Category Archives: Blaufränkish

Volk’s waggin’

Your West Coast Oenophile is somewhat reluctant ever to plug a retail wine operation—after all, this represents a large part of what Sostevinobile hopes to be doing as the pre-eminent purveyor of wines of the North American Pacific Coast. But the pandemic caused a radical reconfiguration  of my business objectives, and while we seem finally vack to a semblance of normalcy, it’s still impossible to assess the new terrain of San Francisco objectively. And so many of the mechanisms I devised in order to cope with the constraints of COVID restrictions remain ingrained in my weekly routine.

Granted, I have enough wine on hand to coast through a year or more without purchasing a bottle, but a $60 or $70 wine needs to be shard, not consumed in solitary isolation. And with that in mind—coupled by a long-standing inability to visit wineries and utilize my trade discount—I soon discovered the wonders of Grocery Outlet Bargain Market. In the past, of course, I’ve brokered sales of surplus inventory to this outfit, but I had not previously experienced them as a customer. I anticipated they would somewhat of grocery equivalent to Ross Dress for Less or  Smart & Final, and, to a large extent, this analogy bears true.

On the other, Grocery Outlet wine section is impressively vast—that it, until you inspect the labels. Like Trader Joe’s or BevMo or the now-debunked California specialists Total Wine, many of the selections are in-house private labels of dubious origin. Others apparently come from ill-begotten attempts to launch a private label, often at a mass custom crush facility in places like American Canyon. One surefire sign of mediocrity is a label that lists California as its place of origin, rather than a county or specific AVA. But interspersed among these dubious bottlings, a savvy connoisseur can often find a sprinkling of incredible bargains. Sometimes it’s a slow-moving product that a winery allocates to make room for their other selections, like the Presidential Red from Monticello Vineyards that sold briskly at $12.99/bottle or a Joel Gott Grenache, a steal at $4.99.

Other times, a notable winery will shut down and sell Grocery Outlet the bulk of their remaining inventory, which can be substantial. Throughout the pandemic, I greatly enjoyed numerous selections from Michel-Schlumberger, a winery actively seeking new ownership, whose selections at Grocery Outlet seem endless. As did those from Rock Wall, which unloaded its unsold inventory after deciding to disband.

The most recent steals, however, have come from Kenneth Volk, the pioneering Santa Maria winemaker famed for his Cabernet Pfeffer, as well as for his various Rhône-style bottlings. Ken, who was the first president of Rhône Rangers, suffered a debilitating stroke a few years back; his condition has reluctantly compelled him to close his winery and dispense with his wines still on hand, which date back to 2013. It seems Grocery Outlet will be staggering these selections, which, so far, not only have included Pinot Noir and red Rhônes like Petite Sirah and Tannat but also Blaufränkish and a wondrous Souzåo. All of which are utterly steals at $5.99!

Each of the Grocery Outlets individually manages its own inventory, so you are apt to find different selections even among stores in the same city. So, go ahead, peruse the shelves and see what you discover. You never know what gems you may find amid the Uncle Billy, Fox in the Hen House, Séance, and the Pra Vinera!

Saved by Charbono

I used to think that this was Larry Ellison’s world and that the rest of us only lived in it. Perhaps, but recently I’ve begun to wonder whether it’s not Tyler Florence’s world, as well. This celebrity chef and star from the Food Network not only has his own iPhone app, but seems to be taking over the entire Northern California food scene since his relocation here in 2008 and opening his eponymous food and cookware shop. Recently, he opened Wayfare Tavern in the space where Robin Williams, Robert DeNiro, Francis Ford Coppola and restaurateur Drew Nieporent had owned Rubicon. Sostevinobile feels a kindred bond with this new restaurant for its singular devotion to its California-only wine list, a philosophical consistency with its dedication to locally-sourced cuisine and ingredients.

Coincidentally, Your West Coast Oenophile stumbled upon this new venue the day after attending the 29th Annual Wine & Gourmet Food Tasting in Mill Valley. Among the numerous food purveyors, which included tents from standout local restaurants Balboa Café, Bungalow 44, Piatti, Piazza D’Angelo, and Small Shed Flatbreads, the Tyler Florence Shop held central court sampling selections of CC Made caramels, Golden Star Tea’s sparkling teas, “healthy granola” from San Franola, and an array of oils from The Smoked Olive

But meatballs and sliders and pizza and cupcakes and ice cream, etc., weren’t the reason I had pedaled across the Golden Gate Bridge. Given the major treks I had documented from the previous two weekends, the ride to Mill Valley was a relative sprint, and, after rendezvousing with my inveterate verbal jousting partner Terry Graham outside the Mill Valley Middle School, rolled into Depot Plaza, barely breaking a sweat. Wristbands affixed and tasting glasses in hand, we set about to take in as many of the 70 wineries on hand as could be squeezed into a three hour window.

I had been apprised of this event while reviewing Tor Kenward’s website as I composed my review of the Taste of Howell Mountain that proceed this entry. Having missed his various 2007 Cabernet Sauvignons, I beelined to his table, only to discover that his distributor, Nurit Robitschek of Discoveries in Wine had elected only to bring his nonetheless excellent 2008 Chardonnay Durell Vineyard and the hitherto unheralded 2007 Grenache Judge Family Vineyard, Hommage Allan. To no surprise, the table next to Tor’s was manned by the indubitable Truchards, a welcome constant at every wine tasting I attend (I had expected them to be pouring at Pinot Days, but if anyone were capable of bilocation, it would probably be Joanne and Tony). As per usual, the 2006 Cabernet Franc I sampled proved yet another découverte grande.

Jan Shrem appeared at neither of the day’s tastings, but I wish he had been on hand to pour his Clos Pégase. Nevertheless, the rep from Wilson Daniels served up the 2008 Chardonnay Mitsuko’s Vineyard quite professionally, along with an enticing 2007 Chardonnay from Sonoma Coast Vineyards, and Girard’s refreshing 2009 Girard Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley and their premature 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa County. At the next table, I reacquainted myself with White Rock Vineyard and met owner Henri Vandendriessche while sampling his 2007 Napa Valley Chardonnay.

I’d sampled wines from Balletto Vineyards on several occasions at the Monday night wine tastings at California Wine Merchant, but not had the opportunity to interact with them directly before this gathering. Amid exchanging pleasantries, I enjoyed their approachable 2007 Zinfandel but savored both the 2007 Estate Chardonnay and the 2009 Rosé of Pinot Noir. Sharing the same table, Bennett Valley’s Baldassari Family Wines poured both wines they produce, the 2007 Syrah Nolan Vineyard and the clearly preferable 2007 Syrah Jemrose Vineyard.

As is often the case with outdoor summer tastings, the afternoon heat often makes keeping wine at a desirable temperature a daunting exercise. Sampling an iced-down wine or semi-cooked red gives no true indication of the wine’s quality, although, at times, a clearly superior wine will manifest a redolence of its potential. Such was the case with Crinella Winery, whose superb 2006 Sauvignon Blanc Marino Vineyard rose above the elements; on the other hand, getting a handle on their 2005 Pinot Noir proved far too elusive. The same could be said for Buttonwood Farm, a whimsical, sustainably-farmed winery out of Solvang (not to be confused with Buttonwood Farm in Griswold, CT, an ice cream enterprise which may have recorded the worst jingle in human history), scoring high marks for its 2007 Cabernet Franc, despite the heat, but pouring a 2009 Syrah Rosé that was impossible to evaluate fairly.

Given that this tasting wasn’t a major industry event (not to mention that it was competing with one less than 10 miles away), it was particularly heartening to discover so many boutique producers and other wineries that had yet to register on Sostevinobile’s radar. Ray Coursen makes an array of varietal wines and quixotic blends at his Elyse Winery and under its premium Jacob Franklin label (Charbono!). I opted to try his striking red and white Rhône mixes sourced from Naggiar Vineyards: the 2006 C’est Si Bon (Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah, Cinsault, Counoise, and Viognier) and the 2007 L’Ingénue (Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier and Grenache Blanc).Another Francophone, LeVois Vineyards from Sonoma’s Bradford Mountain made a striking first impression with both their 2007 Zinfandel and their 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon.

Limerick Lane, self-styled sole source of the floral Furmint found in the U.S., had been scheduled to pour this afternoon; in its stead, I encountered the alliterative juxtaposition of Lewelling Vineyards, Lewis Cellars, and Lucas & Lewellen Vineyards. Starting with Lucas & Lewellen, a winery highly focused on Italian varietals, I relished both their off-dry 2009 Mandolina Malvasia Bianca and the complex 2007 Mandolina Toccata, an atypical Super Tuscan blend of Sangiovese and Freisa with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot. By comparison, Lewis Cellars appeared a bit more conservative, pouring a muscular 2007 Syrah Napa Valley alongside their more tame 2009 Vin Gris, a rosé of Syrah. And Lewelling remained true to its St. Helena roots, with a 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon and a newly released 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon showing strong intimations of future complexity.

My next four stops covered wineries with which I have long been acquainted. Sonoma’s MacRostie Winery, the crown jewel of 8th Street East, garners most of its press for its Chardonnays, but I elected to bypass these selections for the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley, a most fortuitous choice. Honig, a Rutherford winery that originally operated a mere two blocks away in Pacific Heights, cuts its viticultural teeth with Sauvignon Blanc, and still makes this wine its forte, as the 2008 Sauvignon Blanc Rutherford abundantly displayed; I found its red brethren, the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, equally appealing. Silverado Trail’s esteemed Signorello Estate held its own with their 2006 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, and, frankly, the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley from Frank Family Vineyard tasted on par with its best vintages.

While this year’s tasting featured a number of wineries from Italy, France, Spain—three of the past four Wold Cup Champions—and New Zealand, I bypassed these tables, in keeping with Sostevinobile’s parameters. I also skipped several of the wine distributors on hand, having sampled their clients’ wines on numerous occasions. I did, however, stop by the table for Northwest Wines in order to partake of Owen Roe. This unique winery, based in Oregon but encompassing Washington vineyards as well, blends a mind-boggling 24% Zinfandel, 22% Sangiovese, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Syrah, 10% Merlot, 7%, Cabernet Franc, 6% Blaufränkish, and 4% Malbec to craft its fine 2008 Abbott’s Table. Closer to home, Odisea Wine Company in Danville offered its own idiosyncratic mélange, the wonderfully named 2006 Veritable Quandary, a Spanish-Rhône blend of 40% Verdelho, 25% Roussanne, 20% Marsanne, and 15% Viognier. As if to compensate for this non-traditional mix, they also presented a straightforward 2009 Grenache Blanc, a stellar wine.

I noted in my previous entry a certain remorse at having opted to skip the Grand Tasting for Pinot Days in committing to this festival. Fortunately, Paul Mathew Winery elected to do likewise and so validated my decision with two superb interpretations of this varietal, the 2007 Ruxton Vineyard Pinot Noir and the 2007 TnT Vineyard Pinot Noir. Promoters of the Marin tasting pointed extolled the return appearance of Pride Mountain, which lived up to this advanced billing both with its well-balanced 2009 Viognier and a standout 2007 Pride Merlot.

True wine connoisseurs know you shouldn’t judge a wine by its label, even though somewhere in the order of 90% of all wine sales are predicated by how buyer responds visually to the label (how well I remember debating Louis P. Martini back in the 1980s on the merits of his then-antiquated label)! My visceral, albeit initial response Speedy Creek Winery’s labels was rather dismissive, but then I sampled their trio of extremely satisfying wines: the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Knights Valley, the 2007 Zinfandel KnightsValley, and their particularly appealing 2006 Sangiovese. No such dilemma influenced my perception of Robert Rue Vineyard, which matched the bold wines they poured: the 2007 Wood Road Reserve Zinfandel and the even more compelling 2006 Wood Road Reserve Zinfandel with an unambiguous label (however, if they ever try to come out with a Bob Street second label)…

The Mill Valley Wine & Gourmet Food Tasting boasted over 70 wineries in attendance, and had there been more time, I might have sampled each of the ventures not mentioned here that Sostevinobile has covered at numerous other events. For what is essentially a celebration of wine and food (as opposed to an industry promotion), I was astounded at both the quality and the breadth of the participants that the festival promoters and the Mill Valley Chamber of Commerce were able to draw. Truly, this was no small town affair.

I finished the afternoon with a winery that I had somehow missed, despite its position right next to my first stop of the afternoon. Hiding behind a pair of overpriced sunglasses, Summer Estate Wines volunteer pourer Susan Hopp appeared incognito, until I read her name tag.Now, back in the days before I fully appreciated my own predilection for miscegenation, Susan was not quite a friend, not even a paramour, but someone with whom I had shared a bond that ought to have sprung certain feelings of amity at this re-encounter. Ah, but for a lingering acerbity I struggle to comprehend!

I found I very much admired Summer Estate’s unoaked 2008 La Nude Chardonnay and their exceptional 2006 Andriana’s Cuvee Cabernet Sauvignon, but was perfectly willing to allow my visceral reaction to this overt snub to leave me hopping mad and willing to dismiss the winery outright (after all, with over 2,100 wineries now on Sostevinobile’s roster, overlooking one Chard and one Cab isn’t going to alter our wine program to any measurable degree). But the cycle back to San Francisco mitigated much of the perceived affront, and my Internet investigation revealed the pivotal position Summer Estate and its owners, Jim and Beth Summers, play in establishing Charbono as a significant California varietal. I plan to visit on my next swing through Calistoga.

Shortly after Susan had relocated from Michigan to San Francisco, I was quite bemused to hear her chastise me for purchasing a Toyota instead of a Detroit-made car—while she was driving a BMW 320i! Now that she is earning an MBA Studies in Sustainable Management at the Presidio Graduate School, I hope she will be enabled to make more consistent critical discernment. After all, Sostevinobile strives to embrace all the genuine advocates for sustainability we can find.

A seat at the bar will be waiting…