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!

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