Category Archives: Malbec

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.

After the Fire is Gone

Steely Dan labeled it best as Pretzel Logic. Longtime readers of this blog will remember the Ginkgo Girl from my earliest posts and are likely to realize I have not filled the void in my life since we split up several years ago. To a large extent, Your West Coast Oenophile has had to make do on a subsistence level while raising funds for Sostevinobile—not exactly something that enhances one’s marketability on the romantic front—so with my recent rise from the threadbare level of impecuniosity, I have concomitantly become more self-assured in my social forays. But alas, the hopes I had affixed to an exceedingly charming woman I met at a SoCap gathering were promptly dashed with “I am happily married” in our ensuing conversation.

Like many others, I find myself taking solace not just in wine but in music as well, at such moments of deep disappointment, and so I tracked down the ever-so-appropriate video of Midnight Confessions by The Grass Roots. YouTube usually generates a list of interrelated videos in its right side column whenever you visit their site. I suppose there is a thematic link to Linda Ronstadt’s Long, Long Time—after all, who has better vocalized unrequited love?—even if, musically, these two acts could not be more incongruous. In turn, I subsequently indulged in a reprise of her great hits from the 1970s to distract myself from the hazardous air quality that had sequestered me in my San Francisco flat for the better part of a week.

Christopher Loudon of Jazz Times wrote in 2004 that Ronstadt is “blessed with arguably the most sterling set of pipes of her generation.“ I certainly won’t contend with the overall sentiment of this encomium, but just as wine connoisseurs will favor the 2012 Ghost Horse Spectre over Screaming Eagle, true music aficionados know that Tracy Nelson has no peer. The former lead singer of Mother Earth has only achieved minor commercial success over the years, save for her now-obscure duet with Willie Nelson and theme for this post: After the Fire is Gone.

The recent conflagrations in the wine country have exacted a toll on the California wine industry that will take months to comprehend fully. Somewhere between the sensationalist headlines of the national media and the laudable optimism of the growers and vintners there lies a sobering reality no one has yet to comprehend fully. And among the myriad efforts to aid the stricken communities, it has been particularly laudable to see and participate in the events sponsored by CA Wine Strong, a collective effort among numerous wine trade associations across the state. In my usual overambitious manner, Sostevinobile is exploring sponsoring its own wine benefit in the ensuing months, but I will decline to expound further until it is a certainty.

In the meantime, I hesitate to note that the aftermath of this cataclysm does leave open a long overdue window for the many diverse viticultural districts across the state and throughout the West Coast to attract attention to their wondrous wines. This should not be seen as opportunistic—wide appreciation for the panoply of wines produced here can only help invigorate the world’s perception of our entire region once Napa and Sonoma have fully rebounded.

Many other industry veterans have noted that emergent Cabernet strongholds like Paso Robles, the Columbia Valley, and Washington’s Red Valley are now likely to come into prominence. Wineries nearby in AVAs like Monterey, the Livermore Valley, and the Santa Cruz Mountains have long had strong local followings, and will certainly now look to expand the scope of their reputation. But it is my hope that the many unheralded regions will now also be given their due.

Even I have had my share of serendipitous moments of late, discovering a wealth of wineries in AVAs like Inwood Valley and Clarksburg, where an understated Scribner Bend amazed with its 2013 Black Hat Tempranillo. And spurred by Mike McCay’s tireless efforts to tireless efforts to define and refine Zinfandel vinification as the signature expression of the AVA, rising stars like Michael Klouda, whose spectacular 2015 Carignane Lodi Appellation has rightfully been called “a phenomenal expression of this underappreciated varietal,” are reinventing Lodi as a must-see destination.

After combing through my copious tasting notes for 2017, I still feel the most impressive wine I have sampled thus far has been the 2015 R Blockhouse Vineyard Dolcetto from Jeff Runquist. This superb, exquisitely balanced wine embodied all of the glory that a superior Dolcetto can reach. Admittedly, these grapes were sourced from Yountville, but the overall craft of this winemaker, who blends grapes from Amador County, El Dorado County, Paso Robles, Clarksburg, Lodi, Stanislaus County, San Joaquin County, and River Junction as well, reaffirms why this winery is one of the true beacons of the Amador AVA . Acrosss Shenandoah Road, the inveterate Vino Noceto produces some of California’s purest expressions of Sangiovese, in particular the 2014 Dos Oakies Sangiovese, which I sampled during a delightful 3-hour tour and tasting with owners Jim and Suzy Gullett. Their plantings and vinification of Sangiovese Grosso clones sourced from Montalcino are a testament not only to the Shenandoah Valley sub-AVA but to the incredible bounty of varietals produced throughout California.

As noted in previous posts, Vino Noceto has a kindred spirit in the Los Olivos AVA, Jamie and Julie Kellner’s esteemed Cent’Anni, whose authentic recreation of Chianti employs their meticulous plantings of Montepulciano, Sangiovese Clone 3, Sangiovese Clone 6, Sangiovese Clone 23, Sangiovese Rodino Clone, Colorino, and Caniaolo. Yet while Santa Barbara County may contain Southern California’s most noted winery cluster, numerous other as-yet unheralded enclaves are starting to clamor for attention.

Among these are the Ramona Valley in San Diego, both Malibu-Newton Canyon and Malibu Coast (including parts of Ventura County) in Los Angeles County, Cucamonga Valley, which straddles both Riverside and San Bernadino counties, and Sierra Pelona Valley near Santa Clarita. Several of these areas focus heavily on the Italian varietals Sostevinobile so favors, as does the Temecula Valley, the most prominent wine region of Riverside County.

I have only visited this AVA once before, but have known its warm climate to be well-suited for grapes like Nero d’Avola and others thermophilic varietals that predominate the Italian south. But Temecula was ravaged by Pierce’s Disease at the beginning of this millennium, which obliterated over 90% of its vines. Despite replanting, the region has been handicapped by this event, and, in truth, I, too, held an enormous skepticism about its quality and viability. That is, until I was introduced to one of its oldest and most resilient wineries, Baily Winery. Initially, as a courtesy, I had invited owner Phil Baily to participate in the Dartmouth & Its Winemakers tasting I produced this past spring, expecting he might pour a white wine and his Sangiovese, as representative of the region. Rather, Phil not only flew up to Menlo Park the night before the event but graced us with a 3-year vertical of his signature estate blend—I have savored the 2013 Meritage many times since—Cabernet Sauvignon invused with Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Malbec, all grown at his Berenda Vineyard. All three vintages could easily have fetched twice the price tag of $65, had they been cultivated in Napa or Alexander Valley. But perhaps the ultimate barometer of Temecula’s status and quality is that numerous of its wineries are now the target of Chinese investment!

Like most, I grieve for the losses friends and colleagues throughout the North Coast have endured this fall. And I have little doubt most, if not all, will prevail despite this incalculable devastation and return in time to their former prominence, steeled with resolve and renewed fervor. I, too, will continue efforts to aid them in ways at which I am most adept, while employing Sostevinobile’s various resources to promote other West Coast wine regions during this period of rebound and transition. After all, the perceoption of a robust and pervasive wine industry throughout our Pacific region can only be beneficial to all.

Lacuna

lacuna: noun, plural lacunæ

 

1. a gap or missing part, as in a manuscript, series, or logical argument; hiatus.

2. Anatomy. one of the numerous minute cavities in the substance of bone, supposed to contain nucleate cells.
 
3. Botany. an air space in the cellular tissue of plants.

Loyal readers of the Sostevinobile blog have probably noticed a paucity of entries, so far, for 2017. As in none. This gap, however, has not occurred because Your West Coast Oenophile has been missing in action or confronting his worst case of writer’s block since John Hawkes’ graduate seminar in fiction writing. I have actually started several posts covering my wine forays to Napa, Sonoma, Paso Robles, Amador, Lodi, Santa Cruz, and El Dorado (according to my odometer, nearly 77% of the miles I’ve clocked in 2017 have been for wine tasting forays). Add to that the usual array of trade tastings, although I skipped ZAP for the first time in 20 or so years, as it coincided with Premier Napa, plus I single-handedly produced a wine tasting extravaganza in Menlo Park, featuring some 30 wineries owned by or affiliated with alumni from my undergraduate institute.

In a word, I’ve been hard-pressed to put words to the page. And since I am so woefully behind in timely coverage of the various events I have attended, let me focus on the various discoveries I have made over the past few months as I have been meandering throughout the state.

As they usually do, my journeys began with a swing down to Paso Robles, though this time with one very significant difference: rain. After 5 years of drought, the weather gods seemed determined to atone for their dereliction in a single season, and on the Friday before President’s Day, turned what is normally a 3¼ hour drive down US 101 into a 7+ hour ordeal.

Despite oftentimes feeling as if I were taking my life into my own hands—at one point, almost driving into the Salinas River—I still managed to handle the deluge in stride, and managed to visit quite a number of wineries, while sandwiching in the regional Rhône Rangers tasting. It proved a most revelatory excursion, renewing my acquaintance with Roger Nicolas of RN Estate (not to be confused with Roger Nicholas of Lodi’s Grand Amis) and discussing his transition from the superb Rhône varietals he produces to a Bordeaux focus, including his sublime 2014 Malbec.

Readers here know that I have been championing Malbec as the Next Big Thing in California (along with my declaration of Pinot fatigue). Just before joining Roger for his tasting, I waded through the Adelaida District to join Jim Madsen at Thacher, where The Farm was laboring through its annual day of bottling. Much to my surprise, Santiago Achával was also manning the line alongside his associates. Though we had not met before, we have corresponded over the past several years and have numerous mutual friends, including Manuel Ferrer Minetti, his former partner at Argentina’s renowned Achával-Ferrer.

To learn from Santiago that The Farm was indeed planning to bottle their own Malbec in Paso Robles—once it met his exacting standards—was an epiphany. Further underscoring this prognostication was my discovery of Tooth & Nail’s 2014 The Fiend, a Malbec blended with 8% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Petite Sirah, and 2% Syrah and a revisit with Wally Murray’s Bon Niche, whose 2011 Voûtes/Arches has long been a benchmark Malbec blend. In fact, Wally’s second label, Birdland, is comprised of three mid-range Malbecs and Malbec blends, a further validation of my belief that California is no longer ceding this varietal to the South Americans. The only question that remains is whether Carménère can be far behind.

I have been referring to this Paso Robles trip as my M&M excursion. True, before the massive proliferation of wineries throughout the AVA, a packet of these candies was my go-to choice whenever I stopped here for the obligatory refill the tank and relieve the bladder before the second leg of my drive to Los Angeles, but this winter, it took on a whole new meaning. Also rising up from relative obscurity among its peer varietals, Mourvèdre, at long last appears to be taking center stage for many Rhône red producers. If GSMs could be likened to a professional basketball squad, Grenache would be Kevin Durant, Syrah—Steph Curry, and Mourvèdre, the overshadowed star of this triumvirate, Klay Thompson. But just as Thompson can manage to eclipse his co-stars every so often, so too can Mourvèdre find its niche as a primary varietal.

The Saturday event at Broken Earth proved, admittedly, a bit of an endurance test, given the decibel level of the concrete antechamber where the Grand Tasting took place. Placards hung from the ceiling celebrate each of the Rhône varietals, though the irony of misspelling “Mourvédre” was not lost. Still, eleven of the participating wineries featured a varietal Mourvèdre bottling, with particular standouts including Adelaida’s 2014 Mourvèdre Signature Anna’s Estate Vineyard, Clautière’s 2012 Estate Mourvèdre, compelling bottlings of the 2014 Mataró from Red Soles, Summerwood’s 2013 Mourvèdre, and the 2014 Mourvèdre from the redoubtable Vines on the Marycrest. Rounding out the assemblage, both Seven Oxen and Rhône virtuoso Tablas Creek offered superb renditions of their 2014 Mourvèdre.

Whether it’s labeled as its Spanish name (Monastrell) or its Catalan nomenclature (Mataró), Mourvèdre has been unheralded as a primary Rhône varietal for far too long on the West Coast. It is most gratifying to see that it is finally getting the measure of respect it deserves. Of course, I could say the same for the vast majority of the 200+ varietals I have sourced for Sostevinobile throughout the West Coast,  but that would require a far more comprehensive undertaking than I have time to allocate currently. Still, my final takeaway from Paso Robles was the discovery of a true Gamay—not Valdiguié—the 2015 Stasis Gamay Noir from Rob Murray’s Murmur VIneyard in nearby Santa Maria Valley, an exceptional wine that easily rivaled the 2012 RPM Gamay Noir, my overall favorite wine from that vintage.

After stopping off in Carmel-by-the-Sea, I made it back to San Francisco with barely enough time to brush my teeth and reload my travel bags before heading up to Napa and Sonoma for a five day excursion. In many ways, I concede that the events surrounding Première Napa are more personal indulgence than research; after all, this is primary county-wide showcase of the year and it remains fairly difficult, for the most part, to distinguish, critically, wines that range from very good to phenomenal. Première is about building and cementing relationships, cultivated over the years, in the hope of gaining discrete allocations if and when Sostevinobile becomes able to take on a prestigious reserve list or cater to a private membership within the confines of our facilities.

The other challenge, of course, is the rigid orthodoxy of the Bordeaux strictures to which the vast majority of Napa wineries adhere. Encountering unheralded varietals or non-traditional blends is a rarity in this AVA. Highway 29, the backbone of the Napa Valley, interconnects its most mainstream AVAs: Oak Knoll, Yountville, Rutherford, Oakville, and St. Helena, and along this conduit one tends to find the least variance in deference to the near universal excellence of its Cabernets—not to mention the price per ton Cabernet Sauvignon from here commands. Meanwhile, the more remote regions of the county, like Coombsville and Calistoga, generally seem more willing to delve into other varietals—even those that have fallen into disuse in Bordeaux!

As scarce as Malbec may be in California, the fabled sixth Bordeaux grape, Carménère, is even rarer. Even its most noteworthy producer outside of South America, Yorkville Cellars in Mendocino, seems almost reticent in promoting its varietal bottling. But with little fanfare, the redoubtable John Caldwell has plantings in Coombsville, and what suppose to be a quick visit to discuss obtaining some graftings of Malbec and of Carménère for my Paso Robles clients turned into a 3½ hour bacchanal that only ended because I had to attend a memorial service at the Marin Art & Garden Center in Ross.

I’d like to believe the late Dr. Jim McCole would not have minded my missing his Celebration of Life. Certainly, he would have himself preferred to indulge in the 2014 Rocket Science, Caldwell’s signature bottling of  ⅔ Syrah with 7% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Malbec, 6% Cabernet Franc, 5% Pinot Noir, 4% Merlot, 3% Tannat, and 1% Carménère, a blend as unconventional as the man behind it. I, in turn, cottoned to the 2012 Gold Cabernet Suavignon and an equally alluring 2014 Silver Proprietary Red, a rare blend of his six Bordeaux varietals, with a 1% dash of Syrah—an homage to 19th Century Claret.

Caldwell is renowned for the meticulously researched, albeit often smuggled, varietal clones grown on his estate, and labels his wines accordingly. The apex of this precision was his 2013 Merlot [Clone 181], along with the 2013 Malbec [Clone 595], but I still delighted most in the 2014 Carménère [Clone 2].

Readers well-familiar with my penchant for rare and obscure varietals will know that I am not satisfied with sourcing a mere six red Bordeaux varietals, and while John has yet to smuggle in cuttings of St. Macaire, both Mt. Veeder’s Progeny and O’Shaughnessy on Howell Mountain have plantings. But like the elusive Planet X, theoretically lurking undetected in the Kuiper Belt, the eighth Bordeaux red, Gros Verdot, has never found its niche in California, at least until now. Indeed, O’Shaughnessy has covertly planted it at their Angwin estateand will be releasing their 8 varietal blend this spring, superseding their famed Howell Mountain Cabernet, renowned for its inclusion of St,. Maciare and Carménère with the major Bordelaise grapes. Now if only Jancis Robinson hadn’t debunked Cabernet Gernischt…

(to be continued)

Stags, Stag’s, Stags’ or Stagg?

While Your West Coast Oenophile still strives to maintain a 1:1 ratio of Resveratrol-to-Hemoglobin in my bloodstream, I also partake in a wide range of other alcoholic beverages from time-to-time, particularly at bars where the $16 Wine-by-the-Glass selection goes for $9.99 a bottle at BevMo and has been sitting, unpreserved, on the shelf since last Tuesday—know that none of this will ever happen at Sostevinobile! My tastes run from vodka and bourbon to tequila and scotch, with a refined mezcal or cognac or grappa doing the trick when I feel like being warmed up from the inside out. I am inordinately fond of single malts like Talisker or Oban and occasionally indulge in a dry martini, stirred not shaken (of late, the house variation at The Progress, with a touch of smoked Castelvetrano olive juice and rosemary oil, has been an especial favorite).

Of course, anyone who knows me will be aware that I am not content simply to indulge in others’ creations. Longtime readers of this blog will remember the Tai Da (太大) cocktail I concocted several years ago and introduced to a handful of bars in San Francisco. And for those with extremely long-term memories, there was the Fook Yu cocktail I created as a bartender at the legendary dim sum house on Clement Street. These days, I am pursuing the ultimate version of the venerable dark liquor equivalent of a martini, an atomic strength version I have dubbed The Manhattan Project. My quest still hinges on selecting the perfect handmade bitters to complement this recipe, along with exquisitely marinated cherries as a garnish. Without question, my vermouth of choice will be Quadys VYA Sweet Vermouth, and the base liquor will naturally be the highest proof I can find. If I were a strict traditionalist, I would have to go with a rye—the Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye Whiskey being the strongest commercially-produced bottling I know, clocking in at 129.2°. But I have to defer to parent company Buffalo Trace ’s remarkable 144.1° bourbon, the George T. Stagg.

Speaking of cervids, the taxonomical family that encompasses moose, elk, antelope and deer, I had the pleasure of attending the first San Francisco trade tasting for the Stags Leap District. Of course, the feud between Warren Winiarski’s Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Carl Doumani’s Stags’ Leap Winery is the stuff of legend, and while neither retains ownership of the winery they founded, the trade association has chosen, collectively, to be grammatically apostate and eschew any employment of the apostrophe. A most politic decision.

But when wines of this caliber are being poured, remaining neutral is hardly possible. 18 of the most prominent producers from the District poured at Jardinière in San Francisco’s Civic Center, and despite several having been subsumed by the leading wine conglomerates over the years, nearly all the wines maintained a uniform excellence. As is my wont, I began my session with the one winery I had not previously encountered on Sostevinobile’s watch. Ilsley Vineyards has been furnishing a number of highly prestigious wine labels with grapes since 1962, but only started producing their own label this century. Lacking winemaking facilities or a tasting room, it is a property I have driven by on Silverado Trail numerous times but completely bypassed. Not to be overlooked at this event, however, was their approachable 2015 JK Sauvignon Blanc. Even more striking, the 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District was an impressive introduction to their red line, but the true standout this afternoon was the 2013 Seis Primas, a Malbec-focused Meritage, with 33% Cabernet Sauvignon and 13% Merlot blended in.

Lindstrom Wines is a label I had only recently discovered; nor, before this tasting, had I met Carol Lindstrom, only her distributor. Still, reacquainting myself with these wines proved propitious. The 2013 Pinot Noir Dutton Ranch seemed, frankly, rather anomalous for this event, but easily held its own with the numerous other bottlings from this Sonoma mainstay I have tasted throughout the year. Clearly Lindstrom’s forte came from its own Cabernet plantings and the capable hands of winemaker Celia Welch.. The 2010 Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon displayed a strong expression of the grape, nicely acting its age six years later, but the current release, the 2012 Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon truly showed a more seasoned vinification.

I was quite pleased to find Steltzner pouring here. Formerly a landmark among the Silverado Trail, they had sold their winery to Gavin Newsom’s Plump Jack empire, which drastically remodeled the facility and transformed it into Odette, a label that was curiously absent on this afternoon. Often, when such a takeover transpires, the original winery, despite claiming it would continue producing, soon closes down altogether, as when Roshambo sold its Russian River Valley premises to Twomey, at least for now, all seems to be business as usual for the Napa Valley’s only Pinotage producer. I, of course, would have been thrilled if they had poured their Sangiovese here, but more than happily settled for their Bordeaux variant., starting with a noteworthy 2013 Malbec Stags Leap District. The 2013 Martini Clone Cabernet Sauvignon, proved an excellent wine, redolent of the intensity and character expected with a Stag Leap Cab, but the 2013 Pool Block Cabernet Sauvignon most certainly was one of the afternoon’s true standouts. As a bonus, Steltzner also poured the inaugural release from their Bench Vineyards, the 2014 Circa 64, a deft blend of Cabernet Sauvignon with Petit Verdot and Malbec from the select family vineyard block planted 52 years ago.

A significant portion of Stags Leap has been acquired by a number of the megabrands in the wine industry, though with little or no diminution the wine’s historic quality. Crimson Wine Group has long held Pine Ridge, the Napa jewel in their tri-state conglomerate. Always consistent, their wines here this day furthered a sense that this workhorse may well be underappreciated. Their portion of the event started of amiably with the 2014 Dijon Clones Chardonnay, then segued to their 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District. I found myself rather partial to the 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley, but clearly favored the peak aging of their 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District, a library selection.

I tend to think of Terlato primarily as a distributor for imported wines, as well as the holding company for such brands as Alderbrook and Sanford. I was only vaguely familiar with their eponymous label, produced in Stags Leap at their Rutherford Hill facility. Given my preconceptions, I was pleasantly surprised to find their 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District more than approachable; more intriguing, the 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap from their library selection demonstrated a well-qualified lineage for this particular label. I was, however, less sanguine about their cross-pollinated project poured here—the 2014 Galaxy White and the 2013 Galaxy Red . The former ineptly blends of Santa Rita Hills Viognier with Russian River Valley Chardonnay, then adds a dash of Sauvignon Blanc from the Napa Valley to putatively give this wine a regional balance; the latter melange of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot similarly attempts to fuse varietals harvested from different AVAs, albeit with greater focus.

Terlato also owns Chimney Rock, a striking landmark alongside Silverado Trail. Under these more recognizable auspices, the winery contrasted its 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District with the single-vineyard designate, their 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Tomahawk Vineyard. Most noteworthy here, however, was the 2014 Élévage Blanc, a distinctive blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris, of which Chimney Rock uniquely (in Napa) offers a single varietal bottling, as well.

The holdings of Clos du Val’s parent company may be less profuse than the Terlato empire, but it spans the globe, from California to Languedoc to Australia. Still, this Stags Leap winery owes its greatest acclaim to its inclusion in 1976’s legendary Judgment of Paris, as well as the French Culinary Institute Tasting of 1986, where it bested all the Cabernets from the previous tasting after aging 10 years. The wineries of Goelet Wine Estates are marked by their crossover varietals, and Clos du Val proved no exception, opening here with their accessible 2015 Chardonnay Carneros and then the vineyard-designate 2014 Pinot Noir Block 73. Still, forty years later, their standout was the 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Hirondelle Vineyard, a true Stags Leap selection.

Of course, the AVA’s other representative in 1976 was the eventual winner, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. Owner Warren Winiarski sold his crown jewel a number of years ago to Château Ste. Michelle, Washington’s leading producer and conglomerate, which now operates the winery in partnership with Marchesi Antonori, the Italian producer famed for Solaia, Tignanello, and creation of the SuperTuscan designation. But no tinkering has been needed here, as the winery remains consistently excellent, as evidenced first by the 2014 Karia Chardonnay. Classical allusion befit their second label, represented admirably here with the 2014 Artemis Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley, but clearly outshone by the highly nuanced, structured 2013 S. L. V. Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine that upheld its legend.

The rivalry between Stag’s Leap and Stags’ Leap seems to have quelled with Carl Doumani sale of his property to Treasury Wine Estates. Though his label seemed overshadowed by accolades accorded his justly-heralded neighbor, much as CK Mondavi was long subsumed by the Robert Mondavi label, Carl rightfully deserve recognition for spearheading Napa’s interest in Petite Sirah, now its second most popular red varietal planting. After showcasing their 2015 Viognier Napa Valley, the winery poured their justly reputed 2013 Ne Cede Malis, their flagship Stags Leap District Petite. Next up, the 2013 The Leap Estate Cabernet Sauvignon was remarkable drinkable for a wine so relatively young; in contrast, the 2009 The Leap Estate Cabernet Sauvignon showed a wine that had gloriously matured, yet with plenty of ageability to come.

After selling Stags’ Leap Winery, Carl opened the utterly eclectic Quixote along a shared driveway with Shafer. Here, of course, Petite Sirah reigned supreme without compromising Cabernet, as evidenced by the well-balanced 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District poured here. But Quixote’s œnological mastery came through with its 2011 Petite Syrah Stags Leap District and overwhelmed with the exquisite 2012 Petite Syrah Stags Leap District, a true star of this event.

Carl sold this winery to investors from China not too long ago but continues with a yet-to-be released project from his personal vineyard. Meanwhile, Shafer remains in family hands and continues to outdo themselves on a yearly basis. I had hoped Doug Shafer would be on hand this afternoon and sneak in some samples of his new Eighty Four Wines (the Albariño is phenomenal), but I had to “settle” for such splendid offerings as the 2014 Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay and an exquisite 2014 Merlot Napa Valley. Shafer’s coup de grâce, though, was easily its 2013 One Point Five Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine that begs to be laid down for at least 10 more years.

I cannot recall whether I’ve tried the wines from Silverado Vineyards since the untimely passing of proprietor Diane Disney Miller, but as this has never been a Mickey Mouse operation, the quality has remained consistent.I cottoned to their 2013 GEO Cabernet Sauvignon Coombsville (an AVA I wish would revive their trade tasting), and positively reveled in the 2013 SOLO Cabernet Sauvignon Stag Leap District.

I always seems to drop in on Baldacci Family Vineyards minutes after they close for tastings, so it was quite fortuitous to find them pouring here. Baldacci’s inornate, decidedly rustic setting seems a far cry from the showcase wineries that dot the Silverado Trail, yet belies the sophistication of their viticulture. I tend to think of this winery first for its white wines, and the superb 2014 Sorelle Chardonnay poured here did nothing to disappoint. So too did the 2013 Fraternity prove exemplary—normally blended with Syrah, this vintage was a straightforward mélange of Cabernet Sauvignon from their two estate properties (as well as a touch of Oakville fruit) with their estate Merlot. Meanwhile, their pure Stags Leap District selection, the 2013 Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon, proved their masterpiece.

Cavus Vineyards is a boutique winery that sources it fruit from less than two acres,, but enlists Jim Barbour as its Vineyard Manager and David Phinney as its consulting winemaker. The result is a stellar 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District, along with a Prisoner-like blend, its 2013 The Crane Assembly, an eclectic marriage of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. Another boutique operation, Malk Family Vineyards prides themselves as “the smallest producers of premium 100% hand-crafted Cabernet Sauvignon wine from the famous Stags Leap District.” Outside of their estate, however, they source Oak Knoll fruit for an exceptional 2015 Sauvignon Blanc; further out, their 2014 Pinot Noir Fort Ross-Seaview provides a deft expression of the Sonoma Coast. Back in their home AVA, the 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District was a delightful wine on the verge of peaking, as was the 2010 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.

Sostevinobile can categorically state that there is no correlation between Taylor Family Wines and Taylor, the upstate New York jug wine behemoth that ultimately morphed into Constellation. Still, the overlap in names tends to obfuscate this seventh generation Napa clan’s label, even though their winemaking focus could not be more different. From their perch in Stags Leap, this Taylor produces an impressive array of varietal Cabernets from an array of Napa AVAs, including Stags Leap District, Rutherford, Diamond Mountain, and Atlas Peak. However, this afternoon led off with a striking 2014 Chardonnay, vinted from the Chardonnay Musqué clone, from the same vineyard that supplied Château Montelena’s winning entry in the Judgment of Paris. Contrasting Taylor’s 2013 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District with the 2010 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District showed remarkably distinct wines, fruit-forward vs. restrained, yet both proved equally appealing. Their final offering, a proprietary mélange of Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc, the 2012 V VI VII Red Blend, mislead lead me. I took the name to indicate this was a progressive Solera from the last three vintages; in truth, it constitutes a tribute the 5th, 6th and 7th Napa generation of the Taylor family, all of whom work for the winery!

One of Stags Leap District’s more dominant players, Cliff Lede, owns both a winery estate and a luxury inn at the juncture of Silverado Trail and Yountville Cross Road, along with a second winery, FEL. in the Anderson Valley. At Jardinière this day, they poured a selection across the board from his holdings, starting with the indelible 2015 Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley. I found the 2014 FEL Pinot Noir Anderson Valley better than adequate, but truly relished the 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District. The artistic flair of the winemaking here shows full force with the vineyard designate Cabernet from the vineyards encompassing Cliff’s Poetry Inn, yearning for greatness in the 2013 Poetry and full achieving it with the library selection 2007 Poetry uncorked for this tasting.

Quietly, a burgeoning mini-empire has been emerging in Napa, with its roots in the Stags Leap District. In Calistoga, the eclectic Tank Garage Winery produces a line of eclectic wines, whimsical both in their labeling and their viticulture. Nearby, T-Vine Winery is a long-standing endeavor that early on open my eyes to a number of Rhône varietals, as well as fruit sourced from the Contra Costa Valley. Just below the Stags Leap District, James Cole Winery is a high-end, small production facility available only by subscription. Anchoring all of these is Regusci Winery, a rustic operation that heralds the old style Italian family wineries of a bygone era. I can still recall my first visit here meeting family patriarch Angelo Regusci, who every day would walk his dogs down to the tasting room and pick up two bottles—one red, one white—for the evening’s dinner fare.

The quaintness of this routine belied the sophistication of Regusci’s craft. Befittingly, their first pour came from the 2012 Patriarch, a refined blend of 58% Cabernet Sauvignon and 42% Merlot, with plenty of ageability ahead. On its own merits, the 2012 Merlot Stags Leap District proved even more impressive, while the 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District could best be described as splendiferous. All these wines, however, paled in comparison to Regusci’s flagship, the gracefully aged 2001 Angelo’s Cabernet Sauvignon, perhaps the best wine overall for the afternoon. If he were alive, I’m sure Angelo would be carting off a bottle home tonight.

As a denizen of the wine trade, I have often bemoaned the decline of trade tastings these past few years. Seeing a new event, especially one consistent in its focus and the quality of its wines gives hope for a resurgence in what has long been a vital component to building the comprehensive wine program Sostevinobile proposes. This past month also saw the launch of a similar event from Napa’s Spring Mountain District, a remarkable maturation at Petaluma Gap’s second annual trade tasting, the naisence a fledgling collective known as New Mission Winemakers,  and the crowning dénouement for In Pursuit of Balance—all of which I hope to cover in subsequent installations.

An austere wine, with an alluring bucket

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What have I done for you lately?

Unarguably, my favorite bumper sticker that I didn’t compose simply declared “Eschew Obfuscation.” During the protracted intermezzo between the two stages of my wine career, I continually advised clients that, similarly, they should eschew all acronyms in their promotional literature I was retained to write. And yet while Your West Coast Oenophile may have seemed MIA for the better part of 2015, the truth is that I have probably been harder at work on Sostevinobile than since its inception.

Just before the beginning of the year, I found myself lured back into complex challenges of winery Mergers & Acquisition (M&A), a practice I abandoned in 1989, vowing never to resume. Don’t get me wrong—my previous foray into the M&A realm accorded me considerable recognition within the wine industry, while instilling a n appreciation for the subtle intricacies of œnology and viticulture, a comprehension that now underscores the various endeavors I am undertaking on behalf of Sostevinobile.

But this initiation also entailed the often insurmountable challenge of trying to persuade two often-disparate parties—buyer and seller—without having sufficient leverage to control or manipulate the deal in question. Though in 2015, I am better situated to handle the complexities of contentious negotiations and am beginning enjoy the advantage of having prospective clients approach and retain me, I still remain an intermediary, a subordinate player beholden to the precarious whims of principals whose arbitrary choice can subvert even the soundest deals.

To the degree this resurrected role preoccupies the bulk of my working ours, even I sometimes fell I have lost sight of my primary goals with the wine industry. Still, never let it be said that my determination to realize the lofty vision I have created for Sostevinobile has been diminished. Extrapolating from the vast number of relationships I have built among the West Coast wineries, I am continually expanding the reach of my professional wine involvement: sourcing grapes, orchestrating bottlings, developing wine lists for like-minded enterprises, and even spearheading hotel acquisitions. And yet amid all these efforts, I still have found the time to taste perhaps the widest selection of wines and esoteric varietals I have found since embarking on this venture.

With no particular adherence to chronological order, my sojourns over the last six months have taken me to from Nevada City to Templeton, covering Lodi, Plymouth, San Miguel, Paso Robles, Saratoga, and sundry destinations throughout Napa and Sonoma, not to mention the putative viticultural deserts of Santa Clara and Richmond. My ever-expanding database added numerous unheralded discoveries, ranging from Vranac and Schioppettino to Peloursin and Lacrima di Moro, along with exotic but yet-to-be-bottled varietals, including Canaiolo, Clairette Blanc, and Colorino.

Distinctive wines, however, are by no means solely the purview of the esoteric, an understanding that lured me to the drought-impacted domain of Paso Robles, with its eleven newly-minted sub-AVAs, for their Cabs of Distinction conference. An admirable albeit rather fledgling advocacy, the 24 wineries participating in this consortium represented a comprehensive yet by no means exhaustive cross-section of Paso’s premier Cabernet Sauvignon producers.

The gist of this gathering, of course. was to showcase how the wines of this burgeoning region can now rival those produced in both Napa and Bordeaux—a claim, in effect, catapulting the AVA’s prominence on par with the Alexander Valley and the various pockets of esteemed Cabernet sprinkled throughout Washington State. Certainly, quite a number of these wines could stand head-to-head with the more extravagantly priced ($200-300) Cabs found in Oakville, Rutherford, St. Helena, and the surrounding mountain districts, starting with the roundly lauded offerings from Justin. Admittedly, I had not found myself as wowed with these wines as more prominent critics have been, but the 2014 Isosceles proved a most formidable wine that compelled revisiting throughout the three days of events. As impressive was the 2012 Soul of the Lion, Daou Vineyards’ showcase offering, a wine whose pedigree winemaker Danny Daou meticulously laid out in a tour of his estate.

I am usually prone to reserve this level of vinification (for Cabernet Sauvignon) for L’Aventure, as well, whose absence from this conference appeared rather conspicuous. Nonetheles, I was surprised to find myself including the 2012 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon from Calcareous, the 2012 CV Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from Broken Earth, and Brecon Estates’ lush 2012 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. Moreover, a pair of Meritages—Vina Robles’ elegant 2011 Suendero (70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Petit Verdot) and J. Lohr’s Right Bank tribute, the 2010 Cuvée Pom, a Merlot-focused blend rivaled these wines.

Paso Robles’ greatest claim to fame still comes from the breadth of its Rhône varietals, while making a most compelling case for its Bordelaise wines. However, the true sleeper in this region has to be its emergence as California’s leading producer of Malbec. It has long seemed that wineries here were content to surrender this category to the admittedly wondrous wines produced in Argentina; the great revelation from Cabs of Distinction, however, may have inadvertently been the handful of bottlings showcasing this grape. The serendipity of my previous visit proved to be Wally Murray’s Bon Niche, an unheralded East Side winery whose 2011 Voûtes, a blend of 45% Malbec, 45% Petit Verdot and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, proved no less extraordinary this time around.On par: the 2011 Malbec from West Side stalwart Halter Ranch, a truly profound wine.

My peregrinations through several of Paso’s hitherto unexplored sub-AVAs only fortified my belief that I need to make yet another Sostevinobile swing through this vast region, with a particular eye for other impressive Malbecs and blends. Ironically, my attempt to meet with  Argentine legend Santiago Achával revealed that his Paso project is producing Grenache and unorthodox Cab blends, but not Malbec, for which he is so esteemed. No matter. I will still seek out The Farm, Sculpterra, the ever-elusive Linne Calodo, Four Lanterns, Rob Murray’s Tooth & Nail, and, of course, Law Estate, whose Clairette Blanc should be ready to sample by then.


“I am not a dime a dozen! I am Willy Loman!”

—Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman

Way before Miles Raymond devastated Merlot for an entire generation with a single swipe in Sideways, the late Arthur Miller annihilated an entire profession in his chef d’œuvre. Over the years I have been able to endure kneejerk comparisons to Holden Caufield for having gone to boarding school, relished the very accurate stereotypes of virility attributed to my Italian heritage, and abhorred the innuendos of criminality ascribed to the same. But to label myself a salesman remains an anathema.

The worstest wine in the world

Your West Coast Oenophile has been notably loathe to criticize individual wines, or wineries, on these pages. Not that I am unduly optimistic, or, like the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, given to the belief that all viticultural endeavors are inherently praiseworthy. Rather, the purpose of the Sostevinobile blog has always been to extol the bounty of superb wines that I have discovered on the West Coast and showcase them here in anticipation of our opening. Wines that do not pass muster are generally precluded from inclusion—but do know that there have been many whose lackluster structure and pallid flavor nullified their citation.

As is wont, the wine tasting season began with ZAP, held for the second year in its revamped format pouring at the cavernous air hangar in Alameda that houses Rock Wall, the ambitious successor to Rosenblum Cellars. This pared-down incarnation of the formerly Brobdingnagian event featured only six newcomers among the scant 92 wineries on hand for the exclusive trade tasting, including the debut from Zialena, Geyserville winemaker Lisa Mazzoni’s viticultural tribute to her aunt. Her striking 2012 Zinfandel Alexander Valley was nonetheless overshadowed by an extraordinary 2013 Zinfandel Alexander Valley, one of the most impressive wines of the afternoon.

Moving southerly, Glen Ellen’s Madrone Vineyards represents the rebranding of Valley of the Moon under its original moniker, with no diminution of its quality, as evidenced by two exceptional wines: the 2012 Estate Old Vine Road Block Zinfandel and the 2012 Window Block Zinfandel. Tinkering with technique in Zinfandel’s stronghold, three prominent Lodi viticulturalists—Tyson Rippey, Joseph Smith, and Barry Gnekow—joined together as Concrete Wine Company to bring forth their 2012 Old Vine Zinfandel, a wine blended from a trio of different vinification techniques: 40% concrete-fermented and 40% flash-extracted Zin fermented in oak barrels, blended with 20% fermented in stainless steel.

A genuine newcomer, Danville’s Glennhawk Vineyards, made a modest statement with its 2011 Zinfandel Contra Costa County, a wine not surprisingly overshadowed by the earlier 2010 Zinfandel Contra Costa County. However, I felt little Mercy, Mercy, Mercy towards Cannonoball’s Angels & Cowboys Wines, a venture that lists its address as Palo Alto. Their lone entry, the 2012 Proprietary Red Sonoma County, a blend of Zinfandel, Syrah, Petit Verdot, Sangiovese, Petite Sirah, and Malbec, proved surprisingly lackluster for a wine that boasts such complexity.

But even this mélange paled in comparison to what was arguably the worst wine I have ever sampled at a professional tasting. Four Corners represents the œnological foray from Conetech, the “alcohol adjustment” plant in Santa Rosa. Behind this fanciful euphemism is a brick & mortar facility that diminished the proof of finished or near-finished wines in order to lower its alcohol content below the 12% threshold to maintain its lower tax bracket.

Conetech extols the precision and mildness of its signature Spinning Cone Column process, a technique for dealcoholizing wine they maintain is gentler than most conventional methodolgies like centrifuging and cold press extraction. And since alcohol adjustment is designed to lower, not eliminate a wine’s measured alcohol, only a portion of the wine is processed, then blended back with the unadjusted wine to achieve the desired level, with additional step to retain the volatilized aroma compounds that evolve during the extraction.

The literature asserts that this technology diminishes only the alcohol, not the flavor or integrity of the wine. But what is claimed on paper is not necessarily borne out in the glass. Four Corners’ 2013 Zinfandel Russian River Valley, which lists an adjusted 10% alcohol by volume, tasted—and felt—as if it had been macerated with a Waring blender. Even the execrable swill known as Challis Lane I was compelled to drink at a recent gallery opening could not approach this nadir.


MADD Wine So what could possibly be worse than the abomination of alcohol-adjusted wine? A facile answer might be one of the so-called sweet wines that are fermented to a moderate level in order to retain enough residual sugar to appease a soda-pop palate or a completely dealcoholized wine, like Ariel. But alcohol-free wines or artfully-crafted varietal grape juices, like Navarro produces, merely aspire to fill a void—to give individuals who cannot or wish not to consume an alcoholic beverage the veneer of sophistication.

As in all matters, there are, however, exceptions—sometimes egregiously so. The perpetrators of this nadir hail from the vast expanse of the Great White North and its principal province, Ontario, though not from the famed Niagara Peninsula or any of the appellations governed by the VQA Ontario. Buried amid the vast urban sprawl of Toronto, MADD Virgin Drinks isn’t simply an enterprise endeavoring to produce a sophisticated array of alternative adult beverages, but a vehicle supporting the nefarious agenda of the ISIS of prohibition, Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

It would be fine if these zealots simply devoted themselves to their stated mission of reducing the scourge of vehicular accidents caused by impaired drivers. But beneath their agenda lies a not-so-subtle desire to rid society not only of excessive consumption but of alcohol altogether. As such, it is particularly galling that they set their sights on undermining the wine industry, easily the most socially responsible sector among alcoholic beverage producers.

The worstest wine in the world? You have your choice of three lo-cal flavors: Virgin Rouge, Virgin Blanc, or Virgin Brut.

Discoveries

It’s far too infrequent that Your West Coast Oenophile gets to celebrate a milestone in the prolonged development of Sostevinobile, but I suppose it will portend of good things finally coalescing in 2015 if I start off this year’s chronicle by noting that, at long last, I have managed to optimize our winery database and bring it current, cataloging a backlog of 400-500 business cards I had allowed to accrue over the course of 2014. Granted, not exactly earth-shattering news, but still a highly significant hurdle, with widespread ramifications for the Sostevinobile wine program as I dabble with alternative sources for funding (more on that in another post).

Much of what I wrote last year bemoaned the apparent decline in the major trade tastings, both in terms of public attendance and winery participation. Over the past two decades, these events have proven a cornerstone in my developing a comprehensive perspective on the West Coast wine industry and in enabling Sostevinobile to meet and vet some 3,600+ wine producers since our inception.

But I have never relied exclusively on these events to research the exhaustive program for sustainably-grown West Coast wines we are undertaking. Often, I resort to happenstance or other random means to discover unheralded wineries that limit their distribution to a discrete clientele or simply shy from publicity. No matter where I journey, I always make a point to avoid scheduling meetings or tastings for the latter part of the afternoon and allow myself to get lost along the back roads of the particular AVA I happen to be investigating. Invariably, I will stumble upon a ramshackle barn with a dirt driveway beside a barely perceptible welcome sign or ID placard, a harbinger of unpretentious yet dedicated craftsmen—vignerons, in the true sense of the word.

Last fall, I made several treks to southern Napa and the Carneros region to see how I might help out numerous friends whose wine operations were severely impacted by the Napa earthquake. On one such visit, en route to Bouchaine and Adastra, I quite unexpectedly came upon the unadorned rustic tract where McKenzie-Mueller Vineyards & Winery crafts its select varietals. The rundown, dusty barn that houses their wine operations and ersatz tasting room seemed anachronistic, a throwback to an era before ornate $50 tastings became the vogue in Napa, but the simplicity of the setting belied a fastidious endeavor whose forte lies with their bottling of the other four Bordelaise reds, a rarity here on the West Coast, along with an unwavering commitment to a straightforward vinification, unmasked by filtration or other manipulations.

Most impressive among their offerings were the 2006 Malbec Los Carneros and the 2009 Petit Verdot, both splendid renditions of these less storied varietals. The more familiar 2007 Estate Bottled Cabernet Franc Napa Valley and the 2009 Merlot Los Carneros proved nearly as striking, while their 2008 Estate Bottled Cabernet Sauvignon reflected the adequacy of this off year vintage.Alas, McKenzie-Mueller’s proprietary blend, the 2005 Tartan was not available this particular afternoon, and so I will be compelled to visit again!

On a different tour of the earthquake’s scope, I walked through downtown Napa to survey the undocumented damage and visit with the dozen or so wineries that have set up tasting rooms there. Stopping by Gustavo Wine, the downtown nexus for what had been known as Gustavo Thrace and other wines produced by the legendary Gustavo Brambila. Not to make short shrift of these selections, worthy successors all to his role in Château Montelena’s historic showing at the Judgment of Paris, but my intrigue lay in discovering the wines from Avinodos, a nascent undertaking by his son Lorin Brambila and Tasting Room Manager Dan Dexter. Starting off modestly, this label nevertheless made an auspicious debut with both their 2012 Sauvignon Blanc and a full-bodied 2012 Malbec—yet another encouraging indicator of California wineries’ determination not to accede to perceptions of Argentina’s inextricable domination of this varietal.

My meanderings in Dry Creek yielded similar serendipity. On a hot afternoon last fall, I unexpectedly came upon the Geyserville home of Cast, as I headed up Dry Creek Road in search of the beachhead at Lake Sonoma. This brand new, state-of-the-art winery culminates the aspirations of two community bankers from Texas, and though the ambience may seem a bit Southwestern, the wine is decidedly Californian. The early lineup includes a NV Blanc de Noirs, a Pinot-based sparking wine, a tepid 2013 Sauvignon Blanc, the vineyard-specific (Marimar Estate’s Don Miguel Vineyard) 2012 Pinot Noir, and the 2011 Grey Palm Estate Zinfandel. The forte for winemaker Mikael Gulyash proved, however to be the exquisite 2012 Old Vine Zinfandel Watson Vineyard and—atypical for Dry Creek— the 2012 Grey Palm Estate Petite Sirah.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the AVA, I discovered the striking, sustainably-designed tasting room for Uptick Vineyards. Perched above their Westside Road vineyards, I enjoyed a striking NV Sparkling Brut, a wine designed to bias me toward white selections. The 2012 Dry Creek Valley Sauvignon Blanc proved amiable enough, but the hot afternoon only accentuated the 2012 Hilda’s Rosé, a deft marriage of Pinot Noir and Syrah. Uptick

Because of the sweltering conditions, I eschewed Uptick’s selection of Russian River Valley Pinot Noir and Syrah, as well as their Old Vine Zinfandel, in favor of two delightful—and chilled— white selections: the 2009 Chalk Hill Chardonnay and the contrasting yet equally impressive 2011 Russian River Valley Chardonnay. There will be other occasions to revisit and sample these other selections, perhaps on my next Dry Creek stumble.


As much as I have lamented, over the past year in particular, the paucity of new labels for Sostevinobile to source at the major wine tastings—partly because I have repeatedly attended these events, partly because of the decline in winery participation—I nonetheless manage, on occasion, to encounter a plethora of discoveries.

Such fortuity seems to be the rule at the various Garagiste Festivals held throughout the state. Most recently, the Paso Robles session offered nearly 40 (!) wineries and labels to add to the Sostevinobile roster, a veritable cornucopia of nascent producers bottling under 1,000 cases annually. Exemplifying this profile, John & Lisa Shaw craft a scant 300 cases under their Alma Sol label. Their 2009 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon offered a competent wine, while their 2011 Meritage blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot proved preferable, even for such a challenging vintage. But, true to Paso’s unfettered œnology, the standout was the 2013 Sagrado, a proprietary blend of Syrah, Viognier, and Cabernet Sauvignon.

An implicit acknowledgment of this open spirit is evidenced in the nomenclature for Artisan Uprising. Brothers William & David Vondrasek produce a mere 275 cases annually, exemplified by their appealing 2012 Merlot, alongside its Bordelaise counterpart, the 2012 Malbec. By contrast, Barton Family’s 900 cases annually seems gargantuan (this volume partly explains their need to bottle under three distinct labels: Barton, Grey Wolf, and Occasional Wines). Here, under their eponymous line, the superb 2011 E-Street artfully blended 80% Tempranillo with 20% Mourvèdre (or Monastrell, its Spanish name).

Mourvèdre underpinned three sublime interpretations of traditional Rhône bottlings from Copia Vineyards, starting with 2013 The Answer, a marriage of 75% Syrah, 23% Grenache, and 2% Mourvèdre. Their previous project, 2012 The Cure predominantly featured Syrah, while their standout, the understated 2012 The Blend married 40% Syrah with equal parts Grenache and Mourvèdre. Dramatically, David DuBois’ Cholame Vineyard showcased the Mourvèdre-dominant 2011 Cross Country, a mélange rounded out with 35% Grenache and 5% Petite Sirah; this Rhône-style variant was nicely juxtaposed against the 2012 Summer Stock, an estate grown Grenache Blanc.

Rising above the strictures of the French AOC, Ascension Cellars forged together a line consisting of both Rhône and Bordelaise-style wines, showing deft touches with both their 2011 Ascendance, a proprietary blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and the 2012 Evangelist, an exceptional dessert-style (6.8% residual sugar) Viognier. Even more disparate, Château Lettau’s 1,100 case production not only spanned both Bordeaux and the Rhône, but offered an interpretation of Iberian varietals that proved their forte: a striking 2012 Stiletto Tempranillo, accompanied by the 2013 Albariño Kristy Vineyard. A winery that truly epitomizes the frontier spirit that demarcates Paso Robles, Deodoro Cellars dazzled with its unconventional blends, starting with a dazzling white trilogy of Sauvignon Blanc, Malvasia Bianca, and Viognier, the 2013 Euphoria. On the red side, the 2012 Pantheon married Zinfandel with Grenache and Syrah, a deft combination that almost made the straightforward 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon seem mundane. And lest I forget—the 2012 Nepenthe, tempering a Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc pas de deux with Petite Sirah.

Conventional or not, blends did seem to dominate among these craft vintners. One of my most impressive discoveries of the afternoon, Deno Wines, offered their imaginative 2010 2 Bills Estate Blend (66% Zinfandel, 34% Grenache) alongside a three-year vertical of their proscribed Rhône blend (60% Grenache, 30% Syrah, 10% Mourvèdre), the most striking of which was the middle selection, the 2009 Estate GSM. Proudly proclaiming its contrarian approach, Dilecta Wines poured what might be called an MSG, the 2012 Unorthodox, a blend of 42% Mourvèdre, 42% Syrah and but 16% Grenache. Less bold but as flavorful: their 65% Grenache/35% Syrah blend called the 2012 The Tiller.

The orthodox tenets of Catholicism under which I was inculcated as an impressionable youth attending St. Peter of Alcantara Church would not have countenanced the incorporation of an Indian elephant, particularly with its allusions to the Hindu god Ganesh, into its catechism; this unusual hybrid, however, distinguishes Guyomar Winery in Templeton, whose estate, coincidentally, is known as St. Peter of Alcantara Vineyard. Blue Nun this is not, but it pervasive religious nomenclature includes the 2010 Monsignor, a Petite Sirah-dominant blend with 24% Zinfandel, 16% Syrah, and 4% Grenache. On the other side of the pulpit, the 2010 Laity offered 64% Syrah, 16% Grenache, 14% Petite Sirah, and 6% Zinfandel, while the intermediary 2010 Oblate focused on the Zin, with 19% Petite Sirah, 9% Grenache and 5% Syrah to round it out. A relative gargantuan at this tasting, with 1250 case production, Falcone Family Vineyards loomed large with their 2012 Estate Syrah and a striking 2011 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Mia’s Vineyard, but overshadowed even these exceptional vintages with their NV Annaté V Estate Blend, an ongoing solera culled (so far) from the 2001, 2012 and 2013 bottlings of their proprietary Syrah/Petite Sirah/Cabernet Sauvignon blend.

Another classical Indian allusion, drawn from the apocryphal 65th position in Vātsyāyana’s Kama Sutra, LXV Wines strives to evoke a deep sensuality with its labels, as well as their wines, like their Cabernet Franc/Syrah/Merlot, the 2012 Secret Craving. and the seductive 2012 Rising Tempo, a deft blend of Grenache, Tempranillo, and Syrah. The double-entendre of its nomenclature—MCV (not to be confused with MC5) —derives from winemaker Matt Villard’s initials and well as to a different Roman numeral, to which he paid homage with he 2011 1105, a Petite Sirah softened with Syrah and Grenache and its more elegant successor, the 2012 1105, a true blend, with 66% Petite Sirah, 24% Syrah, 9% Grenache and a 1% splash of Viognier. However, MCV really kicked out the jams in Petite Sirah with their 2013 Pink, a rosé expression of Petite Sirah, Syrah, Grenache and Tannat, alongside their 2012 Petite Sirah Rosewynn Vineyard, a stunning expression of the varietal unadorned.

I always appreciate a good pun—especially a bilingual one. Ryan Pease’s Paix Sur Terre is a 400 case specialist in Mourvèdre, though when I arrived, they only had left their Syrah/Mourvèdre blend, the 2012 Either Side of the Hill still on hand (testimony, I guess, to the quality of their straight varietal bottling, 2012 The Other One). At 500 cases, Edmond August put on an amazingly diverse display, starting with the 2012 Inference, a classic Rhône white marrying 76% Roussanne with Viognier. Both their 2011 Soft Letters (½ Mourvèdre, ½ Grenache) and 2010 Indelible (Syrah rounded out with Grenache and Viognier) proved likable, drinkable wines, while the 2011 Anthology Red (60% Grenache, 16% Syrah, 8% Tannat, 7% Cinsault) stood on par with the white blend.

Like a number of wineries (Artisan Uprising and Guyomar) pouring their first vintage here, Diablo Pass displayed considerable viticultural adeptness with both their 2013 Grenache and the robust 2012 Tempranillo. Similarly, Mystic Hills Vineyard turned a passable 2011 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon into two deft Meritages, the 2011 Estate Unforgiven, a traditional five varietal blend and the more striking 2011 Sequel, a mélange of 605 Cabernet Sauvignon with equal parts Cabernet Franc and Merlot rounding out the wine. Sebastian Noël’s first vintage of Nobelle Wines displayed surprising sophistication, not only with Rhône’s fraternal white twins, the 2012 Marsanne and the 2012 Roussanne, but also with an astounding 2012 Cabernet Franc.

Despite my need to focus on labels to add to the Sostevinobile database, I still could not bypass a handful of familiar establishments like Cutruzzola. Once again, I delved into their 2011 Riesling Riven Rock Vineyard and reveled in their wondrous 2012 Gloria Pinot Noir. An even more extraordinary rendition of this varietal was the 2012 Pinot Noir Fiddlestix Vineyard RN Estate Winery featured. An unheralded viticultural star, this winery consistently impresses with blends like the 2010 Cuvée des Artistes (Syrah/Cabernet Sauvignon/Petit Verdot) and the 2011 Cuvée des Trois Cépages (Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot/Cabernet Franc). A most pleasant surprise, however, came from II Moons, a burgeoning label from my long-standing Dartmouth colleague John Gleason. This independent spinoff from Clavo Cellars seemed rather perfunctory when I first sampled their initial vintage. Two years later, I found myself vastly impressed by their 2012 Aporia, a well-balanced blend of Grenache Blanc and Marsanne. As splendid: the 2011 Angst, an atypical GMS equally balanced between the three varietals, while clearly the most striking blend, the 2011 Ardor, offered 50% Mourvèdre and 50% Syrah.

Andy Zaninoch’s Tlo Wines also poured a strikingly well-balanced 2012 GSM, skewed slightly toward the Grenache. Keeping stride, his 2011 Tempranillo featured 25% Touriga Nacional, a true Spanish blend. In contrast, Roger Janakus’ Stanger Vineyards elected to follow a decidedly unorthodox path, blending Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Tempranillo with noteworthy results. I noted a striking contrast between the Syrah-dominant 2009 Bench and the even core compelling 2010 Master, in which the Cabernet Sauvignon predominated. A similar fondness for atypical Syrah blends came from Jacob Toft, a decidedly esoteric (and eponymous) boutique. Bloviating notwithstanding, this winemaker made an eloquent statement with both his 2012 Sarah’s Cuvée, a Syrah blended with 18% Grenache, and the 2012 Maggie’s Cuvée, a predominantly Petite Sirah wine, with 22% Syrah and 19% Mourvèdre. And with its even more elliptical nomenclature, Nicora Wines nonetheless made a sizable impression with its 2012 Buxom Syrah (6% Grenache) and the 2012 Euphoric La Vista Vineyard, a delightful single-vineyard Grenache, balanced with 4% Syrah.

With 4,030 hits on Google, Sostevinobile certainly knows the value of creating your own portmanteau in dominating an Internet search on your name. Likewise, Ryan Render’s alteration of his surname to coin Rendarrio, which culls entries solely linked to his wine. Which probably accounts for the regal coat of arms on his label and blends like his 2011 First Born King, a Grenache/Syrah mélange. Admittedly, I had to research 2012 League of Shadows to uncover its Batman derivation, but required only traditional œnophilic techniques to uncover the appealing flavors of its Cabernet/Merlot marriage. Pulchella Winery is one of several wine labels to allude to dragonflies (Libellula pulchella or the Twelve-Spotted Skimmer), but manifests its individuality with distinctive blends like the 2012 Highs & Lows (66% Syrah, 34% Grenache), and the 2012 Awakening (66% Syrah, 34% Grenache).

In a similar vein, Justin Murphy’s Irie Wines showcased an intriguing trio of wines, starting with their 2013 One Love, a rosé of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, and Viognier. The 2013 Zinfandel La Vista Vineyard presented a single vineyard effort, while the extremely limited (23 cases!) 2012 Cask One tempered Petite Sirah with 8% Zinfandel. One of the few endeavors on hand that tackled Italian varietals, Bella Luna Winery featured a modest 2011 Lot One, their estate Barbera and their 2010 Estate Riserva, a SuperTuscan. Another contender, Vinemark Cellars, focused their efforts on Primitivo, with both their straight varietal bottling, the 2012 Primitivo, and the proprietary 2012 Mezzanotte, a balanced blend of 75% Primitivo and 25% Petite Sirah.

One of the smallest endeavors here, Soaring Hawk, offered an array of wines that comprised their 250 case production, the standout of which was easily the 2009 Syrah Gill Vineyard. Moving from the supernal to the pelagic, Seashell Cellars presented select blends like the 2010 Balboa Reserve (75% Tempranillo, 25% Garnacha) or the sedate 2011 Vineyard Collection, a Syrah-focused GSM. And I can think of no clever segue to assay the delightful wines of Felten Cellars, which distinguished itself with both the 2012 Gewürztraminer and its wonderful 2012 Old Casteel Vineyard Zinfandel.

Another splendid endeavor, The Missing Leg, stumped any critics with such full-bodied wines as its 2011 Syrah St. Peter of Alcantara Vineyard or the adroit 2012 Pinot Noir Kruse Vineyard. An equally compelling 2012 Estate Syrah distinguished Cambria’s Stolo Family Vineyards, while LaZarre Wines, the proprietary label of much-lauded winemaker Adam LaZarre, proved its mettle with their compelling 2010 Merlot Paso Robles and a subtle 2012 Albariño Edna Valley.

Also flourishing through their Iberian varietal bottlings, Filipponi Ranch, which produced an extraordinary 2012 Cronologie Verdelho alongside a more-than-approachable 2012 Cronologie Tempranillo. In a different vein but as appealing: the 2012 Lorenzo, a Syrah/Cabernet Sauvignon/Petite Sirah combine. As the festival drew to a close, I discovered a winery surprisingly sophisticated for its miniscule (450 case) production. The unapologetically Francophilic Clos Selène dazzled with their 2013 Hommage Blanc, a beguiling blend of 65% Roussanne and 35% Viognier. Purely Rhône-style in their focus, the 2012 Hommage à Nos Pairs Syrah deftly married varietal pickings from both Russell Family Vineyards and iconic Paso winery L’Aventure.

However, my greatest revelation of the day came from Wally Murray’s decidedly unpretentious Bon Niche. This unassuming vintner delighted with his 2011 Voyage an estate Syrah rounded with 20% Petit Verdot and 10% Merlot, but utterly defined what California Malbec could be with three of his offerings: the near-mindboggling 2010 L’Entrée, his estate Malbec, and both the astounding 2010 Voûtes, a proprietary 45% Malbec, 45% Petit Verdot and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and its worthy successor, the 2011 Voûtes. To say Murray has found his niche would be an understatement.

There will be several Garagiste Festivals in 2015. With more discoveries like these to be made, Sostevinobile’s calendar is marked for all.