Monthly Archives: November 2011

Redux: So many tastings. So little time.

Oh, if only there were four (maybe five) of Your West Coast Oenophile to crank out this column! Actually, if I were quintuplets, I would have one of me oversee and manage the development of Sostevinobile, another liaise with the 8,000+ wine labels in California, Washington, and Oregon, a third run the wine programs at all of our (eventual) locations, have Marco Quattro handle funding, and let the one who drew the short straw sit in front of a keyboard and churn the daily prose here. Not that I would ever demean the pleasures of the scribe.

I shouldn’t really apologize for being so far behind—after all, if July’s weather has decided it can show up in October, so, too, can my reviews and witticisms roll in at a languid pace. And so the events I attended in lieu of journeying East for Livia’s ottantenario now occupy the forefront of this blog, commencing with the Grand Tasting for a new annual celebration.

Held at the Westin St. Francis, Sonoma in the City brought together an impressive array of wineries from the county’s various sub-AVAs. The alphabetical listings in the program, however, held little correlation to the actual floor plan of the exhibit room, but being the first production of this event, its organizers can be forgiven for the confusion in locating the tables I had earmarked (I suspect I might have been able to cover 50% more of the wineries, had navigating the layout not been so challenging). The first winery I was able to find turned out to be Argot, a whimsical Sonoma venture I had not previously encountered. Predominantly focused on Bennett Valley fruit, they began their tasting with the 2009 Happenstance, a deft blend of 70% Roussanne from the acclaimed Saralee’s Vineyard with 30% Chardonnay. This same Bennett Valley Chardonnay comprised the 2009 Old Habits, a wine on par with their 2007 The Preamble, a straightforward Bennett Valley Syrah. Their final offering, the 2009 Over the Moon displayed the ample potential Bennett Valley offers for Pinot Noir.

The program called them Draxton. The parent venture, however, calls itself Vintners Signatures. in contrast, the website lists the label as El Roy. Despite this conundrum, the wines proved uniformly quite good, starting with a crisp 2010 Sauvignon Blanc Dry Creek Valley. I liked the more modest 2009 El Roy Chardonnay and the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley both, but found 2007 Malbec Alexander Valley clearly preferable

Even though I have been familiar with Saintsbury’s Garnet since the early 1980s, I had not realized that it had been spun off as an independent label and acquired earlier this year by David Biggar’ and Tom Peterson’s Vintage Point, a Sonoma partnership that also markets such favorites as Educated Guess and Layer Cake. To be honest, I have not always been a fan of this approach to crafting Pinot, but was surprisingly pleased by the 2009 Carneros Pinot Noir, especially considering that it represents a 10,000 case undertaking. On the other hand, I was well aware that the venerable MacRostie label had been sold to Lion Nathan, an Australian/New Zealand-based importer/producer that also owns Oregon’s esteemed Argyle Winery; still under the tutelage of Steve MacRostie, the 2008 Sonoma Chardonnay remained a most pleasant wine.

I’m not sure how I’d missed Red Car before this event—Director of Sales and Viticulture Paul Sequeira is married to my good friend Simone Sequeira of La Follette—but perhaps I may have confused it with Red Truck, which has been subsumed by the good folks at JFJ Bronco. Nonetheless, Red Car sits at the proverbial antipode to Ceres’ œnology, meticulously producing restrained, unfettered wines from the Sonoma Coast. Befitting wineries that share Red Car’s æsthetic, their lineup focuses on Chardonnay, Syrah, and Pinot Noir. Their entry-level line, Boxcar, featured a palatable 2009 Chardonnay Sonoma Coast, while both the 2009 Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast and the 2008 Syrah Sonoma Coast from their Trolley series pleased immensely. I can’t quite decipher the nomenclature from their eclectic Reserve lineup, but was just as enthralled with the 2009 Aphorist, a Pinot Noir from Bartolomei Vineyard.

One of my all-time favorite aphorists was the self-proclaimed MetaPhys Ed Teacher, who memorably pronounced “It’s not whether you win or lose. It just is.” This philosophy parallels Sostevinobile’s efforts to stay non-judgmental about the various approaches to making wine different winerires here on the West Coast practice (with the caveat that these effo
rts reflect a sincere attempt to craft quality wine, not simply move quantities of mass-produced juice)
. This straightforward approach is exemplified in hundreds of wineries I encounter, including my discovery of Rockpile’s Bruliam Wines, where Brian Overstreet and his wife Kerith, a former general surgeon turned œnologist, handcraft a trio of vineyard-designated Pinots, alongside a stellar 2009 Rocky Ridge Vineyard Zinfandel. Sourced from The Swale, an exclusive ¾ acre block of this prized Rockpile vineyard, this limited release derives exclusively from the St. Peters Church Heritage Zinfandel clone. Dedication, precision, devotion—it just is.

Another discovery here, Bennett Valley’s Sable Ridge, concentrates its efforts on Syrah. Sonoma in the City provided an exquisite platform for the winery to contrast its current release, the 2008 Syrah Bennett Valley with its well-rounded elder sibling, the 2002 Syrah Bennett Valley. Both proved immensely appealing in their own right. I had had a number of occasions lately to sample from Flanagan Vineyards, but somehow had managed to arrive right after they had packed up. Under the tutelage of Philippe Melka, this Bennett Valley winery finally managed to impress me with both their 2008 Syrah and an equally balanced 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon.

From there, my task became to navigate as many familiar wineries as I could fit in logistically, with the scant amount of time and confusing floor plan. First up, I visited with the redoubtable Acorn Winery, but rather than bore dedicated Sostevinobile readers with my recurrent plea to sample their Dolcetto, I’ll merely highlight both their 2007 Cabernet Franc Alegría Vineyards and, of course, the 2007 Sangiovese Alegría Vineyards. Similarly reaffirming the quality of their craft was longtime familiar Peay Vineyards, ably serving up both their 2009 Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast and a highly memorable 2009 Pinot Noir Pomarium Estate Sonoma Coast. Another of Peay’s confrères from the West of West Festival that promoted the West Sonoma Coast Vintners, fellow Kissie Steven Singer’s Baker Lane held its own with its 2008 Estate Vineyard Syrah.

An equally appealing 2007 Cardiac Hill Syrah from Jemrose stood between their crisp 2009 Egret Pond Viognier and the compelling 2008 Foggy Knoll Grenache. And I certainly found myself exuberant about Bill Canihan’s 2007 Exuberance Estate, his special reserve bottling of his Syrah. Arguably, however, the benchmark for Syrah came from Westerhold, which paired two equally stunning bottlings, the 2007 Estate Syrah Bennett Valley and a pre-release of its successive vintage, both singular efforts from this esteemed family boutique. And although Schug is primarily regarded for its Pinots, I opted only to sample the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma Valley this go-around.

As noted in previous postings, I have often been impressed with Ray D’Argenzio’s Italian bottlings, particularly his ongoing efforts to produce a California Amarone. Today, however, his offerings included only his more mainstream Sonoma wines, of which I happily partook in the 2006 Zinfandel Russian River Valley and the 2006 Petite Sirah Russian River Valley. Still, I was not to be denied my predilection for my ancestral varietals, starting with a pair of wines from Muscardini. As per usual, I greatly enjoyed the 2008 Tesoro, Mike’s proprietary blend of Sangiovese with Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, but his real gem this afternoon was the new 2009 Sangiovese, an exquisite rendition of the grape.

Meanwhile, the olive oil virtuosos at DaVero showed just how adept they can be at vinification, starting with their 2008 Sangiovese Dry Creek Valley. I had hoped they would have poured their famed Sagrantino here, but its absence was mitigated by the superb 2007 Rosso di Bea, a miscela of Sagrantino and Sangiovese in equal proportions. DaVero’s second label displayed both skill and diversity, starting with the 2008 Falco Barbera, as well as with a non-Italian red, the 2008 Falco Zinfandel. Their versatility also extended into the white realm, with a delightful 2009 Falco Vermentino and their special 2010 Falco So’ Bianco, a complex blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Musqué, with just a touch of Riesling.

One would think that Ray Teldeschi’s Del Carlo Winery would produce Italian varietals, and certainly with his acclaim for Zinfandel, Primitivo would not constitute a stretch, but for now, I was sufficed by his 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Dry Creek Valley and, naturally, the 2007 Old Vine Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley. Another strong showing for Zin came from Everett Ridge, with their small production 2007 Estate Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley. Still, Gracianna came c
lose to stratospheric with their amazing 2009 Zinfandel Russian River Valley. And while this extraordinary wine proved their forte, I found both the 2009 Pinot Noir Russian River Valley and its immediate predecessor more than compelling, while greatly enjoying the 2010 Suzanne’s Blend Chardonnay.

Just as Westerhold focuses on a single varietal & bottling, Garden Creek Ranch annually produces around 500 cases of its proprietary Bordeaux blend. Here I had a definite preference for the 2004 Tesserae, though the 2005 vintage certainly displayed nothing to scoff at! Also with an attenuated inventory, Hidden Ridge features quite possibly the most vertically daunting vineyard to harvest in California. And yet its 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon 55% Slope (!) presents a wine that surpasses in its approachability.

At the other end of the spectrum, Hartford Family Winery offered a diverse range of exceptional wines. The 2007 Land’s End Pinot Noir tantalized with overtures of virtuosity I normally expect from their Pinot lineup, but their strong suit came from their Zins, of which I sampled three. Equally impressive were the 2009 Zinfandel Highwire Vineyard and the 2009 Zinfandel Fanucchi-Wood Road Vineyard, but the utter standout had to have been the non-specific 2009 Zinfandel Russian River Valley. Keeping pace, Hartford’s white wine portfolio featured a marvelous 2008 Stone Côte Chardonnay and three equally outstanding vintages from the Russian River Valley: the 2009 Four Hearts Chardonnay, the 2009 Fog Dance Chardonnay, and a superbly aged 2007 Laura’s Chardonnay.

Gracefully aging, too, was the 2002 Estate Pinot Noir from former Ambassador to Italy James Zellerbach’s Hanzell Vineyards. Ripe and ready now, the 2009 Pinot Noir Floodgate Vineyard from Cartograph exemplified this emerging vintage, while their 2010 Gewürztraminer Floodgate Vineyard proved equally appealing. Halfway between these vintages, the 2006 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon from Laurel Glen affirmed why this sometimes obviated Glen Ellen producer has quietly remained a force with which to be reckoned for the past 30 years. Ironically, its only other selection, the 2007 Counterpoint makes no counterpoint but rather underscores Laurel Glen’s reputation for Sonoma Cabernet.

Oftentimes, trade tastings afford me the opportunity to sample wines outside of the varietals or blends for which a particular winery’s is customarily acclaimed. For example, I have typically turned to Iron Horse as a favored sparkling wine house since the mid-1980s, and certainly here the 2008 Classic Vintage Brut Green Valley was a paragon of their forte. Still, the 2008 Unoaked Chardonnay Green Valley displayed an equal facility with still wines. Similarly, I think of Mauritson as the pioneers of the Rockpile AVA—its Zins in particular. Here, their Zin offering was an inarguably excellent 2009 Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley, alongside a more modest 2010 Sauvignon Blanc Dry Creek Valley. From their perch above Lake Sonoma, the 2008 Petite Sirah Rockpile Madrone Spring Vineyard displayed an utterly exquisite wine, while the 2007 Buck Pasture Red Wine exhibited all the finest qualities of a complex Meritage still 5-10 years away from peaking.

Other wineries here held close to their common perceived claim to fame. Kosta Browne offered a selection of their highly prized Pinots, including the 2009 Pinot Noir Russian River Valley and the 2009 Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast. Their Sonoma Coast brethren at Littorai shone, as usual, with their 2008 Pinot Noir The Pivot Vineyard and the 2008 Platt Vineyard Pinot Noir.

Winding my way through the maze and the crowd that filled the ballroom at the St. Francis left scant time to visit with but two more wineries. With no overt agenda in mind, I drifted over to the table for Medlock Ames, one of the wineries most dedicated to sustainable practices throughout every aspect of their architecture and viticultural methodology. Their 2007 Red Bell Mountain Ranch ably blended Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, while the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley begged to remain bottled for at least four more years. As is wont to happen, the 2007 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Dry Creek Valley from Fritz seemed quite drinkable now, while their coda to this tasting, the Chardonnay/Sauvignon Blanc blend known as the 2010 Vino Valpredo Bianca Mia, with its very Italianate bottle, easily won for the most intriguing name of the afternoon.

Ah, if there had only been more intrigue for Sostevinobile! But another day and another tasting loomed just on the horizon, and so I hastily pedaled back to Pacific Heights and rested up for the next day’s onslaught