Son of Flubber

It’s probably a safe bet that anyone who can remember where they were when President Kennedy was shot also remembers Fred MacMurray. Many, if not most, will think of him as Steve Douglas, the widowed father in My Three Sons. Others, of course, will remember him as Ned Brainard from the Absent-Minded Professor films. In wine circles, however, MacMurray is best known for his eponymous Healdsburg ranch which Gallo developed into the seat of their Sonoma operations.

Now, I am fully aware that Gallo of Sonoma and its array of labels like Frei Brothers and Rancho Zabaco has evolved itself into a far cry from the Central Valley behemoth I’ve unflinchingly critiqued in several of these entries; still, I can never quite wrap myself around an embrace of their wines, much in the same way I can never get past the notion of Jennifer Aniston, however attractive I may find her, knotting tongues with David Schwimmer.

Your West Coast Oenophile is nothing, however, if not a gracious guest, and I can state without even a hint of hesitation that the Taste of Sonoma that MacMurray Ranch hosted amid the 2010 Sonoma Wine Country Weekend this past Labor Day was likely the best executed large-scale wine tasting I have attended in the many months I have been authoring this blog for Sostevinobile. Even with a record-breaking 2,500 attendees on hand, this outdoor extravaganza, which included tastings, food pairings, cooking demonstrations, a Sonoma County marketplace, and numerous wine talks, maintained a smooth flow and intimacy rare for events even ¹⁄₁₀ this size. Bathed in sunshine and basking in the glow of conviviality, this affair could not have been more splendid.

Oftentimes, tastings of this scope (roughly 150-160 wineries) inundate and overwhelm. Here, four distinct regions of the Sonoma appellation were clustered in separate tents, making navigation to the tables on my must-visit list more than manageable. Moreover, with outdoor tables, a village-feel to the buildings housing the various lectures, corralled areas, and, importantly, non-wine activities, the tasting genuinely accommodated a full family outing, much like the Sausalito Art Festival I had bypassed in order to attend here.

In keeping with the spirit of this event, I decided to visit each tent sequentially, rather than carve a deliberate path by wine hue or alphabetically. Whether this approach affected my tasting impressions, I can’t be sure, but it seemed appropriate to rise to the occasion and adapt to the planners’ configuration (not to mention that my tasting program is broken down by the same criteria).

Russian River ValleyFinding a Silver Lining

I had sampled many of the Russian River Valley wineries just a couple of weekends before, and again the trade organization had provided my passes, so starting here seemed the optimal choice. Given the heat of the afternoon, I deemed it best to start off with a chilled wine, something the 2009 Rosato Alegría Vineyards from Acorn Winery fit my needs precisely. This unique rosé, while predominantly Zinfandel, blends Syrah, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Franc, and Sangiovese, with a dollop each of Trousseau, Négrette, and Mourvèdre. Later on, under the pretext of needing another of their souvenir pens, I resampled the 2007 Sangiovese Alegría that I had enjoyed during Grape to Glass. At my next stop, Alysian Wines stood prototypic for the AVA, meaning a strong selection of both Chard and Pinot; I opted for the highly specific 2007 Chardonnay Taurin Block Cresta Ridge Vineyard and the equally impressive 2007 Pinot Noir West Block Floodgate Vineyard.

Ramey Wine Cellars also delighted with their 2008 Chardonnay Russian River Valley while flourishing with both the 2007 Syrah Sonoma Coast and the 2007 Syrah Rodger’s Creek Vineyard. Though rather generic in name, Russian River Vineyards proved noteworthy for their 2009 Sauvignon Blanc Left Edge Selection, along with an embracing 2009 Rosé of Pinot Noir and its companion 2008 Pinot Noir Bella Vineyards.

I bypassed retasting the wines from Dutton-Goldfield, even though I promised my friend Valerie Wathen I would try to come back after I had finished off my checklist, but did score a silver medal with D’Argenzio, a winery I had hoped to explore when I was in Healdsburg. N’importe, they were here in force today, with strong selections from their red bottlings. Their 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County and the 2006 Petite Sirah Russian River Valley showed particularly defined structure, while the curiously-named 2007 Levi Leipheimer’s King Ridge Gran Fondo underscored their fundamental agility with Pinot Noir.

Freestone seemed like a winery I ought to have encountered before, but both their 2007 Chardonnay Sonoma Coast and the 2007 Fogdog Pinot Noir were new to my palate. Likewise, I felt a bit surprised I had not tried Merriam Vineyards’ wines before, so both their 2006 Cabernet Franc Windacre Vineyard and 2005 Miktos, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, with touches Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, proved welcome revelations.

I knew I would be visiting with Paradise Ridge in a few days at the Rockpile tasting, so I selectively tried out only some of their wines this day, including the 2008 Estate Chardonnay Nagasawa Vineyard, the 2009 Sauvignon Blanc Grandview Vineyard, and the irresistible 2007 Elevation Cabernet Sauvignon. I confess that I could not keep my promise to come back and taste with the many familiar faces I encountered along the way, including Balletto, Joseph Swan, La Follette, Mueller, Matrix, and even host MacMurray Ranch, but I did manage to squeeze in Davis Bynum with their exceptional 2008 Pinot Noir Russian River Valley before migrating to the next tent. 

The last time I remember tasting Davis Bynum was a rather popular jug label they produced, then known as Barefoot Bynum. The brand has changed hands a number of times since and is now known as Barefoot Cellars. I’ll let my readers guess who in Modesto owns it.

Alexander ValleyCabernet to die for

Let’s just say it’s not a smart thing to piss off the dictator of a foreign country where you had significant business holdings. I will judiciously decline to mention names, but back in the 1980s, a certain landmark operations in Alexander Valley felt more like an armed fortress than a winery, with electric gates, surveillance cameras, and barbed wire fencing surrounding the property. In the 21st century, these defenses are no longer necessary, as stewardship of the winery and the political regime have both changed and the contracted hit squads have returned home to Southeast Asia. 

Much has changed in Alexander Valley from when I first started combing the area back in 1982, before it was even certified as an AVA. Geyser Peak was Geyser Peak but then became annexed by Trione Vineyards, then was sold, only to be reacquired by the Trione family, then spun off and later merged into the nucleus of what has become Ascentia. Sonoma Vineyards produced both their own wines and Windsor Winery’s personalized wine labels under the tutelage of Rodney Strong and was almost acquired by Nestlé, but then collapsed and was foreclosed by Renfield Imports, who ran the autonomous operations for Piper Sonoma on the same property and subsequently built the Carneros Alambic Distillery to serve as parent company for Rémy-Martin’s California operations; Renfield renamed the winery and the brand Rodney Strong but then sold the Sonoma operations a few years later to its current proprietors, Klein Brothers International and spun off their cognac facility to what has now become Étude. Seghesio was then Seghesio and today remains Seghesio. Simi was then Simi and today remains Simi (although controlled by Constellation, which had also bought and sold Geyser Peak). Souverain was then Souverain and today remains Souverain, but is no longer at Souverain, which has become the Francisc Ford Coppola Winery.

Needless to say, my long-standing connections to the area led me to explore those labels which had yet to exist when I was facilitating Bacardi’s search for a California winery. Hanna Winery has the distinction, so I believe, of pioneering application of an asymmetrical wine label (if you’d ever worked a bottling line in the 1980s, you’d understand the challenge this posed); their 2006 Zinfandel Bismark Mountain that I sampled appealed on an even more striking gustatory level. On the other hand, I can’t recall having any prior knowledge of Farrier Wine or their particular claim to fame, but found myself duly impressed with this Jackson Family Wines venture’s 2007 Countenance and particularly their 2007 Presshouse, both Alexander Valley Bordeaux blends.

Alexander Valley’s reputation for Cabernet on par with Napa manifested in the various wines Ehret Family brought to this gathering, especially their 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Knights Valley and its follow-up, the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Hillside Reserve. I also enjoyed the 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon from Alexander Valley Vineyards, while the 2007 Alexander School Reserve Grenache proved exemplary.

From a marketing standpoint, the name Alexander Valley Vineyards strikes me as way too generic; I also might say the same for Vintners Signatures, though their 2007 El Roy Malbec was displayed substantial character.

I didn’t allot enough time to sample Jackson’s other Alexander Valley venture, Murphy-Goode or Gallo’s Frei Brothers, but I did stop by Wilson’s deLorimier Winery for a much-needed refreshing from their 2009 Sauvignon Blanc Alexander Valley. And before I moved to the next tent, I absolutely had to try the 2009 Arneis Russian River Valley Seghesio poured.

Dry CreekDual Dynasties and then some

Dry Creek Valley is home to Gallo’s Sonoma operations, as well as Rancho Zabaco, their Zinfandel-focused operations (Gina Gallo also owns the wonderfully eclectic Dry Creek General Store). Dry Creek Valley is also base of operations for the burgeoning Wilson Winery conglomerate, with their eponymous Zinfandel superstar and nearby Mazzocco. With numerous other operations, like Frick, Pezzi King, and Thumbprint, which I had recently sampled, as well as others like Everett Ridge, Kokomo, Michel-Schlumberger, Rued, and Pedroncelli, with which Sostevinobole has long been familiar, I focused my attention on the handful of wineries here with which I had yet to connect.*

Not that I haven’t been long familiar with Davero Farms & Winery—for their Extra Virgin Olive Oil. After sampling their 2007 Estate Hawk Mountain Vineyard Sangiovese, I was especially pleased to explore the wonders of their 2008 Sagrantino Hawk Mountain Vineyard, a true rarity in California. And I certainly plan to remain familiar with Hauck Cellars, a surprising discovery with a 2008 Zinfandel Treborce Vineyard that holds its own with Dry Creek’s leading producers.

I don’t quite remember why I opted for the 2009 Gewürztraminer Dry Creek Valley from Mill Creek, but it turned out to be a fortuitous choice. Meanwhile, Forth Vineyards pleasantly surprised with their 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon All Boys Vineyard, which sounded as if it might be an appeal to a niche market until Gerry and Jann explained how it was an homage to their four grandsons. And while I am usually disinclined toward pet-homage labels, I did enjoy the 2007 Petite Sirah Canis Major from Mutt Lynch.

Sonoma ValleyI’m loving it

Some things in life will always seem drastically incongruous, like appointing Courtney Love to head the DEA or naming a Boy Scout lodge for Michael Jackson. So, too, is the notion of fine wine having any connection to McDonald’s (I apologize in advance if Fred Franzia draws inspiration from this contention). I may personally bristle at the notion of Bark & Wine, though I realize some people find enormous appeal in such mawkish contrivances; still, seeing a snapshot of Ronald McDonald in the midst of the Sonoma Valley tent struck me as complete anathema.

The proprietor of GlenLyon Vineyards, the aristocratically-named Squire Fridell, parlayed the substantial rewards of his illustrious career as a commercial actor—serving nearly 30 years as the national spokesman for Toyota—into a winery estate in Glen Ellen. And indeed his 2008 Syrah GlenLyon Vineyards bespoke the same amiable demeanor with which he comported himself on these commercials. But he also followed in the oversized footsteps of buffoon weatherman Willard Scott and portrayed the aforementioned contemptible clown, purveying pablum and paltry pap to highly impressionable children across the country. Sostevinobile’s adviso: if you want to conjure up images of unpalatable food alongside arguably fine wine, please don’t resort to the nadir of the Big Mac. You can just as easily do that with haggis!

I recovered soon enough from this unspeakable trauma to take in the rest of the Sonoma Valley tent, which did not truly encompass a single appellation but all the other participating wineries which did not fall within the other defined AVAs. Hailing from Bennet Valley, the aptly-named Bennett Valley Cellars displayed considerable aptitude with Pinot, pouring a splendid 2008 Pinot Noir Bin 6410 Zanin Vineyard alongside a surprisingly mature 2009 Pinot Noir Simpatico Ranch. Also deftly handling the Burgundian red, Ashton Vineyards of Glen Ellen poured a striking 2006 Pinot Noir Sonoma Mountain alongside its just-peaking 2004 Syrah Sonoma Mountain.
Another Glen Ellen participant, Beltane Ranch, pulled no punches with its labeling as it poured its enticing 2009 Sauvignon Blanc Inaugural Vintage. A familiar site along Highway 12 in Carneros, Nicholson Ranch scored with both their 2007 Estate Chardonnay and the superb 2007 Estate Pinot Noir. On the other hand, Highway 12 Vineyards is not visible along Highway 12, as it occupies a tract along 8th Street East, but this offshoot of Sonoma’s prominent Sebastiani clan did provide an appealing 2008 Sangiovese La Plaza.
One of my guilty pleasures this afternoon was revisiting my friend Mike Muscardini’s 2008 Sangiovese Monte Rosso Vineyard, along with the 2007 Tesoro, his signature Super Tuscan that blends Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah with Sangiovese. Although his neighbor VJB Cellars specializes in Italian varietals, as well, they only poured their 2009 Gabrielle Ranch Chardonnay and a striking 2007 Dante, a Cabernet Sauvignon with 15% Sangiovese.
Hidden Ridge is a winery with plantings on the Sonoma side of the Mayacamas, boasting the steepest slope—55°!—of any vineyard in California; their 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon 55 Slope warrants boasting, as well. Two Bennett Valley wineries, Grey Stack and Frostwatch, appeared to be just as clandestine (they were only included after the tasting guide printed), but comported themselves admirably, the former with their 2007 Syrah Marie’s Block, the latter with a likable 2007 Bennet Valley Merlot. And spanning several of the counties above San Francisco Bay, Spann Vineyards showed great versatility with their 2007 Chardonnay-Viognier, the 2007 Mo Zin (Zinfandel + Mourvèdre, with a bit of Petite Sirah and Syrah), and their excellent, 2007 Classic Four, a Bordeaux-style Meritage with no Cabernet Franc.
I can’t recall who now owns Viansa after its many gyrations over the past
couple of years, but their 2005 Thalia, the Muse of bucolic poetry,proved a most mellifluous
interpretation of Sangiovese. Their neighbor, Cline Cellars, relegates its Italian varietals to its sister operations, Jacuzzi Family Vineyards and chose to flourish with their 2008 Zinfandel Sonoma Valley instead. Vineburg’s Dane Cellars also showed an impressive 2007 Zinfandel Sonoma Valley, along with their 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Jack Knife.
Despite its dominating presence this afternoon, Gallo did not have a representative label in the Sonoma Valley tent. Most of the other wine groups did, including Ascentia, with Buena Vista Carneros, Constellation’s Ravenswood and Blackstone (not to mention their acquisition of Sebastiani)Benziger, with both its eponymous label and Imagery, Foster’s own Château St. Jean, and Jackson Family Wines, with their now-subsumed Arrowood. Their other Sonoma Valley label, Matanzas Creek, still managed to impress me with their 2006 Merlot Bennett Valley, but I chose to allot the rest of my time with Syrahs from three hitherto unknown operations.
Eric K. James, a somewhat obscure operation within the Napa-Sonoma Vineyard Group, nevertheless made an enormous impression with its 2005 Syrah Fieldsa Vineyards. Hoffman Family Cellars similarly operates under a confounding guise, but drummed up support with their 2007 Headbanger Syrah, along with an exceptional 2007 Atmosphere Syrah Parmalee-Hill Vineyard. Finally, Mulas Family complemented their own 2005 Syrah Los Carneros with a welcome 2009 Pinot Gris Los Carneros.
Hard as it may seem, I probably neglected to cite half the wineries on hand this sunny afternoon, though I did manage to connect with every new (to Sostevinobile) winery I had targeted before arriving. But, apart from being unable to take in every single offering at the event, the 2010 Taste of Sonoma proved to be my and many other people’s top wine gathering of 2010. No matter what role he played—Ned Brainard, Steve Douglas, Walter Neff, at the end of the day, Fred MacMurray always seemed to come up right answer (apparently, in real life, he did as well, at one point becoming the highest-paid actor in Hollywood and the fourth highest salaried person in the entire United States). All-in-all, the equally impressive performance his ranch put on can only be fitting tribute to what he had accomplished in his lifetime. I look forward to returning in 2011.
*This strategy sometimes causes me to take certain places for granted, once I have incorporated them into the Sostevinobile data base. See my notes on Dry Creek’s Mauritson in my next entry.

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