Category Archives: Chardonnay

Noted

Mon dieu! Could it be that Your West Coast Oenophile is going to switch his allegiance to Bordelaise wines? Will Sostevinobile become a paean to the vignerons of France?

There are numerous reasons I attend trade tastings for imported wines, despite my unyielding commitment to serve only sustainably-grown wines from the West Coast (meaning British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, California, Baja Norte, and perhaps a little pocket across the border in Arizona), including sourcing accounts for my trade tasting venue, familiarizing myself with varietals that have only a small presence here, like Canaiolo, Saperavi, Assyrtiko, Dreirebe, Chasselas Doré, Mencia, to name a few, or simply to socialize with other wine trade comrades. Rarely, however, do I leave one of these events feeling that I am perhaps missing out on something with my attenuated focus. But, in the interest of objectivity, I have to concede that last month’s showcase of the 2016 vintage from the Association de Grands Crus Classés de Saint-Emilion was truly spectacular.

The homage California pays to French viticulture is, of course, centered on Bordeaux, but within this spectrum, the focus falls predominantly on the Left Bank and the prestige of the Premier Cru houses, which skew towards Cabernet Sauvignon. But among the AOCs of the Right Bank, Merlot predominates, as exemplified by what, until the recent Pinotphile craze, was annually the world’s most expensive wine, Pomerol’s Château Pétrus.

Saint-Emilion lies to the south of Pomerol and is distinguished by wines that blend Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Principal protagonists here include Château Ausone and the legendary Château Cheval Blanc, whose namesake bottling is generally acclaimed as the greatest wine ever by wine cognoscenti worldwide, the only debate being a preference for the 1947 or 1961 vintages. Malheureusement, neither of these houses nor their fellow Premiers Grands Crus Classés A wineries, Château Angélus and Château Pavie participated in the San Francisco tasting. And though none of Saint-Emilion’s Premier Grand Cru Classé B chateaux were on hand either, 18 of the 64 Grand Cru Classé houses poured their 2016s, along with a library wine of their own choosing.

Across the board these wines were uniformly excellent, a testament to their third-tier status that only could make one wonder what the various Premier Cru Classé wines might offer. My preference leaned heavily toward those wines that married a higher percentage of Cabernet Franc or even featured Merlot as the secondary varietal. And given the leanings of my California-honed palate, the relatively high (14-15.5%) alcohol content of most, compared to the restrained (12-14%) level of Médoc’s Premier Grand Cru, certainly factored into the appeal.

Unfortunately, I cannot provide further details or observations on the individual wines. The promoters of this event did not correlate the printing of their program guide with the number of RSVPs; as such, attendees like myself, who strive to take meticulous notes at tastings were left to our own devices, something that can be extremely onerous when having to deal with a foreign language (mon français est un peu faible ces jours). And so I took none, leaving these wines to the recesses of my memory.


At least Team Balzac designed a guide for their event, which they subsequently emailed to attendees. Two other major tastings I attend last month eschewed printing programs altogether. Given that these events both commanded steep ticket prices, I could take the promoters to task for not allocating a portion of their gross revenue for such a relatively inexpensive production (I am well aware of this expense, have personally designed the brochures for every wine tasting I have curated). But the issue here isn’t cost, but the difficulty such an omission creates in trying to enjoy the wines, notate them, and navigate the entire event with the degree of alacrity it demands.

Many readers here know that, after my first career in winery Mergers & Acquisitions, I spent nearly 25 years wallowing in the recesses of the advertising & marketing industry. Though nominally a copywriter, I was compelled to learn graphic design, and with that, acquire a concomitant fluidity in numerous word processing, page layout, and desktop design programs. Yet even with a high degree of expertise in these softwares, navigating the mobile versions, particularly on an iPhone, is cumbersome, if not outright challenging. There are no easy shortcuts to this process—being confronted with having to record an event on Notes requires typing out every single word, all while trying to balance a glass, maintain a dialogue with the winemaker, and keep from hogging space at the table from other attendees. Plus, this is just as much an imposition on the wineries, who are paying fees and donating bottles with the expectation of having the rapt attention of trade individuals, either for purchasing their wines or promoting them.

This is not to say that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy Carlo Niboli’s second staging of CabFest at the Westfield. Given my struggles with producing wine events like CalAsia these past two years, I can only defer to the success of his efforts, which included the first public tasting (as far as I know) of Napa’s mythic Ghost Horse, the wine that has eclipsed Screaming Eagle’s claim to California’s top pricing. Here, the 2015 Fantome, merely the fourth tier of Todd Anderson’s Cabernets (priced at a meager $1500/bottle), proved an extraordinary wine well worth its rarefied claim. Even so, a lofty price does not ensure exclusivity, as the 2004 Harry’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon from Hesperian proved a worthy counter. Also as impressive: the 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon from Alison Green Doran’s Hoot Owl Creek and the 2015 Red Wine Blend, an equal marriage of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, produced by Laurie Maurer Shelton’s CAMi.

I found the 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon Emily Kestrel from Summit Lake exceptional, as was the 2017 Stagecoach Cabernet Sauvignon from newcomer Stringer Cellars. On a more bittersweet note, Cabfest marked what will likely be the last public tasting for Battle Estate Vineyards, which has decided to cease operations after the devastation of the Kincade Fire. Wines like their 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon from Alexander Valley will be sorely missed.

And while I did not miss tasting the wide range of other Cabernets, Cab Francs, and Bordeaux blends at this event, awkwardness of trying to record my impressions with a virtual keyboard on a 5.5″ display, while striving to balance my glass and continue conversing with the winemaker left most of my notes in shambles, despite generally favorable impressions of Chiron, Obvious, Zialena, V, Howell at the Moon, Ballentine, Stonestreet, Angwin Estate, Ron Rubin, Guarachi, Robert Young, Medlock Ames, Sutro, Lancaster, and Patel.


I had hoped not to confront the same dilemma the following weekend at the debut of Wine Call SF at the Old Mint. The two-day tasting featured over 50 wineries, predominantly from the West Coast, and selected from the leading proponents of the natural wine movement. It seemed incomprehensible that an event of this scale would not feature a guide—and a professionally designed program at that. But alas, I once again was compelled to wing my way through with my iPhone, this time starting by pasting the winery roster featured on the Website into a Pages document.

An utter catastrophe! Though I am highly skilled in this app on my MacBook Pro and can navigate the differences in the mobile version on my iPadcusing a keyboard, here there is no way to paste text into the text field without copyng its formatting, which, in this case, included the hyperlinks that launched a Web page nearly every time I tried to navigate the cursor. Which, in turn, meant it took three times as long to type, once I finally got things placed where I needed them.

But then entire sections of my document were somehow deleted, which compelled me to return to the various wine stations and re-record ratings on what they had poured. Not impossible, of course, but enormously frustrating to the point that, were it not for my reluctance to shell out another $1,000 to replace it, I came close to flinging my iPhone across the room.

More importantly, the struggles with my note-taking consumed an inordinate amount of time, so much so that even with three separate trips to The Old Mint over Saturday and Sunday, I still missed sampling half a dozen of the wineries. Insurmountable impositions like this hurt not only attendees like Sostevinobile, but penalize all the winemakers who put in the time and effort to make an event succeed.

Nonetheless, I did manage to salvage a good portion of my observations. The absolute standouts had to be the 2018 Flaws, an impeccable Abouriou from Absentee, who ironically was away from his table while I was sampling, and and a luxuriant 2015 Carignane from Faith Armstong-Foster’s Onward, which, along with sister label Farmstrong, specializes in this wondrous Rhône varietal.

Close behind, four other wines astounded, as well, starting with another of Onward’s remarkable bottlings, the 2017 Pétillant Naturel Rosé of Pinot Noir. Even though he has now already sold out, Hank Beckmeyer produced a near-flawless 2018 Viognier at his La Clarine Farm in Somerset. Having partied on Friday with Anna & David Delaski at the Pretty in Pinot Prom—following a full day at the annual Pinotfest, I was struck by the contrast of Solminer’s 2018 Dry Riesling Coquelicot Vineyard, one of the several Germanic varietals they are producing. Trekking from Oregon, Division Wine Making Company also proved a formidable presence here, making a statement its 2017 Granit Cabernet Franc.

If my notes had stayed intact, I could go into finer detail on the remaining wines, but, as it were, numerous others made significant impressions, including Sacramento’s Haarmeyer Wine Cellars, with their 2017 Riesling Wirz Vineyard and the ever-reliable Old World Winery with yet another standout vintage, their 2015 Luminous, a luscious Abouriou from Sherry Martinelli vineyard in Windsor.

Shaunt Oungoulian’s Les Lunes featured a pair of intriguing bottlings, the 2017 Carignane Arnold’s Block and a deftly blended 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot Coplan Vineyard. His former winemaking partner, Martha Stoumen, now well into her connubial bliss, tributed her recent marriage with the 2018 Honeymoon, a Colombard blend with 15% Chardonnay. Likewise, Breaking Bread, an offshoot of Kokomo, debuted their 2018 Zinfandel Redwood Valley with considerable aplomb.

The splendidly-named Caleb Leisure specializes in fermenting their wines in qvevri, the traditional Georgian buried clay pots (and killer Scrabble word!), exemplified here with the 2018 Other Hand, a Chalk Hill Cabernet Sauvignon. A bit of an anomaly, Ruth Lewandowski, a winery based in Salt Lake City but sourcing its grapes from Mendocino, featured its eclectic blends, highlighted by the 2018 Boaz, a mélange of Carignane, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Grenache. And hailing from Los Alamos—California, not New Mexico, Lo-Fi Wines showcased their 2018 Sparkling Rosé, a Pét-Nat rendition of Cabernet Franc.

The much-lauded Carboniste only produces sparkling wines, exemplified best by the 2018 Mackerel, a Pét-Nat Pinot Grigio. Further to the south, in Escondido, J. Brix featured this varietal as a ramato, the 2018 Nomine Amoris Skin-Contact Pinot Gris. Returning north, Keegan Mayo’s Assiduous Wines offered a less avant-garde yet equally appealing rendition, their 2018 Pinot Gris Regan Vineyard.

Wine Call SF featured keynotes both days by Tegan Passalacqua, whose Sandlands Vineyards underscored his authority on natural winemaking, evidenced here with two superb  offerings: the 2018 Grenache and the 2018 Cinsault. Tegan is one of the leading proponents of the next wave of vineyardists in Lodi; Abe Schoener’s Scholium Project, recently relocated to Los Angeles, sourced their Zinfandel from Passalacqua’s plantings there for their 2017 FTP-Z Kirschenmann Ranch. Meanwhile, their excellent 2012 Delta Blend identifies neither the Sacramento vineyards from which it is sourced, nor its varietals (though I beleive Verdelho was a major component). Also sourcing from the Delta, Maître de Chai selected its grapes from Wilson Vineyards for its 2018 Sparkling Chenin Blanc. Its 2017 Kiekegaard Chenin Blanc, however, comes from the same Sonoma vineyard Leo Steen utilizes.

Last but not least, Craft Wine Company trekked from Oregon to feature its 2018 Origin Chenin Blanc. And even further north, Washington’s Swick Wines produced a panoply of Italian varietal wines, notably the Barolo-worthy 2018 Nebbiolo.

Washington tends to be the preferred West Coast domain for Riesling, with notable exceptions like Santa Cruz’s Stirm Wine Company, which produces a number of different bottlings. But here Ryan flourished with a relatively obscure, though formerly prolific grape, with his 2018 Mission. Another Santa Cruz winery, Florèz, may not tend toward exotic varietals or blends, but comported itself memorably with their elegant 2017 Chardonnay.

Some may prefer to call it Mourvèdre or Monastrell, but the 2016 Mataro Del Barbra Vineyard from Erggelet Brothers was still a masterful wine. And it seems fitting that my final entry comes from Amador’s End of Nowhere, with a stellar 2018 #1 Crush Rosé, a Zinfandel rendering and their 2017 Nemesis, a Yolo County Barbera.


I suppose if I had been able to take notes easily, this column might have run on until 2020, so perhaps there is a silver lining here. But as long as trade tastings resort to the expediency of not printing programs, I will keep harping on this issue.

See You Next Tuesday

What goes with plaid? Your West Coast Oenophile would be inclined to suggest Scotch Whisky, haggis, and that manliest of sports, caber tossing. But fine wine would not have made this list, until Sostevinobile attended the recent Pinots and Plaid tasting at the newly-remodeled Hibernia Bank lobby in San Francisco’s up & coming Tenderloin district.

Admittedly, this pairing did not start off auspiciously. My trade pass clearly denoted a start time of 2pm, which included entry to the VIP lounge and a more intimate early hour with the wineries on hand. When I did arrive at the check-in table, however, I was informed that I was only included in for General Admission, and would have to wait until 3pm. I twice attempted to introduce myself and address this matter with event promoter Emily Martin, but she was focused on the extreme demands of posing for an interminable string of Pinterest photos.

But capitulating to solipsism was hardly in order for the afternoon, nor would the lack of a basic tasting program deter my appreciation of the many excellent wines on hand. I hadn’t tried using the newest version Pages with the latest update of my iPhone; the new iOS 13 makes for a clumsy interfaces when using this application for creating text files. I fumbled my way through tasting the wide array of Pinots from Anne Moller-Racke’s Blue Farm, highlighted by the 2016 Pinot Noir Anne Katherina, her eponymous estate vineyard, before switching to Notes, an .rtf application that enabled me to catalog each of the wines I sampled.

Another ludicrous aspect of this event was Martin’s insistence that the wineries hold back their Chardonnays until 45 minutes from closing (having produced numerous events myself, I recognize the advantage of enabling attendees to keep their palates balanced throughout the afternoon, lest they fatigue from a single varietal). Fortunately, many saw fit not to follow this guideline. The 2017 Peugh Vineyard Chardonnay from David Low’s Anthill Farms proved a fortuitous deviation from this edict, a rich, splendid expression of the grape.

Due to the Sonoma fires and evacuation orders, a number of wineries understandably could not participate. I had been greatly looking forward to Noah Dorrance’s selections from Reeve and was eager to try Adam Lee’s Clarice, his personal successor to Siduri. And, of course, if I had been granted access to the VIP Lounge, Roederer Estate has long been a personal favorite sparkling producer. Still, stalwarts like Peay and Three Sticks proved as consistently excellent as I have come to expect, the former with both the 2017 Scallop Shelf Estate Pinot Noir and the 2017 Pomarium Estate Pinot Noir, while Ryan Prichard, successor to acclaimed winemaker Don Van Staaveren, continued his legacy with two standout bottlings, the 2017 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir and its contrasting 2017 Sonoma Mountain Pinot Noir.

I go to great lengths to ensure that winemakers at Sostevinobile events allocate enough inventory so all attendees can have the opportunity to experience what they are pouring. How frustrating to find a winery has depleted its stock on hand and already departed before reaching their table (though invariably the shortfall does not reflect the producer’s calculus). As such, it had been quite a while since I last sampled Michael Browne’s Cirq and was looking forward to revisiting their wines, but I ponied  up to their table just as they finished packing. And as a former wine club member at Williams Selyem, I was eager to rediscover on what I had been missing out lately; when I moseyed over to their table, however, all that remained was their 2017 Pinot Noir Lewis MacGregor Estate.

I fared better with the remaining vintners, starting with Works & Days, the Burgundian sister of Coursey Graves; these wines proved an interesting discovery, with the 2016 Pinot Noir Hill Justice Vineyard the standout among the trio poured here. After decades of furnishing the preponderance of Carneros’ premium Pinot and Chardonnay grapes, Sangiacomo showcased its own label here, admirably comporting themselves with their 2017 Roberts Road Pinot Noir and the equally-splendid 2017 Green Acres Chardonnay.

I would be equally hard-pressed to choose a favorite from the 2018 Sonoma Mountain Chardonnay, the 2017 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, or the 2016 Pinot Noir Russian River Valley Yountville’s Stewart Cellars featured. Of course, had they been a bit bolder, they might have brought along their 2017 Tartan, a Bordeaux-style Meritage that nonetheless offered thematic consistency. But it does betray my varietal prejudice when I note that my favorite wine of this event was the 2016 Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon that Sojourn surreptitiously poured alongside its vineyard-designate Pinots. In close contention, however, were a pair of Carneros wines from Hyde Estate: the 2016 Chardonnay and their wondrous library selection, 2012 Carneros Pinot Noir. Jackson Family Wines highlighted their focused ultrapremium label program with the 2016 Jolie Pinot Noir from Maggy Hawk, their Anderson Valley operations.

Also blending from Mendocino vineyards, Erich Bradley’s Texture excelled with their 2014 Pinot Noir Anderson Valley. Given the proliferation of Pinot regions throughout Northern California, it seemed a more perspicacious event producer would have featured a wide variety of AVAs outside of the Sonoma appellations, like the Santa Cruz Mountains or Santa Lucia Highlands (how Pinots & Plaid did not include Talbott is beyond me). Beyond the latter two aforementioned wines, the sole exception to this myopic focus was the 2016 Pinot Noir Star Mooring, a Willamette Valley selection Ellie Phipps Price’s Dunstan added to her line of acclaimed Durrell Vineyard vintages.

Still, the paltry gaggle of plaided patrons in attendance this afternoon probably paid little heed to this oversight and reveled in the opportunity to experience such iconic producers as Gary Farrell, with his members-only bottling of the 2016 Pinot Noir Rochioli Vineyard. For many, I am sure Sebastopol’s Red Car also proved a rare treat, showcasing both their 2016 Estate Pinot Noir Fort Ross-Seaview and a superbly matured library selection, the 2012 Pinot Noir Zephyr Farms. Kosta Browne alum Sam Lando featured a duo of  his limited-production wines, the 2017 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir and a compelling 2017 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. Another highly acclaimed vigneron, John Bucher, also brought a pair of his current releases, the 2017 Pommard Clone Pinot Noir and  the 2017 Russian River Valley Estate Pinot Noir.

Lacking a tasting room, my San Francisco neighbor, Kutch is a rare treat for the public; here,  they did not disappoint, with three routinely excellent Sonoma Coast vineyard designates: their 2017 Bohan Chardonnay, the 2017 Falstaff Pinot Noir, and the 2017 McDougall Pinot Noir. The rest of the tasting featured widely familiar labels, including peripatetic winemaker Ross Cobb’s own brand, highlighted by the 2016 Pinot Noir Diane Cobb from his family’s vineyard. Wells  Guthrie’s Copain may now be part of the Jackson Family portfolio, but remains distinctively subtle, as evidenced by both their 2017 Chardonnay and the 2016 Les Voisins Pinot Noir.

It is always a pleasure to visit with Ken & Akiko Freeman and to taste through their sundry wines. As it is named, the 2017 Ryo-Fu Chardonnay was indeed a “cool breeze” with which to wind down, while the 2016 Yu-Ki Pinot Noir sparkled. I concluded my tastings with my friend Valerie Wathen, ambassador extraordinaire for Dutton-Goldfield, with both the 2016 Rued Vineyard Chardonnay and their new 2017 Azaya Ranch Pinot Noir serving as an excellent coda to the afternoon.

There are numerous Pinot Noir events throughout the year, of course, including dueling versions of Pinot on the River in Sonoma, this month’s upcoming PinotFest, West of West, and World of Pinot Noir. Granted, the largest of these, Pinot Days, has fallen by the wayside, but is there really a need to add yet another? Certainly, a different angle on such an event is necessary to keep it from being redundant, but pairing it to a dilettantish vision for an unrelated fashion display  hardly meets this criterion.

I say this as not only an accomplished œnophile but someone known for his sartorial splendor. If somehow there is a Pinots & Plaid II, they may wish to take my picture so you can see for yourself.

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.

 

Nuclear proliferation

Sostevinobile has not always been as diligent as we could be in visiting some of the outlying wine regions that we will be featuring, and so Your West Coast Oenophile recently ventured out to the Livermore Valley for the first time in a few years. Apart from its renowned gargantuan wine operations: Wente, the first significant Chardonnay producer  in California, and Concannon, which inaugurated Petite Sirah on the West Coast, far too many other members of the Livermore Valley AVA are relegated to relative obscurity outside the Bay Area (in no small part because these two aforementioned wineries were permitted to remain open during Prohibition).

To rectify matters, I took recently advantage of an invite to attend the ribbon-cutting ceremonies for Wente’s Table & Tasting Lounge to reacquaint myself with some of the AVA’s cutting-edge producers. Readers who know me know I have long been a vocal advocate of Steven Kent, a producer whose Cabernets deliver more bang for the buck—$125 for a bottle that would easily fetch $500+ if the label read Napa—than perhaps any other winery on the West Coast, along with Daou and Quilceda Creek. Less publicized is that his family’s former winery, Mirrasou, had committed 250,000 cases of their White Zinfandel to my debut bottling, George Herbert Walker Blush, before the bureaucrats at BATF denied us label approval.

Thirty years later, Steven’s wines are a far cry from what I experienced in the snow-covered (!) vineyards in San Martin. Our tasting began with a sneak taste of their just-bottled 2018 Ragbag Albariño, a crisp, deft expression of the grape form Lodi’s acclaimed Bokisch Vineyards. Similarly, the 2018 Lola was a predominantly Sauvignon Blanc blend, mellowed out with a substantial 32% Sémillon. Mid-range BDX single-varietal bottlings of the classic, pre-climate change Bordeaux reds from their Ghielmetti Estate Vineyard, was strikingly represented by the non-vintage BDX Collection Malbec, while the 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon exquisitely blended their Ghielmetti Cabernet with 4.5% Petit Verdot and 4.5% Merlot from nearby vineyards.

Though young, the 2016 SVS Cabernet Sauvignon, produced entirely from the Clone 7 plantings at Steven Kent’s Home Ranch Vineyard, totally exemplified why this unassuming operation deserves to be ranked among the elite producers from California’s more heralded regions. A beautiful wine with the promise of attaining its full potential in another 10 years.

From there, I moseyed on to Darcie Kent, no relation to Steven but certainly a kindred spirit in raising the bar for Livermore viticulture. Their quaint, cottage-style winery stands in welcome contrast to the industrial feel of the nearby Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the soulless abodes of its nuclear physicists. Darcie and her husband David greeted me with a special hand selected tasting that began with their 2018 Sauvignon Blanc, a self-described spicy interpretation of the ever-so-delicate Musqué clone. Next up was their spectacular 2018 Rava Blackjack Grüner Veltliner, a signature wine that predated the Kent’s’ move into their own facility. I was similarly impress with the upcoming release of the 2018 Pistachio Lane Chardonnay, while the library selection of the 2014 DeMayo Chardonnay aged beautifully.

Darcie Kent’s Petite Sirah bottling, the 2009 Madden Big Petite amply showed why this varietal remains a mainstay in Livermore. We concluded the tasting with their 2015 Firepit Red, a deft mélange of the premium fruit from their Crown Block Estate Vineyard: Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Merlot, and Zinfandel. Afterwards, I stayed on as a guest for their barbecue and concert by The Novelists, a Reno-based quartet that adeptly covers hits from Bruce Springsteen and Queen to Toto and Pink Floyd. It was a splendid coda to a splendid visit.

My only regret of the afternoon was not allotting sufficient time to visit with the many other wineries here. Since my last visit to Livermore, there has been a notable proliferation of vineyards, tasting rooms, and producers, along with a collaborative effort to upgrade facilities here from the rather mundane sterility of a light industrial complex to more inviting and encompassing tasting experiences, as renovation of S. Vasco Road’s The Block 37 attests. I intend to make up for this lapse quite soon.

There’s a thrill upon the hill. Let’s go. Let’s go. Let’s go.

To say Your West Coast Oenophile attends more than a few tastings every year would be a bit of an understatement. I have been putting together the wine program at Sostevinobile for 10 years now, and with well over 4,700 hundred labels on our roster, that would mean I would have to had visited an average 1.287 wineries every single day for the past decade. A noble endeavor, to be sure, but it has only been through the various trade events that I have been able to accumulate such a diverse list.

At these events, the general principle is to taste from white and sparkling to rosé, then onto the reds. Sweet and fortified wines, if offered, come at the end, even if they are Late Harvest Chardonnays or Sauvignon Blancs or Sémillons. But sometimes it behooves me to go in reverse order, not to seem intentionally contrarian; rather, expediency makes this necessary.

And so today, I will report my weekend discoveries from last to first, primarily because I can do anything I want on this blog. Actually, it’s kind of a misnomer to label Johnson’s Alexander Valley a discovery. The sign from the road indicated they were open, the door to the tasting room was unlocked, but no one was there. I tried to access their Website, only to get a “cannot find the server www.johnsonsavwines.com error message from Safari. Their Facebook page last featured an entry in 2017, and Yelp reviews all cited a perplexing experience similar to my own.

A review from Sunset Magazine, circa 2013, notes Johnson’s signature feature, an organ that plays itself whenever someone orders a bottle of their wine, a marvelously eccentric touch—if there had been anyone on hand to pour! A few ¾ full bottles rested atop the bar, alongside some wine glasses of dubious sanitary condition, so, with no one looking, I tried two of these 2010 vintages. I’ll be charitable and just say they may well have been sitting there for the past nine years.

Before crossing over to Sonoma County, I spent the previous three days in Napa, primarily to attend the various festivities surrounding the annual Première Napa. Having not acquired an auction paddle, I drifted randomly Saturday morning, combing the winding roads of Spring Mountain and its neighboring Diamond Mountain appellation. My ultimate destination, the secluded enclave of Checkerboard, unwittingly eluded me as I naïvely entrusted the very speculative navigation on my iPhone’s built-in Map directions. I passed by Eeden, a relatively obscure producer of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Petite Sirah on Spring Mountain Road, but the open gate belied absence of anyone on hand to guide me through a tasting. From there, I ambled along St. Helena Highway and turned onto Diamond Mountain Road, just like Siri insisted. As I approached Kenyon Ranch Road, she instructed me to turn left, a seemingly incongruous option, as numerous signs posted at this juncture warned that the road was a dead end. Staying to the right, however, meant I would ultimately land up at Constant, unable to progress further, so I returned to the highway and manually found a more logical turnoff to Azalea Springs Way less than a mile behind me.

Siri’s inept piloting, though, proved rather fortuitous, as I stumbled upon the hitherto undiscovered Joseph Cellars about halfway to my destination. Few people outside of the wine industry realize that there are dozens, if not hundreds, of wineries throughout California that distribute exclusively to their direct-to-consumer member base; as such, they receive little fanfare and are discovered only through word-of-mouth or inadvertently, as I did.

This handsome Calistoga facility is still a work-in-progress, but produces a highly competent series of mainstream Napa wines. I was duly impressed with their 2016 Chardonnay St. Helena, a wine sourced from select nearby vineyards. Both their 2016 Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley and the proprietary 2013 Voyage, a Zinfandel/Petite Sirah blend, also sourced from Healdsburg, proved respectable. Standouts, however, came from their estate fruit, starting with the younger 2015 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. Even more impressive was the 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon Cellar Select, a wine showing beautifully at its peak. But the wine that most made me wish it had widespread distribution was the 2013 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, a lush expression of this pure varietal, whose full potential loomed at least 2-3 years away.

As always, I lingered far too long at the bar, chatting with the tasting room staff about everything from mutual wine connections to the new Aviatrix Grenache to insights into the Italian varietal landscape of the Temecula Valley. But I could only dally for so long before the lure of my intended discovery took hold. As an aside, it should be noted that serendipity in Napa has become far more difficult to come by in 2019, not because my forays for Sostevinobile have exhausted all that lies hidden throughout the Valley; rather, with the county is now strictly enforcing its visitation levels and requirements for by Appointment Only, along with undercover inspectors randomly visiting tasting rooms, the casual drop-in, even by members of the trade, has become a vestige of the past.

But sometimes fortuitous mistakes do happen. At the gateway to Checkerboard, I rang the call box and was invited to come on up what was nearly a two-mile driveway. Only when I arrived did the winery manager realize I was not his scheduled 2pm tasting, but my trek was not to be for naught. Inside their impressive wine cave, I was treated to a most generous sampling of the 2013 Impetuous. Winemaker Martha McClellan handcrafts this wine from Checkerboard’s three vineyard tiers, the Coyote Ridge Vineyard at 900′ elevation, the 1200′ Aurora Vineyard, and the apical Nash Creek Vineyard, towering at 2000′ above sea level. Each of these tracts also produces a single vineyard Cabernet I was not given a chance to try, but based on this blend, it will not be long before I return to complete the lineup.

Of course, this trip not lacking for tasting impressive Cabs. Over the years, I have learned to focus my energies on those Première tastings that can best augment the wine program at Sostevinobile, as well as looking to bolster the various projects I have underway with my tasting partnership with The Midway, my efforts to produce CalAsia, and the launch of Risorgimento, our new trade organization for California producers of Italian varietals. This agenda took me to First Taste Yountville, the eclectic tasting at Auberge du Soleil, the Coombsville PNV Preview Party, and the annual Bring Your Own Bottle party at Cliff Lede on Thursday, along with the 20 Case Preview reception at Freemark Abbey, Spottswoode’s Library Wines reception, Spring Mountain’s annual reception at Oddfellows Hall, the always revelatory Cherie and Phillipe Melka tasting at Brasswood, an impromptu session at Round Pond, and capping the evening off at Silverado Vineyards’ opulent House of Cab soirée.

Still, the high point of the festivities had to have been Première on the HillAbove the Cloudline on Pritchard Hill. I unfortunately had missed the 2018 rendition of this gathering, stilling reeling from the antibiotic regimen I had started in Lompoc, and was a bit apprehensive that this year’s session might be a replay of 2017, with its torrential rains causing Lake Hennessey to overrun and flood Sage Canyon Road along its shore. This year, with precipitation temporarily abating, the usually pellucid water turned a sinister muddy brown but remained confined below spill point. I arrived at Chappellet, my nostrils filled with wafts of burning clutch from plodding behind a torpid delivery van as it lumbered up the hill. But any lingering of this pungency was quickly dispelled by a salutatory glass of 2017 Grower Collection Chardonnay Sangiacomo Vineyard from our hosts as I entered their fabled barrel room. Once inside, I found myself amidst a veritable treasure trove of Napa’s most prestigious labels, several of which I had yearned for years just to sample. I immediately beelined for Colgin’s station, where Paul Roberts held court. He and I have been discussing my visit to the winery ever since I staged the Judgment of Piemonte on Pritchard Hill in 2016, during which time Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, dyslexically known as LVMH, acquired a majority stake in the winery. Still, the transition has proven anything but an impediment to the wines, which presented themselves nothing short of glorious. Even in its relative youth, the 2015 IX Estate proved a monumental blend of 62% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19% Cabernet Franc, 15% Merlot, and 4% Petit Verdot. But it was the 2007 IX Estate, with its higher concentrations of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, that nearly sent me tumbling down the hill. Little wonder the French titans wanted to add this brand to their luxury portfolio!

Two other labels had changed hands since my last visit. Ovid, a wonderfully eclectic winery, was sold by classics scholar Mark Nelson to the Cadillac of Napa, Silver Oak (who, in turn, had sold one of its properties to the Studebaker of Lodi, Michael David). Managing Partner Jack Bittner assured me that the wine programs here would be left autonomous and intact, welcome news to this label’s aficionados.The 2014 Ovid he poured this afternoon, a Meritage marrying 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Cabernet Franc, and 5% Merlot, proved redolent of the wondrous character that distinguishes Pritchard Hill. Meanwhile, one of Ovid’s most cherished hallmarks, the 2017 Experiment W4.7, a seeming anathema amid the overwhelming orthodoxy of Napa œnology, deftly blended Sauvignon Blanc, Grenache Blanc, Albariño, Roussanne, Picpoul Blanc, Viognier, Vermentino, and Marsanne into a pan-European white delight.

Someday I may actually meet a vintner who aspires to leave the wine realm and undertake a second career in technology. Last year, Ed and Deb Fitts sold Brand to former Apple executives Jim Bean and Christine O’Sullivan. I shudder to think what Microsoft veterans might have done to this magnificent label, but so far, the transition to the new ownership seems seamless. A preview of their 2016 Brio, a splendid rendition of a Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot. More compelling—the 2016 Proprietary Blend, in which 65% Cabernet Franc stood predominant over the Cabernet Sauvignon. But the 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon, a pure expression of the varietal, proved Brand’s most compelling offering this afternoon.

The name Pritchard Hill, though now in the common vernacular, remains the domain of host winery Chappellet. Many, including myself, could offer compelling reason why it should be nomenclature for the eventual AVA everyone anticipates for this special nook, but for now their enticing 2016 Pritchard Hill Cabernet Sauvignon, a distinctive Bordeaux blend rounded out with 5% Malbec and 5% Petit Verdot, is its sole eponymous wine. Accompanying this vintage was the pre-release of their Auction lot, the 2017 Chappellet Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, a pure expression of the varietal from select estate blocks.

Inarguably, the predominant presence on Pritchard Hill is the Long family, with two wineries and an original stake of 1,000 acres, obtained originally in the 1960s for cattle ranching! Long esteemed for its original cult wine, David Arthur here poured its 2016 Elevation 1147, the current rendition of the 1997 wine that put them on the viticultural map. This astoundingly rich wine preceded the 2017 vintage, here in pre-release for Première, a vintage showing slightly less opulent here, with portent for greatness in another 10 years.

David Arthur had been the site of my aforementioned Judgment of Piemonte, which had featured my “ringer,” Sebastopol’s Nebbiolo maestro Emilio Castelli. Besides our Italian heritage, Emilio and I share the common bond of having been dispatched to an Eastern boarding school at a tender young age. Also part of this rarefied realm, Gandona vintner Manuel Pires. As he did at the Melka gathering, Manuel here previewed a pair of his wines, the 2016 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2016 Encosta Cabernet Sauvignon, both equally appealing.

In the age of the iPhone, I often find myself reaching into my pocket to locate the recesses of my memory. I believe I had had the occasion before to sample Nine Suns, but regardless, finding them at this event was a revelation. Here Jason Chang, another Melka client, generously poured his 2012 Nine Suns Red Wine, a modestly titled Meritage of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, and Petit Verdot from their estate’s Houyi Vineyard.

The devastating North Coast fires in 2017 destroyed much of Atlas Peak but mostly spared Krupp Brothers’ fabled Stagecoach Vineyard, sold earlier to Gallo, which straddles Pritchard Hill. And with grapes from these plantings comprising their 2017 Synchrony Napa Valley, no hint smoke taint seemed apparent.

The acquisition of Stagecoach may have been the most startling deal of 2017, yet for those of us who dabble in winery M&A, the sale of Robert Mondavi to Constellation 15 years ago still reverberates. In its stead, Tim Mondavi and his sister Marcia, along with their legendary father, set out to build an even more extraordinary estate atop Pritchard. Continuum has become a marvel to behold, with exceptional wines to match. Its current release the 2016 Continuum, a masterful blend of 46% Cabernet Sauvignon, 31% Cabernet Franc, 18% Petit Verdot, and 5% Merlot was as marvelous as any vintage of this wine I have previously sampled, while the 2017 Estate PNV Red Wine, their exclusive Première bottling, balanced with 72% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Cabernet Franc, 9% Merlot, and 2% Petit Verdot.

I concluded this session with my introduction to Bryant Estate, another of Pritchard Hill’s discreet cult producers. With 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, the 2012 Bettina Proprietary Red Blend could easily have been  labeled a single varietal, though perhaps in deference its indescribably wondrous 2013 Bryant Family Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, it kept its more modest moniker.

My friend Helen Keplinger had previously been winemaker at Bryant before moving onto Grace Family Vineyards, another cult classic that so far has eluded me. For that matter, so has Villa del Lago, Vérité, Patrimony, Sine Qua Non, and Ghost Horse’s Apparition, Spectre, and Premonition. But now Sostevinobile has made it to the top of the hill, the rest are within easy sight.

Atlas Peak Shrugged

Your West Coast Oenophile has no compunction in admitting I have never read Rudolph Steiner. Nor Ayn Rand. Nor L.Ron Hubbard. Sostevinobile is developing a growing appreciation for the superiority (if not necessity) of biodynamic farming, but Anthroposophy is a whole other matter. And neither is it an intellectual shortcoming not to be familiar with the tenets of Scientology. Or Objectivism. I have never had any use for her tiny little acolyte Alan Greenspan. Nor her soon-to-be-retired adherent Paul Ryan. But now permit me to segue from her tome Atlas Shrugged to the near-entombed Atlas Peak AVA. Last year’s Atlas Fire devastated the region, with 51,624 acres burned, along with 6,781 structures destroyed and an additional 120 structures damaged. A tragedy of this scale might easily have driven the entire AVA to throw in the proverbial towel, but even the scourge of climate change and its drastic consequences could not overcome the resolve of these vintners to once again stage their annual Taste of Atlas Peak.

Even so, it was heart-wrenching to assay the impact this maelstrom had on the region, especially in light of how consistently superb the wines that survived still proved. Alpha Omega, which is based in Rutherford, poured its exceptional 2016 Stagecoach Vineyards 100% Cabernet Sauvignon and showcased the 2010 vintage as its library selection. But will this storied wine see a future vintage?

I won’t hazard a guess why most other wineries on hand featured older Cabernets than AΩ did. Certainly, the 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon that Dos Lagos Vineyards featured was redolent of just how rich and complex this AVA’s offering s can be at its peak.and while their 2014 vintage did not quite equal the luxuriousness of its subsequent version, I was quite impress with both their 2017 Sauvignon Blanc and a none-too-elusive 2014 Cloaked in Secrecy Chardonnay.The reincarnation of Antinori’s pioneering Atlas Peak winery, Antica Napa Valley, no longer focuses on its pioneering Sangiovese, and here presented a similar lineup to Dos Lagos’. Uniformly competent were their bottlings of the 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon, their 2016 A26 Chardonnay, and an approachable 2017 Sauvignon Blanc.

The trend this afternoon generally favored the previous vintage. Now operating as a virtual winery, Michael Mondavi Family Estate, represented by 3rd generation vintner Rob Mondavi, performed admirably with their 2014 Animo Cabernet Sauvignon. Another multigenerational family, Rombauer Vineyards, here for the first time since the passing of Koerner Rombauer earlier this year, impressed with their 2014 Altas Peak 100% Cabernet Sauvignon.Randy Wulff’s cleverly-named Lobo Wines also offered their solid 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, while Lagniappe Peak poured their flagship 2014 Père Cabernet Sauvignon and, as if to show their label were not a misnomer, a lagniappe of their 2014 DBA, a sumptuous blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Merlot.

I can only marvel at Michael Parmenter being on hand this afternoon, after his entire VinRoc Wine Caves were lost in the conflagration. From his past vintages, he poured a truly exceptional 2015 CHARDonnay alongside the standout 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon. These standards were ably complemented by the 2013 RTW, a proprietary blend of ½ Cabernet Sauvignon blended with Merlot and Syrah. Also rising like a Phoenix from their ashes, Sill Family learned that their 2015 Atlas Peak Estate très Cabernet Sauvignon had been named 2018 Wine of the Year at the 2018 CWSA Hong Kong International Wine Competition just one week after their winery burnt to the ground. This luxurious blend of 95% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Merlot, 1% Cabernet Franc, 1% Malbec, and 1% Petite Verdot proved a true highlight of the afternoon, coupled with Igor Sill’s generous sharing of his 2014 Atlas Peak Cabernet Sauvignon, the opulent 2015 très Chardonnay, and a unique 2016 très Chardonnay de Rosé.

The winery at Prime Solum escaped unscathed by last year’s fires; not so owner Bill Hill’s residence. Still, Bill was here in force, alongside General Manager Kevin O’Brien, with their 2017 Rosé and a well-balanced 2013 Circle R Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, a mélange of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Petit Verdot, a varietal that had been prominently featured at his eponymous label that Gallo acquired. While Prime Solum omits Malbec from its blend, the grape was the sole focus this afternoon by host Black Stallion, the premium Napa label from the Delicato portfolio. Readers here, of course, know I have been championing Malbec, along with Mourvèdre, as the rising star of the California wine industry, and here the 2015 Malbec rivaled the apex of Paso Robles’ bottlings.This wine, alone, made my trip north worthwhile.

I wish I could do more at this time to help out the Atlas Peak AVA. Fortunately, two of the afternoon’s participants will hopefully be part of my rescheduled CalAsia 2019 Tasting early next year. Eric Yuan’s Acumen Wine has long been prominent presence at Taste of Atlas Peak, As in years past, their lineup here proved consistently delightful, starting with the 2015 PEAK Sauvignon Blanc. The 2013 Mountainside Merlot was equally pleasurable, as was the 2014  PEAK Cabernet Sauvignon. New to this event, Gordon Kaung’s iNapaWine proved an amazing discovery, with a splendidly balanced 2012 Premium Cabernet Sauvignon that belied the jeunesse of this venture. An exceptional discovery, to be sure.


Taste of Atlas Peak is not alone in resurrecting from the detritus of calamities past. some eight years have passed since the storied Pinot in the River debacle. Returning to the security of Healdsburg Plaza, this year’s Pinot on the River portends to be the tasting of the fall in Sonoma. Sostevinobile will be there. Hope to see you there, as well.

Not to be confused with Pâté de Foie Gras

Your West Coast Oenophile is hitting the road this month for several events not previously chronicled here. Even with my database for Sostevinobile now exceeding 4,400 wine labels, there are new ventures to discover and explore, new alliances to be formed—almost on a daily basis. With my new partnership in producing wine tastings, the hope is that many undiscovered labels and West Coast wine regions will be coming to me, but until I can build enough momentum, I continue to go out in the field and meet the wineries on their turf.

Not that it’s bad to escape the pressures of urban living, traipse around the vineyards and garner a healthy layer of mud on my well-worn Lucchese boots.Or wander about a verdant lawn where 20 or so vineyards are showcasing their latest releases. And so it was my anticipation as I headed out to the northernmost AVA in Napa for this year’s Calistoga Wine Experience.

Calistoga vineyards may predate statehood, but the AVA here was not officially designated until 2010; as such, I have not had many opportunities to taste a wide selection of these wines collectively and not on their own turf since their inaugural event at Première Napa a few years back. And so it came as quite a surprise that this gathering on the turf at Pioneer Park, a tiny, pristine suburban oasis alongside the Napa River, just off of downtown’s Lincoln Avenue was covered in its entirety with Astroturf!  Or—pardon my Franglais—to put it more succinctly, a Partée de Faux Grass!

Still, the wines were quite genuine and delectable, accentuated by an abundance of shrimp and other catered hors d’œuvres. Not surprisingly, these crevettes were perfectly complemented by the 2014 Sauvignon Blanc from Jones Family Vineyards, a multi-generational Calistoga institution. I also cottoned to the immense 2015 Huge Bear Chardonnay Sonoma County from Huge Bear, and a delightful 2016 Chardonnay from Vincent Arroyo.

Given Calistoga’s proximity to Knight’s Valley, it is not uncommon to find grapes, particularly white varietals, sourced from just over the border, but no other region can rival Calistoga for its signature varietal, Charbono.While there may be arguments about this grape’s pedigree or even its DNA, there can be no denying that it makes for a most appealing wine, particularly from its heirloom clone.I have long championed Tofanelli for its mastery of this grape, and the 2015 Charbono poured here perpetuated this admiration. The surprise here, though, was discovering their 2013 Estate Grenache, an equally compelling wine.

From the eastern side of Calistoga, the revitalized August Briggs showcased their exemplary 2015 Calistoga Napa Valley Charbono, a spritely expression of this exuberant grape. I would have expected Shypoke also to be pouring their Charbono; instead, featured an exceptional 2015 Olivia’s Sangiovese.Calistoga.Plus, their 2015 Keep married a select blend ofCharbono, Grenache and Petite Sirah. Because it falls outside the central thoroughfare of Napa Valley, Calistoga is more apt to veer from the Bordeaux orthodoxy of the Yountville-Oakville-Rutherford-St. Helena continuum, as other outlier AVAs like Coombsville also practice. A wondrous expression of innovative mélange came from the venerable Storybook Mountain, whose 2014 Antaeus blended Zinfandel with Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, and Merlot. 2880 Wines countered with a Rhône-style blend of Grenache, Petite Sirah, and Petit Verdot, their 2014 Twenty-Eight Eighty Red Wine.

Of course, true Bordelaise expressions also abound in Calistoga, starting with the splendid 20015 Cabernet Sauvignon from Jack Brooks, the microproducer that had extended me the invite for this afternoon. Renowned for its Chardonnay, Château Montelena nonetheless furnished an exquisite 2014 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, a delicate blend with only 2% Cabernet Franc and 1% Petit Verdot added. New ownership has brought considerable changes to Clos Pégase, but their superbly matured 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon poured here harkens back to their Jan Shrem era.

Other notable Cabs came from Poggi, with their 2014 Twin Palms Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (like the Montelena, slightly rounded out with Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Merlot) and from Olabisi, their 2014 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, selected form designate vineyards in Calistoga, Rutherford, and Atlas Peak. I have long thought of Jax as one of San Francisco’s urban wineries, but with their vineyards in Calistoga, they constitute a vibrant part of this AVA, as evidenced by their delightful 2016 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, an approachable young wine tempered with 3% Cabernet Franc.

In 2017, Cabernet Franc actually commanded a higher price per ton in Napa than its offshoot, Cabernet Sauvignon. A wondrous expression of this varietal came from Kenefick Ranch, the 2014 Cabernet Franc Caitlin’s Select, a hand-harvested estate wine. Though labeled as a Meritage, Canard’s standout, the 2014 Adam’s Blend presented an even more Cabernet Franc-focused blend, with a scant 5% Merlot and 4% Cabernet Sauvignon rounding it out. Under its Sempre Vive label, Romeo Vineyards vastly impressed with its varietal 2015 Petit Verdot,

On this warm evening, I found myself particularly impressed with the panoply of wines Switchback Ridge poured here. The bold, expressive 2014 Merlot Peterson Family Vineyard soared alongside the 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon Peterson Family Vineyard. Winemaker Bob Foley has long been justly revered for his Cabernets, but here showed himself equally adept the 2013 Petite Sirah from the same estate site. Nonetheless, his hallmark had to have been the utterly opulent 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, a near-flawless library offering.

I finished off the event with  Calistoga Winegrowers’ former President Tom Eddy, an unheralded vintner greatly revered by wine connoisseurs. Usually I am dealing with palate fatigue at this point in a tasting of this scope, but for once they saved the best for last, the 2013 Napa Valley Cabernet, a multivineyard blend accentuated with 17% Malbec, the unheralded star of Bordeaux’ Big Five red varietals. Look for both wine and winemaker to come into promince in 2019.

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.

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!”