Monthly Archives: August 2009

When nature calls

Five cutting-edge wineries, all clustered in a single room. A mere handful of attendees compared with the throngs at Family Winemakers. An abject need to tear myself away from my keyboard and begin to confront life after the Ginkgo Girl. How could I possibly not attend?

Donning my Specialized helmet and slipping my feet into the toe clips, Your West Coast Oenophile headed out from my Pacific Heights exile last Thursday evening and leisurely wound my way down to Hayes Valley and Arlequin Wine Merchant. This recently-expanded wine shop/café is the offshoot of Absinthe, a popular restaurant with one of the most extensive premium liquor selections in California. In the year I spent as a starving artist between finishing grad school and entering the wine industry, I actually filled in as a bartender at Absinthe predecessor Ivy’s, an upscale, distinctly “festive” Civic Center institution, for a very brief period. Discretion dictates that I refrain from trenchant observations of the furtive liaisons engendered here, lest risking a boycott of Sostevinobile in this post-Prop. 8 era. Still, I did find it a more inclusive milieu to be among patrons whose principal predilection is for heterodoxical wines.
Despite the slight reservations I expressed in my previous entry, I was glad to partake in the celebration of San Francisco’s Natural Wine Week. Once I plunked down my $20 tasting fee, I beelined over to the table for Clos Saron, a winery that had been scheduled to pour at Golden Glass but failed to show. The delayed gratification was well worth the wait. Clos Saron proprietor Gideon Beinstock, who also serves as winemaker for fellow Oregon House winery Renaissance Vineyards, readily displayed his complete mastery of the viticultural practices natural winemakers espouse, artfully blending Burgundian, Bordeaux and Rhône varietals into his repertoire. Limiting himself to small lot productions of under 200 cases, his wines displayed an extraordinary restraint, evocative of terroir-driven vintages I have sampled from Paso Robles’ L’Aventure. Among the several wines Gideon generously poured, I was most impressed with his 2008 Carte Blanche, a triple-appellation mélange of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Roussanne and Viognier. The 2004 Heart of Stone also delighted with its blend of Syrah rounded out with Viognier. And, of the two Yuba County Pinot Noirs, I thought the 2007 Pinot Noir Home Vineyard clearly stood out.
Over the past few years, I’ve attended numerous “Meet the Winemaker” Monday night tastings at California Wine Merchant; certainly, a similar program will become an important component to Sostevinobile, both as a means of outreach to our clientele and as part of our commitment to showcasing the abundance of exciting and diversified wines grown here on the West Coast. One of the more intriguing wineries I’ve encountered at these sessions has been Lioco, a Los Angeles-based partnership between Matt Licklider and Kevin O’Connor (the name being a portmanteau derived from the initial few letters of each surname). On this warm evening, the duo tempered the gathering with a pair of cool, contrasting whites, the 2008 Chardonnay Sonoma County and a distinctly oak-free 2006 Chardonnay Michaud. Their forte, however, was the 2007 Indica, a Mendocino blend of Carignane rounded out with Mourvèdre and Grenache.
Few wineries here can match the scholarly approach Tablas Creek applies to its focus on a particular category, in their case Rhône varietals. Unti Vineyards in Dry Creek, however, is gradually building a comparable portfolio with Italian varietals. This father-son team has long delighted with their proprietary Segromigno, a Sangiovese-Barbera blend I frequently enjoy as the house vino alla spina at Delfina Pizzeria just down the street from my abode. At this pouring, their varietal 2007 Sangiovese Dry Creek Valley spoke eloquently of the resurgence of Cal-Italia wines. In tandem, a separate 2007 Barbera Dry Creek Valley begged for the kind of Neapolitan pasta sauces I simmer for a week before serving. Unti’s most noteworthy offering on this evening came from their 2007 Montepulciano Dry Creek Valley, to my knowledge the only bottling of the Montepulciano d’Abruzzo grape on the West Coast. I know I can look forward to offerings of several other wine debuts as George and Mick continue their research into the untapped potential for other Italian varietals in this welcoming climate.
Jared and Tracey Brandt know that I have lon
g been a proponent of their studious winemaking methodology at A Donkey and Goat. As an unknown winery several years back, they stunned the attendees at Rhône Rangers with the debut of their unreleased 2000 Syrah, an astounding wine that, in my aversion to the overwrought vernacular of wine descriptives, was best described as “pure velvet.” It’s a benchmark that’s extraordinarily difficult to replicate; otherwise, I might have been more effusive about both the 2006 Syrah Fenaughty El Dorado and the 2006 Syrah Vielles Vignes Mendocino County Tracey poured on this occasion. Nonetheless, their current 2007 Four Thirteen El Doradoa blend of 45% Syrah, 35% Grenache, 18% Mourvèdre and 2% Counoise, displayed enormous potential to age beautifully over the next few years.
A Donkey and Goat really led the way for several Berkeley-based wineries that incubated at San Francisco’s Crushpad. Another graduate of this custom crush facility was Broc Cellars. From its inception, owner Chris Brockway has focused on Grenache, consigning his energies in other varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay to his affiliate venture, Broadside. recently, he added another Rhône varietal Mourvèdre, to his repertoire; the 2007 Mourvèdre Luna Matta Vineyard, Paso Robles was a worthy entrant, to be sure. His 2007 Grenache Cassia Monterey, however, was nothing less than (again eschewing traditional epithets) a stunning rendition of this varietal, far and away his best effort to date.
So did San Francisco Natural Wine Week make an acolyte out of me? To be sure, I have become a strong proponent for how this methodology allows a grape to express both its varietal character as well as the distinct traits of their vineyard/microclimate in which it was grown. Sostevinobile remains committed to the proliferation of the winemaking arts here on the West Coast and is more than happy to embrace this school as part of the diversity of our offerings.

Præternatural Wine

Your West Coast Oenophile feels more like an OenoFill this week, having spent nearly ten hours visiting tables at Family Winemakers of California this past Sunday and Monday. It’s like undertaking a Master’s Swim class; no matter how hard you try, you can’t help but swallow a bit as you complete your interminable laps. I know I ought to rally and make it to at least some of the tastings for San Francisco Natural Wine Week that is now upon us, but we will have to see. 

Natural wine is a bit hard to define, even for its proponents. There are elements, of course, that completely sync with the values that Sostevinobile espouses; nonetheless, there are indeed times when in the craft of making great wine—be it léger de main or the sheer artistry of a skilled vintner—when intervention can be warranted. And, as I have often rebuked those who monomaniacally extol the merits of terroir above all else, wine should taste of the soil, not like the soil. That small quibble aside, I’m sure the lure of good wine will lure me to at least one of the events. As they say in France, nous verrons

The prospect of enjoying natural wine has made me ponder whether I’ve ever tasted præternatural wine. Some would justifiably apply this term to the 1945 Château Pétrus or the famed 1947 Cheval Blanc, and although I lack direct evidence, I feel confident they would be right. For me, the closest I can recall was the 2005 David Arthur Elevation 1147, a phenomenal wine that hinted at the greatness of their legendary 1997 vintage. Soon, quite soon, I hope to have added many of these ætherial wines to my list of “conquests.”

Præternatural wines do not often appear at industry grand tastings, but, as it has many times over the past 19 years, Family Winemakers did showcase a number of extraordinary bottlings. Not to mention some very good wines, as well. If only I had the endurance to taste every one of them. Figure if I allocated a scant five minutes per station, in my ten hours on the floor, I’d still only connect with 120 of the attendees—barely ⅓ of the wineries on hand—and that would be without a moment’s pause!

So, with apologies to all I must overlook, let me summarize my discoveries from this year’s gathering. In the spirit of generosity, I will first cite the 2007 Philanthropist from Indigène Cellars of Paso Robles. The somewhat odd placement of the accent grave in their name underscores their contrarian approach to the wines they blend. This assemblage of Cabernet and Petit Verdot that winemaker/owner Raymond Smith inoculated with white wine yeast might evoke cries of Sacré Bleu in Bordeaux, but here it drank quite artfully. Another winery from Paso Robles debuting at this tasting, HammerSky Vineyards, also presented a Bordeaux-style blend, their 2007 Party of Four, along with their noteworthy 2007 Zinfandel. Finding myself next to Paso stalwart Halter Ranch, I of course indulged in their nicely-aging 2004 Ancestor.

Older wines are not usually par for the course at these industrial tastings, so the 2004 Brion Cabernet Sauvignon from B Wise Vineyards was a happy exception. So, too, were the 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2004 Syrah from Reynoso Family in Alexander Valley. Slightly younger, the 2005 Crazy Creek Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from DeLorimier Vineyards, part of the Wilson Winery’s growing portfolio, did its Alexander Valley roots quite proud, while the 2005 Lytton Cabernet Sauvignon was quite the amiable Cab from Zinfandel territory. Many California wineries that blend their Cabernets with traditional Bordeaux varietals often omit Malbec, citing difficulties with growing this grape. Discovering the 2004 Malbec from Elements of Sonoma was therefore all the more gratifying.

The up & coming wineries in Paso Robles, Santa Maria, and Santa Barbara, on the other hand, often feel unbound by the rigidity of the French classifications, and have developed evocative Meritage blends from Bordeaux and Rhône varietals, among other apostasies. Jettlynn Winery poured two of their Masters Blend, the (predominantly 2006) NV Mon Couer, a Bordeaux blend with 4% Syrah in the mix, and the aptly-named NV Opulent, which softened with 10% Syrah. Once again, a mere table over introduced me to another Paso neighbor, Justin Kahler’s JK Wine Company, with its contrasting 2005 Syrah Chalone and 2007 Syrah del Rio, a strong showing for their Family Winemakers inaugural appearance.

And what would be a tasting without satisfying my penchant for esoteric varietals? Santa Maria’s Kenneth Volk Vineyards offered their 2006 Négrette while Arbios Cellars pleased with their 2007 Praxis Central Coast Lagrein. Slightly more familiar, Templeton’s Clavo Cellars shone with a noteworthy 2006 Grenache Blanc, while its red twin 2007 Grenache Mendocino marked Elizabeth Spencer’s high point. One could luxuriate all day in the intriguing varietals Tablas Creek produces, but I held myself to a quick sip of their 2008 Picpoul Blanc while introducing myself to fellow wine blogger Tommy Oldré. A number of Iberian wines proliferated the event, notably Fenestra Winery’s 2006 Alvarelhão, while veteran Cal-Italia specialist Graziano Family impressed with both their 2005 Enotria Dolcetto and 2007 Enotria Barbera.

The curiously-named Herman Story showcased an exemplary 2007 White Hawk Vineyard Viognier, while Calluna Vineyards, a name that might have been derived from Jerry Brown’s tenure as Governor Moonbeam, held forth with both their Bordeaux-style 2007 Calluna Cuvée and the 2007 Merlot Aux Raynauds. Twisting the tongue almost as much as Sostevinobile, Coquelicot Estate also featured their 2006 Syrah and a Meritage, the 2006 Mon Amour.

Mon amour is a term I am sure many a wine connoisseur has longed to whisper to Flowers Winery’s Keiko Niccolini, and it was not just the allure of their renowned Chardonnay and Pinot Noir that drew me to her table. So, too, did my well-documented fondness for the Yates sisters lure me to try their 2006 Cheval, a pure Cabernet Franc. Lust, of course, does not enter into my friendship with Peter Thompson of Andrew Geoffrey Vineyards, but his 2005 Diamond Mountain District Cabernet Sauvignon did inspire lascivious thoughts.
On the green side of winemaking, it was most gratifying to connect finally with LangeTwins, the Lodi appellation recently honored for their solar implementation. Their 2005 Midnight Reserve is a Bordeaux blend as admirable as their commitment to sustainability. Organically-farmed Ackerman Family presented a selection of their limited-release Cabs, culminating in a “sneak preview” of the 2005 Ackerman Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon. Terra Sávia was one of the few wineries bold enough to call themselves organic; their 2005 Petit Verdot made a bold statement in its own right.
I like to think of Ventana Vineyards as a somewhat traditional winery and have long been impressed with their Chardonnays, in particular; nonetheless, their 2007 Gewürztraminer Monterey Arroyo Seco was a notably subdued expression of this tangy varietal. Schug Carneros Wine Estate did, however, make their statement with the 2006 Chardonnay Heritage Reserve. Another winery that stood out in this vein was Athair Wines, with a notably crisp 2007 Chardonnay.
On the traditional red side, notable Cabernets abounded from Lawrence Harrison Vineyards, a winery led by their 101-year-old proprietress, with their 2005 Leo Joseph Cabernet Sauvignon; Tayson Pierce Estates, whose 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon barely attained the single varietal threshold, with a 75% Cabernet/25% Merlot blend; Alexander Valley’s Roth Estate, Lancaster Estate’s Cab-only division, with their 2006 vintage; Darms Lane, also a single-varietal producer from Oak Knoll in Napa, with their 2005 Darms Lane Cabernet Sauvignon, and Castello di Amorosa, Dario Sattui’s monumental erection, with their 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley.

I was hard-pressed to pick a favorite between the 2005 Hestan Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2005 Meyer Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, both from Hestan Vineyards (perhaps they could have settled the debate if they’d brought their 2005 Stephanie Cabernet, as well). Recipient of numerous Robert Parker accolades Gemstone Vineyards offered a similar dilemma with their 2006 Facets of Gemstone Estate Red Blend, a Bordeaux-style Meritage, and the special release 2006 10th Gemstone, a Cabernet with 20% Petit Verdot blended in. Portfolio Winery, a venture in art and in wine, offered no dilemma, pouring their exquisite 2005 Portfolio Limited Edition, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.
 is the selective accolade I bestow on wines that truly strike me as præternatural—or close to it. Certainly Clos Pepe fit the bill with their seductive 2007 Pinot Noir Santa Rita. Also dazzling in the Pinot realm was consensus favorite Wedell Cellars, with both his 2006 Wedell Cellars Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir and his staggering 2005 Hillside Vineyard Pinot Noir from Edna Valley. Amid all the hubbub on the floor of the Festival Pavilion, I fell sway to the worldly charms of Jennifer Hong from TGIC Importers, who steered me to the wines of Skipstone Ranch; both their 2007 Makena’s Vineyard Viognier and Bordeaux-style 2005 Oliver’s Blend dazzled with their organically-farmed grapes. Jennifer, however, held the great surprise to the tasting herself as the representative for Paso Robles’ Opolo Vineyards. Their 2005 Rhapsody was yet another standout Bordeaux Meritage, but the 2006 Montagna-Mare, a blend of Barbera and Sangiovese, truly stole my heart.
As an addendum, I did manage to sneak out and attend the Natural Wine Week tasting at Arlequin in the midst of composing this piece. Look for my findings in my next blog entry.

What a difference a bridge makes!

In my endless quest for a leaner, sleeker physique, Your West Coast Oenophile twice cycled from San Francisco to Muir Beach over the recent seven day span. Nice to reconnect with the Pacific Ocean. Nice to know my legs still have enough endurance at my particular age to make the climb over the slope of Mt. Tamalpais to the flat stretch of shoreline at the foot of Muir Woods. Nice to have a healthy tan, once again, in places the sun doesn’t ordinarily shine…

Anyway, when Sunday rolled around, I felt entitled to a day of leisure. I locked up my 14-speed Trek road bike and headed over the Bay Bridge to Mayberry on the Bay, the quaint little hamlet also known as Alameda Island. Even though it is no more than a stone’s throw from Oakland, Alameda can feel worlds apart, an oasis of by-gone times where people left their doors unlocked and knew all their neighbors. Alameda’s terrain is uncommonly flat, compared with the rest of the towns encircling the Bay, and its prevalent architecture appealing yet without even a hint of modernity.

I worked on the island for a year, following the 1989 earthquake, a rather challenging commute while the Cypress Freeway remained felled. Nowadays, the roadways leading from the Bay Bridge have all been restored, while the Alameda Naval air Station has been decommissioned, two factors that have dramatically changed the landscape here. Both Rosenblum Cellars and St. George Spirits now operate out of the former Navy base, while newcomer Rock Wall’s facilities has recently opened nearby. But what drew me over on Sunday was an eclectic gathering billed as EcoLuxe: Lifestyles of the Green and Fabulous.

A modern, state-of-the-art, sustainable building would probably contrast rather jarringly amid the stately and dilapidated Queen Anne Victorians that dot the residential part of Alameda. The new home EcoLuxe was featuring was actually set on the back corner of a subdivided lot, barely visible from the street, not unlike the carriage houses one finds at some of the grander mansions here in San Francisco. I found myself circling the block two or three times before I realized I was actually at the correct address. Upon arriving, I was effusively greeted by Jerusha Stewart, hostess for this event and self-promoting proprietress of The Last Single Girl in the World.

I am told that Jerusha puts on events—extravaganzas, actually—populated by some of the most beautiful women in the Bay Area. Soon, I may have to find out. This event, however, was more of a low-key affair.
A nice affair, actually. There was a very nice photo exhibit in the garage area. Success the Smart Way offered an array of green cleaning products, along with a raffle for a basket of goodies. Out back, the team from Garden Fare showcased the diverse edible garden they had planted around the perimeter of the patio, offering some of the largest (pomelo-sized!) onions known to mankind. All in all (as I’m sure fans of the old Andy Griffith Show would concur), Aunt Bee would have approved,

Upstairs, noted vegan soul food chef and cookbook author Bryant Terry prepared an organic gazpacho from heirloom tomatoes. Though I am not one to relish the constraints of vegan cooking (no mozzarella?), I have to admit this cold soup was quite refreshing on a warm summer afternoon. Of course, the house itself was quite temperate, having been designed with meticulous attention to green details, including a 2.45kW Rated Solar Energy System, High Efficiency (92%) Heating with heat recovery ventilation, and passive design for natural lighting and ventilation. Architect Sinan Sabuncuoglu employed a host of recycled materials in his building, with liberal use of bamboo and cork flooring, reclaimed Caeserstone countertops and durable Trex decking material forged from reclaimed wood and plastic. In vogue everywhere beyond the expanse of greater Mt. Pilot, highly-efficient recycled cotton denim furnished non-toxic insulation throughout the house.

Back in the 1960s, Aunt Bee would likely have put the kibosh on alcoholbeingserved at an afternoon gathering, but in these modern times, Sostevinobile was pleased to find dedicated sustainable wine producer Bouchaine supplying the libationsAgain, the chilled 2008 Rosé of Syrah was a perfect “grab a few rays on the sun deck” refresher. The 2006 Chardonnay was also quite welcome outside, while the 2006 Pinot Noir seemed to blend nicely with the ambience of the living room.
If I had to offer a criticism of this trio, however, it was that none of them truly stood out, seeming rather competent than enticing. In an odd sort of symmetry, this spec house, too, seemed a tad ordinarily, despite all its environmental bells and whistles. Given its setting, sharing a lot with a more dominant front house, it seemed to lack the kind of easy, airy spaciousness that one usually associates with a green environment. Still, I applaud the motivation and efforts of both winemaker and builder alike.

Hostess Jerusha announced that this party was her swan song, for the time being, as she was relocating to sweltering Phoenix sometime this week. I bade my farewells and zigzagged my way across Oakland to inspect the much-heralded Camino, a veritable temple for the farm-to-table movement. Even Camino’s æsthetic, with a complete absence of common spirit brands and a wealth house-made ingredients derived from seasonal produce and herbs. And, of course, to my eternal consternation, every single wine of Camino’s list is imported!
I know I ought to be grateful that such contradictions are providing the niche upon which Sostevinobile is founded, but I felt compelled to express my incredulity. I treated myself to a cocktail made with brandy and vermouth, infused with the house-made bitters and tapped out a few note on my iPhone before heading around the corner for the debut of Lake Chalet.
The folks from San Francisco’s Beach Chalet, a venerable institution they have modernized as a brewpub since its fall into disrepair in the late 1980s, have taken on the remodel of this facility on Oakland’s Lake Merritt. There’s still a few finishing touches that remain, but when all is complete, the three sections of this enormous waterfront complex will hold over 400 seats! the place is beautiful, of course, even spectacular, with its sweeping vistas over the water and dominant position along what is arguably Oakland’s most beautiful landmark. I just don’t see how they can make a go of it.
Driving to the Lake Chalet is a challenge. One-way streets make accessing the restaurant a somewhat arduous proposition, often requiring a loop around several blocks in search of parking. A water approach is a whole other story. Unlike waterfront bars one finds in Berkeley or Tiburon or even along San Francisco’s Embarcadero, the Lake Chalet sits atop an artificial lake that offers no ingress from the San Francisco Bay for any kind of sail or motor boat. Nautical enthusiasts can only dock alongside the restaurant if they are launching from somewhere along Lake Merritt. Filling even a major fraction of the seats here on a regular basis will be an enormous challenge (as a comparison, the recently-closed Pres a Vi in The Presidio also offered an unparalleled setting, a well-respected parent operation, ingress from both San Francisco and Marin, yet never came close to filling their 325 seats during their barely two years of operations).
My visit to the Lake Chalet was brief; my urge to cross the bridge back to the West Bay quickly overcame me. I’ll return someday soon, to be sure. After all, with another birthday on the horizon, I need to come up with a place the Gingko Girl can take me.

Hinduism had damn well better be wrong!

This isn’t part of my incessant rant against those infuriating outsourced call centers whose mangling of even the most basic tenets of conversational English (“how might I best facilitate the rectification of your importuned perturbance most congruently Mr. Marc?”) manages to elicit threats annihilating Bangalore from this foresworn pacifist. Rather, I speak of their—one would certainly hope—erroneous concept of reincarnation, where even a minor malfeasance could condemn a poor soul to enduring a subsequent lifecycle as an aardvark or some scatophagous species like a housefly.
If there really is reincarnation, I want to come back as Jamaican or a Caribbean Islander. Not because I find the accent so appealing. Nor is it necessarily the allure of a tropical climate or the island cuisine that is primarily focused on fresh fruit and seafood. And rest assured, Your West Coast Oenophile is not secretly harboring a desire to switch from wine to rum. Or ganja. No, in my next life, I simply want to be a professional steel drum player.
Wafts of reggae fusion filled the lawn at the Oakland Ferry terminal Saturday afternoon as the East Bay Vintners Alliance staged their fourth annual Urban Wine Experience. For a moment, it almost seemed that UB40 was entertaining the crowd, but the sound belonged entirely to Bay Area Caribbean stars Pan Extasy, with their star percussionist, Ashton Craig. To call Craig a virtuoso on the steel drum is an understatement—his tantalizing arrangements of The Temptations’ Just My Imagination and Van Morrison’s Brown Eyed Girl to reggae standards like No Woman, No Cry and I Can See Clearly Now provided the perfect backdrop to these sun-drenched festivities.
I was in attendance on behalf of Sostevinobile and, of course, to taste the wines that an eclectic collection of 16 East Bay vintners exhibited. The organizers of this event smartly paired each of the wineries with an individual food purveyor from the East Bay, as well, and I would be remiss in not recognizing the contributions of Adagia Restaurant, Angela’s Bistro, Asena Restaurant, Bellanico, Bucci, C’era Una Volta (a return visit from June’s Golden Glass), Culina, E-22 Café, Fabrique Délices, Levende East, the resurrected Miss Pearl’s Jam House, Pappo, Savory Cook Special Event Catering, Whole Foods, and—truly the last word in culinary circles—Zza’s Trattoria, Enoteca & Catering. As readers might expect, the abundance of Italian cuisine was hardly a disappointment. Various duck dishes seemed to abound, as well; a portent of which may well have been the huge gaggle of 60+ waterfowl I espied as I drove into Oakland, huddled together on nearby Coast Guard Island as if in complete trepidation of what lay ahead down the road.
As I had at P.S. I Love You, I started the tasting with Rock Wall, eager to sample what they were producing beyond Petite Sirah. Though young, I found their 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley showed great promise. Standout for me, though, was their 2007 Zinfandel Sonoma County, which I felt exceeded the Reserve version they were also pouring. Over at the next table, parent winery Rosenblum Cellars filled in for the regrettably absent Stage Left Cellars. Frankly, if they would always pour their 2007 Rockpile Zinfandel, I’d be happy to let them substitute for any winery they wished!
Rosenblum also poured their 2007 Fess Parker Roussanne. I generally find Roussanne preferable to Marsanne, except in the case of Alameda’s groundbreaking winery, where the latter varietal has always outshone the former (this afternoon proved no exception). Ironically, Rosenblum’s former winemaker, Jeff Cohn’s JC Cellars poured their 2007 Preston Vineyards Marsanne, alongside an excellent catfish entrée from Miss Pearl’s Jam House; I found it slightly wanting compared to his previous efforts, but satisfying nonetheless. Better exemplifying his skills was the 2007 Smoke & Mirrors, a Syrah balanced out 9% Petite Sirah and 6% Zinfandel. Quite a satisfying wine! At the next table, Rob Lynch’s Irish Monkey can best be described as a quixotic operation with some notable offerings. Their chilled 2008 Chardonnay Davis was most welcome in the 85°F heat, while their 2006 Syrah Lovall Valley was noteworthy in it own right. As instructed, I washed down C’era Una Volta’s creamy polenta plate with the 2006 Sangiovese Amador—indeed, it was splendid.
Valdiguié is not the most complex varietal, despite its tongue-twisting morphology; still, it readily adapts to a blush expression (again, quite welcome on a sweltering afternoon). I chilled down with Urbano Cellars’ version, their 2008 Vin Rosé, Green Valley and also found myself grateful for their 2006 Petit Verdot, Lodi. Unfortunately, their next door neighbor, Urban Legend, had promised to bring a tantalizing selection of Sangiovese, Teroldego, and Nebbiolo, but only mustered a premature sample of their unreleased Barbera. Allora!
A number of familiar faces were pouring this afternoon. Oakland standout Dashe Cellars brought an exceptional 2007 Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley and 2008 Vin Gris, Dry Creek Valley (a blend of 40% Grenache, 30% Zinfandel and 30% Petite Sirah) to match. I also enjoyed their 2007 Dry Riesling, McFadden Farms Potter Valley. French-affiliated Aubin Cellars offered a fetching pair of Pinots from their Verve Label, the 2007 Pinot Noir Monterey Old Vines and the 2006 Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast—I forget which I preferred!
Even if Eno Wines was substandard, it would still be a pleasure to see Sasha Verhage and his wife Kiara. Nonetheless, their 2006 Yes Dear (Grenache, Eaglepoint Ranch), 2006 Acre of Happiness (Zinfandel, Teldeschi) and 2006 In Your Own Time (Syrah, Las Madres) all stood out as exemplary. I’ve also long enjoyed the wines from R & B Cellars, though I had yet to make the acquaintance of Kevin Brown before this afternoon. Ironically, none of their musically-themed labels (Swingville, Zydeco, Serenade) echoed the diverse selection (socca, reggae, calypso, Caribbean Jazz) that Pan Extasy included in its repertoire, which may account for why I was extremely partial to his 2004 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and am eagerly awaiting the 2005 version.
This penchant for quaint names extended to Prospect 772, perhaps my favorite discovery of the afternoon. Along with some intriguing offerings from Bucci’s in Emeryville, including a shaved fennel cold dish, I reveled in their 2008 Baby Doll Dry Rosé, the self-styled pugnacious 2006 The Brawler (a Syrah tempered with 4% Viognier) and their standout 2006 The Brat (a 80% Grenache/20% Syrah blend). Another newcomer, Andrew Lane, blended Syrah, Zinfandel and Valdiguié to make their 2007 Andrew Lane Rosso Napa Valley. More distinctive, however, was their 2005 Andrew Lane Merlot and their multi-vintage Gamay Noir Four Vineyards Napa Valley.
On the food side of things, the Urban Wine Experience began with a Duck Paté and finished with a Duck Confit. This latter concoction paired up admirably with the 2005 Troubadour Paso Robles, an equal blend of Grenache and Petite Syrah from Tayerle. Though not listed on the program, they also poured their just-released 2006 Sun King, a Bordeaux-style red blended from Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Malbec. Of course, I managed to save some room for dessert, which consisted of pure liquid delight in the form of Mango Wine and Persimmon Wine from Adams Point.
On my way out, I held the iPhone up to Pan Extasy’s bandstand, so the Ginkgo Girl could hear a portion of what she had missed. It would be a shame if she misses any more of these gatherings. Nicely tanned and filled with both good wine and good duck, I strolled through Jack London Square and quiet soberly made my way back to San Francisco (after all, it would have been a shame to meet my end after such an enjoyable afternoon).
I still sometimes think the world is merely a figment of my imagination and therefore feel compelled to remain alive forever. But if I do go and reappear, I had better not downgrade to mallard the next time around. Human (or better) is a must, and if I am not gifted with an uncanny ear for melody, an intuitive sense of rhythm, and agile hands that can hammer out an intoxicating Calypso melody across the gleaming metal surface of a kettle drum, then at least let me come back as tall as fellow locavore pioneer and Caribbean rum authority Thad Vogler!

Goodnight Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.

Someday, someone (not Your West Coast Oenophile) should open a winery primarily focused on Petite Sirah and call it Schnozzola Vineyards. Or, to be a little less obscurant, Durante Cellars. The connection? Whenever I hold up a truly wondrous glass of this underappreciated varietal, its lush, ebony tincture devoid even of a hint of pellucidity, I find myself quietly humming strains of Inka Dinka Doo, the signature song of this beloved, malapropistic Italian comedian.

OK, so even if a wine could be characterized as having a big nose, I’m not sure it’s an epithet I’d readily employ. Unquestionably, however, I would characterize Petite Sirah as a big wine. Bold and forthright, with a flavor that can hold its own against a Filet Mignon or venison. Not to mention Pasta al Sugo di Salcisse. Or exquisitely-rendered Ostrich medallions. Suffice it to say that Petite Sirah can easily be matched to any entrée that pairs with Zinfandel; Zins may express a great range of complexity, but, in general, Petite Sirahs will hold their own over a longer duration.

Last Tuesday, I ventured out to Livermore to taste a smorgasbord of these wines as part of the Seventh Annual Petite Symposium but on by the varietal’s principal advocacy, P.S. I Love You. Fittingly, this gathering was held at Concannon Vineyards, which holds claim to the first varietally-labeled release of Petite Sirah in California. I should have known this, of course, but flubbed my response when queried on the matter by Jim Concannon, an embarrassing moment not unlike the exchange from Cheech & Chong’s Let’s Make a Dope Deal (our first question: what is your name, Bob?).

Fortunately for me, none of the wineries pouring their fare managed such an egregious faux pas. I started off at Rock Wall’s station. This new wine venture is fondly known as Rosenblum—The Next Generation, and with her 2007 Rock Wall Petite Sirah Mendocino County, daughter Shauna manifests her heredity quite ably. Next table over Rosenblum père held his own, as expected, with a trio of wines, the most notable being his 2005 Kick Ranch Petite Sirah. At the next stop, I discovered Nord Estate Vineya
, where owner Julie Nord poured generous samples of her 2004 Napa Valley Petite Sirah Jonquil Vineyards.
Clarksburg is a small town in Yolo County and an AVA that encompasses parts of neighboring Sacramento and Solano Counties, as well. The 2004 Heringer Estate Petite Sirah was a fine example of what this region is capable of producing. Clarkburg’s most prominent winery, Bogle Vineyards, showcased three versions of their Petite Sirah, the 2007 Petite Sirah, the more striking 2006 Petite Sirah Reserve from Quick Ranch and a compelling 2006 Petite Sirah Port selected from the same vineyard. Actually, there were quite a number of different regions represented, despite the relatively small size of this tasting, including a selection of four distinctive Petites from host Concannon of the Livermore Valley, highlighted by their 2005 Captain Joe’s Petite Sirah, Livermore Valley.

Several Sierra wineries showed why Petite Sirah readily adapts to this cold climate. Fiddleton’s Cal-Italia specialist, Il Gioiello, featured their 2005 Estate Petite Sirah from Amador County (Sierra Foothills). From Nevada City, the ebullient Alex Szabo brought his 2006 Szabo Vineyards Petite Syrah Block 1. And Oakstone Winery’s Steve Ryan showcased his 2007 Petite Sirah Jeoff and Katy Vineyard from Fair Play. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Edwards Cellars from Ramona (San Diego County) showed a respectable 2004 Petite Sirah Ramona Valley from this notably warmer region. Mediating between these two extremes, the Central Coast’s Vina Robles pour their 2007 Petite Syrah, Jardine.

The permutations of how different wineries spell this varietal certainly argues for standardizing it as Durif, its other nomenclature, in honor of French nurseryman Dr. François Durif, who cloned this varietal by pollinating Peloursin with Syrah. As this debate continues within the wine world, it seemed in arguable that the 2006 Artezin Garzini Ranch Petite Sirah Mendocino County from Hess Collection was as big as its name. Nearby in Lake County, Langtry Estate, the umbrella operation to Guenoc, featured both their 2006 Guenoc Petite Sirah Lake County and a very sumptuous 2005 Langtry Petite Sirah Serpentine Meadow, a fitting tribute to winemaker Maria Navarro’s craft. Nearby in Cloverdale, winemaker Miroslav Tcholakov displayed both the 2004 La Storia Petite Sirah from Trentadue and the award-winning 2006 Miro Cellars Petite Sirah, his own label. Also from Sonoma County, Fortress Vineyards debuted their 2007 Petite Sirah Red Hills Lake County.
 is a plaudit longtime readers of this blog know that I dispense rather sparingly. today’s entry will be no exception. Still in keeping with my Durante motif, I must bestow an Ha-cha-cha-cha-cha on the 2007 Silkwood Petite Sirah from Monnich Family; this multi-award winning wine was every bit as velvety as the texture of its distinctive label. Another gold medal winner from the Central Valley was the 2006 Petite Sirah from Maley Brothers of Woodbridge.

Of course, it seems only logical that Petite Sirah should have had its greatest representation from Napa County. The inveterate Stags’ Leap proffered their 2006 Napa Valley Petite Syrah. Single Varietal producer Fulton Mather increased the tally with his 2005 David Fulton Winery, Estate Petite Sirah. And, from among the multifarious labels produced by RDJ Artisan Wines, the 2007 Seven Artisans Petite Sirah from Clayton Road Ranches (Suisun Valley) placed a wonderful coda to the afternoon.

While I appreciated the intimacy of this tasting, I do need to admonish P.S. I Love You for not providing a program that detailed the wineries on hand and the individual wines they poured. Expecting to find such a guide in the press kit, I was initially at a loss for composing this entry until I corresponded with each of the attendees.Not only did nearly everyone e-mail back immediately back with their particulars, it was extremely gratifying to see how the wineries expressed such tremendous enthusiasm for Sostevinobile and for having their wines included in our program. As the irrepressible Jimmy Durante so often said, “Everybody wants to get into the act!”

Sostevinobile doesn’t want wines with good taste…

Sostevinobile wants wines that taste good.
was just turning off I-280 last night when the radio station announced Budd Schulberg had died. Best known for his Academy Award-winning screenplay for On the Waterfront (“I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender.”), Schulberg was a proud veteran of the Dartmouth Jack-O-Lantern, a publication that also spawned such luminaries as Dr. Seuss and Animal House writer Chris Miller. Not to mention Your West Coast Oenophile and my compatriot for the evening, Jim Lattin, the Robert A. Magowan Professor of Marketing at Stanford Business School.

For those who have heard me rail over the years against the myopia of MBAs (“Mind Becomes Atrophied”) and inveigh against the damage they have inflicted on the true creative spirit, this may seem like the most unholy of alliances, on par with seeing yours truly happily washing down a Big Mac with a glass of Fat Bastard while cranking out a manuscript in Microsoft Word on a Dell laptop. All jest aside, it may well turn out that some of Jim’s young protégés provide the impetus to turn Sostevinobile a brick & mortar reality. It was one of the most opportune meetings I have held in quite some time.
It so happened that we caught up at a quaint wine bar I occasionally frequent on treks to destinations between San Francisco and Legoland (an epithet guaranteed to cull me no favor with Carl Guardino). It so happened that last night, they were holding a special tasting from a small vintner from one of the less-heralded local AVAs. Familiar story. Husband & wife team. Hands-on management. Hand-picked fruit. Sustainable growing practices. Sincere. In short, all the qualities Sostevinobile looks for in a winery.
The wines could not have been more bland.
It does pain me to reject a winery’s efforts outright, although there have been several I have declined to extol among the more than 800 wineries from whom I’ve sampled product over the past 9 months. In keeping with my practice, I simply eschew mentioning these ventures in this blog and relegate them to a Do Not Consider category in my database. Still, it’s important for this readership and for our future clientele to realize that Sostevinobile is highly selective and judicious in the wines we identify for inclusion in our program.
Readers of this blog know that my approach has been simply to identify wines that I find meritorious and include them without delving into extensive descriptions of their character and flavor. I don’t presuppose that how something tastes to me will be how it tastes to someone else. I prefer that people sample the wines I recommend and evaluate them by their own criteria, without the influence of my specifications. Moreover, as a writer, I reject the notion that I can verbalize or assimilate any kind of sensory experience through the deft application of florid prose. But, in deference to Jim’s wish that I expound my insights into my selections, let me try to detail why these wines failed to garner my approval.
We sampled six pourings from the winery in question: four basic varietals, a late harvest dessert wine and a fortified port-style interpretation of one of their varietals. Each could best be categorized as monodimensional, an unambitious expression of the grape with scant vinification employed. It seemed little effort was incorporated to encourage a distinctive expression of the varietal; a rudimentary grow-harvest-crush-ferment-age-bottle approach that precluded the artistry a skilled winemaker to educe a wine that has been memorably crafted. In this case, it seemed the wines had barely evolved from the very pedestrian approach winemakers in the early 1980s slid by on.
To be more specific, we first sampled this winery’s version of Viognier. No oak, stainless steel fermentation, an unadorned expression of this varietal that was almost cloying. Most wineries, of course, are still struggling to define exactly how they want to produce Viognier, and, as a result, there have been enormous vicissitudes in how it has been approached here in California. The heavily-oaked, Chardonnay version rapidly fell out of favor, but it has been apparent for quite some time, that a wholly unmanipulated interpretation of the grape holds little charm, either. The result is that many of the local Viogniers, like the aforementioned vintage satisfy neither as a refreshing, cocktail-style wine nor as a complement to food.
In contrast, this wine bar’s owner offered us a blind sampling of a white from a well-respected, nearby vintner that tasted exquisite —so much so, that I withdrew my initial guess of Viognier and hazardly suggested that it might be a Pinot Grigio. The initial aromas bespoke a fruitiness that I’ve long identified with this grape, but the finish was uncommonly dry—the deft manipulation of a highly -skilled winemaker abundantly evident. Indeed, this particular Viognier echoed the marvelous wines Alban Vineyards produced at the beginning of this millennium, a limited-quality release that became my staple every time I partook of Alex Ong’s Green Papaya Salad at Betelnut. By comparison, the unremarkable Viognier from the visiting winery didn’t stand a chance.
To employ a bit of street vernacular, it is not the function of this blog to dis a particular wine or vintner. I draft these entries in order to lay a foundation for the richness of the wine program Sostevinobile is assembling. In truth, I applaud the efforts of the winery I have been dissecting here. On the surface, at least, they are attempting everything that we vigorously endorse in our winemaking community. But, in the end, it has to come down how the appeal of the wine itself; in other words, how it tastes.
To paraphrase the iconic StarKist tuna commercial, “Sorry, Charlie.”