Category Archives: Carménère

Everybody wants to get into the act

Your West Coast Oenophile has been avidly involved in the wine realm for over 40 years now, including more than a dozen running Sostevinobile, but even with this track record, there are still some mainstays in viticulture whose popularity I do not comprehend. Like Valdiguié, formerly known as Napa Gamay, a varietal that flourished as ubiquitously as Chenin Blanc when I started out in 1982. Call it what you will, the varietal still strikes me as clawing. But, perhaps like Lagrein, an Italian grape to which I initially did not cotton, it the right hands, it can prove to be wondrous.

My introduction to Sauvignon Blancs came from the grassy-grapefruity renditions that dominated the 1980s; 40 years later, I still struggle to approach this varietal without trepidation. Granted, I am quite fond of Sauvignon Blanc deftly tempered with Sémillon or a blend heaviluy mixed with a Musqué clone, but when I am searching for a white wine, I will almost always opt for a Falanghina or Albariño or Roussanne or Pinot Blanc or a dozen other non-Chardonnay selections before I consider an SB. Try as I mght, the varietal simply doesn’t resonate with me the way it does with so many other dedicated œnophiles. On the other hand, if someone wants to gift me a bottle of the 2019 Screaming Eagle Sauvignon Blanc…

Just as I cannot comprehend the tremendous enthusiasm so many have for Sauvignon Blanc, I find myself unable to ascribe to the fanaticism many have for Pinot Noir. It’s not just Pinotism, the cult-like devotion to the grape, as Andrew Jeffords recently illustrated; I also revel in the nuances of an amazing Pinot but shy from the lesser expressions of the varietal. My incredulity, however, is more directed at the implied post-Sideways notion that a winery must produce Pinot Noir as the sine qua non in order to be considered credible. In recent weeks, I have attended events like Pinot Paradise at Gravenstein Grill in Sebastopol and the Petaluma Gap’s AVA-focused Wind to Wine Festival; of course, there were a plethora of truly wonderful Pinots poured at each. But my overall impression was “why?” Labels like Scherrer and Radio Coteau have long validated their inclusion in the upper echelons of Pinot producers. Likewise, major vineyard holders like Dutton Goldfield and Three Sticks offer amazing renditions of their own grapes. But how many wineries can make a truly distinctive Pinot Noir from the same vineyard?

I cannot recall a preference for or noteworthy difference among the half-dozen or so Pinots sourced from Sangiacomo Vineyards. Nor those I tasted from Sun Chase. I see the same inundation of labels from other distinguished vineyards in Sonoma, including Carneros, Russian River Valley, and West Sonoma. It becomes even more egregious in renowned Pinot regions such as the Santa Lucia Highlands, where innumerable labels source grapes from a dozen or so mega-vineyards like Garys’ or Rosella’s.

But Pinot Noir isn’t simply limited to  plantings in Sonoma and Monterey Counties. Anderson Valley in Mendocino, Santa Maria Valley and Sta. Rita Hills in Santa Barbara, wide swaths of the various counties in Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, and, of course, Burgundy’s twin Willamette Valley AVA in Oregon all contribute to an amalgam of more Pinot producers than one could possibly enumerate.

And it doesn’t end there. Ridge Vineyards, a winery whose considerable prestige needs no validation, now produces a Corralitos Pinot Noir, simply because legacy owner Ichiro Otsuka wants it made. A similar reason releasing a Pinot was expressed by the financial partner of Tansy, a new label otherwise focused exclusively on Italian varietals. As the late, great Jimmy Durante was fond of saying, “everybody wants to get into the act.”

At its finest, I recognize that Pinot Noir offers greater complexity and variation than almost any other varietal. As my colleague Laura Ness recently illustrated, the grape offers a vast array of clones, each with distinctive character and viticultural properties. On the other hand, most mainstream (aka affordable) Pinots approach being lackluster, which once begs the question “why are so many producers insistent on making this varietal?”

Oenology may represent a cultural apex on par with the fine arts, but it is also has a pragmatic business aspect few producers can afford to eschew. I cannot fathom how so many labels can focus on Pinot Noir and thrive in a competitive market but it is not my position to tell winemakers what they should produce. I will, however, proffer that one can just as readily demonstrate one’s viticultural acuity with any number of other varietals, such as Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Syrah, Tempranillo, Nebbiolo, Malbec, and, yes, even Merlot!

It may seem contradictory that, despite my protestation of Pinot fatigue, I am heading to Sonoma next week for the annual Pinot Noir-focused Healdsburg Crush, but I have interspersed these visits with a number of other Grand Tastings from AVAs that focus on a variety of different grapes. Though known as the foremost rival to Napa’s claim to Cabernet supremacy, its western neighbor excels in a number of varietals, including Sangiovese, Barbera, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and a wide range of Rhône-style wines. Labor Day weekend’s poolside Access Alexander Valley featured long-established wineries like Seghesio, Rodney Strong, and renowned Chardonnay specialist Robert Young, alongside showcase châteaux Lancaster and Ferrari-Carano, as well as ambitious starters like ACTA and La Cienega.

A couple of weeks later, I wound my way up to Yountville for the return of Taste of Mount Veeder, a showcase for one of Napa’s most prestigious hillside AVAs. Despite the threat of atypical September rainshowers, this event still proceeded on the lawn of Domaine Chandon; though the terrain proved challenging at times, the muddied field could hardly rival the famed “Pinot in the River” tasting in Healdsburg several years ago. But between intermittent cloudbursts, the afternoon proved a wonder opportunity to revisit with numerous wineries and sample through their current releases.

Of course, like Alexander Valley, Mount Veeder is known primarily for its Cabernet Sauvignon, but the vintners here demonstrated their prowess with a disparate assortment of varietals. with such bottlings as Lagier Meredith’s always-intriguing 2019 Mondeuse and the 2014 Precious Bane, a port-style (fortified) Mount Veeder Syrah. meanwhile, heir apparent Aaron Pott held his own with the 2021 Viognier Pott Art.

My overt fondness for Mary Yates aside, her Yates Family Vineyard’s 2018 Fleur de Veeder Merlot proved most impressive. As did the 2014 Mount Veeder Malbec from Godspeed. And relatively atypical Cabernet blends abounded here, like the sumptuous 2015 Mary Ann Red from Gamble Family, a Cheval Blanc homage consisting of 56% Cabernet Franc, 32% Merlot, and a mere 12% Cabernet Sauvignon. In signature fashion, Paul Woolls’ Progeny rounded out the typical five Bordeaux varietal blend in their 2018 Reserve Cabernet with 2% Carménère from their Mount Veeder estate, while Random Ridge replicated a SuperTuscan, marrying Sangiovese and Cabernet in their 2019 Fortunata.

Still, it goes without saying that Cabernet Sauvignon reigns supreme in this AVA, and it was most heartening to see Newton, an historic winery obliterated in Spring Mountains’ Grass Fire of 2020, rise like the Phoenix from its embers and dazzle here their 2016 Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon. But my guiltiest pleasure from any Mount Veeder Grand Tasting will always be the glorious yet unheralded Mithra Winery, which year in and year out produces one of Napa’s greatest Cabernets, represented here by the 2016 Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon and the near-flawless library offering, the 2009 Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon.



lacuna: noun, plural lacunæ


1. a gap or missing part, as in a manuscript, series, or logical argument; hiatus.

2. Anatomy. one of the numerous minute cavities in the substance of bone, supposed to contain nucleate cells.
3. Botany. an air space in the cellular tissue of plants.

Loyal readers of the Sostevinobile blog have probably noticed a paucity of entries, so far, for 2017. As in none. This gap, however, has not occurred because Your West Coast Oenophile has been missing in action or confronting his worst case of writer’s block since John Hawkes’ graduate seminar in fiction writing. I have actually started several posts covering my wine forays to Napa, Sonoma, Paso Robles, Amador, Lodi, Santa Cruz, and El Dorado (according to my odometer, nearly 77% of the miles I’ve clocked in 2017 have been for wine tasting forays). Add to that the usual array of trade tastings, although I skipped ZAP for the first time in 20 or so years, as it coincided with Premier Napa, plus I single-handedly produced a wine tasting extravaganza in Menlo Park, featuring some 30 wineries owned by or affiliated with alumni from my undergraduate institute.

In a word, I’ve been hard-pressed to put words to the page. And since I am so woefully behind in timely coverage of the various events I have attended, let me focus on the various discoveries I have made over the past few months as I have been meandering throughout the state.

As they usually do, my journeys began with a swing down to Paso Robles, though this time with one very significant difference: rain. After 5 years of drought, the weather gods seemed determined to atone for their dereliction in a single season, and on the Friday before President’s Day, turned what is normally a 3¼ hour drive down US 101 into a 7+ hour ordeal.

Despite oftentimes feeling as if I were taking my life into my own hands—at one point, almost driving into the Salinas River—I still managed to handle the deluge in stride, and managed to visit quite a number of wineries, while sandwiching in the regional Rhône Rangers tasting. It proved a most revelatory excursion, renewing my acquaintance with Roger Nicolas of RN Estate (not to be confused with Roger Nicholas of Lodi’s Grand Amis) and discussing his transition from the superb Rhône varietals he produces to a Bordeaux focus, including his sublime 2014 Malbec.

Readers here know that I have been championing Malbec as the Next Big Thing in California (along with my declaration of Pinot fatigue). Just before joining Roger for his tasting, I waded through the Adelaida District to join Jim Madsen at Thacher, where The Farm was laboring through its annual day of bottling. Much to my surprise, Santiago Achával was also manning the line alongside his associates. Though we had not met before, we have corresponded over the past several years and have numerous mutual friends, including Manuel Ferrer Minetti, his former partner at Argentina’s renowned Achával-Ferrer.

To learn from Santiago that The Farm was indeed planning to bottle their own Malbec in Paso Robles—once it met his exacting standards—was an epiphany. Further underscoring this prognostication was my discovery of Tooth & Nail’s 2014 The Fiend, a Malbec blended with 8% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Petite Sirah, and 2% Syrah and a revisit with Wally Murray’s Bon Niche, whose 2011 Voûtes/Arches has long been a benchmark Malbec blend. In fact, Wally’s second label, Birdland, is comprised of three mid-range Malbecs and Malbec blends, a further validation of my belief that California is no longer ceding this varietal to the South Americans. The only question that remains is whether Carménère can be far behind.

I have been referring to this Paso Robles trip as my M&M excursion. True, before the massive proliferation of wineries throughout the AVA, a packet of these candies was my go-to choice whenever I stopped here for the obligatory refill the tank and relieve the bladder before the second leg of my drive to Los Angeles, but this winter, it took on a whole new meaning. Also rising up from relative obscurity among its peer varietals, Mourvèdre, at long last appears to be taking center stage for many Rhône red producers. If GSMs could be likened to a professional basketball squad, Grenache would be Kevin Durant, Syrah—Steph Curry, and Mourvèdre, the overshadowed star of this triumvirate, Klay Thompson. But just as Thompson can manage to eclipse his co-stars every so often, so too can Mourvèdre find its niche as a primary varietal.

The Saturday event at Broken Earth proved, admittedly, a bit of an endurance test, given the decibel level of the concrete antechamber where the Grand Tasting took place. Placards hung from the ceiling celebrate each of the Rhône varietals, though the irony of misspelling “Mourvédre” was not lost. Still, eleven of the participating wineries featured a varietal Mourvèdre bottling, with particular standouts including Adelaida’s 2014 Mourvèdre Signature Anna’s Estate Vineyard, Clautière’s 2012 Estate Mourvèdre, compelling bottlings of the 2014 Mataró from Red Soles, Summerwood’s 2013 Mourvèdre, and the 2014 Mourvèdre from the redoubtable Vines on the Marycrest. Rounding out the assemblage, both Seven Oxen and Rhône virtuoso Tablas Creek offered superb renditions of their 2014 Mourvèdre.

Whether it’s labeled as its Spanish name (Monastrell) or its Catalan nomenclature (Mataró), Mourvèdre has been unheralded as a primary Rhône varietal for far too long on the West Coast. It is most gratifying to see that it is finally getting the measure of respect it deserves. Of course, I could say the same for the vast majority of the 200+ varietals I have sourced for Sostevinobile throughout the West Coast,  but that would require a far more comprehensive undertaking than I have time to allocate currently. Still, my final takeaway from Paso Robles was the discovery of a true Gamay—not Valdiguié—the 2015 Stasis Gamay Noir from Rob Murray’s Murmur VIneyard in nearby Santa Maria Valley, an exceptional wine that easily rivaled the 2012 RPM Gamay Noir, my overall favorite wine from that vintage.

After stopping off in Carmel-by-the-Sea, I made it back to San Francisco with barely enough time to brush my teeth and reload my travel bags before heading up to Napa and Sonoma for a five day excursion. In many ways, I concede that the events surrounding Première Napa are more personal indulgence than research; after all, this is primary county-wide showcase of the year and it remains fairly difficult, for the most part, to distinguish, critically, wines that range from very good to phenomenal. Première is about building and cementing relationships, cultivated over the years, in the hope of gaining discrete allocations if and when Sostevinobile becomes able to take on a prestigious reserve list or cater to a private membership within the confines of our facilities.

The other challenge, of course, is the rigid orthodoxy of the Bordeaux strictures to which the vast majority of Napa wineries adhere. Encountering unheralded varietals or non-traditional blends is a rarity in this AVA. Highway 29, the backbone of the Napa Valley, interconnects its most mainstream AVAs: Oak Knoll, Yountville, Rutherford, Oakville, and St. Helena, and along this conduit one tends to find the least variance in deference to the near universal excellence of its Cabernets—not to mention the price per ton Cabernet Sauvignon from here commands. Meanwhile, the more remote regions of the county, like Coombsville and Calistoga, generally seem more willing to delve into other varietals—even those that have fallen into disuse in Bordeaux!

As scarce as Malbec may be in California, the fabled sixth Bordeaux grape, Carménère, is even rarer. Even its most noteworthy producer outside of South America, Yorkville Cellars in Mendocino, seems almost reticent in promoting its varietal bottling. But with little fanfare, the redoubtable John Caldwell has plantings in Coombsville, and what suppose to be a quick visit to discuss obtaining some graftings of Malbec and of Carménère for my Paso Robles clients turned into a 3½ hour bacchanal that only ended because I had to attend a memorial service at the Marin Art & Garden Center in Ross.

I’d like to believe the late Dr. Jim McCole would not have minded my missing his Celebration of Life. Certainly, he would have himself preferred to indulge in the 2014 Rocket Science, Caldwell’s signature bottling of  ⅔ Syrah with 7% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Malbec, 6% Cabernet Franc, 5% Pinot Noir, 4% Merlot, 3% Tannat, and 1% Carménère, a blend as unconventional as the man behind it. I, in turn, cottoned to the 2012 Gold Cabernet Suavignon and an equally alluring 2014 Silver Proprietary Red, a rare blend of his six Bordeaux varietals, with a 1% dash of Syrah—an homage to 19th Century Claret.

Caldwell is renowned for the meticulously researched, albeit often smuggled, varietal clones grown on his estate, and labels his wines accordingly. The apex of this precision was his 2013 Merlot [Clone 181], along with the 2013 Malbec [Clone 595], but I still delighted most in the 2014 Carménère [Clone 2].

Readers well-familiar with my penchant for rare and obscure varietals will know that I am not satisfied with sourcing a mere six red Bordeaux varietals, and while John has yet to smuggle in cuttings of St. Macaire, both Mt. Veeder’s Progeny and O’Shaughnessy on Howell Mountain have plantings. But like the elusive Planet X, theoretically lurking undetected in the Kuiper Belt, the eighth Bordeaux red, Gros Verdot, has never found its niche in California, at least until now. Indeed, O’Shaughnessy has covertly planted it at their Angwin estateand will be releasing their 8 varietal blend this spring, superseding their famed Howell Mountain Cabernet, renowned for its inclusion of St,. Maciare and Carménère with the major Bordelaise grapes. Now if only Jancis Robinson hadn’t debunked Cabernet Gernischt…

(to be continued)

99 bottles of wine on the wall,* 99 bottles of wine…

Your West Coast Oenophile has remained deluged with responsibilities for keeping the vision of Sostevinobile alive, and yet I owe acknowledgments to so many whose wines I have enjoyed these past few months. So, in no particular order or with any attempt to rank them, here’s a list of the many memorable vintages I’ve sampled:

99) I visited with Ray D’Argenzio, who is developing a cluster of artisan wineries and food purveyors in an enclave he calls Santa Rosa Vintners Square. As we compared our common roots from Avellino to California via grandparents who had settled in Glen Cove, NY, I sampled what is arguably the first bottling of “raisin wine” in California, the 2007 D’Amarone. Classic Amarone is produced from a blend of semi-desiccated Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara grapes, but I am unaware of any successful plantings of these varietals stateside. Ray’s interpretation came from a mix of Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, and Petite Sirah—grapes that are no strangers to late harvest bottlings, but he is striving ultimately to bottle a replica of the authentic constituency. Perhaps even with a hand-blown, twisted bottle neck?

98) From next generation winemaker, daughter Breanna, came a highly impressive debut effort, the 2008 Sant’Angelo Sangiovese, vinted from fruit grown in Amador County.

97) I had come to the Vintners Square, following a most promising meeting with Silicon Valley Bank, to meet with Matthew Trulli of MJ Lords. His first allure had been the promise of sampling only the third pure varietal bottling of the “sixth Bordeaux red” I have found in California, though several wineries do blend this grape into their Meritages. The signature grape of the emerging Chilean wine industry, Matthew’s yet-to-be-released 2009 Carménère, clearly showed an ability to give the South Americans a run for their money.

96) Another signature varietal rarely cultivated here, Matthew’s 2009 Montepulciano (to disambiguate, the Abruzzese varietal, not the Tuscan vino nobile derived from Sangiovese) amply displayed the kind of complexity I have come to expect from this burgeoning viticultural talent.

95) Matthew shares his space with Krutz Family Cellars, a decidedly understated venture that left a deep first impression. Owner/winemaker Patrick Krutz showcased his take on yet another South American standard with his 2007 Napa Valley Malbec.

94) Not many fledgling operations can presuppose to charge $195 for a 1.5L bottle of anything, but, without question, Patrick’s 2007 Stagecoach Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon rose to the occasion—and then some.

93) A third suite mate, Sheldon Wines, moved here from the Sebastopol caboose where I had originally met with them last year. Here Dylan’s 2009 Graciano continued to rise in my estimation from the exceptional previous vintage that I had tasted.

92) I have long felt the same ambivalence towards Viansa as I have about the Punahou Kid. On a philosophical level—at least in what they purport to champion—I am vocally in accord; what they actually have accomplished or delivered, however, has been a far cry from what I am able to bring myself to endorse. But while the neophyte in the Oval Office combats our economic miasma by committing our scant resources to yet a third theater of overseas combat, Sonoma’s Italian varietal pioneers have taken stock in their disparate œnological forays and revamped with a focus on quality, while still retaining a pronounced fidelity to their founding mission.

Under the stewardship of independent owner Lloyd Davis, Viansa has realigned, jettisoning a number of varietals that failed to gain traction, increasing their portfolio of more traditional wines like Chardonnay and Syrah, along with Bordelaise varietals Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon, while still fortifying the array of Italian wines on which founder Sam Sebastiani had originally focused. Perhaps no wine better exemplified this transition than the 2009 Arneis, a crisp, delectable rendition of a varietal that had hovered near mediocrity in its earliest vintages here.

91) Just as astounding was the risorgimento of Viansa’s 2009 Reserve Vernaccia, one of the most delightful Italian whites to be produced in California.

90) Not all Sangiovese is created equal, and few on this side of the Atlantic realize that there are multiple variants to this grape. The Sangiovese Grosso used in Barolo is, as one might infer, a bold, powerful strain of this varietal; here, Viansa showed the subtle intensity of its somewhat overshadowed brethren, with their 2005 Piccolo Sangiovese, again an exceptional expression that reaffirmed the appropriateness of transplanting the Italian family of grapes along the West Coast.

89) I made my way through virtually all of Viansa’s lineup before I tried their thoroughly splendid dessert wine, the 2009 Tocai Friulano. Some winemakers seek to restrain the sweetness of this grape; here, the unfettered expression created an extraordinary wine that could complement the finale of any repast.

I took my leave of Lloyd and his gracious tasting staff, not before collecting a bottle from his hand-picked Signature Series for further evaluation, to head north for more tastings, meetings, and the inexorable pursuit of the wherewithal to make Sostevinobile a prominent presence on the viticultural scene.

*this actually should have read “deposited in the blue recycling bin,” but there wasn’t headline space to fit it.

My contribution to the world’s wine lexicon

One of the hallmarks Your West Coast Oenophile is striving to establish for the wine program at Sostevinobile is untainted objectivity in selecting the wines we will feature, both at our wine bar and through our retail operations. Over the 2½ years that I have been relentlessly developing the wine program, I have made numerous new friends, strengthened old acquaintances, and been extended enormous generosity everywhere I’ve traveled. But I cannot allow the pull of personal relationships to influence our decisions, insuring that our clientele knows that we are offering them the best wines we can source, week in and week out, based solely on a rigorous methodology for evaluation (more on this in a later posting).

This process of selection, however, is based on a bias I have articulated many times: that the quality and variety of wines found on the West Coast makes for a superior wine program that is comprehensive in its scope and that delivers wines of sufficient, if not exceptional, value. Toward this end, I am constantly willing to challenge my own hypothesis and sample a wide array of the imported wines Sostevinobile eschews. 

Recently, I returned for another pre-auction tasting with Wine Gavel at Ame restaurant in San Francisco. Admittedly, this is a realm in which I have scant exposure and have little ability to assess the quality of the event, apart from the criteria outlined in their event program. After all, the mere notion of wine collecting baffles me. Unlike something like numismatics or philately or other accumulations of memorabilia, the only way a wine collector can fully enjoy his acquisition is to obliterate its value. On the other hand, if the collector does not consume the wine, the whole exercise seems like a thankless pursuit. 

As with last year’s event that I attended, Wine Gavel poured a number of well-aged French vintages, including a handful of Premiers Crus, from their own vaults. Several of these had been polished off before I arrived, but those that I did manage to taste ranged from lackluster to near dreadful, at least when standing on their own merits (vs. pairing with food). Maybe these particular wines came from off vintages. Maybe previous owners had stored them improperly. In any case, I was once again duly unimpressed with such highly-touted labels.

Shortly after, I partook in a late night tasting of French wines at Prospect. Here, the Robert Kacher Selections and our host, the Henry Wine Group, brought out a number of more moderate selections from the Loire Valley, Alsace, Côtes du Gascogne, Burgundy, Corbières, Costières de Nîmes, and the Rhône Valley. Nearly all these wines listed at <$20/bottle wholesale, many even less than $10, while the represented AOCs ranged from the rigid strictures of Bourgogne and Châteauneuf du Pape to the unfettered blends found in the minor regions. As I found with the Bordeaux tasting I had attended earlier this year, an enormous gulf exists between the top echelon (Premier Cru houses in Bordeaux, Grand Cru vineyards in Burgundy) and those from the lower tiers in those appellations that issue such rankings. 

Here’s the gist of what I ascertained at this tasting. The lower end white and red Burgundies (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir) poured here could hardly be said to give Oregon or Santa Barbara a run for their money. The range of Sauvignon Blanc expressions, including the Sancerres, mostly seemed pleasant, if unremarkable. The dessert bottlings never failed to please, while I must concede that the West Coast is still catching up to France in its capacity to offer as broad a selection of noteworthy, mid-range sparkling wines as the proliferation of Crémants and Champagnes they produce.

My investigations into West Coast viticulture are by no means near complete or comprehensive, but as yet, I have not found a varietal bottling of Aligoté or a straight Ugni Blanc here. Seldom -seen Carignan played a more prominent role in a number of the French wines, including the 2008 Domaine Sainte Eugénie Le Clos Vin de Pays d’Hauterive and its sibling 2007 Domaine Sainte Eugénie Corbières Rouge, two highly impressive wines, given their sub-$9 price tag, while the premium Font du Michelle Châteauneuf du Pape Étienne proved well-worth the price it commands. But, in spite these exceptions, the selection of French wines overall failed to sway me from my contention that the omission of imports diminishes the wine program I am building.

Some wines can be so restrained or overly acidic that they simply cannot function on their own merits. To call such wines “food mandatory” seems appropriate, as their need for complementary pairings cries out:

Feed me! 

The pablum reiterated ad infinitum by local sommeliers to rationalize their disdain for California wines is that French and other European vintages offer lower alcohol levels and a more restrained, terroir-expressive style that makes them food friendly. I would contend that the plethora of these imports are food mandatory—wines virtually undrinkable without the salvation of food pairings.

This reality hits home pointedly with the Italian vintages I’ve recently sampled, including the 1998 Quintarelli Ca’ del Merlo IGT Veneto (Valpolicella) or the Terlato-owned 2001 Gaja Sito Moresco poured at Wine Gavel. At San Francisco’s hotter than hot Cotogna, I had to send back both the 2008 Tenimenti d’Alessandro Cortona Syrah and the 2008 Renato Ratti Nebbiolo d’Alba Ochetti, while I struggled through samples of the 2008 Torre di Beatti Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, the 2009 Cantine Barbera Nero d’Avola, and the 2008 Marotti Campi Lacrima di Morro d’Alba Rúbico before throwing in the towel and ordering grappa at Italian wine-focused Ottimista Enoteca.

These explorations served as prelude to my return visit to Around the World in 80 Sips, a reprise from the tasting Alyssa Rapp’s Bottlenotes staged last year. This time round, however, the event took place at the Golden Gate Club in the Presidio, rather than at Crushpad, which had relocated to Napa. Consequently, this tasting no longer was dominated by labels from the defunct San Francisco Wine Association or produced at the Third Street facility, while offering a wider spectrum from winemakers within California and around the world.

I had planned to work my way through the local producers, then continue my forays into the imported wines, and ought to have had enough time to sample just about everything on the program. But even with a trade hour before its official start, Around the World in 80 Sips is a different kind of wine tasting, a sales event geared for their wine club subscribers and the οἱ πολλοί, as we used to say in my ancient Greek studies. Not that it even remotely resembled the mass frenzy of the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition that transpired a week later; still, the setup here lacked a flow and coherence one expects at an event oriented toward wine industry professionals.

The central reception area housed a number of the sponsoring wineries, along with vendors for different wine paraphernalia, and the only food at the event. I immediately gravitated toward Clos du Val’s table for my first sampling of their wines since their Vindependence launch last July. Fortunately, Tracey Mason only remembered my commendations for their wines and so generously poured a full selection of their offerings, starting with the unlisted 2007 Carneros Chardonnay, followed by a superior successor in the 2008 Carneros Chardonnay. Similarly, as enjoyable as the 2007 Carneros Pinot Noir proved to be, the 2007 Reserve Pinot Noir easily eclipsed it. And while I preferred the less expensive 2007 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, the 2006 Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon hardly stoods as a laggard.

Chappellet is one of those wineries so consistently good, it’s easy to take them for granted. Their more accessible selections, the 2009 Napa Valley Chardonnay and the 2008 Signature Cabernet Sauvignon could easily delineate a lesser winery, while their 2008 Pritchard Hill Cabernet Sauvignon proved absolutely stellar.

Sonoma’s Freeman Vineyards may not be as widely recognized as Chappellet, but inarguably maintains an equally impressive reputation for their Pinots. As expected, both the 2008 Akiko’s Cuvée and the 2008 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir exemplified this finicky varietal. One of these days, I may actually get the chance to tell Michael Polenske how much I like his Blackbird label, but, for this evening, I simply had to content myself by tasting through his 2008 Arriviste (a dry rosé crafted from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc), the Merlot-dominant 2007 Illustration, and the 2008 Arise, a Pomérol-style blend.

It was good to reencounter my friend Janet Viader, who has included Sostevinobile in all sorts of industry events over the past couple of years, and sample her latest vintages. The 2007 Tempranillo showed an amiable expression of the grape, while the 2008 Cabernet Franc radiated. Also excelling with this latter varietal, Crocker & Starr poured its version of the 2008 Cabernet Franc alongside a splendid 2009 Sauvignon Blanc.

Whenever I encounter Cannonball, I invariably break out my iPhone and play the live version of Mercy, Mercy, Mercy—a perfect tune to complement both the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon and the exceptional 2007 Merlot. I also cited a musical allusion for Sledgehammer in my last column, so will avoid the pitfall of redundancy this time around. A resampling of their 2008 Zinfandel, however, seemed perfectly warranted, while I was glad to be introduced to their 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon. Nearby, Karen Cakebread introduced attendees to her new venture, Ziata Wines, pouring her inaugural 2008 Oakville Cabernet Franc and a preview of the 2010 Sauvignon Blanc, both superb viticultural efforts.

Also new to me was Matt Kowalczyk’s Buscador from Santa Ynez. This decidedly non-vegan venture made a strong initial impression with its 2009 Sauvignon Blanc and a trio of reds: the 2008 Petite Sirah, a youngish 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon, and the quite splendid 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon. Not new but more than wonderful to see once again was Napa’s Neal Family, with equally impressive bottlings of their 2008 Napa Valley Zinfandel and the 2007 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. And I was please to check in on the continuing evolution of Clif Family Winery, whose accessible and affordable The Climber series included the 2009 The Climber Sauvignon Blanc and the 2009 The Climber Red, a blend of 63% Zinfandel, 21% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Syrah, 2% Merlot, and 2% Petite Sirah.

An interesting find this evening was a négociant bottler known as Banshee, which bifurcates its production with a lower-end label they call Rickshaw. Both the $15 2009 Rickshaw Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast and the $15 2007 Red Wine Napa Valley (a mélange of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Petit Verdot) struck me as well-crafted wines, while the more expensive 2009 Banshee Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast and the 2008 Banshee Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley impressed me mightily for wines sourced on the open market. Now that the Huneeus Partnerships produces a number of Orin Swift’s former bottlings, they treat each as a separate label, without detriment to either the 2009 Saldo Zinfandel or the emblematic 2009 The Prisoner, still a Zinfandel blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Charbono, Grenache, and Malbec.

Also featuring a split persona, Greg Norman Estates Wine featured both their California and their Australian labels; from their local operations, the 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2009 Sauvignon Blanc struck me as a bit perfunctory. Before I delve into his imported wines, however, as well as the others I managed to sample, I wanted to focus on the true anomaly of Around the World in 80 Sips: an entire enclave devoted to the wines of the Livermore Valley. I’d like to think this sequestration stemmed from an ultimatum: buy our wines or we will obliterate you from the face of the Earth, but, despite their superior nuclear capabilities (compared to every other appellation on the planet), I gather that the Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association helped underwrite the event and so warranted special focus.

Front and center in the Livermore room, Concannon’s Jim Ryan held court, pouring both his lush 2006 Reserve Petite Sirah and the 2007 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as the 2008 DeMayo Chardonnay and the 2007 DeMayo Zinfandel from Darcie Kent, a Livermore boutique noted for her vibrant painted labels. Livermore’s other Goliath, Wente Vineyards showcased a range of its labels, from the low-end Tamás Estates2008 Double Decker Red (Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah, Barbera) to the striking Meritage 2008 The Spur from Murrieta’s Well to their own 2009 Riva Ranch Chardonnay and the smooth 2008 Small Lot Grenache.

No longer affiliated with his family’s Gallo-controlled winery, Steven Mirrasou’s eponymous Steven Kent offered a trio of his vintages: the 2008 Merrillie Chardonnay Landucci Block, his signature 2007 Estate Grown Cabernet Sauvignon, and an extremely pleasing 2007 Small-Lot Petit Verdot Ghielmetti Vineyard. Finally, one of Livermore’s hidden gems, Nottingham Cellars, hit critical mass with their featured wines: the 2009 Chardonnay and a superb 2008 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.

I had hoped to find more time to work my way through the rest of the world, but the disparate configuration of the event made access to a number of stations problematic. In particular, I regret missing the wide selection of Austrian wines. Despite pouring from three tables in the central room, the crush of attendees thwarted my efforts to sample a number of varietals that have scant production in California: Zweigelt (Mokelumne Glen); St. Laurent (Forlorn Hope); and Grüner Veltliner (von Strasser and the aforementioned Darcie Kent). Not to mention a Riesling or two.

I did make it to the Australian table, however, and found Greg Norman’s contribution, his 2007 Limestone Coast Shiraz, a perfectly standard Aussie Syrah, while the slightly blushing 2008 Brut Taché from Taltarni Vineyards only marginally impressed. I didn’t get to try any of the Sauvignon Blancs that put New Zealand on the viticultural landscape nor the lone Malbec that exemplified Argentina, but did linger at the table for neighboring Chile. Here the forte has become Carménère, best represented this evening by the 2007 Terrunyo Carménère from Concha y Toro, the conglomerate which recently acquired Fetzer and Brown & Forman’s other wine holdings. Apart from this exceptional wine, the Chilean portfolio struck me as rather mundane, including the 2008 Antiguas Reservas Cabernet Sauvignon from Cousiño Macul, a weak 2009 Reserva Carménère from Casa Silva, and even the much-touted 2007 Maquis Lien, a wine that blended Syrah with Carménère, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec.

The table from Italy had already packed up when I arrived, and most of France had been depleted, save the rather forgettable 2009 Whispering Angel Côtes de Provence Rosé from Château d’Esclans. And with that final sip, it was time to bid adieu and thank Alyssa for her hospitality, then head to the home of the America’s Cup for a social gathering.

Someday soon, I hope, I will be able to attend a wine tasting simply for the pleasure of the wine and the comradery of the other attendees. When I no longer need to research the wine program at Sostevinobile on such an intense level, I will be able to appreciate events like Around the World in 80 Sips in a completely different light, to be sure. And with that in mind, I look forward to next year’s event and Bottlenotes’ continued success.

Meanwhile, though little convinces me I should reconstrue the wine program I have mapped out, I expect that I will continue to explore the range of wines that fall outside our purview. Know that the staff Sostevinobile plans to assemble will be thoroughly versed in the entire world of wine and able to explain the virtues of varietals and styles grown elsewhere, in order to offer our clientele a sound basis for understanding and enjoying the wines we do select.

On a professional level, the staunch proponents of imported wines will continue to champion their belief in the superior balance in their selections. Food friendly or food mandatory, it is not my charge to sway the beliefs of these sommeliers and restaurateurs. My only mandate is to build a wine program that will be second to none.

The first 100 postings are the hardest

Quite the milestone for Your West Coast Oenophile. This seemingly interminable blog has now posted its 100th entry. I haven’t tried to enumerate the major wine events I’ve attended and covered, calculate the number of wines I’ve sampled (~7,000), nor tally a precise word count (somewhere between 200-250,000 would be a fair guess). It’s just a shame, though, to have come this far and have to log in with a pejorative note.

Thankfully, it’s not dire news concerning Sostevinobile and its protracted development. Unfortunately, however, I do have to chronicle what was, in all likelihood, the worst wine tasting I’ve ever attended—academic colloquia included! Normally, as readers know, I find myself trying to squeeze every minute I can out of an event, particularly when there are over 100 wineries pouring. Suffice it to say that only a colossal fiasco could have compelled me to leave with two hours still to go.

I’ve attended a number of wine gatherings where the terroir-focused vintages tasted more like the vineyard’s soil. This year’s Pinot on the River literally submerged us in it. Undoubtedly, some will hold that contending with the elements is part & parcel of wine tasting; however, sloughing through mud six inches deep, in an often futile effort to waddle from table to table, can hardly be said to enhance the experience.

Call it, if you will, Pinot IN the River. Call it Winestock. Clever witticisms aside, there can be no excuse for holding this event outdoors amid a torrential rain shower. The three tents erected along the lawn at Rodney Strong Vineyards may have provided a modicum of shelter from the rain overhead but offered no barrier to the surface runoff. Hard to believe that the organizers thought these provisions would be adequate, and even harder to comprehend how they could not have made contingency arrangements, with predictions of rain regularly broadcast throughout the entire week preceding the festival. The fault does not lie with Rodney Strong, of course, but still, there must be at least 35,000 square feet of indoor space at the winery that could have utilized for the tasting.

Quite a number of the wineries pulled out before I did, unable to withstand the atrocious conditions to which they were subjected, and I sense quite a few other never even bothered to show up (the ever-deepening muck made it impossible to locate several of the labels I had preliminarily highlighted for visiting). Nonetheless, I did find quite an array of superb Pinots interspersed throughout the three tents, so rather than belabor my lament, let me report on those wines I was able to source and sample.

First up was Auteur, a Carneros-based boutique
operation that sources its grapes from both Sonoma and from Oregon. I started with an impressive 2008 Sonoma Stage Vineyard Pinot Noir, which was upstaged by its Yamhill-Carlton AVA (Willamette Valley) counterpart, the 2008 Shea Vineyard Pinot Noir. A similar bifurcation might be inferred by the origins of Calicaro’s name, but fortunately their grapes are grown only in California and not the “Right Coast” state where owner Dave Ball practices healthcare business law (after all, South Carolina’s official beverage is milk, while its state snack is boiled peanuts). With less than 200 cases of production, and most vintages limited to a single barrel, this boutique nonetheless poured an impressive lineup of Pinot from four distinct appellations, while paying oblique homage to landmarks from his Greenville home: the 2007 Annahala Pinot Noir Hayley Vineyard from Anderson Valley; the 2008 Liberty Bridge Pinot Noir Split Rock Vineyard from Sonoma Coast; the 2008 Poinsett Pinot Noir La Encantada Vineyard from Santa Rita Hills; and the standout 2008 Paris Mountain Pinot Noir Lone Oak Vineyard, a Santa Lucia Highlands vintage.

Tony Austin’s Clouds Rest originates from a single volcanic soil vineyard above the 1250′ level on Sonoma Mountain, hand-farmed grapes in a hand-painted bottle. The 2004 Pinot Noir truly reflected the meticulous efforts that produced this exceptional wine; the yet-released 2005 Pinot Noir intimated equal greatness in the offing. Meanwhile, Clouds Rest’s second-tier bottling, the 2008 Pinot Noir Femme Fatale, proved a worthy entry-level expression of their intense focus. Quaintly-named Small Vines Wines made a grandiloquent statement with both Pinots they had on hand, the 2008 Russian River Pinot Noir and their superb 2008 Sonoma Coast MK Vineyard Pinot Noir.

I had had no previous exposure to Sierra Madre Vineyard, whose Santa Maria Valley ranch produces Pinot Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Noir; I found myself equally impressed with their 2007 Estate Pinot Noir and the highly-focused 2008 Block 216 Pinot Noir, and yearn to sample their whites sometime soon. On the other hand, TAZ is one of the 50 or so labels that comprise Treasury Wine Estates, which used to be Foster’s, which used to be Beringer-Blass, but still remains a relatively autonomous operation on Paso Robles’ East Side. Their trifecta included the 2008 Pinot Noir Fiddlestix Vineyard Santa Rita Hills and the 2008 Pinot Noir Cuyama River Santa Maria Valley, two highly competent wines whose grapes are combined to produce the 2008 Pinot Noir Santa Barbara, a superior mélange.

Mark West Winery constitutes the crown jewel of a far more compact conglomerate, the Purple Wine Company. They, too, offered a pair of AVA-focused wines, the 2009 Russian River Pinot Noir and the 2009 Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir, as well as the blended 2009 CA Pinot Noir drawn from a wide array of appellations throughout California. One of Don Van Staaveren’s ventures, Three Sticks, poured a three-vintage vertical of its Pinot, starting with the 2005 Durell Pinot Noir. This superb wine was matched in quality by the 2007 Durell Pinot Noir, but both were somewhat eclipsed by the superior 2006 vintage.

Me, oh my! I know that Caymus’ Wagner family pronounces their Meiomi label “May-oh-mee.” but either way, their 2008 Pinot Noir—a marriage of grapes from select vineyards in Sonoma, Monterey, and Santa Barbara Counties—proved a most delectable wine. Keefer Ranch Wines< /a> poured a single selection, their 2008 Pinot Noir Russian River Valley, while the highly-esteemed Kosta Browne elected to represent themselves with just their 2008 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, again a cross of two renowned Pinot vineyards, Gap’s Crown and Terra de Promissio, with their newly-sourced Walala Vineyard from outside Annapolis. I also managed to taste one of George Wine’s elusive bottlings, the 2008 Vintage VI Pinot Noir Ceremonial Vineyard, a delightful successor to last year’s profound selection.

Besides mud and water, this year’s Pinot IN the River was filled with a quite a number of seasoned pros—were one able to reach their station. I did manage to battle the elements and catch up with David Vergari, one of the mainstays at the annual Marin County Pinot Noir Celebration. Despite our mutual misgivings over the handling of this event, I managed to savor his exquisite 2007 Pinot Noir Van der Kamp Vineyard and the 2007 Pinot Noir Sangiacomo Vineyard; trumping both, however, was his first-rate 2007 Pinot Noir Marin County. I also waded over to Sojourn Cellar’s table to indulge in a number of their wines. While the 2008 Pinot Noir Russian River Valley seemed a tad lackluster, I immensely enjoyed both the 2008 Pinot Noir Gap’s Crown Vineyard and the superb 2008 Pinot Noir Rodgers Creek Vineyard. Most œnophiles, myself included, think of David Bruce as the premier producer of Pinot Noir from the Santa Cruz Mountains, so it was a bit of a surprise to find them here; nonetheless, winemaker Mitri Faravashi produced a splendid 2007 Pinot Noir Russian River Valley and slipped in a taste of his unsanctioned (for this event) 2004 Estate Pinot Noir Santa Cruz Mountains.

I would think any Pinot-focused event would embrace such varietals as Pinot Meunier and Pinotage, the aforementioned white Pinots, interpretations like Vin Gris or Blanc de Pinot Noir, or any version of sparkling wine that incorporates these grapes, but I found little variance from the common standard this afternoon among the limited number of wineries I could visit. La Rochelle did deviate from the norm with the refreshing 2009 Pinot Gris alongside their refined 2008 Pinot Noir Sleepy Hollow Vineyard and their more broadly designated 2007 Pinot Noir Santa Cruz Mountains. Newcomer Halleck Vineyard strayed even further with their 2009 Dry Gewürztraminer that nicely complimented their family of Pinots: the 2007 Hallberg Vineyard Pinot Noir, 2007 The Farm Vineyards Pinot Noir, and the 2007 Three Sons Cuvée Pinot Noir. Far surpassing its brethren, however, was their 2007 Hillside Cuvée Pinot Noir, an extraordinary find.

Another new find for Sostevinobile was Capiaux Cellars from Angwin. Atypically offering a selection of their wines from two different vintages, both their 2007 Pinot Noir Widdoes Vineyard and 2007 Pinot Noir Wilson Vineyard presented strong, forward interpretations of the varietal; greater discrepancy could be tasted between the anything but illusory 2008 Pinot Noir Chimera and the 2008 Pinot Noir Freestone Hill Vineyard. Freestone itself poured a pair of wines, the 2008 Fogdog Pinot Noir and their eponymous 2007 Freestone Pinot Noir. Also divided between these two vintages, wines produced from Durrell Vineyards contrasted its elite 2008 Dunstan Pinot Noir, with the 2007 Sand Hill Pinot Noir, another Don van Staaveren collaboration.

I do not recall whether I preferred the unfiltered 2007 HKG Pinot Noir Russian River Valley from Hop Kiln to its 2008 Estate Pinot Noir Russian River Valley, such were the challenges o
f taking notes and maintaining one’s balance amid the soggy conditions. I did, however, manage to record my highly favorable impressions of both the 2007 Pinot Noir La Colline and the 2007 Pinot Noir La Coupelle, two single vineyard offerings from Laetitia. And no shorthand was necessary to recall how truly superb both the 2007 Pinot Noir Russian River Valley and the 2007 Pinot Noir Nicole’s Vineyard that J Vineyards poured were.

At long last, I finally encountered a sparkling wine, Gloria Ferrer’s 2007 Blanc de Noirs. While chatting with winemaker Bob Iantosca, I also sampled their 2005 José Ferrer Pinot Noir and its 2006 successor, along with the 2006 Carneros Estate Pinot Noir and its 2007 version. Another GF, Gary Farrell Vineyards, excelled, as one might expect, with both their 2007 Pinot Noir Russian River Selection, blended from seven of their contracted vineyards, and the single vineyard designate 2007 Pinot Noir Ramal Vineyard.

Gary Farrell sold his eponymous label in 2004 and, since 2007, has crafted Pinot under his new Alysian line. Unable to tolerate any further soil liquefaction inside the tents, I elected to forgo hunting down the rest of my must-visit wineries (assuming they hadn’t pulled up stakes already) and close out this calamitous afternoon with four of his intriguing new venture’s initial bottlings: the 2007 Pinot Noir Starr Ridge Vineyard; Farrell’s take on a 2007 Pinot Noir Hallberg Vineyard; a competitive 2007 Pinot Noir Russian River Selection, and, in a touch of final irony, the superb 2007 Pinot Noir Floodgate West Block.
The name“Alysian” apparently derives from a corrupted transliteration of Ἠλύσιον, the Elysian Fields Homer cites as the final abode for the souls of dead heroes and warriors. The inundated lawn at Rodney Strong seemed a far cry from such an ætherial vision on this rain-drenched afternoon, but the damage the resultant swamp inflicted on my favorite pair of Tony Lamas may pale in comparison to how this tasting may have been irreparably harmed by its promoters’ failure to make provisions for such abysmal conditions.

I have a favorite moment on The Sopranos where Christopher Moltisanti, clinging to life, envisions himself condemned to an Italian’s vision of Hell. Damnation, in his hallucination, is an Irish bar where every day is St. Patty’s. For an œnophile, I used to fear hell would be a wine & cheese reception, where tweedy scholars deconstructed Rod McKuen poetry while nibbling on cubes of synthetic Cheddar cheese paired with dust-laden jugs of Almaden. After Pinot on the River, I’m starting to wonder if something even more dire could possibly be in store.

I had hoped to mark this milestone for Sostevinobile with a more upbeat entry, and, fortunately, the week did close with the kind of tasting that makes my labors worthwhile. Sunday’s downpour gave way to wondrous, albeit highly delayed, summer weather, just in time to enable the Giants to win both their World Series home games and for CCOF to hold its annual Organic Beer & Wine Tasting at the Ferry Building on balmy, shirtsleeve night.

Some tastings are geared towards cognoscenti, people well versed in a certain field or sector; many of the trade events I attend would strike the casual attendee as indecipherable, if not overwhelming. On the other hand, numerous events that strive to make themselves readily accessible on all levels are likely to be better appreciated by first-time attendees, as they serve as a far more revelatory experience than as an enhancement to previous exposure or opinion. Although there was little change from last year’s gathering, I can think of no better event than CCOF’s Annual Tasting, nor a more enveloping ambiance than the spacious galleria of the Ferry Plaza Market, to introduce the uninitiated to the bounties of organic foods and beverages.

While nearly all the same vendors from last year’s event returned, a notable improvement to the evening was CCOF’s decision to dispense with drink tickets and allow unlimited sampling, something I am sure vendors, as well as attendees appreciated. Also notably improved—the quality of the wine, a testament to the evolution of organic grapegrowing and winemaking, which, admittedly, has experienced a number of pitfalls as it struggled to gain traction here. Perhaps no one exemplified this evolution better than Richard Sanford, on hand from Buellton to pour the panoply of wines he produces at Alma Rosa. Famed for his Lompoc winery, perhaps the foremost producers of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the Santa Rita Hills even before Sideways brought it into the public vernacular, he sold his eponymous label and started this subsequent all-organic venture in 2005.

Attendees were richly served with Alma Rose’s 2008 Pinot Gris, plus elegant expressions of the 2007 Pinot Blanc and 2007 Chardonnay. I confess to preferring the 2007 Pinot Noir La Encantada over the 2007 Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills, though both presented elegantly structured wines. We migrated next to another organic venture that has evolved in the aftermath of selling off an iconic, eponymous label, even though owner Richard Arrowood had already retreated to Montana after completing harvest at Amapola Creek. I had previously tasted both his estate grown 2007 Syrah and 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon in barrel while visiting the winery last year, and marveled at the fully-realized wine, especially the Cabernet.

I had not sampled Hawley’s wines since last year’s CCOF event, and found both their 2009 Viognier and 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley likable; even more so, the 2009 Zinfandel Ponzo Vineyard proved to be an outstanding vintage. I had just recently retasted a number of wines from Lodi’s M2, but had not had Emtu since my introduction to their operations last year. This time, the 2008 Rosé of Merlot was both refreshing and delectable, while the 2006 Pinot Noir contrasted starkly from its refined successor, the 2007 Pinot Noir Labyrinth.

Several of the wineries on hand pour at numerous tastings, but it was still enjoyable to sample their bottlings in this context. Hagafen’s 2009 White Riesling proved as reliable as ever, as did the 2008 Chardonnay and 2007 Merlot from Chris Thorpe’s Adastra in Carneros. Unfortunately, I missed the table for his neighbor, Domaine Carneros, but I did manage to try the excellent 2004 Alloy, an enticing Bordeaux blend from Santa Cruz’s organic stalwart, Silver Mountain.

It’s hard to resist pinning on Girasole’s bumblebee sticker, which usually becomes a ubiquitous sighting whenever they participate at a tasting. Even harder to resist was their 2008 Sangiovese, another organic staple, as well as the 2004 Petite Sirah they poured from their Barra of Mendocino label. Much to my chagrin, Phil LaRocca declined to bring his Sangiovese to this event but did manage to impress this year with his 2006 Zinfandel and a seductive 2005 Lush Zinfandel Port.

It’s a rare treat for Mendocino’s Yorkville Cellars to pour their Carménère, and this evening was not one of those occasions; still, the 2007 Richard the Lion Heart nearly mitigated for this oversight, with its exclusive blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Carménère. Their 2008 Petit Verdot also resonated, while the 2009 Sweet Malbec displayed a most interesting interpretation of the grape. Over to the east in Lake County, Kelseyville Wine Company provides a cooperative facility for a number of labels who contract their bulk wines. The wines so far have proven adequate, judging by the 2007 Kelseyville Wine Company Sierra Foothills Cabernet Sauvignon, an unspecified 2009 Chace Water White, and the 2005 Old River Cabernet Sauvignon.

Hallcrest Vineyards from Felton produces a number of labels, as well, but I only managed to try the lush 2008 Zenful Zinfandel they bottle under Organic Wine Works. My last wine stop turned out to be Terra Sávia, where my friend Laurie recognized Jim Milone from her Mendocino days. As they renewed acquaintances, I sampled his compelling 2007 Meritage, a Merlot-dominant Bordeaux blend before trying the side-by-side comparison of their two 2009 Chardonnays. Though sourced from the same vineyard, these wines underwent contrasting vinification; call it my California palate, but I found the oaked Chard slightly preferable to its unoaked counterpart.

Had Laurie and I not had theater tickets to A.C.T., we might have had enough time to cover the wines from Chance Creek and Bonterra, as well as the organic sparkling efforts both Korbel and Domaine Carneros have included in their inventory. For that matter, we might have noshed on many of the delicacies being purveyed by Ferry Plaza restaurants like Slanted Door and Hog Island Oyster Company, but settled for some quick slices of Pumpkin Pizza that Marketbar was featuring. We did, however, manage to take in a sip of Golden Vanilla Ale from Thirsty Bear, one of the eight organic brewers participating this evening, before heading out the door.

It’s admittedly quite hard to savor beer after working one’s way through a couple dozen wines, but I owe it to both CCOF and Sostevinobile to gi
ve these craft brewers first crack next year. I am still, after all, quite the neophyte in this regard. but, regardless of what beers, wines, or small plates I do manage to sample in 2011, I know that the 6th Annual Organic Beer & Wine Tasting will be just as splendid as in previous years. And if next year’s event takes place during a downpour, who cares? With its dramatic arched glass ceiling, the Ferry Plaza Marketplace will be sure to keep attendees dry, from head to toe.

And happily “wet” where they should be…


Whew! With this entry, Your West Coast Oenophile can finally put September to rest. Not that I’m complaining, but sampling some 600-700 wines, attending nine major tastings—not to mention sustainable business & networking affairs like West Coast Green and SOCAPand then chronicling the entire panoply of events could render a man follicly challenged (if he weren’t already follicly challenged). Ironically, though, two of the most intriguing wines I had the pleasure of sampling this past month I encountered outside these tastings.

First was the 2009 Loureiro John Whitman from Old Creek Ranch sent me. The principal grape in Portugal’s Vinho Verde, it had an unexpected tartness that strained my ability to construe an apt food pairing. Online suggestions include tomato salads with vinaigrette or a roast Cornish game hen, but I suspect Fillet of Sole or grilled Tilapia might fit even better. In any case, a splendid bottling from one of California’s most diverse winemakers.

My other surprise came from Forlorn Hope, a winery upon which Sostevinobile has heaped oodles of praise. Winemaker Matt Rorick excels as few others have with Spanish varietals grown here in California, so it was quite revelatory to discover his 2007 Ost-Intrigen, a wine made from the Austrian varietal, St. Laurent (apparently only 97 vines are planted in the entire state)! Like the Loureiro, this wine defies categorization, though comparisons to Mokelumne Glen’s Zweigelt, which is a cross between St. Laurent and Lemberger, seem inevitable.

I encountered Matt’s wine purely by happenstance, in the midst of my investigation of , a new San Francisco eatery that dares to believe fidelity to locavore principles should extend to the wine list as well. Although it’s primarily a burger house, this relatively small establishment carries over 40 wines by the glass, all from California. Interestingly, rather that focus on a breadth of varietals, they try to offer a full range of offering from a few particular wineries—I think there were seven different wines from Forlorn Hope, for instance. Also following suit is Radius, a nearby fledgling operations in the former Julie’s Supper Club space, a restaurant and cafe that bills itself as “locally sourced, French inspired, California cuisine.” Here the modest local wine list includes wine by the glass, bottle service and vino alla spica—wines on tap from the small but growing number of wineries that provide this option. To both, Sostevinobile says “welcome to the club,” while in the same breath, we bid a sad farewell to Wayfare Tavern, which has capitulated and now feels compelled to carry a growing number of French vintages among its California-predominant wine list.

A final bit of news that readers outside the Bay Area may have missed is that summer finally arrived here—only days after the autumnal equinox! The heat wave of late September almost felt like it was compacting in as many degree-days over a long weekend as a full season usually accounts for, and this has had myriad implications—some good, some very bad—for the 2010 harvest. But at least the warmth allowed me finally to take a hike and swim to Bass Lake in Bolinas, a secluded treasure that has proven my haven in
times of stress dozens of times over the decades. A more pristine spot you could not find, and, fortunately, most people can’t find it!

I had hoped to drop by and visit Thackrey while I was in town, but too many obligations on either side of my Sunday hike limited my escape from diurnal duties. The day before, I drove in 100+ degree weather up to Hess Collection for the 11th Annual Mt. Veeder Appellation Wine Tasting. Twenty-one of Napa’s finest wineries poured their select vintages from grapes grown within the appellation in the sculpture garden that fronts Hess’ Visitors Center. With a moderate crowd on hand, the afternoon proved both manageable and thoroughly enjoyable.

Of course, being greeted by ever-ebullient Mary Yates at the check-in desk set the tone for the event, and so it just seemed appropriate to start off at her family’s table. Yates Family Vineyard produces less than 1000 cases of their own wine, including 100 cases of their 2009 Viognier, which readily soothed me after the hot drive from San Francisco. Their next wine, the 2007 Fleur de Mount Veeder, proved a paramount example that Merlot, made properly, can be a superlative wine, and while I felt this particular bottling stood out among their wines today, the 2007 Cheval, a Cabernet Franc, came not far behind. 2006 has generally proven a weaker vintage than its successor, and, while impressed, I felt the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon was not quite the equal of its Bordeaux brethren at the table. Nonetheless, the 2006 Alden Perry Reserve, a Pomérol-style blend of 50% Merlot, 42% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 8% Cabernet Franc proved a luscious wine.

Because of the Mt. Veeder-grown restriction, several of the wineries could only represent themselves with a single wine. Nonetheless, I found ample incentive for further exploration of Mount Veeder Winery, based on their 2005 Reserve (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec) and Renteria, with their 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Tambor Vineyard, softened with 3% Syrah by winemaker Karen Culler. Brian & Lori Nuss’ Vinoce featured their self-referential 2006 Vinoce Mount Veeder Estate. O’Shaughnessy Estate  showcased their pure 2007 Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon, a stark contrast from their 2007 Howell Mountian Cabernet Sauvignon I have previously reviewed. And, if they produced more than one wine besides 100 cases of their superb 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, I would keenly pursue the other bottlings of Paratus.

For the most part, Mount Veeder focuses on Cabernet and other Bordelaise varietals, Zinfandel, Chardonnay, a bit of Sauvignon Blanc, and a smattering of Rhône Grapes. Today’s one exception to this orthodoxy was Random Ridge, with its 2007 Fortunata, a Super Tuscan that is 90% Sangiovese; I also found the separate components of this bottling, the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2004 Cabernet Franc, highly appealing. Otherwise, even the iconoclasts at Y. Rousseau, which continues to excel with their 2009 Colombard Old Vines from the Russian River Valley, stayed within bounds with their very fine 2008 Chardonnay and the 2008 Le Roi, a Cabernet Sauvignon.

It was good to see several familiar faces here from a number of different tastings I had attended in the past year. I’d met Dominique Scaggs at last year’s CCOF Organic Beer, Wine & Spirit Tasting and had raved about her 2008 Vineyard Rosé. Call it the heat—this time, the blush Grenache seemed quite good but not as stratospheric as I had recalled. Nonetheless, her 2007 Mount Veeder Montage, a Mourvèdre-dominated GMS blend gradually opened up to reveal a superlative wine. Marketta Formeaux was a familiar face from the discontinued Napa Valley with Altitude tasting and continued to impress with her Hand Made label; an undeclared “natural wine” producer, she poured a hig
hly approachable 2007 Sauvignon Blanc, an admirable 2006 Mt. Veeder Blend (Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot), and her standout, the 2005 Mt. Veeder Chardonnay. And for the third time this month, I sampled Lagier Meredith, this time pouring a 2009 Rosé of Syrah, a likable 2006 Syrah, and the preferable 2007 Syrah.

I hadn’t previously heard of Jake-Ryan Cellars, but was please to try their 2006 Syrah Napa Valley, as well as a standout 2007 Zinfandel Bald Mountain Vineyard. It turns out to be my first encounter, too, with Lokoya Winery, an enterprise that has received enormous accolades for its vineyard-designate Cabernets from each of Napa’s mountain AVAs (Spring Mountain, Diamond Mountain, Howell Mountain, and, of course Mt. Veeder). While none of their Cabs were on hand for this tasting, I found their 2007 Cardinale Merlot and the 2007 Malbec both excellent.

Another multi-mountain specialist, Robert Craig, needs no introduction, yet I found the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Mt. Veeder an intense, complex wine. Presaging how this wine portends to develop, he also pour his 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine close to its peak of excellence. Godspeed Vineyards dug back even further, showcasing their striking 1998 Cabernet Sauvignon, from a vintage that had originally been deemed inferior, as well as a noteworthy 2001 and 2003 bottling. Lest they seem mired in the past, they also pour the 2008 Chardonnay.

1997 was thought to be the vintage of the decade, yet the 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon Mayacamas Vineyards poured paled in comparison to their 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon. Likewise, I greatly preferred the 2007 Chardonnay to the 2000 Chardonnay, though I admired how well it had held up for 10 years. Meanwhile, both the 2007 Sauvignon Blanc and the 2006 Merlot proved more than pleasant. Rubissow poured a substantial selection of their current wines, all of even consistency: the 2006 Merlot, the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon, and the 2005 Trompette, a blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Their standout, however, was the 2005 Sargent Reserve, an exceptional Cabernet Sauvignon.

I count on LaTour for consistent performance, and found nothing to dissuade me in either the 2007 Chardonnay or the 2006 Syrah they poured. Syrah specialists Spotted Owl proved their mettle as well, with the 2006 Lev’s Cuvée and the 2007 Alexandria’s Cuvée, as well as with their 2007 Mountain Cuvée, a Syrah/Cabernet Sauvignon blend.

I confess I found both the 2009 Chardonnay and the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon from Fontanella somewhat lackluster. So, too, were the basic 2008 Chardonnay and 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon from host Hess Collection. From their Small Block series, however, the 2007 Block 19 Cuvée proved an extraordinary wine, a deft blend of 74% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Malbec, 4% Syrah, 4% Merlot, and 1% Petit Verdot every bit as profound as the art collection for which this winery is famed.

I did linger a bit, once the event had wrapped up, to explore the collection a bit and sample a few of Hess’ other wines, but, by now, time was truly of the essence, as I had fallen behind in chronicling my seven previous September tastings and still had another to cover. And, besides, I had a long-overdue date with Ba
ss Lake the next morning.

September culminated in the Première Coombsville Trade & Media Tasting at the posh Napa Valley Country Club. This soon-to-be certified sub-AVA encompasses 11,000 acres from the eastern bank of the Napa River to the western edge of the Vaca Range. Some had preferred this region be called Tulocay, but the Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau denied their petition. With this controversy laid to rest, 21 Coombsville wineries eagerly participated in this afternoon’s gathering.

Now if only every other tasting provided such a thorough event program detailing not only the participating wineries but also each of the wines they were featuring—with ample space for taking notes—it’s possible (though not highly probable) that I might wind my way through this blog in a quasi-timely fashion! Of course, in the not-so-distant future, an electronic guide one could navigate and annotate on an iPad would serve just as well—if not better, considering I can barely read my own handwriting these days!

Flipping through this booklet, I randomly selected Inherit the Sheep for my first stop. It’s a quirky name, with an equally quirky label, and while I truly wonder whether I could order a bottle of this wine in a restaurant while managing to keep a straight face, the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon proved itself a serious wine, albeit a bit tight (no sheep pun intended). Owner Tersilla Gregory also previewed her 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, another 200 case production that displayed incredible promise while, at the same time, being eminently drinkable now.

Many of the wineries here this day fell within the sub-1000 case level, if not significantly smaller. Black Cat, with just over 500 cases, typified this category, handcrafting their three stellar wines, the 2007 Estate Syrah, a notable 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon, and the 2006 Cuvée, a deft blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, and Syrah. Another such boutique, organic winemaker Tournesol featured their 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2006 Proprietor’s Blend, a mix of predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon, with Merlot and minor portions of Petit Verdot and Malbec. Weighing in at 600 cases, Sciandri poured their sole effort, the 2006 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, and its burgeoning successor, the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon.

Other Cab only ventures include the 250 case production of Le Chanceux; their 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Belles Filles Vineyard has developed into an exceptional wine, while the 2007 vintage portends even further greatness. Marita’s Vineyard showcased their twin small-production wines, the 2005 Marita’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon and the equally-appealing 2005 Soma Cabernet Sauvignon.

In 2005, with his wife Lisa, Jarvis winemaker Ted Henry launched Prime Cellars, believing Coombsville to offer a prime location for their winery. Certainly, their 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Midoriya Hills Vineyard has validated this assumption, while their 2007 District 4 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2008 District 4 Chardonnay did much to underscore it. Another Coombsville pioneer, Daviana, showed a strong 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2007 Red Wine, a (roughly) 3:2 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc; their standout, however, was the 2007 Cabernache,
which is not Neapolitan slang but a fusion of Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache

Among Coombsville’s better-known wineries lies Palmaz Vineyards, in the foothills of Mt. George. This gravity-flow facility (no mechanical pumps) boasts the world’s largest underground reinforced structure in its fermentation dome. But such interesting factoids need be subordinate to the actual appreciation for the wine, which proved quite remarkable in both the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Cedar Knoll Vineyards and the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Palmaz Vineyards. Coombsville’s Ancien Wines seemed almost Carneros-like on this afternoon, dazzling with its 2008 Pinot Noir Mink Vineyard, backed by their 2007 Pinot Noir Haynes Vineyard and the 2007 Napa Chardonnay.And while Silverado Vineyards is actually a Stags Leap District winery, its properties in Coombsville bore the fruit that comprised the 2006 Mount George Merlot and its successive vintage.

Interestingly, two of the wineries here produce wine as a philanthropic venture. My friend Lauren Ackerman’s winery has produced a single annual Cabernet since 2003 and donated the net proceeds to the Napa Valley Community Foundation. Here they poured a vertical of their past three vintages, with a decided nod toward the middle selection, the 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon; the recently added 2007 Alavigna Tosca is a superb blend Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon I was eager to resample, as well. Dickhaus Valley Vineyards is primarily a grapegrower but bottles an annual Meritage that they donate to charitable events; while I felt the need to be charitable toward their 2007 vintage, the 2006 Coombsville Hillside Bordeaux Estate Blend was a delightful wine. Dickhaus also poured a couple of wines other vintners had produced from their grapes, the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Coombsville from Hesperian and the very approachable 2007 Right Bank Blend, a Cheval Blanc homage of 75% Cabernet Franc & 25% Merlot, from Sullivan Vineyards.

Speaking of Merlot, I found Blue Oak Vineyards lone pour, the 2007 Estate Merlot, downright excellent. And I suppose I would have liked the delightful 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon from Burly simply based on its name (despite this afternoon’s decidedly ectomorphic server). And based on the delights of his 2007 Rocket Science, a proprietary blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Petit Verdot, and Carménère, I am eager to sample the varietal bottlings of the six principal Bordeaux reds and Tannat that owner John Caldwell described so floridly.

Normally, I would not associate Merlot with salmon, but Coho Wines is a different case. Of course, it seems almost obligatory that they produce a Russian River Pinot Noir, which I have yet to try, but I delighted in their Coombsville offerings, including both the 2006 Merlot Michael Black Vineyard and its softer successor, the 2007 Merlot Michael Black Vineyard. While not officially being released until November, their 2008 Headwaters, a Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and around 30% Merlot, with Petit Verdot added for roundness, proved a wine of tremendous promise. Also with a pre-release of a fauna-inspired label, Porter Family Vineyards masterfully blended Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to make their 2007 Sandpiper Red. Their 2009 Sandpiper Rosé (of Syrah) hedged a bit on the fruity side, but I found both their 2007 Syrah and the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon (blended with 12% Syrah and 3% Merlot) compelling, handsome wines.

Winemaker Dawnine Dyer’s skilled touch evidenced itself in both wines Sodaro Estate produces: the 2006 Felicity Cabernet Sauvignon, which contains 8% Merlot, 7% Malbec and 7%
Petit Verdot, and the striking 2006 Estate Blend, a wine that more evenly marries the same four varietals. Kirk Venge crafts wines for Frazier Winery also focused on the principal Bordelaise varietals, and while I found both the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2007 Cabernet Franc rather insubstantial, I did relish the 2007 Merlot and particularly liked the 2007 Memento Cabernet Sauvignon.

My last sampling of the afternoon featured another seasoned industry veteran, Tom Farella, with his esteemed Farella-Park label. His wines ranged from the very good—the 2009 La Luce Sauvignon Blanc—to the flat-out excellent 2006 Coombsville Divide Merlot. In between, both the 2006 Road Lock Syrah and the 2006 West Face Cabernet Sauvignon presented superb œnology. Bottled separately under the Farella label, the 2006 Alta, a proprietary blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon and 30% Merlot, stood equal to these other reds.

As with the Mt. Veeder tasting, the Coombsville Première immensely pleased me for orchestrating a well-planned event that posed little difficulty in navigating, while restricting itself to few enough wineries to allow me to sample each and spend quality time interfacing with their principals. Plus, it proved highly productive to discover so many wineries that had yet to be included in Sostevinobile’s ever-expanding roster. And with that, my arduous slate of nine full-scale September tastings came to a close.

I hadn’t brought my golf clubs along (but probably would have been daunted by the 108°F temperature if I had); I did have a bathing suit on hand, and seriously contemplated hopping in the pool before leaving. Instead, I thought better and decided to wait until I reached Bay Club Marin, where I could swim legitimately. Later that evening, I needed to confront a pair of interlopers intent on turning Sostevinobile’s preferred location into a pool hall, but that is a drama that will likely unfold in a future instillation here.

Lust in the Dust (or Let Them Eat Cake)

Between an initial stint with the wine industry throughout most of the 1980s and founding Sostevinobile a couple of years ago, Your West Coast Oenophile spent what should have been the most productive years of his professional life tiptoeing through the minefields of commercial advertising. Suffice it to say that I’ve experienced more decency and humanity in just twenty minutes working with winery folks as I have in over twenty years enduring the latter-day Mad Men of San Francisco. Not that I’d ever go Ted Kaczynski on the various malefactors (perceived or real) I have endured, but I do often indulge myself in fantasizing over serving up some just desserts.

The torpid economy in which we continue to languish has compelled nearly every food and drink purveyor I know to offer some form of a Happy Hour to entice a financially struggling clientele to fill their seats. Ever the contrarian, I am proposing to hold Misery Hour at Sostevinobile, where people gainfully employed in the ignoble sciences (investment banking, corporate law, brokerage, and, of course, advertising) would be charged double regular prices from 5-7 PM. Or maybe charge them regular prices, but serve a 2½ oz. pour instead of the customary 5 oz.—quite the apt metaphor for how it feels to be offered a freelancing assignment instead of a full-time gig.

Obviously, I realize that actually holding Misery Hour will only succeed in guaranteeing empty bar stools at Sostevinobile. My point in spinning this little snippet of self-indulgence is to note that, clever as it may sound, Misery Hour stands as much chance of happening as does encountering a bad professional wine tasting in the Napa Valley.

The latest validation of this contention took place this past Wednesday at the reconfigured Rubicon Estate, which Francis Ford Coppola has transformed from the previously named Niebaum-Coppola Estate Winery to a deluxe showcase for his movie memorabilia, as well as his most prestigious wines. 36 member wineries of the Rutherford Dust Society gathered in the Historic Barrel Room at the Grand Estate to celebrate A Day in the Dust, a trade tasting of the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignons and other Bordelaise-style wines from Napa’s Rutherford AVA. A more fitting way to celebrate Bastille Day, I could not imagine (apart from guillotining a handful of Creative Directors whose names I need not mention).

I hadn’t been to the winery since its transformation, and it took a couple of drive-bys before I located it vastly understated gateway (in contrast, Niebaum-Coppola’s frontage had stood as an unmistakable landmark on Highway 29). Of course, preceding stops at Razi, Luna, and Silverado Trail Wine Studio may have contributed to the slight diminution of my homing skills, but I prefer to lay the blame on my ever-errant GPS.

After catching up with noted wine essayist Gerald Asher and greeting old familiars like Shari Staglin and Paul Rogers, whose Balzac Communications had invited me to the tasting, I affixed my name tag, gathered the program and wine glass, then thrust myself into the cavernous, heat-laden, upper-level chamber of the monumental Château Gustav Niebaum commissioned in 1880. An inner ring of tables featured the handful of Sauvignon Blancs several of the wineries had included, while the outer configuration contained their red wine samples. Logic dictated that I taste in the same manner, sampling the smaller array of white wines first.

First, I meandered over to find the table for Meander, my first contact with this winery, which could have won me over simply with the name for its Sauvignon Blanc, the 2009 Conspire (but the wine itself proved even more compelling). Next, I zipped over to the station where 94574 Wine poured its debut 2009 Sauvignon Blanc, a stark yet compelling expression that showed little of the grapefruit or grassy tones I find can mar the varietal.
I made a note to myself to circle back to the tables for Alpha Omega and for Fleury Estate, wineries I have sampled on several other occasions, then rounded the corner to try the 2009 Rutherford Sauvignon Blanc Round Pond was pouring at its white table. Next to them, Rutherford Grove poured a superb 2009 Pestoni Estate Sauvignon Blanc, while Lieff opted to share their 2009 Rutherford Crossroad Sauvignon Blanc.

I’d tried the 2009 Rutherford Sauvignon Blanc from Long Meadow Ranch at their Farmstead Restaurant recently but was pleased to resample it in this different setting. Nor did a different venue affect my favorable impression of the newly-released 2009 Fumé Blanc Rutherford from John Robert Eppler, a frequent denizen of the tastings at Rock Wall I have chronicled here. On the other hand, having recently tasted both of Honig’s Sauvignon Blanc, I decided to forgo a reevaluation and wait for their red table pours.

Perhaps I should have skipped the grapefruity 2009 Rutherford Estate Sauvignon Blanc Sawyer Cellars poured, but having espied this winery along Highway 29 for several years now, my curiosity got the better of me. I overcame my disappointment with their silky 2007 Rutherford Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, however. First, however, I introduced myself to the Raudabaughs of 12C Wines and sampled their lush 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Beckstoffer Georges III, a single varietal boutique producer.

I had hoped that D. R. Stephens would be pouring the 2007 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Moose Valley Vineyard that succeeded the extraordinary 2006 vintage of the same that had wowed the crowd at Acme’s Pulse Tasting a few weeks back, but had no complaints at settling for their 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Walther River Block. And while almost any of Larry Piña’s wines would have suited the occasion, I was delighted with his 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Firehouse Vineyard. equally impressive was the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Bosché Vineyard that Freemark Abbey, my late friend Jim Warren’s former winery, poured alongside their 2006 Petite Sirah Wood Ranch.

Another friend who is very much alive and running his own winery, John Williams, featured a trio of wines from his pioneering organic winery, Frog’s Leap: the 2007 Petite Sirah, an impressive 2007 Merlot Rutherford, and the 2007 Rutherford, a proprietary Cabernet Sauvignon with a generous dollop of Cabernet Franc. Also on hand, fellow Bay Club member Greg Martin served up a trio of his Martin Estate vintages: the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Bacchanal, the exceptional 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, and a new release—the 2008 Cabernet Rosé.

Despite my frequent trips to Napa, a number of the wineries on hand had escaped my awareness. Nonetheless, Monticello Vineyards greatly impressed me with their 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Tietjen Vineyards, as did McG Cellars with both the 2007 Scarlett Cabernet Sauvignon and their yet-to-be released 2007 Scarlett Cabernet Reserve. One of Corley Family’s prestigious labels, Monticello Vineyards, upheld the Jeffersonian wine tradition with their 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Tietjen Vineyard. Of course, the name Pedemonte Cellars begs a Sangiovese and, indeed, their Adagio is a Sangiovese/Syrah/Cabernet Sauvignon blend, but on this afternoon, they only featured their noteworthy 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford, followed by its superior successor, the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon.

Speaking of Sangiovese, I may have finally wrangled a taste of the elusive 2008 Stagliano Estate Sangiovese Staglin Family Vineyards produces. For the time being, though, I had to “settle” for the pleasure of their 2008 Salus Estate Chardonnay, as well as the equally seductive 2006 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2007 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. And though some may consider it bad form to show up your guests, host Rubicon Estate clearly affirmed the profound depth of its œnological mastery with its flagship 2007 Rubicon, an organically-grown Meritage.

I was a bit surprised that more wineries did not feature a Meritage but focused instead on straight varietals. Agustin Huneeus’ Quintessa, however, blends eight different estate lots of Cabernet Sauvignon with their Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Carménère, richly exemplified by their soon-to-be released 2007 Quintessa, plus a preview from the 2008 barrel sample. Another surprising absence was the paucity of Zinfandel being poured, though Julie Johnson’s Tres Sabores did more than make up for this omission with its organically grown 2007 Estate Zinfandel and its exceptional counterpoint, the 2006 Rutherford Perspective Cabernet Sauvignon.

I like allusions—great fodder for the myriad digressions that frequent readers know populate this blog. Though William Harrison Winery bears as much connection to the 9th President of the United States as John Tyler Wines has with his successor, their wines proved to be far hardier than Old Tippecanoe, who lasted but a month in office. Their exemplary 2007 Cabernet Franc Rutherford and the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford were complemented by the artfully blended 2006 Estate Rutherford Red, a subtle mélange of 54% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Cabernet Franc, 8% Malbec, and 8% Merlot. And if only Slaughterhouse Cellars would blend a full quintet of Bordeaux varietals and call it Slaughterhouse-Five! Still, I was immensely please to discover both their 2007 Cabernet Franc Rutherford and the truly well-crafted 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford.

Circling back to revisit wineries who had poured Sauvignon Blanc, I was a bit surprised that I preferred Lieff’s 2006 Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon to their 2007 vintage, but the test of time will tell which will prove the more striking long-term. Meander’s 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Morisoli Vineyard may not have as mischievous a moniker as its Sauv Blanc but tasted equally delightful. Also in harmony with its white confrère, Round Pond’s 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon lived up to its advanced billing, while Honig showed itself quite adept on the red side with its 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Campbell Vineyard.

Hewitt Vineyard is an autonomous label produced by Provenance, which had separately poured its 2009 Sauvignon Blanc Rutherford; Hewitt’s single vineyard effort, the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford, certainly validated the limits of this focus. Provenance and Hewitt are two of the better labels within Diageo’s vast portfolio, as is one of Napa’s crown jewels, Beaulieu Vineyards. To the perplexity of most attendees, A Day in the Dust, though scheduled until 5 PM, suddenly announced it was ceasing to pour at 4:30, which meant several of the wineries began folding their table shortly after 4. BV had quit before I had a chance to circle back to their table, meaning I missed out on the 2007 Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and their ubiquitous other Cabs, but a bit of legerdemain rewarded me with a taste of the 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Clone 6, an exceptional rarity.

The abrupt end to the affair also meant I missed out on familiar labels like El Molino, Sullivan Vineyards, Trinchero Napa Valley, Riboli Family (not certain whether they manned a table, despite the program listing), and, most regrettably, Heitz Cellars. I did manage to sample Flora Springs2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford Hillside Reserve before they closed, as well as a pair of wines from Peju Province, the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford Reserve and an intriguing, almost sweet 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon H. B. Vineyard my tasting notes describe as “candy.” Not sure whether Peju will appreciate that attribution or ask for my head when they read this.

Given A Day in the Dust took place on Bastille Day, I needed a contrived segue to bring this entry to a close, but not before commenting on my final stop en route back to San Francisco. My fellow scribe Liza Zimmerman apprised me of the French national celebration to which Clos du Val had invited the wine press, so donning my proverbial blogger’s beret, I followed her down Silverado Trail and joined the grande fête. Somehow, in between the repeated rounds of shucked oysters from the justly celebrated Hog Island Farm, I managed to sample their proprietary Sémillon-Chardonnay blend, the 2008 Ariadne (Ἀριάδνη was the wife of Poseidon who abetted Theseus in his quest to kill the Minotaur, her association with wine an elusive part of classical mythology), the 2007 Carneros Pinot Noir, and a pull-out-all-the-stops selection from their library of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons, notably the 1974, 1979, 1987 and 1999 vintages. The last two, while not initially regarded as notable vintages, showed remarkable finesse with aging.

Clos du Val’s ostensible purpose in inviting the press to this event was to launch their latest promotional effort, which they have dubbed Vindependence. As appreciative as I am of their wines and of their generous hospitality, I cannot help but revert to my advertising past and critique the ineptitude of this campaign. As my fellow Dartmouth alum and Italian Long Island refugee Michael Corleone ruefully notes in Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather III, “every time I try to get out, they pull me back in.”
It isn’t so much the jejune satire of their Declaration of Vindependence, nor the logical and thematic inconsistencies of muddling French and American traditions, nor the obvious irony that Clos du Val’s 1972 Cabernet Sauvignon was one of the wines that helped upend the French hegemony over the California wine industry in the storied 1976 Judgment of Paris Tasting (note the revisited rankings from 1986), that dilutes, rather than promotes, their brand perception. Rather, it is the deployment of such an aberrant neologism—not the inadvertent malapropism of George Bush’s “misunderestimated” or Sarah Palin’s “refudiated” but the echoes of DSW’s Sandalicious! or the utterly wretched Olive Garden’s Freshissimo that make this contrivance so off-putting.
Believe me, Sostevinobile knows a thing or two about skillfully forging a portmanteau. And, despite this critique, I have nothing but appreciation for the excellence of Clos du Val’s viticulture—and their hospitality. And so I will simply suggest that, like the late Marie Antoinette (who never did say “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche”)Vindependence could benefit from a little trimming at the top.

Let sleeping billionaires lie

Following the Annual Marin Pinot Tasting in Larkspur, Your West Coast Oenophile took in a number of visits to individual wineries before embarking on the major excursion that will be detailed later in this entry. The interesting thread that tied each of these operations wasn’t their wines but the striking facilities that house their operations.

I first stopped by La Honda Winery in Redwood City to take in what has to be the most eclectic structure this side of Tobin James. La Honda’s partner Don Modica framed portions of several buildings on contiguous tracts to create a warehouse-like interior into which other structures appear to intrude. The overall effect seems much like a film stage, illusory yet compelling at the same time. I had met assistant winemaker Colin McNany at a Santa Cruz tasting earlier this year, but was happy this time to meet winemaker/owner Ken Wornick for what turned out to be one of the most energized discussions of Sostevinobile I have had to date. Moreover, the selection of wines made my jaunt down the Peninsula well worth my while, with the 2007 Pinot Noir Sequence and their new 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon/Sangiovese Modica Estate striking my particular fancy. I also greatly enjoy their 2006 Meritage, a deft blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Cabernet Franc from the Windsor Oaks Vineyard in the Chalk Hill AVA.

With enough time to make one more stop, I elected to shoot across Hwy 101 and track down the new headquarters for Woodside Vineyards, a small-scale producer I had long meant to seek out. Like La Honda, the name somewhat belied its location, but the recent move to Menlo Park freed the winery from a number of local restrictions, notably a maximum allowable production scale of a mere 2,000 cases. Woodside’s new owner, Buff Giurlani, has transformed an industrial warehouse near the foot of the Dumbarton Bridge into an airy showcase for vintage auto collectors alongside his expanded winery production and tasting room, with the intent of creating event space, not unlike the nearby Museum of Aviation in San Carlos. With this expansion of the winery’s capacity, he and winemaker Brian Caseldon are looking to move beyond their current inventory of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Port and sparkling wines to include a number of Italian varietals, including Sangiovese and Dolcetto. But, for now, the noteworthy holdovers from their former facility that I had the chance to sample: the 2007 Woodside Chardonnay, the 2004 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, and the 2004 Woodside Port, more than sufficed.

I finished this day with a half-mile swim at the Pacific Athletic Club in Redwood Shores, a much-needed tonic after my major bicycle excursion (documented in my last entry) between the two major wine tastings the day before. Not that I needed the rest of the week to recover and brace myself for my planned trek up Silverado Trail; still, I refrained from any major excursions until I drove to Napa the following Friday.

Before attending the debut of Andrea Schwartz’ art installations at Yountville’s eco-resort Bardessono, I squeezed in a visit with bocce giacatrice Elena Franceschi at Silverado Vineyards. I had forgotten this winery’s connection to the Disney Family, thus was unprepared for the sheer opulence of the estate. Perched on a hilltop just after Silverado Trail crosses into Yountville, this spectacular Mediterranean edifice offers sweeping views of their 93 planted acres and most of the Stags Leap District lying just beyond. Merely to sit out on the patio leaves one feeling quite regal, if but for a fleeting moment.

Of course, the wines lived up to the richness of this setting. We cooled down first with the 2008 Miller Ranch Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc, the delightful 2008 Estate Chardonnay, and, for good measure, the 2008 Sangiovese Rosato before tackling a serious array of red wines, starting with the much-anticipated 2006 Estate Sangiovese that Elena had alluded to when we’d first met. Elena hadn’t mentioned Silverado’s amazing Super Tuscan, the 2006 Fantasia before, and naturally, this Sangiovese/Cabernet Sauvignon blend led into a selection of select Cabernets, starting with the 2005 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. After trying the 2006 vintage, she offered me a rare vertical from the late 1990s. While the 1997 and 1998 vintages lived up to my expectations for a Napa Valley Cab, the largely unheralded 1999 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon was quite the unexpected pleasure.

I might have worked my way through half a dozen more wines, but I was past due for the Pulse Tasting at Acme Fine Wines in St. Helena, where scion Justin Stephens of D.R. Stephens Wines pour a trio of his luxuriant wines, including the 2008 Estate Chardonnay, his 2007 DR II Estate Cabernet Sauvignon and the breathtaking 2006 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Moose Valley Vineyard. Next, I wound my way down to Bardessono, where Erin Lail was on hand to pair her 2009 Blueprint Sauvignon Blanc with the array of artists Andrea had included in her opening. I managed to take in a quick dinner at one of Yountville’s lesser-known cafés before taking in a promised stop at Michael Polenske’s Ma(i)sonry, the venerable stone edifice he converted to a gallery and tasting room he describes as “pairing artisan wines with exquisite art and furnishings in an historic setting.” While not as grandiose as Jan Shrem’s Clos Pégase nor quite as imposing as Greg Martin’s artifact-laden Martin Estate, Ma(i)sonry manages to create an enveloping atmosphere that lends itself exquisitely to sampling the artisan wines its Vintner Collective features. Most of these have appeared in this blog at one time or another, and given the exhaustive tasting I was facing the next day, I limited myself to a half-glass of the 2007 Contrarian, the Pomerol-style Meritage from Polenske’s own Blackbird Vineyards. The perfect coda to a well-traveled day

I checked out of my downtown Napa hotel at 11 AM, but left my car in their parking lot for the afternoon. After many years of contemplation, I had decided to wind my way up the Silverado Trail on my Trek, a 22-mile pedal from point of departure to destination, with a formidable return trip after three hours of wine tasting and feasting.

The ride from Napa to St. Helena could not have been more pleasant. Despite its formidable length, the road remained relatively flat the entire stretch—enough so that I never had to shift out of high gear! The temperature hovered around 75° F, maybe a tad less, and a cool but gentle breeze from the rear kept conditions ideal. I clocked in a markedly quicker pace than the 1:56 that my iPhone’s GPS estimated, and would have finished closer to an hour and a half, had I not stopped briefly at Judd’s Hill and Chimney Rock along the way. As with cycling in San Francisco, the ability to cover a known route at a leisurely pace and with sightlines unimpeded yielded a plethora of discoveries, like the hidden gem of Razi Winery or the new home for Crushpad being built at Silverado Trail Wine Studio. Ever mindful of Sostevinobile’s ecological commitment, I made mental notes of the water levels (or lack thereof) of the many creeks I crossed, surveyed the various arrays of solar installations and CCOF-tagged vineyards, and promised myself I would return to make a more detailed exploration when not so pressed for time.

Just before 2 PM, I arrived at the Charles Krug Vineyard for the Taste of Howell Mountain Wine Tasting Garden Party & Auction. This annual benefit for the Howell Mountain Elementary School marks a special convergence of professional, social and charitable interests in Napa Valley. This year’s event precluded the Howell Mountain Tasting that usually takes place later in the summer in San Francisco, so it especially behooved me to attend and renew acquaintances with the many vintners and winery owners I had met at last year’s functions.

Remarkably, of the 30 wineries on hand, only one had not participated in last year’s tasting, so I beelined over to Bremer Family’s table just as soon as I had locked my bicycled, registered, and downed the glass of chilled 2009 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc with which Charles Krug greets attendees. Bremer turns out to be an extraordinary winery (not that most of the wineries on hand could easily qualify as extraordinary in a less comparable setting), with a focus on Bordeaux reds. I felt fortunate to sample both their 2004 Howell Mountain Merlot alongside their striking 2004 Los Posados Merlot, as well as contrasting the 2004 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon with their delightful 2003 Seek Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. I do look forward to trying their vintages from benchmark years.

Little of the literature I’ve encountered extols the virtues of the 2006 vintage, but quite a number of the wineries on hand showed how even a non-storied vintage can garner tremendous respect, especially if it heralds from one of California’s premier AVAs. While my resampling of the 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon from Roberts + Rogers showed remarkable consistency from last year, the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon was clearly a more compelling vintage. I also found the 2006 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon from Ladera quite excellent, while W.S. Keyes made as profound a statement with their 2006 Merlot Howell Mountain. Meanwhile, La Jota demonstrated superb vinification with each, though I gave a slight nod to their 2006 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon over their 2006 Howell Mountain Merlot.

Denis Malbec’s pedigree from Château Latour has been well-documented and I would have stopped by his Notre Vin table even if I hadn’t received his e-mail invite just the day before. As anticipated, his 2005 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon, artfully blended with 83% Merlot, 6% Cabernet Franc, and 2% Petit Verdot, drank splendidly. As did the organically grown 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain Estate from Neal Family Vineyards, an unblended bottling. In addition to their delightful, single-varietal 2007 Merlot, O’Shaughnessy Wine Estate deserved kudos for the authenticity of their Bordeaux-style bottling of the 2006 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon, a historic assemblage of 78% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Merlot, 6% Malbec, 5% Petit Verdot, 2% Carménère, 2% St. Macaire (!), and 1% Cabernet Franc. I am hoping for single-varietal releases of each.

W.H. Smith saves its complexity for its nomenclature, as the 2006 Purple Label Piedra Hill Cabernet Sauvignon attests; the wine, a straightforward, Bordeaux-style Cab, remains a gem vintage after vintage. Calling one’s wine the 2007 Howell Mountain Zinfandel Yee Haw Vintage may evoke images of Li’l Abner, Dogpatch, and Kickapoo Joy Juice, but this delectable bottling from Lamborn Family Vineyards is anything but Boone’s Farm. Both their 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon, Vintage IV and the 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, Vintage III struck me as being quite cellar-worthy, as well. Meanwhile, as if to refute those skeptics who believe Zin doesn’t age, Duane D. Draper showcased his 1996 D-Cubed Zinfandel Howell Mountain.

At the other end of the spectrum, Diamond Terrace’s Maureen Taylor pour her yet-unreleased 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain alongside her bottled 2006 vintage, with the younger wine portending of amazing complexity. So too did host Charles Krug new 2007 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon show intimations of greatness. And while beneficent owner Gordon Getty dozed perilously at a nearby picnic table (oh, if only his attendant hadn’t moved the somnolent billionaire out of the sweltering midday heat—I might have hit him up for the $3,000,000 in funding Sostevinobile is still seeking!), CADE Winery sizzled with their 2007 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain.

I found myself more impressed with Summit Lake this time around. Their 2006 Emily Kestrel Cabernet Sauvignon was a pleasure indeed, but the 2006 Zinfandel really put them on the map. Red Cap’s lone effort, the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon, nonetheless made them a player with which to be reckoned, while the indubitable White Cottage proffered their own 2006 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon. Another Howell Mountain stalwart, Piña impressed, as usual, with their 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain Buckeye Vineyard while Highlands excelled with their 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Howell Mountain.

Amid the overall superior quality of virtually every wine I sampled, a handful of vintages distinguished themselves as a cut above. Once again, Cimarossa dazzled with their proprietary Cabernet, the 2006 Riva Di Ponente Estate Wine. Outpost contributed an extraordinary Chardonnay, the 2007 La Blonde. Robert Craig’s 2008 Howell Mountain Napa Valley Zinfandel tasted almost Cabernet-like in its texture and complexity, while SPENCE Vineyards brought their 2006 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, an amazing expression of this varietal. The 2005 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon for Cornerstone Cellars proved just as enticing, while Bravante Vineyards, Wine & Spirits’ Winery of the Year in 2007, made a most profound statement with their 2006 Trio, a Merlot-based wine with balancing infusions of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon.

The source of Robert Craig’s Zinfandel, Black Sears, demonstrated their profound œnological skills with their own 2006 Estate Zinfandel. Merlot virtuoso Duckhorn Vineyards impressed with their modestly titled Meritage, the 2005 Howell Mountain Napa Valley Red Wine, artfully blending 57% Cabernet Sauvignon, 32% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc, and 4% Petit Verdot. And reborn Atlas Peak continued to demonstrate how the skills of their revitalization with their much-lauded 2005 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon.

As happened at Silverado, the 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain from Dunn Vineyards proved quite the revelation from a somewhat obscure year. And certainly a rather obscure varietal for Howell Mountain was the nonetheless wonderful 2006 Petite Sirah from Retro Cellars.

Maybe I should have spent less time trying to figure a way to reintroduce myself to Gordon Getty (we had met some 22 years ago at a fundraiser at his Presidio Heights mansion, where soporific Presidential candidate Michael Dukakis had me dozing in my seat this time). Maybe I should learn to read the fine points of a program before mapping my schedule. I only had time to sample the elegant 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Steinhauer Ranch from St. Clement before we were briskly ushered indoors for the two-hour auction. Regrettably, I can only note the presence and generous contribution of Arkenstone, Blue Hall, Cakebread Cellars, Haber Vineyards, Howell at the Moon, Rutherford Grove, and Tor Kenward—all of whom I covered last year and, with several, at other tastings. I will strive to highlight them in subsequent entries.

We climbed to the second floor of Charles Krug’s renovated 1881 Carriage House, where glasses of much-needed sparkling wine were liberally poured alongside an assortment of Howell Mountain and other donated wines, plus an array of desserts that included caffeine-laced brownies! This magnificent edifice features a naturally illuminated, vaulted ceiling that seems almost ecclesiastical (little wonder why it is often rented out for vineyard weddings) and served as a perfect coda to the architectural focus of my week. 

I stumbled upon a pair of interesting wines that had not been featured at the tasting proper before I settled in: the 2005 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon from Villa Hermosa and the striking 2005 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon from Fleury, whose website extols their wines as “100% good juice.” Auctioneer Greg Quiroga, a fellow veteran of Jim Cranna’s Improv Workshop, regaled the crowd as he cajoled them into bidding for lots that ranged from 16 of Thomas Brown’s acclaimed wines to a sports extravaganza dinner at Bottega Restaurant Baseball Hall of Famer Tom Seaver (owner of GTS Vineyards) and other sports luminaries involved in the wine industry. By the end of the event, over $85,000 had ben raised, an increase of 10% over last year’s auction.
Growing up on Long Island, I was transfixed throughout the 1969 baseball season, as Seaver led the New York Mets to their first winning season and an astounding World series championship. I was gratified, years later, to learn that Tom had taken up the game of squash and then viticulture, two of my more pronounced passions. I’d like to think that these pursuits—plus the fact that neither of us command bank accounts anywhere near Gordon Getty’s—now puts me on relative equal footing with my childhood idol.
OK, maybe we don’t have tremendous athleticism in common, but I did record a personal best for the 22 mile cycle back to Napa.

So there I was downtown, hailing a Cab on a Monday afternoon…

Actually, it was somewhere in the order of 76 Cabs, give or take. After a while, Your West Coast Oenophile kinda lost count, but then, these are the hazards of duty I encounter when attending single-varietal showcases for Sostevinobile. Still, given the choice of spending my day in front of a monitor or sipping from the best at the California Cabernet Society, it was really no contest.

As was last year’s event, the 20th Annual Spring Barrel Tasting was held at San Francisco’s Bently Reserve. Once again, the overall quality of the wine made making critical distinctions somewhat of a challenge; indeed, if there was an indisputable champion among the presentation tables, it may well have been the extraordinary Wagyu from Morgan Ranch, braised to near perfection. Lipitor be damned! This station commanded more repeat visits than anyone else this afternoon!
But, of course, the purpose of this event was not to assuage the carnivore in me but to showcase the wine that put California on the viticultural map. The first table I came upon, Grassi Wines, set the tone for the afternoon with a released 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon and a barrel sample of their upcoming 2009 vintage. The tantalizing Cassandra Grassi managed, however, to tantalize me with the allure of Grassi’s soon-to-be-released 2009 Ribolla Gialla, which I plan to sample on my next Napa swing. Another Napa denizen, Baldacci Vineyards poured a selection of the several Cabernets they produce, both the 2006 IV Sons Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District and their much-honored 2006 Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District. And it was great to have another chance to sample the 2006 Concept from Cain, the purest Cabernet Sauvignon among their family of Bordelaise blends.
Maybe the truest differential of the afternoon came from the names, particularly for the Meritages or for those Cabernets the winemakers chose to give proprietary labels. A stellar example heralded from Santa Ynez’ Star Lane Vineyard, the 2005 Astral, their premium Cabernet. From Calistoga, Carter Cellars caused quite a stir, not merely for the surprisingly excellent quality of their wines (though listing a pedigree that includes Nils Venge, Jeff Fontanella and Beckstoffer To Kalon ought to have been a harbinger), but also for their 2007 Coliseum Block, a luxuriant Cabernet Sauvignon, and the 2008 Envy Cabernet Sauvignon. Terlato Family’s Chimney Rock paired its 2006 Tomahawk with a barrel sample of their 2009 Ganymede Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, both of Stags Leap. Cliff Lede’sStags Leap entrant, the aptly named 2006 Poetry, a Cab softened with 2% each of Merlot and Petit Verdot. Sonoma’s Simi blended Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec with the predominant Cabernet Sauvignon to make its single vineyard 2006 Landslide, while its 2006 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley boasted a more streamlined blend.
Some wineries can’t help but make great Cabernet, the only nuance coming from the vintage. To no surprise, I savored my sip of the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Volcanic Hill from Diamond Creek as I exchanged pleasantries with Boots Brounstein. Similarly, my chat with Richard Arrowood allowed me to indulge both in the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon from his Amapola Creek, as well as his newly-released 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma Valley from his eponymous Arrowood Vineyards. Peju Provence was superb, as one might have expected, with their 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley, a blend that features both 7% Merlot and 7% Petit Verdot, while the delightfully eccentric polyglot, Jan Shrem, regaled me in Italian as he poured his Clos Pégase 2006 Cabernet Hommage Artist Series Reserve.
Readers know that I scrupulously try to avoid sweeping generalizations in these entries, and certainly the selections we will make for Sostevinobile’s wine program will be assessed on the quality of each wine, not any established bias. Still, if I found any consensus on this particular afternoon, it was that those wineries that featured their 2007 vintage seemed to offer a more compelling display of their viticultural prowess than I perceived overall in the wines from 2006. Case in point—the newly released 2007 Entre Nous from Ashe Family Vineyards, a strikingly rich bottling of 100% Cabernet Sauvignon limited to a mere four barrels. The estate bottling of the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Spring Mountain District from Barnett Vineyards, balanced with small aliquots of Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc, similarly distinguished itself. Temecula’s Briar Rose contrasted several vintages of its Cab, with the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Linkogle Estate Collection clearly showing its potential for longevity.
Few California wineries grow Carménère, let alone blend it with its fellow Bordeaux varietals, but Alexander Valley’s Chalk Hill has embraced it for years. I failed to notate the percentages blend in their 2007 Estate Bottled Cabernet Sauvignon but, again, found it preferable to the 2006 vintage, a blend that eked in at 76% Cabernet, along with its other components. The 2007 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon from the Buoncristiani brothers displayed an amazing texture, while Lorena and Rolando Herrera from Mi Sueño crafted an elegant 2007 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon of their own. Just north of St. Helena, tiny Tudal Winery, a single varietal operation, showcased a pair of its wines, the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve and the 2007 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon—with a total of 600 cases a year, both flourished under Tudal’s handcrafted methodology.
As is my wont at these tastings, I strive first to connect with those wineries I have yet to incorporate into Sostevinobile’s database. Alexander Valley’s Blue Rock Vineyards introduced themselves with their flagship 2006 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. Laurie Claudon of Clark-Claudon Vineyards offer her sustainably produced 2006 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, a noteworthy 1,000-case effort. A member of the Silenus cooperative, Mario Bazán Cellars produces the classic Bordeaux pairing of Sauvignon Blanc and their unblended 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon. I, of course, am well-familiar with Agustin Huneeus’ Quintessa, but had not previously encountered his Faust wines, a separate venture dedicated solely to Cabernet Sauvignon; winemaker Charles Thomas generously rounded out the striking 2006 Faust with 19% Merlot, plus 3% Malbec and 1% Cabernet Franc. Contrast this blend with the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon from Calistoga’s Jericho Canyon, a straightforward Cab with a mere 3% Merlot added.

Naming a winery The Grade seemed quirky, if not ambiguous, until owner Tom Thornton cited the allusion from Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Silverado Squatters; tasting their 2006 The Grade Cabernet Sauvignon left no confusion about their craft, while a surreptitious sip of their 2009 Sea-Fog Sauvignon Blanc was a nice counterpoint to the plethora of red wine I continued to evaluate. Also in the category of hard-to-fathom names, the Most Wanted Wine Company turned out to be a Wild West-themed venture from Oakdale, a town I have since discovered lies somewhere en route from Manteca to Jamestown; fortunately, their 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon proved far less grating than their music-laden Web site. Perhaps the last word in Cabernet, ZD Wines, derives its name from the acronym for aerospace quality control—Zero Defects—an attribute that could just as easily applied to their organically-grown 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley.

I had passed by Volker Eisele Family Estate during my recent, inadvertent tour of Chiles Valley but hadn’t had the time to stop in. Their compelling 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon is also farmed organically, but I wish they had also brought their unique 2006 Terzetto, a blend of equal parts Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot, co-fermented. Actually, I was surprised that no one (at least, among the wineries I sampled) had poured a Cabernet Franc at this tasting—after all, it does fall within Cab Society parameters. Nor did I stumble upon any Bordeaux/Rhône blends, as I often find in Lodi and in Paso Robles. Varozza Vineyards, however did pour both their estate grown 2005 St. Helena Cabernet Sauvignon and their 2005 St. Helena Petite Sirah, a welcome diversion from the monolithic pourings of the event.
Inarguably, Cabernet is the cornerstone of Napa Valley, so is Cornerstone Cellars the cornerstone of cornerstones? Rather than ponder such a conundrum, I sipped their immodest 2006 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon with unabashed delight. I equally enjoyed the 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Hendry Vineyard from Hendry Ranch, and look forward to sampling their Albariño and Primitivo at a future date. The steep terrain of Hidden Ridge helps shape the terroir of its Cabernet-exclusive production, making its 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon 55% Slope a most distinctive wine.
A trio of wineries from Napa comported themselves quite ably as I again established my first contact with their ventures. Silverado Vineyards, with limited production of Sangiovese and other Italian varietals, held forth with their 2006 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. Nearby, in Rutherford, Sullivan Vineyards similarly showcased their 2006 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. And Titus from St. Helena impressed me with their 2006 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
In my efforts to embrace as many wineries as I can for Sostevinobile, I sometimes overlook long-established labels, thinking I already know their craft quite well. This afternoon’s lesson in not taking wineries for grant first came from Spring Mountain’s Keenan Winery. I found their 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Napa Valley, Spring Mountain District quite compelling and their special Tribute, the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley, 30th Anniversary even more so. Similarly, Merryvale struck me with a trio of their Cabernets, first the affordably-priced 2007 Starmont Cabernet, then their signature 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley, and finally with their extraordinary 2006 Profile, a limited-release Cabernet Sauvignon blended with 2% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot, and 1% Cabernet Franc.
Admittedly, I found myself Cabbed out at this point, vowing not to sip another of these wines at least until Tuesday. And certainly I knew I would return, same address, same staging in a few months to come, to work my way through the bounty of Howell Mountain’s Cabernets and, of course, another infusion of Wagyu beef!

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

Whether other nations make better wine than we do is debatable, although readers of this blog know that Your West Coast Oenophile has intoned mightily on this subject many times over the past several months. One thing that is inarguable is that they do know how to say certain things better, like the title to this installment.

I am not hesitant to concede the rather pedestrian perspective that shaped my introduction to wine. Wine selections at most of the suburban establishments where I dined consisted of an unidentified red or white and sometimes rosé, which was often a house-made blend of the other two offerings. 
On the next level were the myriad imports. Italian wines consisted of Verdicchio or Soave, Valpolicella or Montepulciano from such august houses as Bolla or Cella; Chiantis, in their straw cradles, were mostly distinguished by competing lengths of their bottle necks. French wines meant a cheap Louis Jadot négotiant blend or one of Stiller & Meara’s totems to kitsch and tastelessness (the other being the films of their unctuous offspring, Ben). From Portugal came the tangy twins, Mateus and Lancers, whose ceramic bottles formed candle holders at nearly every red-checkered tablecloth spot I can remember.

The aforementioned generic white and red wines, frequently labeled Chablis and Burgundy, heralded from a quintet of California jug producers and their New York compatriot, Taylor (later on, Coca Cola bought up Taylor and launched Taylor California, which subsequently purchased both Almaden and Paul Masson en route to becoming the behemoth we now know as Constellation). All six brands produced an inventory of red, white and rosé in a variety of bottle sizes; Almaden, if memory serves correct, complicated the equation by offering a choice in whites: Chablis or Rhine. The backbone of all these wines were cheap, plentiful table grapes like Thompson seedless and Tokay, grown in abundance throughout the Central Valley. Of the six brands, Gallo was then, as it is now, predominant. In turn, Paul Masson distinguished itself with the overdramatic promotions of their pompous pitchman, Orson Welles, and atypical bottling in a glass carafe that usually found itself recycled next to the Lancers candlesticks.

The breakthough to this monotonous ensemble came with Robert Mondavi’s Woodbridge Winery and their ever-popular 1.5 liter blends, affectionately known as Bob White and Bob Red. These may not have been GREAT wines, but, at least, here were California jug wines that were PRETTY DAMN GOOD. Though not labeled as such, these wines had varietal character (Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon) and easily held their own as everyday table wine or as a thoughtful contribution to a BYOB party. Besides providing Mondavi with the funds he needed to establish his Oakville labels, these wines compelled the folks in Modesto to launch an aggressive advertising campaign** to assert their wine’s quality.

Focus groups automatically eliminate anyone in the advertising filed from participating on their panels. Advertising is an astoundingly cutthroat profession, curiously so in that one would think people ought to be able to rise to the top based on talent and the quality of their work, as opposed to certain industries where the hyper-aggressive accrual of money is the only barometer of success. But it is not so much a disdain for this sordid occupation as a belief that people who work in advertising might skew the results that causes marketing researchers to preclude them.
In its struggle for self-preservation, the hierarchy in advertising strives to maintain mediocrity and marginalizes individuals who might upend this equilibrium. Having been deemed too talented for my own good, I spent years outside the inner sanctum, churning out a modicum of subsistence as an indentured freelancer. As such, I never felt any compunction at not disqualifying myself when offered the opportunity to participate in a focus group. My responses have always been honest and unbiased by my professional activities. However, on topics of which I have a strong familiarity, like Apple-related products, I have not been at all reticent in displaying my acumen.

Such has been the case a number of times that I have participated in wine marketing reviews. It’s sad, of course, when a great label is acquired by one of the major conglomerates, who then systematically the brand. Twice I’ve asked to new launches from the once-esteemed Beaulieu Vineyards, first their BV Coastal label, then their subsequent BV Century Cellars, which, to my highly-vocal dismay, did not supplant the former sideline but was placed alongside it as part of Diageo’s reckless pursuit of market saturation. More recently, I was asked to preview the design for Solaire, a Central Coast designation apocryphally attributed to Robert Mondavi. Here was everything true wine lovers had long feared when Constellation bought up Mondavi’s portfolio; rather than restore the label to the prominence it had once enjoyed (over the several years preceding this acquisition, certain scions within Mondavi Generation II had eviscerated the brand, with a watered-down Coastal appellation and a fantasy of planting grapes on Mars), the astute folks from Canandaigua, NY continued the erosion with this blasphemous derivative.

Of course, it is highly improbable that California wine will return to its inglorious past and produce the markedly inferior jug wines of a generation ago. And, despite my continuing trepidation, I suspect its giant corporate parent will still manage to preserve the quality of Robert Mondavi Reserve and, of course, Opus One. But the devolution of this brand in particular, which has done so much to elevate the quality of wine grown here, as well as others like BV, into massive, almost generic factories under the guise of industry conglomerates is an atrocity, with little sign of mitigation portending.

Fast-forward to last Saturday’s Uncorked! Wine Festival at Ghirardelli Square, a placed for which I had once designed a commercial with liquid chocolate bubbling forth from its court fountain (naturally, the myopic principals at the ad agency quashed the idea). Billed as a festival with 53 participating wineries, there were quite a number of corporate-held satellites among the booths. Given the proximity of this event to Cellar 360, it didn’t come as much of a surprise that nearly all of Foster’s Wine Estates’ California portfolio was present, and, in all fairness, the majority of these labels (Cellar No. 8, Beringer, Chateau St. Jean, Sbragia, Etude, Meridian, Souverain, Taz, Stag’s Leap Winery, St. Clement and Wattle Creek) have maintained a remarkable degree of autonomy. Jackson Family Wines was ably represented by Arrowood Vineyards, which, like all of the wineries in this portfolio has been allowed to stay true to its origins. Constellation, on the other hand, has shown itself to be far more intrusive with its acquisitions (as noted above), but I cannot attest to how much control Clos du Bois, their sole holding at this event, has relinquished.
The last heavyweight pouring at Ghirardelli Square was, of course, Gallo, which has battled Constellation for several years now for bragging rights to the megalomanic epithet World’s Largest Wine Company. Their attendees included a couple of labels Gallo Generation 3 has cultivated out of their Sonoma vineyard acquisitions: Frei Brothers and MacMurray Ranch, along with 1.5 liter titan Barefoot Winery (originally Barefoot Bynum), and their premium Napa acquisition, William Hill Estate and Louis M. Martini. Changes to these latter two brands may appear subtle to the consumer, but changes are indeed underfoot, despite previous declarations of a hands-off approach. What will come, now that William Hill’s winemaker has been “transfered” to Martini remains to be seen, but the alarming development has been the launch of a second label from Martini, the Napa-Sonoma hybrid known as Ghost Pines. Some may celebrate this development of reasonably-priced Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon from these leading AVAs, but I found them rather underwhelming. Worse, I fear, they will be harbingers of more diminution of the brand along the lines of what Robert Mondavi and BV has endured at the hands of their corporate parent, if not worse. Years ago, Louis P. Martini invited me to lunch at his winery, where I enjoyed an animated conversation and a 1984 Barbera that still brings tears to my eyes. “Louie,” I told the girl pouring for William Hill, ”is most assuredly rolling in his grave.”
But let me close on a more optimistic note, for indeed, there were many delightful discoveries among the hitherto unfamiliar labels I encountered at the Uncorked! event, be it a subtle Tempranillo from Berryessa Gap Vineyards or the splendid array of Italian varietals from Rosa d’Oro. I promised the pourer for Deerfield Ranch that if the Ginkgo Girl and I decide to solemnize our relationship, we would serve his Super T-Rex***, an artful blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, with a touch of Dolcetto. Fellow Hotchkiss internee Zelock Chow showed off a noteworthy Cabernet from his family’s Howell Mountain Vineyards, as did Charlie Dollbaum from Carica Wines. Another Howell Mountain venture, White Cottage Ranch, pleased with their 2006 Merlot, while Hall Wines showed exactly how organically-grown Cabernet shines. The 2006 Seven Artisans from RDJ Artisan Wine Company proved a more-than-competent Pomerol-style Meritage, while a chilled 2007 Roussanne from Truchard Vineyards offered a welcome antidote to the rather stifling afternoon heat. Yorkville Cellars, a Mendocino organic winery, boasts of being the only house in California to grow and produce each of the eight Bordeaux grapes as single varietals, and while they neglected to bring their much-anticipated Carménère, the five wines they poured did not disappoint. Another Mendocino operation, Zina Hyde Cunningham, managed to satisfy my Barbera craving, while DL Carinalli Vineyards made good with their 2007 Chardonnay and 2007 Pinot Noir.
Speaking of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, I do owe acknowledgment to my new acquaintance from Suacci Carciere, who enabled me to obtain tickets to this event; thankfully, the 2.5 mile pedal from Pacific Heights to this event was a whole lot easier than the 35-mile roundtrip I made the previous week to their Sideways tasting in Larkspur. And despite my long-winded perorations the Uncorked Wine Festival was a welcome urban escape for a Saturday afternoon, supporting a highly worthwhile cause (Le Cocina) in these economically-challenging times and giving voice to a number of promising, independent wine ventures, as well as their house brands.
**Despite the late Hal Riney’s gravel-voiced recitation, the slew of gold and silver medals were mostly awarded to The Wine Cellars of Ernest and Julio Gallo, one of the myriad labels they offered in the 1980s, which accounted for significantly less than 1% of their total production.
***There’s a subtle, inside joke that only people who know us would understand.