Category Archives: Mourvèdre

Slowly winding up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are we back yet?

In forming Sostevinobile, Your West Coast Oenophile dedicated this still-nascent venture not only to creating a singular temple for wines produced along the entire stretch of the North Pacific’s West Coast (Baja California—British Columbia), but committed these efforts to the highest level of sustainability we could attain. My personal dedication to this latter facet of our business is to cycle as much as possible, instead of driving, notably throughout the confines of San Francisco proper, as well as points attainable over the Golden Gate Bridge. At least as long as my increasingly wobbly knees will withstand.

And so, one might assume that I regarded the dramatic reduction of automobile traffic, particularly at the start the damned pandemic, as a boon. But, as it turned out, the remarkably clean air proved quite the annoyance. As soon the sun began settling past the meridian, the blinding glare became overwhelming, making any kind of westerly route unbearable, if not hazardous. Dare I say I actually began to miss the air pollution?

Heading to Paso Robles earlier this month, my route required that I pass through the confines of the tech jungle for the first time since 2019. Much to surprise, in the offing to my left, there hovered the famed San José smog along the Diablo Mountains that bifurcate Santa Clara County. Could this be an omen that the end of COVID-19 was finally within sight? Could foul air mean congested traffic mean a return to normalcy? It’s enough to make a wine guy want to learn how to plot an algorithm!

But nothing that Legoland (my derisive term for Silicon Valley) offered could dissuade me from reaching my destination for the weekend. Various complications had kept me from visiting Paso since 2018, so the opportunity to return for the revived Garagiste Wine Festival proved too compelling to miss. Arriving the day before the Grand Tasting, I spent the afternoon reacquainting myself with the township.

For the past several years, ground zero for cutting-edge winemaking in Paso Robles has been the eclectic collective known as Tin City. But what had been a relatively underground enclave had blossomed into a full-fledged destination, overflowing with wineries and tasting rooms, as well as breweries, cider plants, restaurants and artisan food purveyors. Not to mention teeming with locals and tourists alike. As Dorothy Gale might have said, “I’ve a feeling we’re in Kansas anymore!”

A sign of COVID times, simply dropping in on a Tin City tasting room no longer is an option, a change that severely hampered my modus operandi. Nonetheless, I was able to schedule a special trade appointment with Giornata, Paso Robles leading producer of Italian varietal wines. Brian and Steffi Terrizzi are both fellow members of NEB, so, not surprisingly, their 2018 Nebbiolo Luna Matta—for the uninitiated, Nebbiolo, the grape that constitutes both Barolo and Barbaresco, is known among cognoscenti as the wine for when Pinot Noir drinkers grow up—proved extraordinary, as did the 2018 Aglianico Luna Matta.

Giornata’s Fatto a Mano series of wines might be deemed “natural,” but the term hardly does justice to these painstakingly crafted wines that are aged in amphorae. Standouts among these selections were the proprietary white blend, the 2020 Bianco Estate, a deft mélange of Trebbiano, Friulano, and Ribolla Gialla, and their esoteric red, a co-fermented 2020 Grenache Moscato, produced with Moscato Gialla and an early picked Grenache Rouge.

As much as I enjoyed these two wines, my eyes nonetheless gravitated toward the 2020 Falanghina, my first experience with this varietal as a skin-contact wine. But, of course, I could not overlook the flagship 2020 Ramato, easily the intensely orange Pinot Grigio I have ever experienced. An utterly superb bottling!

Even after two hours, I could have stayed on—and perhaps should have, after learning that the renowned Luna Matta Vineyard, the crown jewel of Italian varietals in Paso Robles, was being replanted with Cabernet Sauvignon—a most egregious development in my book. But the Grand Tasting for Garagiste beckoned, and even without cohesive directions to the Paso Fairgrounds, I reluctantly departed.

COVID-19 has been so devastating, in so many ways. For like myself in the wine sector, its impact on trade tastings has been particularly arduous, not just stifling all aspects of our business practices but depriving us of the camaraderie these gatherings foster. Since California’s putative lifting the pandemic color coding system, there has been a slow reemergence of trade events, though most have been a pallid vestige of their former incarnations, with reduced attendance capacities, substitute pourers, a dearth of trade/media passes, and astronomical ticket prices—particularly in Napa, where some four different AVA events sought ~$175 for a two-hour tasting.

A number of imported wine events have resurfaced these past six months, including St. Emilion, Portugal, Georgia, and the annual Simply Great Italian Wines, though almost all were represented by their American distributors. While these events help as a point of comparison and often attune my palate to varietals like Saperavi or Alvarelhão that have scant plantings here in California, they offer little in the way of reigniting Sostevinobile’s core mission.

Since June, I’ve been happy to attend the inaugurals of both the Chardonnay Classic and the Cabernet Classic at Vista Collina, as well as Healdsburg Crush, the revamped rendition of Pinot on the River, all of which still were generous enough to accommodate select media and trade. And I was most please to be once again selected as a judge for USA Wine Ratings. But it wasn’t until Garagiste that I felt a true sense of return to normalcy.

The true beauty of these tastings is the opportunity to discover an array of small producers whom I might not have otherwise encountered. This time, after a 2-year hiatus, the list of newcomers was bountiful, with 23 wineries to add to the Sostevinobile database. Layout of the Paso Event Center lent itself to an easy alphabetical navigation, which I followed in reverse order. Just because…

Here’s a brief synopsis of the wineries I discovered:

  • Zanoli Wines, a local, 350 cases project focused on Rhône varietals. Standout selections included their 2019 Mourvèdre Glenrose Vineyard and the 2018 Red, a Syrah-dominated GSM blend
  • The Wine Boss, a winery & custom-crush facility in Paso Robles, offered an amiable 2018 Fortunate Youth Cabernet Franc
  • Executive Director for Rhône Rangers, Kim Murphy-Rodrigues, poured both a 2020 Picpoul Blanc and a 2018 Grenache Morro View Vineyard that may have been the afternoon’s best selection, for her family-owned Vigo Cellars
  • Thibido Winery, a new Paso Robles producer, showcased their 2020 First Date Grenache Blanc and the superb 2020 Just Because Carbonic Syrah—just because…
  • Another new endeavor, St. Eva Hill, seemed a decidedly mixed bag, but I did cotton to their 2019 Estate Petite Sirah, as well as the 2019 Estate Rosé
  • Bakersfield’s San Rucci, a truly boutique effort, impressed with their 60 case bottling of the 2019 Cabernet Franc
  • RF Fine Wines delighted with their 2015 Riserva Primitivo, but their forte was in a trio of Paso Robles Cabernets, most notably the 2018 Legacy Cabernet Sauvignon
  • From Turley’s vineyard manager, Brennan Stovall, the intriguingly-named Quench & Temper is uniquely focused on blending Graciano with Rhône varietal grapes, exemplified by the 2019 Chapter IV (+ Grenache) and the 2019 La Cantera (+ Syrah)
  • I was vastly impressed with Nenow Family Wines, another Paso-based Rhône producer, with excellent selections across the board, particularly their GSM blend, the 2018 Elevens and an astounding 2018 Syrah Kimsey Vineyard
  • In Atascadero, south of Paso Robles, John Merrick’s Mea Wine presented a cross-section of Italian, French, And Spanish varietals, and while I am wont to favor his 2019 Estate Vermentino, the 2018 Revelation, a Syrah-Tempranillo blend, proved equally compelling
  • In recent years, Paso has been home to California’s renewed interest in Mourvèdre, the proverbial Holy Ghost of the GSM Trinity. Here, Loma Seca best exemplified the stunning versatility of this varietal with their 2019 Estate Mourvèdre
  • Mourvèdre can also be known as Mataro or Monastrell. Like Grenache, aka Garnacha, it is popular as both a Rhône grape and a Spanish varietal, too. Still. it is uncommon for both grapes to be blended with a pair of more distinct Spanish plantings, Tempranillo and Graciano, but this quartet comprised a most distinctive wine, the 2019 La Macha. from Paso Robles’ Hayseed and Housdon
  • The familiar refrain, Don’t Call It Frisco, doesn’t apply if that happens to be your surname. Nor is it an apostasy for Frisco Cellars to produce their 2018 Blanc du Rouge, a painstakingly handcrafted white Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Because I can speak Italian, I was able to deduce the meaning of Familia Hicks, as it varies only slightly from our term famiglia. But were it not for this Paso Robles micro-boutique, I would not have known that their 2019 Kazoku, a Templeton Gap Syrah, also means family (in Japanese)
  • This name only seems like a typo. Etnyre Wines heralds from Pismo Beach and produces 200 cases of coastal reds, displayed here with both the 2016 Pinot Noir Quin’s Vineyard and the striking 2016 Syrah Quin’s Vineyard
  • Orion Stang partnered withColorado winemaker Richard Crockett to create Emercy , a Paso Robles winery on eclectic blends, like their 2019 Grenache/Cabernet Sauvignon/Petite Sirah, whose unimaginative name belies it’s extraordinary complexity
  • I vaguely recall Dracaena from their incubation at San Francisco’s former Crushpad facility, but now they have grown to a full-fledged Paso Robles operation, producing a noteworthy 2019 Classic Cabernet Franc, alongside their Rosé and Chenin Blanc offerings
  • Of course, even if your name really is Demeter, your wine should be biodynamic, but their 2015 Sangiovese Javadi Vineyards muted any criticism I might have had
  • On the other hand, I can’t saying specifically what a winery named Crush Vineyard ought to produce, but their 2017 Inception, a GSM blended with Tannat, proved most intriguing
  • I had met Paige Wilson at Concur’s Tin City facilities on the previous day, but, despite her libertarian proselytizing, promised to taste with her husband Patrick at Garagiste. Happy to report that there was nothing laissez-faire about the 2018 Tank, a Mourvèdre-focused GSM blend
  • I suspect I would have found Bushong’s wine selections as compelling even if it weren’t for their intriguing label designs. Certainly, both their superb 2019 Tannnat Vineyard 1010 and the 2019 Same Deep Water, a Spanish varietal blend of Cariñena, Tempranillo, and Garnacha proved complex wines that could overshadow even the blandest packaging
  • Similarly, Karin Langer’s Bolt To Wines matched the sheer excellence of her 2019 Chardonnay Sta. Rita Hills and 2018 Syrah Ballard Canyon withcevocative renditions of Central Coast flora and fauna
  • Given its resurgence in Paso Robles, I would have expected to find quite a number of Malbecs being poured this afternoon. Nonetheless, the 2018 Malbec Paicines AVA (San Benito County) from Arianna Wines was enough to suffice, while her 2020 Torrontés Alta Mesa was a perfectly refreshing white with which to wrap up this hot afternoon

I wish I could have remained in Paso Robles for several more days, but I had committed to the revival of the West of West tasting being held in San Francisco. Held amid the hyper-elegant confines of The Battery, this intimate gathering assembled all the hallmarks of a well-appointed professional tasting, compact yet easily navigated, hampered only by its lack of a printed program. To be honest, there was little revelatory to this event; given the narrow focus (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, with a splash of Syrah) of the West Sonoma AVA, I have long been familiar with the selections each winery has to offer. My attendance here was primarily to show my support and to reconnect with the winemakers on hand after the arduous 20 months of pandemic separation.

Granted, these two events were not 100% back to pre-COVID status, but things finally felt close enough to declare “we’re back!” But then Taste Washington announced they were compelled to cancel for 2022, South Australian Shiraz: Iconic and Ageworthy postponed until January (or later) due to shipping difficulties, and up pops the Omicron variant. Sempre lo stesso…

 

GSM or FSG?

Your West Coast Oenophile is still struggling to figure out how Sostevinobile can emerge once this seemingly inexorable pandemic comes to an end and the unbearable restrictions of the New Normal have subsided. Current conditions have made visiting wineries untenable for me—I normally drop by without onerous reservations and engage the owner or winemaker for extended discussions, not formal tastings.

And so I am currently reduced to serendipitous discoveries through diurnal culinary exploits—my lockdown “hobby”—from my haphazard search for undiscovered wines at San Francisco’s sundry liquor purveyors. Know that long before I started Sostevinobile, I have been an impassioned champion of Mourvèdre. My first serious exposure to this varietal came from one of the sporadic offerings of Mataro from Ridge, further cementing my belief that their bottlings of various Rhône varietals and other deviations from their Monte Bello and their renowned Zinfandel program really constitute the hallmarks of this winery.

Whether a wine is labelled Mourvèdre or Monastrell or Mataro, the grape is still relatively rare to find as a single varietal here in California, though there has been a notable recent resurgence, particularly in Paso Robles and with specialists like Hardy Wallace’s Dirty & Rowdy. Most people will probably recognize Mourvèdre as a component in GSM blends here and in Château-Neuf  du  Pape or Côtes du Rhône. But nearly all of these wines are Syrah or Grenache focused, with Mourvèdre relegated to relative obscurity. In other words, the Holy Ghost of the GSM Trinity.

I tend to think of Mourvèdre as a wine meant to be enjoyed on its own, like Lagrein or Charbono, not primarily as a complement to food. But with more time on my hands than I often know what to do with, I find myself tinkering with even my tried & true recipes. An abundance of ripe Heirloom Tomatoes at Golden Gate Farmers Market in the Outer Richmond allowed me to substitute for Roma Tomatoes in my regular marinara sauce, with extraordinary result. This easily proved to be the most sublimely balanced sauce I can recall ever making.

But the true revelation came with the bottle of Mourvèdre I casually selected for my pasta that evening. On its own, Cline’s 2018 Ancient Vines Mourvèdre stands as a perfectly amiable wine, sourced from the Contra Costa AVA that produces a number of distinctive Rhône bottlings (though the region does not feature an abundance of wineries, its grapes are highly prized and sourced throughout the North Coast). I easily could have put up my feet and polished off a bottle while watching Netflix, but the food pairing proved utterly transformative. Not in the way one normally thinks of an astounding food-wine blend, the way many Italian wines are made to produce. Rather than balancing the wine, the pasta seemingly changed its character, from the smooth, slightly fruity uniformity I seek in a Mourvèdre to the rich complexity of a Cabernet Sauvignon. Had I not known what was in my glass, I might even had guessed it was a Meritage.

I made Pizza Napoletana a couple of night later, using the same sauce. True to form, the pizza exceeded all my previous endeavors, but the wine merely held to its varietal character, however. Guess I should have picked up a second bottle of the Cline.

Both sides now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Monterey Jazzed

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lacuna

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)

Falling into 2017

An interesting question posed Your West Coast Oenophile is whether Sostevinobile would consider opening a branch outside the parameters of our West Coast focus. Such a venture would, of course, violate the regional and environmental guidelines I have set for our operations, but I have considered, in times of idle speculation, how our model might be adapted to another region. One could create a discreet chain of wine bars localised on the wines produced throughout the Great Lakes region—predominantly Michigan, Ontario, Ohio, and the New York Finger Lakes. Another model might focus on the Eastern seaboard, from Long Island down through Virginia and North Carolina.

Of course, these are just intellectual speculations, with one caveat. Early on, in my development of Sostevinobile, I stipulated that I would not categorically refuse to consider any wine produced from the West Coast and meeting our sustainable criteria, except for the now-defunct Asteri Mou (for reasons I no longer need to elaborate). Similarly, were I to develop these cloned versions of our operations, I would absolutely eschew any wine from Trump Winery—the political implications being quite obvious, I would hope. Besides, how could you trust a wine from someone who has never even tasted his own vintages?

Speaking of wine tasting, this November has been jam-packed with events—far too many for me to have covered all. Impecuniosity and the implausibility of bilocation caused me to miss a handful of annual events, including Califermentation, the Paso Robles session of the Garagiste Festival, SF Vintners Market, and Premier Cruz. Alas, I missed some 30 wineries I might have vetted for Sostevinobile, but, as is my wont, I have catalogued their information and am reaching out to them on my own.

Among the many events I did manage to attend, the most intimate certainly had to have been the ragtag popup organized by Pietro Buttitta. Little else may link the assembled collective that comprised the New Mission Winemakers besides their situation in various industrial facilities scattered throughout San Francisco, but their disparity did not diminish the overall quality of the wines featured at this debut. As he transitions from his former label, Rosa d’Oro, which focused primarily on Italian varietals, to a more nuanced Prima Materia, a deft touch can be seen in such bottlings as his lush 2013 Mourvèdre, along with other Rhône and Bordeaux offerings. And yet this new direction has not diminished his craft from Rosa d’Oro, here displayed in a delightful 2013 Vermentino, a compelling 2012 Refosco and 2012 Montepulciano, and a truly wondrous 2012 Aglianico.

The 2014 Aglianico ruled the day among the 16 or so selections Harrington Wine poured. I equally cottoned to his splendid 2015 Corvina, a light, garnet-colored wine that could almost be mistaken for a rosé. Still, there was nothing mistakable about their 2014 Grenache, the 2015 Zinfandel, nor the 2014 Nebbiolo, a beautiful expression of the Piemonte noble grape. Added to this mix was the first release of the Chinato, an infused digestif based on Nebbiolo.

Between these two Italian varietal specialists stood Betwixt, Tim Telli’s consistently excellent venture from the Minnesota Street facility Sostevinobile my one day call neighbor. Here Tim poured a most impressive 2014 Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay, paired nicely alongside his 2014 Pinot Noir Lester Family Vineyard and the aptly named 2013 Pinot Noir Helluva Vineyard. Sharing this Dogpatch urban winery, Flywheel Wines also stood out for their 2013  Brosseau Vineyard  Chardonnay and the 2013 Boer Vineyard Grenache, both from the Chalone AVA.

I had not previously encountered Betwixt’ and Flywheel’s third co-tenant, Cellars 33 (another winery at this facility, Von Holt, did not participate in this tasting). Its standout wine, from the selections poured here, arguably was the superb 2015 Grenache Blanc Lodi, a truly marvelous Rhône white. Blending these same grapes with Viognier produced their whimsical 2015 The Betty White, also from Lodi, while both their appealing 2013 Pinot Noir Gloria Vineyard and 2013 Zinfandel Bacigalupi Vineyard heralded from Russian River Valley plantings.

This popup also afforded me my first tasting of Neighborhood Vineyards, Elly Hartshorn’s vineyard project in San Francisco. With vines planted at numerous locations throughout the City, Neighborhood is poised to become the first urban winery totally ensconced within its confines. While waiting for the vines to reach, Elly sources fruit for her other bottlings, like the 2014 Tide & Travel Pinot Noir from Santa Rita Hills poured here.

One needn’t be a rocket scientist to make great wine, but being a geneticist might help. Tessier’s Kristie Tacey moved to the Bay Area to work on the Human Genome Project, then segued into winemaking. Judging by the wines poured here, her œnological DNA was most dominant in the 2015 El Dorado Grenache and the 2015 Russian River Cabernet Franc, a wine redolent of its Alegría Vineyard parentage. Meanwhile, one might easily believe Ed Kurzman had turned the vinification of Pinot Noir into an exacting science, with across the board excellence in all the offerings he poured from both his Sandler and August West labels. Still, the great pleasure from the latter proved to be his 2014 Sierra Mar Vineyard Chardonnay and the 2012 Rosella’s Vineyard Syrah.

Ed’s Sandler offerings provided me with my first glimpse of the 2015 vintage, a year that had been marked by its low yields throughout the state. Nonetheless, it portends to be great, potentially surpassing both 2012 and 2014. Of the three single vineyard selections he poured, the 2015 Bien Nacido Vineyard Pinot Noir stood slightly above both the 2015 Keeler Ranch Pinot Noir and his proprietary 2015 Boer Vineyard Pinot Noir. But eclipsing all these: the utterly marvelous 2013 Boer Vineyard Grenache capped a most delightful afternoon on Minna Street.


 

How you gonna keep him down on the Pharm?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An austere wine, with an alluring bucket

Long before developing Sostevinobile, even prior to my original career in the wine industry, Your West Coast Oenophile pursued a much loftier vocation. Hubristic though it may sound, I truly believed I could elected the next pope.

Driving up the coast from Pacifica on a warm September evening in 1978, I heard the news that Pope Paul VI had just died. The broadcast further stated that the next Pope would assuredly be “younger, male, Italian, and allied with neither the liberal nor the conservative wing of the Catholic Church.” In other words, me.

With little time to mount an extensive worldwide campaign, I resorted to a decidedly grassroots effort, greeting people everywhere I went and exhorting them to write their favorite cardinal to support my candidacy. Hard to tell exactly how well I placed, as the balloting remains secret, but I finished a healthy runner-up to Venetian Cardinal Albino Luciani.

Ioannes Paulus PP. I proved a genial, albeit inferior, choice, as attested by his untimely death a mere 33 days after his installation. Seizing this renewed opportunity, I immediately took to the streets with a more aggressive campaign, this time pledging, with utter fidelity, “I won’t die in office!” Of course, I realized I didn’t need to worry about facing any consequences if I did break my promise. And if somehow I had managed to keep it, well…
Giampaolo

As I’m sure everyone knows, I wound up losing that election to Karol Wojtyla and his 27-year interregnum as Ioannes Paulus PP. II. Thereafter, the abrupt resignation of his successor, Benedictus XVI, dispelled any hope I could run once more on my immortality platform, though my apostasy still contends that, the Universe being merely a figment of my imagination, I cannot be allowed to die. Nonetheless, owning to reality, I am resolved to live at least as long to hear some hotblooded twentysomething admonish his friend “Dude, c’mon! That chick is too old! She’s got tattoos!!

Moreover, after recent Facebook rumors had reported my likely demise—compounded, I suspect, by three months’ absence in attending to this blog—I composed a bucket list of wineries I still craved to try. While my selections may lean heavily towards several of the renowned “cult Cabernets,” they also reflect, by omission, the vast number of these wines I have already had the pleasure of sampling.

Scarecrow Without trying to seem boastful, I have delighted over the years in such legendary producers as Harlan, Maybach, Dalla Valle, Bond, Opus One, Scarecrow, Shafer, David Arthur, Ovid, Kapcsándy, and the obligatory Screaming Eagle. Aetherial Chardonnays from Peter Michael and Kongsgaard have crossed my lips. Château Pétrus’ alter ego, Dominus, has been a perennial favorite, along with classic bottlings like Joseph Phelps’ Insignia and Ridge’s Montebello.

I’ve enjoyed deep velvet Zinfandels from Turley and Martinelli’s Jackass Hill. astounding blends from Paso Robles’ L’Aventure and Daou that depart from orthodoxies of Bordeaux and the Rhône, and luminescent Pinot Noirs from the Sta. Rita Hills’ Sea Smoke and Oregon’s Domaine Serène. But partaking of the latter’s storied Monogram remains the first of many elusive quests. After that, my bucket list most certainly includes the Santa Cruz Mountains’ clandestine Pinot Noir producer, Rhys, and Vérité, whose three wines have all repeatedly garnered perfect 100s from Robert Parker.

My must-taste list includes a slew of a stratospherically-priced Cabernets, including Colgin, Bryant Family, Grace Family, Dana Estates, Futo, and Harbison Estate, wines for which one must apply to receive an allocation. Legendary labels include Araujo (now owned by Château Latour) and Abreu, Napa’s premier vineyardist, as well as Chardonnay virtuoso Marcassin. True viticultural connoisseurs will certainly recognize Todd Anderson’s ultra-elite Ghost Horse from St. Helena and the coveted Sine Qua Non, the cult Rhône producer from Ventura County. Lurking in the wings, Grace Family’s winemaker, Helen Keplinger produces a line of Rhône blends under her own eponymous label that seem destined for legend.

Some may find Cougar an anomaly amid such vaunted company, but I have included it for their pioneering efforts to transform Temecula into the leading destination for Italian varietals in California —who else here is growing Falanghina, Ciliegiolo, or Piedirosso? I intend to visit this burgeoning AVA on my next swing down to San Diego and explore how it is being transformed after an infestation of the glassy-winged sharpshooter nearly eradicated all of the region’s vineyard plantings in 2001.

Last month, just after compiling this list, I did manage to venture fairly far south to visit a number of Central Coast AVAs Sostevinobile has inadvertently neglected; this trip, in turn, led to a two-week sojourn of non-stop wine tastings, during which I surprisingly managed to encounter six wineries from this roster.

I will cover my swing through Paso Robles, Temecula, Lompoc, Santa Barbara, Solvang, Buellton, Santa Ynez and Arroyo Grande more thoroughly in a subsequent post. Having the advantage of a holiday weekend that coincided with the Garagiste Fest Santa Ynez Valley, I arranged to veer southward to the Wine Collection of El Paseo, a cooperative tasting room in the heart of downtown Santa Barbara, where I met with Doug Margerum, winemaker for Cent’Anni, a Santa Ynez Valley winery I had discovered after Mick Unti had challenged me to find Canaiolo grown in California. I landed up accruing four sources: the aforementioned Cougar, Sierra Ridge in Sutter Creek, Vino Noceto in Plymouth, and this wondrous endeavor. With the same fidelity Tablas Creek strives to attain with its Rhône selections or the authentic approach to Bordelaise blends one finds with Luc Morlet’s eponymous label or Bernard Portet’s wines from Clos du Val, Jamie and Julie Kellner have brought to their quest to make Tuscan-style Sangiovese in California. Toward this exacting vision, they have planted five distinct Sangiovese clones, along with Canaiolo and, as claimed, the only Colorino vines on the West Coast.

Cent’Anni also grows a small amount of Pinot Grigio and sources Tocai Friulano, Pinot Bianco, as well as some additional Sangiovese for their second-tier offerings. I began my tasting with the 2012 Buoni Anni Bianco, a deft blend of their Estate Pinot Grigio with 38% Honea Vineyard Tocai Friulano and 28% Bien Nacido Pinot Bianco. Complementing it was the 2010 Buoni Anni Sangiovese, a pure varietal expression in the style of a Rosso di Montalcino.

These two wines prefaced the object of my sojourn, the 2010 Cent’Anni Riserva. Here was a wine truly at the apex of Italian vinification in the New World, a indelible marriage of 16% Sangiovese Montepulciano clone, 16% Clone 3, 16% Clone 6, 16% Clone 23 & 34% Sangiovese Rodino, topped off with 1% each of Canaiolo and Colorino. Without question, I found a wine well on its way to greatness, dense, rich, flavorful, and almost impossible to put down. My 35-mile detour from Solvang had certainly not been taken in vain.

Under his personal Margerum label, Doug also produces California’s first Amaro, a fortified red blend infused with “herbs (sage, thyme, marjoram, parsley, lemon verbena, rosemary, and mint), barks, roots, dried orange peels, and caramelized simple syrup” and a very floral white Vermouth produced from Late Harvest Viognier. Alas, The Wine Collection’s license does not permit pouring or tasting hard alcohol, so I could only gaze upon the bottle of grappa Doug also distills from his Viognier pomace. At least I could console myself that he had named it appropriately: Marc.

After attending both sessions of the Garagiste Festival, I moseyed onto another Italian-focused endeavor, the legendary Mosby in Buellton, where I was hosted by Chris Burroughs, famed for his portrayal of Sanford’s Tasting Room Manager in Sideways. Our tasting began with crisp, clean 2013 Cortese, the predominant grape in Gavi di Gavi, and reputedly Italy’s first white varietal. We followed this superb wine with a notable rendition of a 2013 Pinot Grigio and an amiable 2013 Rosato di Cannonau (aka Grenache).

Mosby’s red repertoire included their 2009 Sangiovese and a most striking 2009 Primitivo. I was duly impressed with their Estate-grown 2009 Sagrantino and the 2008 La Seduzione, one of the better domestic Lagreins I have had the pleasure of sampling. Along with Palmina, which I also visited this trip, Mosby has pioneered the planting and vinification of Italian varietals on the Central Coast. I only wish I had been able to try their other homegrown varietals, particularly, their Traminer, Dolcetto, and Teroldego. Portents of a return visit, I am sure.

Miles
CAENCONTESTa-C-29MAR02-MT-KK Herb Caen writing contest finalist D. Marc Capobianco CHRONICLE PHOTO BY KIM KOMENICH

I may be a balding and bearded writer, an Italian inculcated at Ivy institutes, and an unregenerate œnophile, but in no way do I resemble Paul Giamatti. Still, I could not leave Buellton without the obligatory pilgrimage to Hitching Post II, Frank Otsini’s restaurant adjunct to his popular wine label and setting for numerous scenes in the movie. Having recently had to fend off the rather forward queries of a quasi-inebriated party of divorcées at a Sonoma winery (“no, but I understand he drops my name quite frequently”), I announced as I approached the bar, “If anyone calls me Miles, they’re getting punched out!”

I managed to escape unscathed and make it on time the next morning to cover another entry from my bucket list, Paso Robles’ eclectic Linne Calodo. Truly a connoisseur’s winery, its elusive nomenclature belies a line of superb Rhône blends, along with a few proprietary mélange or two combining Zinfandel. I was quite taken with the 2013 Rising Tides, a well-balanced marriage of 40% Syrah, 32% Grenache, 18% Mourvèdre, and 10% Cinsault. The predominantly Zinfandel offering this day, their 2014 Problem Child (20% Syrah, 8% Mourvèdre) could have borne a bit more aging, but the 2014 Sticks and Stones (71% Grenache, 12% Syrah, 9% Cinsault, and 8% Mourvèdre) radiated with well-ripened flavors.

As with Mosby, I wish my visit could have encompassed all of Linne Calodo’s portfolio, particularly its sundry variations on GSM blends. Secreted amid the Willow Creek flatlands below the towering perches of Adelaida, this elusive yet dramatic winery—which, ironically, resembles a mountain top ski chalet—beckons further visits upon my anticipated return to Paso Robles later this year.

I barely had time to settle back into San Francisco before heading up to the Napa Valley for the annual tasting marathon known as Première Napa. As always, this event tests the mettle of professional œnophiles like myself—just how many tastings can one person squeeze into 48 hours?—but it continues to prove an invaluable resource, both for bolstering Sostevinobile’s wine program and for my ongoing quest for funding. An unexpected benefit this year, however, was an introduction to the wines of Sloan Estate, yet another bucket list candidate, and its rather ebullient proprietor, Jenny Pan.
Jenny Pan

About a year or so ago, a casual acquaintance related that he had recently sat beside former owner Stuart Sloan on a flight to San Francisco and queried whether I was familiar with the winery he had founded. Much to my interlocutor’s incredulity, I conceded I had no awareness of this label—not that I should be held accountable or derelict for such an omission. According to Wines & Vines, there are 5,461 bonded wineries among the three Pacific states (4,054 California, 718 Washington, 689 Oregon) or 58% of the 9,436 premises throughout North America (USA, Canada, Mexico). Conservatively, I would estimate that there are more than 6,000 additional labels produced at West Coast facilities, meaning that I have barely cataloged ⅓ of the producers Sostevinobile’s wine program is targeting. I took great umbrage at his disparagement, yet resolved to familiarize myself with such a highly prestigious brand.

Before I had a chance to set up a visit with Sloan, I stumbled upon their table at Première’s Women Winemakers Winetasting, an annual benefit at Bardessono. I had intended to make haste with this event, an unscheduled stop between First Taste Yountville and the Appellation St. Helena trade tasting at Raymond, but amid an exchange of light-hearted banter with Pam Starr (Crocker & Starr), I espied Jenny and her winemaker Martha McClellan obscurely manning a mere sliver of a pouring station across the room. With only two wines in production annually, Sloan could have presented their entire lineup here, but unfortunately their namesake Meritage, the current vintage of the SLOAN Proprietary Red, was awaiting bottling. Nonetheless, their second selection, the ASTERISK Proprietary Red, an indelible blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, proved more than compensatory. And with a proffered private tour of the estate now in the offing, I was duly appeased.

Less than two weeks later, I attended what may well prove to be the most impressive tasting of 2016: The State of Washington Wine at The Metreon. Having not visited San Francisco for over 15 years, this trade collective pulled out all the stops, featuring over 75 wineries and a fresh seafood bar best described as beyond indulgent. But the ultimate lure here was the presence of two of the Evergreen State’s two most acclaimed denizens, Leonetti Cellar and Quilceda Creek. Like Sloan Estate. As with most Napa’s cult labels, these bucket list wineries normally make their production available only to Mailing List members—with a four-year wait just to enroll! Having this opportunity to sample both wineries at the same time proved the pinnacle of this afternoon.

Leonetti poured somewhat secretively as Figgins Family Wine Estates, their parent label. Once I had deciphered this conundrum, I was rewarded with my introduction to a selection of their mid-range wines, the 2014 Merlot and the justly acclaimed 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon. A complete surprise was 2012 Figgins Estate Red Wine, a massive Meritage marrying Cabernet Sauvignon with Petit Verdot and Merlot; as impressive as this wine proved, though, it left me yearning for Leonetti’s much-heralded Reserve Bordeaux blend, along with their Estate Sangiovese.

No similar sense of want from Snohomish’s storied Quilceda Creek, however, which started with the 2013 CVR Red Blend, a deft mélange of 73% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Merlot, 6% Cabernet Franc, 4% Petit Verdot and 3% Malbec. As impressive as this wine proved, their top-of-the-line 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley, a pure varietal culled from their Champoux, Palengat and Wallula Vineyards, flat-out wowed (as a wine that lists for triple the Red Blend’s price tag should). These wines completely validated Sostevinobile’s tenet that the three West Coast states should rightly be considered a viticultural continuum.

Of course, it would be highly tempting to eliminate the six wineries cited here from my bucket list, but there still looms so much more to discover about each. And why rush? The longer I keep sourcing and drinking such great wines, the greater my chances of attaining immortality surely becomes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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