Tag Archives: Ridge

In praise of Silicon Valley

My readers know that Your West Coast Oenophile holds very strictly to a core sense of æsthetics and propriety. If not, Sostevinobile might well land up a paltry rendition of TGIFridays. Or worse.This resolve explains why I have not owned or operated any of the execrable software Microsoft publishes since 1989. Or why, apart from the pressing needs of a turgid bladder, I have not set foot in a McDonald’s since 1975.

It isn’t simply an abhorrence of their culinary atrocities that propels me to eschew the Golden Arches. In my view, McDonald’s embodies everything that is wrong with America, and as we slough through this modern era with its fast food-fueled Presidency, it only grows truer.

In a similar vein, of course, I have long held an unabated disdain for the perceived cultural abyss that demarcates the technological expanse to the south of San Francisco. Even now, as a newly-minted member of the California National Party, my arguments championing independence for our nation-state, are based not only on our economic prowess but the distinct identity of the Golden State (not withstanding Sostevinobile’s focus on wines from the West Coast, which reflects my contention that the expanse from British Columbia to Baja is an indivisible continuum of California’s viticultural sway), yet I have remained remarkably loath to embrace 408-land as an inextricable part of our landscape.

In truth, I am far from unwavering in asserting my belief in the supremacy of Californian culture. After all, we still cling atavistically to the barbarism of the death penalty. Our contributions (Herbert Hoover, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan) to the confines of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue hardly represent the zenith of Presidential politics, and unfortunately California deserves full credit that most unholy of institutions: the No Host Bar. Nonetheless, I am discovering aspects of Silicon Valley that actually warrant my admiration.

Many times here, I have extolled the viticultural virtues of wineries like Ridge, Kathryn Kennedy, David Bruce, Michael Martella, Rhys, Bonnie Doon, Big Basin, and Thomas Fogarty, to name but a few. Indeed, the non-technologically focused west side of Santa Clara County, as it melds into Santa Cruz, retains much of the agrarian charm and rural beauty that defined Silicon Valley before computer technologies dominated the region. And even as the valley strives to encroach upon San Francisco—sorry, Anjou Ahlborn Kay, but we will never become its adjunct—the west side of I-280 remains a pristine preserve, with its reservoirs and preserves. Earlier this summer, I returned to privately-held Runnymede Sculpture Farm in Woodside for the 3rd annual holding of  Silicon Valley Wine Auction This estate, of course, is a dazzling testament to what one can achieve with a billion dollar inheritance, featuring dozens of outdoor works from Andy Goldsworthy, David Kraisler, Raul Baeza, Brian Wheeler, Sam Perry, Mark di Suvero, Keith Haring, Robert Arneson, and many others.

The event brings together a dazzling array of wineries from the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA and does as much to promote the quality of these wines to a well-heeled crowd that may or may not realize the abundance that can be found in their own backyard as it endows the Silicon Valley Educational Foundation, the beneficiary of this extravaganza. The combination of wine, superb catering, world-class art, and a stunning rural backdrop cast Silicon Valley in a whole new light, a radical departure from the concrete box architecture, sterile corporate campuses, and monolithic culture that comprises the vast stretch of cutting-edge technology from Sunnyclara and Santavale to Cupertoga and Saravale. As I joked with one of the promoters, the one utterance that was never heard throughout the weekend was “I miss Levi’s Stadium, the soulless rectangular edifice, designed with all the precision and allure of a circuit board, that housed the first two years of this auction.

I had tried to secure Runnymede for the wine tasting I produced this past April, an assemblage of 30 wineries from around the state owned or operated by alumni of Dartmouth College, the venerable institute where I had obtained my degree in Classical Languages and in Creative Writing. Other venues we considered bordered on the ludicrous—Rosewood Hotel wanted $40 corkage for each bottle poured at the event on top of their rental fee. After a considerable search that extend as far north as San Mateo, we finally settled on the Quadrus Conference Center, across from the Stanford golf course. Virtually seven years to the date, the Bay Area’s inaugural Paso Robles Wine Country Grand Tasting, took place at this understated venue nestled amid the leading venture capital firms. I not only attended but chronicled the event in a lengthy post here, and while I retained fond recollections of the wines, as well as an in-depth conversation with Tablas Creeks Tommy Oldre after the tasting concluded, I somehow had managed to blank out any memory of the venue until I inadvertently perused my notes from 2010 a few hours before heading down to Menlo Park. N’importa, with perfect weather throughout the afternoon, Quadrus proved an enormously memorable venue, with breathtaking vistas spanning the southern tip of the San Francisco Bay and the Cargill salt ponds, the entire span of the Dumbarton Bridge, and, off in the distance, Mt. Diablo’s majestic peak. A more soothing and splendid backdrop could not be found.

I suppose it would have been utterly splendid to depart the Sand Hill Road complex offer sheet for Sostevinobile in hand, but alas, with the regrettably tenuous attendance meant this was not in the cards. Still, not long thereafter, I attended an innovative convergence of the Silicon Valley financeers and pioneers in the emergent agricultural realm. One World Training & Investments produced an unprecedented gathering entitled HACKING FOOD: Silicon Valley’s Sustainable Food Festival at BootUp, an unheralded incubator in Menlo Park. This was not a typical foray into Agtech investment, which currently seems is dominated by speculators in the new Gold Rush: legal cannabis. Rather, this conference focused on entrepreneurial opportunities in sustainable food production, along with new efficiencies in distribution and other attendant technologies.

Here was a side of Silicon Valley rarely seen: investors focused not on the Next Big Thing nor a 20X return on investment IPO, but innovations designed to further access to nutrition and promote the health of the planet. Tangible good, instead of technological progress for progress’ sake. It was the kind of commitment that made even this Silicon Valley skeptic take pause.

An austere wine, with an alluring bucket

Long before developing Sostevinobile, even prior to my original career in the wine industry, Your West Coast Oenophile pursued a much loftier vocation. Hubristic though it may sound, I truly believed I could elected the next pope.

Driving up the coast from Pacifica on a warm September evening in 1978, I heard the news that Pope Paul VI had just died. The broadcast further stated that the next Pope would assuredly be “younger, male, Italian, and allied with neither the liberal nor the conservative wing of the Catholic Church.” In other words, me.

With little time to mount an extensive worldwide campaign, I resorted to a decidedly grassroots effort, greeting people everywhere I went and exhorting them to write their favorite cardinal to support my candidacy. Hard to tell exactly how well I placed, as the balloting remains secret, but I finished a healthy runner-up to Venetian Cardinal Albino Luciani.

Ioannes Paulus PP. I proved a genial, albeit inferior, choice, as attested by his untimely death a mere 33 days after his installation. Seizing this renewed opportunity, I immediately took to the streets with a more aggressive campaign, this time pledging, with utter fidelity, “I won’t die in office!” Of course, I realized I didn’t need to worry about facing any consequences if I did break my promise. And if somehow I had managed to keep it, well…
Giampaolo

As I’m sure everyone knows, I wound up losing that election to Karol Wojtyla and his 27-year interregnum as Ioannes Paulus PP. II. Thereafter, the abrupt resignation of his successor, Benedictus XVI, dispelled any hope I could run once more on my immortality platform, though my apostasy still contends that, the Universe being merely a figment of my imagination, I cannot be allowed to die. Nonetheless, owning to reality, I am resolved to live at least as long to hear some hotblooded twentysomething admonish his friend “Dude, c’mon! That chick is too old! She’s got tattoos!!

Moreover, after recent Facebook rumors had reported my likely demise—compounded, I suspect, by three months’ absence in attending to this blog—I composed a bucket list of wineries I still craved to try. While my selections may lean heavily towards several of the renowned “cult Cabernets,” they also reflect, by omission, the vast number of these wines I have already had the pleasure of sampling.

Scarecrow Without trying to seem boastful, I have delighted over the years in such legendary producers as Harlan, Maybach, Dalla Valle, Bond, Opus One, Scarecrow, Shafer, David Arthur, Ovid, Kapcsándy, and the obligatory Screaming Eagle. Aetherial Chardonnays from Peter Michael and Kongsgaard have crossed my lips. Château Pétrus’ alter ego, Dominus, has been a perennial favorite, along with classic bottlings like Joseph Phelps’ Insignia and Ridge’s Montebello.

I’ve enjoyed deep velvet Zinfandels from Turley and Martinelli’s Jackass Hill. astounding blends from Paso Robles’ L’Aventure and Daou that depart from orthodoxies of Bordeaux and the Rhône, and luminescent Pinot Noirs from the Sta. Rita Hills’ Sea Smoke and Oregon’s Domaine Serène. But partaking of the latter’s storied Monogram remains the first of many elusive quests. After that, my bucket list most certainly includes the Santa Cruz Mountains’ clandestine Pinot Noir producer, Rhys, and Vérité, whose three wines have all repeatedly garnered perfect 100s from Robert Parker.

My must-taste list includes a slew of a stratospherically-priced Cabernets, including Colgin, Bryant Family, Grace Family, Dana Estates, Futo, and Harbison Estate, wines for which one must apply to receive an allocation. Legendary labels include Araujo (now owned by Château Latour) and Abreu, Napa’s premier vineyardist, as well as Chardonnay virtuoso Marcassin. True viticultural connoisseurs will certainly recognize Todd Anderson’s ultra-elite Ghost Horse from St. Helena and the coveted Sine Qua Non, the cult Rhône producer from Ventura County. Lurking in the wings, Grace Family’s winemaker, Helen Keplinger produces a line of Rhône blends under her own eponymous label that seem destined for legend.

Some may find Cougar an anomaly amid such vaunted company, but I have included it for their pioneering efforts to transform Temecula into the leading destination for Italian varietals in California —who else here is growing Falanghina, Ciliegiolo, or Piedirosso? I intend to visit this burgeoning AVA on my next swing down to San Diego and explore how it is being transformed after an infestation of the glassy-winged sharpshooter nearly eradicated all of the region’s vineyard plantings in 2001.

Last month, just after compiling this list, I did manage to venture fairly far south to visit a number of Central Coast AVAs Sostevinobile has inadvertently neglected; this trip, in turn, led to a two-week sojourn of non-stop wine tastings, during which I surprisingly managed to encounter six wineries from this roster.

I will cover my swing through Paso Robles, Temecula, Lompoc, Santa Barbara, Solvang, Buellton, Santa Ynez and Arroyo Grande more thoroughly in a subsequent post. Having the advantage of a holiday weekend that coincided with the Garagiste Fest Santa Ynez Valley, I arranged to veer southward to the Wine Collection of El Paseo, a cooperative tasting room in the heart of downtown Santa Barbara, where I met with Doug Margerum, winemaker for Cent’Anni, a Santa Ynez Valley winery I had discovered after Mick Unti had challenged me to find Canaiolo grown in California. I landed up accruing four sources: the aforementioned Cougar, Sierra Ridge in Sutter Creek, Vino Noceto in Plymouth, and this wondrous endeavor. With the same fidelity Tablas Creek strives to attain with its Rhône selections or the authentic approach to Bordelaise blends one finds with Luc Morlet’s eponymous label or Bernard Portet’s wines from Clos du Val, Jamie and Julie Kellner have brought to their quest to make Tuscan-style Sangiovese in California. Toward this exacting vision, they have planted five distinct Sangiovese clones, along with Canaiolo and, as claimed, the only Colorino vines on the West Coast.

Cent’Anni also grows a small amount of Pinot Grigio and sources Tocai Friulano, Pinot Bianco, as well as some additional Sangiovese for their second-tier offerings. I began my tasting with the 2012 Buoni Anni Bianco, a deft blend of their Estate Pinot Grigio with 38% Honea Vineyard Tocai Friulano and 28% Bien Nacido Pinot Bianco. Complementing it was the 2010 Buoni Anni Sangiovese, a pure varietal expression in the style of a Rosso di Montalcino.

These two wines prefaced the object of my sojourn, the 2010 Cent’Anni Riserva. Here was a wine truly at the apex of Italian vinification in the New World, a indelible marriage of 16% Sangiovese Montepulciano clone, 16% Clone 3, 16% Clone 6, 16% Clone 23 & 34% Sangiovese Rodino, topped off with 1% each of Canaiolo and Colorino. Without question, I found a wine well on its way to greatness, dense, rich, flavorful, and almost impossible to put down. My 35-mile detour from Solvang had certainly not been taken in vain.

Under his personal Margerum label, Doug also produces California’s first Amaro, a fortified red blend infused with “herbs (sage, thyme, marjoram, parsley, lemon verbena, rosemary, and mint), barks, roots, dried orange peels, and caramelized simple syrup” and a very floral white Vermouth produced from Late Harvest Viognier. Alas, The Wine Collection’s license does not permit pouring or tasting hard alcohol, so I could only gaze upon the bottle of grappa Doug also distills from his Viognier pomace. At least I could console myself that he had named it appropriately: Marc.

After attending both sessions of the Garagiste Festival, I moseyed onto another Italian-focused endeavor, the legendary Mosby in Buellton, where I was hosted by Chris Burroughs, famed for his portrayal of Sanford’s Tasting Room Manager in Sideways. Our tasting began with crisp, clean 2013 Cortese, the predominant grape in Gavi di Gavi, and reputedly Italy’s first white varietal. We followed this superb wine with a notable rendition of a 2013 Pinot Grigio and an amiable 2013 Rosato di Cannonau (aka Grenache).

Mosby’s red repertoire included their 2009 Sangiovese and a most striking 2009 Primitivo. I was duly impressed with their Estate-grown 2009 Sagrantino and the 2008 La Seduzione, one of the better domestic Lagreins I have had the pleasure of sampling. Along with Palmina, which I also visited this trip, Mosby has pioneered the planting and vinification of Italian varietals on the Central Coast. I only wish I had been able to try their other homegrown varietals, particularly, their Traminer, Dolcetto, and Teroldego. Portents of a return visit, I am sure.

Miles
CAENCONTESTa-C-29MAR02-MT-KK Herb Caen writing contest finalist D. Marc Capobianco CHRONICLE PHOTO BY KIM KOMENICH

I may be a balding and bearded writer, an Italian inculcated at Ivy institutes, and an unregenerate œnophile, but in no way do I resemble Paul Giamatti. Still, I could not leave Buellton without the obligatory pilgrimage to Hitching Post II, Frank Otsini’s restaurant adjunct to his popular wine label and setting for numerous scenes in the movie. Having recently had to fend off the rather forward queries of a quasi-inebriated party of divorcées at a Sonoma winery (“no, but I understand he drops my name quite frequently”), I announced as I approached the bar, “If anyone calls me Miles, they’re getting punched out!”

I managed to escape unscathed and make it on time the next morning to cover another entry from my bucket list, Paso Robles’ eclectic Linne Calodo. Truly a connoisseur’s winery, its elusive nomenclature belies a line of superb Rhône blends, along with a few proprietary mélange or two combining Zinfandel. I was quite taken with the 2013 Rising Tides, a well-balanced marriage of 40% Syrah, 32% Grenache, 18% Mourvèdre, and 10% Cinsault. The predominantly Zinfandel offering this day, their 2014 Problem Child (20% Syrah, 8% Mourvèdre) could have borne a bit more aging, but the 2014 Sticks and Stones (71% Grenache, 12% Syrah, 9% Cinsault, and 8% Mourvèdre) radiated with well-ripened flavors.

As with Mosby, I wish my visit could have encompassed all of Linne Calodo’s portfolio, particularly its sundry variations on GSM blends. Secreted amid the Willow Creek flatlands below the towering perches of Adelaida, this elusive yet dramatic winery—which, ironically, resembles a mountain top ski chalet—beckons further visits upon my anticipated return to Paso Robles later this year.

I barely had time to settle back into San Francisco before heading up to the Napa Valley for the annual tasting marathon known as Première Napa. As always, this event tests the mettle of professional œnophiles like myself—just how many tastings can one person squeeze into 48 hours?—but it continues to prove an invaluable resource, both for bolstering Sostevinobile’s wine program and for my ongoing quest for funding. An unexpected benefit this year, however, was an introduction to the wines of Sloan Estate, yet another bucket list candidate, and its rather ebullient proprietor, Jenny Pan.
Jenny Pan

About a year or so ago, a casual acquaintance related that he had recently sat beside former owner Stuart Sloan on a flight to San Francisco and queried whether I was familiar with the winery he had founded. Much to my interlocutor’s incredulity, I conceded I had no awareness of this label—not that I should be held accountable or derelict for such an omission. According to Wines & Vines, there are 5,461 bonded wineries among the three Pacific states (4,054 California, 718 Washington, 689 Oregon) or 58% of the 9,436 premises throughout North America (USA, Canada, Mexico). Conservatively, I would estimate that there are more than 6,000 additional labels produced at West Coast facilities, meaning that I have barely cataloged ⅓ of the producers Sostevinobile’s wine program is targeting. I took great umbrage at his disparagement, yet resolved to familiarize myself with such a highly prestigious brand.

Before I had a chance to set up a visit with Sloan, I stumbled upon their table at Première’s Women Winemakers Winetasting, an annual benefit at Bardessono. I had intended to make haste with this event, an unscheduled stop between First Taste Yountville and the Appellation St. Helena trade tasting at Raymond, but amid an exchange of light-hearted banter with Pam Starr (Crocker & Starr), I espied Jenny and her winemaker Martha McClellan obscurely manning a mere sliver of a pouring station across the room. With only two wines in production annually, Sloan could have presented their entire lineup here, but unfortunately their namesake Meritage, the current vintage of the SLOAN Proprietary Red, was awaiting bottling. Nonetheless, their second selection, the ASTERISK Proprietary Red, an indelible blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, proved more than compensatory. And with a proffered private tour of the estate now in the offing, I was duly appeased.

Less than two weeks later, I attended what may well prove to be the most impressive tasting of 2016: The State of Washington Wine at The Metreon. Having not visited San Francisco for over 15 years, this trade collective pulled out all the stops, featuring over 75 wineries and a fresh seafood bar best described as beyond indulgent. But the ultimate lure here was the presence of two of the Evergreen State’s two most acclaimed denizens, Leonetti Cellar and Quilceda Creek. Like Sloan Estate. As with most Napa’s cult labels, these bucket list wineries normally make their production available only to Mailing List members—with a four-year wait just to enroll! Having this opportunity to sample both wineries at the same time proved the pinnacle of this afternoon.

Leonetti poured somewhat secretively as Figgins Family Wine Estates, their parent label. Once I had deciphered this conundrum, I was rewarded with my introduction to a selection of their mid-range wines, the 2014 Merlot and the justly acclaimed 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon. A complete surprise was 2012 Figgins Estate Red Wine, a massive Meritage marrying Cabernet Sauvignon with Petit Verdot and Merlot; as impressive as this wine proved, though, it left me yearning for Leonetti’s much-heralded Reserve Bordeaux blend, along with their Estate Sangiovese.

No similar sense of want from Snohomish’s storied Quilceda Creek, however, which started with the 2013 CVR Red Blend, a deft mélange of 73% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Merlot, 6% Cabernet Franc, 4% Petit Verdot and 3% Malbec. As impressive as this wine proved, their top-of-the-line 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley, a pure varietal culled from their Champoux, Palengat and Wallula Vineyards, flat-out wowed (as a wine that lists for triple the Red Blend’s price tag should). These wines completely validated Sostevinobile’s tenet that the three West Coast states should rightly be considered a viticultural continuum.

Of course, it would be highly tempting to eliminate the six wineries cited here from my bucket list, but there still looms so much more to discover about each. And why rush? The longer I keep sourcing and drinking such great wines, the greater my chances of attaining immortality surely becomes.

Erect a fence to protect our border!

Don’t fret. Your West Coast Oenophile hasn’t turned xenophobic. It just seems that Sostevinobile might have to ratchet things up a notch or two to stifle the insidious infiltration of foreign wine into the West Coast. Not the stuff they vint in Italy or France or Spain—or even esoteric bottlings from Moldavia or Bulgaria—but from places like Georgia.

Rkatsiteli

Obscurant linguists aptly think of Georgia as საქართველო, the jewel of the Caucasus, known classically as Colchis, the land from where Jason purloined the Golden Fleece. Centuries later, this former Soviet republic gave the world იოსებ ბესარიონის ძე ჯუღაშვილი (Josef Stalin), while œnophiles recognize it as home to the renowned varietal რქაწითელი (Rkatsiteli), and, reputedly, viticulture itself. However, I am referring to the Georgia-on-My-Mind Peach State, along with the other 44 non-Pacific states seeking to export their viticultural pretenses into our highly esteemed realm.

Granted the notion of running a 1,470 mile fence from the tiny enclave of Andrade, CA through the pristine eastern edge of the Colville National Forest portends to yield some potentially dire consequences, like bisecting Lake Tahoe, but drastic measures may very well be needed if these nether regions persist in efforts to dilute the prestige of the West Coast wine industry by enveloping what we produce under the pervasive label of “American wine.”

There are myriad reasons Sostevinobile precludes wines from beyond the boundaries we have established. As befits our ecological entomology, we have established a defined radius for not only our wines but the entire roster of sustainably grown and locally produced foods we will source. But beyond this arguably political stance is an abiding belief in the quality of the wines and the breadth of selection we have available here, a belief evolved over 32 years of intimate involvement in the wine industry. It took the better part of nearly three decades for me to acknowledge the viticultural strides made in Washington and Oregon as a fluid continuum of the extraordinary evolution the industry has undergone here, but with only occasional exceptions, the other American Vititcultural Areas lag incrementally behind us.

Admittedly, I haven’t had the temerity to try the 2010 Frogtown Cellars Bravado, a US Georgian SuperTuscan Debra Parker Wong and Joe Roberts recently extolled. I have downed a few glasses of New Mexico’s Gruet in my time, heard the praises of Dr. Konstantin Frank’s Finger Lake Rieslings, and have watched as Virginia quietly (White House gatecrashers and Donald Trump’s bombast aside) stakes a claim for viticultural ascendancy (after all, they have most planted acreage of Rkatsiteli in the US). But these scattered pockets of distinction still do not warrant inclusion as peers with the predominant excellence found here on the West Coast.

Earlier this season, I attended a most intriguing tasting, sponsored by Institute of Masters of Wine. This self-poured retrospective of 45 Bordeaux-style reds from the 2010 and 2011 vintages highlighted 20 AVAs from California and 5 AVAs from Washington, along with the anomalous inclusion of wines from Grand Valley, CO; Long Island, NY; and Barboursville, VA. Apart from political expediency, the overarching attempt to brand these wines as American Cabernet proved utterly incongruous, these satellite regions barely approaching what would be considered adequacy here on the West Coast.

N’importa! Others may persist in such misguided attempts at homogeneity. Sostevinobile remains resolute in maintaining its fidelity to the integrity of West Coast viticulture. Many times over, this guiding tenet was validated by the numerous highly impressive wines offered here, starting with an extraordinary 2010 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from Daou, one of the pinnacles of Paso Robles’ ascendancy. Rivaling the splendors of this wine, Calistoga’s Maybach dazzled with its uniquely named 2010 Amoenus Cabernet Sauvignon, as luxuriant a bottling as the cars crafted under its eponymous line.

No surprise the 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley my friend Naoko Dalle Valle showcased stood on par with these first two wines, while the sometimes fluctuating quality of Beaulieu Vineyards’ flagship label, the 2010 Georges de Latour Private Reserve, returned to its zenith with this outstanding release. I certainly would have expected a wine of this caliber from Cathy Corison, and the 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Kronos Vineyard did not disappoint.

Somewhat verging from the rest of the field, Joseph Phelps’ eponymous label elected to feature a retrospective from the previous decade, the 2005 Insignia, his last official bottling. Not surprisingly, most of the wineries shied away from showcasing their 2011 vintage—an erratic vintage at best—and opted for the more consistent 2010. As such, Continuum Estate’s 2011 Continuum Pritchard Hill, a deft blend of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Petit Verdot, 11% Cabernet Franc, and 2% Merlot, proved an out-of worldly (though not quite Martian) wine that consolidated Tim Mondavi’s claim to his father’s mantle. Another Napa legacy, Rosemary Cakebread, similarly proved a worthy heir to her family’s renown with the 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley from her proprietary Gallica label.

When I began my wine career in the early 1980s, Chenin Blanc was ubiquitous trhoughout the Napa Valley. It now seems an anomaly that Ballentine Vineyards still produces a rendition, albeit one that attained Top 100 Wine status in Wine Enthusiast. Still, their old school approach led to an unexpected pleasure in discovering their 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve among the highest tier poured this day. Thirty years ago, I had a peripheral role in the first acquisition of Château St. Jean,  then a winery that only produced white wines; here, this Sonoma landmark continued to hold its own with the Napa titans with its storied 2010 Cinq Cépages (its 1996 vintage was proclaimed Wine of the Year by Wine Spectator in 1999).

Cinq Cépages’ first winemaker, Richard Arrowood, went on to found his own eponymous label, before establishing his current venture, Amapola Creek. His touch, however, manifested itself quite distinctively in the 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Réserve Spéciale Arrowood Vineyards featured here, a wine that neared the excellence of the St. Jean. Other veteran winemakers who predate my involvement excelling here included Angwin’s Robert Foley, with his spectacular 2010 Cabernet Napa Valley and, of course, the much-heralded Paul Draper from Ridge, whose 1997 Monte Bello validated the endurance of this spectacular vintage.

Also from that year, Heitz Wine Cellars poured its astounding 1997 Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon . In contrast, a relatively recent wine label. Michael Polenske’s Blackbird, impressed with its 2010 Contrarian Proprietary Red Wine a deft blend of 48% Cabernet Sauvignon, 32% Cabernet Franc and 20% Merlot. Others random selections garnering equal accolades included the 2009 M5 Cabernet Sauvignon Stagecoach Vineyards from Atlas Peak’s Krupp Brothers, Trefethen’s 2010 Reserve Cabernet Oak Knoll District, and from Beaulieu Vineyards former Director of Winemaking Joel Aiken, a superb 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford.

Several of Napa’s more redoubtable wineries made notable showings, among which were Staglin Family Vineyard, with their 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford; Darioush with their 2011 Signature Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot pioneer Keenan, with their 2011 35th Anniversary Cabernet Sauvignon. Agustin Huneeus also featured selections from his designate labels, with its 2011 Faust outpointing the more vaunted 2011 Quintessa, a wine that has steadfastly excelled during more benevolent vintages, while his former protégé Bettina Sichel’s Laurel Glen radiated with its 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma Mountain.

Impressively, Jackson Family Wines attained this plateau with four of its varietal-focused labels: the 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Mt. Veeder from Lokoya, their Cardinale 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, and the Mt. Brave 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Mt. Veeder, along with their Anakota 2009 Helena Dakota Cabernet Sauvignon from Sonoma’s Knights Valley.

Readers here know that I am generally wary of labels that become absorbed by the large conglomerates. Nevertheless, those that are given their autonomy after acquisition often maintain the integrity of their label’s brand. Here, Diageo’s Stags’ Leap Winery, Carl Doumani’s former hallmark dazzled with the still-way-young 2010 The Leap, an amazing expression of the district. The oft-sold Beringer, a proverbial pingpong ball in the ongoing Treasury Wine Estates saga, still managed to maintain its historical stature with a profound, aromatic 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Private Reserve, the current vintage of its landmark bottling that Wine Spectator named Wine of the Year in 1990. Pine Ridge, the crown jewel in Crimson Wine Group’s small but growing conglomerate, proved its worth with its 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley, a pan-AVA blend from its select Stags Leap District, Oakville and Rutherford vineyards.

With a heritage that extends back to 1876, Constellation’s Simi Winery managed to uphold its venerable distinction with its 2009 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley. With prominent holdings in both California (Conn Creek, Villa Mt. Eden, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars) and Oregon (Erath), the Columbia Valley’s Château Ste. Michelle has blossomed into one of the West Coast’s major wine conglomerate (actually, a subsidiary within an even larger international conglomerate) in its own right, yet still manages to distinguish itself under its originating Washington label with its 2011 Cold Creek Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley. Washington’s acclaimed Horse Heaven Hills boasted a superb 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve from Boudreaux Cellars, while the Red Mountain AVA featured DeLille Cellars2011 Cabernet Sauvignon Four Flags.

The Walla Walla Valley was well represented here, starting with the 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon from Amavi Cellars. This tasting afforded me my first opportunity to sample the Washington’s esteemed Leonetti Cellar, but I felt their 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon, despite hints of excellence, was far from ready at this stage. Fortifying my contention, their next door neighbor, Drew Bledsoe’s Doubleback radiated with its 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Walla Walla Valley.

My final discovery of the afternoon was a serendipitous tasting of the 2010 Big Papa Old Block Cabernet Sauvignon from EFESTĒ in the Yakima Valley. All in all, this American Cabernet Tasting underscored how Washington’s five AVAs kept stride with the more heralded regions of California (I suspect, if a similar tasting of Merlots were held, our northern neighbor would dominate). The wines from Colorado, Virginia and New York did not even approach this level of quality or complexity.

Other tastings I have attended have amply demonstrated a deepening parity between California and Oregon for Burgundian varietals, particularly Pinot Noir, while both Washington and Oregon have produced a number of exceptional varietals that have not gained a foothold here. Still, little argument can be made that the wines of the other 47 states approach the quality the West Coast produces; attempts to incorporate the viticultural axis on which Sostevinobile continues to focus into the more generic category of American wine can only dilute our reputation.


Speaking of Pinot, a number of contemporary wineries feel my longitudinal demarcation isn’t restrictive enough. Once again, I was happy to make my way to north to participate in this year’s West of West, the annual festival highlighting the close-knit group of West Sonoma winemakers redefining cold climate Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah in California. Returning to The Barlow, Sebastopol’s sprawling, state-of-the-art, sustainable complex dedicated to winemakers, food producers and artisans, this close-knit collective shares not only a camaraderie but a collective passion for more restrained, expressive wines (not coincidentally, many of the labels poured here are also mainstays of In Pursuit of Balance).

Given this overlap, only a few participants had not previously poured at events Sostevinobile regularly attends. Still, I was pleased to discover Jan Holtermann’s Alma Fria, whose wines focus on fruit from his eponymous vineyard in Annapolis. Heralding from three generations of wine importers, Jan’s current venture showed a seasoned sophistication with these inaugural releases, particularly the single vineyard 2012 Doña Margarita Vineyard Pinot Noir and the 2012 Holtermann Vineyard Pinot Noir. Quite amiable, though not quite as distinctive, were their broader-ranged 2012 Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast and a 2012 Chardonnay Sonoma Coast.

Also debuting their wine: Senses, a new collaboration from Occidental natives and childhood buddies Chris Strieter, Max Thieriot, and Myles Lawrence-Briggs. True to form, winemaker Thomas Rivers Brown blended grapes from both Hillcrest and B. A. Thieriot Vineyards to produce an exceptional 2012 Chardonnay Sonoma Coast, alongside a textbook 2012 Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast.

I would be hard pressed to find a wine that I found unremarkable among the ardent, studious collective pouring here, but several of the perennial participants came through with truly exceptional vintages. Two of the most impressive came from my prep school colleague Steve Singer’s Baker Lane: the 2012 Sonoma Coast Cuvée Pinot Noir and his exceptional signature bottling, the 2012 Estate Syrah. Other friends from my East Coast upbringing, Benziger Family Winery, dazzled with their 2012 de Coelo Terra Neuma Pinot Noir, while peripatetic winemaker Ryan Zepaltas proved his mettle with his truly extraordinary 2012 Devoto Terra Neuma Pinot Noir.

Echoing Benziger’s devotion to environmental stewardship, Cerritas showcased an organically farmed 2012 Porter Bass Vineyard Chardonnay.The paradoxically named Small Vines also garnered enormous appeal for its profound 2012 Chardonnay Sonoma Coast.

I typically associate DuMol with Chardonnay, as well, but here their standout proved to be the 2012 Aidan Wild Rose Vineyard Pinot Noir. While simultaneously managing Vinify, the Santa Rosa custom crush facility where many of the West of West vintages are produced, Justin and Hillary Lattanzio produce an understated eponymous label, here with their 2012 Umino Vineyard Pinot Noir redolent of an impressive pedigree honed under Heidi Barrett and Wells Guthrie. Another winemaker esteemed for his Cabernets, David Ramey, displayed his Burgundian forte with the 2012 Platt Vineyard Pinot Noir.

Mirroring Ramey, Sebastopol’s Red Car also excelled with their own rendition of the 2012 Platt Vineyard Pinot Noir. A mainstay at numerous Pinot-focused tastings with both his Oregon or his Sonoma vintages, Siduri’s Adam Lee can always be relied upon for consistently outstanding wine, as evidenced here by his 2012 Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast.

Some may find it hubristic to claim parity with one of Burgundy’s most esteemed producers, but Soliste’s self-referential homage to Vosne-Romanée for its marvelous 2011 Fôret Pinot Noir holds a definite degree of validity. The hallmark of this wine comes, however, comes from its triumph over an arguably vexing vintage. Across California, wines from 2012 almost uniformly proved wonderful, a vintage that made itself. But the preceding year required considerable œnological prowess to eke out a memorable wine, and a significant number of wineries chose to bypass bottling from this harvest.

In addition to Soliste, several wineries pouring at West of West rose to the occasion with spectacular results, including 32 Winds, with their 2011 Lucky Well U.V. Pinot Noir. So, too, did Gros Ventre, with their salute to primogeniture, the 2011 First Born Pinot Noir. Katy Wilson augmented her LaRue’s growing reputation with the 2011 Emmaline Anne Vineyard Pinot Noir while one of The Barlow’s anchor wineries, MacPhail, displayed considerable aplomb with their 2011 Platt Vineyard Pinot Noir, a most striking predecessor to the above-mentioned latter vintage.

Marimar Estate operates an offsite tasting room at The Barlow to complement their Sebastopol estate’s acclaimed Doña Margarita Vineyard. True to their renown, their 2011 Mas Cavalls Pinot Noir proved a deft blend of their allocated Pommard (63%), Dijon 115 (32%), and Dijon 667 (5%) clones. As specifically focused and equally lush: the 2011 Bodega Ridge Block Pinot Noir from John & Barbara Drady’s Sonoma Coast Vineyards.

Taming the 2011 vintage was not restricted to Pinot. Ramey featured a rich 2011 Platt Vineyard Chardonnay, while Red Car’s 2011 Estate Vineyard Syrah proved utterly masterful. As I complimented one of the vineyardists here on how the West of West wineries had risen to the challenges of such an ornery year, he confided that, for these growers, 2011 had been anything but, the intense heat spikes that had felled so many other regions hadn’t affected this cold, isolated AVA.

As always, the West of West provided an exceptional, highly informative tasting, one that stood apart from many of the less consistent events I have attended of late. Could argument be made that this region has risen to the point that it stands apart from the rest of the West Coast? Perhaps, but certainly there is no case for erecting a fence—just yet.