“Why here? Why not Oklahoma? There you have a vast, infertile wasteland, in serious need of redecorating, with an overabundance of leather and petroleum-based products.”
—Chandler Fong, The Straight of Messina
People who know Your West Coast Oenophile not as a wine connoisseur but as a playwright will readily recognize my disdain for the Sooner State. Not that I have a lot of experience with this dreary panhandle—in truth, I have been there only once, and that was part of an ill-fortuned cross-country drive. Apart from that, I know that both Leon Russell and Will Rogers hail from parts therein; an array of Native American tribes were, at various times, dispossessed and forced to live in the Oklahoma Territories; they have a perennial football powerhouse disguised as an institute of higher learning; and Holly Hunter portrayed a detective from OKC who singlehandedly (or double-buttocksly) managed to keep nudity alive on cable television in the aftermath of Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction.
My almanac informs me that Oklahoma actually has two of fifty largest cities in the United States (of course, size ceased to be the principal determinant of what constitutes a major city long before San Jose outpaced San Francisco in the population department). Anyway, even though the folks who live in Oklahoma City and Tulsa likely believe there are myriad differences from each other that are both pronounced and manifest, from 1,500+ miles away they are indistinguishable.
The moral of this story, so to speak, is that almost anyone east of the Nevada state line just as likely sees us as a homogeneous blur, as well, one great big flake of a state that can be summed up in a single, pithy paragraph. And most certainly, anyone outside of œnophilic circles sees the wine country as a singular region possessed of few, if any, distinguishing variants.
The folks from Napa and Sonoma will beg to tell you differently, and so I found myself this past weekend journeying north to Sonoma for the Russian River Valley’s annual Grape to Glass festivities. Basically, this is a three-day, “what makes Sonoma a special destination” extravaganza, focused on, as one might expect, the premium wines of the RRV sub-appellation, as well as the culinary bounty of nearby growers, producers and restaurateurs. Throw in sightseeing, cycling, and recreational activities (swimming, canoeing, topless kayaking) on the Russian River, and festival promoters should know they made a pretty persuasive case for the allure of their special corner of this state.
A Frigid Friday Fiesta
OK, so I didn’t quite leave when I had planned, which may or may not have allowed me to elude the numerous pockets of traffic snarls I encountered along the stretch of Highway 101 from San Francisco to Santa Rosa, where the first formal event of the weekend was being held at the Hyatt Vineyard Creek, the same hotel where the Green Wine Summit has taken place the past two Decembers. Granted, it may take me a few tries to nail down which exit to take and such, but the third time is usually the charm. Just in case, however, the weather gods apparently conspired to make this evening feel like December, just so I wouldn’t mistake my destination.
I managed to arrive at In Concert with the Artisans with about ¾ hour to the wine tasting portion of the evening, barely enough time to engage all the wineries I had targeted to add to my roster for Sostevinobile. And while readers know it is my wont to comment on each of the wines that impress me at the various events I attend, the true focus of this weekend wasn’t to highlight individual expressions of Pinot Noir, Syrah, Zinfandel, and Chardonnay—the mainstays of the Russian River Valley—nor the wide array of Italian, Bordelaise and Rhône varietals that also flourish in pockets throughout the AVA, but to showcase the panoply of the region and the warmth of its denizens.
In this vein, the organizers of Grape to Glass chose not to isolate individual wineries but to cluster individual varietals in tandem with one of their featured chefs, creating little oases of food and wine at key points along the Hyatt’s rear lawn. Chef Christopher Greenwald from Bay Laurel Culinary prepared a Pulled Jerk Chicken Baguette accentuated by a Habañero Pepper Slaw to anchor the wines featured at the Chardonnay Garden. This stop allowed me to reacquaint myself with C. Donatiello and Lynmar while introducing me Duckhorn’s Migration label and the considerable appeal of Jim & Kristina Landy’s eponymous boutique production of their 2008 Estate Chardonnay Russian River Valley.
The Surprising Whites Garden featured an extraordinary Ahi Poke Tuna Salad alongside the bounty of Sonoma’s renowned aquaculture, barbecued Tomales Bay Oysters from Chef Nellie Gamez of Nellie’s Oysters. The spiciness of her Pizole, a Mexican-style pork stew perfectly complemented the 2006 Dry Gewürztraminer Russian River Valley from Zmor Winery, as well as the more austere expressions of 2006 Sauvignon Blanc Shanti Vineyard from Suncé and the 2008 Pinot Gris Russian River Valley from Fred Hansen’s Tremani Wines.
Executive Chef Richard Whipple from the Brasserie at the Hyatt held his home field advantage with a pair of pasta preparations, and a nicely executed Prosciutto Wrapped Melon that accompanied the selections of Pinot Noir Garden I. Longtime familiars like Ketcham Estate, Benovia, and the Bacigalupi family’s John Tyler Wines poured alongside the 2008 Pinot Noir Schneider Vineyard from the very whimsical Thumbprint Cellars and Graton Ridge’s 2007 Pinot Noir Russian River Valley.
I suppose my misspent youth in the Greater New York Area must have exposed me to Puerto Rican cuisine at some point; nonetheless, El Coquí’s Jacqueline Roman’s fare was quite the revelation Pollo al Horno, described as “baked chicken thigh with Puerto Rican-style Spanish Rice, red beans and sweet plantains.” not only proved quite filling but demanded to be washed down with such wines as Mueller’s 2006 Old Vine Zinfandel and the 2006 Zinfandel Rosenberg Vineyard—Porky’s Patch from Sapphire Hill that anchored the table for Zinfandel Garden II.
From there, It didn’t take much effort to lean over and sample the Pulled Pork Sliders from Larry Vito Catering. I bypassed my chance sample his featured Mini Memphis Pork Spare Ribs, which I can safely guess would have just as easily complemented the pours from Syrah Garden, like the 2007 Syrah Russian River Valley from Davis Family Vineyards or the fraternal duo, the 2007 Syrah Rosé and 2005 Syrah, from Lauterbach Cellars.
The pairing of Josh Silver’s Syrah Bistro with Pinot Noir Garden II sounds almost as incongruous as serving their Watermelon Gazpacho during this sub-Arctic summer, but indeed their Liberty Farm Duck & Mushroom Ragoût provided a perfect pairing for the assorted Pinots being sampled here from Russian Hill Estates, TR Elliott, Hook & Ladder, and Twomey Cellars, among others.
My final stop took me to Zinfandel Garden I, where I fortified myself for the remainder of the event by filling a plate with the Shaved Roast Beef with Caramelized Onion & Blue Cheese from Jack and Tony’s of Santa Rosa. Wine choices here included the ever-reliable Joseph Swan Winery with their 2005 Zinfandel Trenton Station Vineyard, Harvest Moon’s 2006 Zinfandel Russian River Valley and the 2006 Zinfandel Francis Vineyard from Matrix, whose owner Diane Wilson knows more than a few things about this varietal.
Also at this table, Old World Winery poured their 2004 Zinfandel Laughlin Vineyard, a wine I happily sampled. My ostensible purpose, however, in saving this stop for last was to connect with winemaker Darek Trowbridge, who had offered me use of his family’s guest house in Healdsburg and arranged my attendance at the numerous Grape to Glass events. I’d like to say his generosity was extraordinary, but the weekend ultimately showed me that such gestures are endemic to the whole region. We joined Darek’s cousin Lee Martinelli of Martinelli Winery at their VIP table, where food and libations continued for throughout the concert portion of the evening.
Tenor Nick Palance, a former star of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, has been heralded as the “American Boccelli.” Despite the frigid air, he performed for nearly two hours from his Angel Heart repertoire, with songs ranging from Verdi arias to show tunes from Andrew Lloyd—Webber to campy classics like That’s Amore. Though vocally compelling, Palance seemed to be articulating more by rote than a comprehension of the Italian lyrics in many of his selections. Stylish vocalist Lindsey Scott delivered her counterpoint to their duets with a nuance and subtlety that tended, at times, to upstage Palance; clearly, her solo arias manifested true operatic flair. Nonetheless, both performers and their superb instrumentalists clearly enthralled their captivated audience (even those of us who regard musical theater as the nadir of the American stage).
I remained for a portion of the reception that followed, engaging both artists and artisan winemaker until I felt safe enough to brave the stretch of 101 up to Healdsburg. The solitude of a cottage (with a cozy garage space for my Corolla), an outlet to recharge my iPhone, and a semi-firm mattress soon had me horizontal and ready for the morning bicycle trek.
So this is what a Saturday morning looks like?
I am not an AM person, most definitely not on weekends, but the prospect of a sunny morning ride through downtown Healdsburg was enough to get me out the door, sans caffeine, before 9. Instead, I was greeted by 60°F and drizzle, not exactly what I had signed on for. I was supposed to meet up with my fellow cyclists at the Healdsburg Farmers Market, a Saturday morning extravaganza that featured Zucchini car races amid an abundance of local produce and a throng of local denizens who seemingly make this excursion a weekly ritual.
Much like downtown Yountville in Napa, Healdsburg has transformed itself over the past couple of decades into a gourmet and travel destination, the culinary heart of Sonoma. I confess that I am still adjusting from my familiarity with the town in the 1980s, when it seemed you were just as likely to find a hitching post for your horse as an available parking slot. These days, the east side of 101 abounds with world class restaurants, specialty shops and spas, and perhaps more offsite tasting rooms than anyplace else in California. It would be hard to imagine a John Deere tractor rolling down Healdsburg Avenue in 2010.
Healdsburg’s temple to the Slow Food Movement, Zazu, garnered national attention just a few days ago, as it was announced that chef/owner Duskie Estes had been selected to compete on TV’s Iron Chef. News of this accolade, as well as our mutual Brunonian background, came only when I had begun my background research for this entry; this morning, Duskie was merely our tour leader, grinding out a loop through the heart of Healdsburg, as she led a dozen or so of my fellow intrepid cyclists on an excursion that was anything but Iron Man-level.
From the Farmers Market, we headed east for 0.1 miles to Costeaux, a local institution since 1923. The irrepressible Margaret Hansen held court, so breathlessly spinning the history of this award-winning bakery that even a first-time visitor would come away believing in its inextricable role in the very existence of the town. Gathering baguettes for the luncheon we would create at the end of this ride, our caravan proceeded yet another 0.1 miles Center Street’s Cheese Shop for lunch’s cheese serving (I missed the discourse as I waited in line next door at Flying Goat Coffee for my obligatory java jolt).
Testing the mettle of her riders, Duskie next led us for what may have even clocked 0.5 miles on the odometer to Seghesio, the multi-generational winery known for its Zinfandels and Italian varietals. The tour, of course, included a brief wine tasting, as well as a sampling of their housemade salumi. Carryalls and bottles of their 2009 Pinot Grigio were bestowed on each of us before we migrated over to the verdant cornucopia known as Ed’s Garden, the actual focus of our stop.
Exiting the building, we were met by matriarch Rachel Ann Seghesio, with whom I shared stories of Italian upbringing as she led our group to the expansive vegetable garden her brother-in-law Ed Seghesio tends. Amid the tomatoes, melons, and herbs he cultivates, we stumbled upon berry fronds adorning his asparagus plants! Though appearing edible, these berries can be quite noxious—hardly the aim of a culinary tour! Thankfully, neither the berries nor the asparagus itself made our list of ingredients, so after gathering some basil and heirlooms, we wandered back to observe Ed’s storied 100-year-old fig tree, his bellwether for predicting the grape harvest.
A final stop took us out for 0.2 miles to the organic fruit and vegetable stand known as Love Farms, where we harvested grapes and selected melons that would complete the amazing repast Duskie would assemble for us at Relish Culinary Adventures, a cooking lab and school a few yards from where this cycling marathon began. After plying us with hand-blended Bellinis, we were fêted with Melon and Prosciutto Salad, deftly assembled from the numerous ingredients we had collected throughout the morning. An intrepid few of us completed the tour by ambling afterward across the parking lot to sample Pinot Noir and Chocolate at the La Crema Tasting Room, then dispersed for our afternoon seminars.
A river runs through it.
With four different presentations from which to choose, I elected to attend the afternoon session at the Trowbridges’ main house alongside the bank of the Russian River. As before, my hosts could not have been more accommodating. By now, the sun had actually broken through, ambient warmth to accompany an outdoor catered affair, with Russian River wines from Old World Winery, Hop Kiln and Pelligrini. After sipping and socializing, guest sat down to a trio of presentations from Darek, vineyard consultant Marc Greenspan of Advanced Viticulture, and Pelligrini winemaker Kevin Hamel, each assaying how the topography and climate of the Russian River Valley contributes to the special character of the AVA’s wines.
I typically think of modifications to natural structures as depleting their resources, such as the California Aqueduct’s siphoning off of river flow to the San Francisco Bay, increasing the salinity and subsequently impacting the entire ecosystem. It surprised me to learn that, in its unaltered state, the Russian River held far less flow and was deemed unnavigable until construction of the Potter Valley Project to divert water via a tunnel from the Eel River in Mendocino. Of course, this diversion presents its own share of undesirable impact, but largely has enabled the Russian River Valley to establish itself as an agricultural center, as well as sustain a human habitat and major recreational area.
With a billing like that, it became compulsory to amble down to the river. With memories of rolling kayaks in the Connecticut River during undergraduate days, I wisely left my iPhone and Bluetooth behind with my sneaker and shirt before embarking on a two-man kayak run with one of my fellow attendees. The bend in the river actually slowed the current to a meager crawl where we launched, so it was relatively effortless to paddle upstream to take in the stunning scenery. A perfect way to top off the afternoon, to be sure, and ready ourselves for the evening’s banquet.
The Hog in the Fog
The culmination of Grape to Glass has always meant euphoria to carnivores and œnophiles alike. The Hog in the Fog banquet married 56 Russian River Valley wineries to a bounty of food from local growers and restaurateurs. Nestled among the oaks and carved totems (see below) at Richard’s Grove in Saralee’s Vineyard—in many ways, the backbone of the RRV appellation, this self-billed Festival of Plenty could easily have sufficed with the wine tasting and appetizer prelude. With produce and condiments from Kozlowski Farms and Martinelli’s orchards, cheeses from Redwood Hill, and enticing tapas from Healdsburg’s Chef Mateo Granados and nationally acclaimed John Ash (I couldn’t pull myself away from the Roast Duck Medallion canapés), I needed the wine tasting just to fortify myself for the sit-down barbecue that featured tortillas, tomato salad, vegetable salad, multicolored watermelon, pie, roasted chicken, New York steak, and the centerpiece, Gleason Ranch Pork with Seghesio’s Family Rub.
Each of the wineries from Friday’s In Concert with the Artisans returned, along with many other familiars. Almost immediately, I found myself reconnecting with Eva Dehlinger and regaling in her 2008 Pinot Noir Golden Ridge. Acorn Winery did not bring their Dolcetto, much to my chagrin, but both the 2007 Sangiovese Alegrîa Vineyard and their 2007 Zinfandel Alegría Vineyard proved quite pleasing. Eric Hall’s Roadhouse Winery poured an impressive 2008 Pinot Noir Russian River Valley, as did the genial folks from Ancient Oak, along with their 2008 Chardonnay Sonoma County.
I enjoyed the 2005 Syrah Russian River Valley from Longboard Vineyards, a winery I had been long longing to try, while Inspiration Vineyards’ 2007 Viognier Russian River Valley proved a welcome diversion to the orthodoxy of most of the white wines on hand. After that, my tasting notes become quite sketchy, though I know I managed to sample a variety of wines from Benovia, Balletto, Williams Selyem, Suacci Carciere, Robert Rue, and Papapietro Perry. And for the numerous other wineries with whom I could not connect, know that it was a matter of satiety, not neglect.
The end of the dinner coincided with a love auction to benefit the Agriculture program at Forestville’s El Molino High School. One lucky attendee won the raffle for Keys to the Cellar, a fully-stocked wine cellar that, unfortunately, did not become mine. After the auction, local rockabilly band Quarter Mile Combo, though not quite as “saxy” as Portland’s Quarterflash, had the crowd on its feet. I managed to traipse a few with Joseph Swan’s Lynn Berglund, who rewarded me with a preview of their unreleased 2008 Tannat, a varietal that is garnering much attention and new plantings. The nighttime chill began to set in, but it felt too soon to call it an evening.
I stayed past the closing to help Lee Hodo, the marketing manger for theRussian River Valley Winegrowers, load dozens of loand Bonzai plants inthe back of her station wagon, only to find myself the last vehicleparked next door at Sonoma-Cutrer. I pulled into downtown Healdsburg and found my way to Spoonbar in the new h2hotel. Before capping the night with a B&B (I needed something besides wine at this point), I ran into developer Merritt Sher, who also built the Hotel Healdsburg, which anchors the downtown renewal. Along with Cyrus and Barndiva, the hotel’s Dry Creek Kitchen has defined modern Healdsburg as a culinary destination; still, judgment on the merits of transforming this formerly bucolic setting into Hamptons-style resort rests with the people who live and work in the Russian River Valley, not me.
I bypassed Sunday’s Bubbles & Pixels brunch at premier sparkling winemaker Iron Horse Vineyards in order to arrive on time for Family Winemakers back in San Francisco. Much to my chagrin, the warm, sunny weather I had hoped to find finally did make an appearance, just as I was loading my Trek bicycle back into the Corolla. Allora!
What Healdsburg may have lacked in radiant heat this weekend was more than mitigated by the personal warmth of everyone I encountered. I could not more appreciative of the generosity I received.
And what of the Napa/Sonoma dichotomy? Granted, Napa has its Lake Berryessa, Sonoma its river and its coast. Napa has Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet, Sonoma has Pinot and Chard. Everyone has Zinfandel and everyone has an experience to offer that reflects the special character of their place. It isn’t a matter of substance over style, quantity versus quality. At the risk of sounding like an existentialist, it just is—which is OK. As in “okay.” Not Oklahoma.
This entry could just have easily been titled Everything I Know About Monterey I Learned in the Fifth Grade. First and foremost, for anyone over 35, like Your West Coast Oenophile, Monterey has long meant the seminal Monterey Pop Festival of 1967, the first true rock mega-concert that propelled the careers of Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, Steve Miller, Janis Joplin and numerous other legendary musical acts. Music purist would probably defer to the annual Monterey Jazz Festival, now in its 53rd year—though many will cite Clint Eastwood traipsing through the woods at Big Sur with Donna Mills as their favorite scene from the 1971 film Play Misty for Me, I relish the clip of the late, great Cannonball Adderley playing at the Festival.
Growing up in a Neapolitan household, one of the more esoteric dishes I enjoyed in my youth was calamari (few people today realize that many of today’s popular menu items were long shunned as “peasant food” outside of ethnic circles). Of course, the preferred source of this delicacy was Monterey squid, even if we could only obtain it frozen on the East Coast. Wine from Monterey, however, was a far different matter.
At first, there were the big jug wines like Almaden. Other bulk producers followed, planting extensive vineyards or leasing other large tracts to furnish themselves with a substantial source of cheap varietal gapes—in one memorable incident from the early 1980s, Ernest Gallo, at his craven-hearted best, flew over the 10,000 acres he had under contract in Monterey and pronounced the grapes undesirable, leaving growers scrambling to find an alternate buyer. Then came the proliferation of “Coastal Cellars.” Several of the industry’s most revered labels, having ceded control to their new corporate conglomerate, came out with “affordable” lines of their wines, capitalizing on their long-established reputation in Napa and elsewhere, but markedly inferior to their primary bottlings—a ill-conceived effort to make wines from a prestigious label “accessible,” that only served to erode brand value and recognition.
Amid all this clutter, Monterey’s AVAs have long encompassed premium winemaking, so in quest to engage more of these wineries for Sostevinobile, I traveled south to the 18th Annual Winemakers’ Celebration in Monterey’s Custom House Plaza last weekend. Had the purpose of my two-hour drive been to escape the gloom and overcast of San Francisco for much-needed æstival warmth, this was not the trek to make. Nonetheless, a fresh setting with new people to meet and wines to sample mitigated for the lack of sunshine. Event promoters had set up ample white tents at strategic corners of this bi-level plaza to house the 40 wineries pouring a wide array of their varietals and blends. I tried to visit with each, starting, as previously document, with those labels I had not previously contacted and striving to save enough time to cover the rest.
Consequently, I started out by heading to the table for Line Shack, a winery I had just recently encountered at P.S. I Love You. On hand, owner/winemaker John Baletto and his wife Daphne poured a striking array of wines grown in Monterey County, starting with a seductive 2009 Roussanne San Antonio Valley and an equally appealing 2008 Chardonnay Monterey County. I bypassed resampling their Petite Sirah in favor of the 2008 Syrah San Antonio Valley and a 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon San Antonio Valley John blended in Paso Robles style, with enough Syrah to round it out rather deftly. On the other hand, Lockwood Vineyard from Monterey was a new discovery, featuring an austere 2008 Malbec and a 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon rounded out with Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Syrah.
From Soledad, Manzoni Estate Vineyard made a strong first impression with a quartet of their wines, particularly their 2007 Pinot Noir Private Reserve. I also found the 2008 Pinot Gris and 2007 Syrah enormously appealing, along with a 2007 Chardonnay from the Santa Lucia Highlands. Contrasting Chardonnays marked Mercy Vineyards, an artisan winery from Pebble Beach. I rated the 2008 Chardonnay Zabala Vineyard a cut above the nonetheless compelling 2008 Chardonnay Arroyo Seco and equal to their 2008 Pinot Noir Arroyo Seco, while the 2008 Sauvignon Blanc Arroyo Seco did not disappoint.
I don’t recall seeing La Rochelle on my recent swing through the Livermore Valley; then again, given the well-publicized zealotry of the local highway patrol, my eyes were probably fixed on my speedometer as I drove by. Though this winery resides in a different AVA, it sources its many of its grapes from numerous appellations in Monterey to produce both the 2009 Pinot Gris Mark’s Vineyard, Arroyo Seco and the 2007 Pinot Noir Monterey. On the other hand, Marin’s Vineyard only sounds like it is situated in another locale. This nascent San Antonio Valley winery produced a splendid 2008 Viognier, as well as their signature 2007 Syrah.
Other non-local based enterprises that grow and source significant amount of grapes from Monterey included Napa’s Delicato Family Vineyards, whose Sr. Brand Manager Christine Lilienthal served up some impressive banter, along with three of their Monterey labels. Loredona boasts itself as Delicato’s Anything But Chardonnay label, amply demonstrated by their 2009 Riesling, the 2009 Pinot Grigio and a pre-release sample of their enchanting 2009 Malvasia Bianca. Although Irony is one of their Napa labels, the 2008 Monterey Pinot Noir came from their San Benabe Vineyard (reputed the world’s largest single vineyard), as did the grapes in their Fog Head2005 Blow Sand Syrah. Meanwhile, Wente Vineyards, the Goliath of Livermore Valley, might seem an interloper here but actually maintains extensive vineyards in Arroyo Seco, exemplified by their 2007 Reliz Creek Pinot Noir and the approachable 2008 Riva Ranch Chardonnay.
Given the number of nearby retreats like Esalen, Ventana Inn, and Carmel Valley Ranch, it comes as little surprise that Bernadus is both a resort and a winery. Nearly a decade ago, I enjoyed my first comprehensive tasting from the various Monterey AVAs at their Taste of Carmel Valley, so was more than please this afternoon to revisit their 2006 Monterey County Pinot Noir and the always wonderful 2005 Estate Marinus, a traditional Bordelaise blend, on behalf of Sostevinobile. On a much more modest scale, Mesa del Sol Vineyards offers a quiet cottage amid a 14 acre estate with trout pond and a vineyard that produces their 2005 Syrah and the highly likable 2006 Sangiovese.
I suspect many of the smaller ventures on hand this afternoon do not see tremendous distribution outside the Central Coast region, so, of course, it is a particular pleasure to give them wider exposure here. Though I found Snosrap, their semordnilaps label, a bit jejune, I nonetheless reveled in the wines Parsonage Village Vineyards from Carmel Valley featured, starting with the 2008 Snosrap Cyrano Chardonnay and the 2007 Estate Syrah. The 2007 Bordelaise blended Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot, while the quite drinkable 2007 Snosrap Merlot, blended with 25% Syrah, proved most gnillepmoc. A most aptly named Carmel winery, Mission Trail Vineyard, paid tribute to the historical planting of vineyards at California’s Franciscan missions 230 years ago with a superb 2005 Garnacha, along with a satisfactory 2006 Tempranillo. While I also found their 2007 Malbec and 2007 Syrah quite appealing, the 2007 Sauvignon Blanc left much to be desired.
I had corresponded earlier this year with Otter Cove on behalf of the wine auction for Asia Society Northern California, but had not previously sampled their wines. Like Mission Trail, I found varying degrees of quality, ranging from a superb 2006 Chardonnay to a disappointing 2008 Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands. in between, I was most impressed with their 2007 Off-dry Riesling Santa Lucia Highlands while cottoning to both the 2006 Gewürztraminer and the 2007 Syrah. Acclaimed musical composer Alan Silvestri orchestrated a harmonious trio of vintages for his eponymous winery: the 2005 Syrah Carmel Valley, the 2006 Pinot Noir Carmel Valley, and the tributary 2007 Bella Sandra Chardonnay. Meanwhile, the compelling rodeo theme of Galante’s labels underscored a gritty, no-nonsense approach that characterized both their 2007 Red Rose Hill Cabernet Sauvignon and the rich 2006 Galante Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, both from Carmel Valley.
Galante operates a tasting room in tony Carmel-by-the-Sea, where Clint Eastwood presides, as does Cima Collina, a quaint, artisan operation. Their 2009 Tondrē Riesling favored a slightly sweet approach, while their 2007 Chula Viña Chardonnay seemed quite redolent of its unfiltered process. Most intriguing, however, was the 2005 Hilltop Red, a skilled blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petite Sirah. Another familiar name, Carmel Valley’s Château Julien, offered a decidedly mellow 2009 Barrel Selected Pinot Grigio alongside its sibling 2008 Barrel Selected Chardonnay and a superb 2006 Private Reserve Merlot.
The night before I attended the Monterey Winemakers Celebration, I stopped off for a bite at St. Helena’s Farmstead, following a grueling day on the fundraising trail for Sostevinobile. Along with my entrée, I enjoyed a chilled glass of the 2009 Sauvignon Blanc San Saba Vineyard from Soledad’s Wrath Wines. Readers here know how I raved about discovering this winery at January’s Santa Lucia Highlands tasting, so I was pleased to get a leg up on my Monterey sojourn. Faced with an array of their wines, once again, I was smitten, first with the 2009 Chardonnay Ex Anima, followed by the rosé-style 2009 Pinot Noir Saignée San Saba Vineyard and culminating with their extraordinary 2007 Pinot Noir San Saba Vineyard. Today’s serendipity, however, came from Carmel Valley’s unassuming Joyce Vineyards. Dentist-turned-winemaker Frank Joyce crafted exceptional 2008 Chardonnay Black Mountain Vineyard and 2008 Pinot Noir Black Mountain Vineyard, as well as his notable 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Pedregal Vineyard and a spectacular 2007 Merlot. According to their Website, Joyce also produces something called Pudding Wine—I have no idea what this might be, but based on the virtuosity, I’d be willing to gamble on a bottle of the 2007 vintage.
Perhaps this Pudding Wine will prove to be akin the 2008 Ekem, a whimsical homonym for the revered Sauternes, that De Tierra produces from its Musque Clone Sauvignon Blanc. This organic endeavor produces several noteworthy reds, including the 2005 Monterey Syrah, the 2006 Silacci Pinot Noir, and their 2006 Estate Merlot, while excelling on the white front with both their 2007 Monterey Chardonnay and the exceptional 2008 Tin Man Chardonnay. In the same vein, Heller Estate Organic Vineyards impressed me with their 2008 Cuvée, a Meritage blending Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot, and Petit Verdot, the 2007 Chenin Blanc, and their current offering of the 2002 Merlot (Heller clearly relishes Merlot, also producing a 2007 Merlot Rosé, a 2006 Merlot Blanc (!), and even a 2005 Sparkling Merlot).
Still having a bit of a sweet bug, I indulged in a taste of the 2008 Vinho Doce, a Port-style wine blended from Touriga Nacional, Tinta Cão, and Tinto Roriz (aka Tempranillo), fortified with Tempranillo brandy, from Pierce Ranch Vineyards, a winery whose selections I have enjoyed on numerous other occasions. I’d also sampled a plethora of wine from Hahn/Lucienne over the years at various Pinot Noir events, so I opted for their other selections, like the 2009 Rosé, a compelling 2001 Blush Sparkling, the easy-to-drink 2005 Coastal Cabernet Sauvignon and 2008 Chardonnay Monterey, an extremely good 2005 Viognier, and the memorable 2007 SLH Estate Pinot Gris Santa Lucia Highlands. I followed by revising Ray Franscioni’s Puma Road, trying their amiable 2007 Pinot Gris Black Mountain Vineyard, an equally likable 2007 Pinot Noir Black Mountain Vineyard, his 2008 Chardonnay Black Mountain Vineyard, and the 2005 CachePaicines, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
A winery I would have sworn I tried before was Scheid Vineyards from Monterey’s own Cannery Row, so tasting their wines turned out to be a nice discovery. Today’s well-balanced quartet was comprised of the 2007 Chardonnay, a 2008 Syrah Rosé, the 2007 Pinot Noir they atypically rounded out with 1% each of Syrah and Petite Sirah, and their 2007 Syrah, a 100% varietal expression (the latter two wines both won Gold Medals at the 2010 New World International Wine Competition named for my late friend, wine writer Jerry D. Mead). I was also surprised I hadn’t previously tried Graff Family Vineyards, the wine-producing extension of the Woodward-Graff Foundation. This Rhône-focused venture excelled with straight varietal expressions in their 2007 Grenache and 2007 Mourvèdre, while flourishing on the white side with a 2007 Viognier and a superb 2007 Pinot Blanc. Unifying the two halves was their proprietary 2007 Consensus, a deft blend of Mourvèdre, Viognier and Syrah.
Graff is a bit of an anomaly, in that their winemaking facilities are in Sonoma. Similarly, Carmel Road Winery grows its grapes in Monterey but trucks them to Santa Rosa for vinification. This virtual winery, created by Jackson Family Wines, nonetheless distinguished itself with their 2009 Pinot Gris, the well-balanced pair of the 2008 Monterey Chardonnay and the slightly preferable 2006 Arroyo Seco Chardonnay, and the starkly contrasting 2008 Monterey Pinot Noir and the 2006 Arroyo Seco Pinot Noir, a clearly superior wine. Chalone, on the other hand, was a pre-established operation Diageo purchased in 20o4, also seemed to maintain its quality and autonomy, though I only managed to sample the 2008 Pinot Blanc.
Perhaps if event promoters had furnished more than a meager five Porta-Potties for this large crowd (and interspersed them throughout at different points in the plaza instead of the corner furthest from the wine tables), I might have had enough time to visit with Crū, Estancia, Michaud, Morgan, Pelerin, Pessagno, and Tondrē. That I missed their tables is a testament to the favorable encounters Sostevinobile has already enjoyed with their wines and their owners
All-in-all, the Monterey Winemakers Celebration wasa highly successful showcase for this distinctive wineregion. Even the conspicuously A.W.O.L. sun managed to make a late appearance for the final hour of the festivities! As I left, I felt there was but one glaring omission to an elsewise splendid event:
A few days after attending P.S. I Love You’s Petite Sirah Symposium, Your West Coast Oenophile ventured back across the Bay Bridge for the 5th Annual Urban Wine Xperience in Oakland. Again, having blogged this event forSostevinobile last year, I anticipated little in terms of new discovery, but was happy to renew acquaintances and do my small part to help publicize the efforts of these dedicated wine entrepreneurs.
There is an intangible quality to the East Bay wine tastings I’ve attended over the years, something that sharply delineates the ticket holders here from events in San Francisco. On a superficial level, the crowds look different, but only in the sense that they both equally reflect the heterogeneous population of their surrounding communities. But there is definitely a vibe that transcends ethnic makeup here, and I think it may well be a correlation between the lack of pretense among the local wine artisans and the genuine enthusiasm of the majority of attendees—hardly a poseur or dilettante in the crowd, as far as I could detect.
Last year, the Urban Wine Xperience was held outdoors, in a field beside the USS Potomac, the showcase restoration of FDR‘s “floating White House,” ensconced in the Oakland estuary. I arrived in need of some serious heat, maybe not quite the sweltering 95° of previous tasting, but definitely something to recharge the solar batteries after this summer’s protracted winter had taken its toll over the past four bleak, sunless days in San Francisco. Much to my chagrin,UWX V had moved a couple of blocks down the waterfront promenade, off the lawn and inside the enclosed showroom that anchors the Jack London Square complex.
There is no square there
Despite my disappointment at having to spend the afternoon indoors, I found the venue far more spacious and easier to navigate among the 18 various wineries, along with their partnered restaurants and caterers. The copious servings of food showcased not only their precise pairings with the wines being poured but the emerging food scene near the Oakland waterfront and surrounding neighborhoods. Certainly, I found intimations of places I am apt to explore on subsequent East Bay trips, but my focus for the afternoon centered on the appeal of the wines for Sostevinobile.
I stopped by first to exchange greetings with Matt Smith, my fellow tasting panelist from the Connoisseurs Guide to California Wine, and to sample, among others, his latest release of the 2008 Alta Mesa Torrontés from his Blacksmith Cellars. Though (so I’m told) every Torrontés producer in California sources their grapes from this same vineyard, Matt manages to craft this wine with his personal touch, just as he did with the very striking 2008 North Coast Chenin Blanc, a once-ubiquitous varietal that has fallen into disfavor over the past two decades. Rounding out his inventory for the afternoon was the 2006 C.L.R.T., a wine that dare not speak its name (in accord with 2005’s Napa Declaration of Place), a Cabernet Sauvignon-based claret blended with Cabernet Franc and Merlot.
Oakland’s World Ground Cafe matched these wines with a pork canapé, a pairing I find almost ubiquitous at fine & food affairs, but nonetheless well suited to Matt’s craftsmanship. Another restaurant I discovered just outside the exhibit hall, Bocanova, seemed a gargantuan undertaking, but also provided an intriguing pork variation to pair with Cerruti Cellars, a newcomer to Urban Wine Xperience. Their 2009 Mer Blanc Merlot Rosé heralds from vineyards in Alexander Valley, while the 2006 Cuvée Red Blend, a marriage of Sangiovese, Zinfandel and Merlot bottled under their Tudal label, boasts a Napa Valley origin. As if to forge a compromise, they melded barrels from both AVAs to produce the 2007 50/50 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa/Sonoma.
I haven’t quite ascertained how Andrew Lane Wines qualifies as an urban winemaker, though their wines certainly warranted inclusion this afternoon. Their corollary to Cerruti’s Cuvée Red blend was an amiable 2007 Rosso Napa Valley, a well-balanced ménage à trois with Sangiovese, Zinfandel and Valdiguié, another somewhat obscured varietal that had once enjoyed immense popularity. I found myself intrigued with their semi-spicy 2007 Petite Sirah Napa Valley, while enthralled with their 2007 Cabernet Franc Oakville. Franc-ly speaking, one of Sostevinobile’s most popular citations, Rock Wall Wine Company, made an equally strong statement with their 2007 Cabernet Franc Holbrook Mitchell from Napa Valley. On numerous visits to their facility, I don’t believe I’d previously tried their 2009 Russian River Reserve Chardonnay and, as with their progenitor, their array of top-notch Zins, including today’s 2008 Sonoma County Zinfandel, often leaves me scrambling to decipher my tasting notes.
Rock Wall’s Kent Rosenblum launched the East Bay winery phenomenon with his eponymous Rosenblum Cellars, now undergoing the throes of assimilation under its corporate parent, Diageo. The realignment was quite apparent in both their 2008 Zinfandel Sonoma Appellation Series and 2007 Zinfandel Paso Robles Appellation Series, not so much in the 2007 Syrah Snow’s Lake. Another spinoff from Rosenblum, JC Cellars, extended the tradition of quality begun in Alameda with a profound series of his own blends, ranging from the Roussanne-Marsanne duality of their 2008 The First Date to the complexity of the 2008 Daily Ration(Carignane, Petite Sirah, Tempranillo, Grenache, and Zinfandel) to the quixotic array of Zinfandel, Syrah, Carignane, Petite Sirah, Tempranillo, and Viognier in their ever-popular 2008The Impostor.
JC Cellars’ white Rhône blend was paired with an incredible Seared Halibut on a fried wonton wedge from East Bay caterer Oren’s Kitchen (I confess to circling back to their table numerous times throughout the afternoon). Similarly, the Shrimp and Corn Pudding Tart from Alameda’s Little House Café proved an extraordinary complement to Stage Left Cellars’ white Rhône, the 2008 The Go Getter, a blend of Roussanne, Viognier, and Grenache Blanc. Sourced from a Syrah vineyard in Rogue Valley, their tasty 2007 The Scenic Route seemed an apt title for a descriptor of the grapes’ path back to Oakland while their 2006 Grenache stayed in-state from a vineyard sourced in Santa Maria.
One of my discoveries last year, Irish Monkey Cellars, also poured two Rhône varietals, the approachable 2008 Mourvèdre Lodi and a compelling 2007 Syrah Amador, as well as a blend of varietals they source from Napa’s Lovall Valley (a Real Estate designation, not a recognized AVA), the 2008 Chateaux du Lovall, a will-o’-the-wisp assemblage of Zinfandel, Petit Verdot, Primitivo, Syrah and Merlot. Another of 2009’s stars, Prospect 772 Wine Company, returned with the latest versions of their proprietary blends, the Syrah/Grenache mélange, the 2007 The Brat and its Viognier-infused Syrah brethren, the 2007 The Brawler, along with newcomer 2009 Baby Doll Rosé, also made from Syrah and Grenache.
At most tastings, R & B Cellars usually breaks out the kitchen sink, pouring more wines than I can fathom, but held to a mere trio this afternoon, showcasing their Sauvignon Blanc, the 2007 Serenade in Blanc, a highly likable 2007 Swingsville Zinfandel and the superb 2005 Reserve Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Also at most East Bay affairs,Urbano Cellarsand Urban Legend Cellars seem inextricably joined at the hip; sequestered in different wings of the exhibition hall, they stood out today on individual merit. Urbano opened with their 2008 Vin Rosé Green Valley, a blush version of Napa Gamay (aka Valdiguié), then followed with an exceptional blend of Syrah, Grenache and Tempranillo, the 2007 5 Barrel Lodi, a haphazard assemblage of they would be, admittedly, hard-pressed to duplicate. Their standout pour came from their wondrous 2008 Sangiovese Mountain View Ranch.
Urban Cellars’ forte also stemmed from its Italian varietal bottlings, starting with the stellar 2008 Barbera Clarksburg that had crowds flocking to their table. Nebbiolo and Sangiovese worked synergistically to deliver their well-balanced 2008 Ironworks, while Marilee Shaffer delighted me with a sip from a bottle of the 2008 Teroldego Clarksburg she had secreted under the table. I also had warm feelings for the yet-unreleased 2009 Tempranillo Clarksburg and for the 2009 Sauvignon Blanc Lake County that paired rather seamlessly with Warmed Grits topped with a confit of Chicken & Corn from Oakland‘s Brown Sugar Kitchen (proving, yet again, that there can be a wine to match up with almost everything).
Ehrenberg Cellars is a venture on the cusp of coming into its own, with more people behind its table sporting badges that read “Investor” than I can enumerate. Seemingly, their food partner Paradiso had as many pasta selections on hand, each distinctive and satisfying. This wine venture, formerly known as Nectar Vineyards, showcased promising futures from its unbottled 2009 Shenandoah Zinfandel and 2009 Petite Sirah, along with the 2008 Contra Costa Zinfandel from its previous incarnation. Meanwhile the more seasoned Dashe Cellars displayed its versatility with an organic 2008 Dry Riesling McFadden Farm and a pair of Sonoma vintages, the 2009 Grenache Dry Creek Valley and the 2008 Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley, both tangy complements to the Seared Lamb & Arugula canapé from Oakland’s Chop Bar.
In my quest for objectivity, I hope Sasha Verhage will forgive me if I describe his 2007 The One Fairview Road Ranch, the Pinot Noir from his Eno Wines as not quite as mind-blowing as the 2007 The Change Agent(Grenache) and the 2007 The Freedom Fighter (old vine Zinfandel) proved this particular afternoon. Meanwhile, Dick Keenan’s Carica Wines held up their end with the 2008 Kick Ranch Sauvignon Blanc, the 2007 Kick Ranch Syrah, and Syrah-dominated GMS blend, the 2007 Temptation Sonoma County.
I was happy to find Marie Bourdillas’ Aubin Cellars on hand once again. This restrained, Burgundian-style operation offered equally-striking bottlings of their 2007 Carneros Pinot Noir and the 2007 Sonoma Mountain Syrah, along with a demure 2008 French Colombard. And, of course, I saved room for dessert, knowing that Adams Point Winery had its 18% alcohol Mango Wine on hand. In keeping with the Napa Declaration of Place, Adams Point calls its fortified blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Petite Sirah California Red After Dinner Wine. While I found this “not Port” quite compelling, their Chocolate Dessert Wine, the same wine with an infusion of chocolate, bordered on tasting syrupy, not quite the finale to this event I had conjured.
Efforts to transform Jack London Square into a culinary mecca have been well-documented of late, and while the quiet exit of hokey food chains like T.G.I. Friday’s, El Torito and the Old Spaghetti Factory certainly seem a positive development, I, too, question whether this destination can draw sufficient crowds to sustain a mega-enterprise like Bocanova or, speculatively, a future branch of Sostevinobile. But, on this one afternoon, there definitely was a there there, and it remains safe to say that Urban Wine Experience proves the East Bay winery scene remains a vibrant presence that will continue to endure.