Author Archives: donaldmarc

Makes me want to holler

This is the closest Your West Coast Oenophile has come to considering abandoning his plans for Sostevinobile. Since late 2017, I have been operating with the assurance that this magnificent facility at 1213 Fell Street had been secured for me by my backer, purportedly the lead investor for a consortium of family offices operating in the Bay Area. Admittedly, our negotiations for taking possession of this building and subscribing members to Club SVN the private wine lounge and club designated for the already built-out second floor, had been going excruciatingly slow, due mostly to meetings he repeatedly postponed with little notice and scant apology. This dilatory behavior did little to reassure me, but given our long-standing business relationship, the belief I had a secure premise for our brick & mortar operations allowed me to focus my efforts on raising capital overseas, while bolstering Sostevinobile’s burgeoning influence in the West Coast wine realm.

But patience has its limits, and I finally decided to phone Rockwell Properties, whose For Rent sign idly been posted in front of the building for well over a year. My backer had told had been told posting was merely a placeholder,  but the brothers who ran this fly-by-night agency  scheduled an appointment for me revisit the space a couple of days later. And so it was much to my chagrin that I was told, moments before I head over to the NOPA location that the building’s owner had canceled the viewing. A minor inconvenience compared to my also discovering that this building had never changed hands two years ago!

This “oversight,” however, may only be temporary, as a forced bankruptcy sale of the premises may be imminent. So where does this leave Sostevinobile? Will I be able to scrape enough cash to qualify for the auction? Will I find myself in a bidding war against more well-financed competition? It makes me want to holler…


So I broke down the other evening and purchased a 16 oz. can of White Claw, the sparkling seltzer phenomenon that apparently is all the rage with the Millennials. Should the wine world feel threatened by this soda pop-flavored beverage that masks its (albeit moderate) alcohol content? Let me use this rare opportunity to draw upon my twelve years of Latin instruction: nihil novi sub sole!

Both sides now

Your West Coast Oenophile hit the road this past weekend for Sostevinobile. Actually, I was doing double-duty, as we launched Risorgimento, the new trade association for producers of Italian varietal wines in California at Barbera Festival in Amador on Saturday. Having attended this event numerous times, at both Cooper Ranch and at its current site, Terra d’Oro, this marked the first time I actually poured instead of tasted.
Even when I have a particular fondness for a certain grape, it becomes quite difficult for my palate to distinguish the nuances of the various renditions of this varietal after 20 or 25 different samples. As I would have been, even this afternoon’s diehard Barbera aficionados took a liking to the selections of Arneis, Vermentino, Rosato di Sangiovese, Montepulciano, Sangiovese, and Charbono we served at our table—in no small part since we were one of the few participants serving chilled wines amid the 95°F weather! Regardless, the message was inarguable: wine lovers are clearly looking beyond the orthodoxy of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, and Petite Sirah that constitute some 93% of California’s wine production.

The following day, I wound my way down to the Sacramento area, where Friends of the Clarksburg Library held their 31st Annual Wines of Clarksburg fundraiser at the storied Heringer Estates. As does Gallo in Modesto, Heringer has long dominated the Clarksburg landscape, to the point it seems, to outsiders, to be the only producing vineyard or winery in the town. But, in fact, there are well over 35 labels in the region, most of which were on hand this afternoon or had donated to the silent auction. And while Clarksburg seemed, for long, the last vestige of California’s once-ubiquitous Chenin Blanc, numerous other varietals are produced quite successfully in this AVA.

Last year, I had toured the riverside estate of Miner’s Leap on an impromptu tour of Clarksburg, so was happy to revisit with them here. To be candid, the 2016 Rosé of Pinot Noir left something to be desired, but I did cotton to their 2016 Tempranillo, along with their NV Harmony, a proprietary blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Petite Sirah, and Syrah. Another past discovery, Scribner Bend, situated on the opposite bank of the Sacramento, selected their 2018 Pinot Gris and a suitably-aged 2014 Syrah.

During my visit last year, I had sought, in vain, to locate Wilson Vineyards, so it was fortuitous to find them here. Sadly, though, this winery is winding down its operations, but still generously poured its 2016 Petite Sirah, along with a less-than-memorable NV Almond Sparkling. I had wrapped up that day most memorably at Julietta, an intimate operation which here poured their 2016 Beverly’s Inspiration was an austere combination of Zinfandel, Syrah, and Grenache. Their chilled offerings included a 2018 Rosé of Tempranillo and a far-from-obligatory 2018 Chenin Blanc.

Speaking of obligatory, I would have expected Ken Musso’s Due Vigne to be pouring a selection of their Italian varietals, and so was not disappointed to discover NV Romanza, an unspecified “blend of mostly Italian varietals.” Ironically, the 2018 Rosato Rosé, a redundancy whose name begs a mixed pedigree, wedded Syrah with 20% Cinsault. One Clarksburg winery from which I always expect great things is III (Three), an independent venture from Matt Cline of the third generation of Sonoma’s Jacuzzi family. Though Matt was not on hand this afternoon, his staff comported themselves admirably with his 2017 Sauvignon Blanc, an exceptionally approachable wine, along with the wondrous 2013 established 1885, an eclectic blend of 30.3% Carignane, 32.5% Zinfandel, 29.8% Mataro, 4.1% Petite Sirah, 2.9% Cinsault, and 0.4% Alicante Bouschet.

Due Vigne and III are both part of the winery collective at Clarksburg’s Old Sugar Mill. The original tenants of this facility, Carvalho, now operate on the north side of the Freeport Bridge, alongside their Freeport Wine Country Inn and Bistro. Produced in their former location, the 2016 Syrah seemed a perfunctory wine, while their Boot Shed Red Lot 7, a proprietary blend of Tempranillo, Syrah, and Teroldego, proved compelling. One of Clarksburg’s oldest wineries, Bogle, has been ensconced in its own facility since 1979. Here they ably demonstrated why they have managed their longevity, starting with their 2017 Chardonnay and 2017 Petite Sirah. Their standout, however, came from the 2015 Phantom, a truly deft blend of 44% Petite Sirah, 44% Zinfandel, 10% Merlot, and 2% Cabernet Sauvignon.

Twisted Rivers, a nearby operation from Duke Heringer, poured their 2017 White Raven, a contrasting Viognier/Chenin Blanc blend, alongside a nicely-aged 2011 Petite Sirah and a splendid 2016 Primitivo. Also geographically themed Grand Island showcased their premium line, with both their 2017 Salman Family Reserve Chenini Blanc and the noteworthy 2017 Salman Family Reserve Premier, a Bordeaux-style Meritage.

If it were coastal, Elevation 10 would likely be threatened by climate change in the none-too-distant future, but here in the Sacramento Valley, it remains a thriving enterprise with noteworthy wines. I usually associate their winemaker, Marco Cappelli, with the El Dorado AVA (alongside the Amador region I had just visited), and, indeed,  many of their wines do herald from the Foothills. But their Clarksburg selections proved quite deft, starting with the 2016 Chardonnay and finishing with a superb 2016 Cabernet Franc. Dancing Coyote heralds from the Lodi AVA, but sources much of its fruit from Clarksburg. Examples here included their rather sweet 2017 Chardonnay, an adequate 2017 Rosé of Pinot Noir, alongside a more developed 2016 Pinot Noir.

Admittedly, Clarksburg will be on few people’s radar as a major wine region, but the newly-restored barn at Heringer easily qualifies as one of the most inviting tasting rooms I have ever visited. And in keeping with it reputation as the pinnacle of this AVA, our host winery shared with this event a 2018 Moscato (subsequently revealed to be Muscat Canelli) and a delightful 2018 Pinot Gris. But their forte at Wines of Clarksburg proved to be the spectacular 2015 Tempranillo, a wine ideally suited to the evening’s Andalusian breeze.

Keeping pace with Heringer’s vineyard operations in Clarksburg is the variegated operations of Ogilvie Merwin Ventures (not to be confused with advertising tita Ogilvy & Mather). here they debuted a new label, Fellow, which brought six of their wines to sample, including the 2018 Sauvignon Blanc, the 2018 Chardonnay, a dry 2018 Gewürztraminer, and a striking 2018 Chenin Blanc.On the red side, I found the 2017 Petite Sirah equally compelling, while the 2018 Pinot Noir served amiably for such a young wine. The 2016 Pinot Noir from sister operations Silt rivaled this bottling, but their 2016 Merlot clearly stood out. I have never been able to appreciate a Valdiguié, but here a 2018 Rosé finally brought me around to this unassuming varietal.

Silt, of course, produced its own 2017 Chenin Blanc, but partner Phil Ogilvie was intent on showcasing multiple expressions of this grape from an array of wineries that source his fruit. Local winemaker Jason Lee’s Zah opened with an excellent 2018 Chenin Blanc, as did Sonoma’s Dry Creek Vineyard. Another familiar label, Vinum Cellars. was represented with the 20th Anniversary Edition of their Chenin, the 2017 CNW. Again from Sonoma, West of West stalwart Gros Ventre juxtaposed their 2017 Chenin Blanc with a noteworthy 2018 Chenin Blanc Merritt Island. Like Risorgimento, Seven% Solution is a wine movement dedicated to non-mainstream wines; at its past tastings, La Pitchoune has been featured for its Chenin Blanc, exemplified here with its 2017 La Bombe. Lastly, Ogilvie displayed both of maverick Santa Cruz winemaker Megan Bell’s contrasting Margins bottlings: the 2018 Clarksburg Chenin Blanc with her utterly compelling 2018 Skin Fermented Chenin Blanc.

After Wines of Clarksburg, I detoured to Davis for a truncated dalliance, then reluctantly headed back to the Bay Area. An exhausting weekend, to be sure, but a weekend nonetheless well spent.

 

Nuclear proliferation

Sostevinobile has not always been as diligent as we could be in visiting some of the outlying wine regions that we will be featuring, and so Your West Coast Oenophile recently ventured out to the Livermore Valley for the first time in a few years. Apart from its renowned gargantuan wine operations: Wente, the first significant Chardonnay producer  in California, and Concannon, which inaugurated Petite Sirah on the West Coast, far too many other members of the Livermore Valley AVA are relegated to relative obscurity outside the Bay Area (in no small part because these two aforementioned wineries were permitted to remain open during Prohibition).

To rectify matters, I took recently advantage of an invite to attend the ribbon-cutting ceremonies for Wente’s Table & Tasting Lounge to reacquaint myself with some of the AVA’s cutting-edge producers. Readers who know me know I have long been a vocal advocate of Steven Kent, a producer whose Cabernets deliver more bang for the buck—$125 for a bottle that would easily fetch $500+ if the label read Napa—than perhaps any other winery on the West Coast, along with Daou and Quilceda Creek. Less publicized is that his family’s former winery, Mirrasou, had committed 250,000 cases of their White Zinfandel to my debut bottling, George Herbert Walker Blush, before the bureaucrats at BATF denied us label approval.

Thirty years later, Steven’s wines are a far cry from what I experienced in the snow-covered (!) vineyards in San Martin. Our tasting began with a sneak taste of their just-bottled 2018 Ragbag Albariño, a crisp, deft expression of the grape form Lodi’s acclaimed Bokisch Vineyards. Similarly, the 2018 Lola was a predominantly Sauvignon Blanc blend, mellowed out with a substantial 32% Sémillon. Mid-range BDX single-varietal bottlings of the classic, pre-climate change Bordeaux reds from their Ghielmetti Estate Vineyard, was strikingly represented by the non-vintage BDX Collection Malbec, while the 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon exquisitely blended their Ghielmetti Cabernet with 4.5% Petit Verdot and 4.5% Merlot from nearby vineyards.

Though young, the 2016 SVS Cabernet Sauvignon, produced entirely from the Clone 7 plantings at Steven Kent’s Home Ranch Vineyard, totally exemplified why this unassuming operation deserves to be ranked among the elite producers from California’s more heralded regions. A beautiful wine with the promise of attaining its full potential in another 10 years.

From there, I moseyed on to Darcie Kent, no relation to Steven but certainly a kindred spirit in raising the bar for Livermore viticulture. Their quaint, cottage-style winery stands in welcome contrast to the industrial feel of the nearby Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the soulless abodes of its nuclear physicists. Darcie and her husband David greeted me with a special hand selected tasting that began with their 2018 Sauvignon Blanc, a self-described spicy interpretation of the ever-so-delicate Musqué clone. Next up was their spectacular 2018 Rava Blackjack Grüner Veltliner, a signature wine that predated the Kent’s’ move into their own facility. I was similarly impress with the upcoming release of the 2018 Pistachio Lane Chardonnay, while the library selection of the 2014 DeMayo Chardonnay aged beautifully.

Darcie Kent’s Petite Sirah bottling, the 2009 Madden Big Petite amply showed why this varietal remains a mainstay in Livermore. We concluded the tasting with their 2015 Firepit Red, a deft mélange of the premium fruit from their Crown Block Estate Vineyard: Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Merlot, and Zinfandel. Afterwards, I stayed on as a guest for their barbecue and concert by The Novelists, a Reno-based quartet that adeptly covers hits from Bruce Springsteen and Queen to Toto and Pink Floyd. It was a splendid coda to a splendid visit.

My only regret of the afternoon was not allotting sufficient time to visit with the many other wineries here. Since my last visit to Livermore, there has been a notable proliferation of vineyards, tasting rooms, and producers, along with a collaborative effort to upgrade facilities here from the rather mundane sterility of a light industrial complex to more inviting and encompassing tasting experiences, as renovation of S. Vasco Road’s The Block 37 attests. I intend to make up for this lapse quite soon.

Eschew obfuscation

I probably don’t write about sustainability enough in this column, but Your West Coast Oenophile has designed Sostevinobile to incorporate sustainable principles and practices in every aspect of our business model, including the production of all the West Coast wines that will be part of our program. After all, I did coin the name from a portmanteau of sostenere (to sustain) + vino & nobile. So I was initially quite pleased to read the installment Rise of ethical consumerism causing an increase in awareness of the alternative wine category in yesterday’s WineBusiness.com, having been admonished by numerous potential investors that such considerations, while admirable, would have no bearing on the potential success of my business model.

Previously, I had not been familiar with Wine Intelligence, the British-based analysts whose report entitled Global SOLA formed the basis of this article. So far, so good, until I discovered that this acronym stood for Sustainable, Organic & Lower Alcohol wine. At the risk of apostasy, how does that equate? What are the environmental benefits of lower alcohol wine?

I am not against producing more moderate wines—in a quest for improved flavor or greater pairing with food. This is a stylistic or æsthetic consideration on the winemaker’s part. Outside of that, however, the impetus toward lower alcohol wine is a thinly-veiled banner for the neo-Prohibitionists who are eroding the marketplace for wine worldwide. As it becomes more apparent that recent studies alleging that there are no benefits to alcohol consumption are skewed, if not outright biased, it behooves these denizens to align themselves with ethical advocacies and movements that are popular with the mainstream, like environmentalism and climate control. But this affiliation is wholly misplaced.

On a parallel note, I have long advocated the separation of alcohol from the regulatory authority governing the other so-called “sin taxes.” The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF), now known as TTB, is an anomaly. No one can rationally argue that there are health benefits that mitigate the dangers of smoking, and even an organization as nefarious as the NRA would not try to portray as salubrious. Wine, with its resveratrol, is the diametric opposite of these other two “vices,” and should never have been lumped in the same category.

For years, I have been lobbying against any affiliation, implied or direct, between alcohol and tobacco, particularly labels and events that seek to marry the alleged pleasures of cigar smoking to a fine port or brandy or scotch. And don’t even get me started about Altria’s proprietorship of Château Ste. Michelle!

But know this isn’t some idle slacktivist rant. Sostevinobile will be utterly inflexible in its complete prohibition of tobacco. We will not employ smokers—not merely because of the added health insurance burden but to ensure our customers enjoy their visit without having to endure even a hint of tobacco stench; nonetheless, we will gladly fund tobacco cessation programs should otherwise qualified personnel wish to join our team. Our projected 8,300 sq. ft. rooftop deck will be completely smoke-free, which includes banning the use of the insidious Juul and other vaping devices. Similarly, our private Club SVN lounge will neither permit any form of tobacco nor will its concierge accommodate cigar orders or similar requests from our members. This policy is, of course, primarily our own æsthetic consideration, yet, unlike SOLA, our standards seek to recognize what truly aligns with the ethics of environmentalism.


The wine industry has long been recognized as being in the forefront of environmental policy and innovation, but this is not its only vanguard. Last week, I attended a wonderful tasting organized by One Market Wine Director Tonya Pitts. Women in Wine was a benefit for La Cocina, a not-for-profit incubator in San Francisco for women seeking to create their own culinary startup. The event featured a roster of over 25 distinguished California wineries quarterbacked by women winemakers, and while it would be somewhat of a hyperbole to describe this lineup as a veritable Who’s Who of female œnologists here, it definitely compared to an NFC ProBowl lineup: Merry Edwards, Bouchaine, St. Helena Winery, Donkey and Goat, Ernest, Trombetta, Far Niente/Nickel & Nickel, Martha Stoumen, Theopolis, Zaca Mesa, Artesa, Shared Note/Cattleya, Conduit, Tessier, Bucher, Notre Vin/Alienor, La Sirena, McBride Sisters, Wait-Mast, Neely, Côte West, Stonestreet, Duckhorn/Golden Eye, Ghost Block, and Mojave.

At this time, I am refraining from my observations on the individual wines I tasted, in part because lacking a printed program compelled me to transcribe my comments on Notepad on my iPhone, a laborious process that kept me from covering everyone who participated in this event. But I will make the observation that none of these wines semed notably feminine in character—or masculine, for that matter. They were simply strong, routinely excellent vintages, wines that compelled you to focus on their structure and balance and flavor, the expression of the varietal and the distinction of the terroir.

And that is testimony to yet another facet of the wine industry that puts it in the forefront: women here have attained a level of parity with men that makes their craft indistinguishable by gender. Full equality may not be there yet in terms of numbers or wages, but in this regard, the industry has arrived ahead of the rest.

The lost art of serendipity

It has been an unusual month or so for Your West Coast Oenophile. My dedication to focusing the wine program at Sostevinobile exclusively on sustainably-produced wines from the West Coast has not altered, but I continue to be exposed to wines from the other 47, most recently Colorado and Hawaiʻi. Spending over 24 hours on various flights over a 10-day period left me plenty of time for idle thoughts, and so I enumerated all the states whose wines I have sampled over the years. Apart from California, Oregon, and Washington, as well as the other two aforementioned states, there have been vintages from Arizona, New Mexico, Idaho, Texas, Missouri, Michigan, Vermont, New York, Delaware, Virginia, and North Carolina. I vaguely recall trying a blueberry wine from Maine, but won’t include that in my tally, and I did polish off a bottle 17° Zinfandel my former fiancée’s Uncle Carlo produced in his Rhode Island basement, which would bring me up to 17 states. Just because.

From there, I reckoned that I had tried wines from each of the six inhabited continents, which encompassed 26 different countries. Besides the US, there have been North American wines from both Canada and Mexico. South America has Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and Brazil. Of course, Australia and New Zealand. South Africa was another given, while Morocco was a unique experience shared with Francis Ford Coppola’s brother Augustus. From Asia, there has been Georgia, Lebanon, India, and China, while Europe included Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, England, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Croatia,  and Slovenia. I may have tried wines from Moldova and Bulgaria, as well, but the memory is a bit fuzzy on these two counts.

The embarrassing part of all this is how few of these places I’ve actually visited. But while I await a whirlwind world tour once Sostevinobile’s doors are opened, I managed to slip away for a few days last week and finally make the trek to Maui, courtesy of a complimentary ticket I won from Southwest Airlines. With barely a couple days to plan my excursion, I left my fortunes in the hands of the resort’s concierge. It would be an unfair comparison to equate her choices, like the Lū‘au Te Au Moana at the Wailea Beach Resort, to experiencing Italian food at Olive Garden, but it wasn’t far from the mark. And it did get me lei’d! The Zipline tour seemed a bit perfunctory, as well, but standing above the Haleakalā Crater did feel like I was on top of the world and could just make out Japan on the horizon.

Following this sojourn, I rolled down the volcano and wound through the most circuitous route I could map out to the island’s northeast shores, bypassing the chance to tour Ulupalakua Vineyards, Maui’s viticultural foothold, while glimpsing the vast span of haole intrusions, from cattle farms to polo fields, before finally traversing intimations of the lush rainforests of the Wai’anapanapa State Park that lay further along the Hana Highway. Emerging near the town of Pe’ahi, I meandered west until coming upon the storied “hippie enclave” of Pa’ia.

This rustic town seems quite akin to Bolinas in West Marin, though the locals here do keep the road signs posted. As such, downtown Pa’ia offers a greater variety of shopping, drinking, and dining options, along with plentiful strains of the local bud,—should one choose to partake. I opted instead for glass of the sugar cane-based Ocean Organic Vodka at Charley’s Restaurant and Saloon, then surveyed my dining options before choosing my pentultimate Hawai‘ian meal at the understated Pa’ia Fishmarket.

My slection could not have been more fortuitous. The popularity of this quaint shack, with its multiple communal dining benches, bespoke the quality of its exceptionally well-prepared fare. I opted for one of the Specials of the Day, the fresh Opah, grilled to perfection, along with a bountiful helping of rice and potatoes. The obligatory glass of wine, Tuck Beckstoffer’s 2018 Hogwash Rosé (sorry, Ulupalakua), proved a worthy accompaniment to this ample repast, while the anything-but-touristy tab could easily be afforded two or three times a week.

In a word, serendipitous. Which brings me to the point of this post. I currently have 4,363 West Coast wine producers logged into the Sostevinobile database, with another 500-600 on my to-do list. I had thought I could expedite my goal of cataloguing every sustainably-focused winery in California, Washington, and Oregon through the 2019 Wines and Vines Buyer’s Guide, but, to my surprise, this industry staple only lists 5,996 wineries throughout this region, a mere fraction of the 12,000+ labels I estimate are currently in production. Without a centralized source for all this data, my methodology ultimately compels me to stumble upon the unlisted and yet-to-be listed, like Stagiaire. There are, of course, trade tastings, wine bars and wine shops, forums like Seven% Solution and Bâtonnage, regional trade associations, varietal advocacies, etc., but I have been most successful in discovering new wines and wineries simply by getting lost on my visits to different wine regions and invariably coming across a label that has received little-to-no fanfare in wine circles at-large.

Which is why my latest excursion to Napa proved such a dud. Not that the wineries I visited weren’t routinely excellent. The problem was that every place I came across was sealed off with an electric gate and a large, ominous sign limiting visits to “By Appointment Only.” Up until this year, it was relatively easy to flaunt this requirement, but TTB has started vigorously enforcing license restrictions and is clamping down hard.

Domaggio!This may be fine for keeping tourism at a manageable level and curtailing the general public, but for my purposes, the loss of serendipity, of being able to discover the hitherto unknown winery, meet with its principals , and sample through their wines, is truly a monumental shame.

Da Capo

Admittedly, it is not easy for Your West Coast Oenophile to taste through an array of barrel samples and report on them in any insightful way for Sostevinobile. It was an auspicious start to May to attend the preview tastings for the 5th Annual Sonoma County Barrel Auction, an innovative industry event bringing together unique futures and cooperative bottlings from a wide array of vintners throughout the county. Certainly one of the high points of the Thursday events was the Sonoma County Innovators & Icons Celebration, a tribute tasting to David Duncan & Family, from sustainability pioneers Silver Oak Cellars, philanthropist Ron Rubin of his eponymous winery, Margo Van Staaveren, who revived the fortunes of Château St. Jean and Rod Berglund from Joseph Swan Vineyards.

Still, my greatest revelation came from the understated auction lot Gallo star winemaker Aaron Piotter crafted for their Bear Flag label from their Monte Rosso Vineyard in the Moon Mountain AVA. Labeled as a varietal expression of Zinfandel, this one-time only lot blends in 5% Dakapo, a varietal only found in California on this site and unknown to virtually everyone in attendance, including yours truly. Having taken pot shots at Chambourcin in my last post, I of course had to stumble upon yet another grower-manipulated teinturier, this one a Swiss-created blend of Blauer Portugieser and Deckrot (don’t ask) first made available in 1999.

Perhaps more interesting than its lineage, however, is the etymology of its name, which is apparently a corruption of Da Capo, an expression well-known to the musically accomplished. And for those who know the true identity of Your West Coast Oenophile, this takes on a delightful double-entendre.

Where do bad wines go to die?

Even when Your West Coast Oenophile isn’t trying, it seems everything somehow lands up relating to Sostevinobile. My recent trek to Corte Madera for the Preview Gala for Marin Open Studios landed up having little to do with the artwork hung along the walls of Suite 325 in the Town Center and even less to do with the eclectic collection of attendees than it did with the inscrutable potpourri of wines that accompanied this elegantly catered affair. Apart from a couple of Three Wishes/Quail Oak or similar bottom-shelf selections ($3.50 Pinot?), my initial choices were a pair of Texas wines I similarly did not bother to record or try. And so the volunteer bartender produced a bottle of something from somewhere in Missouri.

Now I am more than happy to cede the title of Earthquake Central to the Show Me State, but no matter how venerable their viticultural endeavors may be, I have little interest in switching my West Coast allegiance. But with choices so suspect, I capitulated and asked for a glass of Petit Verdot, heralding from an outpost in Virginia. The wine wasn’t too bad, nor was it too good—“serviceable” is the most frequent term other wine writers might charitably apply to such a vintage. Of course, it didn’t take much to bring out the cynic in me after that.

“I don’t suppose you have anything from Delaware?” I inquired, my sardonic side taking over. But much to my surprise—or chagrin—they did! The 2016 Laurel’s Red from Nassau Valley Vineyards of Lewes, DE is described as an unoaked “semi-dry red table wine” made from 100% Chambourcin, a varietal with which I had no previous familiarity. This French-American hybrid was first commercialized in the 1960s and apparently is popular in the renowned viticultures of New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. None of the literature I’ve sourced lists Chambourcin’s parentage, but, curiously, the grape is a teinturier, like Alicante Bouschet, Saperavi, and Colorino, meaning it produces a red juice when crushed, even without skin contact. Any parallel to the flavors of these other noble grapes is an entirely different matter.

I couldn’t help but wonder why, with a couple of dozen wineries now in Marin, not to mention its obvious proximity to the Petaluma Gap and Sonoma Coast AVAs, both of which cross over to the northern part of the county, the event organizers needed to resort to such farfetched selections. As it turned out, these wines had all been part of the recent San Francisco International Wine Competition, donated through the extreme generosity of one of the judges, who was probably averse, as I would have been, to taking these leftovers home to foist onto those near and dear—especially if these had been one of the 13 or so wines, out of 4,127 submissions that did NOT win a medal!

Coda: a few days later, I found myself at a poolside soirée, confronting a bottle of the 2016 Malbec Reserve from Becker Vineyards, a Texas winery that has garnered 11 SF International Medals for such wines as Muscat Chenin and Prairie Cuvée. As I reluctantly quaffed this feeble rendition, I could hear echoes of Maude Findlay admonishing her milquetoast husband, “God’ll get you for that!”

April is the cruelest month

Attention, Millennials! Sostevinobile is counting on your business. And so Your West Coast Oenophile is issuing this challenge: find your T. S. Eliot! Seriously, if your generation could come up with a poet whose Weltanschauung was as bleak as that of The Wasteland, all this talk of neo-abstinence would dissipate in a flash! And remember, the published poem you may have read in college is the redacted version, after Ezra Pound excised three out of every four lines Eliot originally wrote. If you ever want something that will drive you to drink, try reading the original.

Speaking of redacted texts…not going there. Not to be derisive, but this blog eschews politics almost as much as it eschews the prevalent notion among San Francisco sommeliers that a wine must be imported from outside California accorded any degree of gravitas. But I have no inhibition against debunking the recent spate of pseudoscientific studies on the deleterious effects of alcohol nor the corollary reports on how the up & coming Juul-puffing generation is eschewing alcohol for a healthier lifestyle. Here’s the cold, sober fact: the legalization of cannabis will not be the death knell of wine, an elixir that has been at the core of human civilization for over 8,000 years.

For starters, rivalry between alcohol and marijuana is nothing new. Back in the day when it was considered preferable, if not honorable, to dodge military service, young people were generally divided between the hip and the square, the former eschewing alcohol as the domain of their martini-guzzling elders in favor of the occasional (or omnipresent) joint. To no one’s surprise, over time, this element came to embrace alcohol, not out of a need for a different intoxicant or social lubricant as much as a mature understanding of alcohol developed hand-in-hand with the evolution of their taste in food, their appreciation for the more subtle values of stewardship of the environment, the convivial nature of a  meal with wine, and the generally positive social aspect of sharing a bottle. Millennials who indulge in alcohol primarily for its intoxicating effects may now delineate wine vs. cannabis through the dichotomy of its aftereffects; over time, today’s 20-somethings will acquire an appreciation for the nuances of flavor, aroma, texture, culinary enhancement—and.yes, health benefits—that wine uniquely imparts. No matter how much you extract THC or manipulate marijuana via potable or edible derivatives, it can never replicate the æsthetic pleasure that a glass of wine imparts.

And therein lies the rub. As Domaine Drouhin’s David Millman noted at last week’s North Bay Business Journal Wine Industry Conference (which I atypically missed), despite the financial constraints young people are facing today “In time, they will come around.” As did we all. Whether the relative impecuniosity (and concomitant lack of sophistication) of our post-collegiate years meant Boone’s Farm and Ripple or Bartles & Jaymes or White Zinfandel or pre-Sideways Merlot, just look to where our wine palates have evolved now!

Wine Competition Cheating Scandal Exposed!

Holy Kurniawan! Just when you thought you heard the last of the Italian Tignanello scandal or Spain’s rosé scam or the ceaseless parade of phony labeling in China, this happens here! In an exclusive report for Sostevinobile, Your West Coast Oenophile has unmasked an insidious scheme that has been gaming prestigious wine competitions here in California and across the United States! More than 25 people were arrested, following an early morning raid by San Benito County sheriffs at the offices of Eli Trojan & Co., a leading wine PR and promotions agency.

Among its notable clients caught up in the sweep was new vintner, Sarah Jessica Parker, who won both a Double Gold and First in Class— Valdiguié ($50 & up) for her inaugural bottling. Parker, who was named Maxim’s #1 Unsexiest Woman Alive in 2007 without any outside aid, allegedly paid more than $500,000 for Trojan to secure this win at this year’s San Francisco International Wine Competition. “I’m the victim here” she protested. “All I did was slap my name on a label. Otherwise, I would have known I could have won a medal like anyone else by simply paying the entry fee.” 

Another actress who sought Trojan’s help to procure an award was former teen sensation Mayim Bialik. Currently starring as Amy Farrah Fowler on Big Bang Theory, Bialik is a neuroscientist (PhD, UCLA) in real life, as well. “Given my extensive knowledge of hypothalamic activity in patients with Prader–Willi syndrome, you would know that the intricacies of carbonic maceration would be a piece of cake for me. Still, marketing and promotion is a bit outside of my wheelhouse,” she noted. Which may explain her shelling out a healthy six figures for Trojan to garner a medal for her 2018 Pet-Nat White Zinfandel at Dubuque’s prestigious Quad Cities Wine Competition & Corndog Marathon.

Her Big Bang Theory costar Jim Parsons has also ventured into the wine realm with husband Todd Spiewak. “I wanted to make a wine that really reflected my Texas roots,” Parsons explained. “Château Sheldon is dedicated to making the world’s finest Jalapeño wine, a daunting task to be sure. So it was critically important that we garner awards from the get-go.” Sure enough, thanks to Trojan’s intervention, their 2017 Spicey Dicey, a cactus pear infused wine captured Best of Show at the Oklahoma State Fair. “In retrospect, we probably could have won even without the bribe, given there were only eight wines competing.,” he noted. “But we’re a committed, childless couple. What’s $250,000 to us? It’s not like we have to buy an acceptance at USC!”

But even for $1,000,000, Trojan couldn’t pull off miracles. “I received a call from Roseanne Barr, looking for a win for her Faccia Brutta label. Basically, she was blending cases of Charles Shaw Pinot Grigio and Zinfandel, then repackaging it in cans as her own rosé. Maybe if they had held a wine competition at Monster Jam, there’d have been a shot. Still, I was happy to take her money, instead of her supplying MAGA caps to Yemeni refugees.”

Speaking of Two Buck Chuck, rumors that Fred Franzia had enlisted Eli Trojan, then known as Shelley & Eve, to capture his Chardonnay’s Triple Gold at the 2013 Orange County Fair. “After an exhaustive investigation, I can happily report I was completely exonerated,” Franzia beamed. “And that was before I sent a case of my new Shaw Organic to my bud Bill Barr!”

On a final, sad coda to this tawdry scandal, millions of fans were dismayed to learn that the gold medal awarded the 2018 Vidal Blanc Eiswein from the eponymous Justin Estate in Stratford, Ontario, had been rescinded, following revelation of Bieber’s payoffs to Trojan. “First he quits music and now this!” a hardcore Belieber lamented. “It’s too much too absorb in a single week!”

However, not everyone felt so sanguine about the former pop star.  “He and Hailey still come in and sit in their pew, holding hands like star-crossed teenagers,” a fellow congregant at LA’s Hillsong Church skeptically noted. “They hardly appear contrite to me.” But as another ardent imbiber noted, this scandal spoke volumes about the legitimacy of all the medals awarded this year at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. “Think about it. What does this say about all of their awards, like the Sparkling Sweepstakes Winner?”

There’s a thrill upon the hill. Let’s go. Let’s go. Let’s go.

To say Your West Coast Oenophile attends more than a few tastings every year would be a bit of an understatement. I have been putting together the wine program at Sostevinobile for 10 years now, and with well over 4,700 hundred labels on our roster, that would mean I would have to had visited an average 1.287 wineries every single day for the past decade. A noble endeavor, to be sure, but it has only been through the various trade events that I have been able to accumulate such a diverse list.

At these events, the general principle is to taste from white and sparkling to rosé, then onto the reds. Sweet and fortified wines, if offered, come at the end, even if they are Late Harvest Chardonnays or Sauvignon Blancs or Sémillons. But sometimes it behooves me to go in reverse order, not to seem intentionally contrarian; rather, expediency makes this necessary.

And so today, I will report my weekend discoveries from last to first, primarily because I can do anything I want on this blog. Actually, it’s kind of a misnomer to label Johnson’s Alexander Valley a discovery. The sign from the road indicated they were open, the door to the tasting room was unlocked, but no one was there. I tried to access their Website, only to get a “cannot find the server www.johnsonsavwines.com error message from Safari. Their Facebook page last featured an entry in 2017, and Yelp reviews all cited a perplexing experience similar to my own.

A review from Sunset Magazine, circa 2013, notes Johnson’s signature feature, an organ that plays itself whenever someone orders a bottle of their wine, a marvelously eccentric touch—if there had been anyone on hand to pour! A few ¾ full bottles rested atop the bar, alongside some wine glasses of dubious sanitary condition, so, with no one looking, I tried two of these 2010 vintages. I’ll be charitable and just say they may well have been sitting there for the past nine years.

Before crossing over to Sonoma County, I spent the previous three days in Napa, primarily to attend the various festivities surrounding the annual Première Napa. Having not acquired an auction paddle, I drifted randomly Saturday morning, combing the winding roads of Spring Mountain and its neighboring Diamond Mountain appellation. My ultimate destination, the secluded enclave of Checkerboard, unwittingly eluded me as I naïvely entrusted the very speculative navigation on my iPhone’s built-in Map directions. I passed by Eeden, a relatively obscure producer of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Petite Sirah on Spring Mountain Road, but the open gate belied absence of anyone on hand to guide me through a tasting. From there, I ambled along St. Helena Highway and turned onto Diamond Mountain Road, just like Siri insisted. As I approached Kenyon Ranch Road, she instructed me to turn left, a seemingly incongruous option, as numerous signs posted at this juncture warned that the road was a dead end. Staying to the right, however, meant I would ultimately land up at Constant, unable to progress further, so I returned to the highway and manually found a more logical turnoff to Azalea Springs Way less than a mile behind me.

Siri’s inept piloting, though, proved rather fortuitous, as I stumbled upon the hitherto undiscovered Joseph Cellars about halfway to my destination. Few people outside of the wine industry realize that there are dozens, if not hundreds, of wineries throughout California that distribute exclusively to their direct-to-consumer member base; as such, they receive little fanfare and are discovered only through word-of-mouth or inadvertently, as I did.

This handsome Calistoga facility is still a work-in-progress, but produces a highly competent series of mainstream Napa wines. I was duly impressed with their 2016 Chardonnay St. Helena, a wine sourced from select nearby vineyards. Both their 2016 Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley and the proprietary 2013 Voyage, a Zinfandel/Petite Sirah blend, also sourced from Healdsburg, proved respectable. Standouts, however, came from their estate fruit, starting with the younger 2015 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. Even more impressive was the 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon Cellar Select, a wine showing beautifully at its peak. But the wine that most made me wish it had widespread distribution was the 2013 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, a lush expression of this pure varietal, whose full potential loomed at least 2-3 years away.

As always, I lingered far too long at the bar, chatting with the tasting room staff about everything from mutual wine connections to the new Aviatrix Grenache to insights into the Italian varietal landscape of the Temecula Valley. But I could only dally for so long before the lure of my intended discovery took hold. As an aside, it should be noted that serendipity in Napa has become far more difficult to come by in 2019, not because my forays for Sostevinobile have exhausted all that lies hidden throughout the Valley; rather, with the county is now strictly enforcing its visitation levels and requirements for by Appointment Only, along with undercover inspectors randomly visiting tasting rooms, the casual drop-in, even by members of the trade, has become a vestige of the past.

But sometimes fortuitous mistakes do happen. At the gateway to Checkerboard, I rang the call box and was invited to come on up what was nearly a two-mile driveway. Only when I arrived did the winery manager realize I was not his scheduled 2pm tasting, but my trek was not to be for naught. Inside their impressive wine cave, I was treated to a most generous sampling of the 2013 Impetuous. Winemaker Martha McClellan handcrafts this wine from Checkerboard’s three vineyard tiers, the Coyote Ridge Vineyard at 900′ elevation, the 1200′ Aurora Vineyard, and the apical Nash Creek Vineyard, towering at 2000′ above sea level. Each of these tracts also produces a single vineyard Cabernet I was not given a chance to try, but based on this blend, it will not be long before I return to complete the lineup.

Of course, this trip not lacking for tasting impressive Cabs. Over the years, I have learned to focus my energies on those Première tastings that can best augment the wine program at Sostevinobile, as well as looking to bolster the various projects I have underway with my tasting partnership with The Midway, my efforts to produce CalAsia, and the launch of Risorgimento, our new trade organization for California producers of Italian varietals. This agenda took me to First Taste Yountville, the eclectic tasting at Auberge du Soleil, the Coombsville PNV Preview Party, and the annual Bring Your Own Bottle party at Cliff Lede on Thursday, along with the 20 Case Preview reception at Freemark Abbey, Spottswoode’s Library Wines reception, Spring Mountain’s annual reception at Oddfellows Hall, the always revelatory Cherie and Phillipe Melka tasting at Brasswood, an impromptu session at Round Pond, and capping the evening off at Silverado Vineyards’ opulent House of Cab soirée.

Still, the high point of the festivities had to have been Première on the HillAbove the Cloudline on Pritchard Hill. I unfortunately had missed the 2018 rendition of this gathering, stilling reeling from the antibiotic regimen I had started in Lompoc, and was a bit apprehensive that this year’s session might be a replay of 2017, with its torrential rains causing Lake Hennessey to overrun and flood Sage Canyon Road along its shore. This year, with precipitation temporarily abating, the usually pellucid water turned a sinister muddy brown but remained confined below spill point. I arrived at Chappellet, my nostrils filled with wafts of burning clutch from plodding behind a torpid delivery van as it lumbered up the hill. But any lingering of this pungency was quickly dispelled by a salutatory glass of 2017 Grower Collection Chardonnay Sangiacomo Vineyard from our hosts as I entered their fabled barrel room. Once inside, I found myself amidst a veritable treasure trove of Napa’s most prestigious labels, several of which I had yearned for years just to sample. I immediately beelined for Colgin’s station, where Paul Roberts held court. He and I have been discussing my visit to the winery ever since I staged the Judgment of Piemonte on Pritchard Hill in 2016, during which time Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, dyslexically known as LVMH, acquired a majority stake in the winery. Still, the transition has proven anything but an impediment to the wines, which presented themselves nothing short of glorious. Even in its relative youth, the 2015 IX Estate proved a monumental blend of 62% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19% Cabernet Franc, 15% Merlot, and 4% Petit Verdot. But it was the 2007 IX Estate, with its higher concentrations of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, that nearly sent me tumbling down the hill. Little wonder the French titans wanted to add this brand to their luxury portfolio!

Two other labels had changed hands since my last visit. Ovid, a wonderfully eclectic winery, was sold by classics scholar Mark Nelson to the Cadillac of Napa, Silver Oak (who, in turn, had sold one of its properties to the Studebaker of Lodi, Michael David). Managing Partner Jack Bittner assured me that the wine programs here would be left autonomous and intact, welcome news to this label’s aficionados.The 2014 Ovid he poured this afternoon, a Meritage marrying 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Cabernet Franc, and 5% Merlot, proved redolent of the wondrous character that distinguishes Pritchard Hill. Meanwhile, one of Ovid’s most cherished hallmarks, the 2017 Experiment W4.7, a seeming anathema amid the overwhelming orthodoxy of Napa œnology, deftly blended Sauvignon Blanc, Grenache Blanc, Albariño, Roussanne, Picpoul Blanc, Viognier, Vermentino, and Marsanne into a pan-European white delight.

Someday I may actually meet a vintner who aspires to leave the wine realm and undertake a second career in technology. Last year, Ed and Deb Fitts sold Brand to former Apple executives Jim Bean and Christine O’Sullivan. I shudder to think what Microsoft veterans might have done to this magnificent label, but so far, the transition to the new ownership seems seamless. A preview of their 2016 Brio, a splendid rendition of a Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot. More compelling—the 2016 Proprietary Blend, in which 65% Cabernet Franc stood predominant over the Cabernet Sauvignon. But the 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon, a pure expression of the varietal, proved Brand’s most compelling offering this afternoon.

The name Pritchard Hill, though now in the common vernacular, remains the domain of host winery Chappellet. Many, including myself, could offer compelling reason why it should be nomenclature for the eventual AVA everyone anticipates for this special nook, but for now their enticing 2016 Pritchard Hill Cabernet Sauvignon, a distinctive Bordeaux blend rounded out with 5% Malbec and 5% Petit Verdot, is its sole eponymous wine. Accompanying this vintage was the pre-release of their Auction lot, the 2017 Chappellet Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, a pure expression of the varietal from select estate blocks.

Inarguably, the predominant presence on Pritchard Hill is the Long family, with two wineries and an original stake of 1,000 acres, obtained originally in the 1960s for cattle ranching! Long esteemed for its original cult wine, David Arthur here poured its 2016 Elevation 1147, the current rendition of the 1997 wine that put them on the viticultural map. This astoundingly rich wine preceded the 2017 vintage, here in pre-release for Première, a vintage showing slightly less opulent here, with portent for greatness in another 10 years.

David Arthur had been the site of my aforementioned Judgment of Piemonte, which had featured my “ringer,” Sebastopol’s Nebbiolo maestro Emilio Castelli. Besides our Italian heritage, Emilio and I share the common bond of having been dispatched to an Eastern boarding school at a tender young age. Also part of this rarefied realm, Gandona vintner Manuel Pires. As he did at the Melka gathering, Manuel here previewed a pair of his wines, the 2016 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2016 Encosta Cabernet Sauvignon, both equally appealing.

In the age of the iPhone, I often find myself reaching into my pocket to locate the recesses of my memory. I believe I had had the occasion before to sample Nine Suns, but regardless, finding them at this event was a revelation. Here Jason Chang, another Melka client, generously poured his 2012 Nine Suns Red Wine, a modestly titled Meritage of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, and Petit Verdot from their estate’s Houyi Vineyard.

The devastating North Coast fires in 2017 destroyed much of Atlas Peak but mostly spared Krupp Brothers’ fabled Stagecoach Vineyard, sold earlier to Gallo, which straddles Pritchard Hill. And with grapes from these plantings comprising their 2017 Synchrony Napa Valley, no hint smoke taint seemed apparent.

The acquisition of Stagecoach may have been the most startling deal of 2017, yet for those of us who dabble in winery M&A, the sale of Robert Mondavi to Constellation 15 years ago still reverberates. In its stead, Tim Mondavi and his sister Marcia, along with their legendary father, set out to build an even more extraordinary estate atop Pritchard. Continuum has become a marvel to behold, with exceptional wines to match. Its current release the 2016 Continuum, a masterful blend of 46% Cabernet Sauvignon, 31% Cabernet Franc, 18% Petit Verdot, and 5% Merlot was as marvelous as any vintage of this wine I have previously sampled, while the 2017 Estate PNV Red Wine, their exclusive Première bottling, balanced with 72% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Cabernet Franc, 9% Merlot, and 2% Petit Verdot.

I concluded this session with my introduction to Bryant Estate, another of Pritchard Hill’s discreet cult producers. With 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, the 2012 Bettina Proprietary Red Blend could easily have been  labeled a single varietal, though perhaps in deference its indescribably wondrous 2013 Bryant Family Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, it kept its more modest moniker.

My friend Helen Keplinger had previously been winemaker at Bryant before moving onto Grace Family Vineyards, another cult classic that so far has eluded me. For that matter, so has Villa del Lago, Vérité, Patrimony, Sine Qua Non, and Ghost Horse’s Apparition, Spectre, and Premonition. But now Sostevinobile has made it to the top of the hill, the rest are within easy sight.