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A Tale between Two Cities

Your West Coast Oenophile is not above resorting to cliché on occasion. Like for so many others, for years Paso Robles was the place to refill the tank and take a leak when driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles (or vice-versa). But ever since I launched Sostevinobile, this central coast hamlet has become so much more. And since the COVID-pandemic. Paso has emerged as the nexus between these antipoles, drawing thousands of new residents from both North and South while blossoming into a full-fledged resort destination, much as Healdsburg did a couple of decades ago.

Admittedly, the wine communities I encounter outside of Napa & Sonoma often consist of a hodgepodge of endeavors, a handful of prestigious labels alongside a wide swath of lesser endeavors. With its 11 sub-AVAs, however, Paso Robles can now hold its own as one of California’s top-tier appellations. But producing great wines is only part of the equation; marketing and promotion of the region is equally important, if not more so in the  hypercompetitive environment the myopic distribution system has fostered.

Lately, I have been surveying the big chain liquor stores and supermarkets to gain an appreciation of how they handle wines, specifically the California and West Coast producers on which I focus. The lack of diversity in these offerings is both astonishing and appalling. White wines are virtually limited to Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, with perhaps two or three Rieslings like Kung Fu Girl, a paltry Pinot Grigio, and, occasionally, a sacchrine-sweet Moscato. On the red side, there are Cabernt Sauvignons, Merlots, Pinot Noirs, and Zinfandels, with unspecified Syrah blends and perhaps a mislabeled Petite Sirah. Your average consumeer has no idea that wines like Grenache, Mourvèdre, Carignane, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Aglianico, Dolcetto, Sangiovese, St. Laurent, Valdiguié, Kerner, Blaufränkish, Pinotage, Saperavi, Tempranillo, Graciano, Albariño, Arinto, Assyrtiko, Rkatsiteli, Chasselas Doré, Colombard, Sémillon, Roussanne, Marsanne, Dreirebe, Fiano, Vermentino, Verdelho, Verdejo, Arneis, etc. even exist.

Which is why in 2023 trade tastings and associations are more important than ever for the growers and producers of these “esoteric” varietals, in order to gain any semblance of awareness of their wines. And in 2023, no organization does this better than Rhône Rangers, particularly with its revived Rhône Rangers Experience in Paso Robles. I trekked down to the Paso Robles Event Center, a charming faux-Western town near the northern end of the city, for my second visit to this event since the COVID pandemic. Normally, this is the time of year I am inundated with trade events; 2023 was no exception, with Rhône Rangers sandwiched between ZinEx and Première Napa (also the Garagiste Festival in Solvang, but car troubles prevented me from attending). But where the other two events had notably dwindled from their more robust past, Rhône Rangers flourished with even greater vitality this year.

Granted, attendance may have been slightly down, but the reduced crowd made for easy navigation from table-to-table and kept the atmosphere festive.  More importantly, with over 70 wineries on hand, a significant portion traveled from regions outside of San Luis Obispo county, including Ventura, Santa Barbara, Napa, Sonoma, Lodi, Monterey, the Sierra Foothills, and several Oregon locales, testimony to their belief not only in the event but in this organization.

Over the past several decades, I have owed much of my wine education to major trade events, including Rhône Rangers when it was a mainstay at Fort Mason. Most of the other Grand Tastings are now at a standstill, with dwindling attendance and a mere fraction of their constituent wineries participating. Moreover, they have lacked the necessary dynamic to attract the up & coming under-30 age bracket. Coupled with the myopia of the distribution network, it would almost seem that the validity of these events has run its course.

Except for what Rhône Rangers has shown. First, they have a clearly focus, defined not by a theme or region, but in a specific category of varietals. To its advantage, the sheer number of different grapes, along with their propensity for formulating an even wider array of blends, means there is enough diversity here to satisfy almost any taste. Secondly, the singular focus of this event is to create awareness of its membership and the wines they produce. Thirdly, this tasting has just the right balance: not prohibitively costly, which underscores the accessibility of these wines; a healthy balance of (catered) food and wine that keeps things from becoming a drunkfest; no shortcutting the materials and accessories trade and media need to ply their trade and ultimately bring greater recognition to these 23 varietals and the wines they produce.

Lastly, with a casual, down home venue, an up & coming, dynamic destination, and all the right elements in place, little wonder attendees traveled from as far north as the Bay Area and as far south as San Diego. To put things simply, the Rhône Rangers Experience is a sheer joyful event.

Moving forward, the organization has elected new leadership for 2023, with their incoming President heralding from Oregon. And with regional events being revived, it is a clear sign that a focused, committed trade organization still has the ability to make a difference in the wine realm. Suffice it to say, I expect it will be a long time before someone has to ask me “what’s a Counoise?” again!

Blank de blanc

Your West Coast Oenophile wonders whether 2023 will prove the make-or-break year for Sostevinobile. The realities of the post-COVID landscape are still slowly sinking in, starting with the new economics of the restaurant & bar realm. I had envisioned being able to offer the majority of our wines in the $12-15 range; is the new norm of $17/glass viable?

On top of that, the latest State of the Industry report from Silicon Valley Bank paints a rather gloomy picture of wine’s prospects among the Millennials. To paraphrase a familiar rhetorical question, “suppose I built a wine bar and nobody came?” Ever since life as we used to know it came to a grinding halt in 2019, I have been focusing my energies on a number of major wine-related and restaurant projects, principally in countries that weathered the pandemic far more smoothly than we did in California, with the goal of raising enough capital to fund the development of Sostevinobile as a private wine club, with ancillary facilities as a public wine bar, café, and retail shop devoted exclusively to the wines of the ecological continuum of the Northern Pacific West Coast (British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, California, and Baja), a projected facility not dissimilar to Wine Spectator’s WS on Manhattan’s West Side. But if such a venture proves merely a bottomless pit, I might as well buy myself a yacht instead.

OK, so maybe I ought not be so pessimistic. Wine has always had its share of disaffecting the young consumers market, only to be embraced as it grows beyond the sheer hedonism that youth inculcates; eight millennia of history have shown as much. So even if my white beard doesn’t resonate with the under-30 crowd, I can certainly assemble a perspicacious team with insights into the mindsets of their generation. And having vetted more than 5,200 labels over the course of my current wine career, I feel I should be able to tailor a plethora of wine programs that resonate with their preferences.

What I cannot hire, however, is an appreciation of flavors that do not align with my palate. I notoriously loathe eggs, especially soft-boiled (and god forbid anyone ever offer me an egg salad sandwich)! And I have a similar aversion to blue cheese, apart from the occasional Gorgonzola. Over the years, my tastes have migrated from a tolerance for keg-spouted lager in college basements to the point that I spent the entirety of 2022 without imbibing a single beer. And in the wine realm, I have long struggled to develop an unbridled appreciation for Sauvignon Blanc.

My introduction to this varietal came at a time when California expressions were, frankly, close to awful. Sure, Robert Mondavi had his pioneering Fumé Blanc, but even this rendition struck me as somewhat lackluster. But it was the grassiness of most Sauv Blancs in the 1980s that colored my palate and precipitated my reluctance toward this varietal. Over the years, vintages smoothed and varied stylistically, rounded out from blending with Sémillon or deftly balanced with Sauvignon Musqué, I gradually gained a more nuanced understanding of this wine. I will even go as far as crediting Mendocino’s Greenwood Ridge not only with being the first Sauvignon Blanc that truly appealed but also the first organic wine to demonstrate the potential superiority of this viticultural standard.

And yet, I still never reached the stage where a trip to the local wine shop had me beelining to the Sauv Blanc section. Sure, I knew many times when it would have paired well with the fish entrée I was preparing, particularly a sole or halibut dish, but instead I would opt for a Pinot Blanc or a Falanghina or the utter versatility of an Albariño, if these wines were available—not to mention Roussanne or Chasselas Doré or even Colombard.*

As we got deeper into this century, Sauvignon Blanc began to undergo a resurgence, led by New Zealand. But whenever I had a chance to sample these bottlings, all I encountered were echoes of the cloying citrus flavors that I had found so alienating 40 years ago. Thereafter, the grape apparently experienced a California renaissance, to the extent that wineries were scrounging to find enough tonnage to meet their demands. Propelling this new wave of interest were glowing reviews in Wine Spectator and other trade journals. And, of course, there was the mystique of Screaming Eagle’s Sauvignon Blanc, a wine whose lofty price tag makes it the most expensive bottling produced in North America.

And so I decided to take the plunge. And yes, I found a number of selections to be quite amiable, if not highly worthwhile options when Chardonnay clearly won’t do. But nothing truly jazzed me until I stumbled upon the 2017 Peak Sauvignon Blanc from Acumen at Grocery Outlet. It may seem counterintuitive for a wine professional to be shopping at a bargain market, but for those who have the patience, these venues are a secret gem in the Bay Area. Most of their wine selections are failures from innumerable “I can get into the wine business by buying up $5,000 worth of bulk and slapping on my own label” ventures that litter the landscape of American Canyon and other outlying regions, as well as remainders from ventures like Rock Wall or Kenneth Volk that elected to close their doors. In addition to these latter bargains, a number of well-established wineries like Raymond and Monticello have sold allotments of their lower-tier selections here, likely stemming from the wine glut that occurred just prior to COVID.

To be honest, I have no idea how a relatively boutique operation like Acumen fits int this spectrum, especially given that their Peak portfolio represents their premium selections. Nonetheless, when I saw a wine of this caliber marked down to $17, I decided to gamble. The result? The first Sauvignon Blanc I can recall purchasing on a second, third, and fourth occasion. In other words, a truly remarkable wine that has finally opened my eyes to the potential of this varietal—put in the right hands. But now the question stands: does a Sauvignon Blanc need to be at a $75 price point to warrant my encomiums?

To be continued…

*In selecting these varietals, I still remain steadfast in my commitment to wines produced on the West Coast. But the three-tier distribution system and the consolidation of megabrands within the industry makes their obtaining even a semblance of shelf space and increasing rarity.

Volk’s waggin’

Your West Coast Oenophile is somewhat reluctant ever to plug a retail wine operation—after all, this represents a large part of what Sostevinobile hopes to be doing as the pre-eminent purveyor of wines of the North American Pacific Coast. But the pandemic caused a radical reconfiguration  of my business objectives, and while we seem finally vack to a semblance of normalcy, it’s still impossible to assess the new terrain of San Francisco objectively. And so many of the mechanisms I devised in order to cope with the constraints of COVID restrictions remain ingrained in my weekly routine.

Granted, I have enough wine on hand to coast through a year or more without purchasing a bottle, but a $60 or $70 wine needs to be shard, not consumed in solitary isolation. And with that in mind—coupled by a long-standing inability to visit wineries and utilize my trade discount—I soon discovered the wonders of Grocery Outlet Bargain Market. In the past, of course, I’ve brokered sales of surplus inventory to this outfit, but I had not previously experienced them as a customer. I anticipated they would somewhat of grocery equivalent to Ross Dress for Less or  Smart & Final, and, to a large extent, this analogy bears true.

On the other, Grocery Outlet wine section is impressively vast—that it, until you inspect the labels. Like Trader Joe’s or BevMo or the now-debunked California specialists Total Wine, many of the selections are in-house private labels of dubious origin. Others apparently come from ill-begotten attempts to launch a private label, often at a mass custom crush facility in places like American Canyon. One surefire sign of mediocrity is a label that lists California as its place of origin, rather than a county or specific AVA. But interspersed among these dubious bottlings, a savvy connoisseur can often find a sprinkling of incredible bargains. Sometimes it’s a slow-moving product that a winery allocates to make room for their other selections, like the Presidential Red from Monticello Vineyards that sold briskly at $12.99/bottle or a Joel Gott Grenache, a steal at $4.99.

Other times, a notable winery will shut down and sell Grocery Outlet the bulk of their remaining inventory, which can be substantial. Throughout the pandemic, I greatly enjoyed numerous selections from Michel-Schlumberger, a winery actively seeking new ownership, whose selections at Grocery Outlet seem endless. As did those from Rock Wall, which unloaded its unsold inventory after deciding to disband.

The most recent steals, however, have come from Kenneth Volk, the pioneering Santa Maria winemaker famed for his Cabernet Pfeffer, as well as for his various Rhône-style bottlings. Ken, who was the first president of Rhône Rangers, suffered a debilitating stroke a few years back; his condition has reluctantly compelled him to close his winery and dispense with his wines still on hand, which date back to 2013. It seems Grocery Outlet will be staggering these selections, which, so far, not only have included Pinot Noir and red Rhônes like Petite Sirah and Tannat but also Blaufränkish and a wondrous Souzåo. All of which are utterly steals at $5.99!

Each of the Grocery Outlets individually manages its own inventory, so you are apt to find different selections even among stores in the same city. So, go ahead, peruse the shelves and see what you discover. You never know what gems you may find amid the Uncle Billy, Fox in the Hen House, Séance, and the Pra Vinera!

Total Why? and More

There are times Your West Coast Oenophile finds himself short on wine. Not that my cellar is depleted, but occasionally I may not have the right wine for that evening’s dinner, or anything approximately close, on hand. So when Sostevinobile duties had me traveling down to Los Gatos for the trade tasting with the Santa Cruz Mountain Winegrowers Association, I considered swinging by Total Wine & More in Daly City on my way back on 280. Coincidentally, just before I departed from San Francisco, I received a Flash Sale notice, offering $20 off the purchase of three or more bottles, and , with that, my mind was set.

The Santa Cruz tasting was most pleasant: small crowd; ample catering:a mere eleven wineries, including Cabernet legends Ridge, Mount Eden, and Kathryn Kennedy to taste through. In other words, hardly the kind of onerous event some tastings turn out to be. Of course, the event was not without its dose of theatrics, but once the histrionics had died down, I headed up the Peninsula to meet a college friend for happy hour at the Stanford Faculty Club.

Admittedly, if I could have secured a position at Stanford, I would probably have finished my PhD in Comparative Literature and remained in academia. It’s a fascinating university, a near-idyllic setting amidst the sprawl of Silicon Valley, and, quite importantly, extremely well-endowed. Having top-notch students would have been a critical factor for me—who wants to be burdened with teaching remedial skills that ought to have been learned in high school?—and to have ready access to a world-class metropolis like San Francisco would have sealed the deal. Little wonder Jim has spent his entire career here.

But an academic career would have kept me from my level of involvement in the wine realm, so ultimately I decided to apply my finely-honed research skills to acquiring an encyclopedic knowledge of the West Coast wine industry, so I feel my time in grad school was not spent in vain. The same, however, could not be said for my side trip to Total Wine. The store in Daly City is vast, at least twice the size of any of the local BevMo shops here. And the chain boasts of having the largest selection of California wines, compared to chains like the aforementioned BevMo, Trader Joe’s, Costco, etc. And, yes, their selection is vast, however…

Now I was in search of a white wine to pair with the chicken dish I had on tap for the evening, and, of course, I was only interested in a West Coast bottling. Total Wine offered nearly an entire aisle of Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs, but I was the mood for something else. Off to the side, there was a tiny selection of Other Whites, which turned out to be mostly sweet wines like Moscato, along with a generic Riesling from Kung Fu Girl. But a Rhône White like a Roussanne or Picpoul Blanc? Or an Italian varietal such as Vermentino or Fiano? No Sémillons or Grüner Veltliners. No Chenin Blancs. No Pinot Blancs. Not even a local Pinot Grigio or Ramato! I could find more diversity in a 7-11!

And so, I returned to the mainstream aisle. After a cursory inspection of the Sauvignon Blancs, I reluctantly combed through the 100+ Chardonnays, hoping to find a clean, unoaked interpretation that suited my needs. And there I discovered that the $20 off three bottles only applied to their Winery Direct selections. Sure, there were a number of high-end labels included here, but an $80 bottle is not in my Wednesday evening dinner budget. But low & behold, virtually every one of their reasonably priced Chards were the private label brands they commission and sell exclusively.—ostensibly generic wines, sourced from whatever available bulk is out on the market, and bottled on some assembly line in American Canyon or the Central Valley. The sort of wine just barely above Two Buck Chuck and suitable (perhaps) for lowbrow art gallery openings.

Ultimately, I grabbed a bottle without even inspecting its label and regretted from the moment I uncorked it. But Total Wine does sell the staple of my pandemic survival, VYA Sweet Vermouth, for $5/bottle less than what I pay in San Francisco, so my trip was not a complete waste of gas and time…


Granted, Napa may be the King of Cabernet, but true wine aficionados have long known that Alexander Valley is its Crown Prince. Sostevinobile invites you to start off Labor Day Weekend royally with the annual Access Alexander Valley.

This celebration brings together music, cutting-edge cuisine, and, of course, world-class wines from 20 leading producers. Come dance and dine under starlight at the wine country’s premier oasis, the poolside resort at Geyserville’s Francis Ford Coppola Winery Friday, September 2, from 7-10 pm.

Participating wineries include:

ACTA La Cienega
Alexander Valley Vineyards Lancaster
Carpenter Mercury Wines
Dot Wines Pech Merle
Ferrari-Carano Robert Young
Foley Sonoma Rodney Strong
Francis Ford Coppola Seghesio
Hawkes Silver Oak
Hoot Owl Creek Sutro
J Rickards Trione

My college reunion

Long before starting Sostevinobile, Your West Coast Oenophile sloughed his way four years of undergraduate studies at a quaint little college in Hanover, New Hampshire. Admittedly, the Websafe equivalent of its eponymous Pantone color that I selected for our logo is a tip of the proverbial hat to my alma mater, but I cannot muster the same fervent feelings nor sense of nostalgia many of my fellow alumni hold. And so I forwent the latest quintennial gathering and instead attended the North Coast Food & Wine Festival in Santa Rosa last month.

This event, sponsored by the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, has long outshone other newspaper-sponsored wine competitions in the region, awarding a scant 82 Gold Medal winners for an array of wineries from the 5-county region. And while it was easier to wine Best of Solano County than say, Napa or Sonoma, there was nary a wine on hand that did not live up to its heralding.

As happens these days, I encountered only a handful of wineries I had not previously catalogued, such as Serres Ranch, which medaled for their 2018 Buchanan, a distinctive Sonoma Valley Merlot. Unassuming yet splendid, Naidu Wines from Sebastopol delivered both a beautiful 2021 Grenache Blanc Russian River Valley and a Champenois-style Brut Sparkling Wine, produced from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. I was surprised to learn that ROWEN Wine Company was a label from Rodney Strong, but their 2018 Red Blend, a meritage farmed from Strong’s 20,000-acre Cooley Ranch Vineyard, most certainly upheld their storied reputation.

Similarly, Head High Wines extended Three Sticks’ mastery of Pinot with their select 2019 Sonoma County Pinot Noir. But my most serendipitous discovery of the afternoon was the truly marvelous Ehret Winery, a Knights Valley entrant that exemplified why this AVA excels with Bordeaux varietals; to say I was vastly impressed with all three of their Gold Medal selections: the 2018 Bella’s Cabernet Sauvignon, the lush 2018 Hillside Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, and their Meritage—the 2018 Hillside Reserve Red Wine would be an understatement.

My post-COVID efforts to reintegrate with the wine industry and to reorient Sostevinobile with the still-perplexing new landscape has been less about adding new wine produces to the roster of 5,000+ labels I have already catalogued and more about rekindling relationships that I have developed over the past dozen years. And it has been those relationships that drove me to attend this tasting in Sonoma County, rather than trek cross-country to reunite with folks I briefly shared a part of my life that feels quite remote at this stage. I may not bleed green, as many of my classmates still do, and I am indebted for having developed the intellectual tools that have allowed me to prosper in the wine realm, along with my sundry other endeavors. But here among the vintners and growers and industry professionals is where I find my people and have opened my eyes to a wider appreciation of what life can offer than any classroom could.

Paint It Black

To some a glass is half-empty; others see it as half-full. I tend to regard it as a glass that is twice the size it need be. So now the pandemic (plus a little incursion along the Baltic Sea) has brought us to the point of $6.50/gallon—regrettably, I still drive a conventional vehicle as I save up for a Lucid Air—gasoline. But rather than bemoan the price, I marvel at have rapidly I can now pump $20 worth of Arco Unleaded whenever I fill up!

Earlier this month, Your West Coast Oenophile hit the road again on behalf of Sostevinobile, returning to Sonoma’s Veterans Hall for the revival of Garagiste Festival Norther Exposure. Given the two-year hiatus since its last rendition, I shouldn’t have been surprised that, of the 43 wineries on hand, 17 were either previously untried or utterly new to me, along with several I first encountered only last November at the Paso Robles session.

The only problem with tasting with and evaluating so many new labels is that I forget to take photos while jotting down my notes. And so, I’m afraid my sundry readers must make do here without the benefit of images. But know that i was impressed with this array of newcomers, starting with the potpourri of German, Italian, Portuguese and French varietals Accenti Wines poured. While all proved quite amiable, I was vastly impressed by the 2020 Dry Riesling Fountaingrove District, a wine that belied its reputation for having a sweet tinge. Meanwhile, microproducer Amrita Cellars firmly asserted itself onto the Pinotism bandwagon, with clear progress shown from its 2017 Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast to the more vibrant 2018 Pinot Noir Russian River Valley.

It’s highly tempting to call Sandro Tamburin’s Anthesis Wines the antithesis of the wines his father-in-law Ray D’Argenzio produces at their shared Santa Rosa facility. All punning aside, I’d be hard-pressed to select a favorite among the four superb wines Anthesis had on display: a 2018 Chardonnay from Napa Valley, the 2017 Pinot Noir Petaluma Gap, or two orange wines, a 2016 Picpoul Blanc and a 2016 Falanghina, both from Alder Springs Vineyard. Meanwhile, a marvelous discovery from the eastern Carmel Valley, a region from where one might expect a slew of Pinot Noirs, Boëté Winery made its stand a Bordelaise powerhouse. Sourced exclusively from their Saunders Vineyard, their three-varietal blend (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc), the 2018 Cheval Rouge proved a worthy homage to the Right bank’s legendary Cheval Blanc, while both 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2018 Merlot shone through for their own merits.Even more impressive, B0ëté’s 2017 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon easily rivaled a $250 Napa Cab for a third of its price.

Wesley Box  probably never anticipated the emergence of boxed wines when he began his Box Wine Company. Fortunately, there was no double-entendre among his offerings here, highlighted by the 2020 Black Roses Sangiovese and 2020 Black Roses Pinot Noir, along with a distinctive 2020 Sirras Knights Valley. BSC Wines, short for Brue Skok Cellars, proved a rare find, excelling in both the Burgundian, with a standout 2016 Stony Point Pinot Noir and with their Bordeaux blend, the 2016 Geography Lesson—no mean feat for the same winemaker.

Hailing from Healdsburg, Charlie Gilmore’s vineyard-specific Cormorant Cellars comported themselves amiably, most notably with a 2021 Chardonnay Zabala Vineyard. Meanwhile, Forgotten Union sounds like a perfect wine to help consummate a one-night stand; nonetheless, their 2018 Vidi Vitis Cabernet Sauvignon from Oakvilleproved quite memorable. another Cab I quite cottoned to the Sonoma offering from Guerrero-Fernandez Winery,  the 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Knight’s Valley.

No suspense here. Lussier Wine Company will probably not gain many fans among vegan circles, but their 2019 Pinot Noir Golden Fleece Vineyard would certainly complement a plate of prosciutto, while their 2020 Chenin Blanc Green Valley Vineyard shone through on its own. Kevin Lee’s Marchelle Wines may fit the bill as a Garagiste, but winemaker Greg La Follette certainly is no neophyte. Breaking from the confines of Chardonnay/Sauvignon Blanc/Pinot Noir/Zinfandel that define his craft at Quivira and his eponymous label. And so the true delights here were the 2020 Cinsault Bechthold Vineyard, the 2019 Marchelle Carignan Jessie’s Grove, and a delightful rarity, the 2021 Pinot Meunier—my go-to wine for Thanksgiving, anytime I can source some.

One of the jewels of the Pine Mountain Cloverdale Peak AVA is Nikki Mustard’s Pine Mountain Vineyards, a winery, despite its small production, gives tremendous credence to this up & coming Napa challenger. Standouts from their exceptional lineup included the 2019 Estate Cabernet Franc, a 2018 Estate Red Blend, (a mélange of 68% Cabernet Sauvignon, 26% Merlot, 6% Cabernet Franc), and perhaps the most impressive wine of the afternoon, the near-flawless 2012 Ampère Cabernet Sauvoignon PMV Estate. Nonetheless, I doubt anyone else could have charmed me more than Ashley Holland, co-owner and vintner at Sonoma’s Read Holland Wines. But her pulchritude belied the excellence of her vinifications, most notably her 2019 Pinot Noir Deep End and her luscious library selection, the 2016 Pinot Noir Deep End.

Arthur O’Connor’s Rondure Wines made a noteworthy debut, also with selections of his Pinots: the 2019 Pinot Noir Russian River Valley  and the vineyard-specific 2019 Pinot Noir Sangiacomo Roberts Road Vineyard, both made with his revival of the Spanish tecnica de capas. Also featuring their first vintage from 2019, Terre et Sang excelled with his Santa Barbara Syrahs, in particular the 2019 The Long Road Syrah Thompson Vineyard and a deft Syrah-Grenache blend, the 2019 Leave It to the Birds Peake Vineyard.

Closing out my new discoveries for the afternoon, Gondak’s offshoot, Little X Little impressed with their 2020 Chenin Blanc Mangels Vineyard from Suisun Valley, while Tiana Sawyer’s aptly-named Wild Rising Wines showed across the board excellence, particularly with thee 2021 Ana Rosé of Pinot Noir, a 2021 Aqua Chardonnay from Petaluma Gap, and the deep-bodied 2019 Igris Cabernt Sauvignon.

Not to give short shrift to the other 26 wineries on hand, all of which I extolled in the past and happily tasted once again. But with so many wineries on hand, is there any wonder why I forgot to snap any photos?

Whither Natural Wine? or Wither, Natural Wine!

Your West Coast Oenophile has striven these many years to keep Sostevinobile out of the political fray. But I have no tolerance for the truly inane, like Q-Anon. Or Scientology. Or, for that matter, Libertarianism. This vapid construct is fraught with incongruities. Like opposing military conscription and military intervention while, at the same time supporting no limits on firearm possession. Or advocating for social equality yet railing against a progressive tax system that would level the economic disparity that is at the root of societal ills. Little wonder that I deride this “philosophy” as having something for everyone to hate!

Is it just me or do others find Natural Wine’s non-interventionist approach to œnology eerily similar to the laissez-faire economics that drive Libertarianism? It’s not that lack of manipulation necessarily leads to flawed wine—in the hands of a skilled winemaker, it can often result in a wondrous vintage. It’s that dogmatic adherence to these principles results in such pronounced disparity.

Recently, I attended a natural wine tasting in the East Bay. On hand were a few familiar faces on whom I rely for consistently excellent wines, and, once again, they did not disappoint. However, several of the wines here warranted the lowest scores I have ever given at a collective tasting; to think otherwise, to believe that these wines presented some mystical or authentic charm is pure folly.

The absolute nadir of the event were the several fizzy, low-alcohol grape derivatives known as piquette. Back in the days when my hair was still blond and my beard a vibrant red, 20somethings had a similarly approximate gateway beverage, the forebears of today’s hard seltzers: wine coolers. To say that these sweetened concoctions of wine, soda water, and fruit juices are best forgotten—even though I wrote a number of incredibly amusing TV spots for Bartles & Jaymes—would be an understatement.

Maybe I’m showing my stripes (or wrinkles) by admitting my reluctance to regard Brettanomyces as character in a wine or my æsthetic fastidiousness in wanting a wine to have a clarity in its appearance. No, what makes me dismissive of the natural wine craze is the notion that these Millennial consumers dogmatically adhere to this trend out of an evolved concern both for their own personal health as well as for the well-being of the planet. Between the tents that had been set up for this event, I was stunned to see a large patch of grass covered with dozens, if not a couple hundred, cigarette butts! How does littering equate to environmentalism? How does smoking constitute engaging in a salubrious lifestyle? The conclusion here, I think, is fairly obvious: many, if not most, natural wine aficionados are not sophisticated œnophiles or enlightened consumers, but dilettantes hopping onto the trend du jour without in-depth comprehension of the health/environmental precepts which they are nominally espousing.

But I am hardly trying to throw shade on the Millennial consumer with my critique; their allegiance to the natural wine fad is nothing new. My generational jumped on the granola bandwagon, preaching the benefits of a concoction that is laughable in the face of current nutritional understanding and organic standards. Hell, we bought into Earth Shoes as a more natural way of walking! We even fell for Perrier and the subsequent bottled water craze.

I have nothing inherently against the concept of natural wine. Where I draw the line here or with any other philosophical approach to winemaking, like a compulsion to replicate site-specific, French-style terroir or the absurdity of vegan wine, is a dogmatic adherence to its strictures rather than a focus on producing consistently excellent and flavorful bottling. To quote from Randy Caparoso’s recent Op-Ed, “wine lovers would like to choose from an ever-increasing range of wines. They want it all.”

So let’s put natural wine in a proper perspective. It is but one approach to making wine among numerous other schools of œnology. When it is good, it can be very, very good, but when it is bad, it can be awful! In due course, natural wine will takes its place alongside sustainable, organic, biodynamic, regenerative, single varietal, estate bottled, etc., not the monolithic trend that currently seeks to dominate the under-40 landscape. In his essay A hands-off approach, however attractive, is suicide, British journalist James Lawrence assays the need for wineries to take an pro-active approach to sustainability in countering the detriments of climate change. Echoing Al Gore’s groundbreaking documentary, Lawrence admonishes that“a paradigm that advocates keeping human inputs to a minimal is foolhardy and counterproductive, regardless of whether Millennials go weak at the knees.”

It’s an inconvenient truth with which the unmitigated proponents of natural wine will ultimately reckon.

A Tale of Two Cities*

So Your West Coast Oenophile has returned to the Aeron chair and MacBook Pro in his home office, after nearly a week on the road, tasting wine on behalf of Sostevinobile. I haven’t checked my odometer, but it’s likely that I covered more mileage recently between Napa and Paso Robles than I clocked throughout the entirety of 2021. And though the older I get, the more I loathe driving, it definitely felt great to be commingling among serious wine people once again.

As has been my wont before the pandemic hit, February has long been my busiest month out if the field, jampacked with trade events throughout California. In past years, I’ve headed down to Santa Barbara, then whisked back through San Francisco simply to pick up fresh clothes and restock my 7-day pill tray, before heading up to Napa and Sonoma. However, the vicissitudes of the various COVID-19 surges turned schedules topsy-turvy this year, causing Première Napa to occur before the Southern Exposure Garagiste Festival. And it would not have been impossible to leave St. Helena on Friday and be in Solvang for this tasting. Even though I ventured down to Paso for the revival of the Rhône Rangers Experience the previous weekend, gasoline was still a relative bargain at $4.33/gallon and my recent subscription to AARP a mere, albeit reluctant, formality. But with only a single winery on hand that had not poured at their November session, it seemed a bit superfluous to undertake another 400+ mile road trip.

As I have noted on many occasions, the principal impetus for attending these industry tastings is the chance to discover multiple new wineries in a compressed amount of time. Secondly, such events afford me the opportunity to establish or renew personal relationship with the sundry winemakers and winery owners on hand. and, of course, it allows me to report on and recommend the numerous wines I discover.

In keeping with the latter objective, I took copious notes on all the wines I tasted, but will not be enumerating these at this time. My aim throughout this sojourn was to assess and understand the health of the wine industry, post-COVID, and to determine how I must reshape designs for Sostevinobile amid the new economic reality. My sense is that this will require a far greater fundraise than I had previously projected, which makes the prospect of it generating a regular income that much more elusive. Towards this end, I find myself heavily steeped in coordinating an array of M&A deals—after all, my first “career” in the wine industry was as a Mergers & Acquisitions consultant—mostly overseas, as I have been doing for the past six or seven years. For the foreseeable future, my contributions to the wine industry will likely be reinvigorating Risorgimento, the fledgling trade organization for West Coast Italian varietal producers, and organizing the Grand Tastings I had hoped to launch prior to the pandemic.

Regarding the former, I could not have been more elated at the success of the revitalized Rhône Rangers. Now based in Paso Robles, inarguably the epicenter for these varietals in California, this organization has once again become consolidated, after decentralizing into regional chapters diluted its efficacy to the point it nearly collapsed.

Back in the 1990s, when Rhône Rangers was founded, production of these wines in California seemed esoteric, if not somewhat quirky, with pioneers like Randall Grahm and John Alban championing grapes like Syrah and Grenache, while Ridge produced under-the-radar bottlings intermittently. Soon afterwards, a trend of Viognier as the Next Big Thing arose and just as rapidly fell on its face, as vintners here, lacking a model upon which to draw, haphazardly crafted this wine like an oaked Chardonnay.

Yet, in spite of such missteps, the 22 Rhône varietals not only gained a foothold in California, but gave rise to recognition of hitherto unheralded viticulture regions like Santa Barbara, the Sierra Foothills, and Paso Robles. At its apex, the Rhône Rangers Grand Tasting stood alongside ZAP and Family Winemakers (and later, Consorzio CalItalia) as one of the premier annual wine events at San Francisco’s Fort Mason, with well over 120 wineries pouring 

Flash-forward to 2022: the tasting at the Paso Robles Event Center could not have been more robust. Like the Garagiste Festival that preceded it last November, it was flawlessly orchestrated, spread out throughout the facility with a floor plan that allowed attendees easy access to all of the vendors, extremely comfortable in terms of both noise and temperature, catered, and easily navigated with a printed program that featured not only the wineries but the wines they were pouring. Ticket holders came from as far north as San Francisco and as far south as Los Angeles, a most impressive spread. Prices were moderate—hardly the $150-250 ticket for post-pandemic events in Napa, with enough time allocated to visit most, if not all the wineries on hand.

In short, I could not have been more pleased, or encouraged, by the Rhône Rangers Experience; Kim Murphy-Rodrigues has done a tremendously laudable job at bringing this vital organization back to life. But beyond just the organization, this event underscored the vitality that has subtly arisen in Paso Robles over the past two years. As with my visit for the Garagiste tasting, I was stunned to discover how much the town and region had transformed throughout the pandemic. It hadn’t merely regained its footing far quicker than Napa or Sonoma, but had blossomed into a complete destination, with a vibrant nightlife and other cultural amenities, as COVID refugees from California’s urban centers swelled the local populace.

I would be remiss in not noting that the successful reboot of Rhône Rangers hopefully represents a harbinger of potential for Risorgimento. After all, our predecessor, Consorzio CalItalia, was inextricably linked to its Rhône sibling, sharing several board members during its heyday. I have high hopes that, if we can reestablish ourselves, a cooperative partnership will also be revived, along with shared events and, potentially, a Grand Mediterranean Tasting that could include Iberian varietal trade organization T.A.P.A.S.

Moving onward, I breezed through San Francisco for a brief respite before heading up to Napa for the return Première, the annual winter celebration and auction for the wine trade. The restrictions of COVID has caused last year’s event to be rescheduled for June and revamped into an online/offline combination, a deleterious shift that muted the exuberance of this week-long gathering.

The 2022 session retained much of this hybridization but seemed a marked improvement over its predecessor. Still, many of the hallmark events, like the Atelier Melka and 750 Wines tastings, elected to forego this year’s festivities, while odd pairings, like Women Winemakers and the Coombsville AVA, held a scaled-down joint session. I began my itinerary with a personal favorite, Above the Clouds, the Pritchard Hill tasting at Chappellet. Alas, only six of the storied wineries from what has been dubbed the “Rodeo Drive of Napa” elected to participate this year, altering its atmosphere from a frenzied rush to taste as many $300 wines as one could into a low-key, truncated stroll through the nevertheless superb wines being showcased.

The half-dozen or so other tastings I attended seemed similarly scaled back, both in terms of participating wineries and the number of attendees. Further complicating this notable attrition, COVID protocols and onsite testing made freely moving between events cumbersome, if not limiting. I did not attend the auction on Saturday, opting instead to return to San Francisco for the annual Calistoga AVA tasting; that only $2.1 million was raised this year only underscored diminution of the festivities.

To be clear, this isn’t a criticism of Napa, nor is it a glass half-empty analysis of Première. Businesses and communities throughout California are struggling to regain footing after the pandemic. By far, recovery will not be achieved in one fell swoop—incremental progress, as exemplified here, will likely be the norm for several years to come. AVAs like Napa and Sonoma benefited greatly in the past by their proximity to major urban centers, while regions like Paso Robles, Lodi, or the Foothills were considered outliers; COVID reversed this equation, making it more precarious for these major destinations to return to their norm.

On top of all this, five years of hellish wildfires have taken quite a toll on Northern California’s wine regions. The combination of all these factors means that wineries here, like Sostevinobile, must take a hard look at the new economic landscape and adjust accordingly. The rampant inflation that has affected prices everywhere is no stranger to Napa, either; my cursory assessment is that the benchmark now for an ultrapremium Cabernet Sauvignon hovers around $235 (versus $175 pre-COVID).

How are these steep prices affecting Napa? At the moment, there seems to be enough well-heeled wine enthusiasts to absorb the increase, but we are nearing the point where wine cannot withstand the price differential between itself and other alcoholic beverages. $300 may fly for a midweek wine may fly in Atherton or Beverly Hills, but can a wine bar hold its own with an average price of $25/glass? Will the new $12/glass of wine be any more quaffable than a swig of Two Buck Chuck?

Hard choices, to be sure. I was glad to see Napa starting its rebound, but I left Première still with most questions lingering…

*Actually, it’s two AVAs, but who’s quibbling?

Slowly winding up

Sostevinobile has been affiliated with the Slow Food movement since our launch, but it was not without a degree of trepidation that Your West Coast Oenophile set out to attend the Slow Wine Tour at Pier 27 earlier this week. Initially, this wine tasting was incorporated as part of Slow Food’s annual extravaganza at Fort Mason that featured virtually every Italian restaurant in San Francisco. The first few years, only Italian wines were featured—not surprising, since Slow Food’s San Francisco founder, Lorenzo Scarpone, runs Villa Italia, a premier wine importer in South San Francisco. Eventually, however, the wines of Mendocino County, which bills itself as America’s Greenest AVA, were also included.

After a few iterations, Mendocino began holding its own San Francisco Grand Tasting—the first, at Fort Mason, included amazing aerial acrobatic performances à la Cirque du Soleil—which ultimately led to Slow Wine holding its own January event, six months after each annual Slow Food extravaganza. And just as Slow Food has expanded beyond its Italy & San Francisco beginnings, the wine tasting has grown to incorporate participants from throughout the West Coast AVAs.

I was quite surprised that The Slow Wine Tour held to its January schedule. ZinEx, Union des Grand Crus de Bordeaux, and others decided to postpone their tastings scheduled for this week, due to the Omicron surge. I resolved to give this event a whirl provisionally, determined that if the expansive ground level at Pier 27 felt even slightly congested, I would forego the event until 2023. But with only moderate attendance and ample ventilation through the opened garage doors, I deemed it safe enough for a limited visit.

Rather than trying to undertake the entire lineup of 102 vendors, I held to the parameters established for Sostevinobile and restricted my samplings only to the ample selection of West Coast wineries on hand this afternoon. Conveniently, Slow Wine placed the tables from California, Oregon, and Washington at the end of the numeric roster, so it was easy to migrate sequentially, pace myself accordingly, and take ample notes. And it was a particular pleasure to start my tasting with Angwin’s Adamvs, one of Philippe Melka’s standout projects. Around this time of year, I relish the annual Atelier Melka Tasting at Première Napa, but sadly it will not be taking place in 2022. Here, along the Embarcadero, I could not have been more impressed with the two wines Adamvs poured, both Cabernets: their 2016 Téres, a deft blend of 90% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Merlot, and 4% Cabernet Franc, alongside their flawless 2016 Quintvs, an exquisite pure expression of the varietal.

At the next table, organic wine pioneers Bonterra represented a continuum from Slow Wine’s Mendocino beginnings. Here they ably showcased the versatility of their viticulture with their 2020 The Roost, a biodynamic Chardonnay from their Blue Heron Vineyard, alongside the 2019 The Butler, a Rhône-style blend of Petite Sirah, Syrah and Grenache. Also included, for comparison, the 2016 The Butler, a library selection. Moving on, another storied Howell Mountain winery, Burgess, now part of the burgeoning Demeine Estates empire, featured a trio of wines from their previous incarnation. The 2014 Mountaineer proved an amiable blend of 46% Syrah, 43% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Petit Verdot, and 3% Petite Sirah. A slightly more orthodox blend, the 2016 Contadina Cabernet Sauvignon, absent the more frequently incorporated Merlot and Cabernet Franc, rounded out the varietal with both Petit Verdot and Malbec, while the 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon Hillside Vineyards clearly rose to the top.

Another conspicuous absence from this year’s Première Napa will be the popular Bottle Party at Cliff Lede. From their Mendocino vineyards, the 2019 FEL Chardonnay Anderson Valley exemplified how this AVA has grown into one of California’s premier Burgundian regions, but my preference still leaned toward Cliff’s Napa selections, the 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District and the utterly superb 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District Magic Nights. Showcasing another exemplary locale for Burgundy varietals, Carneros, Donum Estate, the former domain of the lustrous Anne Moller-Racke, comported itself admirably with three expressions of Pinot: the 2020 Rosé of Pinot Noir, a superb 2019 Pinot Noir Three Hills Vineyard, and the 2019 Pinot Noir White Barn Single Block Reserve, an Editors’ Top Selection.

From Camino in the Sierra Foothills, Edio, the homegrown label from Delfino Farms, offered a refreshing line up of their 2020 Albariño El Dorado County, the 2019 Grenache El Dorado County, and a delightfully Mourvèdre-focused GSM, the 2019 Frank’s Rhone Blend. From Edio Delfino to Ettore Biraghi—wines just seem to taste better with a strong Italian name behind the label! This eponymous label is a new Mendocino venture from this pioneering vintner, whose Purovino® certification exceeds the non-additive strictures of the Natural Wine Movement. Here, at the Slow Wine Tour, this sulfite-free technique shone through in the 2018 Chardonnay Pure and the striking 2018 Chardonnay Reserve. Underscoring this all-organic lineup: the delightful 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon Signature, handpicked from Hopland’s Sanel Valley Vineyards.

Even before COVID struck, my efforts to visit Hamel Family Wines new Valley of the Moon facility were thwarted by an appointment-only policy. Allora, this obstacle will now be surmounted, but, in the interim, I greatly enjoyed the biodynamic wines poured here, starting with their excellent Bordeaux blend, the 2018 Isthmus. Far less of a tongue-twister, yet as appealing on the palate, their two reserve proprietary Cabernets: the 2017 Nuns Canyon Vineyard and the 2017 Hamel Family Ranch. Not long before COVID, I was able to snag a reservation at Saratoga’s prestigious Mount Eden, where I spent a wondrous afternoon sipping and sampling with Proprietor Jeff Patterson. Here, in a more objective milieu, the wines proved even more enticing, starting with a quite respectable 2017 Estate Bottled Pinot Noir. The 2017 Estate Bottled Chardonnay showed even more impeccable, but the 2016 Estate Bottled Cabernet Sauvignon was virtually flawless, a paean to the extraordinary expressions of this grape found within this coveted sector of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA.

I am also an unabashed fan of Mendocino’s Roederer Estate, so was extremely pleased to taste with Domaine Anderson, their still wine adjunct in Mendocino. As you might expect from a sparkling wine producer, their three wines focused on Champagne grapes: the 2018 Estate Chardonnay, the 2018 Estate Pinot Noir,  and the single vineyard 2018 Pinot Noir Dach Vineyard. If only they had bottled a Pinot Meunier, as well! Just below Mendocino, Geyserville’s Sei Querce is a relative newcomer to the winery realm (although they have been growing Bordeaux varietals since 2010). Their 2019 Sauvignon Ranch House made for an auspicious debut, but a pair of Cabernets , made under the tutelage of star winemaker Jesse Katz,  the 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon Six Oaks and the splendid 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon Ranch House, proved exemplary. An added treat: their new First Edition Vermouth, an exceptional aromatic wine blending Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Musqué, Sémillon and Viognier.

Postmodern winemaker Clark Smith, who helped found R. H. Phillips when it was a lonely outpost in Yolo County, brought the eclectic selections of his current label, WineSmith. Though based in Santa Rosa, Smith seems quite peripatetic, sourcing his 2017 Sparkling Grenache Brut Zero from Santa Cruz, a 2019 Tempranillo Tejada Vineyard from Lake County, and an interesting yet lackluster 2014 Meritage Ishi Pishi Vineyard from northern Humboldt County. Reaching out above the Emerald Triangle, Oregon’s Left Coast Estate made the trek to San Francisco to impress with their de rigueur selections: the 2019 Chardonnay Truffle Hill, the 2016 Pinot Noir Truffle Hill, and a superb 2018 Pinot Noir Cali’s Cuvée. Their standout, however, was the painstakingly-produced 2020 Estate White Pinot Noir, an exceptional example of this rare vinification.

Former Rubicon sommelier Larry Stone’s Lingua Franca similarly offered a Burgundian take on Oregon, with its own inimitable flair: a wondrous 2019 Avni Chardonnay, their 2018 Avni Pinot Noir, and the decidedly more complex 2017 Estate Pinot Noir. Likewise, Hillsboro’s Ruby Vineyard poured a pair of Pinots, the 2018 Laurelwood Blend Pinot Noir and the
2017 Flora’s Reserve Pinot Noir, alongside their unadorned 2018 Chardonnay. If pressed to choose, I think that Winderlea stood out in this niche, not just for the their 2018 Chardonnay, but with a trio of noteworthy Pinots: the 2017 Imprint Pinot Noir, the 2017 Legacy Pinot Noir, and the unassuming yet wondrous 2017 Pinot Noir Winderlea Vineyard.

Despite this uniformity, Oregon viticulture is hardly monolithic, as Cornerstone’s former President Craig Camp displayed here with his current project, the biodynamic- and regenerative-certified Troon Vineyard. Their 2019 Estate Syrah Kubli Bench was a most welcome bottling, while the 2020 Estate Vermentino Kubli Bench fit the overall Italian nature of the Slow Wine exquisitely. But their œnological prowess was truly on display with the 2020 Kubli Bench Amber, a most memorable orange (skin-contact) blend of Riesling, Vermentino, and Viognier. In fact so good, I had to take a bottle home!

Not to be downplayed, Washington did have representation here, a rare public tasting of the highly-acclaimed Cayuse Vineyards, with their splendidly-named 2018 God Only Knows Grenache, the 2019 Impulsivo Tempranillo, and an ungodly great 2018 Horsepower Syrah.

In other years,I might have remained at Pier 27 and cherry-picked my way through the various Italian tenute on hand. But even being triply-vaccinated,  was wary about potential exposure to this pernicious Omicron variant. Still, if anything can kill a Covid virus, it would undoubtedly be grappa, and so before leaving, I sampled through the four selections Venetian distillery Andrea Da Ponte poured: the Unica Da Ponte 2011, Vecchia Grappa di Prosecco, their Uve Bianche,
and the Fine Grappa Italiana. So far, nary even a sniffle!