A Columbus Day tribute: Welcome Back, Sangiovese!

I am starting to suspect there may be more polyphenols than hemoglobin in my bloodstream. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, as far as Sostevinobile is concerned. Your West Coast Oenophile began last weekend with a fall swing up to Napa, with stops at half a dozen wineries before attending the final Cheers! St. Helena of 2009.
The wineries could not have been more hospitable. I first arrived for the Estate and Wine Cave Tour at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, a winery I had not visited since its sale to Chateau Ste. Michelle some three years prior. Despite its parent company’s recent acquisition by Altria, there seems to be no nicotine taint on this brand, only slight wafts of tobacco aromas in their array of incredibly textured Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlot.
After a few overly generous tastes of their exceptional 2005 S.L.V. Estate Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2005 Cask 23 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, I headed north up Silverado Trail to Quixote Winery, the current organic wine venture of former Stag’s Leap apostrophic rival Carl Doumani. Liberated from his Stags’ Leap Winery, this contrarian vintner has set out on a highly Cervantean quest to bottle the perfect California Petite Sirah. Few, if any, would claim that his luxuriant 2005 Quixote Petite Syrah is tilting at windmills; equally delightful was the 2004 Panza Cabernet Sauvignon, an organically-grown “Rhôneaux” blend inadvertently poured by Quixote’s ever-affable hostess Anne White.
Anne had formerly worked at Diamond Creek, a later stop this warm afternoon. But first, I made a long-delayed swing over to Martin Estate in Rutherford, a boutique gem with 8 acres of organically-farmed Cabernet Sauvignon. Words cannot begin to capture the opulence of this winery, a 19th century edifice that originally had been constructed as a (comparatively speaking) miniature version of Greystone in St. Helena where Georges de Latour first made his wines. The building, converted in the 1940s to a residence, has been restored by current owner Greg Martin to include the current wine operations while housing part of his vast collection of antique arms and other artworks. From the decor of the mansion to the 120′ swimming pool to the Teutonic grandeur of the wine label itself, nothing about Martin Estate could be described as minimalist; befittingly, his wines, too, evoke an unabashed opulence, notably the 2005 Martin Estate Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and his very limited port selections, including Greg’s “answer to Château d’Yquem,” the 2002 Martin Estate Gold, a botrytis-laden Late Harvest Chardonnay.
I swung back to Silverado Trail and wound my way up to Calistoga. There, it was a quick hop over to Highway 29 and over to Diamond Mountain Road, where I returned for a followup visit to Diamond Creek. Oddly, I somehow managed not to taste their array of vineyard-designated Cabernets while chatting with winery President Phil Ross. Phil did, however, provide me with a golf cart that enabled me to take a self-guided tour along the rickety paths that comb Diamond Creek’s three distinct vineyards, each distinguished by a highly differentiated soil composition and a definable microclimate that impacts their growing season. It is a tour best appreciated with one’s faculties fully intact.
Having managed not to flip the golf cart along the steep pitch of the trails, I thanked my host for his hospitality and zipped over to Twomey’s Calistoga facility. This winery, an offshoot of Silver Oak, exclusively produces their estate-grown Merlot (with an occasional touch of Sauvignon Blanc) while its sister facility in Healdsburg, the former Roshambo winery, sources and bottles a quarter of Pinot Noir selections.Of the several wines I tasted, the 2001 Napa Valley Merlot peaked beautifully at this age while the 2005 Napa Valley Merlot longed for more time in the bottle; my choices in Pinot Noir spanned the California Coast from Mendocino on down, with the 2007 Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir most pleasing to my palate.
My ailing friend and fellow advertising refugee Ira Zuckerman could not meet with me at Emilio’s Terrace; instead, I was hosted by founder Phil Schlein, an ardent devoté of organically-farmed grapes. A walking tour of his steep hillside vineyard crowned my boots with a fine layer of dust, a veritable badge of honor for this urban dweller. Inside, I partook of Phil’s considerable insight into the financial aspects of business development while sipping his straightforward 2004 Emilio’s Terrace Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve.
Porting home a bottle of their Cabernet Franc-based 2005 Moonschlein Red Wine, I found myself with enough spare time to attend the Friday afternoon Pulse Tasting at Acme Fine Wines. Up & coming winemaker Mark Polembski was on hand to pour from three of the wineries that employ his talents: Anomaly Vineyards, Charnu Winery, and Zeitgeist, a project he co-owns with his wife, Jennifer Williams of Spottswoode. All three wineries offered a limited-production 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon, all quite good, with a slight edge going to Mark’s own label.
Cheers! St. Helena proved to be a veritable potpourri of local vintners, ranging from the large and well-known to the hard-to-find 400 cases operations that many people employed by other wineries put out under their own label. As my habitual readers know, I tend to find these large-scale events a bit of sensory overload and make best with what I can do. With barely enough time to introduce Sostevinobile to these vintners and manage a quick swill of their offerings, my observations on individual wines manage to be tenuous at best. Still, my introduction to Nichelini’s 2008 Sauvignon Vert was a pleasant introduction to a wholly unfamiliar varietal, while Soñador’s 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon was exactly what one might expect from this benchmark vintage. Roxanne Wolf’s trademark painting lend a certain concupiscence to the labels for Eagle Eye, certainly an apt trait for their trademark blend, the 2006 Voluptuous. On the other hand, the 2006 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon from Lieff let its considerable pedigree stand out front. A most auspicious debut was the 2006 Wallis Family Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Diamond Mountain District, while the 2006 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Peterson Family Vineyard from SwitchBack Ridge heralds from an estate that dates back to 1914.
I wanted to find out that Kapcsándy Family Winery produced a California Tokaji, but their 2006 Estate Cuvée State Lane Vineyard instead combined Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc in a true Pauillac blend that reflected the background of winemaking consultant Denis Malbec. I exchanged pleasantries and thoroughly enjoyed the wines I sampled from other Napa ventures, including Intersection, Varozza Vineyards, Calafia Cellars, Wolf Family, Front Row from Napa’s pioneering Carpy Family, Salvestrin, and Tom Scott Vineyard, while sundry other wineries offered their current Meritage or Cabernet Sauvignon, but, at the end of the day, the standout wine was the 2006 Sangiovese Eaglepoint Ranch from Abiouness, a pure expression of this varietal (as opposed to the mask of a Super Tuscan blend) that I have not experienced at this level in California for quite a number of years. I was ready to call it a day.
I was scheduled to attend the West Coast Green Expo in Fort Mason the next day but inadvertently stumbled on the debut of the Taste of Fillmore festival on my way to Walgreens. I tried to resist—surely my venal-CO₂H capacity had attained its maximum tolerance for the weekend. Alas, my ecological impulses fell by the wayside (though I did manage to attend the after-party at the Academy of Sciences later that evening), and I warily flung myself into the thick of the cordoned-off block between California and Pine. After revisiting Dick Keenan’s Carica Wines and his delightful 2007 Temptation, I sampled the nascent talent of Pacifica’s Barber Cellars, an array of interesting wines from Napa’s Farella Vineyard, and a consensus favorite, the 2005 Proprietary Blend, a mélange of Syrah and Grenache, from Singh Family Cellars.
The very French-focused Beaucanon Estate offered a septet of wines, including a Bordeaux-style 2003 Trifecta and the utterly compelling 2005 Beaucanon Estate Cabernet Franc ‘L Cuvée.’ This afternoon, however, belonged to Italian-style wines, starting with Kelseyville’s Rosa d’Oro, with a discrete selection of their varietals that included the 2007 Primitivo, 2006 Barbera and 2006 Aglianico. Ramazzotti Wines glistened with the 2007 Ramazzotti Frizzante, a Prosecco-style sparkling Chardonnay, and their compelling 2005 Ramazzotti Ricordo, a Zinfandel blended with Petite Sirah, Alicante, Syrah, Carignane and Chasselas Doré. However, as had been at Cheers! St. Helena, the 2002 Ardente Sangiovese Atlas Peak from Ramazzotti’s kindred Ardente Estate Winery defined this day’s tasting.
For Sostevinobile, it is particularly gratifying to see a winery stake their œnological claim with the resurrection of an Italian grape that has lost much of its cachet in California. While local expression of this varietal differed from its classical vinification in both Chianti and Brunello, I felt the 2000 Atlas Peak Sangiovese Reserve had solidified its inclusion among the leading wines produced on the West Coast.
Sadly, however, when Paolo Antinori reacquired the Atlas Peak winery, the Sangiovese vines were uprooted and replanted with Cabernet Sauvignon. This conversion coincided with a general downturn in production of Italian varietals on the West Coast and the collapse of Consorzio Cal-Italia, the trade organization devoted to local production of these wines. Originally, the Consorzio had paralleled Rhône Rangers and sponsored an annual Grand Tasting in Fort Mason. Industry ambivalence toward these varietals and internal financial disarray precipitated the collapse of this event after only three years. Some members tried to maintain the tasting as a larger food and wine festival in North Beach’s Washington Square to coincide with Columbus Day celebrations, but this, too, fizzled, after only one year.
Call it Columbus Day. Call it Italian Heritage Day. Either way, it is a celebration whose importance the Consorzio Cal-Italia tasting helped underscore. To the Italian people here, the incorporation of so many of our cultural institutions and artifacts by the population at large, while at the same time denigrating us in popular media and in social settings, is a source of both pain and bewilderment. The expediency of politicization aside, we take this one day each year to affirm the inextricable role Italians have played in the development of the cultures throughout the Western Hemisphere. 
Senza la cultura italiana, la civiltà occidentale non esisterebbeA translation is not necessary, but, as a popular Italian bumper sticker boasts, immodestly but accurately, “We Found It. We Named It. We Built It.” Each year, we express our pride in what we have contributed on this day. It would truly be wonderful to have a resurgence of Consorzio Cal-Italia, a reinvigoration of Italian varietals among the local wineries, and a return of an annual festival on this holiday weekend rivaling the other Grand Tasting held in San Francisco. These renewed forays into the cultivation and local production of Sangiovese may well be harbingers of greater things to proliferate.

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