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Cabernet Franc Cabernet Sauvignon Carménère Chardonnay Malbec Merlot Mondeuse Petit Verdot Pinot Noir Port Sangiovese Sparkling Syrah Viognier

Everybody wants to get into the act

Your West Coast Oenophile has been avidly involved in the wine realm for over 40 years now, including more than a dozen running Sostevinobile, but even with this track record, there are still some mainstays in viticulture whose popularity I do not comprehend. Like Valdiguié, formerly known as Napa Gamay, a varietal that flourished as ubiquitously as Chenin Blanc when I started out in 1982. Call it what you will, the varietal still strikes me as clawing. But, perhaps like Lagrein, an Italian grape to which I initially did not cotton, it the right hands, it can prove to be wondrous.

My introduction to Sauvignon Blancs came from the grassy-grapefruity renditions that dominated the 1980s; 40 years later, I still struggle to approach this varietal without trepidation. Granted, I am quite fond of Sauvignon Blanc deftly tempered with Sémillon or a blend heaviluy mixed with a Musqué clone, but when I am searching for a white wine, I will almost always opt for a Falanghina or Albariño or Roussanne or Pinot Blanc or a dozen other non-Chardonnay selections before I consider an SB. Try as I mght, the varietal simply doesn’t resonate with me the way it does with so many other dedicated œnophiles. On the other hand, if someone wants to gift me a bottle of the 2019 Screaming Eagle Sauvignon Blanc…

Just as I cannot comprehend the tremendous enthusiasm so many have for Sauvignon Blanc, I find myself unable to ascribe to the fanaticism many have for Pinot Noir. It’s not just Pinotism, the cult-like devotion to the grape, as Andrew Jeffords recently illustrated; I also revel in the nuances of an amazing Pinot but shy from the lesser expressions of the varietal. My incredulity, however, is more directed at the implied post-Sideways notion that a winery must produce Pinot Noir as the sine qua non in order to be considered credible. In recent weeks, I have attended events like Pinot Paradise at Gravenstein Grill in Sebastopol and the Petaluma Gap’s AVA-focused Wind to Wine Festival; of course, there were a plethora of truly wonderful Pinots poured at each. But my overall impression was “why?” Labels like Scherrer and Radio Coteau have long validated their inclusion in the upper echelons of Pinot producers. Likewise, major vineyard holders like Dutton Goldfield and Three Sticks offer amazing renditions of their own grapes. But how many wineries can make a truly distinctive Pinot Noir from the same vineyard?

I cannot recall a preference for or noteworthy difference among the half-dozen or so Pinots sourced from Sangiacomo Vineyards. Nor those I tasted from Sun Chase. I see the same inundation of labels from other distinguished vineyards in Sonoma, including Carneros, Russian River Valley, and West Sonoma. It becomes even more egregious in renowned Pinot regions such as the Santa Lucia Highlands, where innumerable labels source grapes from a dozen or so mega-vineyards like Garys’ or Rosella’s.

But Pinot Noir isn’t simply limited to  plantings in Sonoma and Monterey Counties. Anderson Valley in Mendocino, Santa Maria Valley and Sta. Rita Hills in Santa Barbara, wide swaths of the various counties in Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, and, of course, Burgundy’s twin Willamette Valley AVA in Oregon all contribute to an amalgam of more Pinot producers than one could possibly enumerate.

And it doesn’t end there. Ridge Vineyards, a winery whose considerable prestige needs no validation, now produces a Corralitos Pinot Noir, simply because legacy owner Ichiro Otsuka wants it made. A similar reason releasing a Pinot was expressed by the financial partner of Tansy, a new label otherwise focused exclusively on Italian varietals. As the late, great Jimmy Durante was fond of saying, “everybody wants to get into the act.”

At its finest, I recognize that Pinot Noir offers greater complexity and variation than almost any other varietal. As my colleague Laura Ness recently illustrated, the grape offers a vast array of clones, each with distinctive character and viticultural properties. On the other hand, most mainstream (aka affordable) Pinots approach being lackluster, which once begs the question “why are so many producers insistent on making this varietal?”


Oenology may represent a cultural apex on par with the fine arts, but it is also has a pragmatic business aspect few producers can afford to eschew. I cannot fathom how so many labels can focus on Pinot Noir and thrive in a competitive market but it is not my position to tell winemakers what they should produce. I will, however, proffer that one can just as readily demonstrate one’s viticultural acuity with any number of other varietals, such as Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Syrah, Tempranillo, Nebbiolo, Malbec, and, yes, even Merlot!

It may seem contradictory that, despite my protestation of Pinot fatigue, I am heading to Sonoma next week for the annual Pinot Noir-focused Healdsburg Crush, but I have interspersed these visits with a number of other Grand Tastings from AVAs that focus on a variety of different grapes. Though known as the foremost rival to Napa’s claim to Cabernet supremacy, its western neighbor excels in a number of varietals, including Sangiovese, Barbera, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and a wide range of Rhône-style wines. Labor Day weekend’s poolside Access Alexander Valley featured long-established wineries like Seghesio, Rodney Strong, and renowned Chardonnay specialist Robert Young, alongside showcase châteaux Lancaster and Ferrari-Carano, as well as ambitious starters like ACTA and La Cienega.

A couple of weeks later, I wound my way up to Yountville for the return of Taste of Mount Veeder, a showcase for one of Napa’s most prestigious hillside AVAs. Despite the threat of atypical September rainshowers, this event still proceeded on the lawn of Domaine Chandon; though the terrain proved challenging at times, the muddied field could hardly rival the famed “Pinot in the River” tasting in Healdsburg several years ago. But between intermittent cloudbursts, the afternoon proved a wonder opportunity to revisit with numerous wineries and sample through their current releases.

Of course, like Alexander Valley, Mount Veeder is known primarily for its Cabernet Sauvignon, but the vintners here demonstrated their prowess with a disparate assortment of varietals. with such bottlings as Lagier Meredith’s always-intriguing 2019 Mondeuse and the 2014 Precious Bane, a port-style (fortified) Mount Veeder Syrah. meanwhile, heir apparent Aaron Pott held his own with the 2021 Viognier Pott Art.

My overt fondness for Mary Yates aside, her Yates Family Vineyard’s 2018 Fleur de Veeder Merlot proved most impressive. As did the 2014 Mount Veeder Malbec from Godspeed. And relatively atypical Cabernet blends abounded here, like the sumptuous 2015 Mary Ann Red from Gamble Family, a Cheval Blanc homage consisting of 56% Cabernet Franc, 32% Merlot, and a mere 12% Cabernet Sauvignon. In signature fashion, Paul Woolls’ Progeny rounded out the typical five Bordeaux varietal blend in their 2018 Reserve Cabernet with 2% Carménère from their Mount Veeder estate, while Random Ridge replicated a SuperTuscan, marrying Sangiovese and Cabernet in their 2019 Fortunata.

Still, it goes without saying that Cabernet Sauvignon reigns supreme in this AVA, and it was most heartening to see Newton, an historic winery obliterated in Spring Mountains’ Grass Fire of 2020, rise like the Phoenix from its embers and dazzle here their 2016 Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon. But my guiltiest pleasure from any Mount Veeder Grand Tasting will always be the glorious yet unheralded Mithra Winery, which year in and year out produces one of Napa’s greatest Cabernets, represented here by the 2016 Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon and the near-flawless library offering, the 2009 Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon.

Ha-cha-cha-cha!

Categories
Cabernet Sauvignon Chardonnay Pinot Noir Uncategorized

See You Next Tuesday

What goes with plaid? Your West Coast Oenophile would be inclined to suggest Scotch Whisky, haggis, and that manliest of sports, caber tossing. But fine wine would not have made this list, until Sostevinobile attended the recent Pinots and Plaid tasting at the newly-remodeled Hibernia Bank lobby in San Francisco’s up & coming Tenderloin district.

Admittedly, this pairing did not start off auspiciously. My trade pass clearly denoted a start time of 2pm, which included entry to the VIP lounge and a more intimate early hour with the wineries on hand. When I did arrive at the check-in table, however, I was informed that I was only included in for General Admission, and would have to wait until 3pm. I twice attempted to introduce myself and address this matter with event promoter Emily Martin, but she was focused on the extreme demands of posing for an interminable string of Pinterest photos.

But capitulating to solipsism was hardly in order for the afternoon, nor would the lack of a basic tasting program deter my appreciation of the many excellent wines on hand. I hadn’t tried using the newest version Pages with the latest update of my iPhone; the new iOS 13 makes for a clumsy interfaces when using this application for creating text files. I fumbled my way through tasting the wide array of Pinots from Anne Moller-Racke’s Blue Farm, highlighted by the 2016 Pinot Noir Anne Katherina, her eponymous estate vineyard, before switching to Notes, an .rtf application that enabled me to catalog each of the wines I sampled.

Another ludicrous aspect of this event was Martin’s insistence that the wineries hold back their Chardonnays until 45 minutes from closing (having produced numerous events myself, I recognize the advantage of enabling attendees to keep their palates balanced throughout the afternoon, lest they fatigue from a single varietal). Fortunately, many saw fit not to follow this guideline. The 2017 Peugh Vineyard Chardonnay from David Low’s Anthill Farms proved a fortuitous deviation from this edict, a rich, splendid expression of the grape.

Due to the Sonoma fires and evacuation orders, a number of wineries understandably could not participate. I had been greatly looking forward to Noah Dorrance’s selections from Reeve and was eager to try Adam Lee’s Clarice, his personal successor to Siduri. And, of course, if I had been granted access to the VIP Lounge, Roederer Estate has long been a personal favorite sparkling producer. Still, stalwarts like Peay and Three Sticks proved as consistently excellent as I have come to expect, the former with both the 2017 Scallop Shelf Estate Pinot Noir and the 2017 Pomarium Estate Pinot Noir, while Ryan Prichard, successor to acclaimed winemaker Don Van Staaveren, continued his legacy with two standout bottlings, the 2017 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir and its contrasting 2017 Sonoma Mountain Pinot Noir.

I go to great lengths to ensure that winemakers at Sostevinobile events allocate enough inventory so all attendees can have the opportunity to experience what they are pouring. How frustrating to find a winery has depleted its stock on hand and already departed before reaching their table (though invariably the shortfall does not reflect the producer’s calculus). As such, it had been quite a while since I last sampled Michael Browne’s Cirq and was looking forward to revisiting their wines, but I ponied  up to their table just as they finished packing. And as a former wine club member at Williams Selyem, I was eager to rediscover on what I had been missing out lately; when I moseyed over to their table, however, all that remained was their 2017 Pinot Noir Lewis MacGregor Estate.

I fared better with the remaining vintners, starting with Works & Days, the Burgundian sister of Coursey Graves; these wines proved an interesting discovery, with the 2016 Pinot Noir Hill Justice Vineyard the standout among the trio poured here. After decades of furnishing the preponderance of Carneros’ premium Pinot and Chardonnay grapes, Sangiacomo showcased its own label here, admirably comporting themselves with their 2017 Roberts Road Pinot Noir and the equally-splendid 2017 Green Acres Chardonnay.

I would be equally hard-pressed to choose a favorite from the 2018 Sonoma Mountain Chardonnay, the 2017 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, or the 2016 Pinot Noir Russian River Valley Yountville’s Stewart Cellars featured. Of course, had they been a bit bolder, they might have brought along their 2017 Tartan, a Bordeaux-style Meritage that nonetheless offered thematic consistency. But it does betray my varietal prejudice when I note that my favorite wine of this event was the 2016 Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon that Sojourn surreptitiously poured alongside its vineyard-designate Pinots. In close contention, however, were a pair of Carneros wines from Hyde Estate: the 2016 Chardonnay and their wondrous library selection, 2012 Carneros Pinot Noir. Jackson Family Wines highlighted their focused ultrapremium label program with the 2016 Jolie Pinot Noir from Maggy Hawk, their Anderson Valley operations.

Also blending from Mendocino vineyards, Erich Bradley’s Texture excelled with their 2014 Pinot Noir Anderson Valley. Given the proliferation of Pinot regions throughout Northern California, it seemed a more perspicacious event producer would have featured a wide variety of AVAs outside of the Sonoma appellations, like the Santa Cruz Mountains or Santa Lucia Highlands (how Pinots & Plaid did not include Talbott is beyond me). Beyond the latter two aforementioned wines, the sole exception to this myopic focus was the 2016 Pinot Noir Star Mooring, a Willamette Valley selection Ellie Phipps Price’s Dunstan added to her line of acclaimed Durrell Vineyard vintages.

Still, the paltry gaggle of plaided patrons in attendance this afternoon probably paid little heed to this oversight and reveled in the opportunity to experience such iconic producers as Gary Farrell, with his members-only bottling of the 2016 Pinot Noir Rochioli Vineyard. For many, I am sure Sebastopol’s Red Car also proved a rare treat, showcasing both their 2016 Estate Pinot Noir Fort Ross-Seaview and a superbly matured library selection, the 2012 Pinot Noir Zephyr Farms. Kosta Browne alum Sam Lando featured a duo of  his limited-production wines, the 2017 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir and a compelling 2017 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. Another highly acclaimed vigneron, John Bucher, also brought a pair of his current releases, the 2017 Pommard Clone Pinot Noir and  the 2017 Russian River Valley Estate Pinot Noir.

Lacking a tasting room, my San Francisco neighbor, Kutch is a rare treat for the public; here,  they did not disappoint, with three routinely excellent Sonoma Coast vineyard designates: their 2017 Bohan Chardonnay, the 2017 Falstaff Pinot Noir, and the 2017 McDougall Pinot Noir. The rest of the tasting featured widely familiar labels, including peripatetic winemaker Ross Cobb’s own brand, highlighted by the 2016 Pinot Noir Diane Cobb from his family’s vineyard. Wells  Guthrie’s Copain may now be part of the Jackson Family portfolio, but remains distinctively subtle, as evidenced by both their 2017 Chardonnay and the 2016 Les Voisins Pinot Noir.

It is always a pleasure to visit with Ken & Akiko Freeman and to taste through their sundry wines. As it is named, the 2017 Ryo-Fu Chardonnay was indeed a “cool breeze” with which to wind down, while the 2016 Yu-Ki Pinot Noir sparkled. I concluded my tastings with my friend Valerie Wathen, ambassador extraordinaire for Dutton-Goldfield, with both the 2016 Rued Vineyard Chardonnay and their new 2017 Azaya Ranch Pinot Noir serving as an excellent coda to the afternoon.

There are numerous Pinot Noir events throughout the year, of course, including dueling versions of Pinot on the River in Sonoma, this month’s upcoming PinotFest, West of West, and World of Pinot Noir. Granted, the largest of these, Pinot Days, has fallen by the wayside, but is there really a need to add yet another? Certainly, a different angle on such an event is necessary to keep it from being redundant, but pairing it to a dilettantish vision for an unrelated fashion display  hardly meets this criterion.

I say this as not only an accomplished œnophile but someone known for his sartorial splendor. If somehow there is a Pinots & Plaid II, they may wish to take my picture so you can see for yourself.