Category Archives: Cabernet Sauvignon

Paint It Black

To some a glass is half-empty; others see it as half-full. I tend to regard it as a glass that is twice the size it need be. So now the pandemic (plus a little incursion along the Baltic Sea) has brought us to the point of $6.50/gallon—regrettably, I still drive a conventional vehicle as I save up for a Lucid Air—gasoline. But rather than bemoan the price, I marvel at have rapidly I can now pump $20 worth of Arco Unleaded whenever I fill up!

Earlier this month, Your West Coast Oenophile hit the road again on behalf of Sostevinobile, returning to Sonoma’s Veterans Hall for the revival of Garagiste Festival Norther Exposure. Given the two-year hiatus since its last rendition, I shouldn’t have been surprised that, of the 43 wineries on hand, 17 were either previously untried or utterly new to me, along with several I first encountered only last November at the Paso Robles session.

The only problem with tasting with and evaluating so many new labels is that I forget to take photos while jotting down my notes. And so, I’m afraid my sundry readers must make do here without the benefit of images. But know that i was impressed with this array of newcomers, starting with the potpourri of German, Italian, Portuguese and French varietals Accenti Wines poured. While all proved quite amiable, I was vastly impressed by the 2020 Dry Riesling Fountaingrove District, a wine that belied its reputation for having a sweet tinge. Meanwhile, microproducer Amrita Cellars firmly asserted itself onto the Pinotism bandwagon, with clear progress shown from its 2017 Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast to the more vibrant 2018 Pinot Noir Russian River Valley.

It’s highly tempting to call Sandro Tamburin’s Anthesis Wines the antithesis of the wines his father-in-law Ray D’Argenzio produces at their shared Santa Rosa facility. All punning aside, I’d be hard-pressed to select a favorite among the four superb wines Anthesis had on display: a 2018 Chardonnay from Napa Valley, the 2017 Pinot Noir Petaluma Gap, or two orange wines, a 2016 Picpoul Blanc and a 2016 Falanghina, both from Alder Springs Vineyard. Meanwhile, a marvelous discovery from the eastern Carmel Valley, a region from where one might expect a slew of Pinot Noirs, Boëté Winery made its stand a Bordelaise powerhouse. Sourced exclusively from their Saunders Vineyard, their three-varietal blend (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc), the 2018 Cheval Rouge proved a worthy homage to the Right bank’s legendary Cheval Blanc, while both 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2018 Merlot shone through for their own merits.Even more impressive, B0ëté’s 2017 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon easily rivaled a $250 Napa Cab for a third of its price.

Wesley Box  probably never anticipated the emergence of boxed wines when he began his Box Wine Company. Fortunately, there was no double-entendre among his offerings here, highlighted by the 2020 Black Roses Sangiovese and 2020 Black Roses Pinot Noir, along with a distinctive 2020 Sirras Knights Valley. BSC Wines, short for Brue Skok Cellars, proved a rare find, excelling in both the Burgundian, with a standout 2016 Stony Point Pinot Noir and with their Bordeaux blend, the 2016 Geography Lesson—no mean feat for the same winemaker.

Hailing from Healdsburg, Charlie Gilmore’s vineyard-specific Cormorant Cellars comported themselves amiably, most notably with a 2021 Chardonnay Zabala Vineyard. Meanwhile, Forgotten Union sounds like a perfect wine to help consummate a one-night stand; nonetheless, their 2018 Vidi Vitis Cabernet Sauvignon from Oakvilleproved quite memorable. another Cab I quite cottoned to the Sonoma offering from Guerrero-Fernandez Winery,  the 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Knight’s Valley.

No suspense here. Lussier Wine Company will probably not gain many fans among vegan circles, but their 2019 Pinot Noir Golden Fleece Vineyard would certainly complement a plate of prosciutto, while their 2020 Chenin Blanc Green Valley Vineyard shone through on its own. Kevin Lee’s Marchelle Wines may fit the bill as a Garagiste, but winemaker Greg La Follette certainly is no neophyte. Breaking from the confines of Chardonnay/Sauvignon Blanc/Pinot Noir/Zinfandel that define his craft at Quivira and his eponymous label. And so the true delights here were the 2020 Cinsault Bechthold Vineyard, the 2019 Marchelle Carignan Jessie’s Grove, and a delightful rarity, the 2021 Pinot Meunier—my go-to wine for Thanksgiving, anytime I can source some.

One of the jewels of the Pine Mountain Cloverdale Peak AVA is Nikki Mustard’s Pine Mountain Vineyards, a winery, despite its small production, gives tremendous credence to this up & coming Napa challenger. Standouts from their exceptional lineup included the 2019 Estate Cabernet Franc, a 2018 Estate Red Blend, (a mélange of 68% Cabernet Sauvignon, 26% Merlot, 6% Cabernet Franc), and perhaps the most impressive wine of the afternoon, the near-flawless 2012 Ampère Cabernet Sauvoignon PMV Estate. Nonetheless, I doubt anyone else could have charmed me more than Ashley Holland, co-owner and vintner at Sonoma’s Read Holland Wines. But her pulchritude belied the excellence of her vinifications, most notably her 2019 Pinot Noir Deep End and her luscious library selection, the 2016 Pinot Noir Deep End.

Arthur O’Connor’s Rondure Wines made a noteworthy debut, also with selections of his Pinots: the 2019 Pinot Noir Russian River Valley  and the vineyard-specific 2019 Pinot Noir Sangiacomo Roberts Road Vineyard, both made with his revival of the Spanish tecnica de capas. Also featuring their first vintage from 2019, Terre et Sang excelled with his Santa Barbara Syrahs, in particular the 2019 The Long Road Syrah Thompson Vineyard and a deft Syrah-Grenache blend, the 2019 Leave It to the Birds Peake Vineyard.

Closing out my new discoveries for the afternoon, Gondak’s offshoot, Little X Little impressed with their 2020 Chenin Blanc Mangels Vineyard from Suisun Valley, while Tiana Sawyer’s aptly-named Wild Rising Wines showed across the board excellence, particularly with thee 2021 Ana Rosé of Pinot Noir, a 2021 Aqua Chardonnay from Petaluma Gap, and the deep-bodied 2019 Igris Cabernt Sauvignon.

Not to give short shrift to the other 26 wineries on hand, all of which I extolled in the past and happily tasted once again. But with so many wineries on hand, is there any wonder why I forgot to snap any photos?

Slowly winding up

Sostevinobile has been affiliated with the Slow Food movement since our launch, but it was not without a degree of trepidation that Your West Coast Oenophile set out to attend the Slow Wine Tour at Pier 27 earlier this week. Initially, this wine tasting was incorporated as part of Slow Food’s annual extravaganza at Fort Mason that featured virtually every Italian restaurant in San Francisco. The first few years, only Italian wines were featured—not surprising, since Slow Food’s San Francisco founder, Lorenzo Scarpone, runs Villa Italia, a premier wine importer in South San Francisco. Eventually, however, the wines of Mendocino County, which bills itself as America’s Greenest AVA, were also included.

After a few iterations, Mendocino began holding its own San Francisco Grand Tasting—the first, at Fort Mason, included amazing aerial acrobatic performances à la Cirque du Soleil—which ultimately led to Slow Wine holding its own January event, six months after each annual Slow Food extravaganza. And just as Slow Food has expanded beyond its Italy & San Francisco beginnings, the wine tasting has grown to incorporate participants from throughout the West Coast AVAs.

I was quite surprised that The Slow Wine Tour held to its January schedule. ZinEx, Union des Grand Crus de Bordeaux, and others decided to postpone their tastings scheduled for this week, due to the Omicron surge. I resolved to give this event a whirl provisionally, determined that if the expansive ground level at Pier 27 felt even slightly congested, I would forego the event until 2023. But with only moderate attendance and ample ventilation through the opened garage doors, I deemed it safe enough for a limited visit.

Rather than trying to undertake the entire lineup of 102 vendors, I held to the parameters established for Sostevinobile and restricted my samplings only to the ample selection of West Coast wineries on hand this afternoon. Conveniently, Slow Wine placed the tables from California, Oregon, and Washington at the end of the numeric roster, so it was easy to migrate sequentially, pace myself accordingly, and take ample notes. And it was a particular pleasure to start my tasting with Angwin’s Adamvs, one of Philippe Melka’s standout projects. Around this time of year, I relish the annual Atelier Melka Tasting at Première Napa, but sadly it will not be taking place in 2022. Here, along the Embarcadero, I could not have been more impressed with the two wines Adamvs poured, both Cabernets: their 2016 Téres, a deft blend of 90% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Merlot, and 4% Cabernet Franc, alongside their flawless 2016 Quintvs, an exquisite pure expression of the varietal.

At the next table, organic wine pioneers Bonterra represented a continuum from Slow Wine’s Mendocino beginnings. Here they ably showcased the versatility of their viticulture with their 2020 The Roost, a biodynamic Chardonnay from their Blue Heron Vineyard, alongside the 2019 The Butler, a Rhône-style blend of Petite Sirah, Syrah and Grenache. Also included, for comparison, the 2016 The Butler, a library selection. Moving on, another storied Howell Mountain winery, Burgess, now part of the burgeoning Demeine Estates empire, featured a trio of wines from their previous incarnation. The 2014 Mountaineer proved an amiable blend of 46% Syrah, 43% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Petit Verdot, and 3% Petite Sirah. A slightly more orthodox blend, the 2016 Contadina Cabernet Sauvignon, absent the more frequently incorporated Merlot and Cabernet Franc, rounded out the varietal with both Petit Verdot and Malbec, while the 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon Hillside Vineyards clearly rose to the top.

Another conspicuous absence from this year’s Première Napa will be the popular Bottle Party at Cliff Lede. From their Mendocino vineyards, the 2019 FEL Chardonnay Anderson Valley exemplified how this AVA has grown into one of California’s premier Burgundian regions, but my preference still leaned toward Cliff’s Napa selections, the 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District and the utterly superb 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District Magic Nights. Showcasing another exemplary locale for Burgundy varietals, Carneros, Donum Estate, the former domain of the lustrous Anne Moller-Racke, comported itself admirably with three expressions of Pinot: the 2020 Rosé of Pinot Noir, a superb 2019 Pinot Noir Three Hills Vineyard, and the 2019 Pinot Noir White Barn Single Block Reserve, an Editors’ Top Selection.

From Camino in the Sierra Foothills, Edio, the homegrown label from Delfino Farms, offered a refreshing line up of their 2020 Albariño El Dorado County, the 2019 Grenache El Dorado County, and a delightfully Mourvèdre-focused GSM, the 2019 Frank’s Rhone Blend. From Edio Delfino to Ettore Biraghi—wines just seem to taste better with a strong Italian name behind the label! This eponymous label is a new Mendocino venture from this pioneering vintner, whose Purovino® certification exceeds the non-additive strictures of the Natural Wine Movement. Here, at the Slow Wine Tour, this sulfite-free technique shone through in the 2018 Chardonnay Pure and the striking 2018 Chardonnay Reserve. Underscoring this all-organic lineup: the delightful 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon Signature, handpicked from Hopland’s Sanel Valley Vineyards.

Even before COVID struck, my efforts to visit Hamel Family Wines new Valley of the Moon facility were thwarted by an appointment-only policy. Allora, this obstacle will now be surmounted, but, in the interim, I greatly enjoyed the biodynamic wines poured here, starting with their excellent Bordeaux blend, the 2018 Isthmus. Far less of a tongue-twister, yet as appealing on the palate, their two reserve proprietary Cabernets: the 2017 Nuns Canyon Vineyard and the 2017 Hamel Family Ranch. Not long before COVID, I was able to snag a reservation at Saratoga’s prestigious Mount Eden, where I spent a wondrous afternoon sipping and sampling with Proprietor Jeff Patterson. Here, in a more objective milieu, the wines proved even more enticing, starting with a quite respectable 2017 Estate Bottled Pinot Noir. The 2017 Estate Bottled Chardonnay showed even more impeccable, but the 2016 Estate Bottled Cabernet Sauvignon was virtually flawless, a paean to the extraordinary expressions of this grape found within this coveted sector of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA.

I am also an unabashed fan of Mendocino’s Roederer Estate, so was extremely pleased to taste with Domaine Anderson, their still wine adjunct in Mendocino. As you might expect from a sparkling wine producer, their three wines focused on Champagne grapes: the 2018 Estate Chardonnay, the 2018 Estate Pinot Noir,  and the single vineyard 2018 Pinot Noir Dach Vineyard. If only they had bottled a Pinot Meunier, as well! Just below Mendocino, Geyserville’s Sei Querce is a relative newcomer to the winery realm (although they have been growing Bordeaux varietals since 2010). Their 2019 Sauvignon Ranch House made for an auspicious debut, but a pair of Cabernets , made under the tutelage of star winemaker Jesse Katz,  the 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon Six Oaks and the splendid 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon Ranch House, proved exemplary. An added treat: their new First Edition Vermouth, an exceptional aromatic wine blending Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Musqué, Sémillon and Viognier.

Postmodern winemaker Clark Smith, who helped found R. H. Phillips when it was a lonely outpost in Yolo County, brought the eclectic selections of his current label, WineSmith. Though based in Santa Rosa, Smith seems quite peripatetic, sourcing his 2017 Sparkling Grenache Brut Zero from Santa Cruz, a 2019 Tempranillo Tejada Vineyard from Lake County, and an interesting yet lackluster 2014 Meritage Ishi Pishi Vineyard from northern Humboldt County. Reaching out above the Emerald Triangle, Oregon’s Left Coast Estate made the trek to San Francisco to impress with their de rigueur selections: the 2019 Chardonnay Truffle Hill, the 2016 Pinot Noir Truffle Hill, and a superb 2018 Pinot Noir Cali’s Cuvée. Their standout, however, was the painstakingly-produced 2020 Estate White Pinot Noir, an exceptional example of this rare vinification.

Former Rubicon sommelier Larry Stone’s Lingua Franca similarly offered a Burgundian take on Oregon, with its own inimitable flair: a wondrous 2019 Avni Chardonnay, their 2018 Avni Pinot Noir, and the decidedly more complex 2017 Estate Pinot Noir. Likewise, Hillsboro’s Ruby Vineyard poured a pair of Pinots, the 2018 Laurelwood Blend Pinot Noir and the
2017 Flora’s Reserve Pinot Noir, alongside their unadorned 2018 Chardonnay. If pressed to choose, I think that Winderlea stood out in this niche, not just for the their 2018 Chardonnay, but with a trio of noteworthy Pinots: the 2017 Imprint Pinot Noir, the 2017 Legacy Pinot Noir, and the unassuming yet wondrous 2017 Pinot Noir Winderlea Vineyard.

Despite this uniformity, Oregon viticulture is hardly monolithic, as Cornerstone’s former President Craig Camp displayed here with his current project, the biodynamic- and regenerative-certified Troon Vineyard. Their 2019 Estate Syrah Kubli Bench was a most welcome bottling, while the 2020 Estate Vermentino Kubli Bench fit the overall Italian nature of the Slow Wine exquisitely. But their œnological prowess was truly on display with the 2020 Kubli Bench Amber, a most memorable orange (skin-contact) blend of Riesling, Vermentino, and Viognier. In fact so good, I had to take a bottle home!

Not to be downplayed, Washington did have representation here, a rare public tasting of the highly-acclaimed Cayuse Vineyards, with their splendidly-named 2018 God Only Knows Grenache, the 2019 Impulsivo Tempranillo, and an ungodly great 2018 Horsepower Syrah.

In other years,I might have remained at Pier 27 and cherry-picked my way through the various Italian tenute on hand. But even being triply-vaccinated,  was wary about potential exposure to this pernicious Omicron variant. Still, if anything can kill a Covid virus, it would undoubtedly be grappa, and so before leaving, I sampled through the four selections Venetian distillery Andrea Da Ponte poured: the Unica Da Ponte 2011, Vecchia Grappa di Prosecco, their Uve Bianche,
and the Fine Grappa Italiana. So far, nary even a sniffle!

Are we back yet?

In forming Sostevinobile, Your West Coast Oenophile dedicated this still-nascent venture not only to creating a singular temple for wines produced along the entire stretch of the North Pacific’s West Coast (Baja California—British Columbia), but committed these efforts to the highest level of sustainability we could attain. My personal dedication to this latter facet of our business is to cycle as much as possible, instead of driving, notably throughout the confines of San Francisco proper, as well as points attainable over the Golden Gate Bridge. At least as long as my increasingly wobbly knees will withstand.

And so, one might assume that I regarded the dramatic reduction of automobile traffic, particularly at the start the damned pandemic, as a boon. But, as it turned out, the remarkably clean air proved quite the annoyance. As soon the sun began settling past the meridian, the blinding glare became overwhelming, making any kind of westerly route unbearable, if not hazardous. Dare I say I actually began to miss the air pollution?

Heading to Paso Robles earlier this month, my route required that I pass through the confines of the tech jungle for the first time since 2019. Much to surprise, in the offing to my left, there hovered the famed San José smog along the Diablo Mountains that bifurcate Santa Clara County. Could this be an omen that the end of COVID-19 was finally within sight? Could foul air mean congested traffic mean a return to normalcy? It’s enough to make a wine guy want to learn how to plot an algorithm!

But nothing that Legoland (my derisive term for Silicon Valley) offered could dissuade me from reaching my destination for the weekend. Various complications had kept me from visiting Paso since 2018, so the opportunity to return for the revived Garagiste Wine Festival proved too compelling to miss. Arriving the day before the Grand Tasting, I spent the afternoon reacquainting myself with the township.

For the past several years, ground zero for cutting-edge winemaking in Paso Robles has been the eclectic collective known as Tin City. But what had been a relatively underground enclave had blossomed into a full-fledged destination, overflowing with wineries and tasting rooms, as well as breweries, cider plants, restaurants and artisan food purveyors. Not to mention teeming with locals and tourists alike. As Dorothy Gale might have said, “I’ve a feeling we’re in Kansas anymore!”

A sign of COVID times, simply dropping in on a Tin City tasting room no longer is an option, a change that severely hampered my modus operandi. Nonetheless, I was able to schedule a special trade appointment with Giornata, Paso Robles leading producer of Italian varietal wines. Brian and Steffi Terrizzi are both fellow members of NEB, so, not surprisingly, their 2018 Nebbiolo Luna Matta—for the uninitiated, Nebbiolo, the grape that constitutes both Barolo and Barbaresco, is known among cognoscenti as the wine for when Pinot Noir drinkers grow up—proved extraordinary, as did the 2018 Aglianico Luna Matta.

Giornata’s Fatto a Mano series of wines might be deemed “natural,” but the term hardly does justice to these painstakingly crafted wines that are aged in amphorae. Standouts among these selections were the proprietary white blend, the 2020 Bianco Estate, a deft mélange of Trebbiano, Friulano, and Ribolla Gialla, and their esoteric red, a co-fermented 2020 Grenache Moscato, produced with Moscato Gialla and an early picked Grenache Rouge.

As much as I enjoyed these two wines, my eyes nonetheless gravitated toward the 2020 Falanghina, my first experience with this varietal as a skin-contact wine. But, of course, I could not overlook the flagship 2020 Ramato, easily the intensely orange Pinot Grigio I have ever experienced. An utterly superb bottling!

Even after two hours, I could have stayed on—and perhaps should have, after learning that the renowned Luna Matta Vineyard, the crown jewel of Italian varietals in Paso Robles, was being replanted with Cabernet Sauvignon—a most egregious development in my book. But the Grand Tasting for Garagiste beckoned, and even without cohesive directions to the Paso Fairgrounds, I reluctantly departed.

COVID-19 has been so devastating, in so many ways. For like myself in the wine sector, its impact on trade tastings has been particularly arduous, not just stifling all aspects of our business practices but depriving us of the camaraderie these gatherings foster. Since California’s putative lifting the pandemic color coding system, there has been a slow reemergence of trade events, though most have been a pallid vestige of their former incarnations, with reduced attendance capacities, substitute pourers, a dearth of trade/media passes, and astronomical ticket prices—particularly in Napa, where some four different AVA events sought ~$175 for a two-hour tasting.

A number of imported wine events have resurfaced these past six months, including St. Emilion, Portugal, Georgia, and the annual Simply Great Italian Wines, though almost all were represented by their American distributors. While these events help as a point of comparison and often attune my palate to varietals like Saperavi or Alvarelhão that have scant plantings here in California, they offer little in the way of reigniting Sostevinobile’s core mission.

Since June, I’ve been happy to attend the inaugurals of both the Chardonnay Classic and the Cabernet Classic at Vista Collina, as well as Healdsburg Crush, the revamped rendition of Pinot on the River, all of which still were generous enough to accommodate select media and trade. And I was most please to be once again selected as a judge for USA Wine Ratings. But it wasn’t until Garagiste that I felt a true sense of return to normalcy.

The true beauty of these tastings is the opportunity to discover an array of small producers whom I might not have otherwise encountered. This time, after a 2-year hiatus, the list of newcomers was bountiful, with 23 wineries to add to the Sostevinobile database. Layout of the Paso Event Center lent itself to an easy alphabetical navigation, which I followed in reverse order. Just because…

Here’s a brief synopsis of the wineries I discovered:

  • Zanoli Wines, a local, 350 cases project focused on Rhône varietals. Standout selections included their 2019 Mourvèdre Glenrose Vineyard and the 2018 Red, a Syrah-dominated GSM blend
  • The Wine Boss, a winery & custom-crush facility in Paso Robles, offered an amiable 2018 Fortunate Youth Cabernet Franc
  • Executive Director for Rhône Rangers, Kim Murphy-Rodrigues, poured both a 2020 Picpoul Blanc and a 2018 Grenache Morro View Vineyard that may have been the afternoon’s best selection, for her family-owned Vigo Cellars
  • Thibido Winery, a new Paso Robles producer, showcased their 2020 First Date Grenache Blanc and the superb 2020 Just Because Carbonic Syrah—just because…
  • Another new endeavor, St. Eva Hill, seemed a decidedly mixed bag, but I did cotton to their 2019 Estate Petite Sirah, as well as the 2019 Estate Rosé
  • Bakersfield’s San Rucci, a truly boutique effort, impressed with their 60 case bottling of the 2019 Cabernet Franc
  • RF Fine Wines delighted with their 2015 Riserva Primitivo, but their forte was in a trio of Paso Robles Cabernets, most notably the 2018 Legacy Cabernet Sauvignon
  • From Turley’s vineyard manager, Brennan Stovall, the intriguingly-named Quench & Temper is uniquely focused on blending Graciano with Rhône varietal grapes, exemplified by the 2019 Chapter IV (+ Grenache) and the 2019 La Cantera (+ Syrah)
  • I was vastly impressed with Nenow Family Wines, another Paso-based Rhône producer, with excellent selections across the board, particularly their GSM blend, the 2018 Elevens and an astounding 2018 Syrah Kimsey Vineyard
  • In Atascadero, south of Paso Robles, John Merrick’s Mea Wine presented a cross-section of Italian, French, And Spanish varietals, and while I am wont to favor his 2019 Estate Vermentino, the 2018 Revelation, a Syrah-Tempranillo blend, proved equally compelling
  • In recent years, Paso has been home to California’s renewed interest in Mourvèdre, the proverbial Holy Ghost of the GSM Trinity. Here, Loma Seca best exemplified the stunning versatility of this varietal with their 2019 Estate Mourvèdre
  • Mourvèdre can also be known as Mataro or Monastrell. Like Grenache, aka Garnacha, it is popular as both a Rhône grape and a Spanish varietal, too. Still. it is uncommon for both grapes to be blended with a pair of more distinct Spanish plantings, Tempranillo and Graciano, but this quartet comprised a most distinctive wine, the 2019 La Macha. from Paso Robles’ Hayseed and Housdon
  • The familiar refrain, Don’t Call It Frisco, doesn’t apply if that happens to be your surname. Nor is it an apostasy for Frisco Cellars to produce their 2018 Blanc du Rouge, a painstakingly handcrafted white Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Because I can speak Italian, I was able to deduce the meaning of Familia Hicks, as it varies only slightly from our term famiglia. But were it not for this Paso Robles micro-boutique, I would not have known that their 2019 Kazoku, a Templeton Gap Syrah, also means family (in Japanese)
  • This name only seems like a typo. Etnyre Wines heralds from Pismo Beach and produces 200 cases of coastal reds, displayed here with both the 2016 Pinot Noir Quin’s Vineyard and the striking 2016 Syrah Quin’s Vineyard
  • Orion Stang partnered withColorado winemaker Richard Crockett to create Emercy , a Paso Robles winery on eclectic blends, like their 2019 Grenache/Cabernet Sauvignon/Petite Sirah, whose unimaginative name belies it’s extraordinary complexity
  • I vaguely recall Dracaena from their incubation at San Francisco’s former Crushpad facility, but now they have grown to a full-fledged Paso Robles operation, producing a noteworthy 2019 Classic Cabernet Franc, alongside their Rosé and Chenin Blanc offerings
  • Of course, even if your name really is Demeter, your wine should be biodynamic, but their 2015 Sangiovese Javadi Vineyards muted any criticism I might have had
  • On the other hand, I can’t saying specifically what a winery named Crush Vineyard ought to produce, but their 2017 Inception, a GSM blended with Tannat, proved most intriguing
  • I had met Paige Wilson at Concur’s Tin City facilities on the previous day, but, despite her libertarian proselytizing, promised to taste with her husband Patrick at Garagiste. Happy to report that there was nothing laissez-faire about the 2018 Tank, a Mourvèdre-focused GSM blend
  • I suspect I would have found Bushong’s wine selections as compelling even if it weren’t for their intriguing label designs. Certainly, both their superb 2019 Tannnat Vineyard 1010 and the 2019 Same Deep Water, a Spanish varietal blend of Cariñena, Tempranillo, and Garnacha proved complex wines that could overshadow even the blandest packaging
  • Similarly, Karin Langer’s Bolt To Wines matched the sheer excellence of her 2019 Chardonnay Sta. Rita Hills and 2018 Syrah Ballard Canyon withcevocative renditions of Central Coast flora and fauna
  • Given its resurgence in Paso Robles, I would have expected to find quite a number of Malbecs being poured this afternoon. Nonetheless, the 2018 Malbec Paicines AVA (San Benito County) from Arianna Wines was enough to suffice, while her 2020 Torrontés Alta Mesa was a perfectly refreshing white with which to wrap up this hot afternoon

I wish I could have remained in Paso Robles for several more days, but I had committed to the revival of the West of West tasting being held in San Francisco. Held amid the hyper-elegant confines of The Battery, this intimate gathering assembled all the hallmarks of a well-appointed professional tasting, compact yet easily navigated, hampered only by its lack of a printed program. To be honest, there was little revelatory to this event; given the narrow focus (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, with a splash of Syrah) of the West Sonoma AVA, I have long been familiar with the selections each winery has to offer. My attendance here was primarily to show my support and to reconnect with the winemakers on hand after the arduous 20 months of pandemic separation.

Granted, these two events were not 100% back to pre-COVID status, but things finally felt close enough to declare “we’re back!” But then Taste Washington announced they were compelled to cancel for 2022, South Australian Shiraz: Iconic and Ageworthy postponed until January (or later) due to shipping difficulties, and up pops the Omicron variant. Sempre lo stesso…

 

I have good news and I have bad news

If years could be encapsulated as a wine, 2020 would unarguably be a bottle of Hearty Burgundy (now six months beyond its expiration date). And so it was with the same exultation as when one, at last, moves onto a more quaffable bottling that Your West Coast Oenophile finally reengaged Sostevinobile with the wine realm at the recent 2021 Chardonnay Classic.

This three-day conference at Napa’s Meritage Resort, home to Trinitas Cellars and tasting room collective Vista Collina, included an afternoon Grand Tasting to which the trade was invited. The wine being poured, however, played an almost ancillary role to the liberating atmosphere of the event. Outdoors! Self-serve charcuterie and hors d’œuvres! No masks! No social distancing! Physical contact with other human beings!!

Not that the 14 wineries that shared their current releases by any means slackards. Juxtaposed against the warm afternoon sunshine and the wafts of fresh spring blooms, these Chardonnays were redolent of the lush characteristics that can make this varietal the perfect complement to an outdoor meal or a delicate seafood entrée. Standout included the 2016 Pellet Estate Chardonnay Sunchase Vineyard (with its distinctive heraldic label), Artesa’s Estate Vineyard 2018 Selection 92 Chardonnay, an ever-reliable 2018 Signature Chardonnay from Darioush, and Oregon contribution to the event, the 2017 Elsie’s Chardonnay from Stoller.

I would be remiss in not citing the 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon that host Trinitas Cellars added to the mix. An exceptional wine that belied its modest (for Napa) $60 price tag. And with his 2019 Cépages d’Or, a deft blend of Marsanne, Roussanne, Picpoul Blanc and Viognier from his Terminim joint venture, as well as the 2018 La Rivière Chardonnay from his new Maritana label, Donald Patz showed he has not missed a beat from his Patz & Hall tenure. But perhaps the most surprising revelation of the afternoon came from renowned Judgment of Paris winner Château Montelena, their 2010 Chardonnay. Poured from its magnum bottle, this wine put to rest any notion that a Chard cannot be cellared and aged.

As a wone professional, I am eager yet daunted to confront the new realities of the post-pandemic wine realm. Having trade tastings revived is not only good news but gives hope that I will be able to resuscitate my visions for Sostevinobile. But if the price tag Chardonnay Classic sought for its conference is harbinger for the industry, my optimism may prove unfounded. Public tickets for an industry tasting, like ZAP or Family Winemakers geneally have run in the $75-95 range. And those events typically feature over 120 wineries. Tickets for this Grand Tasting were $250!!

Granted, Chardonnay Classic is an incipient venture, and higher prices abound everywhere in the wake of the 15-month economic setback we all have endured. Still—and I speak as someone who produces major tastings—I would expect such a premium price to feature not only an enormous selection of Chardonnay wineries but a strong presence of its premier producers. Where was Kistler? Where was Peter Michael? Aubert? Arista? Kongsgaard?

Alas, if pricing like this is the new norm, I fear the rebound for the wine industry will be long in the making…

Noted

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

See You Next Tuesday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Both sides now

Your West Coast Oenophile hit the road this past weekend for Sostevinobile. Actually, I was doing double-duty, as we launched Risorgimento, the new trade association for producers of Italian varietal wines in California at Barbera Festival in Amador on Saturday. Having attended this event numerous times, at both Cooper Ranch and at its current site, Terra d’Oro, this marked the first time I actually poured instead of tasted.
Even when I have a particular fondness for a certain grape, it becomes quite difficult for my palate to distinguish the nuances of the various renditions of this varietal after 20 or 25 different samples. As I would have been, even this afternoon’s diehard Barbera aficionados took a liking to the selections of Arneis, Vermentino, Rosato di Sangiovese, Montepulciano, Sangiovese, and Charbono we served at our table—in no small part since we were one of the few participants serving chilled wines amid the 95°F weather! Regardless, the message was inarguable: wine lovers are clearly looking beyond the orthodoxy of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, and Petite Sirah that constitute some 93% of California’s wine production.

The following day, I wound my way down to the Sacramento area, where Friends of the Clarksburg Library held their 31st Annual Wines of Clarksburg fundraiser at the storied Heringer Estates. As does Gallo in Modesto, Heringer has long dominated the Clarksburg landscape, to the point it seems, to outsiders, to be the only producing vineyard or winery in the town. But, in fact, there are well over 35 labels in the region, most of which were on hand this afternoon or had donated to the silent auction. And while Clarksburg seemed, for long, the last vestige of California’s once-ubiquitous Chenin Blanc, numerous other varietals are produced quite successfully in this AVA.

Last year, I had toured the riverside estate of Miner’s Leap on an impromptu tour of Clarksburg, so was happy to revisit with them here. To be candid, the 2016 Rosé of Pinot Noir left something to be desired, but I did cotton to their 2016 Tempranillo, along with their NV Harmony, a proprietary blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Petite Sirah, and Syrah. Another past discovery, Scribner Bend, situated on the opposite bank of the Sacramento, selected their 2018 Pinot Gris and a suitably-aged 2014 Syrah.

During my visit last year, I had sought, in vain, to locate Wilson Vineyards, so it was fortuitous to find them here. Sadly, though, this winery is winding down its operations, but still generously poured its 2016 Petite Sirah, along with a less-than-memorable NV Almond Sparkling. I had wrapped up that day most memorably at Julietta, an intimate operation which here poured their 2016 Beverly’s Inspiration was an austere combination of Zinfandel, Syrah, and Grenache. Their chilled offerings included a 2018 Rosé of Tempranillo and a far-from-obligatory 2018 Chenin Blanc.

Speaking of obligatory, I would have expected Ken Musso’s Due Vigne to be pouring a selection of their Italian varietals, and so was not disappointed to discover NV Romanza, an unspecified “blend of mostly Italian varietals.” Ironically, the 2018 Rosato Rosé, a redundancy whose name begs a mixed pedigree, wedded Syrah with 20% Cinsault. One Clarksburg winery from which I always expect great things is III (Three), an independent venture from Matt Cline of the third generation of Sonoma’s Jacuzzi family. Though Matt was not on hand this afternoon, his staff comported themselves admirably with his 2017 Sauvignon Blanc, an exceptionally approachable wine, along with the wondrous 2013 established 1885, an eclectic blend of 30.3% Carignane, 32.5% Zinfandel, 29.8% Mataro, 4.1% Petite Sirah, 2.9% Cinsault, and 0.4% Alicante Bouschet.

Due Vigne and III are both part of the winery collective at Clarksburg’s Old Sugar Mill. The original tenants of this facility, Carvalho, now operate on the north side of the Freeport Bridge, alongside their Freeport Wine Country Inn and Bistro. Produced in their former location, the 2016 Syrah seemed a perfunctory wine, while their Boot Shed Red Lot 7, a proprietary blend of Tempranillo, Syrah, and Teroldego, proved compelling. One of Clarksburg’s oldest wineries, Bogle, has been ensconced in its own facility since 1979. Here they ably demonstrated why they have managed their longevity, starting with their 2017 Chardonnay and 2017 Petite Sirah. Their standout, however, came from the 2015 Phantom, a truly deft blend of 44% Petite Sirah, 44% Zinfandel, 10% Merlot, and 2% Cabernet Sauvignon.

Twisted Rivers, a nearby operation from Duke Heringer, poured their 2017 White Raven, a contrasting Viognier/Chenin Blanc blend, alongside a nicely-aged 2011 Petite Sirah and a splendid 2016 Primitivo. Also geographically themed Grand Island showcased their premium line, with both their 2017 Salman Family Reserve Chenini Blanc and the noteworthy 2017 Salman Family Reserve Premier, a Bordeaux-style Meritage.

If it were coastal, Elevation 10 would likely be threatened by climate change in the none-too-distant future, but here in the Sacramento Valley, it remains a thriving enterprise with noteworthy wines. I usually associate their winemaker, Marco Cappelli, with the El Dorado AVA (alongside the Amador region I had just visited), and, indeed,  many of their wines do herald from the Foothills. But their Clarksburg selections proved quite deft, starting with the 2016 Chardonnay and finishing with a superb 2016 Cabernet Franc. Dancing Coyote heralds from the Lodi AVA, but sources much of its fruit from Clarksburg. Examples here included their rather sweet 2017 Chardonnay, an adequate 2017 Rosé of Pinot Noir, alongside a more developed 2016 Pinot Noir.

Admittedly, Clarksburg will be on few people’s radar as a major wine region, but the newly-restored barn at Heringer easily qualifies as one of the most inviting tasting rooms I have ever visited. And in keeping with it reputation as the pinnacle of this AVA, our host winery shared with this event a 2018 Moscato (subsequently revealed to be Muscat Canelli) and a delightful 2018 Pinot Gris. But their forte at Wines of Clarksburg proved to be the spectacular 2015 Tempranillo, a wine ideally suited to the evening’s Andalusian breeze.

Keeping pace with Heringer’s vineyard operations in Clarksburg is the variegated operations of Ogilvie Merwin Ventures (not to be confused with advertising tita Ogilvy & Mather). here they debuted a new label, Fellow, which brought six of their wines to sample, including the 2018 Sauvignon Blanc, the 2018 Chardonnay, a dry 2018 Gewürztraminer, and a striking 2018 Chenin Blanc.On the red side, I found the 2017 Petite Sirah equally compelling, while the 2018 Pinot Noir served amiably for such a young wine. The 2016 Pinot Noir from sister operations Silt rivaled this bottling, but their 2016 Merlot clearly stood out. I have never been able to appreciate a Valdiguié, but here a 2018 Rosé finally brought me around to this unassuming varietal.

Silt, of course, produced its own 2017 Chenin Blanc, but partner Phil Ogilvie was intent on showcasing multiple expressions of this grape from an array of wineries that source his fruit. Local winemaker Jason Lee’s Zah opened with an excellent 2018 Chenin Blanc, as did Sonoma’s Dry Creek Vineyard. Another familiar label, Vinum Cellars. was represented with the 20th Anniversary Edition of their Chenin, the 2017 CNW. Again from Sonoma, West of West stalwart Gros Ventre juxtaposed their 2017 Chenin Blanc with a noteworthy 2018 Chenin Blanc Merritt Island. Like Risorgimento, Seven% Solution is a wine movement dedicated to non-mainstream wines; at its past tastings, La Pitchoune has been featured for its Chenin Blanc, exemplified here with its 2017 La Bombe. Lastly, Ogilvie displayed both of maverick Santa Cruz winemaker Megan Bell’s contrasting Margins bottlings: the 2018 Clarksburg Chenin Blanc with her utterly compelling 2018 Skin Fermented Chenin Blanc.

After Wines of Clarksburg, I detoured to Davis for a truncated dalliance, then reluctantly headed back to the Bay Area. An exhausting weekend, to be sure, but a weekend nonetheless well spent.

 

Nuclear proliferation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Atlas Peak Shrugged

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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