Your West Coast Oenophile is inordinately fond of the truism “senza la cultura italian, la civiltà occidentale non esisterebbe.” The ethnic pride we extol throughout Italian Heritage Month every October underscores how the foundation of Western civilization is derived from Italian achievements in science, literature, music, painting, sculpture. couture, the culinary arts, engineering, agriculture, and more from Roman times to the present. The Italian people may not be able to claim having developed viticulture, but we are responsible for making wine an integral part of our culture, our daily lives, and the fabric of our society.
Which is why the return of Healdsburg Crushthis past weekend proved such a joyous gathering. Like its predecessor, Pinot on the River, this revived annual gathering focused on Pinot Noir, along with its Burgundian alter ego, Chardonnay, with some 60 wineries on hand, not only from the Russian River Valley AVAbut as far away the Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County. But what drew Sostevinobile to this event wasn’t so much the prospect of sampling through an array of ultrapremium wines as it was to partake in the throes of a (soon to be) post-COVID revival.
The pandemic has not estranged me from enjoying great wines—if anything, it has only increased my indulgence. But the pleasure of wine is not merely the act of imbibing, but sharing the experience with old friends, new friends, and business colleagues. Now twelve years into my second wine career, I find new insights and revelations a bit of a rarity, having catalogued nearly 5,000 labels here on the West Coast. Grand Tastings now serve primarily as a fundamental social gathering, uniting the people who make great wine with the people whose enjoyment of such make it possible for wineries to thrive. And in this regard, Healdsburg Crush did not disappoint.
Ticketholders, of course, partook in the craft of renowned winemakers rarely featured at events of this scope—producers like Bob Cabral, Ernest, George Wine Co., Merry Edwards, Roederer Estate, Rochioli, and Williams Selyem, to name but a few. Still, the abundance of great vintages proved merely a backdrop to the sheer pleasure of renewed camaraderie that even the pending onset of rain showers could not dampen. For me, as well as for the 700+ attendees, this wine gathering proved a much-needed respite from the lingering woes of the pandemic and the semblance of a return to normalcy after 20 months’ miasma. The kind of civilized encounter that only wine can bestow.
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:
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 2009Cantine 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 Estates’ 2008 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.