged me to find Canaiolo grown in California. I landed up accruing four sources: the aforementioned Cougar, Sierra Ridge in Sutter Creek, Vino Noceto in Plymouth, and this wondrous endeavor. With the same fidelity Tablas Creek strives to attain with its Rhône selections or the authentic approach to Bordelaise blends one finds with Luc Morlet’s eponymous label or Bernard Portet’s wines from Clos du Val, Jamie and Julie Kellner have brought to their quest to make Tuscan-style Sangiovese in California. Toward this exacting vision, they have planted five distinct Sangiovese clones, along with Canaiolo and, as claimed, the only Colorino vines on the West Coast.

Cent’Anni also grows a small amount of Pinot Grigio and sources Tocai Friulano, Pinot Bianco, as well as some additional Sangiovese for their second-tier offerings. I began my tasting with the 2012 Buoni Anni Bianco, a deft blend of their Estate Pinot Grigio with 38% Honea Vineyard Tocai Friulano and 28% Bien Nacido Pinot Bianco. Complementing it was the 2010 Buoni Anni Sangiovese, a pure varietal expression in the style of a Rosso di Montalcino.

These two wines prefaced the object of my sojourn, the 2010 Cent’Anni Riserva. Here was a wine truly at the apex of Italian vinification in the New World, a indelible marriage of 16% Sangiovese Montepulciano clone, 16% Clone 3, 16% Clone 6, 16% Clone 23 & 34% Sangiovese Rodino, topped off with 1% each of Canaiolo and Colorino. Without question, I found a wine well on its way to greatness, dense, rich, flavorful, and almost impossible to put down. My 35-mile detour from Solvang had certainly not been taken in vain.

Under his personal Margerum label, Doug also produces California’s first Amaro, a fortified red blend infused with “herbs (sage, thyme, marjoram, parsley, lemon verbena, rosemary, and mint), barks, roots, dried orange peels, and caramelized simple syrup” and a very floral white Vermouth produced from Late Harvest Viognier. Alas, The Wine Collection’s license does not permit pouring or tasting hard alcohol, so I could only gaze upon the bottle of grappa Doug also distills from his Viognier pomace. At least I could console myself that he had named it appropriately: Marc.

After attending both sessions of the Garagiste Festival, I moseyed onto another Italian-focused endeavor, the legendary Mosby in Buellton, where I was hosted by Chris Burroughs, famed for his portrayal of Sanford’s Tasting Room Manager in Sideways. Our tasting began with crisp, clean 2013 Cortese, the predominant grape in Gavi di Gavi, and reputedly Italy’s first white varietal. We followed this superb wine with a notable rendition of a 2013 Pinot Grigio and an amiable 2013 Rosato di Cannonau (aka Grenache).

Mosby’s red repertoire included their 2009 Sangiovese and a most striking 2009 Primitivo. I was duly impressed with their Estate-grown 2009 Sagrantino and the 2008 La Seduzione, one of the better domestic Lagreins I have had the pleasure of sampling. Along with Palmina, which I also visited this trip, Mosby has pioneered the planting and vinification of Italian varietals on the Central Coast. I only wish I had been able to try their other homegrown varietals, particularly, their Traminer, Dolcetto, and Teroldego. Portents of a return visit, I am sure.

Miles
CAENCONTESTa-C-29MAR02-MT-KK Herb Caen writing contest finalist D. Marc Capobianco CHRONICLE PHOTO BY KIM KOMENICH

I may be a balding and bearded writer, an Italian inculcated at Ivy institutes, and an unregenerate œnophile, but in no way do I resemble Paul Giamatti. Still, I could not leave Buellton without the obligatory pilgrimage to Hitching Post II, Frank Otsini’s restaurant adjunct to his popular wine label and setting for numerous scenes in the movie. Having recently had to fend off the rather forward queries of a quasi-inebriated party of divorcées at a Sonoma winery (“no, but I understand he drops my name quite frequently”), I announced as I approached the bar, “If anyone calls me Miles, they’re getting punched out!”

I managed to escape unscathed and make it on time the next morning to cover another entry from my bucket list, Paso Robles’ eclectic Linne Calodo. Truly a connoisseur’s winery, its elusive nomenclature belies a line of superb Rhône blends, along with a few proprietary mélange or two combining Zinfandel. I was quite taken with the 2013 Rising Tides, a well-balanced marriage of 40% Syrah, 32% Grenache, 18% Mourvèdre, and 10% Cinsault. The predominantly Zinfandel offering this day, their 2014 Problem Child (20% Syrah, 8% Mourvèdre) could have borne a bit more aging, but the 2014 Sticks and Stones (71% Grenache, 12% Syrah, 9% Cinsault, and 8% Mourvèdre) radiated with well-ripened flavors.

As with Mosby, I wish my visit could have encompassed all of Linne Calodo’s portfolio, particularly its sundry variations on GSM blends. Secreted amid the Willow Creek flatlands below the towering perches of Adelaida, this elusive yet dramatic winery—which, ironically, resembles a mountain top ski chalet—beckons further visits upon my anticipated return to Paso Robles later this year.

I barely had time to settle back into San Francisco before heading up to the Napa Valley for the annual tasting marathon known as Première Napa. As always, this event tests the mettle of professional œnophiles like myself—just how many tastings can one person squeeze into 48 hours?—but it continues to prove an invaluable resource, both for bolstering Sostevinobile’s wine program and for my ongoing quest for funding. An unexpected benefit this year, however, was an introduction to the wines of Sloan Estate, yet another bucket list candidate, and its rather ebullient proprietor, Jenny Pan.
Jenny Pan

About a year or so ago, a casual acquaintance related that he had recently sat beside former owner Stuart Sloan on a flight to San Francisco and queried whether I was familiar with the winery he had founded. Much to my interlocutor’s incredulity, I conceded I had no awareness of this label—not that I should be held accountable or derelict for such an omission. According to Wines & Vines, there are 5,461 bonded wineries among the three Pacific states (4,054 California, 718 Washington, 689 Oregon) or 58% of the 9,436 premises throughout North America (USA, Canada, Mexico). Conservatively, I would estimate that there are more than 6,000 additional labels produced at West Coast facilities, meaning that I have barely cataloged ⅓ of the producers Sostevinobile’s wine program is targeting. I took great umbrage at his disparagement, yet resolved to familiarize myself with such a highly prestigious brand.

Before I had a chance to set up a visit with Sloan, I stumbled upon their table at Première’s Women Winemakers Winetasting, an annual benefit at Bardessono. I had intended to make haste with this event, an unscheduled stop between First Taste Yountville and the Appellation St. Helena trade tasting at Raymond, but amid an exchange of light-hearted banter with Pam Starr (Crocker & Starr), I espied Jenny and her winemaker Martha McClellan obscurely manning a mere sliver of a pouring station across the room. With only two wines in production annually, Sloan could have presented their entire lineup here, but unfortunately their namesake Meritage, the current vintage of the SLOAN Proprietary Red, was awaiting bottling. Nonetheless, their second selection, the ASTERISK Proprietary Red, an indelible blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, proved more than compensatory. And with a proffered private tour of the estate now in the offing, I was duly appeased.

Less than two weeks later, I attended what may well prove to be the most impressive tasting of 2016: The State of Washington Wine at The Metreon. Having not visited San Francisco for over 15 years, this trade collective pulled out all the stops, featuring over 75 wineries and a fresh seafood bar best described as beyond indulgent. But the ultimate lure here was the presence of two of the Evergreen State’s two most acclaimed denizens, Leonetti Cellar and Quilceda Creek. Like Sloan Estate. As with most Napa’s cult labels, these bucket list wineries normally make their production available only to Mailing List members—with a four-year wait just to enroll! Having this opportunity to sample both wineries at the same time proved the pinnacle of this afternoon.

Leonetti poured somewhat secretively as Figgins Family Wine Estates, their parent label. Once I had deciphered this conundrum, I was rewarded with my introduction to a selection of their mid-range wines, the 2014 Merlot and the justly acclaimed 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon. A complete surprise was 2012 Figgins Estate Red Wine, a massive Meritage marrying Cabernet Sauvignon with Petit Verdot and Merlot; as impressive as this wine proved, though, it left me yearning for Leonetti’s much-heralded Reserve Bordeaux blend, along with their Estate Sangiovese.

No similar sense of want from Snohomish’s storied Quilceda Creek, however, which started with the 2013 CVR Red Blend, a deft mélange of 73% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Merlot, 6% Cabernet Franc, 4% Petit Verdot and 3% Malbec. As impressive as this wine proved, their top-of-the-line 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley, a pure varietal culled from their Champoux, Palengat and Wallula Vineyards, flat-out wowed (as a wine that lists for triple the Red Blend’s price tag should). These wines completely validated Sostevinobile’s tenet that the three West Coast states should rightly be considered a viticultural continuum.

Of course, it would be highly tempting to eliminate the six wineries cited here from my bucket list, but there still looms so much more to discover about each. And why rush? The longer I keep sourcing and drinking such great wines, the greater my chances of attaining immortality surely becomes.

I owe. I owe. So off to work I go.

This Labor Day was doubly supposed to be a holiday for Your West Coast Oenophile. As happens every five or six years, my birthday falls on the first Monday in September, and while this was not a milestone year for me, it did add to the usual significance of the annual rite of passage (for the chronological sleuths out there, my only hint is that the next occurrence of this overlap will echo a sappy Paul McCartney tune). But instead of devoting the three day holiday to an inexorable celebration, I found myself on Sostevinobile duty, headed north for a return, at long last, to Sonoma County’s Wine Country Weekend.

I would be hard-pressed to think of another wine festival that encompasses such an expansive panorama of what its county-wide AVA offers, not just in wine but its complementary cuisine, food offerings, and other agricultural forays. Even Flavor! Napa Valley, a truly comprehensive cross-section of Sonoma’s immediate neighbor, seems somewhat dwarfed by the sheer magnitude of this three-day event.

My invitation included the Grand Tasting at MacMurray Ranch and the Sonoma Starlight dinner the preceding night. I had last visited Francis Ford Coppola Winery in its incarnation as Souverain, back during my years advising Bacardi on winery purchases they never completed. Under the Coppola umbrella, this facility, which produces the bulk of his mid-range and popular selections, has transmogrified into a lavish, if not grandiose, reflection of his directorial style, an estate that is as much resort as it is a producing winery, not unlike Bernardus in Carmel Valley.

Friday night attendees were fêted with an array of buffet food tables, gourmet poolside fair from a selection of local culinary vendors, while the patio was aligned with tables from many of the select wineries scheduled to pour the next day. Here, however, the vastly smaller VIP crowd enjoyed easy access to the wines and the winemakers themselves, along with a handful of reserve pourings that would not be featured at the public event. Even with the undulating strains of Notorious, Sonoma’s answer to Big Bang Beat, permeating the chill of the evening air, intimate conversations with the winemakers seemed effortless, allowing me the opportunity to meet and mingle with most of the participants I had highlighted as must-visits for the weekend.

One of the most intriguing of my new discoveries was Trinité Estate, the Alexander Valley expansion of the Lurton family’s vast portfolio of wineries that include Château Durfort-Vivens, a Deuxième Grand Cru Classé estate in the Margaux region, Château Ferrière, Château Haut-Bâges Libéral, Château La Gurgue, and Château Domeyne. True to form, owners Gonzague and Claire Lurton produce remarkable Bordeaux-style wines from their Healdsburg vineyards, notably their flagship 2012 Acaibo, a blend of 53 percent Merlot and 46 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, with “a sprinkling” of Cabernet Franc. Young but portending to be perhaps even more prodigious, their 2013 Amaino also focused on Merlot from the same trinity of Bordelaise grapes.

I am intrigued by the notion of wines that bear the same names as cheese, but so far, have only found Pecorino, an Italian white grape that is also produced in Temecula. Coming tantalizingly close, the Russian River Valley’s Parmeson Wines more than competently epitomized the contiguity of this AVA and the Sonoma Coast appellation with their inaugural trio of wines: 2013 Chardonnay Josephine Hill Vineyard, 2013 Pinot Noir Wildcat Mountain Vineyard, and their 2013 Zinfandel Alegría Vineyard.

One late-registered participant I hadn’t previously sampled was Merisi, an understated albeit fledgling endeavor that derives its elusive name from Michelangelo Merisi, better known as the Renaissance chiaroscuro master Caravaggio. Nothing about Mandy and Nick Donovan’s wines, however, seemed dimmed or shadowy, as their opulent 2013 Glen Oaks Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon amply displayed.

I confess to being often befuddled by the difference between Sonoma Valley Vintners & Growers and Sonoma County Vintners and will not attempt to distinguish these two largely overlapping trade associations, other than to note that the former is the official producer of this event. The latter faced a bit of hasty reorganization earlier this past year with the abrupt resignation of both Director of Marketing Communications Sara Cummings and Executive Director Honore Comfort. Honore, however, hardly extricated herself from the ranks of Sonoma County’s Vintners, with the inclusion of her Brack Mountain Wine Company at this year’s festivities. Under their Bench Wines label, Brack Manager Taylor Osborn poured a noteworthy 2013 Bench Pinot Noir and a truly delightful 2013 Fable Pinot Meunier, a single vineyard designate.

It’s not uncommon for me to taste 4-5,000 wines every year, and even with over 190 varietals produced on the West Coast in Sostevinobile’s database, such a relatively obscure wine is a great pleasure. And herein lies my contention with the Grand Tasting the following day. Don’t get me wrong—it was a wonderful, if not opulent event, and even without having to jockey among 4,000 attendees, one could never possibly have taken in everything it has to offer.

But with over 150 wineries on hand, I would have expected far more to have showcased their non-standard selections—not merely the Sauvignon Blancs, Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs, Zinfandels, and Cabernet Sauvignons that predominate in the Valley. I realize there are vastly more labels produced in the county than this event could possibly accommodate; furthermore, for many of the smaller, cutting-edge producers—Ryme, Agharta, Idlewild, Sheldon, Castelli, Scherrer, Stark, Nico, DaVero, Two Shepherds, Porter-Bass, to name but a few—who seemed conspicuously absent, I suspect participation fees may have proved too steep vs. potential return for the time and resources they would have to expend.

Nonetheless, far better that I focus on who was there and what they poured, rather than further expound my wistfulness over what was absent. Stopping off at the Alexander Valley tent, I first sampled a trio of wines from Lake Sonoma Winery, one of Madrone Vineyards Estates’ holdings. As befits the appellation, their standout proved to be the 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley, an exceptional expression of both the grape and the AVA. From the other side of 101, both the 2013 Chardonnay Russian River Valley and the 2013 Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast proved rather redolent of what I would expect from this vintage.

Curiously, Lake Sonoma did not pour their 2012 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel, a wine sourced closest to their namesake destination. Zinfandel’s Italian cousin, however, did make an appearance at deLorimier Winery’s table, a striking 2013 The Station Primitivo. On the other side of the tent, Soda Rock—like deLorimier, one of Diane Wilson’s myriad holdings—featured a more straightforward Zin, their 2012 Zinfandel Alexander Valley, alongside an equally-competent 2011 The General Cabernet Sauvignon.

The burgeoning Wilson empire includes numerous Dry Creek Valley wineries (Pezzi King, Mazzocco, as well as their eponymous label), but within this designation, arguably the crown jewel is the Rockpile AVA, which truly has to be the province of Mauritson Family Winery. Their wines are consistently deep, lush, and intense, a reputation borne out once again here with both the 2012 Rockpile Cabernet Sauvignon Rockpile Ridge Vineyard and the 2013 Rockpile Zinfandel Jack’s Cabin Vineyard. Also pouring a highly impressive Zinfandel—Comstock Wines, with their 2013 Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley.

As with Mauritson, I can always count on Lambert Bridge for consistency and excellence in their Bordelaise varietals and blends, a view reinforced here by their 2012 Cabernet Franc Sonoma County. Still, I was saddened to learn that Greg Wilcox, one of my favorite curmudgeons, no longer managed the winery. On a different front, affable owners Jann and Gerry still operate their namesake Forth Vineyards in Healdsburg, excelling in the production of their 2012 Single Vineyard Sangiovese, along with a delightfully spry 2014 Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc.

The broadbased Russian River Valley tent encompassed a number of districts that may soon comprise their own sub-AVA, including Petaluma Gap and Fountaingrove; the representative wineries, however, displayed a greater homogeneity. Endemic of this focus, Christopher Creek Winery, a winery whose acclaim is based on its Petite Sirah, Syrah, and Cabernet Franc, nonetheless impressed with its highly nuanced 2013 Pinot Noir Reserve. Burgundian purists Bucher Vineyard featured its 2013 Pinot Noir Russian River Valley, while my friends Bill and Betty Nachbaur kept things close to the vest with the 2012 Axiom Single Vineyard Syrah from their Acorn Winery, rather than their more adventurous Dolcetto or Sangiovese.

In contrast, the smaller boutique enterprises from Fountaingrove shared a table that showcased their diversity, starting with the excellent 2009 Petite Sirah from Chuck McCoy’s Volante Vineyards. Equally delightful yet paradoxically named—the 2010 Les Trois Rhône Blend from Margaret Foley’s Petrichor Vineyards, a deft marriage of Syrah with 15% Grenache. Atypically focused solely on Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, the Heller Family’s H•L•R Cellars furnished an appealing 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, while their fellow Fountaingrovians, the wonderfully-named Hostage Wines, offer a superlative 2012 Cabernet Franc.

Could a winery name be more vocative than The Calling? This collaboration between winemaker Peter Deutsch and renowned sportscaster Jim Nantz dazzled with their 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley. Served up by the equally dazzling Summer Jeffus, The Calling also offered their 2011 Our Tribute, a complex yet compelling Meritage of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Franc, along with the 2013 Chardonnay Jewell Vineyard.

With sharply contrasting (obscurant) nomenclature, Ektimo—either meaning alarm in Esperanto or derived from the Greek term for reckon, εκτιμώ—is a nascent venture from Chinese ownership in the Russian River Valley. New winemaking will handle future vintages; here the selection of their 2014 Single Vineyard Chardonnay, the 2013 Pinot Noir Russian River Valley, and the 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Russian River Valley seemed, at best, modest efforts.

Over in the all-encompassing Sonoma Valley tent, a more representative expression of the varietal could be found in Laurel Glen’s lush 2012 Counterpoint Cabernet Sauvignon. As compelling and as superlative, both the 2013 Chardonnay Durrell Vineyard and the 2013 Pinot Noir Russian River Valley from Will Price’s fabled Three Sticks Wine. Victor Hill Wines, the reemergence of former Castle Winery owner Vic McWilliams, displayed a Phoenix-like deftness with their 2012 Barrel Select Single Vineyard Pinot Noir Bush Vineyard, a wine as big as its name, coupled with their final 2013 Belle Blanc, a most compelling marriage of Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, and Viognier.

My last stop of the afternoon, Bart Hansen’s Dane Cellars, closed out the day with another superb Rhône blend, their 2013 Valeria, a GMS augmented with 8% Counoise. My to-do list had also included Idell Family Vineyards, which regrettably had closed down their station nearly an hour, and Steven & Walker, which failed to appear at all (though I did manage to insinuate myself into their release party in downtown Healdsburg that evening).

Looking over my notes from Wine Country Weekend, it seems I barely scratched the surface with the wineries on hand for Taste of Sonoma. Part of the reason surely was the sheer volume of the attendance, which made jockeying for a winery’s attention more than a challenge; part may have been that I had sampled nearly 90% of these wineries in the past year or two; and part was, most assuredly, the superb selection of food pairings throughout the four tents! As such, my assessment of the breadth of wines served may be skewed. Still I offer these comments not as criticism but a wish that, collectively, the Sonoma winemakers might be more ambitious next time around and truly showcase the vast panoply of what is claimed to be the most diverse wine region in California.

What have I done for you lately?

Unarguably, my favorite bumper sticker that I didn’t compose simply declared “Eschew Obfuscation.” During the protracted intermezzo between the two stages of my wine career, I continually advised clients that, similarly, they should eschew all acronyms in their promotional literature I was retained to write. And yet while Your West Coast Oenophile may have seemed MIA for the better part of 2015, the truth is that I have probably been harder at work on Sostevinobile than since its inception.

Just before the beginning of the year, I found myself lured back into complex challenges of winery Mergers & Acquisition (M&A), a practice I abandoned in 1989, vowing never to resume. Don’t get me wrong—my previous foray into the M&A realm accorded me considerable recognition within the wine industry, while instilling a n appreciation for the subtle intricacies of œnology and viticulture, a comprehension that now underscores the various endeavors I am undertaking on behalf of Sostevinobile.

But this initiation also entailed the often insurmountable challenge of trying to persuade two often-disparate parties—buyer and seller—without having sufficient leverage to control or manipulate the deal in question. Though in 2015, I am better situated to handle the complexities of contentious negotiations and am beginning enjoy the advantage of having prospective clients approach and retain me, I still remain an intermediary, a subordinate player beholden to the precarious whims of principals whose arbitrary choice can subvert even the soundest deals.

To the degree this resurrected role preoccupies the bulk of my working ours, even I sometimes fell I have lost sight of my primary goals with the wine industry. Still, never let it be said that my determination to realize the lofty vision I have created for Sostevinobile has been diminished. Extrapolating from the vast number of relationships I have built among the West Coast wineries, I am continually expanding the reach of my professional wine involvement: sourcing grapes, orchestrating bottlings, developing wine lists for like-minded enterprises, and even spearheading hotel acquisitions. And yet amid all these efforts, I still have found the time to taste perhaps the widest selection of wines and esoteric varietals I have found since embarking on this venture.

With no particular adherence to chronological order, my sojourns over the last six months have taken me to from Nevada City to Templeton, covering Lodi, Plymouth, San Miguel, Paso Robles, Saratoga, and sundry destinations throughout Napa and Sonoma, not to mention the putative viticultural deserts of Santa Clara and Richmond. My ever-expanding database added numerous unheralded discoveries, ranging from Vranac and Schioppettino to Peloursin and Lacrima di Moro, along with exotic but yet-to-be-bottled varietals, including Canaiolo, Clairette Blanc, and Colorino.

Distinctive wines, however, are by no means solely the purview of the esoteric, an understanding that lured me to the drought-impacted domain of Paso Robles, with its eleven newly-minted sub-AVAs, for their Cabs of Distinction conference. An admirable albeit rather fledgling advocacy, the 24 wineries participating in this consortium represented a comprehensive yet by no means exhaustive cross-section of Paso’s premier Cabernet Sauvignon producers.

The gist of this gathering, of course. was to showcase how the wines of this burgeoning region can now rival those produced in both Napa and Bordeaux—a claim, in effect, catapulting the AVA’s prominence on par with the Alexander Valley and the various pockets of esteemed Cabernet sprinkled throughout Washington State. Certainly, quite a number of these wines could stand head-to-head with the more extravagantly priced ($200-300) Cabs found in Oakville, Rutherford, St. Helena, and the surrounding mountain districts, starting with the roundly lauded offerings from Justin. Admittedly, I had not found myself as wowed with these wines as more prominent critics have been, but the 2014 Isosceles proved a most formidable wine that compelled revisiting throughout the three days of events. As impressive was the 2012 Soul of the Lion, Daou Vineyards’ showcase offering, a wine whose pedigree winemaker Danny Daou meticulously laid out in a tour of his estate.

I am usually prone to reserve this level of vinification (for Cabernet Sauvignon) for L’Aventure, as well, whose absence from this conference appeared rather conspicuous. Nonetheles, I was surprised to find myself including the 2012 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon from Calcareous, the 2012 CV Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from Broken Earth, and Brecon Estates’ lush 2012 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. Moreover, a pair of Meritages—Vina Robles’ elegant 2011 Suendero (70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Petit Verdot) and J. Lohr’s Right Bank tribute, the 2010 Cuvée Pom, a Merlot-focused blend rivaled these wines.

Paso Robles’ greatest claim to fame still comes from the breadth of its Rhône varietals, while making a most compelling case for its Bordelaise wines. However, the true sleeper in this region has to be its emergence as California’s leading producer of Malbec. It has long seemed that wineries here were content to surrender this category to the admittedly wondrous wines produced in Argentina; the great revelation from Cabs of Distinction, however, may have inadvertently been the handful of bottlings showcasing this grape. The serendipity of my previous visit proved to be Wally Murray’s Bon Niche, an unheralded East Side winery whose 2011 Voûtes, a blend of 45% Malbec, 45% Petit Verdot and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, proved no less extraordinary this time around.On par: the 2011 Malbec from West Side stalwart Halter Ranch, a truly profound wine.

My peregrinations through several of Paso’s hitherto unexplored sub-AVAs only fortified my belief that I need to make yet another Sostevinobile swing through this vast region, with a particular eye for other impressive Malbecs and blends. Ironically, my attempt to meet with  Argentine legend Santiago Achával revealed that his Paso project is producing Grenache and unorthodox Cab blends, but not Malbec, for which he is so esteemed. No matter. I will still seek out The Farm, Sculpterra, the ever-elusive Linne Calodo, Four Lanterns, Rob Murray’s Tooth & Nail, and, of course, Law Estate, whose Clairette Blanc should be ready to sample by then.


“I am not a dime a dozen! I am Willy Loman!”

—Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman

Way before Miles Raymond devastated Merlot for an entire generation with a single swipe in Sideways, the late Arthur Miller annihilated an entire profession in his chef d’œuvre. Over the years I have been able to endure kneejerk comparisons to Holden Caufield for having gone to boarding school, relished the very accurate stereotypes of virility attributed to my Italian heritage, and abhorred the innuendos of criminality ascribed to the same. But to label myself a salesman remains an anathema.

The worstest wine in the world

Your West Coast Oenophile has been notably loathe to criticize individual wines, or wineries, on these pages. Not that I am unduly optimistic, or, like the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, given to the belief that all viticultural endeavors are inherently praiseworthy. Rather, the purpose of the Sostevinobile blog has always been to extol the bounty of superb wines that I have discovered on the West Coast and showcase them here in anticipation of our opening. Wines that do not pass muster are generally precluded from inclusion—but do know that there have been many whose lackluster structure and pallid flavor nullified their citation.

As is wont, the wine tasting season began with ZAP, held for the second year in its revamped format pouring at the cavernous air hangar in Alameda that houses Rock Wall, the ambitious successor to Rosenblum Cellars. This pared-down incarnation of the formerly Brobdingnagian event featured only six newcomers among the scant 92 wineries on hand for the exclusive trade tasting, including the debut from Zialena, Geyserville winemaker Lisa Mazzoni’s viticultural tribute to her aunt. Her striking 2012 Zinfandel Alexander Valley was nonetheless overshadowed by an extraordinary 2013 Zinfandel Alexander Valley, one of the most impressive wines of the afternoon.

Moving southerly, Glen Ellen’s Madrone Vineyards represents the rebranding of Valley of the Moon under its original moniker, with no diminution of its quality, as evidenced by two exceptional wines: the 2012 Estate Old Vine Road Block Zinfandel and the 2012 Window Block Zinfandel. Tinkering with technique in Zinfandel’s stronghold, three prominent Lodi viticulturalists—Tyson Rippey, Joseph Smith, and Barry Gnekow—joined together as Concrete Wine Company to bring forth their 2012 Old Vine Zinfandel, a wine blended from a trio of different vinification techniques: 40% concrete-fermented and 40% flash-extracted Zin fermented in oak barrels, blended with 20% fermented in stainless steel.

A genuine newcomer, Danville’s Glennhawk Vineyards, made a modest statement with its 2011 Zinfandel Contra Costa County, a wine not surprisingly overshadowed by the earlier 2010 Zinfandel Contra Costa County. However, I felt little Mercy, Mercy, Mercy towards Cannonoball’s Angels & Cowboys Wines, a venture that lists its address as Palo Alto. Their lone entry, the 2012 Proprietary Red Sonoma County, a blend of Zinfandel, Syrah, Petit Verdot, Sangiovese, Petite Sirah, and Malbec, proved surprisingly lackluster for a wine that boasts such complexity.

But even this mélange paled in comparison to what was arguably the worst wine I have ever sampled at a professional tasting. Four Corners represents the œnological foray from Conetech, the “alcohol adjustment” plant in Santa Rosa. Behind this fanciful euphemism is a brick & mortar facility that diminished the proof of finished or near-finished wines in order to lower its alcohol content below the 12% threshold to maintain its lower tax bracket.

Conetech extols the precision and mildness of its signature Spinning Cone Column process, a technique for dealcoholizing wine they maintain is gentler than most conventional methodolgies like centrifuging and cold press extraction. And since alcohol adjustment is designed to lower, not eliminate a wine’s measured alcohol, only a portion of the wine is processed, then blended back with the unadjusted wine to achieve the desired level, with additional step to retain the volatilized aroma compounds that evolve during the extraction.

The literature asserts that this technology diminishes only the alcohol, not the flavor or integrity of the wine. But what is claimed on paper is not necessarily borne out in the glass. Four Corners’ 2013 Zinfandel Russian River Valley, which lists an adjusted 10% alcohol by volume, tasted—and felt—as if it had been macerated with a Waring blender. Even the execrable swill known as Challis Lane I was compelled to drink at a recent gallery opening could not approach this nadir.


MADD Wine So what could possibly be worse than the abomination of alcohol-adjusted wine? A facile answer might be one of the so-called sweet wines that are fermented to a moderate level in order to retain enough residual sugar to appease a soda-pop palate or a completely dealcoholized wine, like Ariel. But alcohol-free wines or artfully-crafted varietal grape juices, like Navarro produces, merely aspire to fill a void—to give individuals who cannot or wish not to consume an alcoholic beverage the veneer of sophistication.

As in all matters, there are, however, exceptions—sometimes egregiously so. The perpetrators of this nadir hail from the vast expanse of the Great White North and its principal province, Ontario, though not from the famed Niagara Peninsula or any of the appellations governed by the VQA Ontario. Buried amid the vast urban sprawl of Toronto, MADD Virgin Drinks isn’t simply an enterprise endeavoring to produce a sophisticated array of alternative adult beverages, but a vehicle supporting the nefarious agenda of the ISIS of prohibition, Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

It would be fine if these zealots simply devoted themselves to their stated mission of reducing the scourge of vehicular accidents caused by impaired drivers. But beneath their agenda lies a not-so-subtle desire to rid society not only of excessive consumption but of alcohol altogether. As such, it is particularly galling that they set their sights on undermining the wine industry, easily the most socially responsible sector among alcoholic beverage producers.

The worstest wine in the world? You have your choice of three lo-cal flavors: Virgin Rouge, Virgin Blanc, or Virgin Brut.

Discoveries

It’s far too infrequent that Your West Coast Oenophile gets to celebrate a milestone in the prolonged development of Sostevinobile, but I suppose it will portend of good things finally coalescing in 2015 if I start off this year’s chronicle by noting that, at long last, I have managed to optimize our winery database and bring it current, cataloging a backlog of 400-500 business cards I had allowed to accrue over the course of 2014. Granted, not exactly earth-shattering news, but still a highly significant hurdle, with widespread ramifications for the Sostevinobile wine program as I dabble with alternative sources for funding (more on that in another post).

Much of what I wrote last year bemoaned the apparent decline in the major trade tastings, both in terms of public attendance and winery participation. Over the past two decades, these events have proven a cornerstone in my developing a comprehensive perspective on the West Coast wine industry and in enabling Sostevinobile to meet and vet some 3,600+ wine producers since our inception.

But I have never relied exclusively on these events to research the exhaustive program for sustainably-grown West Coast wines we are undertaking. Often, I resort to happenstance or other random means to discover unheralded wineries that limit their distribution to a discrete clientele or simply shy from publicity. No matter where I journey, I always make a point to avoid scheduling meetings or tastings for the latter part of the afternoon and allow myself to get lost along the back roads of the particular AVA I happen to be investigating. Invariably, I will stumble upon a ramshackle barn with a dirt driveway beside a barely perceptible welcome sign or ID placard, a harbinger of unpretentious yet dedicated craftsmen—vignerons, in the true sense of the word.

Last fall, I made several treks to southern Napa and the Carneros region to see how I might help out numerous friends whose wine operations were severely impacted by the Napa earthquake. On one such visit, en route to Bouchaine and Adastra, I quite unexpectedly came upon the unadorned rustic tract where McKenzie-Mueller Vineyards & Winery crafts its select varietals. The rundown, dusty barn that houses their wine operations and ersatz tasting room seemed anachronistic, a throwback to an era before ornate $50 tastings became the vogue in Napa, but the simplicity of the setting belied a fastidious endeavor whose forte lies with their bottling of the other four Bordelaise reds, a rarity here on the West Coast, along with an unwavering commitment to a straightforward vinification, unmasked by filtration or other manipulations.

Most impressive among their offerings were the 2006 Malbec Los Carneros and the 2009 Petit Verdot, both splendid renditions of these less storied varietals. The more familiar 2007 Estate Bottled Cabernet Franc Napa Valley and the 2009 Merlot Los Carneros proved nearly as striking, while their 2008 Estate Bottled Cabernet Sauvignon reflected the adequacy of this off year vintage.Alas, McKenzie-Mueller’s proprietary blend, the 2005 Tartan was not available this particular afternoon, and so I will be compelled to visit again!

On a different tour of the earthquake’s scope, I walked through downtown Napa to survey the undocumented damage and visit with the dozen or so wineries that have set up tasting rooms there. Stopping by Gustavo Wine, the downtown nexus for what had been known as Gustavo Thrace and other wines produced by the legendary Gustavo Brambila. Not to make short shrift of these selections, worthy successors all to his role in Château Montelena’s historic showing at the Judgment of Paris, but my intrigue lay in discovering the wines from Avinodos, a nascent undertaking by his son Lorin Brambila and Tasting Room Manager Dan Dexter. Starting off modestly, this label nevertheless made an auspicious debut with both their 2012 Sauvignon Blanc and a full-bodied 2012 Malbec—yet another encouraging indicator of California wineries’ determination not to accede to perceptions of Argentina’s inextricable domination of this varietal.

My meanderings in Dry Creek yielded similar serendipity. On a hot afternoon last fall, I unexpectedly came upon the Geyserville home of Cast, as I headed up Dry Creek Road in search of the beachhead at Lake Sonoma. This brand new, state-of-the-art winery culminates the aspirations of two community bankers from Texas, and though the ambience may seem a bit Southwestern, the wine is decidedly Californian. The early lineup includes a NV Blanc de Noirs, a Pinot-based sparking wine, a tepid 2013 Sauvignon Blanc, the vineyard-specific (Marimar Estate’s Don Miguel Vineyard) 2012 Pinot Noir, and the 2011 Grey Palm Estate Zinfandel. The forte for winemaker Mikael Gulyash proved, however to be the exquisite 2012 Old Vine Zinfandel Watson Vineyard and—atypical for Dry Creek— the 2012 Grey Palm Estate Petite Sirah.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the AVA, I discovered the striking, sustainably-designed tasting room for Uptick Vineyards. Perched above their Westside Road vineyards, I enjoyed a striking NV Sparkling Brut, a wine designed to bias me toward white selections. The 2012 Dry Creek Valley Sauvignon Blanc proved amiable enough, but the hot afternoon only accentuated the 2012 Hilda’s Rosé, a deft marriage of Pinot Noir and Syrah. Uptick

Because of the sweltering conditions, I eschewed Uptick’s selection of Russian River Valley Pinot Noir and Syrah, as well as their Old Vine Zinfandel, in favor of two delightful—and chilled— white selections: the 2009 Chalk Hill Chardonnay and the contrasting yet equally impressive 2011 Russian River Valley Chardonnay. There will be other occasions to revisit and sample these other selections, perhaps on my next Dry Creek stumble.


As much as I have lamented, over the past year in particular, the paucity of new labels for Sostevinobile to source at the major wine tastings—partly because I have repeatedly attended these events, partly because of the decline in winery participation—I nonetheless manage, on occasion, to encounter a plethora of discoveries.

Such fortuity seems to be the rule at the various Garagiste Festivals held throughout the state. Most recently, the Paso Robles session offered nearly 40 (!) wineries and labels to add to the Sostevinobile roster, a veritable cornucopia of nascent producers bottling under 1,000 cases annually. Exemplifying this profile, John & Lisa Shaw craft a scant 300 cases under their Alma Sol label. Their 2009 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon offered a competent wine, while their 2011 Meritage blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot proved preferable, even for such a challenging vintage. But, true to Paso’s unfettered œnology, the standout was the 2013 Sagrado, a proprietary blend of Syrah, Viognier, and Cabernet Sauvignon.

An implicit acknowledgment of this open spirit is evidenced in the nomenclature for Artisan Uprising. Brothers William & David Vondrasek produce a mere 275 cases annually, exemplified by their appealing 2012 Merlot, alongside its Bordelaise counterpart, the 2012 Malbec. By contrast, Barton Family’s 900 cases annually seems gargantuan (this volume partly explains their need to bottle under three distinct labels: Barton, Grey Wolf, and Occasional Wines). Here, under their eponymous line, the superb 2011 E-Street artfully blended 80% Tempranillo with 20% Mourvèdre (or Monastrell, its Spanish name).

Mourvèdre underpinned three sublime interpretations of traditional Rhône bottlings from Copia Vineyards, starting with 2013 The Answer, a marriage of 75% Syrah, 23% Grenache, and 2% Mourvèdre. Their previous project, 2012 The Cure predominantly featured Syrah, while their standout, the understated 2012 The Blend married 40% Syrah with equal parts Grenache and Mourvèdre. Dramatically, David DuBois’ Cholame Vineyard showcased the Mourvèdre-dominant 2011 Cross Country, a mélange rounded out with 35% Grenache and 5% Petite Sirah; this Rhône-style variant was nicely juxtaposed against the 2012 Summer Stock, an estate grown Grenache Blanc.

Rising above the strictures of the French AOC, Ascension Cellars forged together a line consisting of both Rhône and Bordelaise-style wines, showing deft touches with both their 2011 Ascendance, a proprietary blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and the 2012 Evangelist, an exceptional dessert-style (6.8% residual sugar) Viognier. Even more disparate, Château Lettau’s 1,100 case production not only spanned both Bordeaux and the Rhône, but offered an interpretation of Iberian varietals that proved their forte: a striking 2012 Stiletto Tempranillo, accompanied by the 2013 Albariño Kristy Vineyard. A winery that truly epitomizes the frontier spirit that demarcates Paso Robles, Deodoro Cellars dazzled with its unconventional blends, starting with a dazzling white trilogy of Sauvignon Blanc, Malvasia Bianca, and Viognier, the 2013 Euphoria. On the red side, the 2012 Pantheon married Zinfandel with Grenache and Syrah, a deft combination that almost made the straightforward 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon seem mundane. And lest I forget—the 2012 Nepenthe, tempering a Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc pas de deux with Petite Sirah.

Conventional or not, blends did seem to dominate among these craft vintners. One of my most impressive discoveries of the afternoon, Deno Wines, offered their imaginative 2010 2 Bills Estate Blend (66% Zinfandel, 34% Grenache) alongside a three-year vertical of their proscribed Rhône blend (60% Grenache, 30% Syrah, 10% Mourvèdre), the most striking of which was the middle selection, the 2009 Estate GSM. Proudly proclaiming its contrarian approach, Dilecta Wines poured what might be called an MSG, the 2012 Unorthodox, a blend of 42% Mourvèdre, 42% Syrah and but 16% Grenache. Less bold but as flavorful: their 65% Grenache/35% Syrah blend called the 2012 The Tiller.

The orthodox tenets of Catholicism under which I was inculcated as an impressionable youth attending St. Peter of Alcantara Church would not have countenanced the incorporation of an Indian elephant, particularly with its allusions to the Hindu god Ganesh, into its catechism; this unusual hybrid, however, distinguishes Guyomar Winery in Templeton, whose estate, coincidentally, is known as St. Peter of Alcantara Vineyard. Blue Nun this is not, but it pervasive religious nomenclature includes the 2010 Monsignor, a Petite Sirah-dominant blend with 24% Zinfandel, 16% Syrah, and 4% Grenache. On the other side of the pulpit, the 2010 Laity offered 64% Syrah, 16% Grenache, 14% Petite Sirah, and 6% Zinfandel, while the intermediary 2010 Oblate focused on the Zin, with 19% Petite Sirah, 9% Grenache and 5% Syrah to round it out. A relative gargantuan at this tasting, with 1250 case production, Falcone Family Vineyards loomed large with their 2012 Estate Syrah and a striking 2011 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Mia’s Vineyard, but overshadowed even these exceptional vintages with their NV Annaté V Estate Blend, an ongoing solera culled (so far) from the 2001, 2012 and 2013 bottlings of their proprietary Syrah/Petite Sirah/Cabernet Sauvignon blend.

Another classical Indian allusion, drawn from the apocryphal 65th position in Vātsyāyana’s Kama Sutra, LXV Wines strives to evoke a deep sensuality with its labels, as well as their wines, like their Cabernet Franc/Syrah/Merlot, the 2012 Secret Craving. and the seductive 2012 Rising Tempo, a deft blend of Grenache, Tempranillo, and Syrah. The double-entendre of its nomenclature—MCV (not to be confused with MC5) —derives from winemaker Matt Villard’s initials and well as to a different Roman numeral, to which he paid homage with he 2011 1105, a Petite Sirah softened with Syrah and Grenache and its more elegant successor, the 2012 1105, a true blend, with 66% Petite Sirah, 24% Syrah, 9% Grenache and a 1% splash of Viognier. However, MCV really kicked out the jams in Petite Sirah with their 2013 Pink, a rosé expression of Petite Sirah, Syrah, Grenache and Tannat, alongside their 2012 Petite Sirah Rosewynn Vineyard, a stunning expression of the varietal unadorned.

I always appreciate a good pun—especially a bilingual one. Ryan Pease’s Paix Sur Terre is a 400 case specialist in Mourvèdre, though when I arrived, they only had left their Syrah/Mourvèdre blend, the 2012 Either Side of the Hill still on hand (testimony, I guess, to the quality of their straight varietal bottling, 2012 The Other One). At 500 cases, Edmond August put on an amazingly diverse display, starting with the 2012 Inference, a classic Rhône white marrying 76% Roussanne with Viognier. Both their 2011 Soft Letters (½ Mourvèdre, ½ Grenache) and 2010 Indelible (Syrah rounded out with Grenache and Viognier) proved likable, drinkable wines, while the 2011 Anthology Red (60% Grenache, 16% Syrah, 8% Tannat, 7% Cinsault) stood on par with the white blend.

Like a number of wineries (Artisan Uprising and Guyomar) pouring their first vintage here, Diablo Pass displayed considerable viticultural adeptness with both their 2013 Grenache and the robust 2012 Tempranillo. Similarly, Mystic Hills Vineyard turned a passable 2011 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon into two deft Meritages, the 2011 Estate Unforgiven, a traditional five varietal blend and the more striking 2011 Sequel, a mélange of 605 Cabernet Sauvignon with equal parts Cabernet Franc and Merlot rounding out the wine. Sebastian Noël’s first vintage of Nobelle Wines displayed surprising sophistication, not only with Rhône’s fraternal white twins, the 2012 Marsanne and the 2012 Roussanne, but also with an astounding 2012 Cabernet Franc.

Despite my need to focus on labels to add to the Sostevinobile database, I still could not bypass a handful of familiar establishments like Cutruzzola. Once again, I delved into their 2011 Riesling Riven Rock Vineyard and reveled in their wondrous 2012 Gloria Pinot Noir. An even more extraordinary rendition of this varietal was the 2012 Pinot Noir Fiddlestix Vineyard RN Estate Winery featured. An unheralded viticultural star, this winery consistently impresses with blends like the 2010 Cuvée des Artistes (Syrah/Cabernet Sauvignon/Petit Verdot) and the 2011 Cuvée des Trois Cépages (Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot/Cabernet Franc). A most pleasant surprise, however, came from II Moons, a burgeoning label from my long-standing Dartmouth colleague John Gleason. This independent spinoff from Clavo Cellars seemed rather perfunctory when I first sampled their initial vintage. Two years later, I found myself vastly impressed by their 2012 Aporia, a well-balanced blend of Grenache Blanc and Marsanne. As splendid: the 2011 Angst, an atypical GMS equally balanced between the three varietals, while clearly the most striking blend, the 2011 Ardor, offered 50% Mourvèdre and 50% Syrah.

Andy Zaninoch’s Tlo Wines also poured a strikingly well-balanced 2012 GSM, skewed slightly toward the Grenache. Keeping stride, his 2011 Tempranillo featured 25% Touriga Nacional, a true Spanish blend. In contrast, Roger Janakus’ Stanger Vineyards elected to follow a decidedly unorthodox path, blending Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Tempranillo with noteworthy results. I noted a striking contrast between the Syrah-dominant 2009 Bench and the even core compelling 2010 Master, in which the Cabernet Sauvignon predominated. A similar fondness for atypical Syrah blends came from Jacob Toft, a decidedly esoteric (and eponymous) boutique. Bloviating notwithstanding, this winemaker made an eloquent statement with both his 2012 Sarah’s Cuvée, a Syrah blended with 18% Grenache, and the 2012 Maggie’s Cuvée, a predominantly Petite Sirah wine, with 22% Syrah and 19% Mourvèdre. And with its even more elliptical nomenclature, Nicora Wines nonetheless made a sizable impression with its 2012 Buxom Syrah (6% Grenache) and the 2012 Euphoric La Vista Vineyard, a delightful single-vineyard Grenache, balanced with 4% Syrah.

With 4,030 hits on Google, Sostevinobile certainly knows the value of creating your own portmanteau in dominating an Internet search on your name. Likewise, Ryan Render’s alteration of his surname to coin Rendarrio, which culls entries solely linked to his wine. Which probably accounts for the regal coat of arms on his label and blends like his 2011 First Born King, a Grenache/Syrah mélange. Admittedly, I had to research 2012 League of Shadows to uncover its Batman derivation, but required only traditional œnophilic techniques to uncover the appealing flavors of its Cabernet/Merlot marriage. Pulchella Winery is one of several wine labels to allude to dragonflies (Libellula pulchella or the Twelve-Spotted Skimmer), but manifests its individuality with distinctive blends like the 2012 Highs & Lows (66% Syrah, 34% Grenache), and the 2012 Awakening (66% Syrah, 34% Grenache).

In a similar vein, Justin Murphy’s Irie Wines showcased an intriguing trio of wines, starting with their 2013 One Love, a rosé of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, and Viognier. The 2013 Zinfandel La Vista Vineyard presented a single vineyard effort, while the extremely limited (23 cases!) 2012 Cask One tempered Petite Sirah with 8% Zinfandel. One of the few endeavors on hand that tackled Italian varietals, Bella Luna Winery featured a modest 2011 Lot One, their estate Barbera and their 2010 Estate Riserva, a SuperTuscan. Another contender, Vinemark Cellars, focused their efforts on Primitivo, with both their straight varietal bottling, the 2012 Primitivo, and the proprietary 2012 Mezzanotte, a balanced blend of 75% Primitivo and 25% Petite Sirah.

One of the smallest endeavors here, Soaring Hawk, offered an array of wines that comprised their 250 case production, the standout of which was easily the 2009 Syrah Gill Vineyard. Moving from the supernal to the pelagic, Seashell Cellars presented select blends like the 2010 Balboa Reserve (75% Tempranillo, 25% Garnacha) or the sedate 2011 Vineyard Collection, a Syrah-focused GSM. And I can think of no clever segue to assay the delightful wines of Felten Cellars, which distinguished itself with both the 2012 Gewürztraminer and its wonderful 2012 Old Casteel Vineyard Zinfandel.

Another splendid endeavor, The Missing Leg, stumped any critics with such full-bodied wines as its 2011 Syrah St. Peter of Alcantara Vineyard or the adroit 2012 Pinot Noir Kruse Vineyard. An equally compelling 2012 Estate Syrah distinguished Cambria’s Stolo Family Vineyards, while LaZarre Wines, the proprietary label of much-lauded winemaker Adam LaZarre, proved its mettle with their compelling 2010 Merlot Paso Robles and a subtle 2012 Albariño Edna Valley.

Also flourishing through their Iberian varietal bottlings, Filipponi Ranch, which produced an extraordinary 2012 Cronologie Verdelho alongside a more-than-approachable 2012 Cronologie Tempranillo. In a different vein but as appealing: the 2012 Lorenzo, a Syrah/Cabernet Sauvignon/Petite Sirah combine. As the festival drew to a close, I discovered a winery surprisingly sophisticated for its miniscule (450 case) production. The unapologetically Francophilic Clos Selène dazzled with their 2013 Hommage Blanc, a beguiling blend of 65% Roussanne and 35% Viognier. Purely Rhône-style in their focus, the 2012 Hommage à Nos Pairs Syrah deftly married varietal pickings from both Russell Family Vineyards and iconic Paso winery L’Aventure.

However, my greatest revelation of the day came from Wally Murray’s decidedly unpretentious Bon Niche. This unassuming vintner delighted with his 2011 Voyage an estate Syrah rounded with 20% Petit Verdot and 10% Merlot, but utterly defined what California Malbec could be with three of his offerings: the near-mindboggling 2010 L’Entrée, his estate Malbec, and both the astounding 2010 Voûtes, a proprietary 45% Malbec, 45% Petit Verdot and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and its worthy successor, the 2011 Voûtes. To say Murray has found his niche would be an understatement.

There will be several Garagiste Festivals in 2015. With more discoveries like these to be made, Sostevinobile’s calendar is marked for all.

Erect a fence to protect our border!

Don’t fret. Your West Coast Oenophile hasn’t turned xenophobic. It just seems that Sostevinobile might have to ratchet things up a notch or two to stifle the insidious infiltration of foreign wine into the West Coast. Not the stuff they vint in Italy or France or Spain—or even esoteric bottlings from Moldavia or Bulgaria—but from places like Georgia.

Rkatsiteli

Obscurant linguists aptly think of Georgia as საქართველო, the jewel of the Caucasus, known classically as Colchis, the land from where Jason purloined the Golden Fleece. Centuries later, this former Soviet republic gave the world იოსებ ბესარიონის ძე ჯუღაშვილი (Josef Stalin), while œnophiles recognize it as home to the renowned varietal რქაწითელი (Rkatsiteli), and, reputedly, viticulture itself. However, I am referring to the Georgia-on-My-Mind Peach State, along with the other 44 non-Pacific states seeking to export their viticultural pretenses into our highly esteemed realm.

Granted the notion of running a 1,470 mile fence from the tiny enclave of Andrade, CA through the pristine eastern edge of the Colville National Forest portends to yield some potentially dire consequences, like bisecting Lake Tahoe, but drastic measures may very well be needed if these nether regions persist in efforts to dilute the prestige of the West Coast wine industry by enveloping what we produce under the pervasive label of “American wine.”

There are myriad reasons Sostevinobile precludes wines from beyond the boundaries we have established. As befits our ecological entomology, we have established a defined radius for not only our wines but the entire roster of sustainably grown and locally produced foods we will source. But beyond this arguably political stance is an abiding belief in the quality of the wines and the breadth of selection we have available here, a belief evolved over 32 years of intimate involvement in the wine industry. It took the better part of nearly three decades for me to acknowledge the viticultural strides made in Washington and Oregon as a fluid continuum of the extraordinary evolution the industry has undergone here, but with only occasional exceptions, the other American Vititcultural Areas lag incrementally behind us.

Admittedly, I haven’t had the temerity to try the 2010 Frogtown Cellars Bravado, a US Georgian SuperTuscan Debra Parker Wong and Joe Roberts recently extolled. I have downed a few glasses of New Mexico’s Gruet in my time, heard the praises of Dr. Konstantin Frank’s Finger Lake Rieslings, and have watched as Virginia quietly (White House gatecrashers and Donald Trump’s bombast aside) stakes a claim for viticultural ascendancy (after all, they have most planted acreage of Rkatsiteli in the US). But these scattered pockets of distinction still do not warrant inclusion as peers with the predominant excellence found here on the West Coast.

Earlier this season, I attended a most intriguing tasting, sponsored by Institute of Masters of Wine. This self-poured retrospective of 45 Bordeaux-style reds from the 2010 and 2011 vintages highlighted 20 AVAs from California and 5 AVAs from Washington, along with the anomalous inclusion of wines from Grand Valley, CO; Long Island, NY; and Barboursville, VA. Apart from political expediency, the overarching attempt to brand these wines as American Cabernet proved utterly incongruous, these satellite regions barely approaching what would be considered adequacy here on the West Coast.

N’importa! Others may persist in such misguided attempts at homogeneity. Sostevinobile remains resolute in maintaining its fidelity to the integrity of West Coast viticulture. Many times over, this guiding tenet was validated by the numerous highly impressive wines offered here, starting with an extraordinary 2010 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from Daou, one of the pinnacles of Paso Robles’ ascendancy. Rivaling the splendors of this wine, Calistoga’s Maybach dazzled with its uniquely named 2010 Amoenus Cabernet Sauvignon, as luxuriant a bottling as the cars crafted under its eponymous line.

No surprise the 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley my friend Naoko Dalle Valle showcased stood on par with these first two wines, while the sometimes fluctuating quality of Beaulieu Vineyards’ flagship label, the 2010 Georges de Latour Private Reserve, returned to its zenith with this outstanding release. I certainly would have expected a wine of this caliber from Cathy Corison, and the 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Kronos Vineyard did not disappoint.

Somewhat verging from the rest of the field, Joseph Phelps’ eponymous label elected to feature a retrospective from the previous decade, the 2005 Insignia, his last official bottling. Not surprisingly, most of the wineries shied away from showcasing their 2011 vintage—an erratic vintage at best—and opted for the more consistent 2010. As such, Continuum Estate’s 2011 Continuum Pritchard Hill, a deft blend of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Petit Verdot, 11% Cabernet Franc, and 2% Merlot, proved an out-of worldly (though not quite Martian) wine that consolidated Tim Mondavi’s claim to his father’s mantle. Another Napa legacy, Rosemary Cakebread, similarly proved a worthy heir to her family’s renown with the 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley from her proprietary Gallica label.

When I began my wine career in the early 1980s, Chenin Blanc was ubiquitous trhoughout the Napa Valley. It now seems an anomaly that Ballentine Vineyards still produces a rendition, albeit one that attained Top 100 Wine status in Wine Enthusiast. Still, their old school approach led to an unexpected pleasure in discovering their 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve among the highest tier poured this day. Thirty years ago, I had a peripheral role in the first acquisition of Château St. Jean,  then a winery that only produced white wines; here, this Sonoma landmark continued to hold its own with the Napa titans with its storied 2010 Cinq Cépages (its 1996 vintage was proclaimed Wine of the Year by Wine Spectator in 1999).

Cinq Cépages’ first winemaker, Richard Arrowood, went on to found his own eponymous label, before establishing his current venture, Amapola Creek. His touch, however, manifested itself quite distinctively in the 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Réserve Spéciale Arrowood Vineyards featured here, a wine that neared the excellence of the St. Jean. Other veteran winemakers who predate my involvement excelling here included Angwin’s Robert Foley, with his spectacular 2010 Cabernet Napa Valley and, of course, the much-heralded Paul Draper from Ridge, whose 1997 Monte Bello validated the endurance of this spectacular vintage.

Also from that year, Heitz Wine Cellars poured its astounding 1997 Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon . In contrast, a relatively recent wine label. Michael Polenske’s Blackbird, impressed with its 2010 Contrarian Proprietary Red Wine a deft blend of 48% Cabernet Sauvignon, 32% Cabernet Franc and 20% Merlot. Others random selections garnering equal accolades included the 2009 M5 Cabernet Sauvignon Stagecoach Vineyards from Atlas Peak’s Krupp Brothers, Trefethen’s 2010 Reserve Cabernet Oak Knoll District, and from Beaulieu Vineyards former Director of Winemaking Joel Aiken, a superb 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford.

Several of Napa’s more redoubtable wineries made notable showings, among which were Staglin Family Vineyard, with their 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford; Darioush with their 2011 Signature Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot pioneer Keenan, with their 2011 35th Anniversary Cabernet Sauvignon. Agustin Huneeus also featured selections from his designate labels, with its 2011 Faust outpointing the more vaunted 2011 Quintessa, a wine that has steadfastly excelled during more benevolent vintages, while his former protégé Bettina Sichel’s Laurel Glen radiated with its 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma Mountain.

Impressively, Jackson Family Wines attained this plateau with four of its varietal-focused labels: the 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Mt. Veeder from Lokoya, their Cardinale 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, and the Mt. Brave 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Mt. Veeder, along with their Anakota 2009 Helena Dakota Cabernet Sauvignon from Sonoma’s Knights Valley.

Readers here know that I am generally wary of labels that become absorbed by the large conglomerates. Nevertheless, those that are given their autonomy after acquisition often maintain the integrity of their label’s brand. Here, Diageo’s Stags’ Leap Winery, Carl Doumani’s former hallmark dazzled with the still-way-young 2010 The Leap, an amazing expression of the district. The oft-sold Beringer, a proverbial pingpong ball in the ongoing Treasury Wine Estates saga, still managed to maintain its historical stature with a profound, aromatic 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Private Reserve, the current vintage of its landmark bottling that Wine Spectator named Wine of the Year in 1990. Pine Ridge, the crown jewel in Crimson Wine Group’s small but growing conglomerate, proved its worth with its 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley, a pan-AVA blend from its select Stags Leap District, Oakville and Rutherford vineyards.

With a heritage that extends back to 1876, Constellation’s Simi Winery managed to uphold its venerable distinction with its 2009 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley. With prominent holdings in both California (Conn Creek, Villa Mt. Eden, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars) and Oregon (Erath), the Columbia Valley’s Château Ste. Michelle has blossomed into one of the West Coast’s major wine conglomerate (actually, a subsidiary within an even larger international conglomerate) in its own right, yet still manages to distinguish itself under its originating Washington label with its 2011 Cold Creek Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley. Washington’s acclaimed Horse Heaven Hills boasted a superb 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve from Boudreaux Cellars, while the Red Mountain AVA featured DeLille Cellars2011 Cabernet Sauvignon Four Flags.

The Walla Walla Valley was well represented here, starting with the 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon from Amavi Cellars. This tasting afforded me my first opportunity to sample the Washington’s esteemed Leonetti Cellar, but I felt their 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon, despite hints of excellence, was far from ready at this stage. Fortifying my contention, their next door neighbor, Drew Bledsoe’s Doubleback radiated with its 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Walla Walla Valley.

My final discovery of the afternoon was a serendipitous tasting of the 2010 Big Papa Old Block Cabernet Sauvignon from EFESTĒ in the Yakima Valley. All in all, this American Cabernet Tasting underscored how Washington’s five AVAs kept stride with the more heralded regions of California (I suspect, if a similar tasting of Merlots were held, our northern neighbor would dominate). The wines from Colorado, Virginia and New York did not even approach this level of quality or complexity.

Other tastings I have attended have amply demonstrated a deepening parity between California and Oregon for Burgundian varietals, particularly Pinot Noir, while both Washington and Oregon have produced a number of exceptional varietals that have not gained a foothold here. Still, little argument can be made that the wines of the other 47 states approach the quality the West Coast produces; attempts to incorporate the viticultural axis on which Sostevinobile continues to focus into the more generic category of American wine can only dilute our reputation.


Speaking of Pinot, a number of contemporary wineries feel my longitudinal demarcation isn’t restrictive enough. Once again, I was happy to make my way to north to participate in this year’s West of West, the annual festival highlighting the close-knit group of West Sonoma winemakers redefining cold climate Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah in California. Returning to The Barlow, Sebastopol’s sprawling, state-of-the-art, sustainable complex dedicated to winemakers, food producers and artisans, this close-knit collective shares not only a camaraderie but a collective passion for more restrained, expressive wines (not coincidentally, many of the labels poured here are also mainstays of In Pursuit of Balance).

Given this overlap, only a few participants had not previously poured at events Sostevinobile regularly attends. Still, I was pleased to discover Jan Holtermann’s Alma Fria, whose wines focus on fruit from his eponymous vineyard in Annapolis. Heralding from three generations of wine importers, Jan’s current venture showed a seasoned sophistication with these inaugural releases, particularly the single vineyard 2012 Doña Margarita Vineyard Pinot Noir and the 2012 Holtermann Vineyard Pinot Noir. Quite amiable, though not quite as distinctive, were their broader-ranged 2012 Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast and a 2012 Chardonnay Sonoma Coast.

Also debuting their wine: Senses, a new collaboration from Occidental natives and childhood buddies Chris Strieter, Max Thieriot, and Myles Lawrence-Briggs. True to form, winemaker Thomas Rivers Brown blended grapes from both Hillcrest and B. A. Thieriot Vineyards to produce an exceptional 2012 Chardonnay Sonoma Coast, alongside a textbook 2012 Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast.

I would be hard pressed to find a wine that I found unremarkable among the ardent, studious collective pouring here, but several of the perennial participants came through with truly exceptional vintages. Two of the most impressive came from my prep school colleague Steve Singer’s Baker Lane: the 2012 Sonoma Coast Cuvée Pinot Noir and his exceptional signature bottling, the 2012 Estate Syrah. Other friends from my East Coast upbringing, Benziger Family Winery, dazzled with their 2012 de Coelo Terra Neuma Pinot Noir, while peripatetic winemaker Ryan Zepaltas proved his mettle with his truly extraordinary 2012 Devoto Terra Neuma Pinot Noir.

Echoing Benziger’s devotion to environmental stewardship, Cerritas showcased an organically farmed 2012 Porter Bass Vineyard Chardonnay.The paradoxically named Small Vines also garnered enormous appeal for its profound 2012 Chardonnay Sonoma Coast.

I typically associate DuMol with Chardonnay, as well, but here their standout proved to be the 2012 Aidan Wild Rose Vineyard Pinot Noir. While simultaneously managing Vinify, the Santa Rosa custom crush facility where many of the West of West vintages are produced, Justin and Hillary Lattanzio produce an understated eponymous label, here with their 2012 Umino Vineyard Pinot Noir redolent of an impressive pedigree honed under Heidi Barrett and Wells Guthrie. Another winemaker esteemed for his Cabernets, David Ramey, displayed his Burgundian forte with the 2012 Platt Vineyard Pinot Noir.

Mirroring Ramey, Sebastopol’s Red Car also excelled with their own rendition of the 2012 Platt Vineyard Pinot Noir. A mainstay at numerous Pinot-focused tastings with both his Oregon or his Sonoma vintages, Siduri’s Adam Lee can always be relied upon for consistently outstanding wine, as evidenced here by his 2012 Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast.

Some may find it hubristic to claim parity with one of Burgundy’s most esteemed producers, but Soliste’s self-referential homage to Vosne-Romanée for its marvelous 2011 Fôret Pinot Noir holds a definite degree of validity. The hallmark of this wine comes, however, comes from its triumph over an arguably vexing vintage. Across California, wines from 2012 almost uniformly proved wonderful, a vintage that made itself. But the preceding year required considerable œnological prowess to eke out a memorable wine, and a significant number of wineries chose to bypass bottling from this harvest.

In addition to Soliste, several wineries pouring at West of West rose to the occasion with spectacular results, including 32 Winds, with their 2011 Lucky Well U.V. Pinot Noir. So, too, did Gros Ventre, with their salute to primogeniture, the 2011 First Born Pinot Noir. Katy Wilson augmented her LaRue’s growing reputation with the 2011 Emmaline Anne Vineyard Pinot Noir while one of The Barlow’s anchor wineries, MacPhail, displayed considerable aplomb with their 2011 Platt Vineyard Pinot Noir, a most striking predecessor to the above-mentioned latter vintage.

Marimar Estate operates an offsite tasting room at The Barlow to complement their Sebastopol estate’s acclaimed Doña Margarita Vineyard. True to their renown, their 2011 Mas Cavalls Pinot Noir proved a deft blend of their allocated Pommard (63%), Dijon 115 (32%), and Dijon 667 (5%) clones. As specifically focused and equally lush: the 2011 Bodega Ridge Block Pinot Noir from John & Barbara Drady’s Sonoma Coast Vineyards.

Taming the 2011 vintage was not restricted to Pinot. Ramey featured a rich 2011 Platt Vineyard Chardonnay, while Red Car’s 2011 Estate Vineyard Syrah proved utterly masterful. As I complimented one of the vineyardists here on how the West of West wineries had risen to the challenges of such an ornery year, he confided that, for these growers, 2011 had been anything but, the intense heat spikes that had felled so many other regions hadn’t affected this cold, isolated AVA.

As always, the West of West provided an exceptional, highly informative tasting, one that stood apart from many of the less consistent events I have attended of late. Could argument be made that this region has risen to the point that it stands apart from the rest of the West Coast? Perhaps, but certainly there is no case for erecting a fence—just yet.

Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote…

Make no mistake about it: five years of seeking out and sampling wines for Sostevinobile takes its toll in unforeseen ways. Your West Coast Oenophile recently donated over 50 wine glasses to Goodwill, not necessarily out of a sense of χάρις—despite the urbanity of the local indigent populace, who have compelled pharmacies here to safeguard their supply of dental floss in locked display cases—but, rather, in an overdue attempt to streamline the clutter in my 150 ft.² kitchen. Standing out among the forgotten gems from this meticulous collection, culled from over two decades of professional tasting, was a pair of souvenir glasses from the erstwhile Consorzio CalItalia, the trade association for locally-produced Italian varietals that I have frequently cited here. Although I’ve had owned this set since 2005, I somehow had failed to notice that the bowl was engraved with a secondary promotional logo, one that inextricably explained why Consorzio had collapsed so spectacularly. Its principal co-sponsor had been that travesty masquerading as Italian cuisine—Olive Garden!

Olive GardenHospitaliano! It cannot be overstated how fundamentally offensive these poseurs are, not simply because their culinary assembly line poses an affront to anyone who cherishes their rich Italian heritage. More odious renditions of this artifice certainly can be found—assuming I could ever muster the temerity to set foot in one of their pretentious prefab outlets. And know that I find jejune, cartoonish stereotypings, like The Fonz or the intellectually vacant Vinny Barbarino, far more debasing than any of the 30-second spots Darden Restaurants broadcasts. But the none-too-subtle implication of Olive Garden, with its pathetic promotional panderage, is that not just Italian, but any ethnicity can be readily coöpted—nay, blithely bastardizedfor crass commercial benefit.

Even without being underwritten by such an odious enterprise, my oft-mentioned desire to launch Risorgimento as a successor to Consorzio CalItalia faces significant hurdles, something that the diaspora of this year’s Rhône Rangers Grand Tasting painfully drove home. Like many in the trade, I had tried to keep an open mind about trekking across the Bay to the Craneway Pavilion in Point Richmond (if truth be told, Sostevinobile owes Richmond a debt of gratitude I will explicate after our doors finally open). This renovated Ford assembly plant occupies a scenic perch along the eastern shore of the San Francisco Bay, with unrivaled vistas of The City, several bridges, and the sundry islets that dot the estruary; warm sun, a negligible breeze and a reasonably-priced chartered ferry made the excursion far more placid than battling the inevitable traffic that clogged the main thoroughfares in either direction.

Still, less than thirty of my trade cohorts took advantage of this amenity, an ominous portent for the ensuing event. Inside the cavernous hall, the 89 participating wineries represented a striking diminution from just a few years back when nearly 200 filled the Festival Pavilion at Fort Mason, and though an ample number of professional tasters did arrive by car or public transportation, public ticketholders were rumored to be only 120.

In truth, I doubt more than forty paid attendees actually showed up, but no matter the actual tally, it was apparent that the Rhône Rangers membership absorbed a substantial financial hit for the afternoon. Still, an extensive selection of impressive varietals and blend, along with a number of new participants, made for a worthwhile excursion. First up, I saddled up to Los OlivosBernat Estate, an organic winery that features organized retreats and an onsite café. Along with Sangiovese and Nebbiolo, they specialize in a trio of bottlings, starting with the amiable 2009 Presence, their Colson Canyon Syrah. More impressive, however, was their 2009 Gratitude, an estate-bottled Syrah, which was complemented by an equally delightful 2011 Grenache Blanc, Santa Ynez Valley.

Making the trek to Richmond from the Central Coast, new attendee Le Cuvier debuted with an impressive 2010 Viognier Paso Robles, then segued to their 2010 Syrah Paso Robles. I found myself vastly impressed with their 2010 L’Enfant du Pape, a subtle blend of Viognier, Syrah, Mourvèdre, and Grenache, while the barrel sample of their 2010 Grenache Paso Robles portended great promise. Another newcomer, Lightning Wines, enjoyed a far easier commute from Napa to pour their 2013 CdP Blanc, a distinctive mélange of Roussanne, Picpoul Blanc, and Grenache Blanc sourced from Paso Robles, and a 2012 Grenache Sonoma County. Most striking, their 2011 Syrah Phoenix Ranch, with grapes from a Rhône-focused vineyard on Altlas Peak I had not previously encountered.

Hyde Vineyard in Carneros has long been familiar; nonetheless, Mira Winery offered distinctive expressions of their grapes, with both the 2010 Syrah Hyde Vineyard and its preceding 2009 vintage. Northeast of Carneros, the Capay Valley iepresents a designated AVA with a burgeoning reputation that also serves as the historic home of the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation. With over 11,000 acres in production, the tribe today produces a diverse range of agricultural fare, including olive oil, honey, and a nascent wine label: Séka Hills. Derived from the Patwin word for blue, their inaugural efforts here included their amiable 2012 Viognier and a proprietary blend, the 2012 Tuluk’a, a decidedly nascent endeavor combining 51% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Syrah, 10% Cabernet Franc, 6% Petit Verdot, and 3% Petite Sirah.

Despite the relatively obscure location, a few intrepid souls found their way to Richmond from the Pacific Northwest. Hailing from Prosser, WA, newcomer Mercer Estates is a fourth-generation Horse Heaven Hills producer, here showcasing their 2013 Viognier, the 2013 Rosé (100% Grenache), and their Estate Reserve blend, the 2010 Ode to Brothers. a GSM featuring 40% Grenache, 39% Syrah, and 21% Mourvedre. Also debuting at Rhône Rangers, Southern Oregon’s EdenVale featured a 2009 Viognier that seemed past its prime alongside a noteworthy 2007 Grenache.

Expediency dictates that I limit my review of this tasting to these new discoveries—I have chronicled the rest of the attendees multiple times over the past five years, and while I am hardly sanguine about the financial setback Rhône Rangers must have incurred from this year’s tasting, I can only hope this choice of venue will not prove utterly deleterious and 2015 will see a new and reinvigorated tasting closer to the nexus of the Bay Area.


Another Fort Mason refugee found its change of venue diminished its scope and attendance, though not nearly as drastically as its French counterpart. Over the past several years, I have endeavored to help promote T.A.P.A.S., the trade association for Iberian varietal producers in the US., in no small part because I had hoped to see them catalyze renewed interest in a diverse array of trade tastings. I fear, though, that this annual showcase may have already reached its pinnacle, with fewer than 40 wineries on hand for 2014. While core members of this organization, like Bokisch, Abacela, Verdad, Quinta Cruz, Pierce Ranch, and Twisted Oak remain committed to advancing this sector and promoting its events, but too many others, like Berghold and SilvaSpoons, along with maverick producers like Forlorn Hope, were conspicuous in their absence (along with the once obligatory culinary anchor, Marco Paella), new participants dwindled to a mere four—all from outside of California.

These Northwest newcomers included HillCrest, Oregon’s oldest estate winery, purportedly the first winery to bottle a Pinot Noir in the Beaver State. This pedigree was amply displayed in their NV One the Lamb, an intriguing blend of Mazuelo (Carignane) and Pinot Noir. I found their 2008 Cadiz, an Umpqua Valley Tempranillo quite appealing, while their Tempranillo/Cabernet Sauvignon (a SuperRioja?) blend, the 2009 Umpqua Ribera, proved superb. I was a bit less sanguine about their 2010 Tempranillo Della Terra Torero Nuevo, but truly cottoned to the 1998 Vintage Trop, a superbly aged, fortified, Port-style offering.

Previously, I hadn’t realized that there was an Oakland in Oregon, here represented by Triple Oak Vineyard, which fittingly featured a chronological vertical of its three most recent releases. This trio commenced with the striking 2010 Tempranillo Umpqua Valley. The 2011 bottling frankly seemed a bit wanting, while the quite-young 2012 hinted at fuller expression over the next 2-3 years. In contrast, the 2011 Tempranillo Rogue Valley from debuting winery Upper Five Vineyard proved a superb, compelling rendition of the varietal.

Further north, Woodinville’s wondrously named Vinateria Idilico proffered an excellent 2013 Albariño Yakima Valley. Their 2011 Tempranillo and 2011 Garnacha Columbia proved equally appealing, while the 2011 Graciano Snipes Mountain simply dazzled. And while Tempranillo, Albariño, and, to a degree, Garnacha—the 2011 Garnacha San Antonio Valley from Pierce Ranch proved astounding—predominated this T.A.P.A.S. session, I was pleased that a number of wineries poured Graciano, led by the spectacular 2011 Graciano Mokelumne River & Clement Hills that Bokisch farmed and bottled. Others included Fenestra’s 2011 Graciano Lodi, Riaza’s 2011 Graciano Clement Hills, and the 2010 Graciano Clement Hills from Quinta Cruz—all, I assume, sourced from Markus’ plantings, while Pierce Ranch showcased their own 2011 Graciano San Antonio Valley, Twisted Oak featured a 2011 Graciano Calaveras County, and Bob Lindquist’s Verdad poured the 2012 Graciano Ibarra-Young Vineyard from the Santa Ynez Valley.

Otherwise, the preponderance of the event seemed decidedly mainstream—no Trincadeira, no Tinta Cão, merely a pair of Souzãos, no Loureiro, and no Torrontés. The sole revelation here was from a number of wineries pouring Verdejo—I believe, for most, their first vintage. I must confess that, until this year’s tasting I had assumed Verdejo was simply the Spanish term for the Portuguese Verdelho—an error quickly rectified by sampling the two varietals side-by-side. Though slightly overshadowed by the more sublime 2013 Verdelho Yolo County, Berryessa Gap’s 2013 Verdejo Yolo County still very much pleased with its slightly tart palate. A similar (albeit slight) contrast marked the exceptional 2013 Verdelho Borden Ranch from the 2013 Verdejo Borden Ranch that Bokisch debuted. Equally compelling: the 2012 Verdejo Clarksburg from Riaza.

At this point, I must own to another of my ulterior motives—a wine blending project I am contemplating,  to be called V (pronounced “quintus”). Like so many other endeavors I cite here, this, too, has been incubating far too long, as I have been searching for the hitherto elusive  V-varietal #5 to complete this esoteric blend. And in Verdejo, my quest may have been fulfilled.

Despite an overt disappointment in the decline of these focused trade tastings, Sostevinobile remains firmly committed to our continued support of worthy organizations like T.A.P.A.S. and Rhône Rangers and will strive not only to bolster their efforts, but, of course, to showcase the incredible panoply of wines produced within our designated boundaries. Of course, a generous serving of paella (or bouillabaisse) along the way would go far in fueling my energies toward these ends…


Fast forward to the anomaly known as Pinot Days. This event abruptly shifted both its date and location from earlier in June to the end of the month and from Fort Mason to the resurrected Metreon Center overlooking Yerba Buena Gardens. As such, I would have predicted significantly diminished attendance from previous years, and indeed the number of participating wineries did dwindle by nearly ⅔, from 253 to 92! As such, new discoveries for Sostevinobile’s wine program were but few, starting with Attune Wines, a boutique Sonoma producer focused exclusively on Burgundian varietals. Veering from the sanctioned selections, they first pour a 2012 Chardonnay, which displayed a focused roundness. And while their 2013 Pinot Noir Rosé proved quite amiable, their 2011 Pinot Noir held up impressively for, admittedly, a most challenging vintage.

One of the hallmarks I have set for Sostevinobile has been an unwavering objectivity in the wines we review and select. So some may question my effuse praise for the exceptional Pinots Belden Barns poured, given that proprietor Lauren Belden also graduated from the Creative Writing program at Dartmouth, but coincidences will abound My introduction to their 2012 Estate Pinot Noir was beyond pleasant, while their 2012 Serendipity Block Pinot Noir proved one of the highlights of the afternoon. Belden Barns also bottles a discrete selection of white, including both an estate bottled Late Harvest Viognier and an Estate Grüner Veltliner, ambitious for so young a winery and certainly an rarity among Sonoma’s Pinot vineyards. I hope to report more in a future post.

One of the few wineries trekking from Oregon, Merriman Wines nonetheless made the most of their journey, scoring impressively with both their 2011 Cummins Road Pinot Noir and their outstanding flagship, the 2011 Estate Pinot Noir Yamhill-Carlton District, a wine that rivaled the aforementioned Serendipity. Though unrelated to Merriman Capital, another Dartmouth colleague I had previous approached for Sostevinobile’s financing, Merriman does share Belden Barn’s penchant for the anomalous, complementing their red production not with the typical Burgundian white, but, rather, an Old Vine Chenin Blanc, a varietal that has certainly become underserved on the West Coast.

Teac Mor sounds like an Oregon label, but, in fact, hails from the Russian River Valley. Though I would dispute co-owner Christine Moore’s contention that pistachios make for an excellent palate cleanser, I had no quarrel with the 4-year vertical they poured here. Being a young venture, their 2009 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir seemed a tad jejune, while the 2010 Russian River Valley Noir showed signs of hitting its stride. Atypically, their
2011 Russian River Valley Noir shone far brighter than its preceding vintages, while the 2012 bottling lived up to expectations for such a banner. year.

Another Sonoma producer, Kobler Estate, also showcased a vertical of their wines, beginning with the 2009 Russian River Pinot Noir. This well-balanced wine was followed with a striking 2010 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, the sole variant in this flight. The 2011 Russian River Pinot Noir seemed adequate for the vintage, while the 2012 Russian River Pinot Noir matched the loftiness of the 2010 bottling.

Though technically Spell Estate did not constitute a new label, it has subsequently parted ways with winemaker Shane Finley since I first encountered them and is, in essence, a wholly different entity. Yet Spell has most definitely suffered no diminution in its scope or profound quality under current winemaker Andrew Berge. After sampling their exquisite 2011 Russian River Valley Chardonnay, I found myself marveling equally at their trio of vineyard-designate Pinots: the 2012 Pinot Noir Nicole’s Vineyard, the 2012 Pinot Noir Alder Spring Vineyard, and their crown jewel—the 2012 Pinot Noir Marimar Estate Vineyard. Astounding wines, all.

Jayson Pahlmeyer is no newcomer, either, but Pinot Days afforded the opportunity to sample his much-heralded new Sonoma label, Wayfarer. Keeping stride with Pahlmeyer’s mythic Chardonnay, the 2012 Wayfarer Vineyard Pinot Noir proved a glorious wine. only to be outshone by the aptly-named 2012 Golden Mean Pinot Noir, a truly extraordinary expression of the grape. Similarly, FEL represents legendary Napa producer Cliff Lede’s conversion of Mendocino’s Breggo Cellars for his Sonoma and Mendocino operations. With equal aplomb, this new moniker debuted the 2012 Pinot Noir Anderson Valley alongside the vineyard designates 2012 Pinot Noir Savoy Vineyard (Anderson Valley) and 2012 Pinot Noir Hirsch Vineyard (Sonoma Coast).

I do not mean to give short shrift to the other labels showcased here—certainly I cannot fail to cite Wrath’s equally impressive 2011 Wrath Pinot Noir San Saba Vineyard nor its compelling 2011 Ex Vite Pinot Noir—but despite uncharacteristically arriving just as the gates opened, I only managed to sample a few other selections this afternoon from those wineries making a return appearance at this tasting. Typically, I tend to malinger at tastings of this scope, hoping to include as many different wineries as possible, but on this afternoon, I felt compelled to exit an hour before closing. For while the number of wineries on hand had considerably dwindled from years past, the number of public attendees barely differed from the throngs that filled Fort Mason!

Admittedly, I am not a person who bears up well in tight crowds. Trying to navigate such a compact space became intolerable almost immediately after the gates opened. Just as synæsthetes can see colors from sounds—as in Rimbaud’s Voyelles—I cannot taste when the volume reaches a certain decibel level. And so I surrendered to the futility of the exercise and departed.

As with the other tastings I have chronicled here, I am not seeking to critique the event, merely to comprehend its post-Fort Mason evolution. Certainly, I find it most encouraging that a major tasting can still draw a significant crowd, and while I am sure there are scores of Pinot Noir devotees, if not rabid fans throughout the Bay Area, I suspect the attendance at Pinot Days resulted more from aggressive marketing. And as I contemplate launching Risorgimento, I hope this holds true!

Have bicycle, will travel

Few, if any, cities across this continent can offer an experience that rivals the majestic pleasure of cycling across the Golden Gate Bridge, particularly on the rare warm day in June with the sun blazing, the wind negligible, and the fog rest comfortably in Fresno—where it should remain. Avid readers here know that Your West Coast Oenophile was waylaid by an industrial truck on Market Street back in March 2013. The three cracks in my cycling helmet will attest to what might have been, and my sorely diminished savings account will account for what actually did occur.

Three months later, my Trek 1.2 was purloined in a basement robbery, leaving me without my preferred two-wheel mode of inner city transportation until Santa Claus decided I hadn’t merited another year of coal in the stocking. And so while I have managed to keep Sostevinobile alive and vibrant over the past 16 months, I have not been able to make the excursion from my perch in Pacific Heights to the rainbow playground of Marin.

All that will finally change this coming Sunday, as my blue & black Scattante CFR Comp Carbon Road Bike and I head over the Golden Gate, dodging the inevitable horde of wannabe cyclists wreaking havoc on their Blazing Saddles rentals to the 33rd Annual Mill Valley Wine, Beer and Gourmet Food Tasting. This extravaganza has only gotten better with each passing year and affords the local community a rare chance to sample wines from not only prestigious local labels but a number of boutique and esoteric producers who rarely showcase their offerings.
This festival isn’t just about wine, of course. The proliferation of artisan beers throughout California will also be well represented, and many of Marin’s finest restaurants and food purveyors will be on hand to satisfy almost any appetite. But beyond the food and festivities, this annual fundraiser supports both Kiddo!, the non-profit Mill Valley Schools Foundation, as well as the Mill Valley Chamber of Commerce and its beneficiaries. Tickets can be purchased online from the event’s Brown Paper ticket site.
It would be great if everyone walked or cycled to the Mill Valley Wine, Beer and Gourmet Food Tasting—free bicycle parking concierges will be on site, but it’s OK to arrive by car, as well. But, as always with events like this, remember the cardinal rule of driving: DO NOT RUN ME OVER!

I look forward to seeing everyone there.