Monthly Archives: February 2011

Zurviving ZAP

Many of my longstanding readers know that Sostevinobile was borne partly out of Your West Coast Oenophile’s frustration with the advertising industry in San Francisco. Meritocracy be damned—this is an insidious clique hellbent on quashing true talent in favor of preserving the status quo mediocrity. A prime example of this phenomenon can be see at the once illustrious Foote, Cone & Belding, an agency that blazed trails in the 1980s with its work for Levi’s, as well as its iconic claymation, The Dancing Raisins. 

In the 1990s, FCB created one of the most vapid commercials ever broadcast, for the short-lived malt beverage Zima. Their spokesman, a pallid imitation of Chico Marx, feebly promoted this clear-colored alternative to Bartles & Jaymes and Quinn’s Quail Coolers by eliminating the letter “S” from his dialogue, substituting a “Z” whenever possible.

Zimply ridiculouz! I was so offended by this spot—not because of its content but because the hack who created it, not me, was thriving as a copywriter—that I took to posting this retort outside FCB’s entryway.

Zo I zaid,“Zit on my face!”

And zhe replied, “Then pop it, Pimplehead!”

Zima exists now only in the painful recesses of the memory, while Foote Cone & Belding’s office in San Francisco has shrunk to a vestige of what it once was. I don’t pretend I could have salvaged this product, but had the FCB folks ever had the perspicacity to put me on staff, I can safely say (zafely zay?) such a ludicrous campaign would have never seen the light of day.

Twenty-five years’ of backstabbing, rampant mediocrity, and relentless
mendacity ultimately drove me out of advertising & marketing and back into the relative tranquility of the viticultural realm, though readers here know that I always maintained close ties to the industry through this hiatus, developing wine labels, custom bottling, and, most importantly steadfastly attending numerous trade shows to continue expanding and refining my palate. These efforts included taking part of nearly every ZAP festival since it first filled the Golden Gate Room at Fort Mason.

Naturally, I was on hand a couple of weeks ago for 20 Years of Zinspiration, the vigentennial celebration of ZAP’s Grand Zinfandel Tasting. Popular perception holds that this gathering has mushroomed to overwhelming proportions since its inception, but actually it has contracted from around 250 participating wineries in 2009 to just 205 this most recent incarnation. Yet with nearly seven hours to cover both buildings, I still found myself hard-pressed to meet with every winery I had pre-identified for the afternoon.

Over the course of the afternoon, I delved into some Primitivos, some Zinfandel blends, a handful of Ports, and one or two unsanctioned wines hidden beneath the table. If there were any White Zins on hand, I managed to skillfully avoid them; for the most part, however, the event provided an interminable flow of Zinfandel, Zinfandel, and more Zinfandel.

Several of my previous entries have detailed my perceptions on the challenges of tasting through a single varietal event. My methodology for navigating these events certainly has been laid out extensively. And by now, I’ve described the setting of the pavilions at Fort Mason and my bipedal commute from Pacific Heights ad nauseam. So, rather than risk redundancy, let me list the stations I visited, starting with the newcomers to the Sostevinobile roster.

Santa Rosa’s Carlisle Winery bottles both Zinfandel and an array of Rhône-style wines. Here they poured contrasting Zins, starting with the 2009 Zinfandel Montafi Ranch from the Russian River Valley. This superb wine only slightly eclipsed their 2009 Zinfandel Monte Rosso Vineyard, which, in turn I found slightly better that the still-impressive 2009 Zinfandel Martinelli Road Vineyard. Now recite them all, three times fast…

My readers know that I have been steadily building this wine program for nearly three years. At this stage, I can list three certainties about the wine industry: 1) no one can list all the wine labels being produced on the West Coast (current estimates place this figure at ~8,000 distinct producers); 2) no one can possibly guess how many varietals are being grown here (Sostevinobile has uncovered 147 so far); 3) no one knows every wine venture Nils Venge has his hand in. And so I was quite surprised to see this storied winemaker standing at the table for Cougar’s Leap, a red wine venture out of Rutherford. Today’s tasting provided a cursory insight into the scope of this venture, which is also bottling a Meritage, Petite Sirah and Rosato di Sangiovese; the 2007 Black Rock Zinfandel showed beautifully, while the 2009 vintage struck me as too early to be poured.

My appreciation for the wines from Dendor Patton fell pretty much along the same lines. This Mendocino venture, which lists its business domain as Belchertown, MA (great address for a brewery!), impressed me greatly with their 2007 Wisdom Zinfandel, while the 2009 proved premature.

Lest anyone begin to suspect that the 2008 vintage was somehow missing in action, Haraszthy Family Cellars more than filled in the gap with four distinct bottlings—not surprising when the title bar to their Website reads “Zinfandels and only Zinfandels.” Their pouring progressed from the 2008 Old Vine Zinfandel Lodi to the pleasant 2008 Zinfandel Amador County to the more luxuriant 2008 Zinfandel Sonoma County. The crescendo came from their unannounced 2008 Zinfandel Howell Mountain, a genuine pleasure to sample.

From there, I moved onto a semi-unfamiliar label, Headbanger, a division of Hoffman Family Cellars. As with Dendor Patton and Cougar’s Leap, attendees were presented with non-sequential vintages of their Zins, the definitive 2007 Sonoma County Zinfandel and the aspirant 2009 vintage. Headbanger also offered their 2010 Rock n Rosé of Zinfandel, nice diversion but not a wine worth revisiting.

Headbanger brought to mind last year’s 120 dB pour from Deep Purple, which I unfortunately bypassed, as well as the other rock ’n’ roll label, Sledgehammer (think Peter Gabriel). All jesting aside, this Napa project produced quite an impressive 2007 North Coast Zinfandel. As over the top as these labels may sound, at the opposite end of the spectrum I discovered Predator, the Zinfandel-only label out of Rutherford Ranch’s stable, benignly illustrated with a spotted ladybug on its label. In a rare reversal, I found the 2009 Old Vine Zinfandel from Lodi most distinct, while the 2007 Rutherford Ranch Zinfandel seemed commonplace.

Another highly impressive 2009 came from Mike and Molly Hendry, a label wholly independent from the acclaimed Hendry Ranch Winery run by Mike’s uncle. This offshoot also produced a solid 2009 vintage, the 2009 Zinfandel R. W. Moore Vineyard. There are more offshoots from the Sebastiani clan these day than I enumerate, but, ironically one is not Sebastiani, which is now part of the burgeoning Foley Wine empire. Nonetheless, this current incarnation mildly impressed me with both their 2008 Zinfandel Sonoma Valley and the 2008 Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley.

I had a nice moment visiting with Camille Seghesio, whose mother I had befriended just days before her untimely death. As one of the leading Zinfandel producers whose name does not begin with an “R,” their 2008 Cortina from Dry Creek Valley proved as splendid as ever. Camille’s cousin, Gia Passalacqua, returned to ZAP with her Dancing Lady Wines’ spectacular 2008 Old Vine Zinfandel (I could not muster the same enthusiasm for the 2009 California Zinfandel from her pal Gina Gallo’s Dancing Bull ). Another Seghesio cousin, Rich Passalacqua has consistently dazzled with his lineup of Gia Domella Zins, making equally impressive showings with both the 2007 Estate Zinfandel and the 2008 Estate Zinfandel. Approaching a surreal plane were both his 2008 Reserve Zinfandel Russian Valley and its predecessor, the 2007 Reserve Zinfandel Russian River Valley.

I had not previously encountered Rancho San Miguel Winery from Sonoma, yet found myself extremely pleased with their 2008 Old Vine Zinfandel Starr Rd. Vineyard. On the other hand, the San Joaquin Wine Company from Madera produced a 2007 Green Eyes Zinfandel barely worth the $7 it lists for. Ditto for the overpriced ($11.99) 2006 Howling Moon Zinfandel from ADS Wines of Walnut Creek, a decidedly schizophrenic operation. And Forever Vineyards poured a $9.99 2009 Old Vine Zinfandel that, indeed, may be permanently burnished in the memory in ways they had not intended.

Returning to my genial demeanor, I found much to appreciate in the 2009 Old Vine Zinfandel Sherman Family Vineyards from Lodi’s Fields Family. I was also extremely pleased finally to make it to Manzanita Creek’s table to sample a trio of their wines. while the name alone made me like their lush 2005 Stealth from Alexander Valley, even more compelling were the 2007 Zinfandel Alfonso Old Vines and the 2007 Zinfandel Old Vines Carreras Ranch.

I knew I had tasted with Pech Merle previously, but somehow managed to forget incorporating them in my previous entries. Non è importante—it was more than a pleasure to revisit with Laree Adair Mancour and Bruce Lawton and enter both the 2008 Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley and their impressive 2008 L’Entrée into my Sostevinobile column. Keeping my pre-tasting notes, however, proved a bit more elusive. A glitch in my iPhone somehow relegated my methodical sampling guides to an unknown sector of cyberspace just as I was finishing up with Spenker—a Lodi house producing enviable results with their 2002 Estate Zinfandel and the aptly-named 2008 Rustic Red Zinfandel—and, in my frantic attempts to recreate this road map, I inadvertently overlooked Saldo, Sausal, along with Nils Venge’s home base, Saddleback Cellars.

Despite not having my iPhone to guide me, I did remember to traipse over to review Healdsburg’s Rusina. Here the splendid, acronymic 2007 AXV (for Alexander Valley) presaged the even more appealing 2007 DCV (Dry Creek Valley). Finally, their 2007 Triskelion, echoing the familiar three-legged Sicilian icon, broke up the afternoon’s redundancy with a distinctive blend of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, and Syrah. Nearby, Jeff Cohn crafted not only an excellent organic 2008 Estate Zinfandel for Simoncini but also a dry 2009 Zinfandel Rosé that bore little resemblance to Bob Trinchero’s paltry pink approximation of this wine.

Trinchero does not comprise the only Italian “T” within the California wine realm. Vince Tofanelli, whom I would subsequently visit in Calistoga just to try his Charbono, made a marvelous initial impression, first with his 2007 Estate Zinfandel, then with the superb 2008 Estate Zinfandel. Trione Vineyards, whose various incarnations I have encountered since 1983, held court with their 2008 Home Ranch Zinfandel. Technically, of course, Trentadue is Swiss Italian, but I was nonetheless taken by their 2009 Old Patch Red, an old school blend of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Carignane and Sangiovese. And while Trattore Estate’s Tim Bucher may not be Italian, his pivotal role in the promulgation of Apple’s OSX garners him honorary inclusion among il vero popolo eletto, as we refer to ourselves. Not that his 2009 Estate Zinfandel from Dry Creek Valley wouldn’t warrant major accolades!

Being such an unabashed evangelist for Italian culture and, in particular, Italian varietals grown within Sostevinobile’s radius, I would think certain wineries like Staglin would be ecstatic to have me sample their pertinent bottlings, like the 2008 Stagliano Estate Sangiovese. Similarly, I have long been pestering Bill and Betty Nachbaur to ply me with their 2008 Dolcetto Alegría Vineyards; instead, I had to content myself with Acorn’s nonetheless splendid 2008 Zinfandel Heritage Vines. And although Jerry Baldwin does not produce any wines in the CalItalia category, once I had finished sampling his striking 2008 Zinfandel Dawn Hill Ranch and its preceding vintage, he did pour me a most enjoyable 2008 Rattlesnake Ridge Petite Sirah

I’ve not only indulged in the wonderful Sagrantino and Aglianico Napa’s Benessere crafts, I have even partaken of their little-known Grappa of Trebbiano; their ZAP selection, the 2007 Black Glass Zinfandel, more than held its own with their signature varietals. Another ZAP stalwart, Brown Estate made their customary splash with both the 2009 Zinfandel Napa Valley and the incredible 2009 Zinfandel Chiles Valley. And no matter how many years they pour at this event, Rombauer will always make for a mandatory visit, as both their exceptional 2008 Zinfandel Fiddletown and the quirkily-labeled 2008 Zinfandel North Coast (60% Sierra Foothills, 40% North Coast) readily attested.

Rombauer, of course, is best known as one of the four R’s of Zinfandel. Being that I receive Ridge’s ATP shipments, sampling from their two tables seemed superfluous, given the confines of my schedule. I also chose to bypass Rosenblum, whose fortunes appear to be declining under Diageo’s stewardship, but did partake in a couple of wines from successor Rock Wall: the 2009 Zinfandel Pearl Hart Reserve and the newish 2009 Vive La Rouge, blended from Syrah, Zinfandel and Nebbiolo.

Ravenswood Quarry separated itself from the Ravenswood Sonoma table, where founder Joel Peterson —a fitting acknowledgment from parent company Constellation presided—arguably showed no signs of decline following their acquisition, boasting a phenomenal 2008 Zinfandel Old Hill Vineyard, a single vineyard designate described as Zinfandel “+ mixed Blacks,” and the ever-reliable 2008 Zinfandel Teldeschi Vineyard, a wine blended with Petite Sirah and Carignane. Teldeschi Vineyard’s family stewards, Ray and Lori, appeared once again this afternoon with their Del Carlo label, featuring the 2006 Old Vine Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley and the clearly preferable 2007 vintage of the same. 

Zinfandel seems to thrive in nearly every sector of California. Witness Guglielmo from Morgan Hill, with their respectable 2007 Private Reserve Estate Zinfandel Santa Clara Valley. Marr Cellars of Davis sandwiched two exceptional versions of the grape, the 2007 Old Vine Zinfandel Mattern Ranch and the 2008 Zinfandel Tehama County around a very food friendly 2008 Old Vine Zinfandel Mendocino. Templeton’s Rotta showcased their 2006 Estate Zinfandel Giubbini Vineyard and the 2006 Heritage Zinfandel, a blend of 80% Zinfandel and 20% Primitivo. And from Alexander Valley, Starlite Vineyards produced a 2006 Estate Grown Zinfandel.

One of Lodi’s premier Zinfandel producers, McCay Cellars, featured their two stellar bottlings, the 2007 Jupiter Zinfandel and (this is not a mistyping of Turlock) the 2007 Trulucks Zinfandel. Fiddletown’s Easton excelled with both the 2007 Estate Zinfandel Shenandoah Valley and the 2008 Fiddletown Zinfandel Rinaldi Vineyards. And with a quartet of elegantly crafted wines, Gamba Vineyards certified the Russian River Valley’s rightful place in the Zinfandel pantheon: the 2008 Zinfandel Russian River Valley, their 2008 Estate Old Vine Zinfandel, and the remarkable 2008 Old Vine Zinfandel Moratto Vineyard, as well as a preview release of their 2009 bottling.

Austin Hope’s Candor label came through, as per usual, with an intriguing non-vintage selection, their Lot 2 Zinfandel, blended from both Lodi and Paso Robles grapes. Lake County’s Gregory Graham demonstrated his virtuosity with the interminably-named 2007 Cluster Select Sweet Zinfandel Crimson Hill Vineyard. Vineburg’s cacuminal Gundlach Bundschu offered their affable 2008 Zinfandel Sonoma County, while Healdsburg’s Sapphire Hill seemed downright whimsical in their nomenclature for both the 2008 Zinfandel Winberrie Vineyard and their impressive 2006 Zinfandel Porky’s Patch.

Th-th-th-th-That’s all, Folks! Or so I would wish, having some 20 more wineries to cite. Several tried and true friends from my two decades of attending this event warranted quick visits as I passed by their tables. Harney Lane lent considerable credence to the acclaim for Lodi’s Zins with their 2008 Old Vine Zinfandel Lizzie James Vineyard, as well as the unpretentious 2008 Lodi Zinfandel. Similarly, Lava Cap helped consolidate the Sierra Foothills burgeoning reputation for this varietal with three solid bottlings: the 2008 Zinfandel Rocky Draw, their 2008 Zinfandel Spring House, and the standout 2008 Reserve Zinfandel. I know Skip Granger probably has still not forgiven me for eschewing tasting every one of Starry Night’s selections but I was favorably impressed with the two I did sample, their final 2006 Zinfandel Tom Feeney Ranch and the 2007 Old Vine Zinfandel Nervo Station, before I moved onto other stations I needed to cover.

Rockpile pioneers Mauritson brought out their big guns with the 2009 Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley, the 2009 Jack’s Cabin Zinfandel, and the masterful 2009 Rockpile Ridge Zinfandel. ZAP’s co-founder Prof. Jerry Seps manifested his Storybook Mountain Vineyards’ considerable pedigree with both the 2008 Mayacamas Ridge Estate Zinfandel and the 2007 Estate Antæus, a superior mélange of 57% Zinfandel, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Petit Verdot, and 6% Merlot. Julie Johnson’s Tres Sabores poured a similar blend, the 2008 ¿Por qué no? (Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah) and her excellent 2008 Rutherford Estate Zinfandel.

I bypassed both vintages of their Willow Creek Farm Zinfandel in favor of the 2008 Dimples Proulx poured, an evenly-balanced mix of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, and Syrah in true Paso Robles style. Another Central Coast operation, Hearthstone Vineyards, made a nice ZAP debut with their 2007 Zinfandel Paso Robles. And Paso Robles Zin specialists Peachy Canyon prominently poured their 2008 Mustang Springs Zinfandel, as well as two confidently-named bottlings, the 2008 Vortex Zinfandel and the 2008 Especial Zinfandel.

Despite Sostevinobile’s frequent disparagements, the large conglomerates sometimes do manage to produce memorable wines, like the 2007 Zinfandel Paso Robles from Constellation’s Paso Creek. Likewise, Terlato Wines2007 The Federalist, a single-bottling endeavor, provided a nicely approachable Zin, even though their costumes and antics seemed totally affected (ever since Randall Grahm sold his over-the-top Cardinal Zin, someone has always been trying to usurp his aplomb). And hard as it may be for me to admit, the 800-lb. gorilla in the room, Bronco, managed to preserve the quality and integrity of Red Truck’s organic offering, the 2008 Green Truck Zinfandel.

Of course, these mass producers will inevitably bottle their vintages, too, like the 2007 The Fiddler Zinfandel from Masked Rider (Bronco) and the nadir of Twisted’s unpalatable 2008 Old Vine Zinfandel (Delicato).

20 Years of Zinspiration marked what may well be the annual devolution of the Grand Zinfandel Tasting into something more manageable for attendees and more viable for wineries. If participation continues to contract, the event could easily revert to occupying a single pavilion, as it had in earlier days; certainly, a number of the wineries at this event would be better served tinkering with their œnology before considering a return here. As always, there were extraordinary wines on hand, but the proliferation of mediocre bottlings seemed far more evident than ever before.
Usually, I like to wrap up my posts here on an upbeat note, but, alas, the last word in Zin this afternoon, the 2009 Lodi Zinfandel from Zynthesis tasted as absurd as its name. Zometimez, that’z juzt the way the ball bounzez!

All wine trails lead to San Francisco

Your West Coast Oenophile is back in full swing on the wine circuit. This has nothing to do with my internist giving me the all clear on my liver tests (an annual ritual mandated by my need for daily statins); building the wine program for Sostevinobile remains an inexorable labor of love.

I’ll review ZAP’s 20th Annual Grand Zinfandel Tasting in my subsequent column. Sandwiched between this behemoth were two intimate, trade-only events in San Francisco, on winter days that strove to compensate the local populace for our Summer of 2010 that never happened. Fittingly, the first of these tastings transplanted itself from the undemarcated reception area adjoining One Market (San Francisco’s only top-tier restaurant that eschews imports among the 400+ selections on their awarded-winning wine list) to one of summertime’s more dazzling settings on the Bay, the St. Francis Yacht Club.

In Vino Unitas creates an alliance of prominent wineries, predominantly from Napa, that sell their wares directly to purchasers in California. I’ve had the pleasure of visiting with nearly all of these winemakers on numerous occasions, and so beelined directly to the table for Quill, a newcomer both to Sostevinobile and to this event. I wish owner Shana Graham had brought her 2007 Viognier Stagecoach Vineyard (Ridge has got me on a serious Viognier quest these days), but I was quite content to taste my way through her Syrah and array of Cabernets. Her exquisite 2007 Bismarck Ranch Syrah from Sonoma Valley could hardly have been said to have left me with a sinking feeling while two separate vintages each highlighted the distinct differences in Napa’s sub-AVAs. I could not pick a favorite between the 2006 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2007 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon, but think the 2007 Diamond Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon edged out its predecessor (though the 2006 did portend to open up more in a few years).

I suppose the obsolescence of the quill as a writing instrument makes it a quaint name for a label. By extension, one wonders whether the rise of the iPad will spur labels like Ballpoint or Biro once penmanship has totally been obviated! No matter, this virtuoso winery made for a great discovery on a sun-drenched afternoon.

Other wineries new to In Vino Unitas included Jericho Canyon, which comported themselves admirably with three selections: an appealing 2009 Sauvignon Blanc, the 2006 Creek Block Cabernet Sauvignon, and their standout 2006 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. Chase Cellars also made their first appearance here with a Zin-focused lineup. I enjoyed both the 2006 Hayne Valley Zinfandel and, in particular, the jamminess of the 2007 Hayne Valley Zinfandel, but the fruity 2009 Rosé of Zinfandel left me rather indifferent.

The third newcomer this afternoon was a longtime familiar label, Mendocino’s Navarro, though I had not previously met owner Deborah Cahn. With nine wines to work through, we easily made up for this oversight and had become old acquaintances by the time I had finished! Her first pour, the 2008 Estate Gewürztraminer, defied usual expectations, revealing an dry, clean interpretation of the varietal, devoid of sweetness and demanding a food complement. The 2008 Première Reserve Chardonnay proved an amiable wine, while the 2009 Estate Muscat Blanc professed a dryness not unlike the Gewürz.

We moved onto Deborah’s reds, starting with the 2007 Pinot Noir Méthode à l’Ancienne, a wine that reflected the across-the-board excellence of this vintage in Anderson Valley. The 2008 Navarrouge, a wine salvaged from the smoke infusion that stymied the Pinot crop in Anderson Valley and nearby parts of Sonoma following the summer’s wildfires, made for an oddly appropriate wine to pair with lox. Navarro rebounded, however, with a superb 2007 Zinfandel Mendocino, a highlight of the afternoon.

Atypically, we swung back to white for a side-by-side comparison of Deborah’s two Rieslings. Again, the 2009 Dry Riesling Anderson Valley held its own with her other dry vintages, while the 2007 Cluster Select Late Harvest Riesling seemed almost ætherial. From there, I moved onto the more succinct display from my old friends at Gargiulo Vineyards. Neither Jeff nor April were on hand this time round, but I nonetheless enjoyed their ever-evolving expression of their signature Sangiovese, the 2007 Aprile. I don’t recall having previously sampled their Cabernets, but the OVX G Major 7 Cabernet Sauvignon was quite delectable while the 2007 Money Road Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon tasted as expensive as it sounds.

Now if only Gemstone had nine wines to pour! Alas, I had to content myself with the wonderful 2006 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon and 2007 Facets of Gemstone, then finalize this brief interlude with the utterly superb 2007 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. No paucity of selections, however, could be found at the Far Niente table, with its twin sister Nickel & Nickel, along with single-release satellites Dolce and EnRoute. I discovered an equal fondness for Nickel & Nickel’s 2009 Chardonnay Searby Vineyard and Far Niente’s 2009 Estate Bottle Chardonnay.

There was much to admire in the 2007 Harris Vineyard Merlot (Nickel & Nickel), but not surprisingly, their selection of Cabernets dominated. Nickel & Nickel’s 2007 John C. Sullenger Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon leaped exuberantly out the bottle, while the more subdued 2007 Vogt Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon displayed the reticence of a wine that will not fully express itself until 2015. The development of the 2008 Far Niente Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Bottled was presaged by the ripe maturity of the 2004 vintage, drinking now at its peak.

As I have in years past, I immensely enjoyed the 2006 Dolce, a Sauternes-style wine Far Niente bottles exclusively under this separate label. EnRoute, their new entry in the mix, debuted with a likable if young 2009 Les Pommiers, a blend of organically farmed Pinot Noir grapes from their vineyards in Green Valley and the Russian River AVA.

Moving forward, it is always a pleasure to visit with Matt Buoncristiani and sample portfolio of his wines. Here I was impressed with another Rhône expression, the 2008 Gemello Viognier. In the same vein, the 2007 Artistico was a splendid expression of Napa Valley Syrah. This venture from four brothers excelled, however, with both their 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon and the premium 2007 The Core Cabernet Sauvignon, despite these wines tasting at least seven years away attaining from peak maturity.

Similarly, Ehlers Estate offered a small selection of their Napa Valley wines, starting with the somewhat clawing 2009 Estate Sauvignon Blanc. Far more appealing were their red bottlings: the 2007 Estate Merlot, the 2007 Ehlers Estate One Twenty Over Eighty and, in particular, the 2007 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1886. Their exclusive focus of Larkmead lent itself to a four-year vertical tasting of the Cabernet Sauvignon Larkmead Vineyard. The 2008 vintage inevitably tasted a bit too young, while the 2005 clearly soared. Both the 2006 and 2007 fell squarely in between the two.

Just next to them, Krupp Brothers made an impressive statement with their array of Wild West-themed wines, starting with the 2007 Black Bart’s Bride, a mélange of Marsanne, Viognier, and Chardonnay. More compelling, however, was their Black Bart Syrah, and the 2007 Synchrony Stagecoach Vineya
, a Bordeaux blend focused on Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. The 2006 Veraison Cabernet Sauvignon represented a more traditional Left Bank-style Cab while the proprietary 2007 The Doctor offered a proprietary blend of 33% Merlot, 31% Tempranillo, 23% Malbec, 13% Cabernet Sauvignon.

Both Heitz Cellar and Grgich Hills have historical ties to the 1976 Judgment of Paris tasting that put California on the world wine map, so it was little trouble to wade my way through the extensive inventory they had on hand. Grgich offered eight different wines, starting with the 2008 Estate Fumé Blanc and 2008 Estate Chardonnay, a wine I would have anticipated to be more compelling, given Miljenko Grgich’s pivotal role as winemaker for Château Montelena, which garnered first in the white wine competition. More impressive were his 2007 Estate Zinfandel and 2006 Estate Merlot.

Much closer to my expectation was the 2006 Estate Chardonnay Carneros Selection, a wine on par with Grgich’s 2006 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2005 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Yountville Selection. The standout this afternoon, however, proved to be the uxorial 2008 Violetta, a late harvest blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and Gewürztraminer.

Heitz Cellar stands as a singular winery, famed for its Cabernet Sauvignon and as one of the very few producers of Grignolino on the West Coast. Admittedly, I was somewhat tepid about the 2009 Sauvignon Blanc and the 2008 Chardonnay they poured at In Vino Unitas, but quickly warmed to their 2007 Zinfandel. Their quartet of Cabernets, all from 2005, impressed me incrementally with each bottling I sampled, starting with the generic 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Bella Oaks Vineyard seemed even better, while the 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Trailside Vineyard completely allured me. At last, the famed 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Martha’s Vineyard simply overwhelmed and garnered the rare Sostevinobile accolade: .

Heitz concluded its presentation with a non-vintage dessert wine called Ink Grade Port, made from Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Souzão, Tinta Cão, Tinta Bairrada, Tinta Madeira, Tinta Amarela, and Bastardo (all I can say is, “loved the wine but thank heavens for Cut & Paste”)! A more modestly structured but equally enjoyable Port-style wine came from the Löwenbräu of wineries, Meyer Family Cellars, with their superb Old-Vine Zinfandel Port, also non-vintage. Similarly, I very much liked their 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Bonnie’s Vineyard from Oakville, but wish I had passed on their inaugural 2006 Yorkville Highlands Syrah.

Like Meyer, Yorba heralds from outside of Napa. Here the varietals typified the diversity of Amador County, starting with their 2006 Zinfandel and a delightful 2006 Syrah.Their 2007 Tempranillo represented a straightforward expression of the grape, while their eclectic 2007 Shake Ridge Red combined Syrah, Petite Sirah, Malbec, Merlot, Mourvèdre, and Primitivo.

Apart from Gargiulo, Yorba featured the only other Italian varietal of the afternoon, their tangy 2007 Barbera. As I often them, Testarossa ought to try their hand at CalItalia bottlings, but nonetheless seem content to focus on Burgundian-style wines. Of their three Chardonnays, I distinctly preferred the 2009 Chardonnay Sierra Madre Vineyard to the quite competent 2009 Chardonnay Santa Barbara County and the 2009 Chardonnay Santa Lucia Highlands. Given their youth, I found both the 2009 Pinot Noir Santa Barbara County and the 2009 Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands too premature to assess.

When all was said and done, this year’s In Vino U
proved a most delightful event, one I hope will continue to be held at the St. Francis Yacht Club. After all, their co-occupants on the breakwater, Larry Ellison’s Golden Gate Yacht Club, will be sponsoring quite the yachting spectacle some 24 months from now. Imagine that as a backdrop to a wine tasting!

Several days after ZAP, the Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers Association held their first trade tasting of the season at the always well-appointed Farallon. I like to think this sumptuously catered affair was meant to atone for last year’s gathering at the Professional Culinary Institute in Campbell. Not that it had been a bad event or venue, but still, compelling attendees to stroll alongside the picture windows overlooking the school’s culinary lab and gaze upon their gastronomic marvels while we had to content ourselves with Monterey Jack and slices of celery constituted pure torture. 

This afternoon, the Farallon staff generously circulated wedges of fried wonton topped with slabs of sushi-grade Ahi as professionals and poseurs alike sipped through an array of newly-released wines. Feeling quite sated, I commenced my wine explorations by regaling in the gustatory delights of Regale, a new participant in this group. Befittingly, they pulled out all the stops, serving up nine of their wines, starting strongly with their 2007 Barbera El Dorado County. I cottoned as readily to their 2007 Sangiovese Napa Valley before sampling their notably restrained 2006 Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley. As has often been the case, I enjoyed their 2007 Pinot Noir O’Neel Vineyards, then found myself as enthused by the 2008 vintage. The more broadly focused 2008 Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast seemed less developed than these other two, and it certainly would have been more telling if they had poured their 2007 Estate Pinot Noir (actually, it seemed odd that none of the wines they showcased were Santa Cruz-grown).

Regale finished with their Bordelaise selections, a nice but undramatic 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon, with a similar results for its subsequent vintage, while the 2006 Cabernet Franc portended to brandish its true potential 2- 3 years from now. In the same fashion, Santa Cruz-based MJA Vineyards chose to pour only its Napa-grown wines, bottled under two separate labels. I preferred the 2007 Serene Cellars Carneros to the 2008 Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley, while the 2006 DaVine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon outpointed the 2006 Serene Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon. While apparently sourced from different vineyards than before, the 2005 Serene Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon tasted roughly equivalent to its successor.

Lest one begin to think the fruit of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA not compare with the Napa crops, the estate grown wines from Beauregard proved to be more than well-regarded. Its two vineyards in the Ben Lomond Mountain sub-AVA offered four contrasting yet equally wondrous Burgundian wines: the 2007 Estate Chardonnay Santa Cruz Mountains and its apposite, the 2007 Estate Chardonnay Bald Mountain Vineyard, along with their red counterparts, the 2007 Estate Pinot Noir Santa Cruz Mountains and the 2007 Estate Pinot Noir Bald Mountain Vineyard.

I have never seen Picchetti at a trade tasting, but Cupertino’s other Monte Bello Road wineries showed up in full regalia. First up, my friend Don Naumann showed off his customary wines, with a delicious 2008 Chardonnay and a truly delightful 2006 Estate Merlot. Though quite good, his 2007 Estate Merlot still struck me as young, but his superb 2007 Late Harvest Semi-Sweet Merlot proved a wondrous addition to his lineup. From across the street, the good folks at Ridge made quite an impressive appearance, pouring their sturdy 2008 Ridge Lytton Springs, a strik
ing yet hitherto unfamiliar 2008 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon and the absolutely riveting 2007 Monte Bello, unquestionably worthy of a .

My friend Michael Martella pulled double-duty this afternoon, fronting both his eponymous label and Thomas Fogarty, where he serves as winemaker. His own 2009 Monterey Sauvignon Blanc showed quite likably, while he excelled with his red selections: the 2007 Fiddletown Grenache, his 2007 Hammer Syrah, and the exceptional 2007 Heart Arrow Petite Sirah. From the Fogarty label, he poured a forward 2007 Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay and the 2008 Monterey Gewürztraminer, alongside a somewhat fruity 2008 Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir. I quite enjoyed the 2005 Lexington, a mélange of 49% Cab. Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, and 21% Cabernet Franc, while totally relishing the 2006 Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet Franc.

Another exceptional take on this varietal came from Cinnabar, whose 2007 Cabernet Franc rivaled the appeal of their 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon in complexity. Similarly, their 2007 Merlot proved quite strong while their 2008 Mercury Rising was particularly affordable for a Bordeaux blend of similar quality. La Honda Winery’s Ken Wornick chaired this year’s tasting, but still managed to serve up his wines this afternoon, starting with the 2009 Exponent, a deft blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache and Sangiovese. On the more traditional front, I immensely enjoyed his 2008 Salinian Block Cabernet Sauvignon and the exceptional 2007 Naylor’s Dry Hole Cabernet Sauvignon.

Two Clos for comfort—if not wondrous wines! The ever-unassuming Clos Títa managed once again to impress me with their beautiful Bordeaux blend, the 2006 Gironde, as well as their proprietary of Syrah, Merlot and Viognier, the 2007 La Sierra Azul. Meanwhile, Clos La Chance made an impressive showing with their 2007 Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay, the 2007 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, and an exceptional 2007 Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir.

The Santa Cruz Mountains AVA is, of course, acclaimed for its Pinot Noir, so the Pinot-only focus of Heart o’ the Mountain comes as now surprise. Certainly their 2007 Estate Pinot Noir put them on par with Clos LaChance’s efforts, while their 2008 vintage fell a notch below. And although they also bottle Pinot, Big Basin elected to represent themselves with four different Syrahs, the 2006 Rattlesnake Rock Syrah, the 2007 Fairview Road Ranch Syrah, a sand-free 2007 Mandala Syrah, and their standout, the 2007 Homestead Syrah. Sonnet Wine Cellars also focuses on this varietal only, with a quartet distinct vineyards in different AVAs. Of the four, I particularly liked their 2008 Pinot Noir Tondrē’s Grapefield (Santa Lucia Highlands) and the 2007 Pinot Noir Mums Vineyard (Santa Cruz Mountains).

While they also bottle Pinot, Big Basin elected to represent themselves with four different Syrahs, the 2006 Rattlesnake Rock Syrah, the 2007 Fairview Road Ranch Syrah, a sand-free 2007 Mandala Syrah, and their standout, the 2007 Homestead Syrah. And though Kathryn Kennedy Winery originally staked its claim as a Cabernet-only endeavor, her heirs now release an organically-grown 2009 Sauvignon Blanc. While the 2000 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon served this afternoon seemed focused more on nostalgia, the 2006 Estate Cabernet Estate Cabernet certainly paid tribute to her legacy. 

No Santa Cruz tasting would be complete without Bonny Doon, a winery known for never sitting on its laurels. I bypassed both Le Cigares and settled for the 2009 Ca’ del Solo Albariño and their new 2009 Contra, a Carignane rounded with Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah, Petite Sirah, and Zinfandel. No need to winnow my sele
ctions with Martin Ranch Winery, who quietly presented their 2006 J. D. Hurley Merlot and 2006 Dos Rios Cabernet Sauvignon.

Saratoga got to call itself Saratoga, after the famed hot springs in upstate New York, only because the speaker at Calistoga’s christening screwed up and pronounced this to be “the Calistoga of Sarafornia!” Nonetheless, two of Saratoga’s more prominent wineries, along with Kathryn Kennedy, were on hand for this tasting. Chavannah-Sanelle—I mean, Savannah-Chanelle, poured an array of their wines, including their 2007 Estate Zinfandel and noteworthy 2007 Estate Cabernet Franc. I liked the 2007 Coastview Vineyards Syrah, though found it a bit floral, while the 2007 Monmatre, a Zinfandel/Carignane/Cabernet Franc blend, tasted too acidic for my liking. Cooper-Garrod (not Gooper-Carrod or some other syncretic twist) offered a range of wines, which I commenced sampling with the 2009 Estate Viognier. I was copacetic with the 2006 Estate Syrah, as well, but relished to the 2005 Test Pilot F-16, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. Their varietal 2006 Estate Cabernet Franc, however, proved simply outstanding.

Every county in California apparently contains a municipality with its same nomenclature. Similarly, each AVA contains a winery named the wine region that encompasses it. Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard grows a number of well-structured, if not familiar varietals, but I opted to focus on the Iberian-style wines it produces under its Quinta Cruz label. Their 2008 Tempranillo was certainly a pleasant enough wine, while the 2008 Graciano proved truly outstanding. So, too, was the 2007 Touriga, a blend of both Touriga Nacional and Touriga Francesa. Even more diverse were the wines from River Run, a Watsonville winery. I did appreciate their organic 2008 Chardonnay Mountanos Vineyard and the atypical 2009 Rosé of Carignane, as well as their 2008 Côte d’Aromas that blended of Syrah, Mourvèdre, Carignane, Viognier, and Grenache. More telling was the 2007 Carignane Wirz Vineyards and the wondrous 2008 Négrette San Benito County.

His organically-grown grapes mean that I frequently encounter Jerold O’Brien’s Silver Mountain Vineyards at CCOF and other interrelated tastings. With time pressing, I limited myself to his superb 2006 Syrah and a retasting of the 2004 Alloy, his signature Bordeaux blend. Despite the waning minutes, I should have tried all four wines Storrs Winery poured, but leapfrogged over to their 2008 Central Coast Grenache. Thankfully, I did not miss out on the new release of their phenomenal 2007 Pinot Noir Christie Vineyard.

I keep waiting to hear that Press Club has closed its cooperative satellite tasting room near Yerba Buena Gardens, so it seemed fitting that I close out the tasting with Mount Eden, one of the six stations still pouring in their subterranean cavern. As with Silver Mountain, the frequency with which I have sampled their wines at other events led me to limit myself to their 2009 Wolff Vineyard Chardonnay and the equally impressive 2007 Saratoga Cuvée Chardonnay. And with that, I rested, knowing I had to brace myself for a squash match in just a few hours.

I had hoped to file my 2011 entries here in a more timely fashion, but the demands of sewing up the financing for Sostevinobile have taken center stage as of late. Admit it, though—wouldn’t you rather be tasting all these marvelous wines at our bar, rather than just reading about them? E-mail me a buona fortuna, and I’ll put you on the guest list for our Grand Opening!

Vous devez me croire!

C’est vrai—était une ruse toujours! Les vins de la France sont très supérieurs. Votre Oenophile de la Côte Ouest préfère ces vins mieux! Sostevinobile ni n’achètera ni servira les vins de la Californie ou Oregon ou Washington!

The sun has shone brightly the past few days in San Francisco. Afternoon temperatures have hovered near 70°F. Yours truly has been cycling about town in shorts and reveling in the glories of spring at last! Merde! It’s barely February! Months before I can launch my April Fool’s Joke!

And so, my loyal readers, future patrons and the 2,300+ West Coast wineries Sostevinobile has attracted to our dedicated wine program can breathe a sigh of relief—dissuading us from our viticultural predilection is as likely to succeed as Scientology’s attempts to deprogram its homosexual adherents. Nonetheless, I was willing to put my palate to the test this past Friday.

The good folks at Balzac Communications periodically find reason to include me in their wide-ranging wine tastings, regardless of my adamant exclusion of imported wines, and so I was happy to join them for the 2008 Vintage Tasting from the Union des Grand Crus de Bordeaux (UGCB). This French-based trade organization represents “the finest vignerons of the Châteaux of Bordeaux, a claim that first requires a bit of explication.

The wines on hand this afternoon were not of the echelon Nicolas Sarkozy might break out for a state dinner with the Punahou Kid. No Premiers Crus, no Chåteau Pétrus nor Le Pin nor Cheval Blanc. And certainly not Château d’Yquem! Instead, UGCB presented around half of Bordeaux’s Deuxièmes Crus houses, along with a broad selection of Third, Fourth and Fifth Growth wines, as well as (I assume) an indeterminate number of unclassified vineyards. In baseball terms, this was more like watching the Milwaukee Brewers battle the Kansas City Royals than a marquée matchup between the Yankees and Red Sox.

Secondly, I understand that 2008 seems to have been one of Bordeaux’s weaker vintages (while 2009 has already been crowned the vintage of the century). But even with these caveats, I would have expected to find an array of decent, if not impressive, wines among the 88 Châteaux (plus ten Sauternes producers) on hand. I came with an open mind; I left disillusioned.

Being a virtual neophyte in this arena, I endeavored to sample at least two wineries from each of the 12 Appellations d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) represented here. Graves and its sub-appellation Pessac-Léognan both featured a white Bordeaux (Sauvignon Blanc) and a Cabernet Sauvignon-focused red; those wines I sampled seemed passable, if not comparable to a mid-range Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. Both Château Haut-Bergey and Château Larriver-Haut-Brion, a property of Premier Cru icon Château Haut-Brion, mildly impressed with their understated reds.

Like most Californiaphiles, I generally to prefer Cabs to Merlot, but, in Bordeaux, the bane of Miles Raymond proves the superior varietal more often than not. Saint-Émilion and its neighbor, Pomerol, command astronomic prices for Merlot-dominant blends like Château Ausone; appropriately, the se
cond tier wines I sampled from both these appellations like Château La Gaffelière and Château Larmande (St. Émilion), along with Château La Conseillante and Château Gazin (Pomerol), served up highly amiable wines for the most part. Still, many of the other Châteaux struck me as quite lackluster.

Now I’m as likely to be able to distinguish Listrac-Médoc from Moulis-in-Médoc from Haut-Médoc from Médoc itself as I can tell a North Ossetian dialect from South Ossetian. Nonetheless, the wines of these quaternary Left Bank stepchildren proved perfunctory, at best. Admittedly, I did like the Château Greysac, but the rest seemed watery spins on Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine pumped after 60 days in barrel and diluted with just enough Tokay to retain its varietal labeling (and I say that wanting to like a winery called Château Chasse-Spleen)!

Even a neophyte who could pass Bordeaux 101 would have a reasonable appreciation for Margaux, yet despite having three Deuxième
houses on hand, these Cabernet Sauvignons proved extraordinarily tenuous. Château Dauzac and Château Durfort Vivens may have been moderately impressive, but the others I sampled seemed eminently forgettable.

At every tasting I attend, there is a coterie of regularssome poseurs, others true professionals. In the latter category, I am usually happy to exchange tasting notes with folks like Walter Vornbrock, a fellow wine veteran from the early 1980s, Susan Darwin, and Rock Wall investor Dave Roberts and his wife Barb. Among this circle, there seemed to be a consensus favoring the Saint-Julien AOC, yet I found these wines almost devoid of flavor, even the much-heralded Langoa-Barton and
Léoville-Barton. Equally unimpressive were the houses from Pauillac, a tongue-twister of a name that illustrates the errant orthography of the French tongue (as oppose to the truer fidelity to the root Latin Italian offers). My notes describe Château
Langoa Barton as “underwhelming,” while I pithily called Château
Branaire-Ducru “Twelve Buck Chuck.”

A final Left Bank AOC, Saint-Estèphe, proved decidely mixed, ranging from Château Lafon-Rochet, which my notes list as rien,” to the intriguing Cabernet Sauvignon of Château Phélan-Ségur. Still, nothing disparaging could be said of the twin dessert appellations, Sauternes and Barsac. These ultrasweet, botrytis-laden wines proved every bit as wondrous as their advance billings, particularly the Sauternes-Barsac Premier Cru Château Coutet and Sauternes Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey (try saying that after four hours of sampling).

At the end of the day, however, nothing convinced me that I was shortchanging my future clientele with Sostevinobile’s West Coast-only wine program. Despite considerable accolades from Château Potelle’s Jean-Noel Fourmeaux du Sartel, whose subjectivity here may be understandable, these wines seemed quite pedestrian overall. The excuse of 2008 being a mediocre vintage strikes me as derelict—even the worst vintages from the broad regions along the north Pacific consistently manage to produce exceptions, wines from growers and vintners who still deploy enough craft and légerdemain to create a special bottling.

The best wines I tasted this afternoon reminded me of wineries like Clos du Val or L’Aventure, California ventures that emulate the restraint of French vinification and focus on terroir yet still maintain a fidelity to the particularities of both the climate and preferences of our region. Far too many of this tasting’s wines, however, seemed drearily monodimensional, if not flavorless.

This is not a scurrilous claim on my part. As with abstract art or minimalist music, I am highly attuned to the conventions of the genre; even within the context of Bordeaux œnology, these wines fell short. In turn, this gives rise to Sostevinobile’s contention sheer lassitude and a reliance on customers’ lack of familiarity mark the restaurants and sommeliers who contend that local wines fail to stand up to pairing with local cuisine. Diligent efforts to explore the bounty of wines and varietals produced within the three West Coast states will almost assuredly yield an array of wines that can complement the intricacies of our cuisine and yet still manage to impart enough flavor to be enjoyed on their own merits.

Few wine critics would quarrel with my assertion that the vast majority of Italian wines, apart
from the recent Super Tuscan blends, function properly without food pairing. Not that these wines lack style or character—they’re simply too astringent to be quaffed alone. On the other hand, these Bordelaise bottlings aren’t crafted to enhance the virtues of an entrée. Rather, their pallid composition and lack of distinguishing flavor belies a more incendiary indictment—that without the complement of food, these wines simply cannot stand on their own.