Monthly Archives: December 2010

And now, a word from our sponsor…

In this final entry for 2010, I’d like to step out of my guise as Your West Coast Oenophile and speak to the future of Sostevinobile. This past year presented considerable challenges, even for those of us who didn’t grow grapes; one of the consequences was that I became too immersed on a number of fronts to put out a newsletter. In lieu, I cobbled together a Christmas greeting for our many winery friends, business affiliates, and other acquaintances, with intimations of substantive progress for our venture looming just ahead in the New Year.

We’re still on track for January, and my optimism increases with every passing day. And it was certainly gratifying to receive numerous congratulations and encouraging responses to my mass e-mailing (once I figured out how to work around Earthlink’s bulk mail policies). Nonetheless, intimations in a few of these replies lead me to feel I should make clear what Sostevinobile’s wine acquisition procedures will be, once we become ready to start formal operations.

I began building our wine program just over two years ago and have now identified and addressed nearly 2,300 wineries and independent labels throughout California, Washington, and Oregon. This puts us somewhere between ¼ and ⅓ of our target of assembling the most comprehensive source of sustainably-grown wines from the West Coast. Obviously, there will be myriad implications to such an ambitious goal.

The long-term plan for Sostevinobile is to open and operate up to a dozen large-format wine bars with retail stores and e-commerce in strategically-select cities throughout these three states (any more than that and we will not be able to provide the consistent quality I demand). For now, however, everything is focused on launching our flagship wine bar in San Francisco. Here we will have a rotating program of 48 wines by the glass, with an ever-growing reserve bottle-only list and a much more comprehensive retail line.

with swapping out one flight of red wine and one flight of white each week,
that leaves us with somewhere in the vicinity of 350-400 wines we can
offer onsite our first year. Regrettably, this will mean Sostevinobile cannot accommodate every wine I try—at least as a bar selection—and I have made a point of not making any commitments in this regard other than to be as equitable with everyone as I possibly can be.

My role in developing Sostevinobile has been to lay the groundwork for our wine programs and to build a database of wineries that meet with our criteria for inclusion. When Sostevinobile does reach the point where we are actively acquiring wine, selections will be determined by consensus of the in-house wine tasting panel I am cultivating. I do not pretend to have a universal palate that can speak to the widely disparate tastes of the clientele we are anticipating, nor do I believe any one single person should try to fulfill such a function.

Sostevinobile is determined to avail our wine bar and retail programs to every winery I have contacted and befriended over the past two years. Our tasting panel will give a fair and studied evaluation to each of the wines submitted to us and determine how best we might incorporate it into our wine lists and our retail sales. But the only immutable pledge I can make is to sustain the integrity of our program and provide the finest showcase available for the incredible wines of our region.

Certain factors will inescapably play into our decisions. Wines will have to fall into an affordable by-the-glass range. Wines readily available in supermarkets or wine superstores will likely face less of a chance for inclusion than those that can constitute discoveries for our clientele. Statistically, the four California bottlers of an underrepresented varietal like Grüner Veltliner will more likely to find their way onto one of our flights than will the 900 or so Chardonnay producers. And, of course, all the wine Sostevinobile selects must meet with a level of sustainability that I will outline in the near future (like the new California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance certification, our criteria are being designed to be supportive and embracing, not exclusionary).

On a personal note, I look forward to working in 2011 with the numerous wineries with whom Sostevinobile has already established a relationship and to enjoining those whom we have yet to meet. Like most other people, I am hoping that the economic turmoil of 2010 will soon be but a speck in the rearview mirror and the coming year will bring prosperity and success to us all.

2010 also saw the loss of a number of wine friends I have made, including Art Finkelstein, Marie Nichelini-Irwin, and Rachel Ann Seghesio, whom I had met merely two days before her unexpected passing. Perhaps most poignant, however, was the death of 104-year-old Marie Ringrose, the aunt of Sostevinobile’s putative seed investor and of numerous members of the Dolan (Mendocino Wine Company) and Rossi families (Italian Swiss Colony). Two Christmases ago, I delivered a fifth of her favorite daily tonic, Johnny Walker Red, to the San Francisco Towers, where she resided.
Sostevinobile hopes all our patrons can enjoy such dynamic longevity! Our goal is to furnish the proper elixir to ensure it!

Four for the road

Your West Coast Oenophile diligently tries not exhibit any favoritism in these entries toward any particular winery, and apart from affirming that Sostevinobile will never serve Asteri Mou at any of our premises, I make no declarations about the wines I will include. But, of course, anyone who knows me does know that, outside of my professional role, I have been inordinately fond of Ridge Vineyards since the 1980s and have filled my private collection with many of their wines.

Given this predilection, it surprised me to realize I had not visited Ridge’s Montebello facility for nearly two years until my stop earlier this month. Somehow, I managed to arrange a meeting at Stanford on the same Sunday as Michael Martella’s tasting in Woodside, so scheduling a trip up the mountain made for an ideal detour between my two appointments.

Plenty of wine writers extol the virtues of Ridge’s vineyard-designate Zins or their renowned Monte Bello, but I have long held the winery’s true forte lay with its periodic bottling of off-varietals like Carignane. Occasionally, one or more of Ridge’s vineyards will yield an excess of grapes they use primarily for blending, prompting the winemakers to vinify the remainder as a single varietal. Years ago, my introduction to Mataro came from such a bottling, and I am always on the lookout for the possibility that another vintage will be released.

Last year, a surplus of Viognier led Ridge to try its hand with this grape, and the results proved astounding. The flawless 2009 Lytton Estate Viognier represents the most alluring expression of this varietal I have yet to taste, beyond the  I bestow sparingly on utterly superb wines. To prove my tasting room sample wasn’t merely a fluke or the whim of my palate on this particular afternoon, I not only brought home a 375 ml bottle, I went out and sampled a glass of the 2009 Viognier Central Coast from Alban Vineyards, one of the few wineries that has produced a consistently great Viognier over the past decade. The Ridge surpassed even this exceptional wine. Some Viogniers can be flat, almost lifeless; other are made cloying sweet. Ridge’s bottling expressed the subtlety of a honeysuckle blossom, elegant and compelling at the same time. I could not have been more pleased.

Ridge’s forays into white wines have garnered considerable accolades in recent years for this red stronghold. Wine Spectator named the 2006 Monte Bello Chardonnay its #21 Wine of the Year, and the 2007 bottling the tasting room poured this afternoon may even be better. Other wines included in its Estate Single-Vineyard Flight included the 2008 Geyserville Zinfandel (72% Zinfandel, 20% Carignane, 6% Petite Sirah, 2% Mataro), the equal blend of the 2006 Syrah/Grenache Lytton Springs and the 2007 Monte Bello Estate Cabernet/Merlot (58% Cabernet Sauvignon, 42% Merlot).

The real treat, though, was a sip (or two) (or three) of the 2007 Monte Bello, an exceptional assemblage with 79% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 9% Petite Verdot, and 2% Cabernet Franc. Part of the reason I so enjoy visiting Ridge’s Cupertino facility is its perch some 2500′ above Silicon Valley, reducing the drab, box-like factories and insular hi-tech campuses to postage stamp size; amid the afternoon cloudburst, the vistas from atop Black Mountain were totally obfuscated and yet sipping on this phenomenal Meritage, I still managed to feel above it all.

The drive down Monte Bello Road becomes particularly hazardous in these conditions, yet I managed to navigate the hairpin turns without incident. Finding my way back to I-280 wasn’t an issue, nor was finding the exit to Alpine Road. Light showers turned to a drenching downpour as I wound my way through the unfamiliar terrain of Portola Valley, past the Ginkgo Girl’s latest place of employ, and eventually finding myself at Woodside’s Mountain Terrace for the Martella tasting.

Despite the inclement weather and remote hillside setting, the parking lot had filled and many attendees had to resort to finding space across Skyline Blvd. at Alice’s Restaurant, a fabled biker’s roadhouse where Chardonnay is definitely not the drink of choice.The stark contrast between the two establishments belies an easy rapport that has existed for years, and neither attempts to be exclusionary. 

For the record, Michael wasn’t pouring Chardonnay this afternoon but did start the tasting off with his 2009 Sauvignon Blanc, a grapefruity take on the varietal. The SB proved a perfect accompaniment to the Crab Cakes the waitresses from Mountain Terrace circulated throughout the three tasting areas, but I found his 2007 Grenache Rosé a tad more satisfying as a thirst quencher; in turn, I had an even greater partiality towards the 2007 Fiddletown Grenache.

Arguments could be made either way, but I personally favored Michael’s 2007 Hammer Syrah to his 2007 Camel Hill Syrah (rumors of camel dung being the fertilizer of choice at the latter vineyard had no bearing on my preference). Not surprising, the 2008 Fiddletown Zinfandel provided one of the true standouts this afternoonZin being the backbone of the Amador AVA—while also complementing the ample charcuterie spread out on the main table

An easier distinction loomed between the 2006 Heart Arrow Cabernet Sauvignon—quite possibly the best wine of the afternoon—and its followup, the 2007 Heart Arrow Cabernet Sauvignon. The latter posed a bit of a conundrum, a wine that, with time, will likely surpass its predecessor, and yet despite its ageworthiness, seemed the more ripened of the two vintages being poured. A more vexing question, though was whether the 2007 Heart Arrow Petite Sirah made for better pairing than the Cabs with the bits of dark chocolate on the counter, and which of the three matched up best with the beef tri-tip canapés. Certainly, I’d be willing to revisit the issue!

All in all, the Martella tasting proved a most convivial gathering, and with the rains precluding gathering outdoors on Mountain Terrace’s redwood deck, a genuine intimacy took hold indoors. My friend from Rock Wall, Renee Cheng, introduced me to numerous regular attendees, including her parents, while Michael himself seemed surprised I had not previously me his wife, Beverly. “Oddly,” I noted. “Most men try not to introduce me to their wives.” We both being Italian, he well understood.

I always seem to be obliged to some other commitment when Martella holds one of its infrequent tastings, so finally making it to this event was especially gratifying. I have long championed Michael’s œnology both under his own label and for the wines he crafts for Thomas Fogarty, while his assistant winemaker, Nathan Kandler, makes exceptional Pinots under his own Precedent label; the wet, winding jaunt to this quasi-remote sector of San Mateo County was well worth my effort. Now, if only some free-spending Venture Capitalist from Woodside had felt equally impassioned, this might have turned out to be an unprecedented event!

One of these days, if I’m still on the money hunt for Sostevinobile, I plan somehow to rise at 6 a.m., drive back down to Woodside in time for breakfast at Buck’s and pretend to have lost my term sheet somewhere in the vicinity of John Doerr’s table. But perhaps my diligence will have paid off before I need to resort to such a ploy. In the meantime, I followed my Woodside trip with yet another trek to the East Bay the following weekend.

Now, normally, any excursion to Berkeley obliges me to visit Berkeley Bowl, the independent market rumored to feature the world’s largest produce section. However, I’d attended the Green Building Forum and Celebration at the David Brower Center just a few days before and had detoured to the Bowl’s new adjunct on Heinz Avenue, leaving with a $2.99 sack of loose lettuce leaves that dwarfed a King size pillow. As such, a second trip in three days seemed utterly superfluous.

Instead, I wound my way through the low-level warehouses below University Avenue to the familiar confines of A Donkey and Goat. I first met Jared and Tracey Brandt at Rhône Rangers in 2005, and while I had never completely left the wine world, the epiphany of their unbottled 2003 Syrah that led to the reinvigoration of my active involvement, ultimately spawning the genesis of Sostevinobile.

Having missed their Fall Open House, I felt compelled (as much as I ever need to be compelled to enjoy wine) to attend one of their December Holiday Saturday tastings. Here I was pleasantly surprise not only to find Tracey preparing for the birth of a second child, but to discover the latest additions to their family of wines. Syrah, Grenache, Chardonnay and, over the last couple of years, Roussanne, have been the mainstays here, so it was refreshing to see Carignane, Pinot Noir and some new Rhône blends in the lineup.

First up was the new 2009 Sluice Box, a well-balanced mélange of Marsanne and Grenache Blanc. Ironically, the next wine poured, the 2008 Mendocino Mélange blended not different varietals but different clones of Syrah (with a touch of co-fermented Viognier) from Broken Leg and McDowell Vineyards.

I find Carignane a rather finicky grape to tame, and Jared’s first stab with his 2009 Carignane from Alexander Valley proved no exception. Bouncing back in superlative form was the first of three Syrahs, the 2007 Vielles Vignes Syrah from McDowell Valley—one sip and I instantly recalled why I have championed this winery for so many years. Coming in a close second, the 2007 Fenaughty Vineyard Syrah from El Dorado County validated A Donkey and Goat’s focus on this varietal.

This afternoon’s Reserve Tasting brought out more revelations, starting with the 2009 Untended Chardonnay. The name for this wine reflects an adherence to the Natural (or Do-Nothing) Farming principles of Masanobu Fukuoka, whose non-interventionist techniques represent a reformation of biodynamic tenets. Philosophy aside, it proved quite a special wine. Next up, the superb 2009 Coupe d’Or showed its deft blend of Marsanne and Roussanne to be quite worthy of its lofty moniker.

Jared and Tracey quite fervently extol the virtues of Syrah over Cabernet and Pinot, so it was a tad surprising to discover their 2009 Broken Leg Vineyard Pinot Noir, from one of their contracted Anderson Valley Syrah ranches. But then there was the 2007 Perli Vineyard Syrah—quite possibly their best Syrah effort since the initial beaker they featured at Fort Mason. A wonderful, rich, velvety wine, it lacked only the dense dried cherries with which A Donkey and Goat usually adorns their parties’ hors d’œuvres table (forget dark chocolate—words cannot begin to describe this ætherial pairing).

With this last wine, it was time to bid farewell to all 3.5 Brandt family members and head off to my next whirlwind event. Still, I was pleased to see the winery expanding its roster and bringing its Natural Winemaking precepts to other varietals. Jared has now added me to the list for A Donkey and Goat’s upcoming trade tasting. I look forward to the event with heightened anticipation.

By now, I ought to have been able to make my way to Rock Wall with my eyes closed. Still, with the CHP out in full force for the holidays, I remained extra-vigilant as I drove to Alameda to squeeze in the tail end of their Wine Wonderland Open House. Given the frequency of events I’ve attend here lately, my visit constituted less a quest for new discoveries for Sostevinobile as it was a chance to celebrate the season with numerous friends and acquaintances. Still, I did manage to find some surprises among the nine wineries pouring at the event.

First up, I encountered Joseph Gary Cellars, a new label making their wine at the Rock Wall facility. While they are portending to release a line of Iberian wines—Garnacha, Tempranillo, Albariño—sometime in the near future, for now their sole production consisted of a label they call Manic Monday, whose 2008 Proprietary Red blends Syrah and Zinfandel from Sonoma fruit. An easy assimilable weekday table wine at an easily assimilable price.

Another newcomer to the Rock Wall event, Mercy Vineyards from Arroyo Seco, had just poured at the San Francisco Vintners Market; despite their anomalous location, it seemed a welcome addition to the East Bay contingent of wineries. Once again, I greatly enjoyed their 2008 Syrah Zabala Vineyard, but not before I had worked my way through their selection of whites and Pinot. Both the 2008 Sauvignon Blanc and the 2008 Chardonnay Zabala Vineyard proved highly pleasing wines, while the 2008 Chardonnay Arroyo Seco approached the extraordinary. With three different Pinots to samples, I found the 2008 Pinot Noir Cedar Lane Vineyard and the 2009 Pinot Noir Grive Vineyard both competently crafted vintages, while the 2008 Pinot Noir Arroyo Seco clearly excelled.

My fellow tasting panel partner, Blacksmith Cellars’ Matt Smith, showcased the current vintages of his superb 2008 Chenin Blanc and the 2008 Torrontés, while debuting the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley and a remarkable 2007 Grenache/Syrah. And despite my sampling some 18 of their wines less than a month before, Rock Wall managed to impress with the latest vintages of their 2009 Zinfandel Sonoma County and the exceptional 2009 Zinfandel Stagecoach Vineyard. Their real revelations, however, were the new line of the 2009 Viva La Blanc, a blend of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc and the 2009 Viva La Rouge, an extraordinary marriage of Syrah, Zinfandel, and Nebbiolo. These wines were good enough not to correct the incongruities their French nomenclature.

I confess that the short time I had allotted meant I could enjoy only a cursory sampling of the wineries I have covered numerous times previously. Nonetheless, I immensely enjoyed Ehrenberg Cellars2009 Petite Sirah from Lodi and John Robert Eppler’s splendid 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford. I wish I had had more time to explore the remainder of my friend Dick Keenan’s Carica Wines, but was happy just the same to sample his 2008 The Siren, a traditional Rhône-style blend of Grenache, syrah, and Mourvèdre.

Maybe I was too apprehensive from my other recent tastings to believe there really be three outstanding expressions of a tendentious varietal; in any case, I somehow overlooked sampling the 2008 Viognier for Eno in favor of their seductive 2007 Change Agent Grenache, along with the 2007 The One (Pinot Noir) and the 2007 Mr. Fix It (Syrah). As always, catching up with my friend Sasha Verhage made this stop all the more worthwhile.

I finished up with the musically-focused R&B Cellars, which, true to form, offered an imposing lineup. Feeling selective, I opted to start with their new 2006 Metronome Merlot. The 2006 Counterpoint Cabernet Franc showed quite impressively, as did the 2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. While I also liked the 2008 Pizzicato Petite Sirah (not being a cellist, I had to look the term up), the Fortissimo Port (50% Tinta Madeira, 50% Touriga) provided the perfect crescendo to my visit.

I returned to San Francisco as Wine Wonderland drew to a close, content that I had covered enough ground for Sostevinobile to call it a wrap for 2010. That is, in terms of formal wine tasting events. There were still plenty of blog entries to fill, as well as the seemingly endless quest for financing (more on that in January). And, of course, my pick of great wines to guide me through it all.

Maybe I need to take out palate insurance

November turned out to be another one of those months for Your West Coast Oenophile, which is why I landed up starting this entry in December. Sometimes my duties for Sostevinobile make me wonder how sustainable I am. But I get to drink some pretty special wine quite often. At least I usually think I do…
My first jaunt was to a special Friday night reception at Stags’ Leap Winery for the relaunch of their Artist in Residence program. With the good folks at Treasury Wine Estates providing shuttle service from San Francisco’s Ferry Building, this offer seemed too good to pass up—I haven’t had the pleasure of visiting Napa with a designated driver in well over 10 years!

The trip up to the winery proved more than comfortable, given I can only remember 10-15 minute segments at either end, wrapped around a much-needed, hour-long nap. Oddly, though, I seemed to be the only rider connected to the wine industry. Everyone else on the bus either worked as a travel writer or belonged to the Luxury Marketing Council, an association with which I had no previous familiarity. While this anomaly didn’t quite make me feel like a nun on an Esalen retreat—after all, the wine world is supposedly my milieu; still, finding common ground among my fellow passengers certainly seemed a stretch. Nevertheless, I did collect some business cards, just in case I’m ever in the market for a new yacht.

In spite of the Friday night commute traffic, we arrived in front of the turret gracing the winery’s famed Manor House in under 90 minutes. Movie fans may well recognize this 120-year-old landmark as the home of my earliest childhood crush, Hayley Mills, in Pollyanna, or perhaps from This Earth is Mine, but my attention was quickly drawn to the crisp 2008 Viognier we were served upon entering.

Details from Portrait of a Community

Inside this converted residence, attendees were fêted with canapés and other appetizers exquisitely paired to the 2008 Reserve Chardonnay and Stags’ Leap’s signature Petite Sirah, the 2006 Ne Cede Malis. Throughout the Manor House, portraits of several wine country luminaries adorned the walls, a remounting of Napa Valley: Portrait of a Community, the series 1998’s Artist in Residence Patrick McFarlin had composed during his tenure.

on the porch, guests assembled for a brief history of Stags’ Leap,
accompanied by a recitation by poet Theresa Whitehill, and the debut of
the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon, an impressive vintage from a
somewhat mercurial year. Oddly, the chronicle of the winery offered rich
insights into the winery’s stewardship by the Chase family, followed by
the Granges (several of whom were in attendance), yet elided
over the period when Carl Doumani brought the winery into prominence and
pioneered its focus on Petite Sirah. Nonetheless, with the current
corporate ownership systematically enhancing the winery’s focus and
upgrading its facilities, we were introduced to new winemaker
Christopher Paubert and treated to an overview of his œnological

Christopher led us on a tour of the new wine caves, where current Artist in Residence, New York photographer Jefferson Hayman hung a selection of his photos detailing the varying aspects of Stags’ Leap. We enjoyed a barrel sampling from of the 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, Christopher’s first, then collected gift bags that generously include a bottle of the aforementioned 2006 vintage. Needless to say, the ride back to San Francisco became a lot more festive than on the way up!

Alas, I did not have the luxury of being chauffeured the next day as I again crossed the Bay Bridge to attend the 2010 Harvest Rocks at Rock Wall, a winery that has frequently appeared here. What can I say? They put on a good party, they have a convenient location with an incredible vista on fog-free days, and they consistently make excellent and intriguing wines. This afternoon’s gathering lacked their more esoteric endeavors, like the 2007 Tannat Contra Costa County, the utterly compelling 2008 Montepulciano, or their 2009 Sparkling Grenache Rosé (although winemaker Shauna Rosenblum did put on an entertaining demonstration of dégorgement—the freezing and ejection of the sediment cap that forms during riddling—one of the more animated stages of méthode champenoise). The more mainstream varietals that they did pour demonstrated an overall consistent quality, both with their red and their white selections, and easily could stand with wines at twice their suggested price.

I found myself particularly fond of the 2009 Viognier Monterey County,
a bottling that further exemplified how California wineries are at last getting
hold of how to structure this wine—a well-balanced, superb
expression of the grape.
Similarly, the 2009 Sauvignon Blanc Lake County displayed admirable restraint, neither too grassy nor too citrus. And with three Chards to taste side-by-side, the 2008 Santa Lucia Highlands Chardonnay clearly stood above the two 2009 bottlings.

Despite its lineage, Rock Wall isn’t striving to be the reincarnation of Rosenblum Cellars (no matter how much Diageo succeeds in eviscerating the pioneering Alameda facility). Still, it would be nigh impossible for them not to produce a lineup with numerous Zins, headlined this afternoon by a simply spectacular 2007 Zinfandel Reserve Sonoma County. While the successive Sonoma bottling in 2008 did not shine quite as brightly, I did also greatly enjoy the 2008 Jesse’s Vineyard Zinfandel from Contra Costa County.

Given Rock Wall’s versatility, I would have expected a bit more from their Cabs. The 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley seemed a tad lackluster, however, while the extremely approachable 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley still lagged behind the numerous exceptional wines this vintage has produced. On the other hand, their 2008 Petite Sirah Mendocino County, the varietal that introduced me to this venture two years ago, showed every bit as solid as my initial exposure had been.

Before closing out with the dessert selections, I did partake in a plate of the tangy barbecue whipped up by Big Ray “the Armadillo” Green. With sightlines across the Bay to downtown San Francisco and AT&T Park, it took considerable restraint not to tweak this native of Euliss, Texas, a town only 7 miles from Rangers Ballpark, about the just-concluded World Series, but great ribs have been known to inspire discretion. Fittingly, the post-prandial wines, the 2007 Late Harvest Riesling and the 2008 Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc proved as fitting a cap to the event as an Edgar Renteria home run, and with that I retreated to the comforts of my championship home turf.

Rock Wall has been a mainstay of the Urban Wineries that comprise the East Bay Vintners Alliance. Another member that is garnering considerable attention of late has been Urban Legend, which hosted a Release Party to celebrate the inaugural in-house harvest at their recently completed facility. While I’ve been able to taste one or two of their wines at collective tastings before, I hadn’t really had the opportunity to explore the wide range of varietals they produce, nor focus on their wines exclusively. All of which made trekking to West Oakland’s warehouse district rather compelling (though perhaps more wisely attempted during daylight hours).

Wineries that operate in converted storage sheds or light industrial parks tend to be quite utilitarian—not exactly the pastoral setting one finds in Paso Robles or the Shenandoah Valley. But the lack of surrounding vineyards or imposing architecture did nothing to detract from the quality of the wine, as Marilee and Steve Shaffer readily demonstrated. A polished tasting bar greeted their guests in the antechamber of their facility—a singular welcoming gesture, to be sure—while stacked tiers of barrels holding the just-completed 2010 crush filled the main area. Eager tasting room assistants served up the organically grown 2009 Lake County Sauvignon Blanc, the sole white pour this evening, 

Moving onto the reds, the 2008 Ironworks blended Nebbiolo with 20% Sangiovese for a soft, approachable wine; I held similar fondness for the 2009 Lake County Mourvèdre. A more robust Rhône expression came from the 2009 Lolapalooza, their take on Grenache. The strongest expression of the GMS elements, however, was the 2009 Amador County Syrah, a wine that craved chocolate pairing.

Urban Legend covers a lot of ground, viticulturally speaking. Their sole foray with Iberian varietals (discounting interpreting their Mourvèdre as Monastrell or the Grenache as Garnacha) was a delightful, peppery 2009 Tempranillo from Clarksburg. Bordelaise vintages included an amiable 2009 Petit Verdot from Mendocino and the Right Bank-style 2009 Uptown, blending 60% Merlot with 40% Cabernet Sauvignon.

I had been seduced earlier this summer by the 2008 Teroldego and hoped this or the subsequent vintage would be poured at the event, but I will have to wait for a subsequent visit. Nonetheless, Italian varietals flowed in force this afternoon; released from the dominant Nebbiolo of the Ironworks, their straight 2008 Lake County Sangiovese proved delightful in its own right. The 2008 Barbera from Clarksburg seemed a bit sweet for my taste, but the 2009 Dolcetto from El Dorado County was a masterful bottling (as well as the strongest candidate I could find for an ideal Turkey Day pairin

Steve and Marilee put out a smorgasbord of appetizers to complement their wines—fitting, indeed, for the inevitable smorgasbord of attendees one finds at East Bay wine tastings (Sostevinobile finds such multicultural interest in wine most telling to our core mission of promoting wines for their universal appeal). And so its seemed only right to conclude the evening with their Grapefiti, a non-vintage blend of just about everything Urban Legend puts in a barrel—not quite a field blend but definitely not a haphazard assemblage, either. A most enjoyable wine from a most enjoyable venture.

My readers know I made no bones about my disappointment in this year’s Pinot on the River. For weeks, I assuaged myself with the anticipation of Farallon’s annual PinotFest, held just before Thanksgiving in the safe and dry confines of the Kensington Park Hotel. Now, most wine critics, myself included, do find single varietal tastings somewhat challenging—we all reach a point where it becomes extremely difficult to distinguish among the various labels on hand. This tasting, however, completely flummoxed me—none of the wines stood out!

I started to think that I might have been permanently affected by the October debacle—perhaps I would never be able to appreciate Pinot unless my feet were sunk 6″ deep in mud! Then, I realized something almost as horrific was afoot—my palate had gone on strike! I recognized many of these wines; I had tasted them before and delighted in their nuances. This day, I could barely distinguish a thing beyond an initial recognition of the varietal. Fortunately, this setback turned out to be ephemeral, but any hope of finding an amazing new discovery this day was shot.

And so I can only offer an amalgamation of what I did sample, with apologies all around. First up, I wound my way over to the table for Bonaccorsi, a Santa Barbara winery specializing in Viognier, Syrah, and, of course, Pinot. Principal Michael Bonaccorsi cut his teeth as the director of Spago’s wine program in Los Angeles; today, his venture debuted at PinotFest with their 2007 Cargasacchi Vineyard Pinot Noir, a wine even my debilitated palate could not fail to appreciate, alongside the 2008 Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills and the 2008 Pinot Noir Santa Barbara. Also from the Central Coast, Drake poured a striking duo: the 2008 Pinot Noir Bien Nacido Vineyard H Block and the superb 2008 Les Galets Pinot Noir from Arroyo Grande Valley.

Just up the coast, Fiddlehead Cellars offered a pair of wines from its Fiddlestix Vineyard in Santa Rita Hills: the 2007 Seven Twenty Eight Pinot Noir (the name derives from the mile marker on Santa Rosa Road) and the 2007 Lollapalooza (not to be confused with the Lolapalooza from Urban Legend). Fiddlehead is a bit of an anomaly, in that it produces only Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc and that it manages vineyards in both California and in Oregon, the latter which was not showcased here. Siduri Wines did contrast the two parts of its bifurcated operations, pouring their 2009 Pisoni Vineyard Pinot Noir from the Santa Lucia Highlands alongside the 2007 Willamette Blanc de Pinot Noir, a truly special handcrafted effort.

I began to realize my palate was rather askew this afternoon when I visited with Skewis at the next table over. I had sampled these Pinots with considerable pleasure quite recently in Geyserville; today, I felt almost indifferent towards them. I have long known I can rely on Skewis as a benchmark for excellence in Pinot Noir, and while I was willing to allow that one wine could seem off from my previous evaluation, how could I sip my way through such wines as the 2000 Montgomery Vineyard Pinot Noir or the 2008 Anderson Valley Reserve Pinot Noir and not experience a tinge of elation? I began fearing my libido would be the next to go.

Nonetheless, I soldiered on, hoping my taste buds might somehow recover before the afternoon concluded. Newcomer Beaux Frères from Oregon offered a nice array of their wines, starting with 2008 The Beaux Frères Vineyard Pinot Noir. This Pinot-only operation from Newberg, Oregon also poured their 2007 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir and a new release, the 2009 Les Cousins Pinot Noir. From nearby McMinnville, former Stags’ Leap winemaker Robert Brittan paired the 2007 Basalt Block Pinot Noir and 2007 Gestalt Block Pinot Noir produced at his eponymous Syrah- & Pinot-focused winery. Meanwhile, one of Oregon’s tried & true wine pioneers, Adelsheim, showcased both their 2008 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir and the coveted 2008 Elizabeth’s Reserve Pinot Noir.

Quite a number of wineries from our northern neighbor make the annual trek to this event. Among those I enjoy with regularity were Domaine Drouhin, with its 2007 Cuvée Laurène, one of their twin Estate Pinots, and the 2008 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. The ever-revered Domaine Serene sampled a pair of its wines, the 2006 Evenstad Reserve Pinot Noir and the equally-acclaimed 2007 Mark Bradford Vineyard Pinot Noir. Soter Vineyards made a return appearance to feature their latest, the 2008 North Valley Pinot Noir and the 2008 Mineral Springs Ranch Pinot Noir.

Tony Soter’s former venture, Étude, continued his legacy with their Carneros bottlings, including the 2008 Estate Pinot Noir. Just north of Carneros, Hendry represents a rare winery within the Napa Valley AVA producing a 2007 Estate Pinot Noir. Back in Carneros, Gloria Ferrer tends to be better known for their sparkling wines, but comported themselves admirably here with both their 2007 Carneros Pinot Noir and the 2006 José S. Ferrer Pinot Noir.

I’ve long relished the sparkling wines Sonoma’s Iron Horse produces, so was more than happy to sample their 2005 Brut Rosé alongside their 2008 Estate Pinot Noir (a wine I feel sure I would have appreciated with an intact palate). I do know, from the CCOF tasting in October, that I highly appreciated the selection of Pinots from Alma Rosa, Richard Sanford’s followup to his eponymous winery; certainly, there was no disappointment either with the 2008 Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills or the top-rated 2007 Pinot Noir La Encantade Vineyard. And I almost would have been willing to defer any assessment of the wines Au Bon Climat poured to previous accolades from other sources, but I nonetheless managed to sample the 2006 Barham Mendelsohn Russian River Pinot Noir, the 2007 Bien Nacido Historical Vineyard Pinot Noir, the filial 2007 Pinot Noir-Isabelle, and, with a name almost as convoluted as Sostevinobile, the 2007 La Bauge Au-Dessus Estate Pinot Noir.

Another acclaimed Pinot producer, Merry Edwards, offered a tantalizing glimpse into her portfolio with the 2008 Olivet Lane Pinot Noir and her 2008 Klopp Ranch Pinot Noir. I managed to sample but one of Robert Sinskey’s fabled organic Pinots, the 2007 Pinot Noir Three Amigos Vineyards, and only the 2008 La Neblina from Radio-Coteau, a winery I first encountered at last year’s tasting. I relish Greenwood Ridge for their biodynamic Sauvignon Blanc, but subsequently discovered their Pinot at last year’s PinotFest; my recollections made me eager to try their 2007 Pinot Noir Mendocino Ridge this time round.

I opted for the 2008 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir Occidental Ridge Vineyard from Failla’s two selections, while choosing the 2008 Pinot Noir Santa Barbara County from Costa de Oro. I hadn’t had the chance to catch up with Byron since their whirlwind of ownership changes a couple of years back, so I lingered long enough to sample both the 2008 Monument Pinot Noir and the 2008 Nielsen Vineyard Pinot Noir while discussing the evolution of their winemaking under the stewardship of Jackson Family Wines.

Down in Lompoc, Melville operates a highly concentrated endeavor that limits itself to (and excels in) Chardonnay, Syrah, and, of course, Pinot Noir. For PinotFest, they poured three of their more noteworthy efforts: the 2009 Estate Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills and both the 2009 Estate Pinot Noir Carrie’s and the 2009 Estate Pinot Noir Terrace’s, which are scheduled for release next spring. Melville’s winemaker Greg Brewer has also heads up a Burgundian-focused project with Italian varietal specialist Steve Clifton (from Palmina), fittingly named Brewer-Clifton. I enjoyed both the 2009 Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills and the 2009 Pinot Noir Mount Carmel, though even my palsied palate could sense that these wines were still quite young.

Certainly, if time had permitted, I would have brought myself to sample the numerous other wineries who have made this event so splendid year after year. After all, it wasn’t that I hadn’t found nearly all the wines I tried this afternoon commendable—rather, it was an inability to discern the distinguishing characteristics of the various vintages that left me in such a quandary. I recall how my good friend Carlo Middione had to close Vivande, his temple to Southern Italian cuisine, earlier this year, after an automobile accident rendered his sense of smell and taste permanently impaired; even though my own dilemma turned out fortunately to be a fleeting (albeit excruciating) moment, I can well empathize with his frustration. After all, it has been the exquisite subtlety of my palate that has carried on the vision for Sostevinobile for nearly two years.

Fortunately, my taste buds revived with a vengeance in time to take in the second installment of San Francisco Vintners Market, my final marathon for the month of November. Instead, the debacle of my palatal paralysis gave way to the perplexity of perambulating the aisles of a trade show that did not even provide attendees with a booth guide or tasting map. As is my wont, I had deciphered the list of attending wineries from the promoters’ website and highlighted those I hoped to acquaint with Sostevinobile’s wine program; even with this targeted agenda, the task of finding their tables inside the enormous Festival Pavilion at Fort Mason became a game of sleuthing.

Working blindly, I first stumbled upon Rua, a small, single bottling venture from the consultancy at Wines West. The 2008 Rua Napa Valley is a Right Bank-style Bordelaise wine derived from a co-fermentation of Cabernet Franc and Merlot grown on the right side of the Carneros AVA. Cultivar, a winery out of Rutherford, offered a most impressive 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon (especially considering its $25 price point).

Sometimes a label can seem so evocative, one wonders whether the wine can match the impression it gives. Despite the allure of David Pizzimenti’s Mendoza, TAJ Cellars managed to exceed expectations with the 2008 Zinfandel and an exceptional 2007 Syrah. Similarly, the classical allusion of a goddess bearing two οἰνοχόαι (wine jugs) adorning the bottles of Mercy Vineyards’ artisan wines heralded a much-pleasing 2008 Syrah Zabala Vineyard from Arroyo Seco. And the appeal of its Papyrus Condensed lettering superimposed on a swath of broad-stroked sunset colors hardly belied the delights of the striking Italian varietals from Plymouth’s Bella Grace: their 2008 Vermentino, the 2008 Pinot Grigio, and the 2009 Primitivo, as well as its cousin, the 2006 Old Vine Zinfandel.

As with April’s Vintners Market, one of the true pleasures of the event was discovering a number of microproducers like Evidence Wines, whose 250 case production consists solely of its 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, a meaty selection from Knights Valley with 10% Malbec, 8% Petit Verdot, and 7% Petite Sirah. Hamel Family Wines topped out 290 cases of the 2006 Pamelita, an estate Cabernet Sauvignon from their sustainably farmed, one acre vineyard in Sonoma Valley. Along with 49 cases of Sauvignon Blanc, Heibel Ranch Vineyards bottled a whopping 188 cases of its proprietary 2007 Lappa’s, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Franc, and Syrah.

All told, Flying Horse has produced an inventory of nearly 2,000 cases among its three vintages from 2005-07. With Denis Malbec consulting, the 2005 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, 2006 Napa Valley Petite Sirah, and 2007 Sauvignon Blanc all proved to be well-structured, memorable wines. J&J Cellars is the premium line from A Cellar Full of Noise’s James Judd; I found their 2009 Tempranillo Rosé more than refreshing while being pleasantly surprised by the complexity of their NV Autumn Flight Barbera.

Vintners Market featured a VIP section with many of the same premium wineries that also poured in April. I was pleased to meet Vito Bialla and taste his 2008 Cabernet, a Craig MacLean vinification tempered with 14% Merlot. Nearby, an extraordinary discovery was the 2007 Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon from Rugg Family, blending grapes from Stag’s Leap, Oak Knoll and Yountville. Downtown Napa’s leading wine bar, Bounty Hunter, poured their own 2008 Jurisprudence, a Cabernet Sauvignon blended with 12% Cabernet Franc and 1% Merlot.

Another special blend in the VIP section was the 2007 Enjoie RTW, a Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot mélange from VinRoc, whose Atlas Peak 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon proved truly outstanding. I was happy to visit with Sciandri and resample their 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon I had first encountered at the inaugural Coombsville tasting. Demuth Kemos featured their 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Mountain Terraces but truly excelled with their 2008 Syrah Bei Ranch.

Back with the οἱ πολλοί, I worked my way through the latest and greatest from Baker Lane: the 2009 Rosé of Syrah, the 2008 Ramondo Pinot Noir, and both the 2008 Estate Syrah and the 2008 Sonoma Coast Cuvée Syrah. I also revisited with Tom Keith’s Athair in order to try his elegant 2007 Russian River Pinot Noir and the 2009 Russian River Pinot Noir Rosé. On the more raucous side, Red Zeppelin struck a resounding note with both their 2009 White Zeppelin Chardonnay and the 2009 Black Zeppelin Petite Sirah.

I had hoped to retry John Chiarito’s Italian varietals, but opted instead for his exquisite 2007 Petite Sir
. With Kelseyville’s Rosa d’Oro on hand, I did get my fix with their 2007 Barbera, the 2007 Dolcetto, and an imposing 2008 Sangiovese. And if that weren’t enough, Treasure Island’s Fat Grape Winery poured its 2008 Sangiovese alongside a 2008 Cabernet Franc, an appealing 2008 Zinfandel, a 2008 Mourvèdre, and a 2008 Petit Verdot.

Page Wine Cellars bottles its Bordeaux-style blends under its own name and designates its Revolver label for the rest. This afternoon they poured the 2007 The Stash, a Cabernet Sauvignon softened with 5% Cabernet Franc, while showcasing Revolver’s 2007 The Fury (Cabernet Franc) and the 2007 Perdition (Petite Sirah). Also from Napa, Longfellow Wines elected to feature their 2007 Dry Creek Valley Syrah Unti Vineyard and the 2008 Pinot Noir Griffin’s Lair Vineyard. The unassumingly named Napa Station from former Merryvale CEO Peter Huwiler quietly made its splash here with a quartet of well-executed wines: the 2008 Sauvignon Blanc, the delectable 2007 Chardonnay, a balanced 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2007 Merlot.

In Mendocino, the city of Point Arena has its own lighthouse, as well as an official Poet Laureate—and Mariah Vineyards; their meticulously hand-picked wines included the 2007 Zinfandel and the 2006 Syrah, both strikingly well-crafted vintages. Meanwhile, Bennett Valley near Santa Rosa boasts Bennett Valley Cellars, with its appealing Bin 6410 Pinot Noir. And nearby in Santa Rosa, Kivelstadt Family Vineyard offered its 2009 Dog Daze Rosé (Syrah/Grenache) and the 2008 Pavo Syrah. An utterly superb Grenache came from Santa Rosa’s Grey Stack, the 2007 Dry Stack Grenache, while their 2007 Marie’s Block Syrah came half a sip to being as good.

Like Mariah, Fogline Vineyards handcrafts their wines, with impressive results for both the 2009 Pinot Noir Windsor Oaks Vineyard and the 2009 Zinfandel. Equal parts Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon constitute the aptly-named and immensely appealing 2006 Mixto from Solovino.

I oughtn’t be critical of Greater Purpose, a wine venture with charitable aspirations, but with their added purpose, all-too-hip design, and state-of-the-art Web site, they seem to have overlooked attention to detail in their wine blending. Their two wines, the NV White Label and the NV Black Label, both marry Cabernet Sauvignon with Zinfandel, the latter adding 10% Syrah. Neither had that “you’ve got to try this” cachet, but I respect their effort. I will, however, stand unrestrained in my disapprobation of wineries and wine events that affiliate themselves with or incorporate tobacco; certainly, I hope the appearance of CigarRV—the Mobile Mancave will prove a one-time aberration for Vintners Market. (Readers here should know that Sostevinobile’s
commitment to a sustainable environment means that we will not
accommodate smoking on any portion of our premises, including the
projected outdoor seating area atop our living roof

In reading other wine blogs, I sense I may have missed perhaps 50% of the possible new wineries that attended Vintners Market. As always, I am grateful to Bridget and Cornelius for inviting me to their splendid event, but let me exhort them print out a program next time!! It will expedite matters for everyone: the media trying to cover the event, wineries taking the time to make the event happen, and attendees who come to enjoy and purchase the wine on hand. In return, yours truly will continue striving to sample and evaluate as many West Coast wineries that meet Sostevinobile’s criteria as I can—provided my palate doesn’t go south again!