Categories
Abouriou Cabernet Sauvignon Charbono Cinsault Gamay Noir Grenache Malbec Marsanne Merlot Mourvèdre Petit Verdot Petite Sirah Pinot Gris Pinot Noir Roussanne Sangiovese Sauvignon Blanc Syrah Viognier Zinfandel

Potpourri or po’ poor me?

Your West Coast Oenophile ought to be making preparations right now for the most important mid-March holiday, Festà di San Giùseppe—The Feast of St. Joseph, patron saint of Italy, on the 19th. Yes, I know the beer world had its major observance a couple of days ago, but let’s just say Sostevinobile wears its true green 365¼ days a year and leave matters at that.

The truth is, I may not be able even to break out the grappa and celebrate on this Saturday. I have been swamped since January, not just with this blog but with high-level fundraising efforts and with more wine events than I can enumerate. To quote the late Warren Zevon, “poor, poor, pitiful me!” And so I am woefully behind in the installments I have promise to post here; therefore, in the interest of (vainly) essaying to catch up, let me try to condense many of my lingering February reports in potpourri fashion.

Il racconto del pavone bianco

Every now and then, I find myself feeling confined inside San Francisco and schedule a trip to someplace in the wine country, ostensibly on behalf of Sostevinobile, though, in truth, it’s simply a more of a need to decompress. And so, under the pretext of having to attend the Cheers! to Taste! monthly soirée, I headed up to Napa to visit with and sample a few wineries ahead of time.

First up, as I was scheduled to attend an event at his daughter’s acclaimed restaurant Ame in San Francisco the coming weekend, I made a quick stopover at Carl Doumani’s Quixote to visit with Anne White and taste my way through their recent releases. Given Carl’s iconoclastic nature, he rounded out his superb 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon with 12% Syrah, a rarity in Napa. As he had with Stags’ Leap Winery, the estate next door he had formerly owned, Carl’s singular focus on Petite Sirah paid off handsomely with his 2004 Quixote but truly blossomed in the 2008 Quixote Anne inadvertently opened. The only letdown here was with the 2005 Panza, another incredible wine; sadly, just before they realized how good this wine would become, they decided to uproot the Grenache and Mourvèdre vines from which it had been vinted and replant them with Syrah. So much for foresight!

I had wanted to visit with Carl’s other neighbor, Shafer, a winery I have long hoped to tour, but Doug Shafer informed me they were booked for the afternoon. Still, as I passed by the farm that abuts both these vineyards, I heard a cacophonous screeching off to my left. Recognizing the trademark caw of the regal Indian phasianid, I stopped the car and got out, only to be greeted by the pavone bianco—a rare albino peacock!—its lustrous, monochromatic plumage fully spread like the spokes of an enormous white wheel. The sight was beyond breathtaking—I could have stayed and watched for hours.

I finally managed to pry myself away, wondering whether any of the
wines I would be tasting could match the magnificence of this spectacle. Fortunately, my fears were soon allayed. I drove Silverado all the way up to Calistoga, then crisscrossed through downtown to locate the vineyard estate of Envy, where I had scheduled to met Vince Tofanelli, who crafts his wines in their barrel room. A relatively modest endeavor, Tofanelli bottles only Zinfandel and Charbono grown on his organic Tofanelli & DiGiulio Ranch, which also produces Sauvignon Musqué, Sémillon, Petite Sirah, Carignane, Grenache, Mondeuse Noire, and Cinsault. I had already tried Vince’s 2008 Zinfandel, so he took me through barrel tastings of the 2009 Zinfandel and the 2009 Charbono, a wine that portends to become quite intriguing over the next 4-5 years.

Tofanelli’s vineyard lies right beside Paoletti, the Calistoga winery next up on my agendum for the day. But before I headed over there to meet with winemaker Gabriella Gazzano, I was not about to bypass the opportunity to taste my way through Envy’s offerings. This joint venture brings together the impressive viticultural talents of Mark Carter, whose famed Restaurant 301 in Eureka may be the only restaurant in America with more wine selections than local inhabitants, and the previously heralded Nils Venge (the NV in Envy).

Tasting Room Manager Phillip Murphy led me through his entire lineup, an quartet of wines with nary a miss. we started off with the lone white selection, the crisp 2009 Sauvignon Blanc before Phillip poured another Napa contrarian, the 2008 Bee Bee’s Blend, a mélange of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Petite Sirah. Individually, both the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2008 Petite Sirah showed highly compelling wines, and I gather there was no varietal Merlot for comparison.

After that, things got interesting, as we worked our way through Mark Carter’s own label (which accounts for ~.35% of the selections at Restaurant 301). First up was his in-house wine, the 2008 Table 5 Meritage. Similarly, the 2008 Hossfeld Coliseum Red Blend married Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot in an extraordinary composite. I very much liked the 2008 Revilo Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon but relished the 2008 Coliseum Block Cabernet Sauvignon even more. Keeping pace with this wine was the 2008 Truchard Vineyard Merlotand I suspect I would have been just as effusive about 2008 Coliseum Block Beckstoffer To Kalon Cabernet Sauvignon, had I been able to try it! Last but not least, we delved into the 2007 The Archer, a Grenache with 5% Syrah bottled by artist Ruby Kurant under her eponymous label.

With that, I headed back over to Silverado to explore the wine caves and cellar at Paoletti, arriving at the same time as Gabriella, who doubles as winemaker for her own Rielle label in Petaluma (I would try these wines a week later at the Pacific Orchid Exposition Benefit). We started off with the 2009 Fiora Rosa d’Amore, a rosato of 31% Sangiovese, 64% Syrah, 5% Cinsault, and 2% Grenache. From there we segued. quite logically, to the 2008 Fiore Sangiovese before sampling the 2008 Bella Novello, an impressive Cabernet Sauvignon despite its syntactical incongruity. The pièce de résistance, the exquisite 2007 Nero d’Avola, one of only four bottlings of this varietal I have found in California.

After a quick tour of the caves and original sculptures Gianni had commissioned, I headed down to St. Helena for Cheers! to Taste! Usually this social takes place at a specific venue or winery, like Rubicon Estate. This time, however, the organizers tried to create a facsimile of the summertime Cheers! St Helena party, and, frankly, it proved too chaotic to attempt anything except simply to indulge in the moment and enjoy the camaraderie of the dedicated winery workers whom this group supports. Little on the program matched where the listed wineries actually were pouring, but no matter. I had sampled nearly everyone recently, except for Schweiger Vineyards, a winery I would cover more extensively a couple of weeks later at the Spring Mountain Open House.

even though I had indulged in a number of wines and hors d’œuvres at participating venues along Main Street, I still had room for an obligatory order of Onion Rings at Taylor’s Refresher before heading back to San Francisco. That in itself was pretext enough spending the day in Napa…

Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly

Just because I’m a single male of a certain age living in San Francisco doesn’t mean…you know. I mean…I’ve never even shown the slightest incarnation toward…you know. To be frank, the whole notion of…you know…makes me kinda nauseous. But I concede, when I was much, much younger, there was an occasion (or two) when I listened to show tunes. A whole album’s worth.

As an aspiring playwright, I naturally consider musical theater to be the absolute nadir of the stage and am as likely attend an Andrew Lloyd Weber production as I would order a big Mac and wash it down with White Zin. Still, deep in the recesses of my mind, I heard echoes of the oft-recorded centerpiece from Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun as I entered the Mission District’s cavernous Heart Wine on Valencia for a wine tasting fundraiser for The Proof is in the Vine: Natural Wine in California. I suppose there’s a touch of irony that the two brothers producing this documentary chose a wine bar that virtually eschews California wines, but with the usual lineup of natural wine aficionados pouring their selections, it became easy to overlook this discrepancy.

Normally, I would have expected to find Gideon Beinstock among this collection, showcasing his Clos Saron, but he made up for his absence by pouring his delightful 2005 Black Pearl (Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Viognier, Roussanne) and other wines at the aforementioned Pacific Orchid Exposition the following week. His congenial demeanor was more than compensated for by the appearance of the ever-ebullient Hardy Wallace on behalf of the Natural Process Alliance, whose wines in stainless steel canteens have become familiar sights at events promoting a number of green causes. The contents of these canteens this evening started with the 2009 Pinot Gris Chalk Hill and the 2009 Chardonnay Sonoma Coast. I haven’t quite figured out why organic Sauvignon Blanc just seems to work better than other organic varietals, and the 2009 Sauvignon Blanc Russian River Valley poured here was no exception. The wild card of the evening, though was the whim of the wheel 2009 Sunhawk, a co-fermented filed blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Roussanne, Marsanne, and Viognier, a splendid wine one could easily quaff six night a week.

Their literature states they grow a “field blend of Tempranillo, Syrah, Tannat, Grenache, Negroamaro and Cabernet Sauvignon,” certainly a wine I would be more than interested in tasting, but this evening La Clarine Farm only poured their 2009 Syrah Sumu Kaw Vineyard. Nonetheless, this biodynamic bottling proved quite a compelling introduction to this impassioned Somerset winery. Needing no introduction this evening were Tracey and Jared Brandt, though daughter Lily Grace, born March 10, was still in utero for the event. Her expectant parents poured a representative selection of their Donkey & Goat viticultural offspring, including the 2009 Untended Chardonnay Anderson Valley, the 2009 Brosseau Vineyard Chardonnay, their always marvelous 2008 Fenaughty Vineyard Syrah, and the newest bottling of their selective Rhône blend, the 2009 Four Thirteen, a GMS + Counoise.

I’d met their fellow Berkeley winemaker Steve Edmunds years before the Brandts had probably contemplated starting a label and have long enjoyed both his Edmunds St. John wines and eclectic Organoleptician newsletter. To be honest, however, there was a period during the early 2000s when I felt his wines had notably slipped. This evening, it was quite pleasurable to see him back on track with his 2009 Bone-Jolly Gamay Noir, one of the few true versions of this compelling varietal produced in California, along with the 2009 Wylie Syrah, and his own GMS blend, the 2009 Rocks and Gravel Dry Creek Valley grown at Unti Vineyards.

The evening’s great revelation, though, had to have come from Old World Winery. My good friend Darek Trowbridge seemed almost surprised to find me at the event; on the other hand, I hadn’t realized he was such an orthodox adherent to natural winemaking principles. In any case, it made for an interesting context to resample many of his wines that I had tried over the summer, starting with his 2008 Sauvignon Blanc.

Darek didn’t have a Chardonnay on hand, so we moved straight to his red selections with the 2006 Pinot Noir Sterling Family Vineyard, a wine that whetted your thirst for the 2007 vintage (as many 2006s will). The 2005 Cabernet Two Rock Block Bei du Rocchi Vineyard proved just as delectable, while the 2005 Zinfandel Laughlin Vineyard stood as a pinnacle of the evening. With that, he told me, “I have my Arborio under the table…”

Now, I’ve known quite a few winemakers who produce their own olive oil, raise cattle, or even maintain apiaries, but growing superfine rice was a first. As he brought out a bottle of his yet-unreleased 2008 Fulton Foderol, I finally clued into what he was saying.


This classic Risotto Milanese is made with Arborio, not Abouriou!

The rather obscure varietal Abouriou, also known as Early Gamay, is planted on a single acre in California at the Gibson-Martinelli Vineyard. My research shows that winemaker Steve Canter used to source these grapes for his defunct Luddite Vineyards, which bottled their own Abouriou Gibson-Martinelli Vineyard from 2001-05. After Steve took on the role of winemaker for Quivira, he abandoned this project, making the Abouriou available to Darek, who, coincidentally, is a member of the Martinelli clan. His forthcoming bottling blends the Abouriou with 50% Zinfandel, making for a distinctive wine that shows similarities to Lagrein. In any case, a complete revelation to me.

After the tasting, we stopped by Beretta for a late dinner. In addition to the obligatory pizza, we ordered a side dish of the Baccalà Mantecato, a Venetian interpretation of this centuries-old Italian staple, whipped into a delicate mash with potatoes, cream and olive oil. Incredibly, even with growing up in an Italian family, Darek had never tried salted cod before. Somehow my previous ignorance of Abouriou seemed mitigated.
To be continued
Two down and twelve to go. I
still have to report on Affairs of the Vine’s Pinot Summit, the first San Francisco tasting from the Sta. Rita Hills Winegrowers Alliance, and nine appellation tastings at Première Napa! And I ought not give short shrift to the Pacific Orchid Expo, but as with Cheers! to Taste!, there was little new ground here for Sostevinobile. True, I did find much to like in all five of Rielle’s wines: both the 2007 Ritchie Vineyard Chardonnay and the 2008 Sonoma County Chardonnay; her 2007 Pinot Noir Anderson Valley and the 2008 Sonoma County Zinfandel, as well as Gabriella’s proprietary 2006 Sonoma County Red Wine, a blend of 64% Cabernet Sauvignon and 36% Syrah. I was also intrigued by my first taste of the 2005 Estate Pinot Noir from Casa Carneros, though disappointed to learn that the 2002 Merlot Las Loma Vineyard will be their last bottling of this varietal. And while I’d be remiss in not citing my discovery of the excellent 2005 Sonoma Valley Syrah from Petrali, as well as the 2005 Sonoma Valley Blythleigh, their special blend of Syrah, Viognier, Mourvèdre, and Petite Sirah, my presence at this affair was intended to be purely social, and so my summary will end at that.
Tax preparations are looming. Other remaining tasks for Sostevinobile seem innumerable. Perhaps it is best to put this post aside and find some grappa after all…

Categories
Albariño Aleatico Arneis Barbera Brut Cabernet Franc Cabernet Sauvignon Chardonnay Chenin Blanc Counoise Grenache Grenache Blanc Malbec Marsanne Merlot Mourvèdre Orange Muscat Petit Verdot Petite Sirah Pinot Gris Pinot Noir Port Rosé Roussanne Sangiovese Sauvignon Blanc Sparkling Wine Syrah Tocai Friulano Viognier Zinfandel

Vinolivo 1-2-3

Long before embarking on this interminable journey known as Sostevinobile, Your West Coast Oenophile attended one of New England’s most prestigious boarding schools. Founded by the widow of the man who invented the revolving canon that the U.S. Cavalry deployed at the Wounded Knee and other massacres of Native American tribes in the late 19th Century, Hotchkiss thrived in the 20th Century largely on the largesse of Philip Morris and R. J. Reynolds, conglomerates that systematically ravaged the populace in general.

During my years of sequestration in Lakeville, a fellow students was Sebastopol winery Baker Lane’s Stephen Singer. I can’t say I knew Steve well back in those days, though I suspect he would not mind my characterizing him as one of the more disaffected attendees of this august institute. When we did reconnect—over wine, of course—in the earliest days of developing Sostevinobile’s wine program, I discovered he was the same Steve Singer who had been married to Alice Waters during the early days of Chez Panisse. All have been much chronicled over the years: Alice and her æsthetics, the restaurant and its influence on contemporary cuisine, the travails of this marriage, even the rarefied upbringing of their daughter.

I’ve never met Fanny Singer, now a doctoral candidate at Cambridge, but the articles I’ve read make me wonder how gastronomically-focused her upbringing may have been. Was she told babies came from the arugula patch? Did her third grade science project consist of creating a composting bin with live earthworms (as opposed to building the more familiar ant farm)? Did she play normal childhood games, like Ringolevio, or adapt it to something more germane, like…Vinolivo?

Recently, I attended Vinolivo ‘11, a “Gala Celebration for the Senses” held in conjunction with the Annual Sonoma Valley Olive Season. This fundraiser and tasting seemed a perfect venue for Baker Lane to participate, but, as it turned out, they were not among the 48 wineries pouring here this evening, nor was their affiliated restaurant Pizzavino 707 among the nearly two dozen food purveyors. No matter, I had plenty to discover and to occupy me in the thick of the rain-sheltered tent at The Lodge at Sonoma.

Before entering the main arena, though, guests were fêted with two Specialty Tasting Bars, featuring Sparkling Wine food pairings. The first seemed downright Parisian, matching a Carneros Bistro’s duet of Pommes Frites (potato, sweet potato) with the 2006 Blanc de Blancs and the non-vintage Va de Vi Sparkling Wines from Gloria Ferrer. Across the foyer, the Meyer Lemon Roasted Salmon on White Bean Crostini from the chiastic Olive & Vine needed no complement; still both the 2000 Brut de Noirs from Robert Hunter and the 2007 Rouge de Noirs Brut from Shug Carneros delightfully accentuated this utterly addicting canapé.

Moving onto the main event, I strolled into the tightly-packed reception and endeavored to sample as many of the wineries as I could fit into the time allotted, a considerable challenge given the surprising number of attendees who had braved the evening’s torrent, not to mention the enticing aromas emanating from gourmet food stations interspersed among the wine purveyors. Given the numerous trips I had made to Sonoma over the past year, only a handful of the vintners here remained unfamiliar to me. The first, Clarbec, seemed a curious portmanteau, which I could not identify until meeting owners Clarence and Becky Jenkins. These founders of Madrone Vineyard Management have planted vines in Glen Ellen, from where they sourced the grapes for their 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Glen Oaks Ranch, as well as produce their 2009 Pinot Gris Clarbec Vineyard and an excellent 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Clarbec Vineyard in the Sonoma Valley AVA.

Also from Glen Ellen, Eric Ross treated this evening’s guests to a quartet of his wines, starting with an elegant 2009 Marsanne-Roussanne Russian River. I tend to find 2009 Pinots still too underripe, and the 2009 Pinot Noir Russian River poured here seemed no exception. I’ll resist any temptation to describe his two tasty, Chanticleer-adorned blends, the 2009 Struttin’ White (“Albariño with a kiss of Orange Muscat”) and 2009 Struttin’ Red (Tempranillo, Garnacha), as “cocky”—that’s a bad pun I’ll reserve for Gallo, when a propitious occasion arises.

I was surprised that Keating had not participated in previous Rockpile tastings I’ve attended. No matter, their wines this evening made quite a solid impression. Although the 2008 Beckstoffer Georges III Cabernet Sauvignon seemed still too young. their inaugural 2009 Dry Creek Buchignani Zinfandel struck me as ripe and well-balanced. Their best offering, the 2007 Rockpile Malbec, begged the question why more Bordeaux-focused wineries don’t bottle this robust varietal.

I had not previously encountered MacLeod, a quaint family vineyard out of Kenwood. This boutique winery comported themselves quite admirably with their 2007 Merlot, 2008 Zinfandel, and 2009 Sauvignon, all estate grown. For years, I had always seen Roche perched on the hillside across from Infineon Raceway, a veritable beacon demarcating the entrance to Sonoma Valley. Suddenly, however, the quaint barn house disappeared, only to be resurrected as contemporary edifice belonging to Ram’s Gate Winery, while Roche’s tasting and hospitality operations relocated to Sonoma Square. Rather than trying to comprehend this mystery, I opted simply to try Roche’s wines, contrasting their oaked 2009 Estate Chardonnay to the more appealing 2009 Stainless Steel Estate Chardonnay. Following this comparison, I delighted in sampling their exemplary 2008 Pinot Noir Los Carneros, a wine that typified both the vintage and the AVA.

With new business concluded, I could now focus on revisiting the numerous other wineries I had previously engaged over the past two years, despite weaving through the crush of attendees and the constant urge to nosh on the some of the finest cuisine Sonoma could offer. When I toured the wine country a couple of years back with the delightfully eccentric Lucy Townsend, we were fêted at a private lunch reception and reserve tasting at the St. Francis winery. Today, Executive Chef David Bush accompanied the dry 2009 Wild Oak Chardonnay with his Pork rillette and grilled beef Banh Mi, followed by a sumptuous 2007 Port vinted from fortified Zinfandel.
Lured by the seductive wafts of Zuppa di Farro, a Tuscan barley soup served up by tablemate Della Santina’s, I wandered over to try the wines from Audelssa. I wasn’t overwhelmed by the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve but the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon proved a remarkable wine. I also especially liked the 2008 Summit, a blend of 39 % Merlot, 26% Cabernet Sauvignon, 21 % Cabernet Franc, 11% Malbec, and 3% Petit Verdot. Audelssa’s winemaker, Erich Bradley performs double-duty at acclaimed Pinot producer Sojourn Cellars. The effusive praise Robert Parker has heaped on this winery proved presaged this preview of Sojourn’s 2009 vintage: the 2009 Pinot Noir Rodgers Creek Vineyard, their 2009 Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast and the superb 2009 Pinot Noir Sangiacomo Vineyard. Nearly as striking was the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Mountain Terraces Vineyard.

Another winery whose Pinot Noirs I have long relished is Roessler. I delayed my gratification by first sampling their excellent 2008 Big Bend Estate Chardonnay, then regaled in the 2008 Hein Family Pinot Noir. Next up, Landmark Vineyards led with their intense 2007 Damaris Reserve Chardonnay, as well as the likable 2008 Overlook Chardonnay, before showcasing their 2008 Grand Detour Pinot Noir
Nearby, Robert Hunter’s main table featured their 2006 Pinot Noir Sonoma Valley, which preceded my final Pinot of the evening, the 2008 Pinot Noir Marina’s Vineyard from Bennett Valley Cellars, two splendid wines underscored by the constant patter of rain that thankfully (as opposed to last fall’s Pinot in the River debacle) remained outside the tasting tent.

It had been two years since I’d toured Bartholomew Park and the preserve that envelops the winery, so it was a pleasure to revisit their organic 2005 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine just now attaining peak maturity. Bart Hansen’s Dane Cellars also poured an exquisite 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma Valley, with its 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Jackknife Corner falling just a
tad behind. I was equally impressed with their 2007 Zinfandel Sonoma Valley, and wish they had included their 2009 Dry Chenin Blanc, a varietal not seen enough these days. Also scarce at this celebration, the only Sauvignon Blanc I managed to try was the 2009 Estate Sauvignon Blanc from Beltane Ranch, the sole focus of this Glen Ellen boutique.

From Hamel Family’s Tres Palmas Vineyard, the 2007 Pamelita proved a worthy successor to the inaugural release of this same Cabernet Sauvignon last year. I tend to think of Schug primarily as a Pinot producer, so sampling the 2007 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon at their main table proved a pleasant revelation. By contrast, Larson Family blended their Cabernet Sauvignon with Syrah and Zinfandel to make an accessible, non-vintage jug wine they simply called Sonoma Red.

Zinfandel proved a strong suit for Mayo Family Winery, with their 2007 Zinfandel Los Chamizal Vineyard; even more compelling, however, was the superb 2007 Merlot Laurent Vineyard. Hoffman Family Cellars brought out a noteworthy 2009 Zinfandel Sonoma County under their Headbanger label, as well as a blush they called the 2010 Rock ‘n Rosé of ZinfandelAnother pink wine as big as its name, the 2009 Vineyard Station Ranch Pinot Noir Saignée from Fichtenberg Vineyards struck me as quite enticing, though I wasn’t all that fond of their 2007 Syrah.

I would have expected to find more Zins at Vinolivo, but, in truth, the evening’s true star had to have been Syrah. Westwood Winery from Sonoma poured a delectable 2007 Syrah Annandale Estate. Westerhold Family Vineyards also excelled with their 2007 Estate Syrah Bennett Valley. Mulas Family showcased a truly compelling 2005 Syrah Alta Vista Vineyards, while my good friend Mike Muscardini debuted his 2008 Fortuna, a Syrah blended with 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 2.5% Cabernet Franc, and 2.5% Petit Verdot. And, much to my good fortune, he also poured his Grappa di Sangiovese, a personal favorite as well as a welcome contrast to the abundance of wines on hand.

I wished Italian varietal specialists Jacuzzi had brought their version of Sangiovese, but settled for their 2009 Tocai Friulano, a truly delicate expression of this varietal. I bypassed the 2008 Late Harvest Aleatico but did allow enough time to savor their Bordeaux-style bottling, the 2007 Valeriano. Jacuzzi’s next door neighbor, Viansa, pioneered the planting of quite a number of less-familiar Italian grapes, like Refosco, but now is gradually transitioning to a balance between CalItalia and the Bordelaise varietals. Their 2005 Thalia Sangiovese displayed a complexity I had not seen in it earlier releases, while the 2009 Arneis, like Jacuzzi’s Tocai, offered a clear alternative to the ubiquitous Pinot Grigio. Genial new owner Lloyd Davis’ hand was clearly evident in the 2005 Samuele Cabernet Franc, a harbinger of the direction he is driving this winery.

Another Sonoma trailblazer evolving under its new ownership has been Arrowood. Now that founder Richard Arrowood has redirected his full-time energies to Amapola Creek, the winery seems less defined, though his influence still remained in each of this evening’s selections. The 2006 Côte de Lune Rouge offered a standard GMS blend in near-equal proportions while the 2006 Côte de Lune Blanc favored the Roussanne and Marsanne over its Viognier component. Keeping up with Keating, Arrowood also poured their 2007 Malbec Sonoma Valley, a definitive, unblended expression of this varietal.

Several
of the wineries from Sonoma’s 8th Street East poured this evening,
giving me a chance to experience them outside their industrial park setting. Tin Barn Vineyards excelled with both their 2006 Syrah Coryelle Fields and the 2008 Zinfandel Gilsson Vineyard. Gilgamesh-themed Enkidu grows in my estimation each time I sample their wines; the 2008 Humbaba proved a giant of a Rhône blend, combining 65% Syrah with 35% Petite Sirah. Former tenant Ty Caton, a favorite of the Ginkgo Girl, now operates in Kenwood, with no detriment to his splendid 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma Valley nor his Mayacamas Mountain Range Meritage, the 2009 Tytanium.
Another former 8th Street East denizen, John Sweazy’s Anaba, which has subsequently transplanted to Bonneau Road, focused on two amiable Rhône blends, the 2008 Coriol Red (38% Grenache, 27% Mourvèdre, 25% Petite Sirah, 10% Counoise) and the 2009 Coriol White (49% Roussanne, 27% Viognier, 15% Grenache Blanc, 9% Marsanne). More impressive, however, was his 2008 Sonoma Valley Red, a proprietary mélange of Zinfandel, Mourvèdre, and Syrah, as well as the cleverly-named Anaba Red Aero Port, a non-vintage bottling of Syrah picked at 30° Brix

I wrapped up the tasting with Richard Kasmier’s Kaz Winery, first sampling his 2007 Barbera and 2007 Sangiovese (atypically blended with 25% Cabernet Franc), before moving onto his Bodega Bay Portworks lineup. The excellent “almost Tawny” Red Port boasted a scant 3% residual sugar, while the sweeter White Port, a fortified Chardonnay with 9% sugar, had me humming the 4 Deuces doo-wop classic, WPLJ (though many may understandably prefer the Frank Zappa/Lowell George version popularized on Burnt Weeny Sandwich).

Speaking of songs, I actually had someone singing Sostevinobile at the tasting! I’m still polishing the libretto for Il Canto di Sostevinobile (sung to the famous tune from Rigoletto), but am always happy to explain the mnemonic significance to anyone. Several times this year, people at the various tastings I attend have come up to me and commended the thoroughness of the notes they observe me taking on each winery that I visit. Here, a fellow I remember only as Ivan queried why I was so immersed in this exacting exercise.
After explicating the whats and whys of my wine bar project, I took a final lap around Vinolivo’s tables to seek out and thank my hosts, while Ivan headed out to attend the afterparty across the parking lot. Finito, I heard the unmistakable strains of the Sostevinobile aria reverberating in Ivan’s sonorous baritone as I entered the vestibule leading to the coat check. Quite the validating sendoff to a most enjoyable event, to be sure!

Categories
Aligoté Barbera Brut Cabernet Franc Cabernet Sauvignon Carignane Carménère Charbono Chardonnay Grenache Grüner Veltliner Malbec Merlot Petit Verdot Petite Sirah Pinot Noir Sauvignon Blanc Syrah Tempranillo Ugni Blanc Zinfandel

My contribution to the world’s wine lexicon

One of the hallmarks Your West Coast Oenophile is striving to establish for the wine program at Sostevinobile is untainted objectivity in selecting the wines we will feature, both at our wine bar and through our retail operations. Over the 2½ years that I have been relentlessly developing the wine program, I have made numerous new friends, strengthened old acquaintances, and been extended enormous generosity everywhere I’ve traveled. But I cannot allow the pull of personal relationships to influence our decisions, insuring that our clientele knows that we are offering them the best wines we can source, week in and week out, based solely on a rigorous methodology for evaluation (more on this in a later posting).

This process of selection, however, is based on a bias I have articulated many times: that the quality and variety of wines found on the West Coast makes for a superior wine program that is comprehensive in its scope and that delivers wines of sufficient, if not exceptional, value. Toward this end, I am constantly willing to challenge my own hypothesis and sample a wide array of the imported wines Sostevinobile eschews. 

Recently, I returned for another pre-auction tasting with Wine Gavel at Ame restaurant in San Francisco. Admittedly, this is a realm in which I have scant exposure and have little ability to assess the quality of the event, apart from the criteria outlined in their event program. After all, the mere notion of wine collecting baffles me. Unlike something like numismatics or philately or other accumulations of memorabilia, the only way a wine collector can fully enjoy his acquisition is to obliterate its value. On the other hand, if the collector does not consume the wine, the whole exercise seems like a thankless pursuit. 

As with last year’s event that I attended, Wine Gavel poured a number of well-aged French vintages, including a handful of Premiers Crus, from their own vaults. Several of these had been polished off before I arrived, but those that I did manage to taste ranged from lackluster to near dreadful, at least when standing on their own merits (vs. pairing with food). Maybe these particular wines came from off vintages. Maybe previous owners had stored them improperly. In any case, I was once again duly unimpressed with such highly-touted labels.

Shortly after, I partook in a late night tasting of French wines at Prospect. Here, the Robert Kacher Selections and our host, the Henry Wine Group, brought out a number of more moderate selections from the Loire Valley, Alsace, Côtes du Gascogne, Burgundy, Corbières, Costières de Nîmes, and the Rhône Valley. Nearly all these wines listed at <$20/bottle wholesale, many even less than $10, while the represented AOCs ranged from the rigid strictures of Bourgogne and Châteauneuf du Pape to the unfettered blends found in the minor regions. As I found with the Bordeaux tasting I had attended earlier this year, an enormous gulf exists between the top echelon (Premier Cru houses in Bordeaux, Grand Cru vineyards in Burgundy) and those from the lower tiers in those appellations that issue such rankings. 

Here’s the gist of what I ascertained at this tasting. The lower end white and red Burgundies (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir) poured here could hardly be said to give Oregon or Santa Barbara a run for their money. The range of Sauvignon Blanc expressions, including the Sancerres, mostly seemed pleasant, if unremarkable. The dessert bottlings never failed to please, while I must concede that the West Coast is still catching up to France in its capacity to offer as broad a selection of noteworthy, mid-range sparkling wines as the proliferation of Crémants and Champagnes they produce.

My investigations into West Coast viticulture are by no means near complete or comprehensive, but as yet, I have not found a varietal bottling of Aligoté or a straight Ugni Blanc here. Seldom -seen Carignan played a more prominent role in a number of the French wines, including the 2008 Domaine Sainte Eugénie Le Clos Vin de Pays d’Hauterive and its sibling 2007 Domaine Sainte Eugénie Corbières Rouge, two highly impressive wines, given their sub-$9 price tag, while the premium Font du Michelle Châteauneuf du Pape Étienne proved well-worth the price it commands. But, in spite these exceptions, the selection of French wines overall failed to sway me from my contention that the omission of imports diminishes the wine program I am building.



Some wines can be so restrained or overly acidic that they simply cannot function on their own merits. To call such wines “food mandatory” seems appropriate, as their need for complementary pairings cries out:







Feed me! 




The pablum reiterated ad infinitum by local sommeliers to rationalize their disdain for California wines is that French and other European vintages offer lower alcohol levels and a more restrained, terroir-expressive style that makes them food friendly. I would contend that the plethora of these imports are food mandatory—wines virtually undrinkable without the salvation of food pairings.




This reality hits home pointedly with the Italian vintages I’ve recently sampled, including the 1998 Quintarelli Ca’ del Merlo IGT Veneto (Valpolicella) or the Terlato-owned 2001 Gaja Sito Moresco poured at Wine Gavel. At San Francisco’s hotter than hot Cotogna, I had to send back both the 2008 Tenimenti d’Alessandro Cortona Syrah and the 2008 Renato Ratti Nebbiolo d’Alba Ochetti, while I struggled through samples of the 2008 Torre di Beatti Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, the 2009 Cantine Barbera Nero d’Avola, and the 2008 Marotti Campi Lacrima di Morro d’Alba Rúbico before throwing in the towel and ordering grappa at Italian wine-focused Ottimista Enoteca.

These explorations served as prelude to my return visit to Around the World in 80 Sips, a reprise from the tasting Alyssa Rapp’s Bottlenotes staged last year. This time round, however, the event took place at the Golden Gate Club in the Presidio, rather than at Crushpad, which had relocated to Napa. Consequently, this tasting no longer was dominated by labels from the defunct San Francisco Wine Association or produced at the Third Street facility, while offering a wider spectrum from winemakers within California and around the world.

I had planned to work my way through the local producers, then continue my forays into the imported wines, and ought to have had enough time to sample just about everything on the program. But even with a trade hour before its official start, Around the World in 80 Sips is a different kind of wine tasting, a sales event geared for their wine club subscribers and the οἱ πολλοί, as we used to say in my ancient Greek studies. Not that it even remotely resembled the mass frenzy of the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition that transpired a week later; still, the setup here lacked a flow and coherence one expects at an event oriented toward wine industry professionals.

The central reception area housed a number of the sponsoring wineries, along with vendors for different wine paraphernalia, and the only food at the event. I immediately gravitated toward Clos du Val’s table for my first sampling of their wines since their Vindependence launch last July. Fortunately, Tracey Mason only remembered my commendations for their wines and so generously poured a full selection of their offerings, starting with the unlisted 2007 Carneros Chardonnay, followed by a superior successor in the 2008 Carneros Chardonnay. Similarly, as enjoyable as the 2007 Carneros Pinot Noir proved to be, the 2007 Reserve Pinot Noir easily eclipsed it. And while I preferred the less expensive 2007 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, the 2006 Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon hardly stoods as a laggard.

Chappellet is one of those wineries so consistently good, it’s easy to take them for granted. Their more accessible selections, the 2009 Napa Valley Chardonnay and the 2008 Signature Cabernet Sauvignon could easily delineate a lesser winery, while their 2008 Pritchard Hill Cabernet Sauvignon proved absolutely stellar.

Sonoma’s Freeman Vineyards may not be as widely recognized as Chappellet, but inarguably maintains an equally impressive reputation for their Pinots. As expected, both the 2008 Akiko’s Cuvée and the 2008 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir exemplified this finicky varietal. One of these days, I may actually get the chance to tell Michael Polenske how much I like his Blackbird label, but, for this evening, I simply had to content myself by tasting through his 2008 Arriviste (a dry rosé crafted from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc), the Merlot-dominant 2007 Illustration, and the 2008 Arise, a Pomérol-style blend.

It was good to reencounter my friend Janet Viader, who has included Sostevinobile in all sorts of industry events over the past couple of years, and sample her latest vintages. The 2007 Tempranillo showed an amiable expression of the grape, while the 2008 Cabernet Franc radiated. Also excelling with this latter varietal, Crocker & Starr poured its version of the 2008 Cabernet Franc alongside a splendid 2009 Sauvignon Blanc.

Whenever I encounter Cannonball, I invariably break out my iPhone and play the live version of Mercy, Mercy, Mercy—a perfect tune to complement both the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon and the exceptional 2007 Merlot. I also cited a musical allusion for Sledgehammer in my last column, so will avoid the pitfall of redundancy this time around. A resampling of their 2008 Zinfandel, however, seemed perfectly warranted, while I was glad to be introduced to their 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon. Nearby, Karen Cakebread introduced attendees to her new venture, Ziata Wines, pouring her inaugural 2008 Oakville Cabernet Franc and a preview of the 2010 Sauvignon Blanc, both superb viticultural efforts.

Also new to me was Matt Kowalczyk’s Buscador from Santa Ynez. This decidedly non-vegan venture made a strong initial impression with its 2009 Sauvignon Blanc and a trio of reds: the 2008 Petite Sirah, a youngish 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon, and the quite splendid 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon. Not new but more than wonderful to see once again was Napa’s Neal Family, with equally impressive bottlings of their 2008 Napa Valley Zinfandel and the 2007 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. And I was please to check in on the continuing evolution of Clif Family Winery, whose accessible and affordable The Climber series included the 2009 The Climber Sauvignon Blanc and the 2009 The Climber Red, a blend of 63% Zinfandel, 21% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Syrah, 2% Merlot, and 2% Petite Sirah.

An interesting find this evening was a négociant bottler known as Banshee, which bifurcates its production with a lower-end label they call Rickshaw. Both the $15 2009 Rickshaw Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast and the $15 2007 Red Wine Napa Valley (a mélange of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Petit Verdot) struck me as well-crafted wines, while the more expensive 2009 Banshee Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast and the 2008 Banshee Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley impressed me mightily for wines sourced on the open market. Now that the Huneeus Partnerships produces a number of Orin Swift’s former bottlings, they treat each as a separate label, without detriment to either the 2009 Saldo Zinfandel or the emblematic 2009 The Prisoner, still a Zinfandel blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Charbono, Grenache, and Malbec.

Also featuring a split persona, Greg Norman Estates Wine featured both their California and their Australian labels; from their local operations, the 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2009 Sauvignon Blanc struck me as a bit perfunctory. Before I delve into his imported wines, however, as well as the others I managed to sample, I wanted to focus on the true anomaly of Around the World in 80 Sips: an entire enclave devoted to the wines of the Livermore Valley. I’d like to think this sequestration stemmed from an ultimatum: buy our wines or we will obliterate you from the face of the Earth, but, despite their superior nuclear capabilities (compared to every other appellation on the planet), I gather that the Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association helped underwrite the event and so warranted special focus.

Front and center in the Livermore room, Concannon’s Jim Ryan held court, pouring both his lush 2006 Reserve Petite Sirah and the 2007 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as the 2008 DeMayo Chardonnay and the 2007 DeMayo Zinfandel from Darcie Kent, a Livermore boutique noted for her vibrant painted labels. Livermore’s other Goliath, Wente Vineyards showcased a range of its labels, from the low-end Tamás Estates2008 Double Decker Red (Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah, Barbera) to the striking Meritage 2008 The Spur from Murrieta’s Well to their own 2009 Riva Ranch Chardonnay and the smooth 2008 Small Lot Grenache.

No longer affiliated with his family’s Gallo-controlled winery, Steven Mirrasou’s eponymous Steven Kent offered a trio of his vintages: the 2008 Merrillie Chardonnay Landucci Block, his signature 2007 Estate Grown Cabernet Sauvignon, and an extremely pleasing 2007 Small-Lot Petit Verdot Ghielmetti Vineyard. Finally, one of Livermore’s hidden gems, Nottingham Cellars, hit critical mass with their featured wines: the 2009 Chardonnay and a superb 2008 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.

I had hoped to find more time to work my way through the rest of the world, but the disparate configuration of the event made access to a number of stations problematic. In particular, I regret missing the wide selection of Austrian wines. Despite pouring from three tables in the central room, the crush of attendees thwarted my efforts to sample a number of varietals that have scant production in California: Zweigelt (Mokelumne Glen); St. Laurent (Forlorn Hope); and Grüner Veltliner (von Strasser and the aforementioned Darcie Kent). Not to mention a Riesling or two.

I did make it to the Australian table, however, and found Greg Norman’s contribution, his 2007 Limestone Coast Shiraz, a perfectly standard Aussie Syrah, while the slightly blushing 2008 Brut Taché from Taltarni Vineyards only marginally impressed. I didn’t get to try any of the Sauvignon Blancs that put New Zealand on the viticultural landscape nor the lone Malbec that exemplified Argentina, but did linger at the table for neighboring Chile. Here the forte has become Carménère, best represented this evening by the 2007 Terrunyo Carménère from Concha y Toro, the conglomerate which recently acquired Fetzer and Brown & Forman’s other wine holdings. Apart from this exceptional wine, the Chilean portfolio struck me as rather mundane, including the 2008 Antiguas Reservas Cabernet Sauvignon from Cousiño Macul, a weak 2009 Reserva Carménère from Casa Silva, and even the much-touted 2007 Maquis Lien, a wine that blended Syrah with Carménère, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec.

The table from Italy had already packed up when I arrived, and most of France had been depleted, save the rather forgettable 2009 Whispering Angel Côtes de Provence Rosé from Château d’Esclans. And with that final sip, it was time to bid adieu and thank Alyssa for her hospitality, then head to the home of the America’s Cup for a social gathering.

Someday soon, I hope, I will be able to attend a wine tasting simply for the pleasure of the wine and the comradery of the other attendees. When I no longer need to research the wine program at Sostevinobile on such an intense level, I will be able to appreciate events like Around the World in 80 Sips in a completely different light, to be sure. And with that in mind, I look forward to next year’s event and Bottlenotes’ continued success.

Meanwhile, though little convinces me I should reconstrue the wine program I have mapped out, I expect that I will continue to explore the range of wines that fall outside our purview. Know that the staff Sostevinobile plans to assemble will be thoroughly versed in the entire world of wine and able to explain the virtues of varietals and styles grown elsewhere, in order to offer our clientele a sound basis for understanding and enjoying the wines we do select.

On a professional level, the staunch proponents of imported wines will continue to champion their belief in the superior balance in their selections. Food friendly or food mandatory, it is not my charge to sway the beliefs of these sommeliers and restaurateurs. My only mandate is to build a wine program that will be second to none.