Monthly Archives: February 2009

It’s the dean of the matter!

Sostevinobile isn’t just about wine. We are an enterprise striving to incorporate sustainable practices in every aspect of our business. But before Your West Coast Oenophile became a green adherent, I was Big Green. Not in the sense of the timeless icon of the Minnesota Valley Canning Company, but adopted symbol for a quaint New Hampshire college nestled on the Hanover Plain.

Dartmouth teams were once known as the Indians, but this facile ethnic stereotype was eventually deemed offensive (rightfully so) and an impediment racial understanding at the College and thus discontinued (how ironic that the putative progressive wing of the Bay Area cannot muster the same righteousness over a certain vapid musical pastiche* on stage in North Beach)! The moniker Big Green was adopted as a temporary substitute, but subsequent mascots, like the Woodsman, succumbed to strains of Monty Python’s Lumberjack Song, while Jack-O-Lantern’s truly inspired Keggie never attained official sanction.

Currently, there is a groundswell to recast the Moose as Dartmouth’s official emblem. As seen above, Moose is a beloved member of our

San Francisco household and a key transitional figure in our oft-times reclusive relationship. The Ginkgo Girl and I wholeheartedly endorse his selection.

But as faithful readers of this blog well know, I am wont to digress. The reason for my protracted preface is to segue into my excuse for the paucity of entries over the past week. For the last several days, I have been enmeshed in alumni interviewing applicants for the Class of 2013, hoping to cull the next great Classical Languages scholar or Creative Writing major. Given the pace of global warm, New Hampshire may well be the leading subtropical destination by the time these would-be matriculants graduate. With a sustained Mediterranean climate and the anticipated proliferation of Sostevinobile venues throughout selected West Coast locales by then, who knows? I may be endowing a new Department of  Enology at my reunion that year.

One can only dream…

*Aspersions already have been and will continue to be cast at that jejune atrocity Beach Blanket Babylon whenever my bile acts up.

(Daniel) Boone’s Farm

OK, I’ll admit it right off the bat. I was hard up for a clever title (among the sundry reasons why I haven’t attended to this blog in nearly a week). But never let it be said that Your West Coast Oenophile has ever made a correlation between Fess Parker Wines and that saccharine swill known as Modesto Mouthwash. Indeed, I have been a long-standing fan of this paragon of Santa Barbara wineries, especially of their many noteworthy forays into Rhône varietals. In particular, the Roussanne, the Marsanne, the Grenache, and the several offerings of Syrah they bottle under their Epiphany label exemplify some of the finest expressions of these varietals in California.

But it is another of their wines I choose to cite this day. A couple of nights ago, the Ginkgo Girl brought home a number of entrées from (no relation) Spicy Girl, the literal translation (from Mandarin) of an Inner Richmond Szechuan restaurant known for their über-spicy cuisine. I’m not sure how many Scoville units they can boast, but to give you an idea of how hot this food can get, I had to retreat to the wash room several times throughout the course of the meal to rinse off my contact lens, so much sweat was streaming from my forehead into my eyes.

Maybe I would have been better off not seeing what I was eating. Certainly, my taste buds were receiving enough stimulation to cover all five senses! Nonetheless, a meal of this intensity demands the perfect wine to complement it, and I deftly chose a nicely chilled bottle of the 2007 Fess Parker White Riesling. This off-dry white had just enough hint of sweetness to quell the intensity of the Spicy girl feast while balancing out the dominant pepper and ginger flavors—exactly what a food wine should do for this cuisine. An exemplary, affordable interpretation of the Riesling varietal I am looking forward to revisiting long before the next conflagration of my palate.

God didn’t make the little green apples…

Your West Coast Oenophile felt a bit like Peyton Manning Thursday. Not in the sense that I could suddenly pinpoint a perfect 40-yard spiral pass nor did I feel I had become the foremost celebrity, apart from my auto-iconic former college roommate, of Indianapolis, that pseudocosmopolitan enclave primarily known for hosting of amateur athletic championships. Rather, much as Colts QB must have felt seeing his younger brother Eli succeed him as Superbowl champion, I beamed with fraternal pride as I navigated a series of wine tastings from select vineyards in Washington and Oregon. 

Much corollary can be found in the dynamic of the early rivalry that matures into a genuine enthusiasm for the parallel success of one’s siblings. Being the eldest, or primus inter pares as those of us who maintain a strict credence in primogeniture are wont to describe ourselves, usually means being the first to achieve success outside the confines of the familial setting. At first, there is an almost natural tendency to denigrate the efforts or abilities of those who follow us hierarchally, the self-validating belief that “he or she will never be as accomplished as I am.” Over time, however, the solidification of one’s credentials and position gives way to a more benevolent desire to one’s consanguineous rivals achieve a measure of parity in their own right. 

I freely acknowledge that early on in my wine pursuits, I scoffed at the notion of wines from California’s brethren West Coast states. I remember being approached by an AMREX colleague back in 1983 about presenting an Oregon property to the rum producers I was endeavoring to help expand their portfolio. “Oregon has enormous potential,” he proposed, but I was not to be persuaded. 

Some twenty-five odd years later, it is not a revelation but an avid concession to declare that our Northern neighbors are producing wines on par with, if not infrequently exceeding, the vintages produced here. Notable Oregon wineries like Domaine Serene, Adelsheim and Argyle excel throughout the entire range of Pinots: Chardonnay, Blanc, Gris and Noir, as well as the sparkling wines based on these varietals. Washington has established its primary reputation in Syrah and Merlot, but has garnered impressive accolades for the Cabernet Sauvignon produced by Quilceda Creek, Leonetti and others. 

Renowned winemakers like Randall Grahm, Piero Antinori and Jed Steele have all ventured beyond their California footholds into the Pacific Northwest. The wines I sampled over lunch Thursday underscored their confirmation of the quality these viticulture regions can produce. Northstar is an affiliate of Washington’s Château Ste. Michelle devoted exclusively to Merlot; their 2005 offering shows that this varietal can actually be made into a wine.* The signature 2007 Eroica Riesling, a collaboration with the esteemed Ernst Loosen may not parallel the heights of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, but will certainly open the eyes of any Chardonnay devotee. 

Later that afternoon, I happened upon a more heterogeneous sampling of Oregon vintages, amid an array of Nike footwear and the offer of a complimentary eyebrow waxing I judiciously declined. The 2007 Torii Mor Pinot Gris may sound at first like a New Zealand import but was readily identifiable as a noteworthy Willamette Valley expression of this versatile grape. Similarly, the 2006 Willakenzie Pinot Noir Willamette Valley did much to fortify the reputation of this AVA. The wine, though, that came closest on Thursday to earning a much-coveted  was the 2005 Foris Cabernet Franc Siskiyou Terrace, a Rogue Valley production of this underappreciated varietal. I was more than happy to accept a second (and a third) sampling. 

I did manage to finish the evening with tastings of a number of California wines. Though past the point of taking meticulous notes, I found the mayoral Plump Jack Cabernet and both Byron Pinot Noirs eminently agreeable. More of a revelation to me was the setting, a hitherto unknown cultural gem that now occupies the former Museum of Modern Art space in above the Green Room in San Francisco’s Veterans Building. granted, the Museum of Performance & Design may not rank in significance with San Francisco’s major repositories or even the above-referenced Indianapolis Museum of Art, but as long as they refuse to acknowledge that cacophonous abomination known as Beach Blanket Babylon, Your West Coast Oenophile will happily grant them plaudits. 

*As opposed to the sub-$10 swill that so inflamed Miles Raymond

Rhymes with Moose

What can one say about Ridge Vineyards that hasn’t already been written? Their library of single vineyard Zinfandels is seemingly inexhaustible, with new selections added or subtracted each year. Early on in this millennium, one such designate was Caboose, a late-harvest pick from their justly famed Nervo Station Vineyard in Alexander Valley. 

Flash-forward to 2007, and The Caboose is being bottled by another stellar Zin producer, Starry Night Winery (the sample I tasted at ZAP did not disappoint). Last night, the Ginkgo Girl and I explored the nuances of writing directly in a second language vs. the arduous constraints of mentally composing in one’s primary fluency before translating onto the page. Certainly, numerous icons of 20th Century literature—Stoppard, Conrad, Nabokov—have all shown themselves unparalleled masters of English linguistics, acquired subsequent to their original Slavic tongue.

As we deconstructed her latest essay, I uncorked my ATP bottle of the 2002 Zinfandel, Caboose from Ridge and poured her a glass in the Starry Night imprinted stemware we acquired at their Christmas tasting. I hope Skip can forgive the unintentional syllogism.

Go East, Young Man!

Is there a substantive difference between Napa and Sonoma or are they merely two faces of the same coin? Your West Coast Oenophile does not engage in the San Francisco vs. Los Angeles dichotomy nor harbor any desire to plunge into this debate. Sostevinobile strives to be inclusive for all the wines that meet a sustainable threshold while exemplifying the highest standards of winemaking. To paraphrase Charlie the Tuna, we seek wines that taste good (and with good taste).
Nonetheless, there is a physical demarcation between these two premier winegrowing counties, so I headed east across the border for the second day of my wine swing. The powers that be were not about to underwrite a stay at Meadowood nor dinner at Bouchon (or even Ad Hoc, for that matter), so I settled for a highly overrated motel and a quick bite at Bounty Hunter. Afterwards, I fell sway to the siren call of Ali Weiss, a gifted solo performer gracing the nearby Downtown Joe’s with a full encore set. A complimentary CD and a couple shots of Balvenie later, I zigzagged back to my pool-less downtown resort, to the strains of a less mellifluous siren and an eventual night’s sleep.
As with my day in Sonoma, I started off tending to the environmental development of our premises. Immediately, I recognized that Bardessono, a premier green resort which had just opened two days before, was by far the preferable place to have stayed. Renowned eco-developer Phil Sherburne and I sat out by one of his pebble-lined reflecting pools and discussed matters of sustainable development and mutual interest. I hope we forged a relationship that will bear considerable fruit as becomes as Sostevinobile a more tangible reality.
From there, the rest of my day was devoted introducing our project to several of the wineries, a circuit that ranged from the quaint basement operations of Charter Oak to the opulence of Staglin and Darioush, a gleaming personal monument along the Silverado Trail. Someday, I would hope I could produce a Cabernet to rival their 2005 Signature Cabernet Sauvignon! In between my stops, I managed a double Joel Gott, first at his obligatory Taylor’s Automatic Refresher, a McDonald’s-be-damned paragon of drive-in burger stops, then for a golf cart-chauffered tour of The Ranch, a humongous custom crush facility in what once housed Sutter Home’s White Zinfandel operations.
An impromptu stop at Conn Creek reintroduced me to their 2005 Anthology, as well as a number of deep, rich Cabernets I had tasted last fall at Taste Napa Valley; this time, the experience was amplified by the charms and graciousness of a hyperenthusiastic young wine pourer named Amy, who confided that she had been “bitten” by the wine bug (a generation ago, I might have been “smitten”). And herein lies a contrast Your West Coast Oenophile is willing to make, between the impersonal harshness of the urbanized realm and the heartfelt accommodation one feels amid the tranquility of the vines.
From the jaded perspective of a city dweller, I am amazed how readily, with little prior introduction, people in Napa and throughout the wine country invite you into their homes and how warmly they receive you. Be it the understated setting of Rob Fanucci’s grandfather’s cottage or Shari Staglin’s commanding Rutherford estate, the civility is unaffected, if not a natural extension of their dedication to the wine that they craft.
Back when I began combing the Napa Valley, I used to stop by the Jim Warren’s St. Helena real estate office, lured, in part, by the cookies his wife Maggie would bake for me. Jim, whose father had been the governor of California and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, was a crewcut, pipe-smoking former Marine who nonetheless took on a decidedly avuncular liking to me. “It’s not just the wine,” he’d pointedly advise me. “It’s the lifestyle.”
Wish I could tell him today how right he turned out to be.

On the Road Again

If things have seemed a bit quiet on the blogging front this week, it has only been because Your West Coast Oenophile took to the road in order to lay the foundation for Sostevinobile’s wine program. As I sit here composing my thoughts for this entry, I find it hard to believe my last business jaunt to the wine country was just over 18 years ago, when I bottled Spectrum HoloByte Wines at Healdsburg Wine Cellars, then part of Bill Hambrecht’s Belvedere portfolio, with the late Peter Friedman. There have been, of course, many, many personal trips to Sonoma and to Napa, and while there is an undeniable pleasure to the purely amateur pursuit of wine, it was certainly good to be back.
Technological changes since 1990 have altered the landscape everywhere, including the wine country. I discovered this almost immediately after crossing the Sonoma county line. Preoccupied with a cross-country phone conference (note to the CHP: always utilizing my hands-free Apple Bluetooth receiver as I drive), I missed the turn to Kenwood and found myself in Petaluma before I realized my error. Still, my egregiously late arrival at the Wine Institute’s workshop on self-assessing one’s green practices allowed me to develop a rapport with the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, an organization whose mutual interests will bear quite significantly on the selection of our wines. There is, after all (as I am wont to remind the Ginkgo Girl), a deliberate method to the madness.
At the conclusion of this gathering, I bypassed the tasting room at St. Francis and began my rounds with several of the vintners I encountered at ZAP. Most befitting the nostalgic aspect of my trip, it was extremely pleasant to visit with Dick Arrowood at his new Amapola Creek. Back in the days when my clients were bidding to acquire Chardonnay showcase Chateau St. Jean, Dick, who was then their winemaker, served as my sounding board up until Suntory outbid our team by $8 million. Dick moved on to start his eponymous label a few miles down the road and surprisingly cut a niche for himself as a red wine maker—his 1996 Arrowood Mataro opened my eyes to the wonders of this varietal.
Arrowood Vineyards was subsequently sold to Robert Mondavi, then became a pingpong ball in the ConstellationLegacy Estates fiasco a few years back. After Jess Jackson brought about a renewed stability by the winery, Dick decided to open an independent venture in the shadow of Monte Rosso. There, amid the cooperage of his pristine storage room, I sampled forthcoming vintages of Syrah, Zinfandel, and Cabernet Sauvignon, along with barrel samplings of Petit Verdot that was slated for blending. Call me the viticultural equivalent of Humbert Humbert, but nothing quite stimulated the palate as the budding young flavors of undespoiled juice.
I met with a number of new friends afterwards, from Bartholomew Park, another Phil Coturri client, to previously cited GiaDomella, whose splendid 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon will be gracing our table later this week. Seghesio Family Vineyards treated me to an array of their Zinfandels, as well as their food-commanding 2007 Arneis and 2006 Sangiovese that made me yearn to sample their forthcoming Fiano and Barbera..
I thought I might cap Tuesday’s adventure in downtown Healdsburg with some bar appetizers at Cyrus, but damn!—the Hotel Les Mars was closed for staff training. Alas, I settled for a last-minute sampling at the Rosenblum tasting room, then curled up in front of the fireplace at Merritt Sher’s tantalizingly geometric Hotel Healdsburg to make some final cellphone calls before heading out to cross the border….
< /font>

Bye, Bye Miss American Pie

(I know I should have saved today’s heading for tomorrow, but I ran out of ideas)
She was slim and petite. Near waist-length, blondish hair with freckles. Kinda reminded me of a girl I had a semi-crush on in college, when I was nineteen. We never got much beyond the kissy phase, even though she gave me her phone number. First I got the roommate. Then the answering box. Then the roommate. Then three more answering boxes, followed by the “you caught me just as I was running out the door. Can I call you back later?” Alas, she never did. But she was my very first ZAP.
I left grad school and drove back to California, determined to carve a niche for myself as a playwright. Thought I could support myself as a starving artist, but managed to starve better than I arted. Somewhere down the line, I reassessed my strategy and began to believe that the field of advertising would be my temporary salvation, an unstructured corporate haven where the 30- & 60-second spots I’d write for TV and radio commercials would serve as creative calisthenics, little snippets of dialogue that kept me in tip-top form for the dramatic satires I would crank out after work. That inexorable cesspool of exploitation known as freelancing and the intermittent assignments writing brochures and piddly little newspaper ads provided none of that. Thanks ever-so-much for giving me the chance you promised, Jeff.
Somewhere along the way, a few of my fellow creatives turned me onto improvisational comedy and the workshop Jim Cranna ran in Fort Mason on Saturday afternoons. I can‘t say I ever really got the hold of it—public performance is still something that daunts me. But it was a good exercise that forced me into roles that had not been predetermined, a radical departure from how I functioned as a writer (dramatic and commercial), where I was the puppetmaster, proscribing each and every word my characters would utter.
Back in 1992, folks from the Improv Workshop used to gather afterwards at a dive-ish bar called Paul’s Saloon. Despite a striking resemblance, the proprietor, Paul, was a most unSanta-like fellow and one of the surliest barkeeps of his day (a few years later, he sold the business and sailed off on a transpacific schooner, where it was rumored that he was inadvertently harpooned by a Japanese whaling expedition). On other evenings, different ensembles from the class performed as improv troupes, including Women Who Laugh Too Much (and the Men Who Crack Them Up), who had invited me up to sing my incendiary Battle Hymn of the Republicans during the first Gulf War.
On a warm, dry Saturday early that year, my above-mentioned friend and I finished the class and se
t out to join the others at Paul’s. As we passed by the window of the rather compact meeting room at the head of Fort Mason’s Building A, we noticed a small gathering of folks and a scattering of tables with stations of red wine. So, rather than partake in the rounds of watery pilsners and abusive service, we nonchalantly slipped into what turned out to be the first ZAP festival.*
I swear this was the ONLY time I ever attended ZAP without legitimate credentials! But Your West Coast Oenophile has happily enjoyed the trade and public tastings ever since, as this annual convention has grown from an intimate gathering to the overwhelming spectacle it has become today. The 18th Annual ZAP Grand Festival this past Saturday, now occupying two entire exhibition halls on Fort Mason’s piers, was nothing short of what I have come to expect. Making Sostevinobile’s first public pitch to the wine industry, my partner David Latimer and I visited with more wineries than I can enumerate, yet still only managed to cover a minor portion of the presenters during our nearly six hours there.
At any of the major tastings like ZAP (Rhône Rangers, Pinot Days, Family Winemakers, etc.), I strive to skip over those wineries with which I am already well familiar—in this instance, Ridge, Rosenblum, Ravenswood—and focus on ones that are new either to the festival or to me. In years past, this approach has allowed to stumble upon the unreleased forays into Zinfandel by the inestimable Grebennikoff Vineyards or to discover what was then a ramshackle Healdsburg operation known as Wilson. This year had no shortage of surprises, either, including Brown Estate, D-Cubed, Charter Oak and Dick Arrowood’s new Amapola Creek.
Of course, there are time-honored friends, like Paul Tresetti, whose eponymous wine shop/restaurant was my salvation during my Year in Exile to the greater Modesto metropolitan area, as well as wineries like Starry Night and Pezzi King, whose bottles already occupy a significant portion of my collection. And of course, there are the must-tastes, like Seghesio and Turley, just because…
Turley brought along their 2006 Hayne Vineyard Zinfandel, which earned one of the two  I am awarding. The other went to GiaDomella, an amazing discovery from a few years back, whose 2006  Reserve Old Vine Zinfandel, seemed to be the consensus favorite among all with whom I compared notes.
And so another ZAP Grand Festival has come and gone, leaving behind pleasant aftertastes and pleasant memories all around. A few years ago, my original partner-in-crime reappeared, having had departed for a teaching stint in Maine, if recollection serves me right. She was couch-surfing somewhere in the City and gave me a number where I could reach her. I gave it my best shot, one or two or a dozen times, but never managed to connect again. Today, even Google’s mighty search offers no response, and so I ask: “whither Deborah Homan?”

*I may be mistaken, but I thought ZAP originally stood for Zinfandel Aficionados and Producers.