Monthly Archives: September 2009

Make Wine, not War

Some parts of Alameda definitely do not resemble Mayberry. The decommissioned Naval Air Base on the west side of the island is gradually being transformed with residential developments and commercial enterprises, an irenic reinvigoration of the local economy that parallels many of the tenets Sostevinobile embodies. Among the facilities that have been converted to civilian utilization, perhaps none offer a more dramatic environment than the former airplane hangars. Fans of St. George Spirits (Absinthe Verte!), including Your West Coast Oenophile, have long been quite familiar with the facility that lends its name to their Hangar One Vodka.

Finally, Alameda’s favorite artisanal spirits producer has company. Over at the next hangar, Rock Wall Wine Company has set up shop. Self-billed as a continuation of a “legacy of fine winemaking,” this grandiloquent venture constitutes the evolution of pioneering Alameda winemaker Kent Rosenblum and is daughter Shauna. The facility is massive, some 40,000 ft.², with a vaulted roof that is at least 35 ft. high. On a clear day, the open-air portion of the former hangar offers unsurpassed views across the Bay to downtown San Francisco and beyond, like an oversized Gottardo Piazzoni mural, only more vibrant.
Last Saturday presented a picture-perfect afternoon; a more enticing scenario for Rock Wall’s first Open House could not be imagined. Rocked by the Downwind Run’s authentic cover versions of classic rock anthems from the Sixties and Seventies (Allman Brothers, J.J. Cale) and fueled by an endless, carnivore’s delight from Angela’s Bistro, Rock Wall and five of its tenant wineries offered an array of new wines for one’s delectation.
I started off at the table for Carica Wines, fulfilling a long-overdue promise to join owner Dick Keenan for a tasting of his varietals and blends. I found the 2006 Sauvignon Blanc Kick Ranch to be an exceptionally clean expression of this grape, to the point it almost reminded me of an unoaked Chardonnay. Standout among the five wines they poured, though, was certainly the 2007 Temptation, again from Kick Ranch, a superb take on the classic GMS blend. I also found the futures tasting of their 2008 Petite Sirah displayed noteworthy potential.
Carica’s 2006 Syrah struck me as a tad on the sweet side. In contrast, fellow resident winery Blacksmith Cellars brought forth a 2005 Syrah from Alexander Valley, a wine rounded out with 7% Tannat, that utterly exploded the flavor of a well-done slice of Tri-Tip from one of the carving stations. I was pleased to sample Matt Smith’s 2008 Torrontés once again, but felt less enthusiastic about his 2008 Chenin Blanc, a once-popular varietal that has fallen into near oblivion in California. On the other hand, Blacksmith’s 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon from Alexander Valley offered tantalizing hints for the unreleased 2005 vintage, and their two dessert wines, a non-vintage Malvasia Bianca and the 2007 Late Harvest Syrah were almost perfect alongside the ice cream made from Rock Wall’s Late Harvest Zinfandel!
Readers know that I’ve cited R & B Cellars a number of times recently, including the Urban Wine Experience in Oakland; their wines were not so much a revelation this afternoon as a chance to revisit several outstanding vintages. Like the Blacksmith Syrah, R & B’s 2006 Counterpoint, a straight Cabernet Franc, made me cry out “bring on the steak!” Three vintages of Cabernet Sauvignon made an indelible impression, with the 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Reserve begging to be drunk now, while the 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Reserve demands another 5-7 years before hitting its peak. I personally preferred both R & B’s 2006 Swingville and 2007 Swingville, a zinfandel blended with ~10% Petite Sirah to their 100% Zinfandel, the 2007 Zydeco from Napa Valley. Unquestionably, however, the 2007 Minuet in Merlot completely outshone the 2005 Metronome, an unblended Merlot.
I wish I could be more encouraging about Ehrenberg Cellars, formerly known as Nectar Vineyards. Despite winning amateur winemaking awards, these wines seemed rather unfocused; perhaps, their move “out of the garage” into a community of well-seasoned wine producers, including the peripatetic Edmunds St. John, will enable them to achieve their potential.
Weighing in at the next viticultural tier, JRE Wines, the Rock Wall co-tenant from namesake John Robert Eppler, offered glimmers of his winemaking pedigree at Rosenblum and Robert Mondavi. Again, one sensed that this winemaker had yet to hit his stride, though I found his two blends, the 2007 Tradition (Zinfandel/Petite Sirah/Tempranillo) and the self-proclaimed “Rhôneaux”-style 2006 Petit Rouge (Syrah/Petite Sirah/Cabernet Sauvignon/Petit Verdot) eminently drinkable.
Even though Shauna Rosenblum did give me her last bottle of Rock Wall’s 2007 Tannat, I will not be compelled to say every single one of her wines were extraordinary; after all, the wine program at Sostevinobile has always been and must remain predicated on objectivity in our selection process. Still, Shauna is an enormously affable next-generation winemaker and her skills clearly show why it is far better that she has pursued this vocation rather than succeed her father in his veterinary practice. Their 2008 Chardonnay Russian River Valley was a pleasing revelation, as was the 2007 Rock Star Rouge, a blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cinsault. Even stronger was the 2007 Zinfandel Sonoma County, to my taste a more approachable wine than its Reserve incarnation. 
Lipitor be damned! I headed back to the food counter for another generous helping of Tri-Tip before downing Rock Wall’s 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley, the veritable Grammy-winner from their lineup and another ideal pairing for this delectable meat. I also found their 2007 Late Harvest Riesling to be a worthy complement to the aforementioned Zinfandel ice cream, but had to beg off from marrying it with Blue Cheese, as one of my fellow attendees recommended.
I do look forward to great things from Rock Wall, both from its resident producers at its custom facility, as well as the winery itself. I have seen this same scenario played out so many times before. Successful winemaker sells his inextricably self-identified label to one of the handful of corporate megaliths devouring independent producers these days. Promises of autonomy are made initially, but slowly the eponymous brand is exploited to further the conglomerate‘s reach and by the time the attendant service contract has expired, the label feels like a vestige of its former grandeur. On the positive side, however, the original winemaker tends to go on to found a new label that does express the ideals of his vinification. Witness Carl Doumani’s Quixote, Richard Arrowood’s Amapola Creek or Tim Mondavi’s Continuum—by the time Diageo releases Rosenblum Coastal Cellars, I fully anticipate Rock Wall will be in this league.

Dam Good Wine!!

Years ago, I was lounging on the sun deck of at the San Francisco Bay Club when the fellow next to me suddenly exclaimed “Wow! There’re two decks on the bridge!” In complete disbelief, I turned to him and asked “in all the years you’ve lived here, haven’t you ever driven across the Bay Bridge?”
He assured that he had—many times in fact. “And you never noticed that, say, there was steel overhead in one direction as you drove?’ I queried. “Or sky overhead when you came back?” He promised to check out this startling revelation the next time he drove to Oakland.

Your West Coast Oenophile had a similar epiphany last weekend. However, unlike the addleheaded heliolater from my health club roof, I can claim mitigating circumstances. The invitation to last week’s Drink Dry Creek’s ZinTopia listed the event’s location as the Warms Springs Recreation Area at Lake Sonoma. I was baffled. How many times had I trekked through Windsor, Asti, Healdsburg, Geyserville, Cloverdale, etc., in the early 1980s and never encountered a lake in northern Sonoma? How could I have missed such a prominent landmark?

It took a bit of Internet sleuthing to discover that I hadn’t indulged to the level of delirium on my frequent wine tasting forays—indeed, in the early 1980s, there wasn’t a Lake Sonoma! This marvelous recreational jewel turns out to be man-made phenomenon, a limnological accretion formed by the development of Warm Springs Dam. Following the dam’s completion in 1983, water impounded from Dry Creek gradually filled the basin over the next several years and altered its historic topography in creating this 2,700 acre reservoir. In other words, rather hard to miss once it was created.
The 319′ high rolled earth embankment that comprises the dam stands as the lone barrier between 470,000,000 m³ and the verdant field of the Warm Springs Recreation Area, a thought only slightly less discomfiting than the notion of encountering the CHP upon leaving the wine tasting. As things turned out, neither a deluge of Biblical proportion nor of wine lay in store for this afternoon.
ZinTopia turned out to be a wonderfully balanced event, just enough food and wine to keep pace for four hours in the hot afternoon sun and reach an acceptable level of satiety by day’s end. Actually, had they only served the grilled California White Sea Bass, I would have been content (not that the outdoor grilled Pizza and Angus Beef Sliders were anything to scoff at). But, as loyal readers of my Sostevinobile well know, restraining me from tasting good wine is no mean feat!
The organizers from Drink Dry Creek had paired the Sea Bass with an array of Sauvignon Blancs from participating member wineries. Some chose to bring one bottling; others presented contrasting vintages. I must concede that I rarely indulge in this varietal by itself, and, in retrospect, I might have felt more glowingly about the wines I did sample had I ported my dining plate to these tables. Still, these wines fared far better being chilled than did those Zinfandels that vintners valiantly struggled to keep from cooking in the sweltering heat, and certainly proved quite refreshing. 2008 Sauvignon Blanc seemed de rigueur for the wineries that were pouring this white, and both Mauritson and Dry Creek Vineyard proffered admirable vintages. The standout in this category, however, came from Sbragia, with a distinctively crisp Sauvignon Blanc that held its own as an apéritif. 
The lone contrast amid the white wine section under the event tent was the 2008 Petite Zin Rosé from Dry Creek Vineyard. The centerpiece of the afternoon, as well as the center island of the tasting, was, of course, the gem of Dry Creek—Zinfandel, in all of its red glory. Ridge Winery sent out a team from their Lytton Springs bale house, so it seemed a logical starting point to swing by and say “hi.” Their formal pourings included the debuts of the 2007 Lytton Springs, a long-standing workhorse of their single vineyard program that featured a blending with 22% Petite Sirah and 7% Carignane, and the 2007 East Bench, a relative newcomer to this lineup that was rounded out with 8% Petite Sirah. Ridge’s bonus pour, the 2003 Zinfandel Del Carlo Ranch, outshone the younger wines and raised the bar for the rest of the afternoon.
Befittingly, Lori and Ray Teldeschi, proprietors of this same vineyard, manned the station directly behind Ridge and poured both the 2006 Old Vine Zinfandel and the 2005 Old Vine Zinfandel from their Del Carlo Winery. Though both featured an identical blend with 11% Old Clone Petite Sirah, all from the same vines, I clearly favored the newer release as a wine that might give Paul Draper a run for his money! On the other hand, Talty Vineyards contrasted their 2006 Estate Zinfandel with their 2005 Estate Zinfandel—in this case, my preference fell to the earlier vintage.
In recent years, Wilson Winery has gained much acclaim for both their Zinfandels and their Cabernet Sauvignon. I found their 2007 Zinfandel Molly’s Vineyard quite appealing and truly relished bother their 2007 Zinfandel Sawyer’s Vineyard and 2007 Zinfandel Carl’s Reserve. In this era of winery consolidation, Wilson is becoming a bit of a mini-mogul, having recently purchased a handful of smaller wineries, including Mendocino’s Jepson Winery inexplicably renamed Jaxon Keys). Another of their holdings Mazzocco, out on Lytton Springs Road, proved a worthy partner with their popular reserve Zinfandel, the 2007 Maple, and an enticing 2007 Zinfandel, Sonoma County.
The wineries I commended above for their Sauvignon Blanc proved equally adept with Zinfandel. Both the 2007 Mauritson Zinfandel and Sbragia’s 2006 Gino’s Vineyard Zinfandel proved noteworthy, while Dry Creek’s 2006 Old Vine Zinfandel showed a delightful complexity. In reviewing my note, I regret missing the Sauvignon Blanc from a handful of other wineries but did manage to enjoy both the 2007 Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley Mother Clone from Pedroncelli and my gamble on the 2006 Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley from Ferrari-Carano.
I know I should rise above making bad puns, but the 2006 Zinfandel-Dry Creek Valley from Rued was definitely not rued; indeed, discovering this winery for the first time was a most unexpected surprise. Optima Wine Cellars was also a serendipity for me, but with a 2005 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel on hand; their 2005 Orgaz Zin, truly a deft pun, proved to be anything but a misnomer. Other newcomers to the Sostevinobile roster included Bella Winery with its 2007 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel and Dutcher Crossing with its expression of the 2007 Maple Vineyard Zinfandel. In contrast, Everett Ridge seemed an old friend—I had just sampled their 2006 Diablita Zin-A the night before at California Wine Merchant; their 2006 Old Vine Zinfandel easily amplified my favorable impression of their wines.
Tony Terlato’s Alderbrook, truly an old familiar, brought a 2007 Old Vine Zinfandel that made a similarly strong impression. Their 2006 Confluence, a Zinfandel/Syrah blend, balanced its components quite gracefully. Other wineries that offered both Zinfandel and contrasting varietal or blend included Amphora, whose excellent 2006 Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley was matched with its 2006 Malbec, a varietal many wineries here find too challenging to tackle. Mounts Family Winery brought its 2007 Mounts Malbec, a striking expression of this wine—a perfect complement to their 2007 Mounts Estate Zinfandel. Moniclaire rose to the challenge with its 2006 Petite Sirah but truly stood out for its 2006 Zinfandel. Given its close identification to Zinfandel, I was surprised that Collier Falls2006 Primitivo presented the only offering of this varietal; in addition, their newly-released 2005 Zinfandel showed signs of incredible promise.
The only winery pouring an alternative white wine with its Zinfandel was Mill Creek with its 2008 Gewürztraminer. Their 2006 Zinfandel-Beacham Downey Vineyard deserved a prize for best name of the afternoon. Kokomo Winery seemed an odd choice for a name until owner Erik Miller explained his allegiance to his Indiana roots, and, certainly, his 2006 Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley showed no sign of Midwest terroir. These days, any place east of the Rockies seems indistinguishable, so I kidded Forchini that their 2006 Papa Nonno, a Super-Tuscan blend, sounded more like a wine from Arkansas (you have to speak Italian to get the joke).
A stop at the Montemaggiore table gave me another chance to practice the familial tongue with owner Vince Ciolino before I sampling his wondrous, organically-grown 2005 Nobile, a Paso Robles-style blend boasting 60% Cabernet Sauvignon to 40% Syrah. Even more the purists, Quivira, one of only two Demeter-certified biodynamic wineries in Dry Creek, could make anyone a convert to this practice; both their 2007 Quivira Grenache Wine Creek Ranch and their 2007 Quivira Mourvèdre Wine Creek Ranch came close to bringing tears to my eyes. 
I reacted as fervidly to the 2006 Mountain Cuvée from Gustafson Family Vineyards; this extraordinary blend combines Zinfandel from their three-acre Heritage Tree block with adjacent lots of Petite Sirah and Syrah. I extolled the incredible wines from Frick when I covered Rhône Rangers earlier this year, but was more than happy to retaste his wizardry with his 2007 Frick Counoise and the 2007 Frick Viognier.
I found the 2008 Viognier from Hawley Winery a tad of the sweet side, but feel confident these young, organic vintners will soon hit stride. On the other hand, the well-seasoned organic winemakers at Michel-Schlumberger showed their considerable talents with a restrained 2008 Viognier and a marvelous 2007 Cabernet Franc their delightful volunteer repeatedly overpoured (if only I could allow myself to taste like a civilian)! Rounding out the afternoon, the renowned Preston of Dry Creek, one of the most prodigious organic wine growers in California, validated themselves with a spicy, complex 2006 Carignane Dry Creek Valley Certified Organic. If only I had saved room to complement with an Angus beef slider!
We headed back to San Francisco after a quick detour to survey Lake Sonoma and its array recreational facilities. Suntanned and sated, there was little left to say about this splendid afternoon gathering except “Dam Good Wine!”

I’m not Robert Parker (nor am I trying to be)

Your West Coast Oenophile believes it’s entirely reasonable to expect that a San Francisco Chronicle Top 100 Restaurant serve decent Wine by the Glass. Especially one that has garnered and warrants a $$$$ for relative pricing. My research for Sostevinobile has long since opened my eyes to the incredible markups some places charge in their programs—it is no longer shocking to find a per-glass price that comes close to the retail value for the entire bottle. But any establishment that has a respected sommelier ought to be able to craft a wine menu that reflects the reputation of their restaurant, with a consistent level of quality from their $9 glasses to those that top $20.
Professional conflict precludes me from identifying where I stopped by Saturday night in search of solace following the dénouement of my relationship with the Ginkgo Girl. Granted, I may have arrived with a bitter taste already in my mouth, but my desire was not to leave with the same. A more celebratory occasion might have warranted a $22 glass of the 2006 Ladera Cabernet Sauvignon; instead, my eyes gravitated toward the more reasonable ~$10 offerings. Judiciously, I requested a small sample of each of the three selections before making my choice
I expected to find myself partial to the 2006 Rock and Vine North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon, but this tenuous Meritage aggregated from vineyards in Lake, Mendocino and Napa Counties fell flat soon after crossing my palate—a scant approximation of a textured, Bordeaux-style blend. The wine I landed up selecting, the 2006 Sean Minor Four Bears Merlot, fared only marginally better. Given that it boasted a more centralized Napa Valley appellation, I had again anticipated a nuanced wine, only to find this offering mono-dimensional and lackluster.
A quick Internet search reveals the frugality implicit in listing these two decidedly mediocre selections; still, even that pales compared to the egregiousness of including the 2003 Niner Bootjack Ranch Barbera, a wine no longer commercially available, on this menu. Niner’s current release, the 2006 Bootjack Ranch Barbera, commands a retail price in the $16 range, making listing this wine at $9/glass quite a significant markup. Several years after its release, a truly special vintage (after all, the 2003 bottling did win a Silver Medal at the Denver International Wine Competition three years ago) might justify a premium price, but this Barbera was at least two years beyondits peak and, in all likelihood, was sold to the restaurant in a fire sale. Frankly, the wine tasted brutal.

Both bartenders tried to assuage me that this wine merely reflected a California style that was more fruit-forward than the kind of Barbera d’Asti to which I (!) might be accustomed—truly a hollow claim. Even in this moribund economy, there is no excuse for serving a wine that was so palpably undrinkable. Whatever profit margins this restaurant might sustain with such a parsimonious ploy will easily be offset by loss of subsequent business and damage to their reputation.
Allow me to make a rare concession. Apart from the inarguable flaws of this Barbera, it’s possible that the wine steward may have genuinely appreciated the other wines I’ve disparaged. Even though I’ve intensely devoted several years now to training and refining my palate, I recognize that my partiality in wines may not be held universally. Just as there may be people out there who like Barbra Streisand or cotton to the Geico Gekko, so, too, may others favor certain wines or styles of wine that I do not particularly relish. Sostevinobile cannot afford to pander to our clientele, nor can we succeed without addressing their tastes in our wines selections.

One man alone cannot be the definitive arbiter of wine quality. Unlike Robert ParkerSostevinobile is building a team that will develop a consensus for the wines we select for our rotating wine l
ist. I am certain there will be many occasions when my preference is outvoted. My excursion Saturday to A Donkey and Goat’s Fall Open House Party highlighted this realization on a number of levels.

My recent review from San Francisco Natural Wine Week was a bit tepid on Tracey’s pourings that evening. Saturday afforded me a new opportunity  to sample these wines, along with several others being introduced to coincide with the unveiling of their new label design. Perhaps it was the enhancement from Barbecued Ribs, served on recycled Banana Leaf plates, by Oakland’s B Restaurant and Bar, but the 2007 Four Thirteen El Dorado blend seemed more balanced and eminently more drinkable at this stage than I had allowed a few weeks ago. Even more enjoyable this time was the 2006 Syrah Fenaughty El Dorado, which seemed mellower when tasted alongside the 2007 Syrah Fenaughty El Dorado, one of the afternoon’s standouts.

Only the blended 2007 Mendocino Syrah, successor to the 2006 Syrah Vielles Vignes Mendocino County, failed to reignite my interest. On the other hand, a taste of the sold-out 2007 Tamarindo Roussanne made me regret not having purchased this wine when I had had the opportunity. The reincarnation of this wine, the 2008 Coupe d’Or blended Roussanne and Marsanne in equal parts and managed an exquisite balance. As is often their style, A Donkey and Goat tantalized with an experimental new wine they had no intention of bottling at present, the 2006 Prospector; when they finally do decide to release a Mourvèdre, it damn well better be this good!
The last trio of Syrahs took my judgment to task. To my taste, the 2007 The Recluse Syrah Anderson Valley most brought to mind the kind of Syrah that made A Donkey and Goat the major revelation of Rhône Rangers a few years ago. On the other hand, the 2007 Perli Vineyard Syrah, Mendocino Ridge, a principal component of the Mendocino blend cited above, seemed less distinctive, the kind of wine I’d expect Parker to rate in the 85-90 range. Perli vineyardist Steve Alden ebulliently described the 2006 Reserve Syrah, Perli Vineyards as a “meal in itself,” the kind of wine meant to be drunk as a cocktail or apéritif—more to the point, the kind of wine that should grace the menu at a wine bar.
I might concur, but with a retail price of $68, that would command a stratospheric by-the-glass price only the most extraordinary wines could warrant. Economic factors aside, the interesting aspect of this wine came from how many people gushed about it to me. Could there be something I was missing? I retasted it twice, without any major revelation. I again tried both The Recluse and the Mendocino Ridge without any shift to my original impressions. My personal assessments of these Syrahs remained in conflict to the preferences apparent majority; such disparities I can ill-afford to ignore in moving forward with my wine program.
Like any other enterprise, Sostevinobile needs to address practical realities in order to thrive. Even if I did have the perfect palate, I would still need to recognize that varying tastes do abound; a monomaniacal approach to wine selection can only doom what we are trying to achieve. If we can strike an honest balance between the strength of our wine knowledge and appreciation and what will genuinely appeal to our clientele, we stand a fighting chance at succeeding. With integrity and an intelligent approach to consensus, we can and we will always strive to offer wine selected by the dictates of quality, not cutting corners economically.

Déjà vu all over again

Why must Howell Mountain wines be so uniformly good? Granted, this consistent quality bodes well for Sostevinobile and our future patrons, but leaves little leeway for Your West Coast Oenophile to eke out a column that offers a modicum of variation as I endeavor to assay last Monday’s Wines of Distinction Tasting in San Francisco. Granted, I approached this tasting with an established bias, having sampled the majority of these same wines only a few months before, at the Howell Mountain benefit in St. Helena; still, this reevaluation only confirms my belief that this AVA offers a climate and terroir so ideal to viticulture, even Alistair Muller could not help but make a great wine from grapes grown here.
Few, if any, of my readers will readily recognize this oblique reference, which, of course, allows me to digress—the hallmark of this blog—with an anecdote from my earliest days in the wine industry. Back then, Laura and I had befriended neighbors to whom we referred off-handedly as Fred and Ethel. A more bumbling duo could not be conceived. All along we had assumed that she was the more inept of the pair until that weekend when she was “compelled” to attend a company retreat in Honolulu, leaving him to fend for himself. Resourceful nonetheless, he tripped down the road and brought home a package of Ready-to-Eat Ribs, the four easy steps for preparation recounted here verbatim:

1) Preheat oven to 375°.

2) Place ribs in oven. Cook for 10 minutes.

3) Take ribs from oven and remove tin foil wrapping.

4) Cook for 10 more minutes.

Alistair was absolutely flummoxed. After struggling for nearly an hour, he traipsed down the hall to see whether I could decipher the immense complexities of these instructions. “Am I supposed to cook this on the stove?” he queried.
I responded with utter incredulity. “Do you see the word ‘stove’ anywhere there?”
“But it says ‘take ribs from oven, then cook 10 more minutes.’”
“So then I put it on the stove…”
“No!” I replied, my agitation mounting. Nonetheless, this conversation continued in this elliptical fashion for the next fifteen minutes, without penetration. “But why does it say ‘take ribs from oven and remove wrapping’?” he asked in complete candor.
Exasperated, I exploded. “It’s for idiots like you who would try to take off the tin foil while the ribs were still in the oven and burn the shit out of their fingers!”
“Are you sure???”
I don’t know whether Alistair ever had dinner that night. These days, I periodically check out the obituaries from the South Bay. Just to make sure he hasn’t accidentally electrocuted himself. With the TV remote. Still, I remain firmly convinced that, even with his lack of basic acumen, even he could churn out a memorable Cabernet from a sloping vineyard on Howell Mountain.
Before I delve into my review of the wines actually poured at last Monday’s gathering, I must commen
d the organizers for how they staged this tasting. Twenty-nine wineries aligned the perimeter of the Bently Reserve lobby—just enough to make visiting each table leisurely within the time allotted. Attendance was moderate, which permitted me to engage each of the wineries in a detailed conversation, even though I had met most earlier this summer at Howell Mountain’s benefit in St. Helena. If only all the events I must cover could be as manageable!

For no reason other than it allowed me a certain ease with taking notes, I decided to sample each winery in alphabetical order. Nonetheless, my review of the Howell Hountain tasting need not follow the same motif.Were I to continue with classic television allusions, as mentioned above, I would likely cite that Bedrock duo, Fred & Wilma, as my segue into Arkenstone, a name that could easily double as the state from where President William Jefferstone Flinton hails. All jest aside,this organically-farmed winery once again began the afternoon with their rather demure 2006 Arkenstone Sauvignon Blanc, somewhat of a rarity for this AVA, and followed with their still-memorable Cabernet blend, the 2006 Obsidian.

Basta! If I continue in this vein, this entry may never end. And so I will forego any attempts to link Dr. Marc Cohen’s Howell at the Moon with the comic genius of Jackie Gleason and Audrey Meadows as immortal Ralph and Alice Kramden, leaving their excellent 2005 Howell Mountain Cabernet to stand on its own merits. Like Howell at the Moon, Blue Hall is run by a run by Andrew Zolopa, a physician from Stanford. His reprise of his 2005 Camiana was as memorable as the first time I tasted it—a special bottling of 100% estate grown Cabernet Sauvignon that contributes a portion of its sales to benefit HIV-infected children in Africa.
Idealism of a different sort came from CADE, a sustainably-focused winery applying for LEED Gold Certification. A division of the PlumpJack enterprises, CADE’s 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon reinforced Sostevinobile’s tenet that sound environmental practices and skilled œnology are wholly synergistic (one can only hope that a portion of their profits is not donated to Newsom for Governor, however). With no competing agenda, Neal Family Vineyards poured sequential releases of their Certified organically-grown Cabs, the 2004 Howell Mountain Estate Cabernet Sauvignon being one of the afternoon’s true standout.
One of the more pleasant aspects of this afternoon was not being inundated with an endless selection of wines; most participants brought 2-4 of their vintages, with many offering but a single wine. Still, it was hardly a burden to taste all of Outpost’s six hand-cultivated, organically farmed wines. Standouts in this group were the 2006 Howell Mountain True Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2007 Howell Mountain Zinfandel; as an aside, I could not help but think their 2007 Howell Mountain Grenache would have made the perfect accompaniment to the cherry-glazed Duck Leg I described in my previous posting. Duckhorn Vineyards (note the deft segue) poured an interesting quartet of wines, dating back to their previous ownership. Their more recent pair, the Cabernet/Merlot blend 2005 Howell Mountain Red Wine and the Zinfandel-dominant 2006 Howell Mountain Postmark were clearly their more impressive offerings.
Six other wineries elected only to pour one Cabernet Sauvignon; for each, staking their repute on a single wine proved fortuitous. I very much enjoyed the 2005 Reserve Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon from Spence, as I did the inaugural 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon from Roberts + Rogers, despite the absence of owner Bob Matousek. Despite its more recent vintage, the 2006 Howell Mountain Cabernet from Red Cap seemed quite drinkable at this stage, while the 2005 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon Riva di Ponente Vineyard underscored why Cimarossa has become so highly prized among wine cognoscenti. Another mouthful to pronounce came from Napa stalwart Cakebread Cellars, with their 2006 Howell Mountain Cabernet Dancing Bear Ranch; another longtime veteran, Piña Napa Valley, dazzled with their 2006 Howell Mountain Cabernet Buckeye Vineyard.
Interestingly, two wineries were willing to stake their claim based on a wine other than Cabernet. I had previously tasted the 2004 Howell Moun
tain Merlot
from W.S. Keyes, but was pleased to revisit it. New to me, however, was Retro Cellars, with their 2006 Old Vine Howell Mountain Petite Sirah, a reserved, almost muted expression of this normally outspoken varietal. Retro’s owners, Randy and Lori Dunn, also presented their eponymous Dunn Vineyards label, showcasing their 2004 Howell Mountain Cabernet while delighting a few privileged attendees with their 1998 bottling of the same, a classic example of this vintage as it mellows through its second decade.
Where there is Cabernet Sauvignon, there is often Cabernet Franc. Clearly excelling with the latter varietal was La Jota, with its wondrous 2004 Cabernet Franc; their 2004 23rd Anniversary Release Cabernet Sauvignon was certainly no slouch, either. White Cottage Ranch brought both Cabs, along with a Rosé of Cabernet Sauvignon. Admittedly, the 2005 Howell Mountain Cabernet Franc seemed a tad young, whereas the 2006 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon held greater promise. The rejuvenated Atlas Peak offered a tantalizing preview of its 2008 Cabernet Franc, with another barrel sample, their 2008 Merlot, alongside; their soon-to-be released 2005 Howell Mountain Cabernet showed that it will be a worthy successor to their much-honored 2004 vintage.
I mentioned to Cornerstone Cellars owner Craig Camp I thought his 2005 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon begged to be tasted in 2013—and beyond. Even the 1999 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon he poured held future promise. Cornerstone also makes another 100% Cabernet Sauvignon that assembles grapes from three corners of Napa: Howell Mountain, the western edge of Oakville, next to the Mayacamas Mountains, and the Southeast corner of the Napa Valley, but Camp did not serve this “blend.” In contrast, the amiable Joan and Bill Smith, owners of W. H. Smith, blend the classic Bordeaux mix (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec) from their Piedra Hill Vineyard into both their 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Bronze Label and 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Purple Label. Ironically, another couple, Notre Vin’s May-Brit and Denis Malbec, do not bottle or even grow Malbec, reserving their Hughes Vineyard solely for Cabernet Sauvignon, from which they made their 2006 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé and their 2006 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon.
Besides Cabernet, the other hallmark of Howell Mountain is its Zinfandel. Wineries that showcased both included D-Cubed, with a truly outstanding 2006 Howell Mountain Zinfandel and an admirable 2005 Bravante Cabernet Sauvignon and Robert Craig, whose 2006 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon shone quite brightly beside both his noteworthy 2006 and 2007 Zinfandels. At Lamborn Family Vineyards, the ubiquitous Heidi Barrett worked her usual magic with both the 2005 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon and the pre-released 2007 Howell Mountain Zinfandel. Summit Lake also brought two Zins to accompany their 2006 Emily Kestrel Howell Mountain Cabernet; of the three wines, I can only say that the 2002 Clair Riley’s Pirate Reserve Zinfandel struck me as memorable.
I was, admittedly, underwhelmed by the Sauvignon Blanc Ladera Vineyards poured, but the outstanding 2005 Ladera Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon readily dispelled any doubts about this winery’s efforts. On par with this wine was la crème de la crème of Cimarossa, Tor Kenward’s 2005 Howell Mountain Cimarossa Cabernet Sauvignon (the 2006 bottling was still too premature to tell if it will rival the magnitude of its preceding vintage). And, of course, the true joy tastings like this is discovering that rare gem you might not have the opportunity to experience elsewhere, like Diamond Terrace’s 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain—a scant 190-case offering from owners Hal and Maureen Taylor’s Eagle Summit Vineyard. That they also slipped in a taste from their more prolific (235 cases!) 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Diamond Mountain District was a perfect coda to the afternoon.
In going over my previous column on the wines of Howell Mountain, I realize this entry may be a bit, to paraphrase that famous icon of 1950s baseball and telev
ision, Yogi Berra, “déjà vu all over again.” Pour me a generous glass of Howell Mountain Cab, and I can live with that criticism.

It’s Showtime at the Apollo

Long before I met the Ginkgo Girl, Your West Coast Oenophile more than once venture out solo on a Saturday evening, desultorily returning just as Saturday Night Live was playing its closing strain. Immediately afterwards, NBC broadcast a hip variety show called It’s Showtime at the Apollo. Broadcast from Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater and featuring some of the leading black musical acts of the time, it was hosted by Sinbad before he became funny. Or after—I was never quite sure. Amateur performers also competed for a shot at stardom in a Gong Show-like atmosphere that often had them being given the hook midway through their performance.

Last Saturday night, Showtime at the Apollo took on a whole new connotation as I ventured to the remote Yuba County enclave known as Oregon House, CA for the 30th Anniversary celebration at Renaissance Winery. Because of its isolation, I had never actually been to this estate, but my encounter the preceding Thursday with Clos Saron’s Gideon Beinstock, who also serves as Renaissance’s winemaker, convinced me to make the nearly three-hour trek. To say it was revelatory would be an understatement.

There are cult wines, and then there are cult wines. The former category includes those highly prized $500 Napa Cabernets produced in limited allocations like Screaming Eagle, Harlan Estate, Colgin and Dalla Valle Maya (all of whom I highly urge to send sample bottles to Sostevinobile). The latter refers to those wineries that fly under the radar for most people but command an intensely loyal following among wine cognoscenti, labels like Thackrey, Linne Calodo, and, of course, Renaissance. As such, I had expected to find a little ramshackle operation: dirt road, creaky old barnhouse, manual bottling line, and a plank for a tasting room. Instead, I tailed a white stretch limo from Marysville Road (once I had determined that the street sign Rice’s Xing stood for Crossing, not a Chinese surname) to the presidial gates of Apollo, the opulent 1,300 acre estate where Renaissance operates.


The enormity of this property took me by complete surprise; the lushness of its extensive landscaping, the grandeur of its gilded statuary, the richness of its architecture presaged revelations for which I was wholly unprepared. Even if I hadn’t been dizzy from driving in near 110° heat, my head would have been in a whirl. The moment I had parked my car, the solicitous staff was eager to accommodate me. A woman named Geneviève asked if there was anything she could get for me. “A deed of trust,” I quipped. 

But, alas, transferal of ownership seems highly remote, as I discovered that Renaissance is held by a non-profit entity known as The Fellowship of Friends. Being that an abundance of articles assaying this movement already populates the Internet, it serves little purpose for me to delve into the nature of their philosophy or the notoriety arising from this utopian settlement, though as a well-trained Classicist, I must concede that their assimilation of Greek and Roman mythology seemed rather tenuous, as did their mélange of as many other core beliefs as the learned Mr. Thackrey blends into his esteemed Pleiades.

Allegations aside, the focus of this gathering was a celebration of the wine, and rarely does one ever have a chance to taste a vertical of nearly every vintage a winery has produced. From 1982 onward, Renaissance has produced an exemplary Cabernet Sauvignon that rivals any comparably-priced production from Napa or Sonoma. Interestingly, however, Renaissance’s vintages seemed uniformly to defy the historic patterns from these other regions. Where a Napa vintage excelled, here was typically an off-year; years in which the North Coast dovetailed, Oregon House reached pinnacles. The pre-dinner gathering tasted 24 different Cabernets, covering the three winemakers who have toiled here since Renaissance’s inception. Following a few early, admittedly offbeat efforts, founding winemaker Dr. Karl Werner hit his stride with the 1984 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, a wine that still drank remarkably well 23 years later. Several years later, his widow, Diana Werner, found her forte as his successor in the 1990 Cabernet Sauvignon. Gideon apprenticed under Diana and took over the helm in 1993. After 16 years of attenuating Renaissance’s extensive plantings into a refined, manageable vin de terroir program, his pennants are the 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine that has grown in stature here as rapidly as it has declined elsewhere, and the phenomenal 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon, a bottle of which was generously included in our take-home gift packet.

Dinner patrons received a box of six bottles to bring home, a mixed selection of Cabernet Sauvignon, Viognier, Roussanne, Syrah and Granite Crown, a proprietary red blend. Herein lies the root of my, frankly speaking, bewilderment at the arrangement of this gala. Those of us who stayed on for the dinner were fêted with a three-course meal, followed by dessert. Rather than serve entrées with wine pairing that elegantly matched each course, the dinner was accompanies by yet another dozen vintages of Cabernet Sauvignon, all of which were selected from Gideon’s Vin de Terroir or Reserve bottlings. Now had we been at a winery like Silver Oak, which only bottles Cabernet, I could understand this monolithic approach, but Renaissance offers a wide array of distinctive reds and whites, both as single varietals and artful blends. This inundation with Cabernet seemed, at best, quite awkward, especially following the pre-dinner tasting we had just enjoyed.
Perhaps it is a phenomenon of living in such exclusive isolation, but there seemed to have been no coordination between the wine selections and the preparation of the menu, which, in turn, tended to clash with itself as the meal progressed. The first course consisted of a duck leg in cherry sauce atop a bed of lentils. A respectable balance of these ingredients, to be sure, but a course that had consistency at all with a pairing of four Cabernets. Had we been served, instead, the 2004 Mediterranean Red, a Grenache-dominated GMS blend, or a vertical selection of the same, the wine and food would have married elegantly (I suspect the 2002 Pinot Noir might also have fit the bill).
The next course consisted of a delicately roasted slice of lamb, one of those rare selections that actually matches up quite well with Cabernet. But the chef’s choice to smother the meat in an overbearing garlic compote seemed almost heretical and, again, created a jarring clash between food and wine that no alternative selection might have complemented. Still, a more orthodox lamb preparation might well have been served by the 2005 Syrah, the 1996 Claret Prestige, or the 1999 Merlot Premier Cuvée with equal aplomb to a Cabernet.

A random selection of Brie, Pont-l’Eveque, and Morbier comprised the final course. The disparity of these cheeses with yet another round of Cabernet even struck Gideon, who discounted the compatibility of each. Here again, the course might have been better served with a Pinot Noir, or any of Renaissance’s notable whites: the 2006 Roussanne, the demure 2006 Sémillon Vin de Terroir, the 1993 Sauvignon Blanc still featured in their Library selections or the 2007 Carte D’Or, a Sémillon-Sauvignon Blanc blend.

Gratefully, the dessert offered no Cabernet pairing. Still, the peach cobbler could have skillfully been accentuated with any number of late harvest wines from the Renaissance roster: 2006 Roussanne Vendanges Tardives,1992 Riesling Late Harvest1989 Sauvignon Blanc Late Harvest,2006 Sémillon Late Harvest or the 1995 Chardonnay Vendanges Tardives. I am told that, early in its development, Renaissance excelled at making a German-style Riesling that put the winery on the map, so to speak. I suspect a resurrection of one of these bottlings might have similarly pared well.

The coda to this meal was the complete omission of coffee or tea service. After considerable pleading, I managed to wangle a triple shot of espresso from the coffee maker housed within the full bar that serves their tasting room—a necessity before navigating the late night trip back to San Francisco. Gideon and I shared a most amiable conversation as the caffeine slowly surged through my veins, and I departed with nary a wisp of concern over my sobriety.
Showtime at the Apollo had indeed been an unanticipated adventure into the unknown, if nothing else one of the most esoteric destinations I have yet encountered. I think of the true homage to Persian culture and Zoroastrian beliefs one encounters at Darioush; on the other hand, the ersatz classicism of Ferrari-Carano’s garrish architecture illustrates the diametric opposite, a pallid imitation of a style and culture, lacking any depth of comprehension or genuine appreciation. The setting here lay somewhere in-between, underscored by a demagoguery that held an invisible sway over the course of the evening’s events. But I had come to Renaissance for the wine, and the wine I had been served had, isolated in its own context, been quite excellent.
I have long appreciated this winery for its incredible versatility with so many wines that they had not served on this celebratory evening. I would hope, as Renaissance strives for recognition as a premier winemaker unfettered by implication or exposé, that it take full advantage of the panoply of superb vintages they have to offer and rest upon these laurels.