Category Archives: Uncategorized

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.

CXVIII

One needn’t have taken 12 years of Latin, as did Your West Coast Oenophile, to interpret the Roman numeral subject of this, my latest blog post. The other night, I ambled out to explore a couple of San Francisco’s newest drinking establishments, both of which hold pertinence to my designs for Sostevinobile’s forthcoming brick & mortar operations. Obispo is a much-anticipated cocktail bar from the team that created Bar Agricole and True Normand in San Francisco. Five years in the making, it is both wildly ambitious and strikingly understated at the same time. As SF Eater notes, Obispo is Thad Vogler’s “most straightforward offering yet: a simple but effective bar celebrating rum, classic rum cocktails, and food from rum-producing regions.”

It’s admirable that a bar of this caliber eschews the trend toward untenable pricing that would preclude most denizens of the Mission neighborhood where Obispo operates. On the other hand, printing its menus in Spanish seems to be pandering. But what most impresses here is that the authenticity of its cocktail menus, with its focus on the true rums of the Caribbean and their historical background, a culmination of Vogler’s meticulous scholarship on rum and distilled spirits, chronicled in his tome By the Smoke and the Smell.

I first met Thad while he was bartending for Charles Phan at his first non-Vietnamese venture, Heaven’s Dog. We bonded over mutual aspirations to open our first establishment—coincidentally, I had already toured but turned down the opportunity to lease the new redevelopment at 355 11th Street, which eventually became home to his debut venture—but what I found truly revelatory was the meticulous scholarship he employed in researching and developing his authority on rum and spirits, a skill he honed as a literature major at Yale. Having a couple of Ivy League literature degrees myself, I realized that if I undertook my research into West Coast viticulture with the same academic intensity as Thad’s, I could position myself in unique vantage within the wine industry. Ten years later, I am ready to put my theory to test.

From Obispo, I toddled over to Third Street to experience the newly-launched Ungrafted, the first large-scale wine bar to open in San Francisco in quite a few years. The brainchild of husband & wife sommeliers Chris Gaither and Rebecca Fineman, this split-level, 90-seat establishment is close, structurally, to what I have projected for the wine bar/restaurant portion of Sostevinobile. From this standpoint, I was duly impressed. The layout still felt cozy and intimate, like a small venue, but dynamic in a way the ubiquitous living room-style winebars can never quite achieve. Importantly, Ungrafted’s 20′ ceilings enabled wonderful acoustics, allowing for ease of conversation even with ambient music playing in the background.

As with Bar Agricole, I had also scoped out this sector of Dogpatch as a possible site, soon after the galleries at Minnesota Street Project had opened, but had felt the area was not sufficiently frequented to support my needs. Surprisingly, Ungrafted was fairly full this evening, with a decidedly mixed crowd, which I also took to be encouraging. But Ungrafted is a far different beast than Sostevinobile will be. As the wine program is handled by its two owners and operated by additional sommeliers as well, their by-the-glass program appears to be predominantly focused on food-pairing wines—quite suitable if you intend to dine there, difficult to swallow, if you had come merely to enjoy a glass on its own. I found myself sampling through three or four selections before settling on a compromise choice. Moreover, their paucity of California wines implicitly reflects the prevalent sommelier prejudice against our local offerings, while relying on such exotic-sounding labels as the 2016 Umathum Zweigelt/Blaüfrankisch/St. Laurent Rosé or the 2017 Heimann Kadarka Szekszárd to create the veneer of sophistication and depth.

Coincidentally, while inspecting their restroom facilities, I came across a hanging of the ever-ubiquitous De Long’s Wine Grape Varietal Table, a fabled chart that categorizes some 180 different grape varietals used for vinification, including non-vitis vinifera, like Delaware and Niagara. Idling myself for an inconsiderate length of time to read through this extensive, though hardly exhaustive list, I counted 118 grapes that I have sourced in wines produced in California, Washington, and Oregon. Plus, I could easily name another 40 or 50 varietals, originating from multiple regions in Georgia, Greece, Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, not included on this chart that are currently in production here, with more cuttings being suitcased in every year.

As I have been promising for a decade, Sostevinobile will be featuring the most diverse selection of wines San Francisco has to offer, all from the 750-mile radius that defines our local, sustainable realm. I am looking forward to serving you there.

Another Red Lettuce Day

Your West Coast Oenophile did not own a television during my time in grad school. One wonders how, or even whether, Sostevinobile would have evolved if I had been able to watch Monday Night Football instead of reading Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls for Victor Terras’ Russian seminar. consequently, I didn’t hear of John Lennon’s murder that fateful evening until I got onto the elevator at Rockefeller Library.

Nonetheless, I still reflect on Lennon every December and hum tunes like Jealous Guy as I type. For sure, GenXers and Millennials will be familiar with The Beatles and their vast musical catalogue, together or separately. Few, I suspect, will know of John’s books like A Spaniard in the Works or In His Own Write. These books may seem a tad jejune at this stage—what 26-year-old writer wouldn’t?—but were considered avant-garde when they were published. A memorable play on words, derived from one of the short stories in the latter volume, A Red Lettuce Day, is a term I have borrowed on multiple occasions.

And as December and 2018 drew to a close, such a day coalesced. For starters, my longheld desire to relaunch a trade association for local producers of Italian varietals is finally underway. Our organizational meeting for Risorgimento takes place in Healdsburg on January 27, and with some 676 wineries in our database so far, this promises to be quite a dynamic presence in the West Coast wine scene.

I am hoping that Risorgimento will be producing its first Grand Tasting, CalAsia 2019, for the trade and public later this year, especially now that I can offer this and any major wine organization a first-rate venue. Astute readers will recall that Sostevinobile and its partner, The Midway, hosted Family Winemaker of California Grand Tasting last August as our inaugural wine event. After setting up the Risorgimento launch, I fired off invites to over 95 trade organizations and wine distributors to produce their trade events with us. Responses have been trickling in ever since, and—sorry, Fort Mason—I feel confident that we will now have the premier destination for trade tastings in 2019.

And, of course, I am cautiously optimistic that, at long last, Sostevinobile will be launching San Francisco’s premier wine bar in late 2019 at our soon-to-be-revealed NOPA destination. The past year had seen much frustration in negotiating a deal for our three-story building with our angel backer, but, with a successful phone conference this same Red Lettuce Day, we are back to sitting at the table and ironing out parameters.

I shudder to think it has take me close to a decade finally to get this massive project underway, but the prolonged process has had its benefits. Our databank now includes some 4,256 sustainable wine producers on the West Coast, encompassing well over 150 distinct varietals, plus a vast selection of blends, Meritages, fortified and sparkling wines. Plus, the new premises and design will allow us to include a full retail shop and Club SVN, a members-only salon and wine club for serious wine aficionados—details forthcoming.

And then, of course, there is this little deal in China I have going…

Atlas Peak Shrugged

Your West Coast Oenophile has no compunction in admitting I have never read Rudolph Steiner. Nor Ayn Rand. Nor L.Ron Hubbard. Sostevinobile is developing a growing appreciation for the superiority (if not necessity) of biodynamic farming, but Anthroposophy is a whole other matter. And neither is it an intellectual shortcoming not to be familiar with the tenets of Scientology. Or Objectivism. I have never had any use for her tiny little acolyte Alan Greenspan. Nor her soon-to-be-retired adherent Paul Ryan. But now permit me to segue from her tome Atlas Shrugged to the near-entombed Atlas Peak AVA. Last year’s Atlas Fire devastated the region, with 51,624 acres burned, along with 6,781 structures destroyed and an additional 120 structures damaged. A tragedy of this scale might easily have driven the entire AVA to throw in the proverbial towel, but even the scourge of climate change and its drastic consequences could not overcome the resolve of these vintners to once again stage their annual Taste of Atlas Peak.

Even so, it was heart-wrenching to assay the impact this maelstrom had on the region, especially in light of how consistently superb the wines that survived still proved. Alpha Omega, which is based in Rutherford, poured its exceptional 2016 Stagecoach Vineyards 100% Cabernet Sauvignon and showcased the 2010 vintage as its library selection. But will this storied wine see a future vintage?

I won’t hazard a guess why most other wineries on hand featured older Cabernets than AΩ did. Certainly, the 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon that Dos Lagos Vineyards featured was redolent of just how rich and complex this AVA’s offering s can be at its peak.and while their 2014 vintage did not quite equal the luxuriousness of its subsequent version, I was quite impress with both their 2017 Sauvignon Blanc and a none-too-elusive 2014 Cloaked in Secrecy Chardonnay.The reincarnation of Antinori’s pioneering Atlas Peak winery, Antica Napa Valley, no longer focuses on its pioneering Sangiovese, and here presented a similar lineup to Dos Lagos’. Uniformly competent were their bottlings of the 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon, their 2016 A26 Chardonnay, and an approachable 2017 Sauvignon Blanc.

The trend this afternoon generally favored the previous vintage. Now operating as a virtual winery, Michael Mondavi Family Estate, represented by 3rd generation vintner Rob Mondavi, performed admirably with their 2014 Animo Cabernet Sauvignon. Another multigenerational family, Rombauer Vineyards, here for the first time since the passing of Koerner Rombauer earlier this year, impressed with their 2014 Altas Peak 100% Cabernet Sauvignon.Randy Wulff’s cleverly-named Lobo Wines also offered their solid 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, while Lagniappe Peak poured their flagship 2014 Père Cabernet Sauvignon and, as if to show their label were not a misnomer, a lagniappe of their 2014 DBA, a sumptuous blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Merlot.

I can only marvel at Michael Parmenter being on hand this afternoon, after his entire VinRoc Wine Caves were lost in the conflagration. From his past vintages, he poured a truly exceptional 2015 CHARDonnay alongside the standout 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon. These standards were ably complemented by the 2013 RTW, a proprietary blend of ½ Cabernet Sauvignon blended with Merlot and Syrah. Also rising like a Phoenix from their ashes, Sill Family learned that their 2015 Atlas Peak Estate très Cabernet Sauvignon had been named 2018 Wine of the Year at the 2018 CWSA Hong Kong International Wine Competition just one week after their winery burnt to the ground. This luxurious blend of 95% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Merlot, 1% Cabernet Franc, 1% Malbec, and 1% Petite Verdot proved a true highlight of the afternoon, coupled with Igor Sill’s generous sharing of his 2014 Atlas Peak Cabernet Sauvignon, the opulent 2015 très Chardonnay, and a unique 2016 très Chardonnay de Rosé.

The winery at Prime Solum escaped unscathed by last year’s fires; not so owner Bill Hill’s residence. Still, Bill was here in force, alongside General Manager Kevin O’Brien, with their 2017 Rosé and a well-balanced 2013 Circle R Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, a mélange of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Petit Verdot, a varietal that had been prominently featured at his eponymous label that Gallo acquired. While Prime Solum omits Malbec from its blend, the grape was the sole focus this afternoon by host Black Stallion, the premium Napa label from the Delicato portfolio. Readers here, of course, know I have been championing Malbec, along with Mourvèdre, as the rising star of the California wine industry, and here the 2015 Malbec rivaled the apex of Paso Robles’ bottlings.This wine, alone, made my trip north worthwhile.

I wish I could do more at this time to help out the Atlas Peak AVA. Fortunately, two of the afternoon’s participants will hopefully be part of my rescheduled CalAsia 2019 Tasting early next year. Eric Yuan’s Acumen Wine has long been prominent presence at Taste of Atlas Peak, As in years past, their lineup here proved consistently delightful, starting with the 2015 PEAK Sauvignon Blanc. The 2013 Mountainside Merlot was equally pleasurable, as was the 2014  PEAK Cabernet Sauvignon. New to this event, Gordon Kaung’s iNapaWine proved an amazing discovery, with a splendidly balanced 2012 Premium Cabernet Sauvignon that belied the jeunesse of this venture. An exceptional discovery, to be sure.


Taste of Atlas Peak is not alone in resurrecting from the detritus of calamities past. some eight years have passed since the storied Pinot in the River debacle. Returning to the security of Healdsburg Plaza, this year’s Pinot on the River portends to be the tasting of the fall in Sonoma. Sostevinobile will be there. Hope to see you there, as well.

Not to be confused with Pâté de Foie Gras

Your West Coast Oenophile is hitting the road this month for several events not previously chronicled here. Even with my database for Sostevinobile now exceeding 4,400 wine labels, there are new ventures to discover and explore, new alliances to be formed—almost on a daily basis. With my new partnership in producing wine tastings, the hope is that many undiscovered labels and West Coast wine regions will be coming to me, but until I can build enough momentum, I continue to go out in the field and meet the wineries on their turf.

Not that it’s bad to escape the pressures of urban living, traipse around the vineyards and garner a healthy layer of mud on my well-worn Lucchese boots.Or wander about a verdant lawn where 20 or so vineyards are showcasing their latest releases. And so it was my anticipation as I headed out to the northernmost AVA in Napa for this year’s Calistoga Wine Experience.

Calistoga vineyards may predate statehood, but the AVA here was not officially designated until 2010; as such, I have not had many opportunities to taste a wide selection of these wines collectively and not on their own turf since their inaugural event at Première Napa a few years back. And so it came as quite a surprise that this gathering on the turf at Pioneer Park, a tiny, pristine suburban oasis alongside the Napa River, just off of downtown’s Lincoln Avenue was covered in its entirety with Astroturf!  Or—pardon my Franglais—to put it more succinctly, a Partée de Faux Grass!

Still, the wines were quite genuine and delectable, accentuated by an abundance of shrimp and other catered hors d’œuvres. Not surprisingly, these crevettes were perfectly complemented by the 2014 Sauvignon Blanc from Jones Family Vineyards, a multi-generational Calistoga institution. I also cottoned to the immense 2015 Huge Bear Chardonnay Sonoma County from Huge Bear, and a delightful 2016 Chardonnay from Vincent Arroyo.

Given Calistoga’s proximity to Knight’s Valley, it is not uncommon to find grapes, particularly white varietals, sourced from just over the border, but no other region can rival Calistoga for its signature varietal, Charbono.While there may be arguments about this grape’s pedigree or even its DNA, there can be no denying that it makes for a most appealing wine, particularly from its heirloom clone.I have long championed Tofanelli for its mastery of this grape, and the 2015 Charbono poured here perpetuated this admiration. The surprise here, though, was discovering their 2013 Estate Grenache, an equally compelling wine.

From the eastern side of Calistoga, the revitalized August Briggs showcased their exemplary 2015 Calistoga Napa Valley Charbono, a spritely expression of this exuberant grape. I would have expected Shypoke also to be pouring their Charbono; instead, featured an exceptional 2015 Olivia’s Sangiovese.Calistoga.Plus, their 2015 Keep married a select blend ofCharbono, Grenache and Petite Sirah. Because it falls outside the central thoroughfare of Napa Valley, Calistoga is more apt to veer from the Bordeaux orthodoxy of the Yountville-Oakville-Rutherford-St. Helena continuum, as other outlier AVAs like Coombsville also practice. A wondrous expression of innovative mélange came from the venerable Storybook Mountain, whose 2014 Antaeus blended Zinfandel with Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, and Merlot. 2880 Wines countered with a Rhône-style blend of Grenache, Petite Sirah, and Petit Verdot, their 2014 Twenty-Eight Eighty Red Wine.

Of course, true Bordelaise expressions also abound in Calistoga, starting with the splendid 20015 Cabernet Sauvignon from Jack Brooks, the microproducer that had extended me the invite for this afternoon. Renowned for its Chardonnay, Château Montelena nonetheless furnished an exquisite 2014 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, a delicate blend with only 2% Cabernet Franc and 1% Petit Verdot added. New ownership has brought considerable changes to Clos Pégase, but their superbly matured 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon poured here harkens back to their Jan Shrem era.

Other notable Cabs came from Poggi, with their 2014 Twin Palms Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (like the Montelena, slightly rounded out with Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Merlot) and from Olabisi, their 2014 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, selected form designate vineyards in Calistoga, Rutherford, and Atlas Peak. I have long thought of Jax as one of San Francisco’s urban wineries, but with their vineyards in Calistoga, they constitute a vibrant part of this AVA, as evidenced by their delightful 2016 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, an approachable young wine tempered with 3% Cabernet Franc.

In 2017, Cabernet Franc actually commanded a higher price per ton in Napa than its offshoot, Cabernet Sauvignon. A wondrous expression of this varietal came from Kenefick Ranch, the 2014 Cabernet Franc Caitlin’s Select, a hand-harvested estate wine. Though labeled as a Meritage, Canard’s standout, the 2014 Adam’s Blend presented an even more Cabernet Franc-focused blend, with a scant 5% Merlot and 4% Cabernet Sauvignon rounding it out. Under its Sempre Vive label, Romeo Vineyards vastly impressed with its varietal 2015 Petit Verdot,

On this warm evening, I found myself particularly impressed with the panoply of wines Switchback Ridge poured here. The bold, expressive 2014 Merlot Peterson Family Vineyard soared alongside the 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon Peterson Family Vineyard. Winemaker Bob Foley has long been justly revered for his Cabernets, but here showed himself equally adept the 2013 Petite Sirah from the same estate site. Nonetheless, his hallmark had to have been the utterly opulent 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, a near-flawless library offering.

I finished off the event with  Calistoga Winegrowers’ former President Tom Eddy, an unheralded vintner greatly revered by wine connoisseurs. Usually I am dealing with palate fatigue at this point in a tasting of this scope, but for once they saved the best for last, the 2013 Napa Valley Cabernet, a multivineyard blend accentuated with 17% Malbec, the unheralded star of Bordeaux’ Big Five red varietals. Look for both wine and winemaker to come into promince in 2019.