Marching forward, Your West Coast Oenophile became mired in circumstances that compelled me to miss out on this year’s celebration of Première Napa Valley. Regrettable, of course, but with the prospect of finally launching Sostevinobile’s physical operations this year, I have vowed to return in 2013 fully credentialed as a prospective buyer.
My lapse this year meant a prolonged break from formal wine tastings until the return of In Pursuit of Balance, the very focused wine colloquium sponsored once again by Rajat Parr and Jasmine Hirsch. Though relocated from Parr’s RN74 to the Julia Morgan Ballroom atop San Francisco’s Merchant Exchange Building—a venue quite a few levels below the Michael Mina-catered cuisine from the inaugural event, the tasting drew very nearly the exact same lineup of wineries pouring, a veritable Who’s Who of restrained œnology in California.
The one newcomer this afternoon, Petaluma’s Soliste, derives its name from the Burgundian practice of reserving a barrel for the vintner’s family and friends; the goal of the winery is to make each vintage they produce seem as individually cared for. Here, the meticulous craftsmanship was readily apparent in each of the three Sonoma Coast Pinots they featured, starting with the 2009 Sonatera Vineyard Pinot Noir. The subsequent vintage introduced two new bottlings with great aplomb, the 2010 Nouveau Monde Pinot Noir and a superb 2010 Forêt Pinot Noir.
I started the tasting with Alta Maria Vineyards, a joint project from Paul Wilkins and James Ontiveros. Its 2009 Chardonnay Santa Maria Valley and 2009 Pinot Noir Santa Maria Valley could easily have served as benchmarks for the afternoon. James’ primary venture, Native⁹, comported itself quite admirably with the splendid 2009 Rancho Ontiveros Vineyard Pinot Noir.
The trio who produce Anthill Farms impressed this afternoon with a trio of their wines, starting with the 2010 Tina Marie Pinot Noir from Grass Valley; while the 2009 Demuth Pinot Noir was a superb wine, the 2009 Comptche Ridge Pinot Noir proved utterly majestic. Arnot-Roberts may only boast a duo behind their winemaking, but their range should little limitation, with striking productions of their contrasting 2010 Watson Ranch Chardonnay (Napa Valley) and the 2011 Trout Gulch Vineyard Chardonnay (Santa Cruz Mountains), complemented by the surprisingly ripe 2011 Peter Martin Ray Vineyard Pinot Noir, another Santa Cruz bottling.
Many of the wineries in this group eschew restricting their viticulture exploits to a single AVA. Wind Gap’s Pax Mahle sources his fruit from the disparate appellations of both the Sonoma Coast and the Santa Cruz Mountains, and while the nature of In Pursuit of Balance restricted him from pouring some of his most interesting fare, like his Nebbiolo, Trousseau Gris, and esoteric blends, I found his contrasting Chards and Pinots here quite compelling. On the white side, the excellence of his 2009 Gap’s Crown Chardonnay (Sonoma) was nonetheless exceeded by the wondrous 2009 Woodruff Chardonnay (Santa Cruz); with the red selections, both hailing from the subsequent vintage, the 2010 Gap’s Crown Pinot Noir outshone the elegant 2010 Woodruff Pinot Noir. Similarly, Sashi Moorman’s Evening Land Vineyards spans not only Santa Barbara and Sonoma County, but traipses across state lines to the Willamette Valley to source its fruit. Here, a trio of superb wines included the 2010 Occidental Vineyard Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast, the 2010 Tempest Vineyard Pinot Noir from the Santa Rita Hills, and a truly spectacular 2010 Santa Rita Hills Estate Pinot Noir.
Another In Pursuit of Balance stalwart, Copain, always puts on a commanding presentation of their wines. Wells Guthrie featured three enticing Pinot from Anderson Valley: the 2009 Monument Tree Pinot Noir, his 2009 Kiser En Haut Pinot Noir, and the standout, the 2009 Wentzel Pinot Noir. Outpacing this trio, however, was a luscious 2010 Brousseau Chardonnay from the Chalone AVA that transects Monterey and San Benito counties. Nearby, from Calera’s “private” appellation, the Mt. Harlan AVA, Josh Jensen served up his usual array of compelling Chards and Pinots, starting with his introductory 2010 Chardonnay Central Coast. At the next level, both his 2010 Chardonnay Mt. Harlan and 2009 Ryan Vineyard Pinot Noir struck concordant notes, while the 2009 Selleck Vineyard Pinot Noir outshone even the library selection: the 1998 Reed Vineyard Pinot Noir (all from Mt. Harlan).
Cabernet specialists Silver Oak produces an adjunct Pinot-focused label, Twomey Cellars, which subsumed the former Roshambo facility in Healdsburg. With grapes sourced from four distinct AVAs, their wines ran the gamut, with striking vintages from both the 2009 Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast and the 2009 Pinot Noir Anderson Valley. Their single vineyard bottling, the 2009 Bien Nacido Vineyard Pinot Noir seemed a tad less refined, while the 2010 Pinot Noir Russian River Valley paled in comparison to the preceding 2009 Pinot Noir Russian River Valley.
Not straying from Sonoma, Red Car nonetheless brought a mix of wines, beginning with an extraordinary 2010 Ritchie Vineyard Chardonnay from their Trolley series. Breaking pattern for the afternoon, the 2011 Boxcar Rosé was a flavorful saignée consisting of 62% Syrah and 38% Pinot Noir. A pure Pinot Noir, Red Car’s 2010 The Aphorist, proved more than enjoyable, but the 2010 Heaven & Earth Pinot Noir seemed a bit askew, like the misplaced accent aigu above the first e of “La Bohéme Vineyard” in their tasting notes.
Neither diacriticals nor Sonoma constituted part of the picture for Sandhi, the joint Santa Rita Hills venture from Sashi Moorman and Rajat Parr. As cohost of In Pursuit of Balance, I suppose it was Rajat’s prerogative to pour six wines, which, fortuitously, did not disappoint in the least. On the white side, the trio of Chardonnays included the 2010 Sanford & Benedict Chardonnay, an impressive 2010 Bent Rock Chardonnay, and the utterly compelling 2010 Rita’s Crown Chardonnay. In tandem with the Chard, the 2010 Sanford & Benedict Pinot Noir proved an exceptionally balanced wine, though exceeded by both the unspecified 2010 Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills and the clear favorite, the 2010 Evening Land Tempest Pinot Noir.
While the afternoon’s other host, Hirsch Vineyards, is renowned for its Pinot plantings, here the 2010 Estate Chardonnay outshone its Burgundian confrères. Nonetheless, I found much to extol about their 2010 Bohan Dillon Pinot Noir, along with the equally-appealing 2009 San Andreas Fault Pinot Noir and the 2009 Reserve Estate Pinot Noir. And, of course, I immensely enjoyed the offerings from the Sonoma Coast’s perennially popular Flowers, which showcased its 2009 Camp Meeting Ridge Chardonnay and 2009 Camp Meeting Ridge Pinot Noir, alongside the striking 2009 Sea View Ridge Estate Pinot Noir.
I can’t really say why it resonates, but Failla just sounds (when pronounced properly in Italian) like it ought to be an ultrapremium label, and with wines like their 2010 Hudson Vineyard Chardonnay and their extraordinary rendition of a 2010 Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast, that supposition was once again validate. Pleasing, if not striking: their 2010 Chardonnay Sonoma Coast and the 2010 Keefer Ranch Pinot Noir. And while wine cognoscenti clash over the pronunciation of Peay, little is disputed over the consistent quality of their Sonoma Coast bottlings, apart from my distinct preference for their 2009 Estate Chardonnay over its subsequent vintage. Peay’s 2010 Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast may have tasted a sli
ght notch below Failla’s, but both their 2010 Pomarium Estate Pinot Noir and the 2010 Scallop Shelf Estate Pinot Noir easily rivaled it.
John Raytek’s Ceritas hails from the Sonoma Coast, too, offering a pair of vineyard-designate Chardonnays and Pinots. While the 2010 Escarpa Vineyard Pinot Noir seemed a bit young yet amiable, the 2010 Annabelle Vineyard Pinot Noir proved eminently drinkable at this stage. My preference here, however, belonged to the 2010 Porter-Bass Vineyard Chardonnay and the equally compelling 2010 Heintz Vineyard Chardonnay. I found another Sonoma Coast exhibitor, Cobb Wines, a bit more perfunctory, although its wines here were longer aged. My preference here was for the 2009 Joy Road Vineyard Chardonnay, but I still held a moderate appreciation for the 2008 Emmaline Ann Vineyard Pinot Noir and its coeval, the 2008 Rice-Spivak Vineyard Pinot Noir.
At the proximate table, Chanin offered a quartet of its Santa Barbara vintages on par with Cobb, starting with the 2009 Los Alamos Vineyard Chardonnay. I found the 2009 Bien Nacido Vineyard Chardonnay slightly preferable, as was the 2009 Bien Nacido Vineyard Pinot Noir to the 2009 Le Bon Climat Pinot Noir, an organically-grown wine.
Au Bon Climat, of course, is a much-revered enterprise from the Santa Maria Valley that farms both the Bien Nacido and Le Bon Climat vineyards. of course, their wines would have been even more enjoyable had Jim Clendenen been on hand to pour, but nonetheless, I found the 2008 Ici/La-Bas Les Revelles a wonderful expression of an Elke Valley (Mendocino) Pinot Noir. Even more impressive: the 2007 Barham Mendelsohn Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley and the 2009 Pinot Noir Isabelle, a blend from sundry Santa Rita Hills Vineyards, including Bien Nacido, Sanford & Benedict, Talley Rincon, and Mt. Carmel.
Perhaps the most consistently superb winery on hand—at least from the standpoint of their offerings here, Freeman dazzled with a trio of their selections, headed by the 2010 Ryo-fu Chardonnay from the Russian River Valley. Equally compelling: the 2010 Keefer Ranch Pinot Noir from the same AVA, while, not surprisingly, their Sonoma Coast selection, the eponymous 2010 Akiko’s Cuvée Pinot Noir proved near flawless. I could be just as effusive about the 2008 Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast Freestone poured, but both the 2009 Chardonnay Sonoma Coast and the 2009 Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast struck me as more modest in their scope.
Several of the wineries featured at In Pursuit of Balance offer their most compelling wines from outside the Burgundian spectrum or the Syrah selections that seem de rigeur for most of these vignerons. Lioco produces a delectable Pinot Blanc, for instance, as well as an annual proprietary blend of Carignane and Petite Sirah they call Indica. Here, however, there was much to admire in their 2010 Demuth Vineyard Chardonnay and a delicious 2010 Chardonnay Russian River Valley. A similar contrast marked their 2010 Pinot Noir Anderson Valley and the 2010 Hirsch Vineyard Pinot Noir. Behind the mesmerizing blue eyes of Littorai sometimes lies a most seductive late harvest Gewürztraminer called Lemon’s Folly. Still, in its absence, the five wines poured here proved nothing short of spectacular. All that prevent me from heaping superlatives on the 2010 May Canyon Vineyard Chardonnay was the startling brilliance of the 2009 Charles Heintz Vineyard Chardonnay. And only the luscious texture of the 2009 Cerise Vineyard Pinot Noir could eclipse the wonders of both the 2009 Savoy Vineyard Pinot Noir and the matching 2009 The Haven Vineyard Pinot Noir.
Not every winery can boast its own private appellation, but Calera has exclusive hold on the Mt. Harlan AVA in San Benito County, a sparsely populated enclave abutting both Santa Cruz and the self-proclaimed Garlic Capital of the World, Gilroy. Here amid the Gabilan Mountains, Josh Jensen forges his revered Burgundian vintages, starting here with his entry-level 2010 Chardonnay Central Coast. Ramping up, his 2010 Chardonnay Mt. Harlan manifested an exceptional expression of the varietal, while a pair of Pinots proved his forte: the 2009 Ryan Vineyard Pinot Noir and the ex
ceptional 2009 Selleck Vineyard Pinot Noir. To validate Calera’s age-worthiness, the 1998 Reed Vineyard Pinot Noir admirably held its own with these later bottlings
Having exclusive claim to represent its AVA here, Mount Eden Vineyards ably showcased the potential of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Here, they poured an abundant selection from both their primary and secondary labels, leading with 2009 Domaine Eden Chardonnay. As is appropriate, Mount Eden Vineyards’ 2007 Estate Chardonnay proved demonstrably superior, while the 2009 Estate Chardonnay tasted utterly glorious. Similarly, the 2009 Domaine Eden Pinot Noir stood as an amiable expression of the grape, while both the 2008 Estate Bottled Pinot Noir and the 2009 Estate Bottled Pinot Noir tasted markedly better.
Ventura County’s lone representative here, The Ojai Vineyard, should never be confused with an Ohio vineyard, where wine-tasting can indeed be a life-imperiling experience. And while their grapes do not derive from their home county, neither do they source such non-vinifera varietals as Niagara, Catawba or Concord from the Lake Erie shore front. What Adam Tolmach’s prolific venture does produce is an exceptional lineup of Burgundian varietals, as exemplified first by the 2008 Chardonnay Santa Barbara County and more so by an exceptional rendition of a 2009 Bien Nacido Chardonnay. The Pinot selections comprised of the 2011 Fe Ciega Pinot Noir, a remarkable wine for so early a release, and the glorious 2008 Presidio Pinot Noir.
In contrast, Miura Vineyards
lacks a specific AVA. Or a identifiable physical facility. Or even a
Website. Still, Emmanuel Kemiji crafts a beautiful array of wines,
focusing on Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and (not on hand for this tasting) Merlot. Without question, his 2009 Talley Vineyard Chardonnay stood a notch above his compelling trio of equally-impressive Pinots: the 2009 Silacci Ranch Pinot Noir from Monterey, a 2009 Williams Ranch Pinot Noir out of Anderson Valley, and Emmanuel’s personal interpretation of the 2009 Pisoni Vineyard Pinot Noir (Santa Lucia Highlands).
I wrapped up my session with In Pursuit of Balance with iconic producer Tyler Winery
of Santa Barbara. With grapes sourced from many of the same Santa Rita
Hills and Santa Maria Valley vineyards as many of the other presenters,
these wines began with an assurance of quality and finished with their
own flair. This was particularly evident with both the 2009 Clos Pepe Chardonnay and the 2009 Clos Pepe Pinot Noir, not as dramatic with the 2010 Dierberg Chardonnay and the 2010 Pinot Noir Santa Barbara County. Justin Willett’s pinnacle, of course, was the 2010 Bien Nacido-Q Block Pinot Noir, a most superb wine with which to cap the afternoon.
I might continue to
review the other aspects of this tasting, but I suppose to refrain from
further observation would be perfectly in line with the motif of
restraint that characterizes all the wines of In Pursuit of Balance. Besides, there will always be next year, as well the many other recent events that demand Sostevinobile’s scrutiny and words.
The first of two premier annual Howell Mountain showcases takes place at San Francisco’s Bently Reserve. Like many tastings from the Napa Valley, Moving Mountains Above the Fog offered a wonderful excuse to luxuriate in the opulence of great Cabernets and other varietals. Given the myriad times I have reviewed each of the wineries pouring at this session, it behooves me, once again, simply to highlight the upper tiers from Sostevinobile’s elusive scale for assaying the wines I sample.
Wines that I would deem very good, if not excellent, included such gems as both the 2010 Howell Mountain Estate Sauvignon Blanc and the 2007 Howell Mountain Estate Cabernet Sauvignon from Bravante, Piña Napa Valley’s 2007 Buckeye Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, the 2007 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon from Red Cap, and the 2009 Risa, a Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated Meritage that White Cottage Ranch poured. Two especial treats at this level included the 2002 Howell Mountain Zinfandel Port from Summit Lake and Cornerstone’s library selection, the 1994 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon.
At the next elevation up, metaphorically speaking, Black Sears Vineyards led an array of stunning Cabs with their 2009 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. A bit older, both Blue Hall, with its 2007 Camiana Cabernet Sauvignon and Bravante with its 2007 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon, rose to the same heights. Also flourishing with 2007 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon: Highlands Winery and my friend Bob Matousek’s Roberts+Rogers. In contrast—but by no means contrarian—the 2007 Howell Mountain Zinfandel former ZAP president Duane Dappen poured from his D-Cubed Cellars proved equally compelling.
Cornerstone superseded their earlier offering with sequentially impressive bottlings of the 2008 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2009 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon. Kendall-Jackson’s La Jota matched its 2009 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon with a comparable 2009 Howell Mountain Cabernet Franc. Bremer Family offered twin delights with their 2005 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon and 2005 Howell Mountain Merlot.
Some day, Denis Malbec’s Notre
Vin will produce a version of their self-referential varietal, but for now little was left wanting with their exceptional 2008 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2008 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon from Marc Cohen’s Howell at the Moon commanded similar exuberance, as did the organic 2006 Estate Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon from Neal Family.
At the apex of this tasting, Cimarossa arguably tends Howell Mountain’s most prized vineyard, and its extraordinary 2008 Riva di Ponente Cabernet Sauvignon well lived up to this lofty reputation. On par with this exceptional bottling, Bremer showcased their 2005 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon Cimarossa Vineyard. The resurgence of St. Helena’s Charles Krug manifested itself in their 2007 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon Rocky Ridge Vineyard while the venerable Cakebread offered an equally compelling 2008 Dancing Bear Cabernet Sauvignon. Piña’s 2008 Buckeye Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon proved a quantum leap above its previous vintage, while Dunn Vineyards cemented its prestigious reputation with both their 2005 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon and a library selection, the 1998 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon.
I could wax eloquent on many more of the wines poured here, if the need for relative brevity and another backlog of events did not preclude further exposition. But to dispel any notion that my overt exuberance for the wines of Howell Mountain poured belies a reluctance to discern—or worse, a lack of critical objectivity. Perish the thought! The absence of a roast beef carving station, one of the principal allures of previous tastings, sorely impacted my endurance, even if it left my palate relatively uncompromised and may have even compelled me to consider precluding my attendance at future events—for a brief moment!
Seriously, as much as I loved the Howell Mountain tasting, I probably could not have faced sipping another Cabernet for at least a week. Which made the 15th Annual Rhône Rangers Grand Tasting three days later all the more welcome.
Now I don’t believe I have partaken in all fifteen of these sessions, but I have certainly attended Rhône Rangers from as far back as when Alban Vineyards still participated (I believe it was their 2000 Reserve Viognier that convinced me that California had, at last, achieved mastery of the varietal). But the downside to my frequency here is that it leaves a paucity of new wineries for Sostevinobile to discover.
Petrichor Vineyards is a relatively new boutique operation out of Santa Rosa, producing a scant 140 cases of their Rhône blend, the 2009 Les Trois, an anomalous mix of 86% Syrah (from two distinct clones) and 14% Grenache, an amiable wine that overshadowed the pre-release of its 2010 vintage. A more distinctive and traditional GMS blend, the 2009 Inspiration from Paso Robles’ Pear Valley Vineyard, featured 59% Syrah, 32% Grenache, and 9% Mourvèdre. Their single varietal bottlings, the 2006 Syrah and the 2009 Grenache, seemed more modest, however.
The rather understated Refugio Ranch curiously bestows Spanish epithets, derived from names for extinct languages indigenous to its Los Olivos-area tribes, on its estate Rhône blends, but there is nothing ambiguous about either the 2010 Ineseño (60% Roussanne/40% Viognier) nor the 2009 Barbereño (65% Syrah. 35% Petite Sirah). Out of Fulton (Sonoma County), Sanglier Cellars made a similarly impressive debut with a quartet of wines, starting with the 2011 Rosé du Tusque, a delightful pink rendition of a Grenache/Mourvèdre/Carignane blend. Their new alloy, the 2009 Boar’s Camp, combined 65% Syrah with 21% Grenache and 14% Cinsault, while the exceptional 2009 Rouge du Tusque married 49% Syrah, 33% Petite Sirah, and 18% Grenache. Despite Sanglier’s strong propensity for blending, the 2009 Syrah Kemp Vineyard displayed extraordinary versatility with single varietal bottlings, as well.
Commanding a wide range of Rhône varietal
s, Santa Rosa’s Two Shepherds initially sounded as if it might be the opening to a bad Brokeback Mountain joke, but a sip of their 2010 MRV Saralee’s Vineyard, a compelling mélange of 47% Marsanne and 47% Roussanne, with 6% Viognier, quickly establishes the deftness of this enterprise. The 2010 Viognier Saralee’s Vineyard approached the same level of likability, while the 2010 Grenache Blanc Saarloos Vineyard sourced the Santa Ynez Valley to craft this wine. While the Grenache-dominant 2010 GSM Russian River Valley presented an approachable red blend, the equally balanced 2010 Syrah|Mourvèdre, also from Russian River Valley grapes, represented a far more formidable endeavor.
My final new discovery of the day came from Wesley Ashley, a relatively new winery heralding from the unpresupposing enclave of Alamo in Contra Costa County. The ironic labels for the red and white blends they call “Intelligent Design” feature an imaginary depiction of would likely constitute the least ergonomic bicycle ever built. No such folly goes into their winemaking, however, with the 2009 Intelligent Design Cuvée Blanc artfully combining 50% Viognier, 30% Roussanne, and 20% Grenache Blanc. The 2007 Intelligent Design Cuvée Rouge offered a Carignane-based blend, with Grenache, Cinsault, Petite Sirah, Mourvèdre, and Pinot Noir (!) added; in contrast the 2009 Intelligent Design Cuvée Rouge comprised 75% Grenache, 20% Syrah and 5% Petite Sirah, a radical departure that nonetheless proved evolutionary.
Having completed my discovery round, I did mange to sample from quite a few old friends and other presenters, starting with an exceptional pair of wines from Paso Robles’ Caliza: their 2009 Syrah and a 2009 Red Cohort, an extraordinary, albeit unorthodox, blend of 55% Syrah, 20% Petite Sirah, 20% Primitivo, and 5% Grenache. Also heralding from Paso Robles, one of last year’s most striking discoveries proved just as compelling the second time around, as Edward Sellers started their presentation with their 2009 Le Passage Estate, a vin blanc composed of 43% Grenache Blanc, 36% Roussanne, and 21% Marsanne. I found both the 2008 Syrah Sélectionée and the 2008 The Thief, a Syrah-based blend with 26% Mourvèdre, 12% Grenache, and 6%
Cinsault equally compelling, while the 2007 Vertigo, a traditional GMS blend, dominated these selections.
I have long been an unabashed fan of Bill Frick’s Rhône wines, but opted here to sample only the single varietals. On the white side, the 2008 Grenache Blanc Owl Hill Vineyard and the 2009 Viognier Gannon Vineyard proved excellent vintages. Even more pleasing—the 2008 Grenache Conley Vineyard. But certainly his forte turned out to be the three C’s—stratospheric bottlings of the 2008 Counoise Owl Hill Vineyard, the 2008 Cinsault Dry Creek Valley and his 2006 Carignan Mendocino County.
Down from Placerville, Holly’s Hill kept pace with their 2010 Counoise and one of the afternoon’s few single varietal bottlings of the 2009 Mourvèdre Classique. From even further north, Oregon’s Folin Cellars poured four Rogue Valley wines, ranging from a tepid 2010 Estate Petite Sirah and a genial GMS blend, the 2009 Misceo, to a distinctive 2011 Estate Viognier and the extraordinary 2008 Estate Syrah, quite possibly the best bottling of this varietal on hand this afternoon.
Quady North, Andrew Quady’s Oregon branch, focuses more on traditional wines than does his original Madera facility, with its Vermouths and fortified vintages. Here they showcased their viticultural versatility with the 2011 Pistoleta, a blend of ⅓ Viognier, ⅓Roussanne, and ⅓ Marsanne. The compellingly dry 2011 Rosé combines 40% Grenache and 60% Syrah, while their signature 2008 4.2-a Syrah proved superb. As an added treat, Quady North sampled their 2010 Bomba, a co-fermented Syrah/Grenache wine exclusively exported to Belgium.
Oregon House is an obscure hamlet 90 miles northeast of Sacramento—not even in proximity to the Oregon border—and home to Renaissance Winery,
an esoteric cultivar that has previously graced these pages.
Contrasting the evening of 35 Cabernets I sampled on my pilgrimage to
their 30th Anniversary celebration, here they featured a varied
selection of both red and white Rhônes, starting with the 2006 Roussanne Vendanges Tardives and its preferable counterpoint, the 2006 Roussanne Vin de Terroir. I found no qualitative separation between the 2005 Estate Syrah and the finely-aged 2002 Estate Syrah. The 2005 Granite Crown, an even Cabernet Sauvignon/Syrah blend again proved on par with the other reds, as did the 2001 Claret Prestige, a blend of indeterminate components, including Syrah, while the 2006 Mediterranean Red, a less-common GMS blend focus on Mourvèdre, constituted their best offering of the afternoon.
I won’t hazard a guess whether another allegedly cult-like practice (biodynamics) constitutes the distinguishing factor in Quivira’s superb rendition of the 2009 Estate Mourvèdre, but the wine begged for extreme accolades. Almost as distinguished—their 2009 Grenache Dry Creek Valley, while the 2009 Estate Petite Sirah, the not-so-elusive GMS Blend, the 2009 Elusive, and their exquisite 2011 Rosé (51% Mourvèdre, 18% Carignane, 18% Counoise, 7% Grenache, 6% Syrah) all proved more than delightful.
As always, it was good to see the ever-reliable Truchard Vineyards on hand. From their perch on the Napa side of Carneros, Jo Ann and Tony grow a wide variety of grapes ranging from Cabernet to Pinot Noir to Tempranillo, as befits the venerable viticulturists that they are. Here, their Rhône selections comprised of a 2010 Roussanne, their 2009 Syrah, and an indelible 2007 Late Harvest Roussanne, all estate grown. The 2011 Rosé from Napa’s Lagier Meredith showed just as compelling despite its single varietal (Syrah) base. I was even more taken by their 2007 Syrah and enthralled by the 2009 Syrah Mount Veeder. Alors! If only their newly released 2009 Mondeuse constituted a Rhône varietal!
Napa Valley proper rarely strays from its Bordelaise orthodoxy beyond
Chardonnay and Zinfandel, one can find the occasional iconoclast, like
Oakville‘s Miner Family, with its scintillating 2009 La Diligence Marsanne and 2008 La Diligence Syrah. On the other hand, Sonoma has a far greater breadth to the varietals it hosts, so it is not surprising to find a premier Italian varietal producer like Unti also purveying a wide selection of Rhônes, a cross-pollination readily apparent in their superb, albeit unorthodox, 2011 Cuvée Blanc, a marriage of Grenache Blanc and Picpoul Blanc, with a healthy share of Vermentino (!) blended in. More traditionally, their 2011 Rosé is a mélange of Grenache and Mourvèdre, while the 2009 Petit Frère offers a Côtes-du-Rhône-style GMS balance. I greatly admired their 2009 Syrah, but favored the more focused 2008 Syrah Benchland, an unfiltered and unfined rendition of the varietal.
I confess being rather constrained to find any redemptive quality in the wines featured by Healdsburg’s MacLaren. Like haggis, I suppose their 2009 Syrah Drouthy Neebors is an acquired taste, while the 2009 Syrah Judge Family Vineyard tasted as if it had been farmed on the slopes of MacLaren Park in San Francisco’s Visitacion Valley. On the other hand, Tobe Sheldon probably could force-feed me haggis and make me beg for more. Nonetheless, I strove to maintain objectivity in my enthusiasm for her four wines, marked by such gems as the 2010 Vinolocity Blanc, 50% Viognier with equal parts Grenache Blanc and Roussanne and the 2008 Vinolocity Vogelzang Vineyard, a Grenache tempered with 18% Syrah. Her twin standouts, however, were the 2007 Petite Sirah Ripken Vineyard and the 2009 Weatherly Cuvée, a red blend from “50% Cabernet Sauvignon and 50% Petite Sirah, co-fermented with Viognier skins.”
Another Sonoma winery, my friend Gerry Baldwin’s eponymous J. Baldwin Wines, previewed their lone yet luscious Rhône entrant, the 2009 Rattlesnake Ridge Petite Sirah. And though best known for Zinfandel and their Cupertino facility (along with a certain Meritage called Monte Bello), Ridge also operates a dramatically architected straw bale winery at their Lytton Springs estate in Healdsburg, from where most of their Rhône offerings originate. Much of my self-taught appreciation for varietals like Grenache, Syrah and Mataro (Mourvèdre) began with these wines, and so I was immensely pleased to visit with their 2010 Carignane Buchignani Ranch and the 2010 Petite Sirah Lytton Estate. though technically a Zinfandel, the 2006 Lytton Springs was structured with 16% Petite Sirah, and 4% Carignane; the 2007 Syrah Lytton Estate was rounded with 12% Viognier. The real treat, however, was the 1999 Syrah Lytton Estate, blending in 7% Grenache, and 1% Viognier—still a masterful wine 13 years later.
Nearly all the remaining wineries I visited base their operations in California’s Rhône Capital, Paso Robles. First, though, a trio of Bay Area vintners showcased their prodigious efforts. San Francisco’s Skylark returned to the Grand Tasting with a quintet of red wines, that included two blends: the 2009 Red Belly North Coast, a mix of 40% Carignane, 40% Grenache and 20% Syrah, and the 2009 Les Aves Mendocino, a non-Hitchcockian rendition of Carignane, rounded out with Cabernet Sauvignon (!), Grenache and Syrah. I found the 2009 Grenache Mendocino and the 2008 Syrah Rodgers Creek exceptionally appealing, while totally cottoning to the 2007 Syrah Unti Vineyard.
Across the Bay Bridge, Oakland’s Stage Left led with their 2009 The Go Getter, a balanced blend of 42% Viognier, 29% Grenache Blanc, and 29% Roussanne that contrasted with its previous Viognier-dominant vintage. A traditional GMS, the superb 2009 The Globetrotter consisted of 48% Grenache, 40% Syrah, and 12% Mourvèdre, while the 2009 ExPat switched formula to 50% Syrah, 33% Petite Sirah, and 17% Grenache from its previous incarnation of 51% Mourvèdre/49% Petite Sirah. Their last offering, a debut bottling of the 2009 Syrah Alder Springs Vineyard, constituted an unblended varietal. Rounding out this tercet, Woodside’s Michael Martella comported itself with customary aplomb, overtly pleasing with its current release of both the 2008 Hammer Syrah and the 2010 Grenache Santa Cruz Mountains.
I managed to accommodate seven more wineries this afternoon, and given Sostevinobile’s dedication to the tenets of sustainability—both within our own practices and with the wines we will be selecting—it seemed prudent to inquire how Justin has fared since its acquisition by Stewart Resnick in late 2010. Of course, I and many others strain to countenance one of Paso Robles’ self-proclaimed greenest wineries
laying in the hands of Fiji Water, one of Earth’s most profligate circulators of non-biodegradable plastic, and though this may well be the most incomprehensible marriage since Gregg Allman and Cher (or Lyle Lovett and Julia Roberts, for those born after 1970), it does seem that the winery continues to maintain its progress towards conversion to biodynamic farming and further adoption of a wide range of green implementations. Meanwhile, focusing my attention on the wines featured here, I found both the 2010 Viognier and the 2009 Syrah quite admirable, while the 2009 Savant, a proprietary blend of 77% Syrah, 19% Cabernet Sauvignon (!), and 4% Grenache stood as their most striking Rhône bottling. But, from under the table, a sneak pour of their justly acclaimed 2009 Isosceles, a blend this year of 94% Cabernet Sauvignon with 3% each of Cabernet Franc and Merlot, meant all could be forgiven.
Next up—Hearthstone, with an amiable 2009 Pearl (58% Roussanne, 42% Viognier) and the 2007 Slipstone, an exceptional blend of 65% Grenache and 35% Syrah. And while I quite appreciated the 2008 Grenache, the standout here had to have been the 2007 Lodestone, a distinguished GMS blend balancing 50% Syrah, 33% Grenache, and 17% Mourvèdre. From there, I moved onto Paso’s Finnish wonder, kukkula. a winery that never failss to enthuse me. This day, I sampled their 2010 Vaalea—43% Viognier, 29% Roussanne, and 28% Grenache Blanc, then moved on to contrast the 2009 Sisu, which blended 51% Syrah, 27% Grenache, and 22% Mourvèdre, with the even more enticing 2007 Sisu, slightly differing in its balance of 55% Syrah, 25% Grenache, and 20% Mourvèdre. On par with this latter bottling: both the 2009 Pas de Deux (58% Grenache, 42% Syrah) and the 2010 Aatto, a Mourvèdre-focused wine with liberal dashes of Grenache and Counoise added.
kukkula’s Kevin Jussila acknowledges the influence of Paso’s premier iconoclast, Stephan Asseo, whose L’Aventure sets the bar for what can be accomplished venturing outside French AOC parameters. Nowhere was this eclectic mindset more apparent—and successful—than with the 2009 Estate Cuvée, a near-flawless wine comprised of 42% Syrah, 42% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 16% Petit Verdot. Stephan’s traditional Rhône bottling, the 2009 Côte à Côte, blended 42% Grenache, 33% Syrah, and 25% Mourvèdre, with results nearly as alluring.
I’ve had many occasions to sample my way through nearly all of the single varietals Tablas Creek produces, save their newly-released Petit Manseng, and so limited myself to just a selection of the red wines gracing their table. This winery remains at the vanguard of California Rhône producers, with an approachable second line, the 2010 Patelin de Tablas; here, the rouge bottling consisted of a traditional Syrah-focused GMS blend, with 3% Counoise added. In keeping with the strictures of Côtes-du-Rhône, the Patelin’s big brother, the 2010 Côtes de Tablas, blended the same quartet of varietals in a Grenache-focused bottling: 46% Grenache, 39% Syrah, 10% Mourvèdre, and 5% Counoise. Keeping pace, their single-varietal 2009 Estate Grenache proved an exceptional vintage, while their signature effort, the 2009 Esprit de Beaucastel, showcased how extraordinary a Mourvèdre-focused blend (40% Mourvèdre, 28% Syrah, 27% Grenache, 5% Counoise) can turn out.
My last visit was bestowed on Katin, an understated virtuoso in California Rhône vinification. Three simple bottlings, all astronomically great. The 2009 Viognier Paso Robles proved near perfect; both the 2008 Syrah Glenrose Vineyard (Paso Robles) and 2008 Syrah Michaud Vineyard (Chalone) stood near flawless. It would be hard to ask more of a winery.
If only there had been more time to taste more wines! As alluded above, Sostevinobile will endeavor to sample and review as many wines as possible at next year’s gathering, particularly those we had to overlook this round. But the attrition of participating wineries and the notable paucity of attendees over the past several years does lead me to wonder about the prospects for the 16th Annual Rhône Rangers Grand Tasting. As well as gives me pause in my dilatory attempts to launch Risorgimento, a parallel consortium for Italian varietal producers.
It is a subject I will have to address in a subsequent installment here…