Beating around the Bushes

I didn’t vote for Obama. Nor did I vote for McCain. It should come as little surprise that Your West Coast Oenophile, the founder of Sostevinobile, the first wine bar dedicated to local, sustainable wines, is a card-carrying member of the Green Party. Besides, that insipid institution known as the Electoral College renders my vote virtually meaningless in any Presidential election, so I followed my conscience and wrote in Al Gore.

Despite what yesterday’s posting might seem to imply, this blog is not meant to harbor any political bias. Wine, after all, is meant to be one of life’s great equalizers. That said, it should be noted that, for the past four elections, the road to the Republican nomination has gone through me. Think this is hubris on my part? Hardly! Dole, Bush, McCain—each has a first cousin with whom I have been friends. Has there been a more common thread? Aspirants for 2012, take heed!
Boasts of connectivity allows me to segue into another story, of how I tried to leverage my first foray into producing my own wine label off the elder President Bush. On the morning of Nov. 9, 1988, the day immediately following the election, I woke up with a spurt of inspiration, the genesis of which still eludes me. Nonetheless, the first words I uttered in post-election semi-stupor were “George Herbert Walker Blush!”
It did sound good, I have to admit. A rather deft slogan, “A Kinder, Gentler Wine,” quickly came to mind (even Orson Welles’ “We will sell no wine before its time” was not this incisive). Next came a name for our label, which continued in the vein of gentle parody: Thousand Points of Light Wines.
Through my aforementioned connections to certain members of the Bush family, I was able to send off a proposal to the American Bicentennial Presidential Inaugural Committee that we donate a considerable number of cases to the Jan. 20, 1989 festivities in Washington, DC. All that remained was the incidental matter of actually bottling the wine.
In 1988, the late comedian Pat Paulsen had a winery up in Asti, CA. In fact, he owned the entire town of Asti and had proclaimed himself mayor. For those who remember his inexorable campaign, Pat Paulsen for President, this turned out to be the only government office he ever held. A better fit for Thousand Points of Light Wines could not be found, particularly in view of the fact that Pat had been divorced twice that year and was in serious need of a revenue-producing venture.
With Pat on board, I managed to source a commitment of some 500,000 gallons of négotiant White Zinfandel from San Martin Winery. Keep in mind that the wine we had elected to produce was to be called George Herbert Walker Blush—not exactly a Stags Leap Cabernet or even a Rosato di Sangiovese, but a rather pedestrian (albeit serviceable) entrant on par with some of Ceres’ finer vintages. We titrated and tasted in the San Martin lab until we had just the right balance. I whipped up a label in white Aachen Bold lettering, with a Yale Blue background framing a picture of the White House highlighted with gold foil trim. The scintillating copy of my piquant back label did not miss a single beat.

Naturally, the final hurdle proved fatal. We were felled not by opposition from the incoming administration nor the objections of the Bush family (whom I’m told really enjoyed the idea), but the low-level apparatchiks dwelling somewhere in the basement of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. When The Wine Institute  tried to submit our label for approval, it was swiftly rejected, based on ATF’s interpretation of Title 27, Part 4, Subpart D, §4.39, Section (a)(6) of the United States Code of Federal Regulations, which addresses prohibited Practices in the Labeling Requirements for Wine. The section in question disallows:.

A trade or brand name that is the name of any living individual of public prominence, or existing private or public organization, or is a name that is in simulation or is an abbreviation thereof, or any graphic, pictorial, or emblematic representation of such individual or organization, if the use of such name or representation is likely falsely to lead the consumer to believe that the product has been endorsed, made, or used by, or produced for, or under the supervision of, or in accordance with the specifications of, such individual or organization.

Now, to this day, I contend that not even a quasi-intelligent person could reasonably assume that the President of the United States had any connection to our wine (note my disclaimer on back), but try telling that to a Washington bureaucrat. Sure, if Bobby Koch had been CEO of The Wine Institute twenty years ago, we certainly could have rammed the approval through the ATF, but back then he wasn’t even married to George W.’s sister Doro. Chances are, had we chosen to fight their ruling, we’d still be litigating today.
And so, the only bottle of George Herbert Walker Blush—A Kinder, Gentler Wine ever made sits perched atop my bookshelf. Tales of my subsequent venture with Pat Paulsen will take up a later installment of this blog. For now, this day belongs to the Punahou Kid, and whether you consider him the most ill-prepared President to take office since, say, George W. Bush, or whether he portends to become the most inspirational President to take office since, say, George W. Bush, we all need him to do extraordinarily well with the formidable task he has lying ahead.

Tiny bubbles

Maybe it’s yet another sign of global warming. Then again, maybe it isn’t. Either way, we’ve been enjoying 70° weather in the San Francisco area for the past week or so. Mitigates quite a bit for not having a team in the Super Bowl yet again.
I used the occasion yesterday to make first cycling trek for 2009 over the Golden Gate Bridge. Sausalito was glorious in the mid-afternoon radiation, and I managed to time things so I watch the sun slip below the Pacific as I crossed the Bridge back to San Francisco.
The only nadir to my ride was the legion of clueless tourists crossing the Bridge on rented Blazing Saddles bicycles. Any regular cyclist will tell you that these folks are more hazardous than the rampant potholes we are continually swerving to avoid as we cross the City. Someone needs to look into equipping all Blazing Saddles bicycles with radio-signal locks—you know, like the kind they put on shopping carts so you can’t remove them from the Safeway parking lot—that disable the rentals as soon as they reach the foot of the bridge span.
Still, a two-hour bike ride always perks up my appetite, so I arranged for the Ginkgo Girl to pick up a couple of Dungeness crabs from the nearby San Bruno Supermarket. I’m not about to reveal my preferred recipe for steaming crabs here, although I will allow that Two Buck Chuck Chardonnay is a perfectly serviceable wine to use as base for the broth.
In our house, it has been a long-standing tradition for everyone to name his or her crab for a designated nemesis or thorn in one’s side (Cindy Noah, Jack Choe, Mike Nelson, Jackie Dague and the entire roster of the 2002 California Angels—over the years, you have all met your proverbial fate). My partner in Sostevinobile, David Latimer—a mellower sort than I—takes exception to this practice and needs to be left alone in the kitchen so that he may make peace with the crabs before they meet their certain demise.
The Ginkgo Girl has no similar problem with our ritual, but yesterday I exercise a bit of droit du seigneur and named the two crabs George and Dick in honor of their pending departure from the national scene. Certainly many will wish this culinary execution had been more than symbolic.
In honor of this momentous occasion, and to complement my excellent cuisine, I chose a favorite mid-priced champagne, the 2004 Iron Horse Brut. Ooops! I know I’m supposed to call it a sparkling wine, as it heralds from the Russian River Valley and not the eponymous French AOC. Be that as it may, there are still may superb méthode champenoise wines made here on the West Coast and in other regions around the world. While I am not yet ready to concede the arrival of sparkling wine from Long Island, I have been consistently impressed many of the sparkling wines produced in Mendocino, Sonoma, the Willamette Valley and elsewhere. Many, of course, are branches of their esteemed French and Spanish counterparts, but of the independent sparkling wine houses, Iron Horse has always stood strongly alongside the more-recognized names like Schramsberg and Scharffenberger. Paired with cracked Dungeness and a tangy homemade aioli, the 2004 Brut did not disappoint.

Il Comitato per la Restaurazione del Papato Italiano

The aforementioned title belongs to an organization I’ve spearheaded since 1978’s investiture of Cardinal  Wojtyla (Ioannes Paulus PP. II) as the first non-Italian Pope since 1523. As it remains with his successor, Cardinal Ratzinger (Benedictus PP. XVI—I knew studying Latin for twelve years would eventually pay off), our rallying cry has always been “questo papa non conta!” Someday soon, the Italian people will reclaim this office, which, like the mayoralty of San Francisco, rightfully belongs to us.
Of course, I’m not ignorant of church history and realize that the papacy has not only not been the exclusive province of the Italians, the Holy See has not held uninterrupted in Rome since ~42 A.D. From 1309 to 1377, the papacy was relocated to the French city of Avignon, in no small part because of Pope Clement V’s desire to be near the source of his most favored wines. Clement planted vineyards just north of Avignon, near the banks of the Rhône, which were assumed by his successor, Pope John XXII, who also built the famed castle which gives this commune and AOC its name: Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Many of the Rhône varietals have found considerable success throughout the West Coast’s AVAs, including Syrah, Mourvèdre (Mataro) and Grenache, the principal grapes designated for Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Many wineries here make their own homage to this very approachable Rhône blend, led by Bonny Doon’s impresario Randall Grahm and his satiric Le Cigare Volant (note my generous attribution here, even if Boony Doon’s former label, Big House, plagiarized my unlaunched Château Lompoc—the Wine Served Behind the Finest Bars in America). Another of my perennial favorites has been the Kunin Pape Star, a blend that is delightfully skewed towards Grenache.
Finally, I manage to open a bottle of 2006 Michael Grace GMS last night to accompany a quick-broiled salmon fillet I served for dinner. GMS is a blend from grapes grown at Laetitia’s Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard, balanced between 60% Grenache, 10% Mourvèdre and 30% Syrah. An approachable wine to be sure, quite drinkable alone or as a companion to the aforementioned salmon. Affordably priced for a wine of its complexity—only wish the Ginkgo Girl and I had discovered it while we were making our way through the week of post-Thanksgiving turkey entrées.
Basta per oggi… 

I have GOT to learn how to swill & spit!

So Saturday was supposed to be the big day when I made my public debut as a wine blogger and budding entrepreneur at the Wine Questers Taste n Tell gathering on Treasure Island. I say “supposed to be” because the good folks at FedEx Office (née Kinko’s) managed to turn my quick printing of a dozen or so makeshift business cards into a 2+ hour ordeal—I would elaborate further, but the manager called me Sunday and offered to print up a whole box of cards on, naturally, recycled paper stock gratis.
Anyway, I rushed out across the Bay Bridge (halfway, actually) and arrived at the warehouse winery VIE shares with Blue Cellars on the old naval base at around 4:40 pm, only to discover the event has wound its way back to San Francisco a home in the Marina. After a frantic call on my iPhone and another furious drive back over the Bridge and across the City, I arrived at the makeshift tasting room for Canihan Cellars, a mere 12 blocks from my house (as opposed to the impromptu 30-mile, traffic-filled loop I had taken). Of course, my belated arrival meant that I missed out on six of the seven wineries Taste n Tell was featuring, but at least I had a half-dozen business cards to pass around. Moral of the story: if you don’t drink, drive (or so I guess).
Now the whole idea behind Taste n Tell was that all of us technophilic wine critics were suppose to sample the offerings from VIE, Blue Cellars, Morningwood Wines, Treasure Island Wines, AP Vin, Sol Rouge and Canihan Cellars, then instantaneously report our findings on an array of social network sites via iPhone or Blackberry. Of course, in my case, this was pared down to only the last of the seven wineries. And, I have to confess, I’m kind of new to both parts of this proposition, not just the dexterity required for rapid thumb-typing but the professional protocol of wine tasting. In other words, I still swallow my sample pour. Two rounds of six different wines and the Touch Screen becomes an amalgam of blurs and typos.
Nonetheless, I am happy to report, from the recesses of my memory, that Canihan Family Cellars is quite an impressive wine operation for one so small and relatively young. Their organic vineyards in Sonoma are managed by Phil Coturri, one of those can’t-seem-to-miss stalwarts of the wine industry and produce a formidable lineup of Pinot Noir, Syrah and Cabernet Franc.
Now I happen to be quite the fan of most what I would term also-ran varietals, like Petit Verdot and Pinot Meunière (not to mention Aglianico, Albariño, Arneis, etc.), something that will become more evident throughout this blog and in our Sostevinobile wine bars. I tasted both Canihan’s 2005 and 2006 Cabernet Franc and was elated. The earlier vintage, which won a Gold Medal at the 2008 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition particularly stood out for its peppery bite and remains quite the bargain at $20.
Canihan offers both Pinot Noir and Syrah under their eponymous label, as well as in a special bottling they call Exuberance. The name could not be more à propos. Their Pinot Noirs are grown “just across the street” from the Los Carneros AVA on the Caroline’s Block of their Sonoma Valley vineyard and exhibit a full-bodied, rich
flavor and aroma with distinct echoes of their terroir. Again, the 2005 Exuberance Pinot Noir won gold medals from both the 2008 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and the 2008 West Coast Wine Competition.
The crown jewel of this jewel of a winery, though, is its Syrah, again with a much-heralded 2005 vintage under both the Canihan Cellars and Exuberance labels. In 2007, their inaugural offering, the 2004 Syrah pulled off an incredible feat by winning Double Gold Medal (as Best Syrah) and being judged the Best Red Wine of Show in the 2007 San Francisco International Wine Competition (out of over 4,3000 wines entered). Any description I might personally offer would pale in comparison.
So perhaps I can be forgiven, at least this time, for not relegating my 15 ml sips of these wonderful wines to Paul Giamatti’s favorite brass spittoon. There will be plenty more tastings to come and by then my wine vocabulary should have tacked on the word “Strewth!

Who wants to be a billionaire?

Apparently, I am nearly the last person to learn that Microsoft intimated at Wednesday’s CES kickoff that it is scrapping Vista. Not sure what that really means—I never use their derivative operating system nor any of the execrable software they publish. Besides, I was immersed in Macworld this week.
Still, back in 2000, I actually met Microsoft’s Big Kahuna. And I don’t mean the guy with the perennial $8 haircut.
We had just finished dinner at Viognier, a noted San Mateo restaurant and wine destination (how could it not be with a name like that?). Manned by Gary Danko at the helm of the kitchen, Viognier sat perched atop the 4th Avenue branch of Draeger’s, an upscale grocer with a rather impressive wine department in its own right, and had recently been voted the #2 restaurant in the entire Bay Area. As we exited the elevator to the sidewalk, whom should I see standing on the corner but current Microsoft CEO and America’s ninth-richest person, Steve Ballmer! Of course, recognizing Steve in public is a rather simple featone would not tend to describe him as a poster boy for 24 Hour Fitness. Nonetheless, I’m sure Danko’s gastronomic wonders managed to augment his ample girth by an inch or two.
Corpulent cracks aside, I decided to introduce myself (we actually have a number of acquaintances in common). Knowing he was deeply immersed in battling the Justice Department’s efforts to split his company into two or three separate entities, I extended my right hand in a semi-conciliatory manner and proffered, “Don’t worry, Steve. No matter what happens, they can never take away Microsoft’s ability to innovate.”
I’m not sure he ever caught my gist…

Home and the range

Last night was a rare treat. After I’d put in a marathon over the past 72 hours, building building sites for Sostevinobile on the Web, Facebook and here, the Ginkgo Girl cooked dinner. After 10 consecutive days of variants on the leftovers from the turkey and other delectables I had whipped up for our Christmas dinner party, her stir-fried shrimp was a welcome respite, albeit an extra-spicy one.

Not that she wasn’t well aware of how many Thai chili peppers she had tossed into the wok. Knowing how spicy foods tend to create a cascade of perspiration streaming from my gleaming pate, she asked, in her typically unpretentious manner, “Do you want a glass of wine?”
“That’s like asking ‘do I want to breathe?’” I replied. Actually, it took 2½ glasses of 2006 Markham Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc to quell the heat.
I’m readying a new batch of homemade limoncello this afternoon, then heading off to Macworld.

What’s in a name?

I’m sitting down to compose my first entry with a glass of 2005 BV Rutherford Cabernet close at hand. When I first began cutting my chops in the wine industry, before the release of their acclaimed 1984 vintage, BV offered three Cabs: Beautour, Rutherford and Georges de Latour. The Rutherford was their mid-range offering, produced in large batches, and selling for $7.98. Today, BV has more Cabernet selections than I care to count and the Rutherford—you’re lucky to find it under $35.
Still, it’s nice to launch my wine blog with an old friend by my side. After all, the name Sostevinobile is a bit more than a mouthful, although you’ll find it goes down quite smoothly once you can handle its mellifluous pronunciation. Sostevinobile is my original portmanteau, a fusion of the Italian word sostenere, vino, and nobile—respectively, to sustain, wine and nobile (as in noble grapes). It’s also the working name for my latest venture, a rather expansive wine bar opening later this year with an exclusive focus on wines from California, Oregon and Washington.
I should clarify that and note that we will only be serving sustainable wines from the West Coast, although that will narrow our selection to around a mere 98% of the wines produced here. The irony, though, is that virtually every restaurant these days boasts a menu culled from local, sustainable ingredients: produce, meat, fish, cheese, bread, etc., then features a wine list that’s 75% imported wine—or more. Sostevinobile promises to be the first full-service wine bar that addresses this inconsistency.
I’ve been an impassioned proponent of the wine we produce here ever since I migrated West, following my stint in a graduate Creative Writing program somewhere back East. One thing I and Sostevinobile can promise is that there will be no shortage of intriguing variety and excellent quality in all the wines we will be serving.
Let the journey begin here.