A tale of two cities

It has been over 500 days since I last donned a necktie. Or cravat. Or noose, if you will. It has also been more than 500 days since I last set foot in San Jose. Anyone who knows Your West Coast Oenophile is well aware of my aversion towards Silicon Valley. Or 408-ville. Or Legoland, if you will. Which makes the following admission all the more remarkable:

Ten days ago, I attended two wine tastings on behalf of Sostevinobile, one in Menlo Park, the other in San Francisco; the former event was unquestionably superior.

The Quadrus Conference Center at 2400 Sand Hill Road is pretty much ground zero for the VC community, and as I remain heavily into fundraising mode for our wine bars, I had almost hoped more to bump into a venture capitalist or two (after all, this is where “spare change” is a 7-digit figure) than to discover an astounding Roussanne or Syrah/Zinfandel/Cabernet Sauvignon blend. But the portable PDF of our Keynote presentation, which I had logged into my iPhone in case I needed to make an on-the-spot pitch, received as much use as the list of wineries I had culled from the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance’s pre-published roster for its Grand Tasting Tour: Mid-Peninsula.

N’importe! This still turned out to be a representative sampling of what is arguably the most interesting AVA in California, comprising well over 240 wineries and more acreage than any other appellation. The afternoon began with a seminar from three of the more prominent wineries in the region: Clayhouse, J. Lohr, and Ancient Peaks. Each of the three wineries brought a representative selection of wines in the $16 range, as well as one of their higher-end offerings.

Though the allure of Paso Robles is that allows itself to be unfettered by orthodox varietal categorizations (i.e., Burgundian, Bordelaise, Rhône), each of the three winemakers presented selections that were consistent within their own strictures. Steve Lohr poured two blends in the Bordeaux tradition, the first in the style of Pomerol, the more luxuriant based on Médoc, though each contained a sufficient amount of its primary varietal to be labeled 2007 J. Lohr Los Osos Merlot and 2006 J. Lohr Hilltop Cabernet Sauvignon. David Frick first poured his 2008 Clayhouse Malbec, ever-so-subtly softened with 2% Merlot, then switched to a Rhône blend, the 2007 Clayhouse Estate Petite Sirah, this time tempered with 1.5% Syrah. Meanwhile, Mike Sinoir showed true Paso Robles temperament by first blending his 2007 Ancient Peaks Cabernet Sauvignon Margarita Vineyard with Malbec, Petit Verdot and Zinfandel, then showcased his 2007 Ancient Peaks Oyster Ridge Margarita Vineyard, a totally unconventional blend of 46% Cabernet Sauvignon and 24% Petite Sirah, rounded out equally with Merlot and Petit Verdot.

Following what turned out to be a lively exchange, I joined up with the main tasting, armed with a plan of attack that bore little correlation to what I found awaiting us. Because I had failed to try Anglim at each of the previous two Rhône Rangers, I first gravitated toward their table to sample their mix. while I found their 2006 Cameo (Marsanne/Roussanne/Viognier) and the 2006 Cerise (Grenache/Mourvèdre/Syrah/Viognier) blends quite approachable, I favored their single varietal 2007 Roussanne, the 2006 Grenache and the 2007 Mourvèdre Hastings Ranch Vineyard far more to my liking. In such company, their 2007 St. Peter of Alcantara, a Zinfandel, seemed a bit anomalous but quaintly nostalgic, the name being the same as the Catholic parish I attended, unmolested, in my youth. Nearby, Alta Colina’s 2008 Claudia Cuvée blended Grenache Blanc with Roussanne and Marsanne, while their 2007 GSM clearly excelled.

To my mind, nothing typifies Paso Robles more than its unusual blends—after all, such experimentation put Piero Antinori on the viticultural map. The 2006 Companion from Caliza, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Mourvèdre, Syrah and Tannat, could not exemplify this willingness to experiment better, but, again, I most cottoned to their 2007 Syrah. Paso’s true pioneer in this array, though, has to be L’Aventure, a winery that needs no introduction here. Even though I had liberally sampled their wines at Rhône Rangers but a few weeks before, my friend Jennifer Hong, who distributes their wine in the Bay Area, insisted that today’s tasting would be featuring some newly released vintages. Here the superb 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon was complemented by the even more imposing 2007 Estate Cuvée, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Petit Verdot.

Kenneth Volk had introduced me to Negrétte last year, but was pouring samples only of their Paso Robles wines this afternoon. Still, I delighted in the 2008 Viognier Live Oak Vineyard, the 2005 Cabernet Franc, and especially the 2005 Tempranillo. And though I had sampled their wines at Rhône tasting, the sardonic wit of their emissary, Katie Kanphantha, drew me back to Derby Wine Estates’ table where I retried their delightful though inexplicable 2006 Fifteen10 Red and regaled in their 2006 Implico, a Bordeaux Meritage.

At this point, the tasting took a turn for the definite better, as the ever-alluring BeiBei Song joined me for a guided introduction. We scurried out onto the deck to join Tommy Oldré, bedecked in a loud, fuchsia necktie (or cravat) (or noose), at his Tablas Creek table. As always, the 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc, their famed blend of Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, and Picpoul Blanc, proved an immediate favorite, while both the 2007 Grenache and the 2007 Mourvèdre charmed BeiBei in a way I thought only I could! We proceeded to Mike Giubbini’s Rotta Winery, a somewhat understated venture mostly producing traditional varietals like Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Zinfandel (I found the 2005 Rotta Giubbini Estate Zinfandel quite compelling). And while the 2005 Trinity, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot made for a more than competent Meritage, the real discovery here was the non-vintage Black Manukka, an oak-aged, rare dessert wine that begs comparison with a fine cream sherry. Dessert wine also stole the show at Robert Hall Winery. I found their 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon quite appealing, but their 2009 Orange Muscat tasted like a liquid Grand Slam.

In the past, I may have been critical in this forum of wines from Niner’s Bootjack Ranch. I now realize that the particular vintages I have been served as a certain wine establishment may well have been past their prime, for the current releases I sampled here more than favorably impressed me. I found much merit in the 2006 Sangiovese but truly relished the 2005 Fogcatcher, a skillful mélange of 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, along with Cabernet Franc and Merlot. I hadn’t had previous experience with Silver Horse Winery, but found their Bordeaux bled, the Cabernet Sauvignon/Malbec/Petit Verdot combo of the 2007 SAGE enticing. More compelling, however, was their 2007 TOMORI, marrying Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot with Syrah, while their straightforward 2009 Albariño offered a nice contrast to most of the afternoon’s offerings.

A wide range of Spanish varietals have taken root at numerous Paso Robles wineries, like Stanger, vinifying a more than competent rendition with their 2006 Tempranillo Stanger Vineyards; their forte, however, might have been the 2007 Viognier Paso Robles, a clean expression of this finicky varietal. Meanwhile, restricting themselves to what they do best, Terry Hoage presented three takes on Grenache: the 2007 The Pick, a Grenache-dominant GMS blend, the 2007 The 46, a Grenache/Syrah combo, and the 100% 2007 Skins Grenache.

               Kukla, Fran & Ollie

When I toured Paso Robles last year, I found myself rather intrigued by a gated Westside estate that was under development. Was this oddly-named winery a latent tribute to a Black & White puppet show that lurked deep in the recesses of my memory? kukkula, it turns out, is the Finnish word for “high place” (kukla is the transliteration of κούκλα or кукла, the respective terms in Greek and in Russian for doll), a most apt description of Kevin Jussila’s aerie. Finnish varietals are an unknown species to me, but Kevin compensates by giving his intriguing wines names like the 2008 vaalea, meaning “fair” or “white” to his Viognier/Roussanne blend or 2006 sisu, the term for “patience” or “perseverance”to his GMS blend. His superb mélange of Grenache, Mourvèdre and Zinfandel bears the label of 2006 Lothario, a moniker I often fancy for myself, while his Cabernet Sauvignon/Syrah goes by the inornate 2006 in the red.

During the height of the dot.com explosion, a popular Italian restaurant in Mill Valley decided to open a branch in Palo Alto; rather than clone the name, they decided to hold a contest to see who could come up with the most clever appellation (the prize being a free meal every week for life, if I recall correctly). I submitted Il Pastaio Ottimo, meaning “the best pasta maker” but also deftly abbreviated as I.P.O. kukkula also produces a wine with the same acronym, a mostly Cabernet Sauvignon blend paying tribute to Kevin’s real job as a financial advisor. I tried to persuade him to drop off a bottle of his 2005 i.p.o., along with his business card, on the doorstep of every VC firm in the complex, but he demurred. Maybe I should have purchased a couple cases and left a bottle with Sostevinobile’s card instead!

As much as I enjoyed kukkula’s wines, my great discovery of the afternoon had to have been Roger Nicolas’ RN Estate. I could lavish superlatives on these wines all day (in between repeated sips, of course)! Two of these wines, the 2007 Young Vine Zinfandel and the 2006 Enfant Prodigué, a Mourvèdre/Syrah/Zinfandel blend, I conservatively scored as excellent. The other two Roger poured, the 2007 Cuvée des Artistes (Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Zinfandel) and the 2007 Cuvée des Trois Cépages (a more traditional Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot) well warrant the resurrection of my highly-coveted.   

I did skip a handful of attending wineries to which I have given extensive coverage in previous entries here, but concluded this tasting with Maloy O’Neill, another winery that had escaped previous notice. Quite the versatile viticultural venture, they impressed me with their 2005 Zinfandel, the 2005 Private Reserve Syrah, the 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Windy Hill, and the 2005 Malbec. However, I was most struck by their 2005 Lagrein, a wine that contrasted strikingly with the Lagrein from Sonoma’s Jacuzzi that I have previously assayed here.

As the trade portion of this tasting drew to a close, I sadly could not convince BeiBei to accompany me to the evening’s tasting in San Francisco. In retrospect, I probably ought to have fortified myself with a little sisu (the concept, not the wine) and loitered with the winery crews until the public arrived; instead, I basked in a few minutes of rare sunshine, then headed up Interstate 280 for Wine Enthusiast’s Toast of the Town 2010.

On surface impression, the wine tasting in San Francisco should have had everything going for it: a splendiferous setting inside the War Memorial Opera House, access to innumerable top-flight restaurants and caterers, a well-heeled crowd easily able to swing the $89 ticket price (if not the $169 tab for the VIP tasting), plus a prestigious wine publication as sponsor for the event.

And therein lies the rub. With this kind of clout behind the event, attendees had every right to expect a roster of wines of which only the true cognoscenti might be aware. Instead, table upon table proved to be subsidiaries of the leviathan wine corporations of this world: Gallo, Constellation, Château Ste. Michelle, Jackson Family Wines, Folio, Hess Collection, Trinchero, Coppola, Kobrand, Diageo, Banfi, Moët Hennessey, Delicato, Artesa, Crimson Wine Group, Foley Family Wines, Don & Sons (aka Sebastiani). To put things more succinctly, the greatest hits of Safeway’s wine aisle—minus Brown-Forman.

This isn’t to say that, even within these conglomerates, there aren’t quite a number of excellent labels and individual wines. I even sampled from BV, Cardinale, Archery Summit, and Robert Mondavi, to name but a few. But a neophyte could have put together this list as easily as Wine Enthusiast did—just without their imprimatur. And that hardly warrants an $89 premium.

On the plus side, Farallon generously shelled out tray upon tray of Champagne Poached Oysters, Cindy Pawlcyn’s Go Fish Restaurant whipped up a superb Shrimp & Lobster Salad, an Oakland establishment called Home of Chicken and Waffles covered everyone’s comfort food needs with Fried Chicken and Macaroni & Cheese, while Bistro Boudin from Fisherman’s Wharf incongruously assembled superb medallions of Alder Smoked Duck atop shot glasses filled what they described as Beet Gazpacho. Other food purveyors had offerings just as delectable, I am sure, but were already depleted by the time I arrived.

And in all fairness, there were more than a handful of independent wineries scattered throughout the four floors of this event. Jordan showed its usual flair with both its 2008 Chardonnay Russian River Valley and 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley. One of Crushpad’s last, lingering autonomous labels, PerryMoore, impressed with their 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon To Kalon Vineyard and their 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Stagecoach Vineyard. From Monterey, Josh Pierce of Pierce Ranch impressed me with his 2008 Albariño San Antonio Valley, while international wine mini-mogul Jean-Charles Boisset poured a selection of his family’s California and French labels, including DeLoach’s 2007 O.F.C. Reserve Pinot Noir, Lyeth’s wondrous 2006 Meritage, and newly-acquired Raymond’s 2007 Reserve Chardonnay.

Before I bring this review to a close, I wanted also to mention the presence of three promotional associations of independent wineries who poured a representation of their members’ wines. Unfortunately, each had far too many offerings for me to serve them justice during the limited time span of this event, and I can only urge them to hold a collective tasting like the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance sometime in the near future. Of course, I fully expect once again to attend the Grand Tasting for PS I Love You at Concannon, America’s birthplace of Petite Sirah, in the summer. And I hope Jim Ryan will use this event as a model for the members of his Livermore Valley Wine Country to establish a tasting of their own. Lastly, being sandwiched in-between Santa Cruz, Santa Lucia Highlands, and Paso Robles, Monterey Wine Country has plenty of examples to follow if it decides to a trade tasting of the diverse wines within their AVA.

Two tastings in one day—a lot to absorb, a lot to record, and (perhaps) too much to imbibe. My trek from San Francisco to Menlo Park and back covered nearly eighty miles and a wealth of contrast between the two cities and the events they had hosted. Perhaps Charles Dickens said it best: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”

Nyah! That’s way too much to swallow!

 

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