Category Archives: Petite Sirah

Both sides now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Nuclear proliferation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

Stags, Stag’s, Stags’ or Stagg?

While Your West Coast Oenophile still strives to maintain a 1:1 ratio of Resveratrol-to-Hemoglobin in my bloodstream, I also partake in a wide range of other alcoholic beverages from time-to-time, particularly at bars where the $16 Wine-by-the-Glass selection goes for $9.99 a bottle at BevMo and has been sitting, unpreserved, on the shelf since last Tuesday—know that none of this will ever happen at Sostevinobile! My tastes run from vodka and bourbon to tequila and scotch, with a refined mezcal or cognac or grappa doing the trick when I feel like being warmed up from the inside out. I am inordinately fond of single malts like Talisker or Oban and occasionally indulge in a dry martini, stirred not shaken (of late, the house variation at The Progress, with a touch of smoked Castelvetrano olive juice and rosemary oil, has been an especial favorite).

Of course, anyone who knows me will be aware that I am not content simply to indulge in others’ creations. Longtime readers of this blog will remember the Tai Da (太大) cocktail I concocted several years ago and introduced to a handful of bars in San Francisco. And for those with extremely long-term memories, there was the Fook Yu cocktail I created as a bartender at the legendary dim sum house on Clement Street. These days, I am pursuing the ultimate version of the venerable dark liquor equivalent of a martini, an atomic strength version I have dubbed The Manhattan Project. My quest still hinges on selecting the perfect handmade bitters to complement this recipe, along with exquisitely marinated cherries as a garnish. Without question, my vermouth of choice will be Quadys VYA Sweet Vermouth, and the base liquor will naturally be the highest proof I can find. If I were a strict traditionalist, I would have to go with a rye—the Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye Whiskey being the strongest commercially-produced bottling I know, clocking in at 129.2°. But I have to defer to parent company Buffalo Trace ’s remarkable 144.1° bourbon, the George T. Stagg.

Speaking of cervids, the taxonomical family that encompasses moose, elk, antelope and deer, I had the pleasure of attending the first San Francisco trade tasting for the Stags Leap District. Of course, the feud between Warren Winiarski’s Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Carl Doumani’s Stags’ Leap Winery is the stuff of legend, and while neither retains ownership of the winery they founded, the trade association has chosen, collectively, to be grammatically apostate and eschew any employment of the apostrophe. A most politic decision.

But when wines of this caliber are being poured, remaining neutral is hardly possible. 18 of the most prominent producers from the District poured at Jardinière in San Francisco’s Civic Center, and despite several having been subsumed by the leading wine conglomerates over the years, nearly all the wines maintained a uniform excellence. As is my wont, I began my session with the one winery I had not previously encountered on Sostevinobile’s watch. Ilsley Vineyards has been furnishing a number of highly prestigious wine labels with grapes since 1962, but only started producing their own label this century. Lacking winemaking facilities or a tasting room, it is a property I have driven by on Silverado Trail numerous times but completely bypassed. Not to be overlooked at this event, however, was their approachable 2015 JK Sauvignon Blanc. Even more striking, the 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District was an impressive introduction to their red line, but the true standout this afternoon was the 2013 Seis Primas, a Malbec-focused Meritage, with 33% Cabernet Sauvignon and 13% Merlot blended in.

Lindstrom Wines is a label I had only recently discovered; nor, before this tasting, had I met Carol Lindstrom, only her distributor. Still, reacquainting myself with these wines proved propitious. The 2013 Pinot Noir Dutton Ranch seemed, frankly, rather anomalous for this event, but easily held its own with the numerous other bottlings from this Sonoma mainstay I have tasted throughout the year. Clearly Lindstrom’s forte came from its own Cabernet plantings and the capable hands of winemaker Celia Welch.. The 2010 Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon displayed a strong expression of the grape, nicely acting its age six years later, but the current release, the 2012 Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon truly showed a more seasoned vinification.

I was quite pleased to find Steltzner pouring here. Formerly a landmark among the Silverado Trail, they had sold their winery to Gavin Newsom’s Plump Jack empire, which drastically remodeled the facility and transformed it into Odette, a label that was curiously absent on this afternoon. Often, when such a takeover transpires, the original winery, despite claiming it would continue producing, soon closes down altogether, as when Roshambo sold its Russian River Valley premises to Twomey, at least for now, all seems to be business as usual for the Napa Valley’s only Pinotage producer. I, of course, would have been thrilled if they had poured their Sangiovese here, but more than happily settled for their Bordeaux variant., starting with a noteworthy 2013 Malbec Stags Leap District. The 2013 Martini Clone Cabernet Sauvignon, proved an excellent wine, redolent of the intensity and character expected with a Stag Leap Cab, but the 2013 Pool Block Cabernet Sauvignon most certainly was one of the afternoon’s true standouts. As a bonus, Steltzner also poured the inaugural release from their Bench Vineyards, the 2014 Circa 64, a deft blend of Cabernet Sauvignon with Petit Verdot and Malbec from the select family vineyard block planted 52 years ago.

A significant portion of Stags Leap has been acquired by a number of the megabrands in the wine industry, though with little or no diminution the wine’s historic quality. Crimson Wine Group has long held Pine Ridge, the Napa jewel in their tri-state conglomerate. Always consistent, their wines here this day furthered a sense that this workhorse may well be underappreciated. Their portion of the event started of amiably with the 2014 Dijon Clones Chardonnay, then segued to their 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District. I found myself rather partial to the 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley, but clearly favored the peak aging of their 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District, a library selection.

I tend to think of Terlato primarily as a distributor for imported wines, as well as the holding company for such brands as Alderbrook and Sanford. I was only vaguely familiar with their eponymous label, produced in Stags Leap at their Rutherford Hill facility. Given my preconceptions, I was pleasantly surprised to find their 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District more than approachable; more intriguing, the 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap from their library selection demonstrated a well-qualified lineage for this particular label. I was, however, less sanguine about their cross-pollinated project poured here—the 2014 Galaxy White and the 2013 Galaxy Red . The former ineptly blends of Santa Rita Hills Viognier with Russian River Valley Chardonnay, then adds a dash of Sauvignon Blanc from the Napa Valley to putatively give this wine a regional balance; the latter melange of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot similarly attempts to fuse varietals harvested from different AVAs, albeit with greater focus.

Terlato also owns Chimney Rock, a striking landmark alongside Silverado Trail. Under these more recognizable auspices, the winery contrasted its 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District with the single-vineyard designate, their 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Tomahawk Vineyard. Most noteworthy here, however, was the 2014 Élévage Blanc, a distinctive blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris, of which Chimney Rock uniquely (in Napa) offers a single varietal bottling, as well.

The holdings of Clos du Val’s parent company may be less profuse than the Terlato empire, but it spans the globe, from California to Languedoc to Australia. Still, this Stags Leap winery owes its greatest acclaim to its inclusion in 1976’s legendary Judgment of Paris, as well as the French Culinary Institute Tasting of 1986, where it bested all the Cabernets from the previous tasting after aging 10 years. The wineries of Goelet Wine Estates are marked by their crossover varietals, and Clos du Val proved no exception, opening here with their accessible 2015 Chardonnay Carneros and then the vineyard-designate 2014 Pinot Noir Block 73. Still, forty years later, their standout was the 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Hirondelle Vineyard, a true Stags Leap selection.

Of course, the AVA’s other representative in 1976 was the eventual winner, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. Owner Warren Winiarski sold his crown jewel a number of years ago to Château Ste. Michelle, Washington’s leading producer and conglomerate, which now operates the winery in partnership with Marchesi Antonori, the Italian producer famed for Solaia, Tignanello, and creation of the SuperTuscan designation. But no tinkering has been needed here, as the winery remains consistently excellent, as evidenced first by the 2014 Karia Chardonnay. Classical allusion befit their second label, represented admirably here with the 2014 Artemis Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley, but clearly outshone by the highly nuanced, structured 2013 S. L. V. Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine that upheld its legend.

The rivalry between Stag’s Leap and Stags’ Leap seems to have quelled with Carl Doumani sale of his property to Treasury Wine Estates. Though his label seemed overshadowed by accolades accorded his justly-heralded neighbor, much as CK Mondavi was long subsumed by the Robert Mondavi label, Carl rightfully deserve recognition for spearheading Napa’s interest in Petite Sirah, now its second most popular red varietal planting. After showcasing their 2015 Viognier Napa Valley, the winery poured their justly reputed 2013 Ne Cede Malis, their flagship Stags Leap District Petite. Next up, the 2013 The Leap Estate Cabernet Sauvignon was remarkable drinkable for a wine so relatively young; in contrast, the 2009 The Leap Estate Cabernet Sauvignon showed a wine that had gloriously matured, yet with plenty of ageability to come.

After selling Stags’ Leap Winery, Carl opened the utterly eclectic Quixote along a shared driveway with Shafer. Here, of course, Petite Sirah reigned supreme without compromising Cabernet, as evidenced by the well-balanced 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District poured here. But Quixote’s œnological mastery came through with its 2011 Petite Syrah Stags Leap District and overwhelmed with the exquisite 2012 Petite Syrah Stags Leap District, a true star of this event.

Carl sold this winery to investors from China not too long ago but continues with a yet-to-be released project from his personal vineyard. Meanwhile, Shafer remains in family hands and continues to outdo themselves on a yearly basis. I had hoped Doug Shafer would be on hand this afternoon and sneak in some samples of his new Eighty Four Wines (the Albariño is phenomenal), but I had to “settle” for such splendid offerings as the 2014 Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay and an exquisite 2014 Merlot Napa Valley. Shafer’s coup de grâce, though, was easily its 2013 One Point Five Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine that begs to be laid down for at least 10 more years.

I cannot recall whether I’ve tried the wines from Silverado Vineyards since the untimely passing of proprietor Diane Disney Miller, but as this has never been a Mickey Mouse operation, the quality has remained consistent.I cottoned to their 2013 GEO Cabernet Sauvignon Coombsville (an AVA I wish would revive their trade tasting), and positively reveled in the 2013 SOLO Cabernet Sauvignon Stag Leap District.

I always seems to drop in on Baldacci Family Vineyards minutes after they close for tastings, so it was quite fortuitous to find them pouring here. Baldacci’s inornate, decidedly rustic setting seems a far cry from the showcase wineries that dot the Silverado Trail, yet belies the sophistication of their viticulture. I tend to think of this winery first for its white wines, and the superb 2014 Sorelle Chardonnay poured here did nothing to disappoint. So too did the 2013 Fraternity prove exemplary—normally blended with Syrah, this vintage was a straightforward mélange of Cabernet Sauvignon from their two estate properties (as well as a touch of Oakville fruit) with their estate Merlot. Meanwhile, their pure Stags Leap District selection, the 2013 Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon, proved their masterpiece.

Cavus Vineyards is a boutique winery that sources it fruit from less than two acres,, but enlists Jim Barbour as its Vineyard Manager and David Phinney as its consulting winemaker. The result is a stellar 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District, along with a Prisoner-like blend, its 2013 The Crane Assembly, an eclectic marriage of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. Another boutique operation, Malk Family Vineyards prides themselves as “the smallest producers of premium 100% hand-crafted Cabernet Sauvignon wine from the famous Stags Leap District.” Outside of their estate, however, they source Oak Knoll fruit for an exceptional 2015 Sauvignon Blanc; further out, their 2014 Pinot Noir Fort Ross-Seaview provides a deft expression of the Sonoma Coast. Back in their home AVA, the 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District was a delightful wine on the verge of peaking, as was the 2010 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.

Sostevinobile can categorically state that there is no correlation between Taylor Family Wines and Taylor, the upstate New York jug wine behemoth that ultimately morphed into Constellation. Still, the overlap in names tends to obfuscate this seventh generation Napa clan’s label, even though their winemaking focus could not be more different. From their perch in Stags Leap, this Taylor produces an impressive array of varietal Cabernets from an array of Napa AVAs, including Stags Leap District, Rutherford, Diamond Mountain, and Atlas Peak. However, this afternoon led off with a striking 2014 Chardonnay, vinted from the Chardonnay Musqué clone, from the same vineyard that supplied Château Montelena’s winning entry in the Judgment of Paris. Contrasting Taylor’s 2013 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District with the 2010 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District showed remarkably distinct wines, fruit-forward vs. restrained, yet both proved equally appealing. Their final offering, a proprietary mélange of Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc, the 2012 V VI VII Red Blend, mislead lead me. I took the name to indicate this was a progressive Solera from the last three vintages; in truth, it constitutes a tribute the 5th, 6th and 7th Napa generation of the Taylor family, all of whom work for the winery!

One of Stags Leap District’s more dominant players, Cliff Lede, owns both a winery estate and a luxury inn at the juncture of Silverado Trail and Yountville Cross Road, along with a second winery, FEL. in the Anderson Valley. At Jardinière this day, they poured a selection across the board from his holdings, starting with the indelible 2015 Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley. I found the 2014 FEL Pinot Noir Anderson Valley better than adequate, but truly relished the 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District. The artistic flair of the winemaking here shows full force with the vineyard designate Cabernet from the vineyards encompassing Cliff’s Poetry Inn, yearning for greatness in the 2013 Poetry and full achieving it with the library selection 2007 Poetry uncorked for this tasting.

Quietly, a burgeoning mini-empire has been emerging in Napa, with its roots in the Stags Leap District. In Calistoga, the eclectic Tank Garage Winery produces a line of eclectic wines, whimsical both in their labeling and their viticulture. Nearby, T-Vine Winery is a long-standing endeavor that early on open my eyes to a number of Rhône varietals, as well as fruit sourced from the Contra Costa Valley. Just below the Stags Leap District, James Cole Winery is a high-end, small production facility available only by subscription. Anchoring all of these is Regusci Winery, a rustic operation that heralds the old style Italian family wineries of a bygone era. I can still recall my first visit here meeting family patriarch Angelo Regusci, who every day would walk his dogs down to the tasting room and pick up two bottles—one red, one white—for the evening’s dinner fare.

The quaintness of this routine belied the sophistication of Regusci’s craft. Befittingly, their first pour came from the 2012 Patriarch, a refined blend of 58% Cabernet Sauvignon and 42% Merlot, with plenty of ageability ahead. On its own merits, the 2012 Merlot Stags Leap District proved even more impressive, while the 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District could best be described as splendiferous. All these wines, however, paled in comparison to Regusci’s flagship, the gracefully aged 2001 Angelo’s Cabernet Sauvignon, perhaps the best wine overall for the afternoon. If he were alive, I’m sure Angelo would be carting off a bottle home tonight.

As a denizen of the wine trade, I have often bemoaned the decline of trade tastings these past few years. Seeing a new event, especially one consistent in its focus and the quality of its wines gives hope for a resurgence in what has long been a vital component to building the comprehensive wine program Sostevinobile proposes. This past month also saw the launch of a similar event from Napa’s Spring Mountain District, a remarkable maturation at Petaluma Gap’s second annual trade tasting, the naisence a fledgling collective known as New Mission Winemakers,  and the crowning dénouement for In Pursuit of Balance—all of which I hope to cover in subsequent installations.

How you gonna keep him down on the Pharm?

2016-07-30 15.16.40It was high time Your West Coast Oenophile venture outside my frequent stomping grounds and undertake some serious exploration of the joints—I mean, wineries—that I have vetted for Sostevinobile primarily through trade tastings in San Francisco and on Treasure Island. And so I threw caution to the wind and risked upping my per-mile bracket with Metromile and headed north beyond the confines of Sonoma and Napa for the other regions that constitute the vast North Coast AVA: Lake and Mendocino counties.

After several years’ worth of invites, I finally capitulated and agreed to attend the annual picnic and members meeting for the Redwood Forest Foundation (RFFI) in Ukiah. This foundation represents a laudable effort to preserve not only much of the old growth redwoods throughout California but to protect the wildlife that inhabit these preserves. Naturally, the focus of their efforts aligns synergistically with the sustainable aims of Sostevinobile, but I am not entirely sanguine about the use of cap & trade carbon credits to offset their budget deficit. Global warming has now reached the point where merely maintaining current level of carbon emissions—which, in effect, is what carbon credits facilitates—rather than radically reducing them, is not sufficient to offset the pending catastrophic impact from our profligate industrial consumption.

In spite of such conundrums, Mendocino still can lay valid claim to its self-professed accolade as “The Greenest AVA in America.” Many may claim this is a double-entendre, and yet my only encounter with any semblance of cannabis culture was a sign at the gateway to Hopland. There was no indication, however, that they operated a tasting room.

No dearth of visible tasting rooms existed for the numerous wineries that have sprung up in county since I first visited with Mendocino’s first varietal producer, the late John Parducci. Before locating the Redwood Forest picnic, I fittingly managed to squeeze a visit with Rich Parducci’s McNab Ridge, a winery I had featured a few years ago at a tasting I designed for NAAAP-SF. As eclectic in his tastes as his grandfather, Rich bottles an extraordinary array of organically grown selections that span from a strikingly appealing 2014 French Colombard to his admirable rendition of the 2013 Pinotage. I was quite taken with McNab Ridge’s exemplary 2013 Primitivo, but still managed to spare enough room to sample their 2013 John Parducci Signature Series Port, an opulent blend of Touriga Nacional (55%), Tinta Roriz (16%), Touriga Francesca (10%), Tinta Barroca (10%), and Tinta Cão (9%).

Time constraints dictated that I cut short my visit with McNab Ridge and depart Hopland’s quaint confines for the aforementioned luncheon, aptly situated amid a redwood grove at Nelson Family Vineyards. As these wines are not commonly distributed beyond subscribers and visitors to the tasting room, I took the opportunity to sample through their roster after the RFFI conclave. Starting with their NV Brut, one of Mendocino’s signature expressions, I segued to a delightfully light 2014 Pinot Grigio. Nelson’s deft touch truly manifested itself next in their 2013 Viognier, a well-balanced expression of the grape that proved neither austere nor cloying.

Creative minds most certainly lurked behind their 2015 Barn Blend, a unique blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Zinfandel and Viognier. More traditional, the 2013 Top Row Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, an intensified wine crafted from a prized block on their estate vineyard. Finally, Nelson revealed its true virtuosity in their exceptional 2013 Zinfandel, a dense, jammy wine that long lingered on the palate.

I next veered southward back to Hopland, where I spent a most enjoyable hour visiting with César Toxqui at the tasting room he maintains alongside Bruotocao’s. His affable 2013 Muscat Canelli prefaced 2014 Rosé of Zinfandel, a wine most definitely not to be confused with the much-maligned White Zin concoction that ruled the 1980s. I found his 2012 Pinot Noir Russian River Valley appealing, his 2010 Grenache decidely more so. Here again, the 2007 Immigrant Zinfandel reigned supreme, closely followed by a 2013 Zinfandel Dry Creek, sourced from across the county line.

César also poured a noteworthy single vineyard Cabernet, his 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Bloom Vineyards. His trademark, however, stems from his non-vintage blends, the Ruthless Red, a mélange of 80% Zinfandel, 10% Syrah, and 10% Merlot , dedicated to his wife, and the Heirloom Cinco, a solera now in its fifth cuvée, produced from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, and Viognier.

Following an a raucous evening indulging in all two of downtown Ukiah’s hot spots, I rose early the next day, squeezed in a few laps across the motel pool, and headed out to the foot of Anderson Valley for their annual Barrel Tasting Weekend. Before I reached the festival, I popped into Simaine, an bootstrap winery/tasting room housed in a light industrial complex where my GPS steered me in my quest to locate Germain-Robin. Owner Vic Símon graciously received me just as he prepared to open for the day and opened a selection of his current offerings, starting with his personal favorite, the 2012 Sangiovese. Other wine, designated as Reserve, included the 2010 Petite Sirah and a 2010 Carignane, both of which proved balanced and approachable. His final selection, a Bordeaux blend with the rather elusive name, the 2011 Virisda.

After departing Simaine, the scenic 17-mile expanse of Hwy. 253 wound across the county to Boonville, where I collected my credentials at Philo Ridge’s tasting room. I had hoped to surprise Fred Buonanno with my long-delayed visit but was informed he was still nursing the after-effects of his 60th birthday celebration the night before. Nonetheless, I managed to soldier on and taste through a number of his selections. Having recently sampled several of their Pinot Noir selections at June’s Taste of Mendocino, I opted to taste through an array of white varietals, starting with a lean 2014 Chardonnay Haiku Ranch.Seventeen syllables later, I moved onto the 2014 Pinot Gris Nelson Vineyard, a fresh, tank-fermented rendition of the grape. Also, tank-fermented: the floral yet delicate 2014 Viognier Nelson Ranch, a perfect white for what would prove a scorchingly hot afternoon.

Several Mendocino growers have collaborated over the past several years on a bottling a regional proprietary wine they call Coro. In keeping with this Zinfandel-focused blend, Philo Ridge bottles an intriguing mélange they call Vino di Mendocino. Currently in its fourth release, this wine marries Zinfandel with Syrah, Petite Sirah, and Carignane. The wine was delightful but the burden of becoming a sexagenarian had evidently taken its toll, so I abandoned the notion of waiting for Fred to appear and moseyed onto the next stop.

It was rather surprising to find a town as quaint and remote as Boonville dotted with so many satellite tasting rooms; I would have thought such a laid-back rural setting more conducive to onsite estate visits. Nonetheless, it proved rather convenient to meander between premises and sampling their offerings. Having tried Seebass Family Wines at numerous tastings over the years, I correlated their wines with the impressive Bavarian coat of arms that highlights their label. The tasting room proved to be anything but ponderous, manned by Brigitte Seebass’ daughter Michelle Myrenne Willoughby. Michelle ably navigated five different parties that had bellied up to her bar, yet still found time to attend to my personal discretion. We started with her 2015 Family Chardonnay, a bold wine, like all of Seebass’ selections, sourced from estate-grown, hand-harvested, hand-pruned, sustainably farmed fruit. Quelling my thirst from the 95° F heat, the delightfully chilled 2015 Fantasie proved a compelling Rosé of Grenache.

Varietal bottlings constitute a distinct strength at Seebass, starting with the 2012 Grand Reserve Merlot and punctuated by the exceptionally well-rounded 2011 Old Vine Zinfandel, honed from 100+ year old vines. Nonetheless, I also greatly enjoyed their 2012 Romantik, a blend of Syrah and Grenache, along with their NV Mysteriös, a proprietary mix from their 2011 & 2012 harvests, combining Grenache, Syrah, Merlot and Zinfandel.

Though certainly a pleasant wine, admittedly the most striking aspect of the Mysteriös was the artistic design of it label, a reproduction of one of Michelle’s late father’s paintings, a geometric design that echoed the prints of op art’s grandfather, renowned Hungarian-French master Victor Vasarely. Coincidentally, I bounced over next to Boonville’s John Hanes Fine Art, a modern gallery that shares space with Harmonique. I would like to think the hermaphroditic statuary that adorned the entrance to this facility dissuaded me from partaking of the various Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs for which Harmonique is prized, but, in truth, Harmonique’s absence from the roster of the Anderson Valley Barrel Tasting precluded my visiting.

And so I ambled across the street to the Boonville Hotel, the onetime home of the legendary New Boonville Hotel, a restaurant that had turned this area into a culinary mecca. In the courtyard, I found Paul and Valerie Gordon of Halcón Vineyards, an intrepid couple who sojourn weekly from their Silicon Valley home to produce Mendocino wine. Their al fresco tasting in the hotel’s garden court included a slew of exemplary wines, starting with their 2013 Prado, a classic Rhône blend of Roussanne and Marsanne. From there, we progressed to the 2014 Rosé, a deft melding of Grenache and Syrah, then segued onto the 2014 Alturas Estate Syrah, classically cofermented with a scintilla of Viognier. Opting for a pure expression of the varietal, Paul poured his 2014 Tierra Petite Sirah, a wine quite reflective of its Yorkville Highlands pedigree. His coup de grâce most certainly, however,was the 2014 Wentzel Vineyard Pinot Noir, an exceptionally well-balanced wine, neither light nor ponderous, a blend with 35% whole cluster that clung to the palate ever so delightfully.

Following this stop, I backpedaled from the center of downtown Boonville to visit with Joe Webb at Foursight. This boutique operation has long stood as one of Mendocino’s premier Pinot Noir labels, but first I had to try the refreshingly chilled 2013 Charles Vineyard Sémillon, a most pleasant, understated wine. Though it may be a noble experiment, I confess that I did not cotton to the 2013 Unoaked Pinot Noir, a simplified expression of the grape that struck me as overly sour. In contrast, Joe’s signature wine, the 2014 Paraboll Pinot Noir presented a geometric leap over the Unoaked, a truly exquisite wine that attested to Anderson Valley’s rightful place in California’s Pinot hierarchy.

Onward, returned to my car and headed north to Elke, the first onsite tasting room on the trail. The dirt road, clapboard barn, unpretentious landscaping embodied just the kind of ramshackle setting I had envisioned before I’d arrived, and while owner Mary Elke was not on hand this afternoon, I still enjoyed a most pleasant session, sipping through a welcomely-chilled NV Sparkling Brut crafted from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. I found myself equally pleased—and refreshed—by both the 2014 Chardonnay Anderson Valley and a candy-like 2014 Rosé of Pinot Noir Anderson Valley. For balance, I finished with their 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon Lake County, a heterodoxical selection for the afternoon.

Creeping back onto the highway, I next dropped in on Witching Stick, another understated operation that belied the sophistication of its œnology. Owner Van Williamson began my tasting with a straightforward yet excellent 2014 Durrell Vineyard Chardonnay, then moved to the delightful albeit atypical 2014 Carignano Rosato. After these chilled wines, I delighted in an enticing 2012 Valenti Vineyard Syrah before delving into Van’s Pinot lineup. The 2013 Gianoli Vineyard Pinot Noir and the 2013 Perli Vineyard Pinot Noir proved equally compelling, but both were clearly outshone by the lushness of the 2012 Gianoli Vineyard Pinot Noir. But the pinnacle at this stop turned out to be the 2013 Fashauer Vineyard Zinfandel, a deep, complex , jammy wine.

Across the street, Phil T. G. Baxter welcomed me like an old friend to the intimate confines of his eponymous tasting room. As with Witching Stick, the tasting centered on his lineup of Pinot Noir, starting with an acutely focused 2013 Weir Vineyard Pinot Noir. I found both the 2013 Valenti Vineyard Pinot Noir and the 2013 Langley Vineyard Pinot Noir on par with the 2013s from across the street, while the 2012 Oppenlander Vineyard Pinot Noir once again underscored the superior quality of this vintage. Phil concluded our visit with a sample of his 2013 Valenti Vineyard Syrah, a perfectly amiable wine that complement a perfectly amiable setting.

I have often expressed my personal qualms about engaging in Mergers & Acquisitions, my original role in the wine industry and a practice I’ve recently resumed on behalf of Sostevinobile. One of my favorite Mendocino labels has long been Greenwood Ridge, and I had hoped to visit with Allan Green in Philo, but the winery had been acquired back in March by Diane and Ken Wilson and folded into the mini-empire they have quietly cobbled together in Sonoma and Mendocino. Though Allan will be sorely missed, the new regime has nonetheless stayed the course, including the winery’s focus on organic farming and winemaking; the wines I sampled here, however, were produced under the former ownership, so assaying the perpetuation of these practices remains undetermined. Nevertheless, I cottoned immensely to all three wines I tasted, starting with the 2015 Sauvignon Blanc, the first wine to open my eyes to the full potential organic winemaking. Complementing this indubitable bottling, the 2015 Riesling retained just enough sweetness to taste refined, not cloying. Rounding out my visit, the whimsically-labelled 2013 Hundred Point Pinot Noir, named for a promontory along the Mendocino Coast where 100 ships have wrecked, bore fitting testament to Allan’s legacy.

Not quite Helen of Troy (was this the face that launched a thousand ships?), but close. My combined 18 years’ inculcation in Greek & Latin literature begs for allusion as often as I can cite it. As such, I need confess the allure of Lula Cellars stemmed not merely from the beauty of its wines but the striking pulchritude of their delightful hostess. Kacy managed, despite my overt distraction, to steer me through Lula’s lineup with considerable aplomb, commencing her tasting session with an exceptional 2014 Dry Gewürztraminer, a varietal that for many years characterized Mendocino for me. The 2015 Rosato displayed a delight derivation of a Pinot Noir, while the 2013 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir simply resounded. Rounding out this visit, the 2014 Mariah Vineyard Zinfandel provided a rich dénouement to a most productive afternoon.

Only my tasting day was far from over. Resolved to head back to San Francisco along the leisurely coastal route, I continued up toward along Route 128 toward the town of Albion, below which it interests with Highway 1. To my great surprise, nearly all the wineries along this road remained open until 7pm, a far cry from Napa and Sonoma, where 4:30pm seems the general rule of thumb. And so I abruptly veered into the parking lot for Domaine Anderson, the new branch of Roederer Estate dedicated to still wines. I had first encountered these wines at San Francisco’s Pinot Days, where Wine Club Manager Jennie Dallery had apparently drawn the short straw and was relegated to the antechamber at Bespoke, along with a handful of other wineries forced to compete against subway-level acoustics. I had promised her I would visit soon and discuss these wines in an audible setting, but was chagrined to learn she had left the premises a mere five minutes before my arrival. Nonetheless, I made the best of my visit and sampled both the 2014 Estate Chardonnay and the notably lemony 2013 Dach Chardonnay, both complements to the designate Pinot Noirs I had tried in San Francisco, before continuing my trek to an old familiar, Handley Cellars.

I’ve lost count how many times I’ve sampled (and enjoyed) these wines at tastings throughout the year since 2008 and have even attended a luncheon where seven selections of their Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays were paired to each course. So here I was more than happy to taste through their non-standard selections, starting with the exquisitely floral 2014 Pinot Blanc Mendocino County. Complementing this wine, the 2015 Pinot Gris Anderson Valley seemed a bit more subdued but approachable, while the 2015 Riesling Anderson Valley gave considerable credence to Mendocino’s claim as California’s prime AVA for Alsatian varietals.

I bypassed Handley’s all-too-familiar lineup of Pinots for a selection of their other reds, including the unlisted 2013 Vittorio Petite Sirah. I found the 2013 Zinfandel Russian River Valley equally pleasurable, yet both combine, along with a healthy share of Carignane to make a true standout, the 2013 Vittorio Red Table Wine. Meanwhile, standing out on its own merits: the 2013 Syrah Kazmet Vineyard.

Truth be told: I had two primary destinations in mind when I embarked on this journey. Although I finally did manage to determine the actual location for Germain-Robin, I learned that weekend appointments would not have been available anyway. My other Holy Grail, of course, was sparkling wine virtuoso Roederer Estate, which was just about to close its doors as I arrived. I almost convinced the tasting room staff I had won a case of L’Ermitage, but settled for the final tasting of the day as reward for my ruse. Their base offering, the Brut MV, artfully combined a blend of 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir. Roederer serves this wine from different size bottles, and clearly the Brut MV Magnum outshone the confines of the standard 750ml bottling. I could not have asked more of the Brut Rosé MV, a Pinot-dominant blend, while their Tête du Cuvée, my cherished 2009 L’Ermitage reaffirmed itself as my perennial favorite sparkling.

2016-07-24-16-33-40While my return to Mendocino proved both fruitful and enlightening, I confess I was surprised that I never once stumbled across the mood-altering botanical for which it is primarily known. Perhaps because it has been a few decades since I cultivated an affinity for the weed that its whereabouts eluded me. Perhaps it was because I have had little to praise for the few bottlings of marijuana-infused wine that I’ve tried. Or could it be that this reputation is simply an elaborate hoax, a convoluted pharmaceutical paronomasia?


I passed through Mendocino a week later, en route to a wine tasting in neighboring Lake County, another AVA I have been remiss in visiting. But with so many fires having recently ravaged this pristine preserve, it seemed almost obligatory that I journey north as a gesture of solidarity with the fourteen wineries on hand for The People’s Choice Wine Tasting.2016-07-30 15.44.28Admittedly, I could have made better timing in getting to the Kelseyville destination, but I decided to follow the scenic mountain route over from Hopland.As I began my descent down Highway 175, the vista from atop Cobb Mountain provided a breathtaking panoramic of Clear Lake, a natural phenomenon often unfairly depicted as a poor man’s Lake Tahoe. The vast expanse of this waterway was an unanticipated revelation, tinged with regret that I have not taken advantage of the resorts that dot its shore, especially when San Francisco summers have taken an Arctic turn.

My other epiphany came as I wound down from Middleton to the back stretches of Bottle Rock Road: seemingly every other vineyard I passed was tagged with a Beckstoffer sign. Behind this ubiquity lies a concerted effort to bolster the quality and reputation of Lake County’s wines, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon hailing from the Red Hills AVA, where they farm nearly 1,300 acres of vineyard. This past winter, owner Andy Beckstoffer announced a program wherein he would provide one acres’ worth of Cabernet for free to ten select vintners in the county to draw help catalyze this ambitious project. Despite being seen by some merely as theatricality, the chosen vintners with whom I spoke wear their selection as a badge of honor.

I arrived at host Moore Family Winery amid their own theatricality, a blind tasting of thirteen Lake County Sauvignon Blancs. As with the Anderson Valley Barrel Tasting, I quickly drifted from the staged event inside the Tasting Room and focused my visit on the wineries pouring their Gold Medal selections. Host Steve Moore offered a distinctive lineup, starting with his 2015 Sauvignon Blanc, a wine that had not taken part in the shootout. I clearly favored his 2015 Chardonnay, however, but did cotton to the 2009 Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc, a most deserving dessert wine.

In a similar vein, Kelseyville’s Chacewater showcased their 2014 Chardonnay, a wine I would have liked to contrast with their Organic Certified 2015 Chardonnay. Complementing this vintage, however, was the 2015 Muscat Canelli, a sweet yet appealing wine, to be sure. Former Kendall-Jackson winemaker Jed Steele had his various labels out in force, impressing with the Sweepstake Red Winner, the 2012 Steele-Stymie Merlot and, in a nod to poetic justice,the 2015 Writer’s Block Roussanne.

Forsooth, Fults Family Vineyards, a winery I had not previously encountered, countered with a pair of their amiable whites, the 2015 Sauvignon Blanc and the 2015 Chardonnay. Contrasting quite nicely, the stainless steel 2015 Endeavor, a limited release Chardonnay from Wildhurst, which showcased its 2013 Petite Sirah alongside. And in keeping with the caliber of his worldwide wine portfolio,a standout 2013 Petite Sirah came from Langtry, new NHL team owner Bill Foley’s Lake County acquisition.

While Foley has ponied up $500,000,000 for the construction of T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, the more anticlimactic redevelopment of San Francisco’s Treasure Island has begun displacing the cottage wine industry there, starting with the myriad labels produced at The Winery SF. Nonetheless, owner Bryan Kane remains committed to the Lake County fruit he sources for his personal Sol Rouge label, resulting in an ever-reliable 2013 Petite Sirah and a most compelling bottling of his 2012 Cabernet Franc. Another multilabel enterprise, Shannon Ridge showed atypical restraint, pouring a mere four selections from their seemingly inexhaustible lineup. Both the 2013 Wrangler Red, a blend of 44% Zinfandel, 43% Syrah, 11% Petite Sirah, and 2% Cabernet Sauvignon, and the 2012 Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon seemed tepid, particularly when juxtaposed with their 2015 High Elevation Sauvignon Blanc and the superb 2013 High Elevation Chardonnay. Another winery that featured a blend was Fore Family Vineyards, also previously unfamiliar to Sostevinobile, with their delightful Grenache-based 2013 GSM; deftly displaying the potential of the Red Hills volcanic soil, their 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon proved sheer elegant.

From Clearlake Oaks, Cache Creek Vineyards shares only a name with the more familiar casino, but a kindred spirit with its Lake County brethren. Their 2014 Rosé of Cabernet attested to their acuity of their vinification, while the 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon constituted yet another testament to the potential of this AVA. Admittedly, I found myself wondering if Jack Welch would deem that Six Sigma’s somewhat tepid 2014 Sauvignon Blanc held to continuous efforts to achieve stable and predictable process results, but I was especially pleased to taste their 2013 Diamond Mine Cuvée, a black belt mélange of Tempranillo with lesser parts Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.

Also veering from the predominant French focus of the afternoon, Nick Buttitta made an impromptu appearance on behalf of his Rosa d’Oro label, sharing his intense 2013 Aglianico, a dense, intense interpretation of this varietal. Still, I concede that the standout wine of the afternoon was the opulent 2014 Viognier from Gregory Graham, one of the most acclaimed winemakers in Lake County.

Andy Beckstoffer contends Lake County’s “Red Hills is the most promising Cabernet Sauvignon site outside of Europe.” At the heart of this AVA sits Tricycle Wine Partners’ Obsidian Ridge, whose wines compare favorably at 2-3 times the price from their southerly neighbors in Napa. Underscoring this point today, they wowed the crowd with considerable aplomb, pouring a robust 2013 Estate Syrah, their 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, co-winner of the Sweepstake Red award, and a distinctive Meritage, the 2012 Half Mile Proprietary Red, a wondrous blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot.

I wish I had allotted more time to this visit, as many intriguing Lake County ventures that participated in this competition could not be present. I find myself now filled with trepidation that I may never have the opportunity to visit with several of these; as most people know, a series of wildfires have struck since my visit, threatening to undermine the emergence of Lake County as a world-class AVA. Fortunately, the arsonist responsible for many of these conflagrations has been apprehended. Moving forward, absent of natural catastrophe, perhaps Lake County can look toward their westerly neighbor for definition of the expression “up in smoke!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The worstest wine in the world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Discoveries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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