Confession: I glossed over a few stops in my last entry. I don’t know why. It just seemed easier to wedge them into here.
I had tried to devote a full day to a swing through Sonoma, but The Fates seem to conspire against me. The ultimate goal of finishing my visit by attending the Mendocino County Grape Growers Showcase in Santa Rosa remained constant, but scheduling visits throughout Sebastopol proved rather elusive, and then the intrusion of a slew of non-wine related matters delayed my departure for nearly two hours. Nonetheless, Your West Coast Oenophile did mange to keep an appointment with tiny Sheldon Wines, a dedicated artisanal winery whose tasting room occupies a remodeled railroad car near the Sebastopol Inn.
Winemaker Dylan Sheldon is a purist, who crafts his small lot wines with extreme fidelity to the origins of the varietal and its historical vinification. Witness (or, in my case, sample) his 2008 Viognier Sonoma Coast, Single Barrel Production. Unfiltered and unrefined, this flavor of the grape shines with little adornment or manipulation, a genuine expression of Viognier. Similar veracity can be found in his 2006 Chardonnay Santa Lucia Vineyard, the 2007 Graciano Super Freak and his 2006 Grenache, Santa Ynez Valley. Sheldon’s most “manipulated” wine was his 2005 Vinolocity, a blend of Grenache and Syrah, while the 2006 Petite Sirah Ripken Vineyard was an intensified, 100% expression of this varietal. All in all, a highly personal tasting I was glad to discover.
I had hoped to make short shrift of the drive to Santa Rosa; allora, it was anything but. My iPhone’s GPS mapped out a direct route from Sebastopol but pinpointed the Fountaingrove Golf Club nearly ½ mile from its actual location, along a rolling parkway that wound through the city without any conspicuous number signs to demarcate the unfamiliar terrain. Finally espying a motorcyclist who knew the precise location of this secluded complex, I encountered a veritable maze trying to decipher the layout of the grounds, which seemed intentionally designed to perplex any first-time visitor. Naturally, by the time located the correct building and parked, the 1½ hours I had allotted for the event had dwindled to a scant 25 minutes.
I might have had a full half-hour to network, but finding the reception room in the club’s main building proved one more challenge. After all that, you would think I’d at least have won the raffle for 5 tons of grapes, though, admittedly, I am far from ready to bottle my first vintage under the Sostevinobile label! Still, there was quite a bit of wine left to sample and several growers to meet among those who had not packed up early and headed back to Ukiah. Lisa Sutton of Bells Echo Vineyards could have easily beguiled me without pouring her wine, but I was nonetheless impressed with both the 2006 Syrah and the 2006 Interlude, their premium Syrah—both inaugural releases.
Nearby, the next wave of biodynamic farming was ably represented by fourth-generation vineyardist Heath Dolan of Dark Horse Ranch. Showcasing wineries that source his meticulously-tended grapes, Heath poured the complex 2007 Truett•Hurst|Dark Horse GPS, a GMS blend with Petite Sirah added to the mix, and the 2007 Mendocino Farms Grenache Dark Horse Ranch, one of Magnanimus Wine Group’s bottlings.
I’ve known members of Heath‘s family for decades (one of his father Paul Dolan’s cousins was slated as Sostevinobile’s original investor), but that connection has no bearing on my appreciation for his viticulture or his wines. Similarly, I’ve enjoyed a lively correspondence with Jim Kimmel over the last several weeks, but approached his brother Gary’s Kimmel Vineyards with the same lack of bias. Their boutique winemaking operations in Potter Valley embarked with 285 cases of the 2007 Chardonnay Mendocino County and a mere 271 cases of their equally fine 2007 Merlot Mendocino County.
Maybe because it was late in the day, maybe because, well, I could, I opted to try only the sweeter selectionsfrom Nelson Family Vineyards, a winery that grows just about everything. I was richly rewarded with their 2008 Estate Riesling, an intense 2008 Estate Viognier and their delightful dessert wine, the 2009 Estate Orange Muscat. Meanwhile, another grower whose plantings include a veritable potpourri of varietals, Rossetti Brothers, poured finished wines that included the 2008 Petite Sirah and both their 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, along with bulk samples of their Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, and Carignane.
As the event came to a close, the sponsors of this event from True Mendocino promised that next year’s showcase would be held at a far more accessible site, and while I did treat myself to a leftover bottle of the tour of the 2006 Weibel Family Chardonnay Mendocino County for later delectation and self-guided tour of the Fountaingrove swimming complex, I opted to drive back and take a dip in Corte Madera natatorium where I frequent, before heading across the Golden Gate Bridge.
The next day promised to be quite the challenge, not for the intensity of my schedule but because I had finally decided to risk subjecting the cluttered environs of the home office I maintain for Sostevinobile to an onsite tasting by a local distributor. Housekeeping, as my familiars and family will attest—ce n’est-pas mon forte. Nonetheless, I managed to clear the living room, wash half a dozen goblets Cascade-spotless, and improvise a water pitcher and spill bucket in time to host Kip Martinez. Kip is a longtime San Franciscan who, with his wife, operates a rather quaintly-named wine distribution company called Kip and Nancy; we had met at the recent T.A.P.A.S. tasting, where he had filled in for client winery Bodega Paso Robles and piqued my curiosity with intimations of their Bastardo, which he had opted not to bring with him.
First up, however, was the eponymous label of winemaker Michel Berthoud and his homage to Helvetian winemaking, the 2008 Chasselas Doré Pagani Vineyard. I confess that I had not previous tried this varietal, grown in Switzerland to produce their signature Fendant du Valais; I would not venture to describe its taste, though, on a spectrum, I would be tempted to place it closer to a Chenin Blanc or slightly grassy Sauvignon Blanc than to a Chardonnay.
Michel is well-known as the winemaker for Mayo Family Winery, where he puts on a clinic,œnologically speaking, with his Alicante Bouschet (which sounds like it ought to be a Swiss wine), Italian varietals, and many of the other grapes predominant in Sonoma. Kip treated me to a small selection that included the 2006 Petite Sirah Sodini Ranch Vineyard, the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Delaney Vineyard, and the 2006 Libertine, described as “a dollop of Merlot, a splash of Cabernet Sauvignon, a smidgen of Syrah and a dash of Zinfandel, with Petite Sirah and Petite Verdot thrown in for good measure.”
It seems a bit odd that Switzerland’s northern neighbor, Germany, has only one winery in California devoted to its varietals. Numerous wineries here are focusing on Riesling, and in Washington, wines like Lemberger and Riesling have begun to proliferate, but only Lodi’s Mokelumne Glen devotes itself exclusively to this category. Winemaker/owner Bob Koth had apprised me of another winery producing Dornfelder, so I was especially eager to try the Huber Estate wines when I found. As I had hoped, the 2006 Estate Dornfelder was a most compelling wine, and I only wish Kip had carried the 2006 Estate Dornfelder Charlotte’s Reserve for comparison. And until I next make a swing for Sostevinobile through the Santa Rita Hills AVA, the 2008 Hafen, a dessert-style Dornfelder, must remain a creature of my imagination!
One wine, however, no longer remaining within the realm of my imagination is Bastardo, or, as the wonderful censors at ATF would have us call it, Trousseau. Given the Bureau’s prohibition of the use of such provocative nomenclature, Bodega Paso Robles elected to label their offering the 2007 Pimenteiro. It did not bastardize this rustic wine, by any means. Kip also revisited their 2005 Solea (90% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano) and the 2003 Iberia(Tempranillo, Graciano, Tinta Cão, Touriga Nacional), two blends I had highly enjoyed in early June.
We moved onto the remaining wines I had selected from his catalog. Marco di Giulio Wines may have coöpted the URL I would have chosen for my first personal label, but I am perfectly able to let bygones be bygones and laud both their2004 Cabernet Sauvignon Diamond Mountain District and its coeval, the 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon Progeny Vineyard. Similarly, CalStar might have been a desirable alternative to Sostevinobile, but that matters little now. I applaud their 2008 Pinot Noir Sangiacomo Vineyard and would be eager to sample the rest of their inventory. Meanwhile, Starr Ranch bears no relation to the aforementioned winery nor to any of Pam Starr’s various viticultural forays; nonetheless, I found this Paso Robles producer quite adept with its 2007 Estate Grenache and its astral 2007 Orion, a Tempranillo-based wine.
Kip’s last offerings came from organically-farmed Lavender Ridge in Murphys. We started white, with their 2009 Côtes du Calaveras Blanc, Sierra Foothills, a blend of Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne, and Grenache Blanc, then proceeded through their sundry single-varietal Rhône reds: the 2006 Grenache Sierra Foothills, the 2007 Mourvèdre Sierra Foothills, the 2005 Syrah Sierra Foothills, and the 2005 Petite Sirah Sierra Foothills before finishing up with the utterly complex 2006 Côtes du Calaveras that blended Syrah, Mourvèdre, Grenache, Alicante Bouschet, Petite Sirah, and Counoise. A perfect note on which to end the day and ready myself for the major trade event on Friday.
The 6th Annual Pinot Days San Francisco Grand Tasting was slated for Sunday, June 27th in the Festival Pavilion at Fort Mason. Unlike at other major tastings, however, the powers that be decided this year to sever the trade portion of the festival from the main event and hold it two days earlier in the Fleet Room, a far less capacious reception area in Building D, two floors below the famed Magic Theatre. In over thirty years of attending events, I had no awareness that this facility even existed and was quite surprised the promoters had selected it.
Of course, I understand that these Grand Tastings constitute a business for the people who organize them, particularly for the Pinot Days folks who do not represent a not-for-profit trade organization like Family Winemakers or ZAP. As well, to a large extent, trade and media tickets are provided as a courtesy, and I am indeed grateful each time I have been provided such. However, the greatest allure of these events for participating wineries are the opportunities they provided both for publicity and for significant sales of their wines. Speaking as Sostevinobile’s trade representative, let me say that I found the new configuration counterproductive in this regard and express my hope that next year’s Pinot Days returns to its previous formula. I know many of Friday’s other attendees feel similarly.
The schedule split and smaller space allowed less than half of Sunday’s wineries to participate. Still, the room was packed and without a printed tasting program, quite difficult to navigate. I managed to scribble my notes onto the back of several product flyers I appropriated from Chamisal Vineyards’ table as I quaffed their eminently drinkable 2007 Estate Pinot Noir. Shifting to my right, I next sampled from a pair of wineries I have known long before I create Sostevinobile but had not visited with in this capacity. Founded in 1857, Buena Vista bills itself as California’s oldest premium winery, though its wines are decidedly far more contemporary than I recall from the 1980s. The 2007 Pinot Noir Ramal Vineyard Estate Vineyard Series Dijon Clones proved an elegant wine, while their 2006 Pinot Noir Ramal Vineyard Estate Vineyard Series Swan Selection drank like a glissade across the tongue. At a nearby table, August Briggs opted to pour a single wine, their 2008 Pinot Noir Russian River Valley, more than a fine choice to represent their efforts.
Somewhere around the middle between these two tables, Mendocino’s Baxter Winery, with which I had become acquainted at Golden Glass, poured their jammy albeit curiously titled 2008 Pinot Noir Run Dog Vineyard. From Santa Rita Hills, Carr Vineyards introduced themselves and not only poured a striking 2008 Pinot Noir Turner Vineyard but slipped in a taste of their 2009 Pinot Gris, the first such “extra” of the afternoon. Fort Ross fell within house rules for pouring their always-special 2006 Pinotage, but Johanna Bernstein still managed to slip me a welcome sip of her 2007 Chardonnay Fort Ross Vineyard (or should I call it Pinot Chardonnay, to keep it within bounds?).
There may not be any correlation between these two Russian River Valley vintners, apart from their consecutive appearance in my note, but I was impressed with both the 2007 Pinot Noir Russian River Selection from esteemed winemaker Gary Farrell and the 2008 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir from the newly established Thomas George Estates. And from the same notepad, Gundlach Bundschu, another continuum from the mid-19th century, maintained their pedigree with their 2007 Pinot Noir, while Gloria Ferrer, the Sonoma arm of the historic Spanish sparkling wine house Freixenet, impressed with both their 2006 Carneros Pinot Noir and a sparkling 2006 Brut Rosé.
Cima Collina and I have had a long e-mail correspondence for the past several months, so it surprised me that I had not previously sampled their products. Their representatives easily remedied this oversight with a quartet of their vintages: their more generic 2006 Pinot Noir Monterey County and the 2006 Chula Viña Vineyard Pinot Noir, top by their Santa Lucia Highlands vineyard-designate 2007 Tondrē Grapefield Pinot Noir and the superb 2006 Hilltop Ranch Pinot Noir. Another winery making quite the first impression with four distinct interpretation of the grape was Pinot-only Fulcrum Wines, a Napa-produced boutique venture. Their latest vintage comprised an almost dizzying array of choice AVAs: the 2008 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir, the 2008 Tina Marie Russian River Pinot Noir, the 2008 ON Point Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir, and my personal (as well as Wine Spectator’s) favorite, the lush 2008 Gap’s Crown Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir.
That I had not previously visited with Crū, one of Mariposa Wine Company’s trio of labels. Fortunately, their 2007 Montage Central Coast Pinot Noir and the 2008 Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands Sarmento Vineyards cemented this connection. And how I could have overlooked Sebastopol’s DuNah until now astounds me almost as much as did their 2006 Pinot Noir DuNah Estate and their 2006 Pinot Noir Sangiacomo Vineyard.
I was a tad surprised there were not more wineries from Oregon on hand this afternoon, given their pivotal role in establishing Pinot Noir on the West Coast (as well as Pinot Noir establishing Oregon as a major viticultural region). One such presence, Le Cadeau, happily displayed four of their most recent bottlings: the 2008 Pinot Noir Équinoxe, the amiable 2008 Pinot Noir Rocheux, the oddly named but excellent 2008 Pinot Noir Côte Est, and their crown jewel, the 2008 Pinot Diversité (shades of liberté, égalité, fraternité, to be sure)! Owner Tom Mortimer partners in another venture, Aubichon Cellars and generously included their inaugural release, the 2007 Pinot Noir Willamette Valley. French nomenclature also claimed the Central Coast’s La Fenêtre, whose Pinot offering ranged from the 2008 Pinot Noir Los Alamos Vineyard and the 2008 Pinot Noir Sierra Madre Vineyard to the more treasured 2008 Pinot Noir Central Coast and their acme, the 2008 Pinot Noir Le Bon Climat. While I greatly enjoyed La Fenêtre’s 2008 Bien Nacido Chardonnay, the winery seems hellbent on compelling me to struggle with composite characters, debuting their second label with the 2008 À Côté Chardonnay. Sans accents, Roots shared their whimsically-titled 2009 Melon de Bourgogne (a Chardonnay, naturally) and their 2008 Riesling before pouring a trio of delightful Pinots, the 2007 Crosshairs Pinot Noir, the 2008 Estate Pinot Noir, and the 2008 Leroy Pinot Noir.
Back in the Anglophile realm, M. Autumn bifurcates their winemaking between California and Oregon to offer their own Pinot trio: the 2006 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, the 2007 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, and newcomer 2008 Johnson Vineyard Pinot Noir from Chehalem. Keeping things somewhat thematic, from Chehalem. Keeping things kinda thematic, R. Merlo’s aspirations for an AVA in Hyampom Valley manifested itself in his 2005 Pinot Noir Trinity County.
Joseph Swan, the last winery I tried that poured four different Pinots, is a place I typically associate with Zinfandel. N’importe! I found myself uniformly enthralled with both the 2006 Pinot Noir Saralee’s Vineyard and the 2008 Pinot Noir Cuvee du Trois, as well as the 2007 Pinot Noir Trenton Estate Vineyard 2006 Pinot Noir Trenton View Vineyard, despite the New Jersey allusion! Pinot-centric Sequana chimed in with three different takes on the varietal, the superb 2008 Sundawg Ridge Pinot Noir from Green Valley, its proximate neighbor, the 2008 Dutton Ranch Pinot Noir, and the distant 2008 Sarmento Vineyard Pinot Noir from the Santa Lucia Highlands. Also posting a trifecta was my old friend Gideon Beinstock, with the terroir-driven wines from his Clos Saron in Oregon House. People who follow natural winemaking know this methodology can often be a crap shoot, but I was immensely pleased with his rosé, the 2009 Tickled Pink. Admittedly, I found myself ambivalent about the 2008 Pinot Noir Home Vineyard, but the 2006 Pinot Noir Texas Hill was one of the more outstanding efforts of the afternoon.
Another longtime acquaintance that my Sostevinobile blog readers should readily recognize was Dr. Chris Thorpe and his 100% organically-grown wines from Adastra. Once again, I fell sway to his 2006 Proximus Pinot Noir, a wine that reveals new complexities each time I encounter it. I never did get to meet Fred MacMurray while he was alive, though many hours of my childhood were dissipated watching his 1960s series after the departure of William Frawley. Many readers know of my disparagement of the Gallo wine empire, but, candidly, both the 2008 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir and the 2008 Pinot Noir Russian River Valley from MacMurray Ranch were noteworthy expressions of the grape.
Coming on the heels of the extraordinary 2007 vintage, one which Wine Spectator lauded as Pinot Noir’s “best ever” in California, 2008’s wines faced the kind of daunting challenge Michael Jordan’s kids felt when trying out for the basketball team. A couple of wineries that only pour 2008 left no basis for comparison, but impressed on their own merits. The very fine 2008 Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast from Pfendler Vineyards nonetheless risked being overshadowed by the presence of the pulchritudinous Kimberly Pfendler, while Richard Sanford’s 2008 Pinot Noir La Encantada Vineyard Santa Rita Hills (I failed to note whether it was the Clone 666 or the Clone 115 bottling) from his Alma Rosa Winery was flat-out superb. However, among where I could sample the two vintages side-by-side, I found a definite predilection for the 2007 Pinot Noir from Keefer Ranch over its successor. And among the three bottlings spanning 2006-08, Rusack Vineyards’ 2007 Pinot Noir Santa Maria Valley clearly stood out.
Once again, Weibel had a presence with their 2006 Weibel Family Pinot Noir Mendocino County. Derby Wine Estates demonstrated the exceptional moments this earlier vintage enjoyed with their 2006 Pinot Noir Derbyshire Vineyard. And while the 2006 Pinot Noir from Hanzell, proud stewards of the oldest Pinot vineyard on the West Coast, proved to be a marvelous wine, I fear the 2000 Pinot Noir they poured did not quite withstand the test of time.
The last two wineries I had never before encountered helped wind down the day with some side tastings. Mark Cargasacchi’s Jalama Wines matched their superb 2007 Pinot Noir Cargasacchi-Jalama Vineyard with a refreshing splash of their whimsically-named 2007 Gialla, a Pinot Gris from their Santa Barbara estate. And the veritable last word in Pinot, Zotovich, augmented the excellence of their 2007 Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills with the clean flavor of its 2008 Chardonnay and an astoundingly good 2007 Syrah, all vinted by Palmina’s Steve Clifton.
Capping the afternoon, I very much enjoyed the Pinots Hahn Estate Wines bottles as part of their winery-within-a-winery label, Lucienne. Sipping the admirable 2007 Lucienne Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands Lone Oak Vineyard segued into tasting the even more flavorful 2007 Lucienne Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands Doctor’s Vineyard before I completed my rounds with Riverbench Estate. Here, both the 2007 Estate Pinot Noir and the 2007 Pinot Noir Santa Maria Valley warranted tremendous accolades, while I was ready to rest on my laurels until my next tasting venture.
Every year, the month leading to Pinot Days has grown incrementally with seminars, winemaker dinners, preview tastings at numerous wine shops in San Francisco, and a dizzying array of other events throughout the Bay Area. Promoters Steve and Lisa Rigisich, partners in Pinot Noir specialist Ketcham Estate, are to be commended for their fanatical devotion to this grape. With this inundation of activities, I just hope they don’t lose sight of the important connection that Grand Tastings afford wineries and the people who promote them, the trade and the press, establish at such gatherings.
I understand the desire to weed out the numerous poseurs who like to attend trade & press events without ever contributing to the industry (apart from conspicuous consumption).Unfortunately, the segregation of this trade tasting meant only 96 wineries, out of 212 subscribed to the Grand Tasting the following Sunday, participated. By the time I realized the professional segment would truncate not just the time I had to spend with the wineries on my “To Meet” list but the roster of participants as well—only 29 of the 84 wineries I had earmarked exhibited on Friday—I had committed to the Mill Valley Wine & Gourmet Food Tasting, where yet another potpourri of wines and wineries would be featured. Allora, I merely hope we will all have a chance to meet at Pinot Days VII.