Many, many years ago, when I first moved to San Francisco, I looked into shared housing situations—the usual purview of a would-be starving artist with a freshly minted diploma. At one point, my quest brought me to a home in Noe Valley, where the three roommates were seeking to replace the fourth, who had just moved out.
Now, to be perfectly honest, Your West Coast Oenophile will never make it into the Good Housekeeping Hall of Fame nor have a place featured in Better Homes & Gardens, but with the possible exception of the domicile of a certain lawyer/cab driver on Twin Peaks, this has to have been the most unsanitary household I have ever set foot in. So maybe it didn’t approach the squalor one sees on Hoarders, but with three practicing potters in residence, the place seemed little more than an amalgam of clay residue and decrepit furniture.
The really problem, however, wasn’t the abysmal condition of the premises but the tenor of my prospective co-tenants. The leaseholders, a boyfriend and girlfriend, seemed genial enough, pretty much conforming to a discernable type from that era—adamantly anti-nuclear, pro-Jerry Brown, heavily into alfalfa sprouts, Patchouli oil, Pink Floyd. The other occupant exuded a far different vibe, with impossibly gnarly hair and woefully undersized lenses that kept her eye in a perpetual squint—the kind of women Woody Allen tended to date while pursuing Diane Keaton in his 1970s films.
Maybe I should have been clued in by the fact her name was Zenobia. After the perfunctory tour of the house and pottery equipment, the three housemates sat me down over a cup of tea and poised to evaluate me over a single question: “if I moved in, would I be able to love Zenobia?”
I paused, not to contemplate the possibility but, rather, to figure a diplomatic way to pose my response. I looked to Zenobia, drew a deep breath, then turned to her roomies. “No!” I replied, as I made retreated for the door without hesitation. Nary a day has gone by since that I stopped to wonder what might have been.
Fortunately, attending Arlequin Wine Merchant’s California Natural Wine Tasting for the 2nd Annual San Francisco Natural Wine Week required no similar declaration of unwavering fidelity. As inveterate Sostevinobile readers know, while I have an appreciation for this approach to winemaking, I am, by no means, one of their rabid zealots. After all, if it weren’t for manipulation, few, if any, contemporary varietals would exist today (I know Sean Thackrey attempts to replicate winemaking from ancient Greek texts, but would he want to resurrect 5th Century B.C. Macedonian grapes?).
That said, there is much to commend in the minimal intervention that Natural Winemaking extols; the results, when good, can be very, very good. Elsewise, let’s just say it’s an acquired taste. The twelve wineries on hand at this event certainly covered the gamut.
I started off at the entrance where Chris Brockway’s own label, Broc Cellars, as well as his joint venture, Broadside, had set up. I suspect Arlequin and its sister operations, Absinthe Brasserie, may account for 50% of the 4600 cases of the 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Margarita Vineyard Broadside produces—no surprise, as this wine has consistently shown excellently every year it has been produced. I have also been long enamored of Broc’s Grenache, but they opted this time to pour the stellar 2009 Carignan Alexander Valley instead. I was not as impressed with their 2008 Pinot Noir Tondrē Grapefield,but my introduction to their 2009 Vine star, a blend of Picpoul, Chardonnay, and Roussanne, proved to be quite revelatory.
I cited Littorai’s 2007 The Haven Pinot Noir in my last entry, so gladly moved up a notch to their 2007 Pinot Noir Mays Canyon. Their versatility Chardonnay kept pace with its Burgundian confrère, as evidenced by the 2008 Chardonnay Charles Heintz, also from the Sonoma Coast.
The 2007 Petit Frère from Unti seemed a serviceable GMS blend, while I found their 2007 Estate Zinfandel quite distinctive. Personal predilections aside, I have always felt this winery makes its strongest statements with its Italian varietals, like the 2008 Estate Barbera they poured here. Underscoring my contention, the 2008 Estate Sangiovese proved exemplary, one of the best expressions of this varietal I have sampled in recent months.
So many wineries I know custom crush at Copain, I often forget they have their own label, as well.with three wines poured on this particular evening, I found both their 2009 Tous Ensemble Rosé, a blush Pinot Noir, and the 2009 Tous Ensemble Viognier rather adequate, but relished their 2007 Pinot Noir Wentzel. Salinia, their offshoot from assistant winemaker Kevin Kelley, displayed an appealing complexity with both their 2006 Chardonnay Heintz Ranch and the 2006 Pinot Noir W. E. Bottoms.
I wasn’t entirely clear on the interrelationship between Salinia and its other tablemates, Lioco and the Natural Process Alliance, though these latter two endeavors comprise two of the more predominant Wine on Tap labels increasingly found in San Francisco. lioco proved just as impressive as they had at last year’s tasting, with a splendid 2007 Pinot Noir Klindt from Mendocino and their trademark 2007 Indica, a Carignane rounded out with Grenache and Mourvèdre. NPA’s 2009 Sauvignon Blanc Russian River Valley, one of the wines they also distribute in “refillable aluminum canteens” that have been conspicuously supplanting water bottles over the past couple of years, proved itself more than a gimmick or sustainably novelty. An unlisted addition to the bill, a stellar 2007 Grenache came from A Tribute to Grace, the side venture of NPA assistant winemaker Angela Osborne.
At last year’s event, I befriended Clos Saron winemaker Gideon Beinstock and eventually joined him at the 30th Anniversary party for Renaissance Winery, his principal gig in the far reached of Oregon House, CA. While I initially found myself quite favorably disposed towards his vinification, I found myself questioning some of his wines at this year’s Pinot Days. But what I had initially construed as possible cork taint repeated itself in a number of the wines he poured this day—the frequent downside to the Natural Wine movement. Both the 2009 Tickled Pink, a rosé of Syrah, and the 2005 Heart of Stone Syrah tasted off (musky), while their proprietary blends, the 2009 Carte Blanche (Sauvignon Blanc, Roussanne, Chardonnay, Viognier) and the 2005 Black Pearl (Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Viognier, Roussanne) seemed pleasant, if perfunctory.
Meanwhile, my old friends from A Donkey and Goat also displayed some of the hazards of this new minimalism. Not that I didn’t like their 2008 Blend 413 (a traditional GMS with Counoise added) nor their 2007 Fenaughty Vineyard Syrah or the 2007 Vielles Vignes Syrah. But Jared and Tracey have shown themselves capable of extraordinary wines, starting with their debut Syrah in 2000 that floored everyone at Family Winemakers or, more recently, their 2006 Tamarindo Roussanne. In this context, their obeisance to the tenets of Natural Winemaking seems somewhat to have diminished their prowess.
Most Natural winemakers acknowledge this methodology poses a gamble, and sometimes that gamble can really pay off. Somehow, over the years, I had managed to bypass Arnot-Roberts at a number of tastings I had attended, so this evening’s gathering gave me an overdue opportunity to rectify this mistake. Starting with the 2009 Old Vine White Compagni Portis (Gewürztraminer, Trousseau Gris, Riesling), their wines all lived up to their considerable maverick reputation. While the 2008 Syrah Hudson clearly overshadowed the 2008 Syrah Clary Ranch, the 2009 Trousseau Luchsinger from Clearlake showed itself an exceptional wine—even if they declined to label it Bastardo. The treat of the evening, however, was the release of their 2009 Ribolla Gialla from Vare Vineyard in Napa, one of four wineries bottling from this same crop. Given my long-stated desire to taste a California expression of this varietal, I was—quite naturally—immensely pleased.
Natural Wine Week will return in 2011, and I am sure I will attend the pertinent events once again. Maybe I’m spending too much time with angel investors and other financial types in my quest to fund Sostevinobile—I don’t think I could afford to undertake such a risky proposition as these winemakers do. But they add yet another layer to the complexity of the wines we have here on the West Coast, and when they do succeed in their efforts, they will certainly find a niche with us.
Provided no one labels their wine Zenobia.