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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.

My August Trifecta

We all have a litany of what if?s in our lives. Your West Coast Oenophile could enumerate many, some related to Sostevinobile, others on a more personal level. Should I have stayed with my original plan to develop my own wine label? Would I have been better off going to a school like Yale? Or majoring in math, as i was recruited to do?  Where would I be now if I had driven west to Los Angeles instead of San Francisco? Or if my avant-garde satire on the 1980s, The Last Sharper Image Catalogue, had found an enthusiastic publisher? And what might life have led us if a certain special woman and I had ever connected romantically?

We have seen each other only sporadically over the intervening decades but, of late, have been intermittently communicating via that emotionally sterile modality of the 21st Century: the text message. With no ostensible agenda beyond staying in touch. Just because.

Many years ago we tried to set up her little brother with my little sister. It was quaint and charming and felt rather adult on our part, but not patronizingly so. I’m no0t sure whether Jill and Elliott ever connected after that New York luncheon, but she now lives in London, while he runs horse breeding operations back in Kentucky. One of his stallions has had a modicum of success this past year. And even though horse racing fans tend to favor bourbon over the grape, I’m pretty certain most of my readers will be familiar with Justify.

This August also constituted a Trifecta of sorts for Sostevinobile. The dictate of fundraising for what will now be a 26,000+ sq.ft. complex require that I engage in a host of wine-related endeavors. So far, these side ventures have entailed everything from grape brokerage to label development to event production to my former wine-related profession, Mergers & Acquisitions. Plus, along the way, I quietly help out other wine ventures with advice and connecting them to any number of people with whom I work, both inside and out of the industry.

Granted, my role was quite minimal in assisting Carlo Anthony Niboli with the debut of his Cabfest, but I was pleased to attend this tasting on both Saturday and Sunday to consult and critique. The lobby beneath the dome at Westfield Center portended to be a challenging setting for an event of this scope; surprisingly, even with throngs of shoppers filling the mall and its restaurant courts. More impressive was the breadth of wineries on hand, from an array of Napa stalwarts like Oakville East and Raymond to a panoply of Paso Robles’ emerging Cabernet stars, including Calcareous and Justin, along with Sonoma’s much-acclaimed Bellacosa. the generational successor to Glen Ellen’s B.R. Cohn.

The music ranged from a smaltzy 1920s Toppman Trio on Saturday, courtesy of the event’s co-sponsor Speakeasy SF, to a most alluring avant-garde violinist, Shaina Evoniuk. Normally, I would have expected live performances to overwhelm the audibility of the venue, but here they provided an unobtrusive ambient backdrop to the tasting. One also would have expected a new event like CabFest to provide rather lackluster catering—of which even the most establish events are frequently guilty—but the generous smorgasbord was complimented by superb hors d’œuvres from the venerable Morton’s The Steakhouse. along with utterly delectable baked goods from Best of Friends Cookies, a Fresno concession run by Carlo’s pixieish mother Debbie.

To be candid, I had vested interest not only in seeing CabFest succeed but to see it expand beyond the capacity of this Westfield setting. But a more salient reason, perhaps, is that the Bay Area no longer plays host to any annual Grand Tasting that focuses on Cabernet Sauvignmon. In San Francisco, Pinot Noir events like Pinot Fest and Pinot Days abound. Sonoma holds its annual Pinot on the River each October and has revived the cutting-edge West of West celebration. Santa Cruz has its Pinot Paradise and Anderson Valley holds its Pinot celebration every May. Nothing of similar scale displays the regionality and versatility of Cabernet. If I can help elevate CabFest to the pinnacle once held by the California Cabernet Society, my task will have been complete.


As previously mentioned in this column, Sostevinobile is now collaborating with The Midway to host trade tastings in San Francisco. On August 26, we inaugurated this venture with the 28th Annual Grand Tasting of Family Winemakers. My hope had been to launch this program with CalAsia 2018, a Grand Tasting of the 82+ Asian-American/Asian owned wineries in California, but my previous health predicament this past winter proved too much of a setback for me to rebound  insufficient time to organize an event of this scope. Nonetheless, the Family Winemakers tasting  marked an auspicious debut for us, as well as an instrumental learning curve, and I look forward to sustaining a long an  prosperous relationship with this organization that has been a pivotal component in building the Sostevinobile wine program.

Stay tuned as I commence organizing CalAsia for January 2019.


Another of the many hats I wear on behalf of Sostevinobile has been the revival of the winery M&A practice in which I was occupied through most of the 1980s. While it has not proven the most lucrative of my current endeavors, it admittedly still fascinates me. And so I uncharacteristically awoke before 7:30 AM to join several of the industry’s most prominent practitioners at the North Bay Business Journals annual Impact Napa conference. These gatherings have always proved most informative, and following a field report from Clay Gregory, president and CEO of Visit Napa Valley, on last year’s fires’ impact on tourism, the audience was treated to an extraordinary glimpse into the philosophy of Christian Moueix, the legendary proprietor both Yountville’s highly acclaimed Dominus Estate and a portfolio of French domaines that includes Pomerol’s Château Pétrus.

It would not be overstatement to note that Moueix lives in a rarfied realm. Pétrus just sold a 20% stake in its business for ~$232 MM, making it the most valuable winery in the world. His support of Napa’s recent Proposition C—whose architects Dennis Groth and Andy Beckstoffer were also in attendance—also begs a certain privilege, as raising the threshold for new wineries to a 40-acre minimum would preclude all would-be viticultural entrepreneurs save for an extreme wealthy few. But Moueix’ for such austere measures as this or letting uprooted vineyards lie fallow for 4-5 years before replanting stems from conscientious environmental stewardship of his many properties and an unshakable belief in the need to protect delicate watersheds and aquifers here and in Bordeaux, as climate change continues to make water an endangered commodity. A man who spends three hours each morning in his vineyards and has never missed a communal dinner with his workers, his position and passion are ultimately laudable.

The final segment of this conference was essentially a primer on the spectrum of investment profiles throughout the wine industry. Panelists included Richard Mendelson, a Napa attorney and Merger specialist who earlier had interviewed Moueix, Carol Collison from Global Wine Partners, and Sean Maher of Aspect Consumer Partners. The latter two specialists have long been familiar to me through potential deals on which we have engaged, but it was a particular treat to see Sean bring along his father, Dick Maher, who had counseled me some 35 years ago.

Though this trio’s experience was long and deep, with successes I could only envy, their message ultimately restated what has long been obvious. Many of the wineries today, especially those that have not been annexed by corporate or industry behemoths, stand potentially. if not actively, ripe for acquisition—to wit, the sale of Stony Hill to Long Meadow Ranch but a few days before the conference. But credible, committed buyers remain a rare breed, as my Rolodex will attest. But, as is often the case, when one door closes, another opens.

And so funding for Sostevinobile may be coming from elsewhere, but not as far removed as one may think…

She came in through the bathroom window

Admittedly, Your West Coast Oenophile goes through prolonged bouts of not posting anything on Sostevinobile’s pages here (as well as on our website or on Facebook). It not that I’m not writing anything—I have many, many times sketched and researched and started to compose new posts, only to be sidetracked by my duties in the wine field and finding myself too exhausted to complete them. Such is fate.

Perhaps I should take a page from Paul McCartney, who famously forged together strings of unfinished songs and managed to get away with it because, well, he’s Paul McCartney. Of course, that only worked while he was a Beatle. Then he formed Wings…

Monterey Jazzed

It is not often that Your West Coast Oenophile finds himself retreating on a position taken here. Actually, Sostevinobile has never not held the wines of Monterey County in high regard, but, in the past, I have taken some issue with what I perceived as an over-reliance on conformity, particularly within the Santa Lucia Highlands. This AVA is not alone in producing a plethora of wines from its predominant vineyards—how many Napa labels produce a George III or To Kalon Cabernet? But, in the past, I have been hard-pressed to find an SLH Pinot Noir not heralding from Garys’ or Pisoni or Tondrē or Sobranes or Doctor’s, etc.

And so, it was most welcome to discover nearly all the wineries pouring at this month’s 26th Annual Monterey Winemakers’ Celebration focused on estate bottlings. Additionally, the array of varietals here encompassed far more than the preponderance of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that I had anticipated. Among the most striking offerings I discovered were the 2013 Estate Bottled Mourvèdre from Shale Canyon, both the 2015 Syrah and 2015 Marsanne from Michaud, an alluring 2014 Carmel Valley Estate Syrah from Silvestri, and the 2014 Grenache from Scratch, which also poured one of the most focused Pinots of the afternoon, their 2013 Pinot Noir KW Ranch Vineyard. Both Testarossa and Hahn offered a captivating 2016 Pinot Noir, while the decidedly understated Blair Estate contrasted their excellent 2013 Pinot Noir Delfina’s Vineyard with an equally compelling 2013 Pinot Noir The Reserve from the same proprietary vineyard.

The Winemakers’ Celebration afforded me my first opportunity to explore a number of wineries lining Carmel-by-the-Sea’s cordoned-off 7th Street. Jackson Family Wines’ Carmel Ridge is probably best noted for its joint venture in producing Drew Barrymore’sBarrymore wines after her less-than-stellar vintages originating from Italy at the beginning of this decade. Now calling Monterey home, these wines included her 2017 Rosé Of Pinot Noir alongside Carmel Ridge’s 2015 East Bend Chardonnay and their 2014 First Row Pinot Noir. Another collaboration, Seabold Cellars had included the late Peter Figge at the helm;m his deft topuch was evident in their 2015 Monterey County Chardonnay and 2015 Monterey County Pinot Noir, as well as the newly released 2017 Riesling and 2017 Rosé.

An old pro with a new label, Ian Brand has folded his acclaimed Le P’tit Paysan and Marea labels into I. Brand & Family. Needless to say, I was equally impressed with a crisp 2017 Albariño Kristy Vineyards, the 2016 Jack’s Hill Chardonnay, his 2015 Grenache Brosseau Vineyard, and the 2017 Rosé, a predominantly Mourvèdre blend , with Grenache and Cinsault.

In a resurrection of a different sort, Big Sur Vineyards, which was lost to the 2016 wildfires, has arisen like the phoenix with its Carmel Valley facility. Owner Lenora Carey poured a generous selection of her vintages, starting with her 2015 Monterey County Chardonnnay, the 2016 Rosé vinted from Cinsault and Grenache, a robust 2013 Pinot Noir from the slopes of the Laureles Grade in Monterey, a 2015 Syrah, and her proprietary 2015 Big Sure Red Wine, a delightful mélange of Grenache, Syrah and Petite Sirah. All in all, it was good to have her back and running strong once again.

As it was so good to see Monterey evolve so nicely. I was first introduced to the region in the mid-1980s when Ernest Gallo flew over the 10,000 acres he had under contract here in a prop plane and announced “we’re not buying any of these grapes this year.” Following that scramble came the nadir of the Coastal labels for brands like BV and Robert Mondavi. Fortunately, the evolution of the Santa Lucia Highlands turned Monterey’s fortunes around, but with a terribly monolithic focus. The current expansion of both varietal selections and estate properties holds even greater promise for the Monterey AVA; I was more than jazzed I could partake in it.

From the other side of the tasting table

This is more of a plea than an admonishment from Sostevinobile. If you are pouring at a trade tasting, please do not tell Your West Coast Oenophile (or anyone else, for that matter) what score Robert Parker or Wine Spectator gave you. Nor its Double Gold from some competition here or Colorado or wherever.

 
This information is only valuable for incentivizing someone to try your wine. It’s already in my glass. Please let me assess it without preconception or prejudice. Your pronouncement will only skew my assessment, and not necessarily favorably.
 
The only exception: if your wine is one of the 22 selections that did NOT win a medal at the San Francisco Chronicle Competition. THAT is a wine I want to try!

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