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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 Franc Cabernet Sauvignon Carménère Gamay Noir Gros Verdot Malbec Merlot Mourvèdre Petit Verdot St. Macaire Syrah Tannat Uncategorized

Lacuna

lacuna: noun, plural lacunæ

 

1. a gap or missing part, as in a manuscript, series, or logical argument; hiatus.

2. Anatomy. one of the numerous minute cavities in the substance of bone, supposed to contain nucleate cells.
 
3. Botany. an air space in the cellular tissue of plants.

Loyal readers of the Sostevinobile blog have probably noticed a paucity of entries, so far, for 2017. As in none. This gap, however, has not occurred because Your West Coast Oenophile has been missing in action or confronting his worst case of writer’s block since John Hawkes’ graduate seminar in fiction writing. I have actually started several posts covering my wine forays to Napa, Sonoma, Paso Robles, Amador, Lodi, Santa Cruz, and El Dorado (according to my odometer, nearly 77% of the miles I’ve clocked in 2017 have been for wine tasting forays). Add to that the usual array of trade tastings, although I skipped ZAP for the first time in 20 or so years, as it coincided with Premier Napa, plus I single-handedly produced a wine tasting extravaganza in Menlo Park, featuring some 30 wineries owned by or affiliated with alumni from my undergraduate institute.

In a word, I’ve been hard-pressed to put words to the page. And since I am so woefully behind in timely coverage of the various events I have attended, let me focus on the various discoveries I have made over the past few months as I have been meandering throughout the state.

As they usually do, my journeys began with a swing down to Paso Robles, though this time with one very significant difference: rain. After 5 years of drought, the weather gods seemed determined to atone for their dereliction in a single season, and on the Friday before President’s Day, turned what is normally a 3¼ hour drive down US 101 into a 7+ hour ordeal.

Despite oftentimes feeling as if I were taking my life into my own hands—at one point, almost driving into the Salinas River—I still managed to handle the deluge in stride, and managed to visit quite a number of wineries, while sandwiching in the regional Rhône Rangers tasting. It proved a most revelatory excursion, renewing my acquaintance with Roger Nicolas of RN Estate (not to be confused with Roger Nicholas of Lodi’s Grand Amis) and discussing his transition from the superb Rhône varietals he produces to a Bordeaux focus, including his sublime 2014 Malbec.

Readers here know that I have been championing Malbec as the Next Big Thing in California (along with my declaration of Pinot fatigue). Just before joining Roger for his tasting, I waded through the Adelaida District to join Jim Madsen at Thacher, where The Farm was laboring through its annual day of bottling. Much to my surprise, Santiago Achával was also manning the line alongside his associates. Though we had not met before, we have corresponded over the past several years and have numerous mutual friends, including Manuel Ferrer Minetti, his former partner at Argentina’s renowned Achával-Ferrer.

To learn from Santiago that The Farm was indeed planning to bottle their own Malbec in Paso Robles—once it met his exacting standards—was an epiphany. Further underscoring this prognostication was my discovery of Tooth & Nail’s 2014 The Fiend, a Malbec blended with 8% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Petite Sirah, and 2% Syrah and a revisit with Wally Murray’s Bon Niche, whose 2011 Voûtes/Arches has long been a benchmark Malbec blend. In fact, Wally’s second label, Birdland, is comprised of three mid-range Malbecs and Malbec blends, a further validation of my belief that California is no longer ceding this varietal to the South Americans. The only question that remains is whether Carménère can be far behind.

I have been referring to this Paso Robles trip as my M&M excursion. True, before the massive proliferation of wineries throughout the AVA, a packet of these candies was my go-to choice whenever I stopped here for the obligatory refill the tank and relieve the bladder before the second leg of my drive to Los Angeles, but this winter, it took on a whole new meaning. Also rising up from relative obscurity among its peer varietals, Mourvèdre, at long last appears to be taking center stage for many Rhône red producers. If GSMs could be likened to a professional basketball squad, Grenache would be Kevin Durant, Syrah—Steph Curry, and Mourvèdre, the overshadowed star of this triumvirate, Klay Thompson. But just as Thompson can manage to eclipse his co-stars every so often, so too can Mourvèdre find its niche as a primary varietal.

The Saturday event at Broken Earth proved, admittedly, a bit of an endurance test, given the decibel level of the concrete antechamber where the Grand Tasting took place. Placards hung from the ceiling celebrate each of the Rhône varietals, though the irony of misspelling “Mourvédre” was not lost. Still, eleven of the participating wineries featured a varietal Mourvèdre bottling, with particular standouts including Adelaida’s 2014 Mourvèdre Signature Anna’s Estate Vineyard, Clautière’s 2012 Estate Mourvèdre, compelling bottlings of the 2014 Mataró from Red Soles, Summerwood’s 2013 Mourvèdre, and the 2014 Mourvèdre from the redoubtable Vines on the Marycrest. Rounding out the assemblage, both Seven Oxen and Rhône virtuoso Tablas Creek offered superb renditions of their 2014 Mourvèdre.

Whether it’s labeled as its Spanish name (Monastrell) or its Catalan nomenclature (Mataró), Mourvèdre has been unheralded as a primary Rhône varietal for far too long on the West Coast. It is most gratifying to see that it is finally getting the measure of respect it deserves. Of course, I could say the same for the vast majority of the 200+ varietals I have sourced for Sostevinobile throughout the West Coast,  but that would require a far more comprehensive undertaking than I have time to allocate currently. Still, my final takeaway from Paso Robles was the discovery of a true Gamay—not Valdiguié—the 2015 Stasis Gamay Noir from Rob Murray’s Murmur VIneyard in nearby Santa Maria Valley, an exceptional wine that easily rivaled the 2012 RPM Gamay Noir, my overall favorite wine from that vintage.

After stopping off in Carmel-by-the-Sea, I made it back to San Francisco with barely enough time to brush my teeth and reload my travel bags before heading up to Napa and Sonoma for a five day excursion. In many ways, I concede that the events surrounding Première Napa are more personal indulgence than research; after all, this is primary county-wide showcase of the year and it remains fairly difficult, for the most part, to distinguish, critically, wines that range from very good to phenomenal. Première is about building and cementing relationships, cultivated over the years, in the hope of gaining discrete allocations if and when Sostevinobile becomes able to take on a prestigious reserve list or cater to a private membership within the confines of our facilities.

The other challenge, of course, is the rigid orthodoxy of the Bordeaux strictures to which the vast majority of Napa wineries adhere. Encountering unheralded varietals or non-traditional blends is a rarity in this AVA. Highway 29, the backbone of the Napa Valley, interconnects its most mainstream AVAs: Oak Knoll, Yountville, Rutherford, Oakville, and St. Helena, and along this conduit one tends to find the least variance in deference to the near universal excellence of its Cabernets—not to mention the price per ton Cabernet Sauvignon from here commands. Meanwhile, the more remote regions of the county, like Coombsville and Calistoga, generally seem more willing to delve into other varietals—even those that have fallen into disuse in Bordeaux!

As scarce as Malbec may be in California, the fabled sixth Bordeaux grape, Carménère, is even rarer. Even its most noteworthy producer outside of South America, Yorkville Cellars in Mendocino, seems almost reticent in promoting its varietal bottling. But with little fanfare, the redoubtable John Caldwell has plantings in Coombsville, and what suppose to be a quick visit to discuss obtaining some graftings of Malbec and of Carménère for my Paso Robles clients turned into a 3½ hour bacchanal that only ended because I had to attend a memorial service at the Marin Art & Garden Center in Ross.

I’d like to believe the late Dr. Jim McCole would not have minded my missing his Celebration of Life. Certainly, he would have himself preferred to indulge in the 2014 Rocket Science, Caldwell’s signature bottling of  ⅔ Syrah with 7% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Malbec, 6% Cabernet Franc, 5% Pinot Noir, 4% Merlot, 3% Tannat, and 1% Carménère, a blend as unconventional as the man behind it. I, in turn, cottoned to the 2012 Gold Cabernet Suavignon and an equally alluring 2014 Silver Proprietary Red, a rare blend of his six Bordeaux varietals, with a 1% dash of Syrah—an homage to 19th Century Claret.

Caldwell is renowned for the meticulously researched, albeit often smuggled, varietal clones grown on his estate, and labels his wines accordingly. The apex of this precision was his 2013 Merlot [Clone 181], along with the 2013 Malbec [Clone 595], but I still delighted most in the 2014 Carménère [Clone 2].

Readers well-familiar with my penchant for rare and obscure varietals will know that I am not satisfied with sourcing a mere six red Bordeaux varietals, and while John has yet to smuggle in cuttings of St. Macaire, both Mt. Veeder’s Progeny and O’Shaughnessy on Howell Mountain have plantings. But like the elusive Planet X, theoretically lurking undetected in the Kuiper Belt, the eighth Bordeaux red, Gros Verdot, has never found its niche in California, at least until now. Indeed, O’Shaughnessy has covertly planted it at their Angwin estateand will be releasing their 8 varietal blend this spring, superseding their famed Howell Mountain Cabernet, renowned for its inclusion of St,. Maciare and Carménère with the major Bordelaise grapes. Now if only Jancis Robinson hadn’t debunked Cabernet Gernischt…

(to be continued)