Monthly Archives: July 2010

Is there a Durif in the house?

A different week, a different bridge. And different AVAs to explore. Your West Coast Oenophile took in two very different tastings this past week in the overshadowed wine regions of the East Bay. Given the Arctic summer we are experiencing in San Francisco, the quest for heat played no small role in my sojourns.

Given that I covered both of these events in 2009, my trek entailed less about new discoveries, rather more about reinvigorating relationships Sostevinobile had forged last year (or earlier). I started with the rather eclectic P.S. I Love You, a still somewhat nascent trade organization for growers and producers of Petite Sirah. Now single varietal advocacies are nothing new—the Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP) is now in its twentieth year and I understand a new Pinotage association has been formed. Nor are single varietal tastings uncommon—again, the ZAP Grand Festival every January, Pinot Days, the discontinued Merlot in May. Unlike the others, however, P.S. I Love You’s major annual conclave, the Petite Sirah Symposium, is strictly an industry affair, a daylong conference for growers and producers, with an intimate tasting that includes trade and media at the end. Not a great vehicle for public advocacy, but certainly a much more pleasurable alternative to the mob scenes with which professional attendees like myself must contend (he notes with trepidation as Family Winemakers looms on the near horizon…).

As was the case last year, the Symposium was held at Concannon Vineyard in Livermore, the 127 year old producer that lays claim to being the first winery to label Petite Sirah and has staked their claim to fame with this grape ever since. Literally and figuratively, Livermore is a far cry from Fort Mason and San Francisco, and as I wound my way through the clusters of suburban tract houses that lead to the rural portion of the town, I felt a peculiar desire to blow them all up. Then it dawned on me: maybe Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the resident design center for the America’s nuclear arsenal, has their people live in these monolithic, sterile clusters in order to make them want to blow up things, too!

Allora! I came in peaceful pursuit, to taste a variety of wines and report back to Sostevinobile’s readers, and so after parking and signing in, I headed into Concannon’s Barrel Room, armed with what has to have been the most extensive tasting guide I have ever been handed (Symposium promoter Jo Diaz claimed this was in direct response to my complaint over the lack of any printed program delineating last year’s tasting). For no better reason than my fondness for his velvet-coated labels, I beelined over to John Monnich’s table to sample the latest releases of his Silkwood Wines 2007 Petite Sirah, a Modesto vintage that is definitely not Gallo.

Normally, the transition from luxury of crushed velvet to the relative mundanity of a Shoe Shine might be deemed a considerable downgrade except when delectating this handcrafted NV Petite Sirah Eaglepoint Ranch from Eric Cohen’s Justice Grace Vineyards. This striking, 400 case debut joined another newcomer to the P.S. I Love You family, Livermore’s own Nottingham Cellars, which previewed it superb pre-bottled 2009 Petite Sirah, a wine with the chromatic intensity of shoe polish and texture of liquid velvet. (After the Symposium, I visited Nottingham’s warehouse operations and found myself equally enthralled with their 2005 Syrah Lodi, a much-welcome 2007 Viognier Livermore Valley and the proprietary 2007 Ralphi’s Blend, a Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot mix).

I’m not sure whether I’d ever had a chance to sample wine from the Ramona Valley AVA previously, but I can only hope San Diego’s Edwards Vineyards and Cellars exemplifies the wine produced there. The 2005 Petite Sirah they poured featured an unusual field blend with 3% Syrah and 1% Chenin Blanc, which contributed to the extraordinary roundness of this wine. Near the northern extreme of California’s viticultural expanse, Clear Lake’s Diamond Ridge brought forth a 2008 Petite Sirah from their estate vineyard, the same grapes Oakland’s JC Cellars contracts for their Petite. Northernmost bragging rights, however, belonged exclusive to Oregon’s lone representative this afternoon, Spangler Vineyards, featuring contrasting vintages with their 2007 Petite Sirah and the much rounder 2008 Petite Sirah.

Another Lake County participant, Guenoc, showed stark contrast between their regular 2008 Petite Sirah and the premium label, the 2006 Langtry Estate Petite Sirah, one of the afternoon’s most striking pours. Meanwhile, my old friends from Lava Cap demonstrated they haven’t totally moved away from Rhône varietals, impressing with their 2007 Petite Sirah and the noteworthy 2006 Petite Sirah Reserve. Another old acquaintance, Napa legend Carl Doumani, ought to have been on hand, but an ATV accident over the weekend placed him on the Injured Reserve List; nonetheless, Quixote, his bold experiment in Napa Valley Petite, continued pushing the envelope for this varietal with their latest bottling, the 2006 Petite Syrah (his spelling).

A number of wineries I have long known, either from last year’s event or from other tastings, had a renewed presence this afternoon in order to showcase their vinification of Petite Sirah among the various wines in their portfolio. My impressions remained favorable for Jazz Cellars’ melodious 2006 Petite Sirah Eaglepoint Ranch Vineyard, Foppiano’s 2006 Estate Petite Sirah (gotta love their pairing suggestions of ricotta ravioli, spicy butternut squash and roasted squab), the mercurial allusion (not temperament) of Cinnabar’s 2007 Clarksburg Petite Sirah, Lodi titans Mettler Family Vineyards 2005 Petite Sirah, a youngish 2008 Petite Sirah that Steve Ryan poured from his Oakstone Winery, and the 2006 Petite Sirah from the still-without-a-website Maley Brothers.

On the other side of the coin, several wineries I had not previously contacted on Sostevinobile’s behalf made strong first impressions. Monterey’s quaintly-named Line Shack scored quite well with their 2008 Petite Sirah San Antonio Valley. Though present in wine only, Yolo County’s Heringer Estate’s 2006 Petite Sirah proved redolent with jamminess, while the gnarliness of Crooked Vines’ label underscored the intensity of its new 2007 Petite Sirah. Grizzly Republic hearkened back the brief but glorious independence of the Bear Flag Republic, with its unfettered 2007 Roadrunner Petite Sirah; with an equally evocative label, Old Creek Ranch juxtaposed its somewhat tepid 2007 Petite Sirah Branham Obsidian Vineyard with the striking complexity of its 2008 Petite Sirah (can’t recall if they enlisted the same vineyard).

My recollections are intact, however, in distinguishing Seven Artisans from Artezin. The former, one of Jeff Miller’s three labels from his Artisan Family of Wines, bottles the 2007 Seven Artisans Petite Sirah as a straight varietal grown in Suisun Valley; the latter, a division of Hess Collection, focuses on the spicy varietals like Zinfandel and Carignane, while blending both Zin and Charbono into its 2007 Petite Sirah Mendocino County. In contrast, its superb 2007 Petite Sirah Garzini Ranch offers a straight expression of the varietal.

Several of the wineries in attendance offered multiple versions of PS, including, to no surprise, host Concannon. Rather than let their grapes be cannibalized into one of the Franzia’s boxes, they showcased four different bottlings of the grape, most notably their 2004 Heritage Petite Sirah. Following that, I was more partial toward the 2006 Reserve Petite Sirah, though both the 2007 Concannon Nina’s Cuvee Petite Sirah and the 2007 Concannon Nina’s Cuvee Captain Joe’s proved quite amiable. Another PS powerhouse, Clarksburg’s Bogle, brought four variations on vinification: the 2009 Petite Sirah Rosé, a rather mundane 2008 Petite Sirah, the far preferable 2007 Petite Sirah Reserve, and a wine to forgive all others, the 2007 Petite Sirah Port.

Had I plotted out this entry better, I would have targeted Trentadue as my 32nd installation, but, alas, I am only up to #26. As he had last year, puckish winemaker Miro Tcholakov brought both the 2007 Trentadue Petite Sirah and the special reserve 2005 La Storia Petite Sirah Alexander Valley Estate, but flourished most under his own label, the 2007 Miro Petite Sirah. Another fabled winemaker, Angwin’s Robert Foley tantalized with a trio of bottlings from his eponymous line: a premature 2007 Petite Sirah Napa, the more fully-fleshed 2006 Petite Sirah Muscle Man, and a most aptly named 2006 Petite Sirah Pepperland. Another of Napa’s highly-esteemed Bobs, Zinfandel guru Robert Biale, offered up his own quartet of superb vintages: the 2008 Petite Sirah Thomann Station, the 2008 Oak Knoll Estate Petite Sirah, the clever anagram of the 2008 Royal Punishers Petite Sirah, and a new Rhône blend (based on a PS backbone), the 2007 Basic Black North Coast.

On the professed sustainable/organic side, it was no surprise to find Parducci on hand with their 2007 True Grit Petite Sirah, a wine blended with 12% Syrah; I did, however, find their straight varietal, the 2007 Petite Sirah Mendocino County preferable. Meanwhile, I caught up with John Aver of San Martin’s Aver Family Vineyards for the second time this summer and found myself gushing over his 2007 Blessings, an organic Petite. Dry Creek Valley’s Pedroncelli, whose declaration of sustainable practices services as a model for Sostevinobile’s requirements, comported themselves admirably with their 2007 Petite Sirah Family Vineyards, and from the highest vineyard in Sonoma, dedicated land stewards and winemaker Gustafson Family Vineyards poured another Dry Creek star, their 2007 Estate Petite Sirah.

I’m often asked why I spent 12 years studying Latin. What is the value in the 21st century? On this day, though, my classical training bore fruit not just once, but twice, first with Foster’s Stags’ Leap Winery, Carl Doumani’s former flagship, whose field-blended Petite Sirah bore the lofty moniker 2007 Ne Cede Malis, a phrase from Virgil (not Horace!) meaning “don’t capitulate to evil.” And after I tried their 2007 Napa Valley Petite Sirah, a wine softened with Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre and Carignane, I ambled over to reacquaint myself with John Kinney’s Occasio, a Livermore winery whose name derives from the sententious Publilius Syrus’ maxim, occasio aegre offertur, facile amittitur (opportunity is offered with difficulty, lost with ease). Nothing was lost in his translation of the grape into his wondrous 2008 Petite Sirah Del Arroyo Vineyard, however.

Given Petite Sirah’s prominence as a blending grape, I was rather surprised more wineries didn’t feature a mélange like Michael~David’s 2008 Petite Petit, a wine that marries Petite Sirah with Petit Verdot. Their straight varietal, the 2006 Earthquake Petite Sirah, proved no sloucher, either. I suspect Petite Sirah marriess best with Zinfandel and with its other Rhône varietals, and though I can’t think of a Spanish parallel to the varietal, like Garnacha for Grenache or Monastrelle for Mourvèdre, I know that it melds rather seamlessly in various Iberian blends. As such, I was a bit surprised at the lackluster flavor of T.A.P.A.S. spearhead Twisted Oak’s 2007 Calaveras County Petite Sirah, though, admittedly, it seemed it might open up with aging.

Another given these days is Paso Robles’ affinity for Rhône varietals, so it comes as no surprise that a quartet of wineries from this most expansive AVA made strong showings. Estrella Creek showed an extraordinary 2005 4M Petite Sirah after pouring its featured 2004 vintage. Clavo Cellars came through with a sustainably farmed 2007 Petite Sirah from Catherine’s Vineyard, a wine they choose to pair with a carnivore’s fantasy: pork tenderloin, braised prime rib, roast lamb, roast duck, and pot roast. In turn, Clayhouse championed its striking 2005 Estate Petite Sirah Red Cedar Vineyards, a wine I had enjoyed at the Paso Robles’ Grand Tasting Tour: Mid-Peninsula back in April. And Vina Robles left a strong impression with their delightful 2007 Petite Sirah Jardine.

I had bumped into Kent Rosenblum on my way into this tasting, so it seemed only fit that I should finish off this portion of the afternoon with a taste of the 2008 Petite Sirah Mendocino County from his Rock Wall Wines. Or was it the 2008 Petite Sirah Dry Creek Valley? Once again, my notetaking was not as scrupulous as it ought be, but the wine was splendid, and I knew I’d be seeing them again on the upcoming Saturday at the 5th Annual Urban Wine Xperience in Oakland (the topic of my ensuing blog entry).

The sheer volume of wineries cited here attests to the popularity of, and potential, for Petite Sirah on the West Coast. But is it really the next Zinfandel, as a recent article claims it portend to become? From my standpoint, P.S. I Love You would need to become more of an external advocacy, rather than an industry affinity group, to make sufficient headway along these lines. And that still overlooks the reality that the grape does not express itself with as much Zinfandel is capable of doing—an oversimplification I know, but pretty much every wine this afternoon fell within the chalky vs. spicy dichotomy. Nonetheless, it’s still an intriguing grape, fraught with potential.

Finally, I can’t quite bring myself to call this wine “Pet” or “Pet S,” as some have take to in their literature. That’s not quite so bad as “Vindependence,” but still. At 2009’s Symposium, I thought there was considerable momentum to return this grape to its original nomenclature, Durif, primarily to distinguish it verbally from Syrah, the grape that, along with Peloursin, accounts for its lineage. This year, I don’t think I heard “Durif’ even in passing. As we might say in Latin, inusitatissimus!

Let them make grappa!

When last seen in these parts, Your West Coast Oenophile was bandying about Napa like a royal with his head cut off while indulging in the various excesses of Bastille Day celebrations. My return, a week later, for the far more subdued Organic Winegrowers Conference not only proved highly informative but gave cause to reevaluate my casual reiteration of the apocryphal line so often attributed to Marie Antoinette. Instead of “let them eat cake,” perhaps the rallying cry ought to be qu’ils fassent le marc!”*

More on this exhortation a bit later. For now, I was a bit chagrined that, though more than a quarter-century before I began developing Sostevinobile, Frog’s Leap Winery had played a major part in precipitating my professional wine career, I had yet to visit their winery until they hosted this conference. Tucked away on Rutherford’s Conn Creek Road, the rustic exterior belies one of the more sophisticated organic operations in the Valley. Even an untrained eye can easily recognize the amazing biodiversity with which vineyard owner John Williams has purposefully crafted his property, a balance of flora and fauna, along with dedicated sustainable practices throughout their buildings and business practices. The balance between vineyard and orchards, cover crops and pollinated flowers, poultry and fodder was as striking as it was educational in how to manage a farm as a holistic system.

Organic farming holds a lot of connotations, primarily for its preservation of the flavor and nutrition of the food it provides—a restoration of the elements conventional, chemical-driven farming leeches out. Beyond its benefits to human (or animal) consumption, organic farming focuses on the health of the land and its environs, water, air, and soil. Still, in and of itself, organic cannot supply a complete solution (I’ve noted before in this blog that theoretically, one can implement strict organic standards yet not be sustainable); rather, the need exists to move towards what was termed organic plus, a clarion call Dave Henson of the Occidental Arts & Ecology Center sounded in his keynote Organic Agriculture: For Human and Environmental Health, for Mitigating Climate Change, and to Refresh the Culture of Agriculture.

Henson argued passionately for organic farming to encompass the Three Es of sustainable farming: Economy, Ecology, and Social Equity, while noting that these practice must not simply focus on the present but take into account the ramifications for seven generations and beyond. “These solutions must be regenerative,” he summarized.

As would many of the presenters, Henson argued for the need to “look beyond the crop and see the whole system” of a vineyard, underscoring the vital part biodiversity of an agricultural tract plays in maintaining the balance of the entire ecosystem. He also warned against oversimplification of formulae, noting, for example, that the carbon expenditure from shipping along the 1,000 nautical mile stretch from Vancouver to Tijuana would be far less than transporting the same freight, via tractor-trailer, over the 200 mile haul over the Sierras (another central tenet of Sostevinobile’s parameters for the sustainability of our West Coast-exclusive wine program).

Henson’s free-form discourse was followed by a more didactic yet highly informative lecture by Ellen Ingham of Soil Foodweb. This Corvallis-based consultancy constructs organic remedies for the restoration of mismanaged soil. As Ingham pointed out, even organically farmed fields can create an imbalance that negatively impacts both crops and the ecosystem, notably through soil compaction that inhibits both the downward growth of roots and the seepage of nutrients vital to the living microorganisms that sustain a healthy soil. Practices such as organic weed eradication at the point of germination (rather than tilling the infestation, which contributes to soil compaction) and the balanced introduction of aerobically produced compost and compost tea can ameliorate much of these problems and enable the natural nutrients within the earth to sustain the vines. Consequently, according to Ingham, grapes can achieve their true flavor potential without inducing stress, as is commonly practices, and reach their zenith at a lower Brix, thereby allowing a lower alcohol level than is generally promoted here in California.

The Napa County Viticultural Farm Advisor for UC-Davis, Monica Cooper, followed with an entomologist’s perspective on organic approaches to pest management. Not being an active vineyardist, I admit the challenge to paying rapt attention to her presentation; nonetheless, the vital need to eradicate the infestation of Lobesia botrana, the European Grapevine Moth now plaguing Napa, concerns all true œnophiles. Cooper outlined a number of alternative defenses, including the introduction of predatory mites that can disrupt the larval and pupal development of this pest, and compared assays of the efficacy of both chemical and organic pesticides specific to this species, including their impact on other insects beneficial to the health of the vineyard. One promising methodology she described confusing the female moth’s mating attempts with pheromonal mimics of fertile males, in effect flooding the tract with the illusion of so many eligible suitors, the female becomes confused to be point of being incapable of reproduction (here in San Francisco, a sociological model of the same has long been in effect).

The dour news of this conference came with the announcement that the infestation of Lobesia botrana now compelled the imposition of mandatory moth control. Napa County agricultural commissioner Dave Whitmer seemed almost apologetic in making this announcement and promised enforcement that was as minimally invasive as could be sustained. While precluding the deployment of sheriff’s deputies to enforce compliance, he expressed faith that wineries and grapegrowers recognize the steps necessary to eradicate this blight remain in their best interest. Among the measures he cited, effective composting stands to be especially important, with enough aeration and saturation of heated water to kill the invaders, as he wistfully noted, “I know that this will also kill beneficial organisms, and I’m sorry about that.”

Following a brief break, Steve Matthiasson from Premiere Viticultural Services moderated a panel on the Practices and Costs of organic grape farming. Despite heralding from the same alma mater as Richard Nixon, Matthiasson’s service promotes an honest, transparent approach to viticulture: Better Grapes = Better Wine = Better Returns, a belief that was echoed repeatedly by panelists Ted Hall (Long Meadow Ranch), Patrick Riggs (Jack Neal & Son Vineyard Management), and Kirk Grace (Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars). Each of these presenters emphatically averred that their commitment to organic practices stemmed not from philosophical dogma but pragmatic realization that this methodology ultimately yields higher quality grapes at lower cost. Hall’s observation that the life cycle of an organic vineyard extends at least twice as long as one that is famed conventionally seemed particularly salient in calculating the economics of the competing practices.

All in all, there seemed little room to quarrel that adoption of the various practices outlined this afternoon portended not only to be economically prudent but offered far-reaching solutions not just to the quality of the wine grown and produced in the Napa AVA but to the industry’s impact on the overall quality of the environment. Of course, the ultimate proof lies within the quality of the wines themselves, and, as such, a tasting of twelve of Napa‘s most prominent organic producers seemed an appropriate dénouement to the conference presentations. 

I did not make an attempt to ascertain whether the wines being poured were fully organic or simply wines made from organically grown grapes, a nuance that has little bearing on this review. All in all, the wines I sampled displayed uniformly high quality, with a couple of vintages that warranted particular attention. As such, all fell well within the preliminary parameters Sostevinobile has established for our wine program, so I intend merely to cite each, with delineation only for the pair of truly extraordinary vintages I discovered.

The heat of the late afternoon drove me first to Ehlers Estate for a sampling of their chilled 2009 Sauvignon Blanc. I followed this engaging wine with the 2009 Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley from Honig Vineyard & Winery I had sampled at the recent Mill Valley tasting. A welcome contrast to these two wines came from the 2009 Estate Bottled White Riesling Mayeri Vineyard Hagafen Cellars poured (kosher though this wine may have been, Manischewitz it was not).

After Ted Hall’s presentation I was eager both to speak with him and to sample the 2008 Sauvignon Blanc from his Long Meadow Ranch Winery. I did partake of this wine a couple of times, but failed to connect with Ted, though reengaging his delightful assistant Megan Skupny seemed more than compensatory. Alas, I don’t receive compensation for authoring this blog, but intermittently I enjoy the pleasures of a perk: passes to an industry event, some samples of wine, or simply the graciousness of an individual’s hospitality. Having received an invitation to lunch on my iPhone while covering the conference, it was a marvelous coincidence to encounter my prospective hostess, Herta Peju pouring her own 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley and 2008 Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley.

I hadn’t encountered Oakville Ranch before, though their label seemed fairly reminiscent of 365, the house organic label Whole Foods sponsors. Their 2005 Napa Valley Robert’s Blend, a Cabernet Franc, however, tasted anything but ordinary. And I suppose the rather bland façade of its building had discouraged me in the past from visiting the generically-named Napa Wine Company, a custom crush facility I now recognize as home to numerous of the Valley’s elite brands, as well as their own label, under which they produced a superb 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Yount Mill Vineyards (the Pelissa family’s holdings of 635 organically-famed acres in Yountville and Oakville AVAs).

Now I have tried Spottswoode’s storied Cabernets on enough occasions to get the spelling of their name correct on first pass, but this afternoon was my introduction to their 2009 Sauvignon Blanc, as well as their second label, the 2007 Lyndenhurst Cabernet Sauvignon. I was also delighted to have a chance to taste the 2006 Cask Cabernet from Rubicon Estate, a much-heralded wine I had missed at last week’s A Day in the Dust. Similarly, this previous tasting had not included host Frog’s Leap’s 2008 Sauvignon Blanc nor their rich 2007 Zinfandel, both welcome additions to my tasting notes.

I’ve often cited the scarcity of Pinot on this side of the Napa-Sonoma line, the cross-county Carneros AVA being the exception. ZD Wines fully exploits this potential with both their 2008 Pinot Noir Carneros and the truly superb 2008 Founder’s Reserve Pinot Noir. Meanwhile, rounding out the afternoon’s selections, Rocca Family Vineyards first impressed me with both their 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon and their 2006 Syrah, but flat-out wowed me with their proprietary 2007 Bad Boy, a Meritage composed of 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Cabernet Franc, 17% Merlot, and 10% Petit Verdot.

Although the conference resumed on the following day, I drew my visit to a close at this point. The remaining symposia covered far more of the finer points of organic wine growing, but I had already absorbed the gist of this event. Obviously, the pivotal role Napa plays will resonate throughout the entire West Coast wine industry as it inexorably moves toward a complete organic standard for its grapes, a situation neither I nor anyone involved in wine during the 1980s could have ever envisioned. Surely, there remains a great deal of fine-tuning before the most efficient organic practices can be standardized, and while the initial costs of converting from conventional farming will still take a slight toll, the overall benefits of this methodology, both economic and environmental, cannot be denied.

Moreover, organic farming underscores the need to consider not only the ramifications for owns own crop or vineyard, but the overall responsibility one shares with the entire region and ecosystem. As Ellen Ingham pointed out, an increase of just 2% of the organic composition of the soils in our state would entirely mitigate carbon pollution in California. And there are even ingenious solutions to situations that strictly organic practices might not be able to address on their own

In the midst of his remarks, Dave Whitmer noted that over breeding grounds green waste provides for the European Grapevine waste of all types is of great concern. Though alcohol in the pomace from fermented red grapes remains lethal to the infantile stages of this pest, the pre-fermented pomace from white and rosé winemaking and all leaves, stems andother waste remains a potent carrier that can spread the infestation. Sostevinobile, of course, sees great opportunity in this situation. “If unfermented pomace is a problem,” I told him. “Che facciano la grappa!”
Actually, I said “Let them make grappa.” It just that expressions always sound better in Italian than in English. *Or than in French.

Lust in the Dust (or Let Them Eat Cake)

Between an initial stint with the wine industry throughout most of the 1980s and founding Sostevinobile a couple of years ago, Your West Coast Oenophile spent what should have been the most productive years of his professional life tiptoeing through the minefields of commercial advertising. Suffice it to say that I’ve experienced more decency and humanity in just twenty minutes working with winery folks as I have in over twenty years enduring the latter-day Mad Men of San Francisco. Not that I’d ever go Ted Kaczynski on the various malefactors (perceived or real) I have endured, but I do often indulge myself in fantasizing over serving up some just desserts.

The torpid economy in which we continue to languish has compelled nearly every food and drink purveyor I know to offer some form of a Happy Hour to entice a financially struggling clientele to fill their seats. Ever the contrarian, I am proposing to hold Misery Hour at Sostevinobile, where people gainfully employed in the ignoble sciences (investment banking, corporate law, brokerage, and, of course, advertising) would be charged double regular prices from 5-7 PM. Or maybe charge them regular prices, but serve a 2½ oz. pour instead of the customary 5 oz.—quite the apt metaphor for how it feels to be offered a freelancing assignment instead of a full-time gig.

Obviously, I realize that actually holding Misery Hour will only succeed in guaranteeing empty bar stools at Sostevinobile. My point in spinning this little snippet of self-indulgence is to note that, clever as it may sound, Misery Hour stands as much chance of happening as does encountering a bad professional wine tasting in the Napa Valley.

The latest validation of this contention took place this past Wednesday at the reconfigured Rubicon Estate, which Francis Ford Coppola has transformed from the previously named Niebaum-Coppola Estate Winery to a deluxe showcase for his movie memorabilia, as well as his most prestigious wines. 36 member wineries of the Rutherford Dust Society gathered in the Historic Barrel Room at the Grand Estate to celebrate A Day in the Dust, a trade tasting of the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignons and other Bordelaise-style wines from Napa’s Rutherford AVA. A more fitting way to celebrate Bastille Day, I could not imagine (apart from guillotining a handful of Creative Directors whose names I need not mention).

I hadn’t been to the winery since its transformation, and it took a couple of drive-bys before I located it vastly understated gateway (in contrast, Niebaum-Coppola’s frontage had stood as an unmistakable landmark on Highway 29). Of course, preceding stops at Razi, Luna, and Silverado Trail Wine Studio may have contributed to the slight diminution of my homing skills, but I prefer to lay the blame on my ever-errant GPS.

After catching up with noted wine essayist Gerald Asher and greeting old familiars like Shari Staglin and Paul Rogers, whose Balzac Communications had invited me to the tasting, I affixed my name tag, gathered the program and wine glass, then thrust myself into the cavernous, heat-laden, upper-level chamber of the monumental Château Gustav Niebaum commissioned in 1880. An inner ring of tables featured the handful of Sauvignon Blancs several of the wineries had included, while the outer configuration contained their red wine samples. Logic dictated that I taste in the same manner, sampling the smaller array of white wines first.

First, I meandered over to find the table for Meander, my first contact with this winery, which could have won me over simply with the name for its Sauvignon Blanc, the 2009 Conspire (but the wine itself proved even more compelling). Next, I zipped over to the station where 94574 Wine poured its debut 2009 Sauvignon Blanc, a stark yet compelling expression that showed little of the grapefruit or grassy tones I find can mar the varietal.
I made a note to myself to circle back to the tables for Alpha Omega and for Fleury Estate, wineries I have sampled on several other occasions, then rounded the corner to try the 2009 Rutherford Sauvignon Blanc Round Pond was pouring at its white table. Next to them, Rutherford Grove poured a superb 2009 Pestoni Estate Sauvignon Blanc, while Lieff opted to share their 2009 Rutherford Crossroad Sauvignon Blanc.

I’d tried the 2009 Rutherford Sauvignon Blanc from Long Meadow Ranch at their Farmstead Restaurant recently but was pleased to resample it in this different setting. Nor did a different venue affect my favorable impression of the newly-released 2009 Fumé Blanc Rutherford from John Robert Eppler, a frequent denizen of the tastings at Rock Wall I have chronicled here. On the other hand, having recently tasted both of Honig’s Sauvignon Blanc, I decided to forgo a reevaluation and wait for their red table pours.

Perhaps I should have skipped the grapefruity 2009 Rutherford Estate Sauvignon Blanc Sawyer Cellars poured, but having espied this winery along Highway 29 for several years now, my curiosity got the better of me. I overcame my disappointment with their silky 2007 Rutherford Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, however. First, however, I introduced myself to the Raudabaughs of 12C Wines and sampled their lush 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Beckstoffer Georges III, a single varietal boutique producer.

I had hoped that D. R. Stephens would be pouring the 2007 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Moose Valley Vineyard that succeeded the extraordinary 2006 vintage of the same that had wowed the crowd at Acme’s Pulse Tasting a few weeks back, but had no complaints at settling for their 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Walther River Block. And while almost any of Larry Piña’s wines would have suited the occasion, I was delighted with his 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Firehouse Vineyard. equally impressive was the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Bosché Vineyard that Freemark Abbey, my late friend Jim Warren’s former winery, poured alongside their 2006 Petite Sirah Wood Ranch.

Another friend who is very much alive and running his own winery, John Williams, featured a trio of wines from his pioneering organic winery, Frog’s Leap: the 2007 Petite Sirah, an impressive 2007 Merlot Rutherford, and the 2007 Rutherford, a proprietary Cabernet Sauvignon with a generous dollop of Cabernet Franc. Also on hand, fellow Bay Club member Greg Martin served up a trio of his Martin Estate vintages: the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Bacchanal, the exceptional 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, and a new release—the 2008 Cabernet Rosé.

Despite my frequent trips to Napa, a number of the wineries on hand had escaped my awareness. Nonetheless, Monticello Vineyards greatly impressed me with their 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Tietjen Vineyards, as did McG Cellars with both the 2007 Scarlett Cabernet Sauvignon and their yet-to-be released 2007 Scarlett Cabernet Reserve. One of Corley Family’s prestigious labels, Monticello Vineyards, upheld the Jeffersonian wine tradition with their 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Tietjen Vineyard. Of course, the name Pedemonte Cellars begs a Sangiovese and, indeed, their Adagio is a Sangiovese/Syrah/Cabernet Sauvignon blend, but on this afternoon, they only featured their noteworthy 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford, followed by its superior successor, the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon.

Speaking of Sangiovese, I may have finally wrangled a taste of the elusive 2008 Stagliano Estate Sangiovese Staglin Family Vineyards produces. For the time being, though, I had to “settle” for the pleasure of their 2008 Salus Estate Chardonnay, as well as the equally seductive 2006 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2007 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. And though some may consider it bad form to show up your guests, host Rubicon Estate clearly affirmed the profound depth of its œnological mastery with its flagship 2007 Rubicon, an organically-grown Meritage.

I was a bit surprised that more wineries did not feature a Meritage but focused instead on straight varietals. Agustin Huneeus’ Quintessa, however, blends eight different estate lots of Cabernet Sauvignon with their Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Carménère, richly exemplified by their soon-to-be released 2007 Quintessa, plus a preview from the 2008 barrel sample. Another surprising absence was the paucity of Zinfandel being poured, though Julie Johnson’s Tres Sabores did more than make up for this omission with its organically grown 2007 Estate Zinfandel and its exceptional counterpoint, the 2006 Rutherford Perspective Cabernet Sauvignon.

I like allusions—great fodder for the myriad digressions that frequent readers know populate this blog. Though William Harrison Winery bears as much connection to the 9th President of the United States as John Tyler Wines has with his successor, their wines proved to be far hardier than Old Tippecanoe, who lasted but a month in office. Their exemplary 2007 Cabernet Franc Rutherford and the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford were complemented by the artfully blended 2006 Estate Rutherford Red, a subtle mélange of 54% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Cabernet Franc, 8% Malbec, and 8% Merlot. And if only Slaughterhouse Cellars would blend a full quintet of Bordeaux varietals and call it Slaughterhouse-Five! Still, I was immensely please to discover both their 2007 Cabernet Franc Rutherford and the truly well-crafted 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford.

Circling back to revisit wineries who had poured Sauvignon Blanc, I was a bit surprised that I preferred Lieff’s 2006 Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon to their 2007 vintage, but the test of time will tell which will prove the more striking long-term. Meander’s 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Morisoli Vineyard may not have as mischievous a moniker as its Sauv Blanc but tasted equally delightful. Also in harmony with its white confrère, Round Pond’s 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon lived up to its advanced billing, while Honig showed itself quite adept on the red side with its 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Campbell Vineyard.

Hewitt Vineyard is an autonomous label produced by Provenance, which had separately poured its 2009 Sauvignon Blanc Rutherford; Hewitt’s single vineyard effort, the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford, certainly validated the limits of this focus. Provenance and Hewitt are two of the better labels within Diageo’s vast portfolio, as is one of Napa’s crown jewels, Beaulieu Vineyards. To the perplexity of most attendees, A Day in the Dust, though scheduled until 5 PM, suddenly announced it was ceasing to pour at 4:30, which meant several of the wineries began folding their table shortly after 4. BV had quit before I had a chance to circle back to their table, meaning I missed out on the 2007 Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and their ubiquitous other Cabs, but a bit of legerdemain rewarded me with a taste of the 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Clone 6, an exceptional rarity.

The abrupt end to the affair also meant I missed out on familiar labels like El Molino, Sullivan Vineyards, Trinchero Napa Valley, Riboli Family (not certain whether they manned a table, despite the program listing), and, most regrettably, Heitz Cellars. I did manage to sample Flora Springs2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford Hillside Reserve before they closed, as well as a pair of wines from Peju Province, the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford Reserve and an intriguing, almost sweet 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon H. B. Vineyard my tasting notes describe as “candy.” Not sure whether Peju will appreciate that attribution or ask for my head when they read this.

Given A Day in the Dust took place on Bastille Day, I needed a contrived segue to bring this entry to a close, but not before commenting on my final stop en route back to San Francisco. My fellow scribe Liza Zimmerman apprised me of the French national celebration to which Clos du Val had invited the wine press, so donning my proverbial blogger’s beret, I followed her down Silverado Trail and joined the grande fête. Somehow, in between the repeated rounds of shucked oysters from the justly celebrated Hog Island Farm, I managed to sample their proprietary Sémillon-Chardonnay blend, the 2008 Ariadne (Ἀριάδνη was the wife of Poseidon who abetted Theseus in his quest to kill the Minotaur, her association with wine an elusive part of classical mythology), the 2007 Carneros Pinot Noir, and a pull-out-all-the-stops selection from their library of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons, notably the 1974, 1979, 1987 and 1999 vintages. The last two, while not initially regarded as notable vintages, showed remarkable finesse with aging.

Clos du Val’s ostensible purpose in inviting the press to this event was to launch their latest promotional effort, which they have dubbed Vindependence. As appreciative as I am of their wines and of their generous hospitality, I cannot help but revert to my advertising past and critique the ineptitude of this campaign. As my fellow Dartmouth alum and Italian Long Island refugee Michael Corleone ruefully notes in Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather III, “every time I try to get out, they pull me back in.”
It isn’t so much the jejune satire of their Declaration of Vindependence, nor the logical and thematic inconsistencies of muddling French and American traditions, nor the obvious irony that Clos du Val’s 1972 Cabernet Sauvignon was one of the wines that helped upend the French hegemony over the California wine industry in the storied 1976 Judgment of Paris Tasting (note the revisited rankings from 1986), that dilutes, rather than promotes, their brand perception. Rather, it is the deployment of such an aberrant neologism—not the inadvertent malapropism of George Bush’s “misunderestimated” or Sarah Palin’s “refudiated” but the echoes of DSW’s Sandalicious! or the utterly wretched Olive Garden’s Freshissimo that make this contrivance so off-putting.
Believe me, Sostevinobile knows a thing or two about skillfully forging a portmanteau. And, despite this critique, I have nothing but appreciation for the excellence of Clos du Val’s viticulture—and their hospitality. And so I will simply suggest that, like the late Marie Antoinette (who never did say “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche”)Vindependence could benefit from a little trimming at the top.

Saved by Charbono

I used to think that this was Larry Ellison’s world and that the rest of us only lived in it. Perhaps, but recently I’ve begun to wonder whether it’s not Tyler Florence’s world, as well. This celebrity chef and star from the Food Network not only has his own iPhone app, but seems to be taking over the entire Northern California food scene since his relocation here in 2008 and opening his eponymous food and cookware shop. Recently, he opened Wayfare Tavern in the space where Robin Williams, Robert DeNiro, Francis Ford Coppola and restaurateur Drew Nieporent had owned Rubicon. Sostevinobile feels a kindred bond with this new restaurant for its singular devotion to its California-only wine list, a philosophical consistency with its dedication to locally-sourced cuisine and ingredients.

Coincidentally, Your West Coast Oenophile stumbled upon this new venue the day after attending the 29th Annual Wine & Gourmet Food Tasting in Mill Valley. Among the numerous food purveyors, which included tents from standout local restaurants Balboa Café, Bungalow 44, Piatti, Piazza D’Angelo, and Small Shed Flatbreads, the Tyler Florence Shop held central court sampling selections of CC Made caramels, Golden Star Tea’s sparkling teas, “healthy granola” from San Franola, and an array of oils from The Smoked Olive

But meatballs and sliders and pizza and cupcakes and ice cream, etc., weren’t the reason I had pedaled across the Golden Gate Bridge. Given the major treks I had documented from the previous two weekends, the ride to Mill Valley was a relative sprint, and, after rendezvousing with my inveterate verbal jousting partner Terry Graham outside the Mill Valley Middle School, rolled into Depot Plaza, barely breaking a sweat. Wristbands affixed and tasting glasses in hand, we set about to take in as many of the 70 wineries on hand as could be squeezed into a three hour window.

I had been apprised of this event while reviewing Tor Kenward’s website as I composed my review of the Taste of Howell Mountain that proceed this entry. Having missed his various 2007 Cabernet Sauvignons, I beelined to his table, only to discover that his distributor, Nurit Robitschek of Discoveries in Wine had elected only to bring his nonetheless excellent 2008 Chardonnay Durell Vineyard and the hitherto unheralded 2007 Grenache Judge Family Vineyard, Hommage Allan. To no surprise, the table next to Tor’s was manned by the indubitable Truchards, a welcome constant at every wine tasting I attend (I had expected them to be pouring at Pinot Days, but if anyone were capable of bilocation, it would probably be Joanne and Tony). As per usual, the 2006 Cabernet Franc I sampled proved yet another découverte grande.

Jan Shrem appeared at neither of the day’s tastings, but I wish he had been on hand to pour his Clos Pégase. Nevertheless, the rep from Wilson Daniels served up the 2008 Chardonnay Mitsuko’s Vineyard quite professionally, along with an enticing 2007 Chardonnay from Sonoma Coast Vineyards, and Girard’s refreshing 2009 Girard Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley and their premature 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa County. At the next table, I reacquainted myself with White Rock Vineyard and met owner Henri Vandendriessche while sampling his 2007 Napa Valley Chardonnay.

I’d sampled wines from Balletto Vineyards on several occasions at the Monday night wine tastings at California Wine Merchant, but not had the opportunity to interact with them directly before this gathering. Amid exchanging pleasantries, I enjoyed their approachable 2007 Zinfandel but savored both the 2007 Estate Chardonnay and the 2009 Rosé of Pinot Noir. Sharing the same table, Bennett Valley’s Baldassari Family Wines poured both wines they produce, the 2007 Syrah Nolan Vineyard and the clearly preferable 2007 Syrah Jemrose Vineyard.

As is often the case with outdoor summer tastings, the afternoon heat often makes keeping wine at a desirable temperature a daunting exercise. Sampling an iced-down wine or semi-cooked red gives no true indication of the wine’s quality, although, at times, a clearly superior wine will manifest a redolence of its potential. Such was the case with Crinella Winery, whose superb 2006 Sauvignon Blanc Marino Vineyard rose above the elements; on the other hand, getting a handle on their 2005 Pinot Noir proved far too elusive. The same could be said for Buttonwood Farm, a whimsical, sustainably-farmed winery out of Solvang (not to be confused with Buttonwood Farm in Griswold, CT, an ice cream enterprise which may have recorded the worst jingle in human history), scoring high marks for its 2007 Cabernet Franc, despite the heat, but pouring a 2009 Syrah Rosé that was impossible to evaluate fairly.

Given that this tasting wasn’t a major industry event (not to mention that it was competing with one less than 10 miles away), it was particularly heartening to discover so many boutique producers and other wineries that had yet to register on Sostevinobile’s radar. Ray Coursen makes an array of varietal wines and quixotic blends at his Elyse Winery and under its premium Jacob Franklin label (Charbono!). I opted to try his striking red and white Rhône mixes sourced from Naggiar Vineyards: the 2006 C’est Si Bon (Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah, Cinsault, Counoise, and Viognier) and the 2007 L’Ingénue (Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier and Grenache Blanc).Another Francophone, LeVois Vineyards from Sonoma’s Bradford Mountain made a striking first impression with both their 2007 Zinfandel and their 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon.

Limerick Lane, self-styled sole source of the floral Furmint found in the U.S., had been scheduled to pour this afternoon; in its stead, I encountered the alliterative juxtaposition of Lewelling Vineyards, Lewis Cellars, and Lucas & Lewellen Vineyards. Starting with Lucas & Lewellen, a winery highly focused on Italian varietals, I relished both their off-dry 2009 Mandolina Malvasia Bianca and the complex 2007 Mandolina Toccata, an atypical Super Tuscan blend of Sangiovese and Freisa with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot. By comparison, Lewis Cellars appeared a bit more conservative, pouring a muscular 2007 Syrah Napa Valley alongside their more tame 2009 Vin Gris, a rosé of Syrah. And Lewelling remained true to its St. Helena roots, with a 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon and a newly released 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon showing strong intimations of future complexity.

My next four stops covered wineries with which I have long been acquainted. Sonoma’s MacRostie Winery, the crown jewel of 8th Street East, garners most of its press for its Chardonnays, but I elected to bypass these selections for the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley, a most fortuitous choice. Honig, a Rutherford winery that originally operated a mere two blocks away in Pacific Heights, cuts its viticultural teeth with Sauvignon Blanc, and still makes this wine its forte, as the 2008 Sauvignon Blanc Rutherford abundantly displayed; I found its red brethren, the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, equally appealing. Silverado Trail’s esteemed Signorello Estate held its own with their 2006 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, and, frankly, the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley from Frank Family Vineyard tasted on par with its best vintages.

While this year’s tasting featured a number of wineries from Italy, France, Spain—three of the past four Wold Cup Champions—and New Zealand, I bypassed these tables, in keeping with Sostevinobile’s parameters. I also skipped several of the wine distributors on hand, having sampled their clients’ wines on numerous occasions. I did, however, stop by the table for Northwest Wines in order to partake of Owen Roe. This unique winery, based in Oregon but encompassing Washington vineyards as well, blends a mind-boggling 24% Zinfandel, 22% Sangiovese, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Syrah, 10% Merlot, 7%, Cabernet Franc, 6% Blaufränkish, and 4% Malbec to craft its fine 2008 Abbott’s Table. Closer to home, Odisea Wine Company in Danville offered its own idiosyncratic mélange, the wonderfully named 2006 Veritable Quandary, a Spanish-Rhône blend of 40% Verdelho, 25% Roussanne, 20% Marsanne, and 15% Viognier. As if to compensate for this non-traditional mix, they also presented a straightforward 2009 Grenache Blanc, a stellar wine.

I noted in my previous entry a certain remorse at having opted to skip the Grand Tasting for Pinot Days in committing to this festival. Fortunately, Paul Mathew Winery elected to do likewise and so validated my decision with two superb interpretations of this varietal, the 2007 Ruxton Vineyard Pinot Noir and the 2007 TnT Vineyard Pinot Noir. Promoters of the Marin tasting pointed extolled the return appearance of Pride Mountain, which lived up to this advanced billing both with its well-balanced 2009 Viognier and a standout 2007 Pride Merlot.

True wine connoisseurs know you shouldn’t judge a wine by its label, even though somewhere in the order of 90% of all wine sales are predicated by how buyer responds visually to the label (how well I remember debating Louis P. Martini back in the 1980s on the merits of his then-antiquated label)! My visceral, albeit initial response Speedy Creek Winery’s labels was rather dismissive, but then I sampled their trio of extremely satisfying wines: the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Knights Valley, the 2007 Zinfandel KnightsValley, and their particularly appealing 2006 Sangiovese. No such dilemma influenced my perception of Robert Rue Vineyard, which matched the bold wines they poured: the 2007 Wood Road Reserve Zinfandel and the even more compelling 2006 Wood Road Reserve Zinfandel with an unambiguous label (however, if they ever try to come out with a Bob Street second label)…

The Mill Valley Wine & Gourmet Food Tasting boasted over 70 wineries in attendance, and had there been more time, I might have sampled each of the ventures not mentioned here that Sostevinobile has covered at numerous other events. For what is essentially a celebration of wine and food (as opposed to an industry promotion), I was astounded at both the quality and the breadth of the participants that the festival promoters and the Mill Valley Chamber of Commerce were able to draw. Truly, this was no small town affair.

I finished the afternoon with a winery that I had somehow missed, despite its position right next to my first stop of the afternoon. Hiding behind a pair of overpriced sunglasses, Summer Estate Wines volunteer pourer Susan Hopp appeared incognito, until I read her name tag.Now, back in the days before I fully appreciated my own predilection for miscegenation, Susan was not quite a friend, not even a paramour, but someone with whom I had shared a bond that ought to have sprung certain feelings of amity at this re-encounter. Ah, but for a lingering acerbity I struggle to comprehend!

I found I very much admired Summer Estate’s unoaked 2008 La Nude Chardonnay and their exceptional 2006 Andriana’s Cuvee Cabernet Sauvignon, but was perfectly willing to allow my visceral reaction to this overt snub to leave me hopping mad and willing to dismiss the winery outright (after all, with over 2,100 wineries now on Sostevinobile’s roster, overlooking one Chard and one Cab isn’t going to alter our wine program to any measurable degree). But the cycle back to San Francisco mitigated much of the perceived affront, and my Internet investigation revealed the pivotal position Summer Estate and its owners, Jim and Beth Summers, play in establishing Charbono as a significant California varietal. I plan to visit on my next swing through Calistoga.

Shortly after Susan had relocated from Michigan to San Francisco, I was quite bemused to hear her chastise me for purchasing a Toyota instead of a Detroit-made car—while she was driving a BMW 320i! Now that she is earning an MBA Studies in Sustainable Management at the Presidio Graduate School, I hope she will be enabled to make more consistent critical discernment. After all, Sostevinobile strives to embrace all the genuine advocates for sustainability we can find.

A seat at the bar will be waiting…


Confession: I glossed over a few stops in my last entry. I don’t know why. It just seemed easier to wedge them into here.

I had tried to devote a full day to a swing through Sonoma, but The Fates seem to conspire against me. The ultimate goal of finishing my visit by attending the Mendocino County Grape Growers Showcase in Santa Rosa remained constant, but scheduling visits throughout Sebastopol proved rather elusive, and then the intrusion of a slew of non-wine related matters delayed my departure for nearly two hours. Nonetheless, Your West Coast Oenophile did mange to keep an appointment with tiny Sheldon Wines, a dedicated artisanal winery whose tasting room occupies a remodeled railroad car near the Sebastopol Inn.

Winemaker Dylan Sheldon is a purist, who crafts his small lot wines with extreme fidelity to the origins of the varietal and its historical vinification. Witness (or, in my case, sample) his 2008 Viognier Sonoma Coast, Single Barrel Production. Unfiltered and unrefined, this flavor of the grape shines with little adornment or manipulation, a genuine expression of Viognier. Similar veracity can be found in his 2006 Chardonnay Santa Lucia Vineyard, the 2007 Graciano Super Freak and his 2006 Grenache, Santa Ynez Valley. Sheldon’s most “manipulated” wine was his 2005 Vinolocity, a blend of Grenache and Syrah, while the 2006 Petite Sirah Ripken Vineyard was an intensified, 100% expression of this varietal. All in all, a highly personal tasting I was glad to discover.

I had hoped to make short shrift of the drive to Santa Rosa; allora, it was anything but. My iPhone’s GPS mapped out a direct route from Sebastopol but pinpointed the Fountaingrove Golf Club nearly ½ mile from its actual location, along a rolling parkway that wound through the city without any conspicuous number signs to demarcate the unfamiliar terrain. Finally espying a motorcyclist who knew the precise location of this secluded complex, I encountered a veritable maze trying to decipher the layout of the grounds, which seemed intentionally designed to perplex any first-time visitor. Naturally, by the time located the correct building and parked, the 1½ hours I had allotted for the event had dwindled to a scant 25 minutes.

I might have had a full half-hour to network, but finding the reception room in the club’s main building proved one more challenge. After all that, you would think I’d at least have won the raffle for 5 tons of grapes, though, admittedly, I am far from ready to bottle my first vintage under the Sostevinobile label! Still, there was quite a bit of wine left to sample and several growers to meet among those who had not packed up early and headed back to Ukiah. Lisa Sutton of Bells Echo Vineyards could have easily beguiled me without pouring her wine, but I was nonetheless impressed with both the 2006 Syrah and the 2006 Interlude, their premium Syrah—both inaugural releases.

Nearby, the next wave of biodynamic farming was ably represented by fourth-generation vineyardist Heath Dolan of Dark Horse Ranch. Showcasing wineries that source his meticulously-tended grapes, Heath poured the complex 2007 Truett•Hurst|Dark Horse GPS, a GMS blend with Petite Sirah added to the mix, and the 2007 Mendocino Farms Grenache Dark Horse Ranch, one of Magnanimus Wine Group’s bottlings.

I’ve known members of Heath‘s family for decades (one of his father Paul Dolan’s cousins was slated as Sostevinobile’s original investor), but that connection has no bearing on my appreciation for his viticulture or his wines. Similarly, I’ve enjoyed a lively correspondence with Jim Kimmel over the last several weeks, but approached his brother Gary’s Kimmel Vineyards with the same lack of bias. Their boutique winemaking operations in Potter Valley embarked with 285 cases of the 2007 Chardonnay Mendocino County and a mere 271 cases of their equally fine 2007 Merlot Mendocino County.

Maybe because it was late in the day, maybe because, well, I could, I opted to try only the sweeter selections from Nelson Family Vineyards, a winery that grows just about everything. I was richly rewarded with their 2008 Estate Riesling, an intense 2008 Estate Viognier and their delightful dessert wine, the 2009 Estate Orange Muscat. Meanwhile, another grower whose plantings include a veritable potpourri of varietals, Rossetti Brothers, poured finished wines that included the 2008 Petite Sirah and both their 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, along with bulk samples of their Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, and Carignane.

As the event came to a close, the sponsors of this event from True Mendocino promised that next year’s showcase would be held at a far more accessible site, and while I did treat myself to a leftover bottle of the tour of the 2006 Weibel Family Chardonnay Mendocino County for later delectation and self-guided tour of the Fountaingrove swimming complex, I opted to drive back and take a dip in Corte Madera natatorium where I frequent, before heading across the Golden Gate Bridge.

The next day promised to be quite the challenge, not for the intensity of my schedule but because I had finally decided to risk subjecting the cluttered environs of the home office I maintain for Sostevinobile to an onsite tasting by a local distributor. Housekeeping, as my familiars and family will attest—ce n’est-pas mon forte. Nonetheless, I managed to clear the living room, wash half a dozen goblets Cascade-spotless, and improvise a water pitcher and spill bucket in time to host Kip Martinez. Kip is a longtime San Franciscan who, with his wife, operates a rather quaintly-named wine distribution company called Kip and Nancy; we had met at the recent T.A.P.A.S. tasting, where he had filled in for client winery Bodega Paso Robles and piqued my curiosity with intimations of their Bastardo, which he had opted not to bring with him.

First up, however, was the eponymous label of winemaker Michel Berthoud and his homage to Helvetian winemaking, the 2008 Chasselas Doré Pagani Vineyard. I confess that I had not previous tried this varietal, grown in Switzerland to produce their signature Fendant du Valais; I would not venture to describe its taste, though, on a spectrum, I would be tempted to place it closer to a Chenin Blanc or slightly grassy Sauvignon Blanc than to a Chardonnay.

Michel is well-known as the winemaker for Mayo Family Winery, where he puts on a clinic,œnologically speaking, with his Alicante Bouschet (which sounds like it ought to be a Swiss wine), Italian varietals, and many of the other grapes predominant in Sonoma. Kip treated me to a small selection that included the 2006 Petite Sirah Sodini Ranch Vineyard, the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Delaney Vineyard, and the 2006 Libertine, described as “a dollop of Merlot, a splash of Cabernet Sauvignon, a smidgen of Syrah and a dash of Zinfandel, with Petite Sirah and Petite Verdot thrown in for good measure.”

It seems a bit odd that Switzerland’s northern neighbor, Germany, has only one winery in California devoted to its varietals. Numerous wineries here are focusing on Riesling, and in Washington, wines like Lemberger and Riesling have begun to proliferate, but only Lodi’s Mokelumne Glen devotes itself exclusively to this category. Winemaker/owner Bob Koth had apprised me of another winery producing Dornfelder, so I was especially eager to try the Huber Estate wines when I found. As I had hoped, the 2006 Estate Dornfelder was a most compelling wine, and I only wish Kip had carried the 2006 Estate Dornfelder Charlotte’s Reserve for comparison. And until I next make a swing for Sostevinobile through the Santa Rita Hills AVA, the 2008 Hafen, a dessert-style Dornfelder, must remain a creature of my imagination!

One wine, however, no longer remaining within the realm of my imagination is Bastardo, or, as the wonderful censors at ATF would have us call it, Trousseau. Given the Bureau’s prohibition of the use of such provocative nomenclature, Bodega Paso Robles elected to label their offering the 2007 Pimenteiro. It did not bastardize this rustic wine, by any means. Kip also revisited their 2005 Solea (90% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano) and the 2003 Iberia (Tempranillo, Graciano, Tinta Cão, Touriga Nacional), two blends I had highly enjoyed in early June.

We moved onto the remaining wines I had selected from his catalog. Marco di Giulio Wines may have coöpted the URL I would have chosen for my first personal label, but I am perfectly able to let bygones be bygones and laud both their 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon Diamond Mountain District and its coeval, the 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon Progeny Vineyard. Similarly, CalStar might have been a desirable alternative to Sostevinobile, but that matters little now. I applaud their 2008 Pinot Noir Sangiacomo Vineyard and would be eager to sample the rest of their inventory. Meanwhile, Starr Ranch bears no relation to the aforementioned winery nor to any of Pam Starr’s various viticultural forays; nonetheless, I found this Paso Robles producer quite adept with its 2007 Estate Grenache and its astral 2007 Orion, a Tempranillo-based wine.

Kip’s last offerings came from organically-farmed Lavender Ridge in Murphys. We started white, with their 2009 Côtes du Calaveras Blanc, Sierra Foothills, a blend of Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne, and Grenache Blanc, then proceeded through their sundry single-varietal Rhône reds: the 2006 Grenache Sierra Foothills, the 2007 Mourvèdre Sierra Foothills, the 2005 Syrah Sierra Foothills, and the 2005 Petite Sirah Sierra Foothills before finishing up with the utterly complex 2006 Côtes du Calaveras that blended Syrah, Mourvèdre, Grenache, Alicante Bouschet, Petite Sirah, and Counoise. A perfect note on which to end the day and ready myself for the major trade event on Friday.

The 6th Annual Pinot Days San Francisco Grand Tasting was slated for Sunday, June 27th in the Festival Pavilion at Fort Mason. Unlike at other major tastings, however, the powers that be decided this year to sever the trade portion of the festival from the main event and hold it two days earlier in the Fleet Room, a far less capacious reception area in Building D, two floors below the famed Magic Theatre. In over thirty years of attending events, I had no awareness that this facility even existed and was quite surprised the promoters had selected it.

Of course, I understand that these Grand Tastings constitute a business for the people who organize them, particularly for the Pinot Days folks who do not represent a not-for-profit trade organization like Family Winemakers or ZAP. As well, to a large extent, trade and media tickets are provided as a courtesy, and I am indeed grateful each time I have been provided such. However, the greatest allure of these events for participating wineries are the opportunities they provided both for publicity and for significant sales of their wines. Speaking as Sostevinobile’s trade representative, let me say that I found the new configuration counterproductive in this regard and express my hope that next year’s Pinot Days returns to its previous formula. I know many of Friday’s other attendees feel similarly.

The schedule split and smaller space allowed less than half of Sunday’s wineries to participate. Still, the room was packed and without a printed tasting program, quite difficult to navigate. I managed to scribble my notes onto the back of several product flyers I appropriated from Chamisal Vineyards’ table as I quaffed their eminently drinkable 2007 Estate Pinot Noir. Shifting to my right, I next sampled from a pair of wineries I have known long before I create Sostevinobile but had not visited with in this capacity. Founded in 1857, Buena Vista bills itself as California’s oldest premium winery, though its wines are decidedly far more contemporary than I recall from the 1980s. The 2007 Pinot Noir Ramal Vineyard Estate Vineyard Series Dijon Clones proved an elegant wine, while their 2006 Pinot Noir Ramal Vineyard Estate Vineyard Series Swan Selection drank like a glissade across the tongue. At a nearby table, August Briggs opted to pour a single wine, their 2008 Pinot Noir Russian River Valley, more than a fine choice to represent their efforts.

Somewhere around the middle between these two tables, Mendocino’s Baxter Winery, with which I had become acquainted at Golden Glass, poured their jammy albeit curiously titled 2008 Pinot Noir Run Dog Vineyard. From Santa Rita Hills, Carr Vineyards introduced themselves and not only poured a striking 2008 Pinot Noir Turner Vineyard but slipped in a taste of their 2009 Pinot Gris, the first such “extra” of the afternoon. Fort Ross fell within house rules for pouring their always-special 2006 Pinotage, but Johanna Bernstein still managed to slip me a welcome sip of her 2007 Chardonnay Fort Ross Vineyard (or should I call it Pinot Chardonnay, to keep it within bounds?).

There may not be any correlation between these two Russian River Valley vintners, apart from their consecutive appearance in my note, but I was impressed with both the 2007 Pinot Noir Russian River Selection from esteemed winemaker Gary Farrell and the 2008 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir from the newly established Thomas George Estates. And from the same notepad, Gundlach Bundschu, another continuum from the mid-19th century, maintained their pedigree with their 2007 Pinot Noir, while Gloria Ferrer, the Sonoma arm of the historic Spanish sparkling wine house Freixenet, impressed with both their 2006 Carneros Pinot Noir and a sparkling 2006 Brut Rosé.

Cima Collina and I have had a long e-mail correspondence for the past several months, so it surprised me that I had not previously sampled their products. Their representatives easily remedied this oversight with a quartet of their vintages: their more generic 2006 Pinot Noir Monterey County and the 2006 Chula Viña Vineyard Pinot Noir, top by their Santa Lucia Highlands vineyard-designate 2007 Tondrē Grapefield Pinot Noir and the superb 2006 Hilltop Ranch Pinot Noir. Another winery making quite the first impression with four distinct interpretation of the grape was Pinot-only Fulcrum Wines, a Napa-produced boutique venture. Their latest vintage comprised an almost dizzying array of choice AVAs: the 2008 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir, the 2008 Tina Marie Russian River Pinot Noir, the 2008 ON Point Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir, and my personal (as well as Wine Spectator’s) favorite, the lush 2008 Gap’s Crown Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir.

That I had not previously visited with Crū, one of Mariposa Wine Company’s trio of labels. Fortunately, their 2007 Montage Central Coast Pinot Noir and the 2008 Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands Sarmento Vineyards cemented this connection. And how I could have overlooked Sebastopol’s DuNah until now astounds me almost as much as did their 2006 Pinot Noir DuNah Estate and their 2006 Pinot Noir Sangiacomo Vineyard.

I was a tad surprised there were not more wineries from Oregon on hand this afternoon, given their pivotal role in establishing Pinot Noir on the West Coast (as well as Pinot Noir establishing Oregon as a major viticultural region). One such presence, Le Cadeau, happily displayed four of their most recent bottlings: the 2008 Pinot Noir Équinoxe, the amiable 2008 Pinot Noir Rocheux, the oddly named but excellent 2008 Pinot Noir Côte Est, and their crown jewel, the 2008 Pinot Diversité (shades of liberté, égalité, fraternité, to be sure)! Owner Tom Mortimer partners in another venture, Aubichon Cellars and generously included their inaugural release, the 2007 Pinot Noir Willamette Valley. French nomenclature also claimed the Central Coast’s La Fenêtre, whose Pinot offering ranged from the 2008 Pinot Noir Los Alamos Vineyard and the 2008 Pinot Noir Sierra Madre Vineyard to the more treasured 2008 Pinot Noir Central Coast and their acme, the 2008 Pinot Noir Le Bon Climat. While I greatly enjoyed La Fenêtre’s 2008 Bien Nacido Chardonnay, the winery seems hellbent on compelling me to struggle with composite characters, debuting their second label with the 2008 À Côté Chardonnay. Sans accents, Roots shared their whimsically-titled 2009 Melon de Bourgogne (a Chardonnay, naturally) and their 2008 Riesling before pouring a trio of delightful Pinots, the 2007 Crosshairs Pinot Noir, the 2008 Estate Pinot Noir, and the 2008 Leroy Pinot Noir.

Back in the Anglophile realm, M. Autumn bifurcates their winemaking between California and Oregon to offer their own Pinot trio: the 2006 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, the 2007 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, and newcomer 2008 Johnson Vineyard Pinot Noir from Chehalem. Keeping things somewhat thematic, from Chehalem. Keeping things kinda thematic, R. Merlo’s aspirations for an AVA in Hyampom Valley manifested itself in his 2005 Pinot Noir Trinity County.

Joseph Swan, the last winery I tried that poured four different Pinots, is a place I typically associate with Zinfandel. N’importe! I found myself uniformly enthralled with both the 2006 Pinot Noir Saralee’s Vineyard and the 2008 Pinot Noir Cuvee du Trois, as well as the 2007 Pinot Noir Trenton Estate Vineyard 2006 Pinot Noir Trenton View Vineyard, despite the New Jersey allusion! Pinot-centric Sequana chimed in with three different takes on the varietal, the superb 2008 Sundawg Ridge Pinot Noir from Green Valley, its proximate neighbor, the 2008 Dutton Ranch Pinot Noir, and the distant 2008 Sarmento Vineyard Pinot Noir from the Santa Lucia Highlands. Also posting a trifecta was my old friend Gideon Beinstock, with the terroir-driven wines from his Clos Saron in Oregon House. People who follow natural winemaking know this methodology can often be a crap shoot, but I was immensely pleased with his rosé, the 2009 Tickled Pink. Admittedly, I found myself ambivalent about the 2008 Pinot Noir Home Vineyard, but the 2006 Pinot Noir Texas Hill was one of the more outstanding efforts of the afternoon.

Another longtime acquaintance that my Sostevinobile blog readers should readily recognize was Dr. Chris Thorpe and his 100% organically-grown wines from Adastra. Once again, I fell sway to his 2006 Proximus Pinot Noir, a wine that reveals new complexities each time I encounter it. I never did get to meet Fred MacMurray while he was alive, though many hours of my childhood were dissipated watching his 1960s series after the departure of William Frawley. Many readers know of my disparagement of the Gallo wine empire, but, candidly, both the 2008 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir and the 2008 Pinot Noir Russian River Valley from MacMurray Ranch were noteworthy expressions of the grape. 

Coming on the heels of the extraordinary 2007 vintage, one which Wine Spectator lauded as Pinot Noir’s “best ever” in California, 2008’s wines faced the kind of daunting challenge Michael Jordan’s kids felt when trying out for the basketball team. A couple of wineries that only pour 2008 left no basis for comparison, but impressed on their own merits. The very fine 2008 Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast from Pfendler Vineyards nonetheless risked being overshadowed by the presence of the pulchritudinous Kimberly Pfendler, while Richard Sanford’s 2008 Pinot Noir La Encantada Vineyard Santa Rita Hills (I failed to note whether it was the Clone 666 or the Clone 115 bottling) from his Alma Rosa Winery was flat-out superb. However, among where I could sample the two vintages side-by-side, I found a definite predilection for the 2007 Pinot Noir from Keefer Ranch over its successor. And among the three bottlings spanning 2006-08, Rusack Vineyards2007 Pinot Noir Santa Maria Valley clearly stood out.

Once again, Weibel had a presence with their 2006 Weibel Family Pinot Noir Mendocino County. Derby Wine Estates demonstrated the exceptional moments this earlier vintage enjoyed with their 2006 Pinot Noir Derbyshire Vineyard. And while the 2006 Pinot Noir from Hanzell, proud stewards of the oldest Pinot vineyard on the West Coast, proved to be a marvelous wine, I fear the 2000 Pinot Noir they poured did not quite withstand the test of time.

The last two wineries I had never before encountered helped wind down the day with some side tastings. Mark Cargasacchi’s Jalama Wines matched their superb 2007 Pinot Noir Cargasacchi-Jalama Vineyard with a refreshing splash of their whimsically-named 2007 Gialla, a Pinot Gris from their Santa Barbara estate. And the veritable last word in Pinot, Zotovich, augmented the excellence of their 2007 Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills with the clean flavor of its 2008 Chardonnay and an astoundingly good 2007 Syrah, all vinted by Palmina’s Steve Clifton.

Capping the afternoon, I very much enjoyed the Pinots Hahn Estate Wines bottles as part of their winery-within-a-winery label, Lucienne. Sipping the admirable 2007 Lucienne Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands Lone Oak Vineyard segued into tasting the even more flavorful 2007 Lucienne Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands Doctor’s Vineyard before I completed my rounds with Riverbench Estate. Here, both the 2007 Estate Pinot Noir and the 2007 Pinot Noir Santa Maria Valley warranted tremendous accolades, while I was ready to rest on my laurels until my next tasting venture.

Every year, the month leading to Pinot Days has grown incrementally with seminars, winemaker dinners, preview tastings at numerous wine shops in San Francisco, and a dizzying array of other events throughout the Bay Area. Promoters Steve and Lisa Rigisich, partners in Pinot Noir specialist Ketcham Estate, are to be commended for their fanatical devotion to this grape. With this inundation of activities, I just hope they don’t lose sight of the important connection that Grand Tastings afford wineries and the people who promote them, the trade and the press, establish at such gatherings.

I understand the desire to weed out the numerous poseurs who like to attend trade & press events without ever contributing to the industry (apart from conspicuous consumption).Unfortunately, the segregation of this trade tasting meant only 96 wineries, out of 212 subscribed to the Grand Tasting the following Sunday, participated. By the time I realized the professional segment would truncate not just the time I had to spend with the wineries on my “To Meet” list but the roster of participants as well—only 29 of the 84 wineries I had earmarked exhibited on Friday—I had committed to the Mill Valley Wine & Gourmet Food Tasting, where yet another potpourri of wines and wineries would be featured. Allora, I merely hope we will all have a chance to meet at Pinot Days VII.