Vous devez me croire!

C’est vrai—était une ruse toujours! Les vins de la France sont très supérieurs. Votre Oenophile de la Côte Ouest préfère ces vins mieux! Sostevinobile ni n’achètera ni servira les vins de la Californie ou Oregon ou Washington!

The sun has shone brightly the past few days in San Francisco. Afternoon temperatures have hovered near 70°F. Yours truly has been cycling about town in shorts and reveling in the glories of spring at last! Merde! It’s barely February! Months before I can launch my April Fool’s Joke!

And so, my loyal readers, future patrons and the 2,300+ West Coast wineries Sostevinobile has attracted to our dedicated wine program can breathe a sigh of relief—dissuading us from our viticultural predilection is as likely to succeed as Scientology’s attempts to deprogram its homosexual adherents. Nonetheless, I was willing to put my palate to the test this past Friday.

The good folks at Balzac Communications periodically find reason to include me in their wide-ranging wine tastings, regardless of my adamant exclusion of imported wines, and so I was happy to join them for the 2008 Vintage Tasting from the Union des Grand Crus de Bordeaux (UGCB). This French-based trade organization represents “the finest vignerons of the Châteaux of Bordeaux, a claim that first requires a bit of explication.

The wines on hand this afternoon were not of the echelon Nicolas Sarkozy might break out for a state dinner with the Punahou Kid. No Premiers Crus, no Chåteau Pétrus nor Le Pin nor Cheval Blanc. And certainly not Château d’Yquem! Instead, UGCB presented around half of Bordeaux’s Deuxièmes Crus houses, along with a broad selection of Third, Fourth and Fifth Growth wines, as well as (I assume) an indeterminate number of unclassified vineyards. In baseball terms, this was more like watching the Milwaukee Brewers battle the Kansas City Royals than a marquée matchup between the Yankees and Red Sox.

Secondly, I understand that 2008 seems to have been one of Bordeaux’s weaker vintages (while 2009 has already been crowned the vintage of the century). But even with these caveats, I would have expected to find an array of decent, if not impressive, wines among the 88 Châteaux (plus ten Sauternes producers) on hand. I came with an open mind; I left disillusioned.

Being a virtual neophyte in this arena, I endeavored to sample at least two wineries from each of the 12 Appellations d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) represented here. Graves and its sub-appellation Pessac-Léognan both featured a white Bordeaux (Sauvignon Blanc) and a Cabernet Sauvignon-focused red; those wines I sampled seemed passable, if not comparable to a mid-range Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. Both Château Haut-Bergey and Château Larriver-Haut-Brion, a property of Premier Cru icon Château Haut-Brion, mildly impressed with their understated reds.

Like most Californiaphiles, I generally to prefer Cabs to Merlot, but, in Bordeaux, the bane of Miles Raymond proves the superior varietal more often than not. Saint-Émilion and its neighbor, Pomerol, command astronomic prices for Merlot-dominant blends like Château Ausone; appropriately, the se
cond tier wines I sampled from both these appellations like Château La Gaffelière and Château Larmande (St. Émilion), along with Château La Conseillante and Château Gazin (Pomerol), served up highly amiable wines for the most part. Still, many of the other Châteaux struck me as quite lackluster.

Now I’m as likely to be able to distinguish Listrac-Médoc from Moulis-in-Médoc from Haut-Médoc from Médoc itself as I can tell a North Ossetian dialect from South Ossetian. Nonetheless, the wines of these quaternary Left Bank stepchildren proved perfunctory, at best. Admittedly, I did like the Château Greysac, but the rest seemed watery spins on Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine pumped after 60 days in barrel and diluted with just enough Tokay to retain its varietal labeling (and I say that wanting to like a winery called Château Chasse-Spleen)!

Even a neophyte who could pass Bordeaux 101 would have a reasonable appreciation for Margaux, yet despite having three Deuxième
Cru
houses on hand, these Cabernet Sauvignons proved extraordinarily tenuous. Château Dauzac and Château Durfort Vivens may have been moderately impressive, but the others I sampled seemed eminently forgettable.

At every tasting I attend, there is a coterie of regularssome poseurs, others true professionals. In the latter category, I am usually happy to exchange tasting notes with folks like Walter Vornbrock, a fellow wine veteran from the early 1980s, Susan Darwin, and Rock Wall investor Dave Roberts and his wife Barb. Among this circle, there seemed to be a consensus favoring the Saint-Julien AOC, yet I found these wines almost devoid of flavor, even the much-heralded Langoa-Barton and
Léoville-Barton. Equally unimpressive were the houses from Pauillac, a tongue-twister of a name that illustrates the errant orthography of the French tongue (as oppose to the truer fidelity to the root Latin Italian offers). My notes describe Château
Langoa Barton as “underwhelming,” while I pithily called Château
Branaire-Ducru “Twelve Buck Chuck.”

A final Left Bank AOC, Saint-Estèphe, proved decidely mixed, ranging from Château Lafon-Rochet, which my notes list as rien,” to the intriguing Cabernet Sauvignon of Château Phélan-Ségur. Still, nothing disparaging could be said of the twin dessert appellations, Sauternes and Barsac. These ultrasweet, botrytis-laden wines proved every bit as wondrous as their advance billings, particularly the Sauternes-Barsac Premier Cru Château Coutet and Sauternes Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey (try saying that after four hours of sampling).

At the end of the day, however, nothing convinced me that I was shortchanging my future clientele with Sostevinobile’s West Coast-only wine program. Despite considerable accolades from Château Potelle’s Jean-Noel Fourmeaux du Sartel, whose subjectivity here may be understandable, these wines seemed quite pedestrian overall. The excuse of 2008 being a mediocre vintage strikes me as derelict—even the worst vintages from the broad regions along the north Pacific consistently manage to produce exceptions, wines from growers and vintners who still deploy enough craft and légerdemain to create a special bottling.

The best wines I tasted this afternoon reminded me of wineries like Clos du Val or L’Aventure, California ventures that emulate the restraint of French vinification and focus on terroir yet still maintain a fidelity to the particularities of both the climate and preferences of our region. Far too many of this tasting’s wines, however, seemed drearily monodimensional, if not flavorless.

This is not a scurrilous claim on my part. As with abstract art or minimalist music, I am highly attuned to the conventions of the genre; even within the context of Bordeaux œnology, these wines fell short. In turn, this gives rise to Sostevinobile’s contention sheer lassitude and a reliance on customers’ lack of familiarity mark the restaurants and sommeliers who contend that local wines fail to stand up to pairing with local cuisine. Diligent efforts to explore the bounty of wines and varietals produced within the three West Coast states will almost assuredly yield an array of wines that can complement the intricacies of our cuisine and yet still manage to impart enough flavor to be enjoyed on their own merits.

Few wine critics would quarrel with my assertion that the vast majority of Italian wines, apart
from the recent Super Tuscan blends, function properly without food pairing. Not that these wines lack style or character—they’re simply too astringent to be quaffed alone. On the other hand, these Bordelaise bottlings aren’t crafted to enhance the virtues of an entrée. Rather, their pallid composition and lack of distinguishing flavor belies a more incendiary indictment—that without the complement of food, these wines simply cannot stand on their own.

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