Monthly Archives: September 2011

So many tastings. So little time.

Harvest has just begun in the wine country at the time of this writing, and Your West Coast Oenophile couldn’t be more relieved. Predictions for this year’s crop have admittedly been largely on the gloomy side, with yet another dilatory warm season, but here at Sostevinobile, all fingers are crossed that the quality will prove high and the yield, bountiful.

Still, my pleasure in harvest starting stems largely from a sense of self-interest. I am still woefully behind in keeping my readership abreast of my wine discoveries over this past summer, and with every one tied up in the fields or on the crushing line for the next several weeks, there will be few occasions for me to venture out and explore. So maybe by the time the Cabs and late harvest Zins finish up…

My annual visit to the historic Escalle Winery in Larkspur has become ritual at this point, although a reaggravated squash injury prevented me from making the trek on bicycle this year. Once again, the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT) put on an impressive spread of venison, rabbit sausage. local cheeses, and, of course, the diverse repertoire of Marin County’s Pinot Noirs (and then some).

The seventh staging of this benefit was marked by a notable change in the lineup of wineries, and while I was disappointed not to find perennial pourers like David Vergari and Nathan Kandler (Precedent Wines & Thomas Fogarty) on hand, it was certainly a pleasure to encounter several new participants, starting with an impressive debut by Bryan and Paul Vais’ Bailiwick Wines. MALT had loosened up its parameters for this year’s event, allowing other locally-grown varietals to be poured, but despite the allure of a Cabernet Franc and Vermentino I have yet to try, Bailiwick opted only to showcase their fairly impressive 2009 Borderline Pinot Noir.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Novato’s Pacheco Ranch Winery debuted here without a drop of Pinot, selecting instead to showcase a three-year vertical of their Cabernets. While all were noteworthy, the middle selection, the 2005 Estate Bottled Cabernet Sauvignon, stood out as their benchmark vintage.

Other wineries that did avail themselves of the “not just Pinot” option included MALT stalwarts Pey-Marin, with a notable 2010 The Shell Mound Riesling and the ever-eclectic Point Reyes Vineyard, that offered their 2001 Quail Hill Cabernet Sauvignon alongside their familiar NV Blanc de Noir Sparkling Wine and a surprisingly delectable 2007 Estate Pinot Noir.

Last year’s barbecue saw the debut of Skywalker Ranch, a MALT-protected agricultural easement on the property originally developed as headquarters for George Lucas’ operations. The wines are now produced under two labels, Skywalker Ranch, which excelled with their 2009 Reserve Pinot Noir, and the Francis Ford Coppola co-produced Viandante del Cielo, with an equally compelling 2009 Pinot Noir and an underripe 2010 Pinot Noir. The treat here, though, was the 2008 Viandante del Cielo Chardonnay, a wine showing marvelously at this stage.

Meanwhile, I continued onto the wineries that had yet to included in the Sostevinobile roster. Readers here should not be surprised that I would be utterly predisposed to liking a label that calls itself Burning Bench even before its vertical of Pinots crossed my lips. The Internet offers few insights into this intriguing venture from David Mease, but no matter—the wine speaks for itself. Though I was tepid about the 2006 vintage, I could not have been more pleased with the 2007 Moon Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir and its equally elegant successor from 2008.

Couloir doesn’t boast a color scheme like this—the rainbow effect is my feeble attempt a French visual pun. What this incipient wine venture does rest its laurels on is the prowess of owner/winemaker Jon Grant, whose pedigree includes Turley, PlumpJack, Corison, and Robert Mondavi. Here, with his own label, he showed great promise with the still-young 2009 Chileno Valley Vineyard Pinot Noir—even though his Website identifies this as a Mendocino County vintage!

Alfred Derby Easkoot (1820-1905)
Marin County’s first land surveyor

The driving force behind the annual MALT tastings has always been Mark Pasternak, proprietor of Marin’s Devil’s Gulch Ranch, a renowned sustainable farm and youth camp focused on “agriculture, nature education, and indigenous skills” in the Petaluma Gap designated sector of the Sonoma Coast AVA. While the vineyards at Devil’s Gulch have furnished Pinot, Chardonnay, and Gewürztraminer for other vintners in Marin, Pasternak had not previously produced his own label. Now, with grapes from Marin’s Chileno Valley Vineyard and winemaking from Shane McManigle and Matt Duffy, comes the highly eclectic Easkoot Cellars label. Though now sold out, their inaugural release, the 2009 Pinot Noir Chileno Valley Vineyard showcased its considerable pedigree quite amiably, a solid portent for Easkoot’s forthcoming 2010 vintage, as well as a yet-to-be released bottling from Sonoma County’s Suacci Vineyard.

I would be remiss in not also citing the commitment Pasternak’s Devil’s Gulch Educational Services makes to Haitian farmers. It is an unwavering dedication even my activist friends at Haïti Liberté gratefully acknowledge.

Another Francophone stronghold in the New World is the burgeoning wine empire of my friend Jean-Charles Boisset, whose family holdings recently acquired Buena Vista, California’s oldest premium winery. Boisset’s first Sonoma acquisition, DeLoach Vineyards, returned here with a trio of Marin Pinots, along with a compelling 2009 Chardonnay Stubbs Vineyard that was not listed on the program. In descending order, I found myself duly impressed with the 2009 Skyview Pinot Noir, followed by the subtle 2009 Marin County Pinot Noir that blend grapes from both the Stubbs and the Corda Vineyards, and, lastly, the 2009 Stubbs Vineyard Pinot Noir, a Vineyard Designate selection.

Meanwhile, both Nicasio’s Dutton-Goldfield and Bolinas’ Thackrey featured their bottlings of Pinots from Pasternak’s Devil’s Gulch. The former proved most enticing with their 2008 Devil’s Gulch Pinot Noir, while the 2009 Devil’s Gulch Pinot Noir hinted at future promise. I could not pick a favorite between the non-consecutive vintages from my fellow Hellenophile from Horseshoe Hill Road, but both the 2006 Andromeda Devil’s Gulch Ranch and its successor, the 2008 Andromeda Devil’s Gulch Ranch, impressed me as the most complex vintages of the afternoon.

One of the undeniable pleasures of this annual Marin wine tasting is gauging the evolution of not only of the county’s burgeoning wine industry but of individual wineries, as well. Perennial participant Kendric Vineyards continued to lure me with each subsequent appearance here, as the quality of Stewart Johnson’s Pinot Noir escalates even as its price-point slowly trickles upward. Still, I preferred the $34 2007 Marin Pinot Noir to the $35 2008 Marin Pinot Noir, an assessment contrary to the findings of Richard Jennings’ RJonWineOther familiar presences here included John Tracy’s Willowbrook Cellars, a Russian River Winery that first expand into Marin in 2006. Here, their third bottling, the 2008 Pinot Noir Chileno Valley Road easily reflected the depth of their Sonoma bottlings, while the pre-released 2009 Chileno Valley Pinot
 showed hints of spiciness.

As noted several times before, one of my displeasures at events like this continues to be pourers who leave well in advance of the allotted time frame. And I might have taken Vision Cellars to task for prematurely running out of their 2008 Chileno Valley Pinot Noir here, but who can find fault with such an amiable winemaker as Mac McDonald? Still, it would have provided a most concordant note on which to end the gathering…

Mac McDonald heads up a very exclusive, albeit unheralded, trade advocacy, the Association of African American Vintners. This fledgling group is hardly comprehensive but does shed light on the diversity found throughout the wine industry. Also shattering stereotypes about winery ownership is the new Napa Valley Mexican-American Vintners Association (NVMAVA).

Arguably, this noble endeavor would have been far better served had they hired yours truly to create a more mnemonic acronym, as I have in my previous career for such memorable ventures as Pediatricians Opposed to Prophylactics, the Pill, and Abortion (POPPA) or Pranksters Hired to Undermine your Competition’s Quality and Usurp their Prominence and Profitability (PHUCQ UPP). This oversight notwithstanding, I was still immensely pleased to participate in their Bautizo early this summer at Maldonado, a Napa Valley estate ringed with hewn caves and revered for its Chardonnay.

Maldonado typifies the story of most NVMAVA members. Patriarch Lupe Maldonado arrived in California in 1961 and toiled in the vineyards for over three decades before being able to buy his own 10 acre tract and plant vines in Jamieson Canyon. Now, in addition to his planted acreage, son Hugo has architected and operates a state-of-the-art facility in Calistoga. Maldonado’s œnological prowess, however, needs no prelude. As anticipated, the 2009 Parr Vineyard Chardonnay proved a lush, superb expression of the varietal. On par with the Parr was the 2006 Los Olivos Syrah, followed closely by the 2008 Proprietary Red Wine, a blend of unspecified composition. And while quite approachable now, the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon hinted at peeking in 3-5 years,

While the Napa Valley will always be inextricably linked with Cabernet Sauvignon, the county cuts a wide swath, from Calistoga down to the eastern half of the Carneros AVA, with a marked diversity in its viticultural predisposition. Mi Sueño exemplified the fortes of this lower region with a striking 2008 Pinot Noir Los Carneros, paralleled by an equally appealing 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley. Carneros’ other signature grape flourished in the 2008 Chardonnay Los Carneros, but the true revelation here was the 2008 El Llano, a deft blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah that needs no modification, despite Mi Sueño’s description of this wine as “expressing notes of molasses, freshly-cracked pepper, and a dash of piloncillo” (which readily explains why I refuse to incorporate such logorrhea in assaying wines here).

Many of the members’ labels came, not surprisingly, from virtual wineries—endeavors that lack a proprietary physical presence and produce their fare at custom facilities (many of today’s finest labels began in just such a manner). Here, Fernando Candelario’s handcrafted Voces Wines proved a prime example of this phenomenon, featuring a stellar 2006 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Similarly, his 2008 Napa Valley Zinfandel and the 2006 Napa Valley Petite Sirah, both also produced in lots of <300 cases, struck me as exceptionally fine wines. In a similar vein, Blumaro Montes developed his Marita’s Vineyard label to produce ultrapremium wines, like his 2006 SOMA, a Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from his Coombsville vineyard.

Another incipient label, Rosaura Segura’s Encanto, pays tribute to the pioneering vineyard work of her late father, producing Sauvignon Blanc from and a distinctive 2008 Carneros Pinot Noir, both guided by acclaimed vintner Rudy Zuidema. Likewise, Alex Sotelo Cellars displayed a wide diversity in its lineup of small lot wines led by the 2006 Zinfandel Dalraddy Vineyard and the 2006 Syrah Leveroni Vineyard. Also noteworthy were the 2006 The Big A, a signature Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2010 Alma, Sotelo’s interpretation of Sauvignon Blanc.

The Rios brothers launched their Solovino label in 2004 and maintain a tasting room in Calistoga. Their hands-on experience with grape growing over the past three decades, which now encompasses over 1,200 acres of vineyard under the management of Rios Farming, readily
showed in Solovino’s consistently noteworthy lineup. Offerings here included the 2009 Sauvignon Blanc, the 2007 Chardonnay, and the Rutherford fruit-driven 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon. Completing their selections stood another Rutherford gem, the 2006 Mixto, a compelling blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc.

I moved on next to a pair of wine labels also featuring downtown tasting rooms but in the throes of construction for full winery facilities at their vineyards. Now it’s well known that I like to pick on Amelia Ceja— just because—but I was beholden to her for inviting me to the Bautizo.
As always, she and daughter Dalia were more than generous with their
selections, which included the 2007 Carneros Pinot Noir and a ripe 2008 Carneros Chardonnay. I was particularly impressed with the 2007 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and their enticing 2008 Dulce Beso, an intensely sweet Late Harvest selection blended from Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Renteria, another winery with which I have long been familiar, poured a representative trio of their noteworthy wines: the 2009 Chardonnay Carneros, their 2007 Pinot Noir Knittel Vineyard, and a most amiable 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley

I have visited the Robledo Family Winery in Carneros and while Bonness Road stands squarely in the portion of the AVA, many of their wines are crafted from an array of Napa vineyards, as exemplified by their outstanding 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley–6th Collector’s Edition. Where the AVA line falls for their 2009 Los Carneros Chardonnay and 2009 Los Carneros Pinot Noir is of little consequence—both were quite delectable, as was the 2009 Tempranillo Lake County (a curiously underrepresented varietal here) and the 2006 Los Braceros, a Sonoma Valley blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah.

Los Braceros is a tribute to the Mexican field workers that have truly constituted the backbone of the California agricultural industry since the 1800s. Robledo proudly salutes its rise from such humble origins to its current position of prominence and is often cited as a paragon of the “True American Dream.” Similar stories could be told of all the founders of NVMAVA. My own decades of experience with the California wine industry has me finely attuned to the handful of endeavors whose amazing degree of success allows them to bottle and release their wines as they see fitl, aged to the point of perfection, and not mandated by the vicissitudes of the economic climate. Here today, at the pinnacle, my friends from Delgadillo showcased their current release, the lusciously layered 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon. In a climate that is already pushing the 2009 vintages onto the shelves, this rare achievement was truly a monument to success for all the members here.