Category Archives: Cabernet Sauvignon

Nuclear proliferation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Atlas Peak Shrugged

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Not to be confused with Pâté de Foie Gras

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My August Trifecta

We all have a litany of what if?s in our lives. Your West Coast Oenophile could enumerate many, some related to Sostevinobile, others on a more personal level. Should I have stayed with my original plan to develop my own wine label? Would I have been better off going to a school like Yale? Or majoring in math, as i was recruited to do?  Where would I be now if I had driven west to Los Angeles instead of San Francisco? Or if my avant-garde satire on the 1980s, The Last Sharper Image Catalogue, had found an enthusiastic publisher? And what might life have led us if a certain special woman and I had ever connected romantically?

We have seen each other only sporadically over the intervening decades but, of late, have been intermittently communicating via that emotionally sterile modality of the 21st Century: the text message. With no ostensible agenda beyond staying in touch. Just because.

Many years ago we tried to set up her little brother with my little sister. It was quaint and charming and felt rather adult on our part, but not patronizingly so. I’m no0t sure whether Jill and Elliott ever connected after that New York luncheon, but she now lives in London, while he runs horse breeding operations back in Kentucky. One of his stallions has had a modicum of success this past year. And even though horse racing fans tend to favor bourbon over the grape, I’m pretty certain most of my readers will be familiar with Justify.

This August also constituted a Trifecta of sorts for Sostevinobile. The dictate of fundraising for what will now be a 26,000+ sq.ft. complex require that I engage in a host of wine-related endeavors. So far, these side ventures have entailed everything from grape brokerage to label development to event production to my former wine-related profession, Mergers & Acquisitions. Plus, along the way, I quietly help out other wine ventures with advice and connecting them to any number of people with whom I work, both inside and out of the industry.

Granted, my role was quite minimal in assisting Carlo Anthony Niboli with the debut of his Cabfest, but I was pleased to attend this tasting on both Saturday and Sunday to consult and critique. The lobby beneath the dome at Westfield Center portended to be a challenging setting for an event of this scope; surprisingly, even with throngs of shoppers filling the mall and its restaurant courts. More impressive was the breadth of wineries on hand, from an array of Napa stalwarts like Oakville East and Raymond to a panoply of Paso Robles’ emerging Cabernet stars, including Calcareous and Justin, along with Sonoma’s much-acclaimed Bellacosa. the generational successor to Glen Ellen’s B.R. Cohn.

The music ranged from a smaltzy 1920s Toppman Trio on Saturday, courtesy of the event’s co-sponsor Speakeasy SF, to a most alluring avant-garde violinist, Shaina Evoniuk. Normally, I would have expected live performances to overwhelm the audibility of the venue, but here they provided an unobtrusive ambient backdrop to the tasting. One also would have expected a new event like CabFest to provide rather lackluster catering—of which even the most establish events are frequently guilty—but the generous smorgasbord was complimented by superb hors d’œuvres from the venerable Morton’s The Steakhouse. along with utterly delectable baked goods from Best of Friends Cookies, a Fresno concession run by Carlo’s pixieish mother Debbie.

To be candid, I had vested interest not only in seeing CabFest succeed but to see it expand beyond the capacity of this Westfield setting. But a more salient reason, perhaps, is that the Bay Area no longer plays host to any annual Grand Tasting that focuses on Cabernet Sauvignmon. In San Francisco, Pinot Noir events like Pinot Fest and Pinot Days abound. Sonoma holds its annual Pinot on the River each October and has revived the cutting-edge West of West celebration. Santa Cruz has its Pinot Paradise and Anderson Valley holds its Pinot celebration every May. Nothing of similar scale displays the regionality and versatility of Cabernet. If I can help elevate CabFest to the pinnacle once held by the California Cabernet Society, my task will have been complete.


As previously mentioned in this column, Sostevinobile is now collaborating with The Midway to host trade tastings in San Francisco. On August 26, we inaugurated this venture with the 28th Annual Grand Tasting of Family Winemakers. My hope had been to launch this program with CalAsia 2018, a Grand Tasting of the 82+ Asian-American/Asian owned wineries in California, but my previous health predicament this past winter proved too much of a setback for me to rebound  insufficient time to organize an event of this scope. Nonetheless, the Family Winemakers tasting  marked an auspicious debut for us, as well as an instrumental learning curve, and I look forward to sustaining a long an  prosperous relationship with this organization that has been a pivotal component in building the Sostevinobile wine program.

Stay tuned as I commence organizing CalAsia for January 2019.


Another of the many hats I wear on behalf of Sostevinobile has been the revival of the winery M&A practice in which I was occupied through most of the 1980s. While it has not proven the most lucrative of my current endeavors, it admittedly still fascinates me. And so I uncharacteristically awoke before 7:30 AM to join several of the industry’s most prominent practitioners at the North Bay Business Journals annual Impact Napa conference. These gatherings have always proved most informative, and following a field report from Clay Gregory, president and CEO of Visit Napa Valley, on last year’s fires’ impact on tourism, the audience was treated to an extraordinary glimpse into the philosophy of Christian Moueix, the legendary proprietor both Yountville’s highly acclaimed Dominus Estate and a portfolio of French domaines that includes Pomerol’s Château Pétrus.

It would not be overstatement to note that Moueix lives in a rarfied realm. Pétrus just sold a 20% stake in its business for ~$232 MM, making it the most valuable winery in the world. His support of Napa’s recent Proposition C—whose architects Dennis Groth and Andy Beckstoffer were also in attendance—also begs a certain privilege, as raising the threshold for new wineries to a 40-acre minimum would preclude all would-be viticultural entrepreneurs save for an extreme wealthy few. But Moueix’ for such austere measures as this or letting uprooted vineyards lie fallow for 4-5 years before replanting stems from conscientious environmental stewardship of his many properties and an unshakable belief in the need to protect delicate watersheds and aquifers here and in Bordeaux, as climate change continues to make water an endangered commodity. A man who spends three hours each morning in his vineyards and has never missed a communal dinner with his workers, his position and passion are ultimately laudable.

The final segment of this conference was essentially a primer on the spectrum of investment profiles throughout the wine industry. Panelists included Richard Mendelson, a Napa attorney and Merger specialist who earlier had interviewed Moueix, Carol Collison from Global Wine Partners, and Sean Maher of Aspect Consumer Partners. The latter two specialists have long been familiar to me through potential deals on which we have engaged, but it was a particular treat to see Sean bring along his father, Dick Maher, who had counseled me some 35 years ago.

Though this trio’s experience was long and deep, with successes I could only envy, their message ultimately restated what has long been obvious. Many of the wineries today, especially those that have not been annexed by corporate or industry behemoths, stand potentially. if not actively, ripe for acquisition—to wit, the sale of Stony Hill to Long Meadow Ranch but a few days before the conference. But credible, committed buyers remain a rare breed, as my Rolodex will attest. But, as is often the case, when one door closes, another opens.

And so funding for Sostevinobile may be coming from elsewhere, but not as far removed as one may think…

After the Fire is Gone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lacuna

lacuna: noun, plural lacunæ

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(to be continued)

Stags, Stag’s, Stags’ or Stagg?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How you gonna keep him down on the Pharm?

2016-07-30 15.16.40It was high time Your West Coast Oenophile venture outside my frequent stomping grounds and undertake some serious exploration of the joints—I mean, wineries—that I have vetted for Sostevinobile primarily through trade tastings in San Francisco and on Treasure Island. And so I threw caution to the wind and risked upping my per-mile bracket with Metromile and headed north beyond the confines of Sonoma and Napa for the other regions that constitute the vast North Coast AVA: Lake and Mendocino counties.

After several years’ worth of invites, I finally capitulated and agreed to attend the annual picnic and members meeting for the Redwood Forest Foundation (RFFI) in Ukiah. This foundation represents a laudable effort to preserve not only much of the old growth redwoods throughout California but to protect the wildlife that inhabit these preserves. Naturally, the focus of their efforts aligns synergistically with the sustainable aims of Sostevinobile, but I am not entirely sanguine about the use of cap & trade carbon credits to offset their budget deficit. Global warming has now reached the point where merely maintaining current level of carbon emissions—which, in effect, is what carbon credits facilitates—rather than radically reducing them, is not sufficient to offset the pending catastrophic impact from our profligate industrial consumption.

In spite of such conundrums, Mendocino still can lay valid claim to its self-professed accolade as “The Greenest AVA in America.” Many may claim this is a double-entendre, and yet my only encounter with any semblance of cannabis culture was a sign at the gateway to Hopland. There was no indication, however, that they operated a tasting room.

No dearth of visible tasting rooms existed for the numerous wineries that have sprung up in county since I first visited with Mendocino’s first varietal producer, the late John Parducci. Before locating the Redwood Forest picnic, I fittingly managed to squeeze a visit with Rich Parducci’s McNab Ridge, a winery I had featured a few years ago at a tasting I designed for NAAAP-SF. As eclectic in his tastes as his grandfather, Rich bottles an extraordinary array of organically grown selections that span from a strikingly appealing 2014 French Colombard to his admirable rendition of the 2013 Pinotage. I was quite taken with McNab Ridge’s exemplary 2013 Primitivo, but still managed to spare enough room to sample their 2013 John Parducci Signature Series Port, an opulent blend of Touriga Nacional (55%), Tinta Roriz (16%), Touriga Francesca (10%), Tinta Barroca (10%), and Tinta Cão (9%).

Time constraints dictated that I cut short my visit with McNab Ridge and depart Hopland’s quaint confines for the aforementioned luncheon, aptly situated amid a redwood grove at Nelson Family Vineyards. As these wines are not commonly distributed beyond subscribers and visitors to the tasting room, I took the opportunity to sample through their roster after the RFFI conclave. Starting with their NV Brut, one of Mendocino’s signature expressions, I segued to a delightfully light 2014 Pinot Grigio. Nelson’s deft touch truly manifested itself next in their 2013 Viognier, a well-balanced expression of the grape that proved neither austere nor cloying.

Creative minds most certainly lurked behind their 2015 Barn Blend, a unique blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Zinfandel and Viognier. More traditional, the 2013 Top Row Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, an intensified wine crafted from a prized block on their estate vineyard. Finally, Nelson revealed its true virtuosity in their exceptional 2013 Zinfandel, a dense, jammy wine that long lingered on the palate.

I next veered southward back to Hopland, where I spent a most enjoyable hour visiting with César Toxqui at the tasting room he maintains alongside Bruotocao’s. His affable 2013 Muscat Canelli prefaced 2014 Rosé of Zinfandel, a wine most definitely not to be confused with the much-maligned White Zin concoction that ruled the 1980s. I found his 2012 Pinot Noir Russian River Valley appealing, his 2010 Grenache decidely more so. Here again, the 2007 Immigrant Zinfandel reigned supreme, closely followed by a 2013 Zinfandel Dry Creek, sourced from across the county line.

César also poured a noteworthy single vineyard Cabernet, his 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Bloom Vineyards. His trademark, however, stems from his non-vintage blends, the Ruthless Red, a mélange of 80% Zinfandel, 10% Syrah, and 10% Merlot , dedicated to his wife, and the Heirloom Cinco, a solera now in its fifth cuvée, produced from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, and Viognier.

Following an a raucous evening indulging in all two of downtown Ukiah’s hot spots, I rose early the next day, squeezed in a few laps across the motel pool, and headed out to the foot of Anderson Valley for their annual Barrel Tasting Weekend. Before I reached the festival, I popped into Simaine, an bootstrap winery/tasting room housed in a light industrial complex where my GPS steered me in my quest to locate Germain-Robin. Owner Vic Símon graciously received me just as he prepared to open for the day and opened a selection of his current offerings, starting with his personal favorite, the 2012 Sangiovese. Other wine, designated as Reserve, included the 2010 Petite Sirah and a 2010 Carignane, both of which proved balanced and approachable. His final selection, a Bordeaux blend with the rather elusive name, the 2011 Virisda.

After departing Simaine, the scenic 17-mile expanse of Hwy. 253 wound across the county to Boonville, where I collected my credentials at Philo Ridge’s tasting room. I had hoped to surprise Fred Buonanno with my long-delayed visit but was informed he was still nursing the after-effects of his 60th birthday celebration the night before. Nonetheless, I managed to soldier on and taste through a number of his selections. Having recently sampled several of their Pinot Noir selections at June’s Taste of Mendocino, I opted to taste through an array of white varietals, starting with a lean 2014 Chardonnay Haiku Ranch.Seventeen syllables later, I moved onto the 2014 Pinot Gris Nelson Vineyard, a fresh, tank-fermented rendition of the grape. Also, tank-fermented: the floral yet delicate 2014 Viognier Nelson Ranch, a perfect white for what would prove a scorchingly hot afternoon.

Several Mendocino growers have collaborated over the past several years on a bottling a regional proprietary wine they call Coro. In keeping with this Zinfandel-focused blend, Philo Ridge bottles an intriguing mélange they call Vino di Mendocino. Currently in its fourth release, this wine marries Zinfandel with Syrah, Petite Sirah, and Carignane. The wine was delightful but the burden of becoming a sexagenarian had evidently taken its toll, so I abandoned the notion of waiting for Fred to appear and moseyed onto the next stop.

It was rather surprising to find a town as quaint and remote as Boonville dotted with so many satellite tasting rooms; I would have thought such a laid-back rural setting more conducive to onsite estate visits. Nonetheless, it proved rather convenient to meander between premises and sampling their offerings. Having tried Seebass Family Wines at numerous tastings over the years, I correlated their wines with the impressive Bavarian coat of arms that highlights their label. The tasting room proved to be anything but ponderous, manned by Brigitte Seebass’ daughter Michelle Myrenne Willoughby. Michelle ably navigated five different parties that had bellied up to her bar, yet still found time to attend to my personal discretion. We started with her 2015 Family Chardonnay, a bold wine, like all of Seebass’ selections, sourced from estate-grown, hand-harvested, hand-pruned, sustainably farmed fruit. Quelling my thirst from the 95° F heat, the delightfully chilled 2015 Fantasie proved a compelling Rosé of Grenache.

Varietal bottlings constitute a distinct strength at Seebass, starting with the 2012 Grand Reserve Merlot and punctuated by the exceptionally well-rounded 2011 Old Vine Zinfandel, honed from 100+ year old vines. Nonetheless, I also greatly enjoyed their 2012 Romantik, a blend of Syrah and Grenache, along with their NV Mysteriös, a proprietary mix from their 2011 & 2012 harvests, combining Grenache, Syrah, Merlot and Zinfandel.

Though certainly a pleasant wine, admittedly the most striking aspect of the Mysteriös was the artistic design of it label, a reproduction of one of Michelle’s late father’s paintings, a geometric design that echoed the prints of op art’s grandfather, renowned Hungarian-French master Victor Vasarely. Coincidentally, I bounced over next to Boonville’s John Hanes Fine Art, a modern gallery that shares space with Harmonique. I would like to think the hermaphroditic statuary that adorned the entrance to this facility dissuaded me from partaking of the various Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs for which Harmonique is prized, but, in truth, Harmonique’s absence from the roster of the Anderson Valley Barrel Tasting precluded my visiting.

And so I ambled across the street to the Boonville Hotel, the onetime home of the legendary New Boonville Hotel, a restaurant that had turned this area into a culinary mecca. In the courtyard, I found Paul and Valerie Gordon of Halcón Vineyards, an intrepid couple who sojourn weekly from their Silicon Valley home to produce Mendocino wine. Their al fresco tasting in the hotel’s garden court included a slew of exemplary wines, starting with their 2013 Prado, a classic Rhône blend of Roussanne and Marsanne. From there, we progressed to the 2014 Rosé, a deft melding of Grenache and Syrah, then segued onto the 2014 Alturas Estate Syrah, classically cofermented with a scintilla of Viognier. Opting for a pure expression of the varietal, Paul poured his 2014 Tierra Petite Sirah, a wine quite reflective of its Yorkville Highlands pedigree. His coup de grâce most certainly, however,was the 2014 Wentzel Vineyard Pinot Noir, an exceptionally well-balanced wine, neither light nor ponderous, a blend with 35% whole cluster that clung to the palate ever so delightfully.

Following this stop, I backpedaled from the center of downtown Boonville to visit with Joe Webb at Foursight. This boutique operation has long stood as one of Mendocino’s premier Pinot Noir labels, but first I had to try the refreshingly chilled 2013 Charles Vineyard Sémillon, a most pleasant, understated wine. Though it may be a noble experiment, I confess that I did not cotton to the 2013 Unoaked Pinot Noir, a simplified expression of the grape that struck me as overly sour. In contrast, Joe’s signature wine, the 2014 Paraboll Pinot Noir presented a geometric leap over the Unoaked, a truly exquisite wine that attested to Anderson Valley’s rightful place in California’s Pinot hierarchy.

Onward, returned to my car and headed north to Elke, the first onsite tasting room on the trail. The dirt road, clapboard barn, unpretentious landscaping embodied just the kind of ramshackle setting I had envisioned before I’d arrived, and while owner Mary Elke was not on hand this afternoon, I still enjoyed a most pleasant session, sipping through a welcomely-chilled NV Sparkling Brut crafted from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. I found myself equally pleased—and refreshed—by both the 2014 Chardonnay Anderson Valley and a candy-like 2014 Rosé of Pinot Noir Anderson Valley. For balance, I finished with their 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon Lake County, a heterodoxical selection for the afternoon.

Creeping back onto the highway, I next dropped in on Witching Stick, another understated operation that belied the sophistication of its œnology. Owner Van Williamson began my tasting with a straightforward yet excellent 2014 Durrell Vineyard Chardonnay, then moved to the delightful albeit atypical 2014 Carignano Rosato. After these chilled wines, I delighted in an enticing 2012 Valenti Vineyard Syrah before delving into Van’s Pinot lineup. The 2013 Gianoli Vineyard Pinot Noir and the 2013 Perli Vineyard Pinot Noir proved equally compelling, but both were clearly outshone by the lushness of the 2012 Gianoli Vineyard Pinot Noir. But the pinnacle at this stop turned out to be the 2013 Fashauer Vineyard Zinfandel, a deep, complex , jammy wine.

Across the street, Phil T. G. Baxter welcomed me like an old friend to the intimate confines of his eponymous tasting room. As with Witching Stick, the tasting centered on his lineup of Pinot Noir, starting with an acutely focused 2013 Weir Vineyard Pinot Noir. I found both the 2013 Valenti Vineyard Pinot Noir and the 2013 Langley Vineyard Pinot Noir on par with the 2013s from across the street, while the 2012 Oppenlander Vineyard Pinot Noir once again underscored the superior quality of this vintage. Phil concluded our visit with a sample of his 2013 Valenti Vineyard Syrah, a perfectly amiable wine that complement a perfectly amiable setting.

I have often expressed my personal qualms about engaging in Mergers & Acquisitions, my original role in the wine industry and a practice I’ve recently resumed on behalf of Sostevinobile. One of my favorite Mendocino labels has long been Greenwood Ridge, and I had hoped to visit with Allan Green in Philo, but the winery had been acquired back in March by Diane and Ken Wilson and folded into the mini-empire they have quietly cobbled together in Sonoma and Mendocino. Though Allan will be sorely missed, the new regime has nonetheless stayed the course, including the winery’s focus on organic farming and winemaking; the wines I sampled here, however, were produced under the former ownership, so assaying the perpetuation of these practices remains undetermined. Nevertheless, I cottoned immensely to all three wines I tasted, starting with the 2015 Sauvignon Blanc, the first wine to open my eyes to the full potential organic winemaking. Complementing this indubitable bottling, the 2015 Riesling retained just enough sweetness to taste refined, not cloying. Rounding out my visit, the whimsically-labelled 2013 Hundred Point Pinot Noir, named for a promontory along the Mendocino Coast where 100 ships have wrecked, bore fitting testament to Allan’s legacy.

Not quite Helen of Troy (was this the face that launched a thousand ships?), but close. My combined 18 years’ inculcation in Greek & Latin literature begs for allusion as often as I can cite it. As such, I need confess the allure of Lula Cellars stemmed not merely from the beauty of its wines but the striking pulchritude of their delightful hostess. Kacy managed, despite my overt distraction, to steer me through Lula’s lineup with considerable aplomb, commencing her tasting session with an exceptional 2014 Dry Gewürztraminer, a varietal that for many years characterized Mendocino for me. The 2015 Rosato displayed a delight derivation of a Pinot Noir, while the 2013 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir simply resounded. Rounding out this visit, the 2014 Mariah Vineyard Zinfandel provided a rich dénouement to a most productive afternoon.

Only my tasting day was far from over. Resolved to head back to San Francisco along the leisurely coastal route, I continued up toward along Route 128 toward the town of Albion, below which it interests with Highway 1. To my great surprise, nearly all the wineries along this road remained open until 7pm, a far cry from Napa and Sonoma, where 4:30pm seems the general rule of thumb. And so I abruptly veered into the parking lot for Domaine Anderson, the new branch of Roederer Estate dedicated to still wines. I had first encountered these wines at San Francisco’s Pinot Days, where Wine Club Manager Jennie Dallery had apparently drawn the short straw and was relegated to the antechamber at Bespoke, along with a handful of other wineries forced to compete against subway-level acoustics. I had promised her I would visit soon and discuss these wines in an audible setting, but was chagrined to learn she had left the premises a mere five minutes before my arrival. Nonetheless, I made the best of my visit and sampled both the 2014 Estate Chardonnay and the notably lemony 2013 Dach Chardonnay, both complements to the designate Pinot Noirs I had tried in San Francisco, before continuing my trek to an old familiar, Handley Cellars.

I’ve lost count how many times I’ve sampled (and enjoyed) these wines at tastings throughout the year since 2008 and have even attended a luncheon where seven selections of their Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays were paired to each course. So here I was more than happy to taste through their non-standard selections, starting with the exquisitely floral 2014 Pinot Blanc Mendocino County. Complementing this wine, the 2015 Pinot Gris Anderson Valley seemed a bit more subdued but approachable, while the 2015 Riesling Anderson Valley gave considerable credence to Mendocino’s claim as California’s prime AVA for Alsatian varietals.

I bypassed Handley’s all-too-familiar lineup of Pinots for a selection of their other reds, including the unlisted 2013 Vittorio Petite Sirah. I found the 2013 Zinfandel Russian River Valley equally pleasurable, yet both combine, along with a healthy share of Carignane to make a true standout, the 2013 Vittorio Red Table Wine. Meanwhile, standing out on its own merits: the 2013 Syrah Kazmet Vineyard.

Truth be told: I had two primary destinations in mind when I embarked on this journey. Although I finally did manage to determine the actual location for Germain-Robin, I learned that weekend appointments would not have been available anyway. My other Holy Grail, of course, was sparkling wine virtuoso Roederer Estate, which was just about to close its doors as I arrived. I almost convinced the tasting room staff I had won a case of L’Ermitage, but settled for the final tasting of the day as reward for my ruse. Their base offering, the Brut MV, artfully combined a blend of 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir. Roederer serves this wine from different size bottles, and clearly the Brut MV Magnum outshone the confines of the standard 750ml bottling. I could not have asked more of the Brut Rosé MV, a Pinot-dominant blend, while their Tête du Cuvée, my cherished 2009 L’Ermitage reaffirmed itself as my perennial favorite sparkling.

2016-07-24-16-33-40While my return to Mendocino proved both fruitful and enlightening, I confess I was surprised that I never once stumbled across the mood-altering botanical for which it is primarily known. Perhaps because it has been a few decades since I cultivated an affinity for the weed that its whereabouts eluded me. Perhaps it was because I have had little to praise for the few bottlings of marijuana-infused wine that I’ve tried. Or could it be that this reputation is simply an elaborate hoax, a convoluted pharmaceutical paronomasia?


I passed through Mendocino a week later, en route to a wine tasting in neighboring Lake County, another AVA I have been remiss in visiting. But with so many fires having recently ravaged this pristine preserve, it seemed almost obligatory that I journey north as a gesture of solidarity with the fourteen wineries on hand for The People’s Choice Wine Tasting.2016-07-30 15.44.28Admittedly, I could have made better timing in getting to the Kelseyville destination, but I decided to follow the scenic mountain route over from Hopland.As I began my descent down Highway 175, the vista from atop Cobb Mountain provided a breathtaking panoramic of Clear Lake, a natural phenomenon often unfairly depicted as a poor man’s Lake Tahoe. The vast expanse of this waterway was an unanticipated revelation, tinged with regret that I have not taken advantage of the resorts that dot its shore, especially when San Francisco summers have taken an Arctic turn.

My other epiphany came as I wound down from Middleton to the back stretches of Bottle Rock Road: seemingly every other vineyard I passed was tagged with a Beckstoffer sign. Behind this ubiquity lies a concerted effort to bolster the quality and reputation of Lake County’s wines, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon hailing from the Red Hills AVA, where they farm nearly 1,300 acres of vineyard. This past winter, owner Andy Beckstoffer announced a program wherein he would provide one acres’ worth of Cabernet for free to ten select vintners in the county to draw help catalyze this ambitious project. Despite being seen by some merely as theatricality, the chosen vintners with whom I spoke wear their selection as a badge of honor.

I arrived at host Moore Family Winery amid their own theatricality, a blind tasting of thirteen Lake County Sauvignon Blancs. As with the Anderson Valley Barrel Tasting, I quickly drifted from the staged event inside the Tasting Room and focused my visit on the wineries pouring their Gold Medal selections. Host Steve Moore offered a distinctive lineup, starting with his 2015 Sauvignon Blanc, a wine that had not taken part in the shootout. I clearly favored his 2015 Chardonnay, however, but did cotton to the 2009 Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc, a most deserving dessert wine.

In a similar vein, Kelseyville’s Chacewater showcased their 2014 Chardonnay, a wine I would have liked to contrast with their Organic Certified 2015 Chardonnay. Complementing this vintage, however, was the 2015 Muscat Canelli, a sweet yet appealing wine, to be sure. Former Kendall-Jackson winemaker Jed Steele had his various labels out in force, impressing with the Sweepstake Red Winner, the 2012 Steele-Stymie Merlot and, in a nod to poetic justice,the 2015 Writer’s Block Roussanne.

Forsooth, Fults Family Vineyards, a winery I had not previously encountered, countered with a pair of their amiable whites, the 2015 Sauvignon Blanc and the 2015 Chardonnay. Contrasting quite nicely, the stainless steel 2015 Endeavor, a limited release Chardonnay from Wildhurst, which showcased its 2013 Petite Sirah alongside. And in keeping with the caliber of his worldwide wine portfolio,a standout 2013 Petite Sirah came from Langtry, new NHL team owner Bill Foley’s Lake County acquisition.

While Foley has ponied up $500,000,000 for the construction of T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, the more anticlimactic redevelopment of San Francisco’s Treasure Island has begun displacing the cottage wine industry there, starting with the myriad labels produced at The Winery SF. Nonetheless, owner Bryan Kane remains committed to the Lake County fruit he sources for his personal Sol Rouge label, resulting in an ever-reliable 2013 Petite Sirah and a most compelling bottling of his 2012 Cabernet Franc. Another multilabel enterprise, Shannon Ridge showed atypical restraint, pouring a mere four selections from their seemingly inexhaustible lineup. Both the 2013 Wrangler Red, a blend of 44% Zinfandel, 43% Syrah, 11% Petite Sirah, and 2% Cabernet Sauvignon, and the 2012 Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon seemed tepid, particularly when juxtaposed with their 2015 High Elevation Sauvignon Blanc and the superb 2013 High Elevation Chardonnay. Another winery that featured a blend was Fore Family Vineyards, also previously unfamiliar to Sostevinobile, with their delightful Grenache-based 2013 GSM; deftly displaying the potential of the Red Hills volcanic soil, their 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon proved sheer elegant.

From Clearlake Oaks, Cache Creek Vineyards shares only a name with the more familiar casino, but a kindred spirit with its Lake County brethren. Their 2014 Rosé of Cabernet attested to their acuity of their vinification, while the 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon constituted yet another testament to the potential of this AVA. Admittedly, I found myself wondering if Jack Welch would deem that Six Sigma’s somewhat tepid 2014 Sauvignon Blanc held to continuous efforts to achieve stable and predictable process results, but I was especially pleased to taste their 2013 Diamond Mine Cuvée, a black belt mélange of Tempranillo with lesser parts Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.

Also veering from the predominant French focus of the afternoon, Nick Buttitta made an impromptu appearance on behalf of his Rosa d’Oro label, sharing his intense 2013 Aglianico, a dense, intense interpretation of this varietal. Still, I concede that the standout wine of the afternoon was the opulent 2014 Viognier from Gregory Graham, one of the most acclaimed winemakers in Lake County.

Andy Beckstoffer contends Lake County’s “Red Hills is the most promising Cabernet Sauvignon site outside of Europe.” At the heart of this AVA sits Tricycle Wine Partners’ Obsidian Ridge, whose wines compare favorably at 2-3 times the price from their southerly neighbors in Napa. Underscoring this point today, they wowed the crowd with considerable aplomb, pouring a robust 2013 Estate Syrah, their 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, co-winner of the Sweepstake Red award, and a distinctive Meritage, the 2012 Half Mile Proprietary Red, a wondrous blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot.

I wish I had allotted more time to this visit, as many intriguing Lake County ventures that participated in this competition could not be present. I find myself now filled with trepidation that I may never have the opportunity to visit with several of these; as most people know, a series of wildfires have struck since my visit, threatening to undermine the emergence of Lake County as a world-class AVA. Fortunately, the arsonist responsible for many of these conflagrations has been apprehended. Moving forward, absent of natural catastrophe, perhaps Lake County can look toward their westerly neighbor for definition of the expression “up in smoke!”

Pecorino, Palomino, and Pedro Ximénez

As readers of these sporadic postings realize, Your West Coast Oenophile continues 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 Warehouse trade 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…