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 afternoon—Zin 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
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 Cellars’ 2009 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.