As readers of these sporadic postings realize, Your West Coast Oenophilecontinues to plug away in discovering off-the-map wineries and nascent wine labels to add to the comprehensive database Sostevinobile is creating for our wine-by-the-glass and reserve lists. I would really prefer to be on the road far more often than I have been, visiting all the various AVAs that dot the three West Coast states—not to mention possible inclusions of such bordering regions as the Guadalupe Valley and Okanagan BC. Fortunately, the various major trade tastings, like next week’s Rhône Rangers, afford me the opportunity to visit with numerous wineries from regions I have only explored peripherally.
Recently, a couple of my affiliated wine undertakings—building wine programs for a handful of local restaurants and producing wine tastings for Ivy league alumni groups—redrew my attention to a slew of wineries producing Italian varietals in Riverside’s Temecula Valley. Many of my fellow members of the Nebbiolo Enthusiasts and Believers (NEB) hold a deep skepticism over the potential of this region, and I concede I am hardly in a position to refute them. Much to my chagrin, I have scant little familiarity with most of the wines produced here, and have only visited a small sliver of the AVA on a drive-through several years before I launched Sostevinobile.
Still, I want to believe Temecula can become an important wine producer. Not surprisingly, the AVA is abundantly planted with varietals generally associated with warmer climates, like Vermentino, Tempranillo, Nero d’Avola, and Sangiovese. But here you also find wineries like Cougar and Ponte that are in the vanguard for a number of decidedly esoteric varietals planted nowhere else on the West Coast: Falanghina, Coda di Volpe, Ciliegiolo, Piedirosso, Lambrusca di Alessandria, Brachetto d’Acqui, and—is it a wine or a cheese?—Pecorino. Sound like high time I hit the road.
To many readers, these varietals may seem adventurous, perhaps even esoteric (some, I’m sure, regard any Italian varietal, other than Pinot Grigio, as esoteric). For many others, the divergent selections poured at the recent rendition of Seven % Solution, constitute eclecticism. Sostevinobile, of course, is on a mission to source as many of these wines as we can find; as such, exotic is not a term that comes to mind with any of the wines I have encountered. Nonetheless, I would categorize a handful of producers as niche specialists, wineries that eschew the mainstream categories of still wines and limit themselves to crafting wine variants. Though technically a distillery, Ukiah’s Germain-Robin is probably the most reputed of this lot, pioneering the production of varietal alembic brandies (actually, a cognac, were it not for the restrictions of the 2006 EU pact). Also in Mendocino, Scharffenberger and Roederer make superb sparkling wines, while Napa’s St. Barthélemy bottles an array ports fortified with specialized distillates from the same varietal. Other North Coast producers include Prager Port Works in St. Helena and Sonoma Portworks in Petaluma. Unique even among this subset, Quady Winery in Madera only produces infused and fortified wines, ports, vermouths, and even a sherry (though, curiously, not a Madeira).
I have known Andy Quady for several years now and have long championed his Vya Vermouth—the sweet version, along with 136° Thomas Handy Sazerac, forms the base of my atomic cocktail recipe, The Manhattan Project. For sheer decadence, however, his dessert wines, based on a range of Moscato varietals are without peer. I have enjoyed earlier vintages of the 2014 Elysium, 2014 Essentia, 2015 Electra, and 2015 Red Electra on numerous occasions, but was only introduced to their seductive apéritif, the NV Deviation, an Orange Muscat infused with Rose Geranium and Damiana, at the recent Wine Warehousetrade tasting a couple of weeks back. Granted, the setting at Fort Mason hardly allowed for experiencing “the aphrodisiac powers of Damiana,” but the effect was perceptible.
Andy’s other revelation this afternoon was his homage to Amontillado, the NV Palomino Fino, a barrel-aged sherry produced from this relatively-obscure varietal. I could wax Poe-etically about this wine interminably, but suffice it to say that it has been progressively produced as a solera since its inception in 2002.
Only a handful of wineries in California vinify a solera-style wine, including Tackitt in Templeton, a Tempranillo from Geyserville’s Mercury, Lodi’s Berghold, Heritage Oak, and OZV, Cabernet soleras from ZD Wines in Napa and Le Cuvíer in Paso Robles, and a Late Harvest Zinfandel Vineyard 29 identifies as a “modified solera.”
Several weeks back, while attending CUESA’s grape-growing panel, How Green is Your Wine?, at the Ferry Plaza Building, I came upon a 400-case boutique venture from Santa Cruz, the whimsically macabre-named Condor’s Hope. There, alongside his biodynamically-farmed Syrah and Zinfandel, vintner Steve Gleissman produces a solera-style sherry from his Pedro Ximénez! This varietal, of course, is in no way related to José Jiménez, but in all my years developing Sostevinobile(plus the previous 25 years I spent with other wine involvements), I had never come across this grape. But, just as I was about to concede that Steve had finally stumped me, I discovered that Bill Nachbaur’s Alegría Vineyard contains Pedro Ximénez vines, as well as Palomino, among the 60 varietals he has planted!
Unfortunately, that leaves me with 25 more varietals yet to be sampled and catalogued for our eventual roster…
Your West Coast Oenophile realizes I may be setting myself up making the above declaration, but it’s time for me to redouble my efforts on all fronts concerning Sostevinobile. Later on, I will perhaps devote one or more of these entries to detailing the various aspects of what I am striving to do behind the scenes in order to effect our launch, but for now let me just say that the many, many months I have devoted (and kept both the wine world and my readership dangling) with the promise of opening an unparalleled wine bar/casual eatery/retail outlet will result in a far more comprehensive and exciting establishment than what I had originally mapped out.
The past few years have witnessed a
growing phenomenon, particularly in the Central Valley, of vineyards being
torn out and replanted with nut trees, now that almonds have surpassed grapes as the second leading crop in California. I personally have never been a rabid nut aficionado, although the proven health benefits of the Mediterranean Diet suggest that I ought focus on more than simply the wine component of this regimen.
Ironically, almonds have served as a continuous thread throughout my professional career, from my initial forays in the wine industry to some of the most inspired (albeit unproduced) copywriting I crafted during the thankless interregnum I employed myself in consumer advertising—even to now, with the peripheral ventures I have recently undertaken in order to finance my long-awaited shrine to West Coast’s viticultural prowess.
After I had severed my ties to Merrill Lynch White Weld and Bacardi’s futile attempts to compete in the wine arena—back then, apart from Gallo, the leading megaplayers in the industry were all food & beverage conglomerates like Coca Cola, Nestlé’s, Heublein, Seagrams—I took on a number of clients, including Agricultural Industries, Inc., the holding company that lost out to Suntory in its escalated bidding for Château St. Jean, after the Merzoian family put the winery up for sale. I won’t belabor readers with rehashing the story at this time, apart from my utter incredulity at this client’s refusal to consider the alternative of acquiring the 1,000,000-case operations of Sonoma Vineyards, now known as Rodney Strong, for $35,000,000 less than St. Jean’s eventual sale price; rather, the salient aspect of recounting this calamity was that Agland principals Dick Jones and Buzz Carless, in addition to owning vast tracts of Central Valley grapes they had hoped to vinify, also controlled what was then 50% of California’s almond crop.
The collapse of this deal pretty much catalyzed my decision to exit the Merger & Acquisitions field and plummet into the miasma of the advertising world. If I had had my druthers, I would have concentrated exclusively on broadcast accounts—script writing being my forte, particularly for radio. But advertising (as practiced in San Francisco) proved more pernicious than I could have ever anticipated, a collusion where mediocrity triumphed over talent and where broadcast copywriting was treated as a plum, rather than a skilled specialty. My efforts to transcend these biases met with success far too infrequently, but I did encounter a rare interlude when I was introduced to Chuck Blore, a radio legend in Los Angeles.
In 1995, Chuck hired me toscript a number of radio spots for Blue Diamond, the cooperative that thencomprised the majority of almond growers in California. I created a campaign that dovetailed rom their signature A Can a Week, That’s All We Ask, juxtaposing their array of flavored almond selections against a series of satirical cameos spoofing prominent public figures as Just Plain Nuts. These included such luminaries as Rush Limbaugh: That’s right, friends. A conspiracy of the Left to lower our average oxygen intake; Ronald Reagan: Well, if it doesn’t work, maybe I can sell a whole bunch of goods to embargoed countries at ten times their worth and pay off the national debt with the profits; and Hall of Fame pitcher Steve Carlton: The Borgias are still alive and controlling the world from a secret bunker below San Marino. A memorable campaign, to be sure, but little chance of convincing more than 3,000 almond growers to take a calculated risk with their marketing!
And so, putting the advertising profession in the rear view mirror, I created Sostevinobile after first tentative making tentative forays into starting my own label. Readers here know that launching a wine bar & retail operation this comprehensive has turned into quite a protracted process, compelling me to venture out into other practices while I assemble the necessary financing. Rather hesitantly, I allowed myself to reengage in Mergers & Acquisitions for the wine industry, on a limited basis.
I can’t say that this practice has become any easier over the past 25 years, nor any more lucrative. While I have tried to remain as judicious as possible, only taking on projects where I deemed myself to have 110% faith in both the validity and the resolve of my clients, the few deals I have allowed myself to entertain have, so far, all been for naught. Still, I found it quite interesting to discover that the principals behind Clarksburg’s Old Sugar Mill and the Clarksburg Wine Company now also control the majority of almonds grown in California! Some may call it déjà vu; some may call it an inexorable cycle. I just hope that the degree to which it drives me to drink inspires my customers when Sostevinobile finally opens its doors!
While I am on the topic of alternative crops, I found myself abruptly confronted this past week with plum blossoms covering the hood of my Corolla! Fruit trees blossoming in mid-January? Normally, I would have anticipated seeing fruit trees flower in April, but coupled with the news that estates in Napa are already pruning their vines, this accelerated vegetative cyclebodes ominous for the 2014 harvest, with dire predictions of yields reduced by as much as 80%!
But why fret over the uncertainty of the future? For now, with two consecutive bountiful harvests behind us, wine is in abundance, and as wineries begin to release and showcase their 2012 vintage, the quality of these wines appears to be just as impressive.
In any year, the first major tasting has traditionally been ZAP, radically reconfigured after 20+ years of captivating San Francisco in January. As I have cited in previous entries, every major trade tastings has forsaken the expanse of Fort Mason for an array of cozier venues throughout the Bay Area. ZAP had actually precipitated this migration two years ago, setting up shop at the Concourse Exhibition Center in the South of Market (SOMA). But with the huge influx of techies and humans over the past several years, available housing is at a dearth in San Francisco, and so this pavilion is being razed for a new condominium development.
The new format for 2014 bifurcated the Zinfandel tasting into separate trade and public events. The trade tasting took place three days before the public session, inexplicably excised from the logical relocation to the Presidio to Rock Wall’s expansive barrel room in Alameda. The roster of wineries that had once filled two halls in Fort Mason now dwindled to 85 participants, the vast majority of which had poured at numerous previous tastings.
The few discoveries I found here nonetheless proved consistently impressive. El Dorado’s Gwinllan Estate showcased a delightful 2009 Zinfandel, surpassed only by its striking 2010 Zinfandel. Healdsburg’s Hart’s Desire contrasted their semi-generic 2012 Ponzo Vineyard Field Blend Zinfandel with the superb 2012 Ponzo Vineyard Old Vine Zinfandel. No stranger here (or at numerous other tastings), Rutherford Wine Company showcased their Predator label’s 2012 Old Vine Zinfandel Lodi alongside their more formulaic 2012 Old Vine Zinfandel Napa Valley, bottled under their Rutherford Ranch label.
The Prisoner, and its sister label, Saldo, helped catapult David Phinney to viticultural fame. Now owned by the Huneeus family (Faust, Quintessa, Flowers), these wines still delighted, though at a slight notch below their earlier zenith. Nonetheless, I held both the 2012 The Prisoner, a Zinfandel blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Charbono, and Grenache, and the 2012 Saldo, a mix of multiple Zinfandel plantings in Napa, Sonoma, Lake, Amador, Mendocino, and Contra Costa counties, in equal esteem.
Moonlighting from his full-time gig at wine megabrokers Ciatti, Glenn Proctor debuted his Puccioni Vineyards, contrasting the 2010 Old Vine Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley with its equally worthy 2011 successor. And not content to devote her entire focus on her extraordinary Tierra Roja label, my friend Linda Neal showed herself equally adept to her Cabernet craft with her Mellowood’s 2009 Zinfandel Fair Play, its successor, the 2010 Zinfandel Fair Play, and the foundation of a nascent solera(?), the 2009/10 Red Hat.
Numerous friends and familiars filled the expansive setting here looking out across the bay to downtown San Francisco. Jerry Baldwin featured the 2010 Slater, a blend of Zinfandels from Baldwin Wines’ from Rattlesnake Ridge, Dawn Hill Ranch and Madrone Ridge vineyards. Beekeeper poured with its usual aplomb, dazzling with its 2011 Zinfandel Madrone Vineyard, while Morgan Twain-Peterson returned with two gems, the 2012 Sonoma Valley Old Vine Zinfandel and the 2012 Evangelho Heritage Wine, a field blend of 40% Carignane and 38% Mourvèdre, plus Zinfandel, Palomino, Alicante Bouschet, and Mission, from his Bedrock Wine. Meanwhile, Bella Vineyards dazzled with their 2011 Zinfandel Big River Ranch and a remarkable 2010 Zinfandel Lily Hill Estate.
I first met the Parducci clan in the early 1980s; here I tasted through McNab Ridge, Rich Parducci’s successor to the label his family sold to Paul Dolan. I was mildly impressed with McNab’s 2011 Mendo Zinfandel and the 2010 Coloniah Reserve Zinfandel, bottled under their Family Reserve label; more compelling were both the 2011 Zinzilla, a blend of 87% Zinfandel, 8% Pinotage, and 5% Petite Sirah, and the 2010 Zinister Reserve, also a McNab Family Reserve. As I might have expected, Kyle and Jorja Lerner of Harney Lane unfailingly wowed with their 2011 Lodi Zinfandel and the incredible 2011 Old Vine Zinfandel Lizzy James Vineyard. And my good friend Mike McCay also ventured from Lodi to Alameda to feature a quartet of his eponymous wines, starting with the 2010 Trulux Zinfandel. Equally appealing were the 2010 Jupiter Zinfandel and his extraordinary2010 Contentious Zinfandel, but the 2011 Equity Zinfandel proved the showstopper.
Representing Paso Robles, Sextant, producers of a rather rare Late Harvest Sauvignon Gris, comported themselves admirably with their flagship Zinfandel, the 2011 Wheelhouse, but truly shone with the 2011 Holystone. Their fellow Paso compatriots, Peachy Canyon, strained credulity with their 2011 Incredible Red but rebounded with their 2011 Westside Zinfandel. The Sierra Foothills were well represented by Placerville’s Lava Cap, with competent bottlings of the 2011 Zinfandel Rocky Draw and the 2011 Zinfandel Reserve, while Plymouth’s Andis showcased a trifecta: their 2011 Zinfandel Amador County, the 2011 Estate Zinfandel, and the venerable 2011 Zinfandel Original Grandpère, a wine sourced from oldest documented Zinfandel vineyard in California.
Of course, Napa was also well-represent atZAP, including Hendry and its tangential progeny, Mike & Molly Hendry. Their stellar 2011 Blocks 7 & 22 Zinfandel gave way to an even superior (and more specific)2011 Block 28 Zinfandel—too bad they didn’t pour the 2011 Block 24 Primitivo to contrast! And Mike and Molly had previously committed not to producing the same as their family, they happily succumbed with the 2011 Zinfandel R. W. Moore Vineyard. Meantime, at the next table over, Howell Mountain’s new owner, Mike Beatty, poured an equally noteworthy 2010 Old Vine Zinfandel.
Also under new ownership, Healdsburg’s Limerick Lane, a winery borne of Zinfandel, displayed flawless continuity with both their 2011 Zinfandel Russian River Valley Rocky Knoll and their 2011 Zinfandel Russian River Valley Block 1910. Geyserville stalwarts Trentadue contrasted their 2011 La Storia Zinfandel with the 2012 Old Patch Red Lot 36, a Zinfandel/Petite Sirah blend, while their winemaker, Miroslav Tcholakov, showcased his Miro Cellars’ 2011 Zinfandel Wolcott-Bevill & Piccetti Vineyards. And biodynamic pioneers Quivira featured their 2011 Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley, rounded with 10% Petite Sirah, 7% Carignane, 2% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 1%Syrah, plus their superb 2011 Quest, a blend of 85% Zinfandel and 15% Petite Sirah.
I freely admit a longstanding fondness for the Italian varietals Acorn produces; here owner Bill Nachbaur demonstrated the range of his œnological dexterity with the forthcoming 2012 Zinfandel Heritage Vines, and its current 2011 release, an astounding mélange of 78% Zinfandel, 13% Alicante Bouschet, and 7% Petite Sirah, with the remaining 2% comprised of a field blend that includes Carignane, Trousseau, Sangiovese, Petit Bouschet, Négrette, Syrah, Plavac Mali, Tannat, Muscat Noir, Peloursin, Béclan, Cinsault, and Grenache. Next, over at ZAP’s first table, I paid my respects to Italian progetto, Accademia dei Racemi, which featured its 2011 Sinfonia,a wine labeled as Zinfandel but cited as 100% Primitivo. No need to quibble—Racemi’s Gregory Perrucci has dedicated his efforts to preserving obscure Apulian varietals like Sussumaniello and Ottavianello, while patenting hybrids like Zinfandel/Malvasia Nera.
As intriguing as Racemi’s programs may seem, Sostevinobile cannot bend its sustainable parameters to accommodate an imported producer. But I am gradually moving towards considering other AVAs beyond the California-Washington-Oregon axis, should they fall within the radius from San Francisco that I have proscribed. This expansion could include up & coming West Coast regions, such as the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia or the Guadalupe Valley in Baja California Norte, along with the burgeoning wine destinations of nearby Arizona.
The experimental blends produced by Jerome Winery/Cellar 433 certainly lend credence to this argument. Here at Rock Wall, the team from Gilbert, AZ poured eclectic concoctions like their NV Zinfandel/Blaufränkisch, a 2010 Zinfandel/Marselan, and a barrel sample of their Amuse Bouche, a mix of Primitivo and Arinarnoa. Other offerings included the 2010 Bitter Creek Star XVII, their Primitivo/Montepulciano blend rounded out with Tempranillo and Petite Sirah, and the 2010 Arizona Angel—by comparison, a staid Zinfandel/Syrah marriage—and the unblended 2012 Jerome Primitivo. Whew!.
Reaching back inside my originally designated boundaries, Oregon’s lone representative here, Troon Vineyard, offered a straight, if not exceptional, quartet of Zins, starting with their 2011 Foundation ’72 Zinfandel. The 2012 Foundation ’72 Zinfandel proved excellent, as did the 2011 Estate Zinfandel Applegate Valley, but the absolute standout proved to be the 2010 Reserve Zinfandel. Even closer to home, I concluded this tasting with Brown Estate, one of ZAP’s perennial favorites. Of course, their 2012 Napa Valley Zinfandel was delightful, and the 2012 Chaos Theory, this year blending 60% Zinfandel, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 5% Petite Sirah, drew the customary crowd to their table. But arguably the best wine I tasted this afternoon had to be the 2012 Rosemary’s Block Zinfandel, a near-perfect expression of the grape.
I did not have the bandwidth to take in the numerous other events scheduled for this year’s festival, and so cannot evaluate the wisdom of dissociating the trade and public tastings. As for relocating to Alameda? Until they build a bicycle lane on the western span of the Bay Bridge, I will always opt for a San Francisco site. Whether the wineries concur, remains to be seen.
No matter, when Sostevinobile opens its doors, they will always have a San Francisco showcase.