Tag Archives: Stags’ Leap

Stags, Stag’s, Stags’ or Stagg?

While Your West Coast Oenophile still strives to maintain a 1:1 ratio of Resveratrol-to-Hemoglobin in my bloodstream, I also partake in a wide range of other alcoholic beverages from time-to-time, particularly at bars where the $16 Wine-by-the-Glass selection goes for $9.99 a bottle at BevMo and has been sitting, unpreserved, on the shelf since last Tuesday—know that none of this will ever happen at Sostevinobile! My tastes run from vodka and bourbon to tequila and scotch, with a refined mezcal or cognac or grappa doing the trick when I feel like being warmed up from the inside out. I am inordinately fond of single malts like Talisker or Oban and occasionally indulge in a dry martini, stirred not shaken (of late, the house variation at The Progress, with a touch of smoked Castelvetrano olive juice and rosemary oil, has been an especial favorite).

Of course, anyone who knows me will be aware that I am not content simply to indulge in others’ creations. Longtime readers of this blog will remember the Tai Da (太大) cocktail I concocted several years ago and introduced to a handful of bars in San Francisco. And for those with extremely long-term memories, there was the Fook Yu cocktail I created as a bartender at the legendary dim sum house on Clement Street. These days, I am pursuing the ultimate version of the venerable dark liquor equivalent of a martini, an atomic strength version I have dubbed The Manhattan Project. My quest still hinges on selecting the perfect handmade bitters to complement this recipe, along with exquisitely marinated cherries as a garnish. Without question, my vermouth of choice will be Quadys VYA Sweet Vermouth, and the base liquor will naturally be the highest proof I can find. If I were a strict traditionalist, I would have to go with a rye—the Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye Whiskey being the strongest commercially-produced bottling I know, clocking in at 129.2°. But I have to defer to parent company Buffalo Trace ’s remarkable 144.1° bourbon, the George T. Stagg.

Speaking of cervids, the taxonomical family that encompasses moose, elk, antelope and deer, I had the pleasure of attending the first San Francisco trade tasting for the Stags Leap District. Of course, the feud between Warren Winiarski’s Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Carl Doumani’s Stags’ Leap Winery is the stuff of legend, and while neither retains ownership of the winery they founded, the trade association has chosen, collectively, to be grammatically apostate and eschew any employment of the apostrophe. A most politic decision.

But when wines of this caliber are being poured, remaining neutral is hardly possible. 18 of the most prominent producers from the District poured at Jardinière in San Francisco’s Civic Center, and despite several having been subsumed by the leading wine conglomerates over the years, nearly all the wines maintained a uniform excellence. As is my wont, I began my session with the one winery I had not previously encountered on Sostevinobile’s watch. Ilsley Vineyards has been furnishing a number of highly prestigious wine labels with grapes since 1962, but only started producing their own label this century. Lacking winemaking facilities or a tasting room, it is a property I have driven by on Silverado Trail numerous times but completely bypassed. Not to be overlooked at this event, however, was their approachable 2015 JK Sauvignon Blanc. Even more striking, the 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District was an impressive introduction to their red line, but the true standout this afternoon was the 2013 Seis Primas, a Malbec-focused Meritage, with 33% Cabernet Sauvignon and 13% Merlot blended in.

Lindstrom Wines is a label I had only recently discovered; nor, before this tasting, had I met Carol Lindstrom, only her distributor. Still, reacquainting myself with these wines proved propitious. The 2013 Pinot Noir Dutton Ranch seemed, frankly, rather anomalous for this event, but easily held its own with the numerous other bottlings from this Sonoma mainstay I have tasted throughout the year. Clearly Lindstrom’s forte came from its own Cabernet plantings and the capable hands of winemaker Celia Welch.. The 2010 Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon displayed a strong expression of the grape, nicely acting its age six years later, but the current release, the 2012 Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon truly showed a more seasoned vinification.

I was quite pleased to find Steltzner pouring here. Formerly a landmark among the Silverado Trail, they had sold their winery to Gavin Newsom’s Plump Jack empire, which drastically remodeled the facility and transformed it into Odette, a label that was curiously absent on this afternoon. Often, when such a takeover transpires, the original winery, despite claiming it would continue producing, soon closes down altogether, as when Roshambo sold its Russian River Valley premises to Twomey, at least for now, all seems to be business as usual for the Napa Valley’s only Pinotage producer. I, of course, would have been thrilled if they had poured their Sangiovese here, but more than happily settled for their Bordeaux variant., starting with a noteworthy 2013 Malbec Stags Leap District. The 2013 Martini Clone Cabernet Sauvignon, proved an excellent wine, redolent of the intensity and character expected with a Stag Leap Cab, but the 2013 Pool Block Cabernet Sauvignon most certainly was one of the afternoon’s true standouts. As a bonus, Steltzner also poured the inaugural release from their Bench Vineyards, the 2014 Circa 64, a deft blend of Cabernet Sauvignon with Petit Verdot and Malbec from the select family vineyard block planted 52 years ago.

A significant portion of Stags Leap has been acquired by a number of the megabrands in the wine industry, though with little or no diminution the wine’s historic quality. Crimson Wine Group has long held Pine Ridge, the Napa jewel in their tri-state conglomerate. Always consistent, their wines here this day furthered a sense that this workhorse may well be underappreciated. Their portion of the event started of amiably with the 2014 Dijon Clones Chardonnay, then segued to their 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District. I found myself rather partial to the 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley, but clearly favored the peak aging of their 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District, a library selection.

I tend to think of Terlato primarily as a distributor for imported wines, as well as the holding company for such brands as Alderbrook and Sanford. I was only vaguely familiar with their eponymous label, produced in Stags Leap at their Rutherford Hill facility. Given my preconceptions, I was pleasantly surprised to find their 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District more than approachable; more intriguing, the 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap from their library selection demonstrated a well-qualified lineage for this particular label. I was, however, less sanguine about their cross-pollinated project poured here—the 2014 Galaxy White and the 2013 Galaxy Red . The former ineptly blends of Santa Rita Hills Viognier with Russian River Valley Chardonnay, then adds a dash of Sauvignon Blanc from the Napa Valley to putatively give this wine a regional balance; the latter melange of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot similarly attempts to fuse varietals harvested from different AVAs, albeit with greater focus.

Terlato also owns Chimney Rock, a striking landmark alongside Silverado Trail. Under these more recognizable auspices, the winery contrasted its 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District with the single-vineyard designate, their 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Tomahawk Vineyard. Most noteworthy here, however, was the 2014 Élévage Blanc, a distinctive blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris, of which Chimney Rock uniquely (in Napa) offers a single varietal bottling, as well.

The holdings of Clos du Val’s parent company may be less profuse than the Terlato empire, but it spans the globe, from California to Languedoc to Australia. Still, this Stags Leap winery owes its greatest acclaim to its inclusion in 1976’s legendary Judgment of Paris, as well as the French Culinary Institute Tasting of 1986, where it bested all the Cabernets from the previous tasting after aging 10 years. The wineries of Goelet Wine Estates are marked by their crossover varietals, and Clos du Val proved no exception, opening here with their accessible 2015 Chardonnay Carneros and then the vineyard-designate 2014 Pinot Noir Block 73. Still, forty years later, their standout was the 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Hirondelle Vineyard, a true Stags Leap selection.

Of course, the AVA’s other representative in 1976 was the eventual winner, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. Owner Warren Winiarski sold his crown jewel a number of years ago to Château Ste. Michelle, Washington’s leading producer and conglomerate, which now operates the winery in partnership with Marchesi Antonori, the Italian producer famed for Solaia, Tignanello, and creation of the SuperTuscan designation. But no tinkering has been needed here, as the winery remains consistently excellent, as evidenced first by the 2014 Karia Chardonnay. Classical allusion befit their second label, represented admirably here with the 2014 Artemis Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley, but clearly outshone by the highly nuanced, structured 2013 S. L. V. Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine that upheld its legend.

The rivalry between Stag’s Leap and Stags’ Leap seems to have quelled with Carl Doumani sale of his property to Treasury Wine Estates. Though his label seemed overshadowed by accolades accorded his justly-heralded neighbor, much as CK Mondavi was long subsumed by the Robert Mondavi label, Carl rightfully deserve recognition for spearheading Napa’s interest in Petite Sirah, now its second most popular red varietal planting. After showcasing their 2015 Viognier Napa Valley, the winery poured their justly reputed 2013 Ne Cede Malis, their flagship Stags Leap District Petite. Next up, the 2013 The Leap Estate Cabernet Sauvignon was remarkable drinkable for a wine so relatively young; in contrast, the 2009 The Leap Estate Cabernet Sauvignon showed a wine that had gloriously matured, yet with plenty of ageability to come.

After selling Stags’ Leap Winery, Carl opened the utterly eclectic Quixote along a shared driveway with Shafer. Here, of course, Petite Sirah reigned supreme without compromising Cabernet, as evidenced by the well-balanced 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District poured here. But Quixote’s œnological mastery came through with its 2011 Petite Syrah Stags Leap District and overwhelmed with the exquisite 2012 Petite Syrah Stags Leap District, a true star of this event.

Carl sold this winery to investors from China not too long ago but continues with a yet-to-be released project from his personal vineyard. Meanwhile, Shafer remains in family hands and continues to outdo themselves on a yearly basis. I had hoped Doug Shafer would be on hand this afternoon and sneak in some samples of his new Eighty Four Wines (the Albariño is phenomenal), but I had to “settle” for such splendid offerings as the 2014 Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay and an exquisite 2014 Merlot Napa Valley. Shafer’s coup de grâce, though, was easily its 2013 One Point Five Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine that begs to be laid down for at least 10 more years.

I cannot recall whether I’ve tried the wines from Silverado Vineyards since the untimely passing of proprietor Diane Disney Miller, but as this has never been a Mickey Mouse operation, the quality has remained consistent.I cottoned to their 2013 GEO Cabernet Sauvignon Coombsville (an AVA I wish would revive their trade tasting), and positively reveled in the 2013 SOLO Cabernet Sauvignon Stag Leap District.

I always seems to drop in on Baldacci Family Vineyards minutes after they close for tastings, so it was quite fortuitous to find them pouring here. Baldacci’s inornate, decidedly rustic setting seems a far cry from the showcase wineries that dot the Silverado Trail, yet belies the sophistication of their viticulture. I tend to think of this winery first for its white wines, and the superb 2014 Sorelle Chardonnay poured here did nothing to disappoint. So too did the 2013 Fraternity prove exemplary—normally blended with Syrah, this vintage was a straightforward mélange of Cabernet Sauvignon from their two estate properties (as well as a touch of Oakville fruit) with their estate Merlot. Meanwhile, their pure Stags Leap District selection, the 2013 Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon, proved their masterpiece.

Cavus Vineyards is a boutique winery that sources it fruit from less than two acres,, but enlists Jim Barbour as its Vineyard Manager and David Phinney as its consulting winemaker. The result is a stellar 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District, along with a Prisoner-like blend, its 2013 The Crane Assembly, an eclectic marriage of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. Another boutique operation, Malk Family Vineyards prides themselves as “the smallest producers of premium 100% hand-crafted Cabernet Sauvignon wine from the famous Stags Leap District.” Outside of their estate, however, they source Oak Knoll fruit for an exceptional 2015 Sauvignon Blanc; further out, their 2014 Pinot Noir Fort Ross-Seaview provides a deft expression of the Sonoma Coast. Back in their home AVA, the 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District was a delightful wine on the verge of peaking, as was the 2010 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.

Sostevinobile can categorically state that there is no correlation between Taylor Family Wines and Taylor, the upstate New York jug wine behemoth that ultimately morphed into Constellation. Still, the overlap in names tends to obfuscate this seventh generation Napa clan’s label, even though their winemaking focus could not be more different. From their perch in Stags Leap, this Taylor produces an impressive array of varietal Cabernets from an array of Napa AVAs, including Stags Leap District, Rutherford, Diamond Mountain, and Atlas Peak. However, this afternoon led off with a striking 2014 Chardonnay, vinted from the Chardonnay Musqué clone, from the same vineyard that supplied Château Montelena’s winning entry in the Judgment of Paris. Contrasting Taylor’s 2013 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District with the 2010 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District showed remarkably distinct wines, fruit-forward vs. restrained, yet both proved equally appealing. Their final offering, a proprietary mélange of Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc, the 2012 V VI VII Red Blend, mislead lead me. I took the name to indicate this was a progressive Solera from the last three vintages; in truth, it constitutes a tribute the 5th, 6th and 7th Napa generation of the Taylor family, all of whom work for the winery!

One of Stags Leap District’s more dominant players, Cliff Lede, owns both a winery estate and a luxury inn at the juncture of Silverado Trail and Yountville Cross Road, along with a second winery, FEL. in the Anderson Valley. At Jardinière this day, they poured a selection across the board from his holdings, starting with the indelible 2015 Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley. I found the 2014 FEL Pinot Noir Anderson Valley better than adequate, but truly relished the 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District. The artistic flair of the winemaking here shows full force with the vineyard designate Cabernet from the vineyards encompassing Cliff’s Poetry Inn, yearning for greatness in the 2013 Poetry and full achieving it with the library selection 2007 Poetry uncorked for this tasting.

Quietly, a burgeoning mini-empire has been emerging in Napa, with its roots in the Stags Leap District. In Calistoga, the eclectic Tank Garage Winery produces a line of eclectic wines, whimsical both in their labeling and their viticulture. Nearby, T-Vine Winery is a long-standing endeavor that early on open my eyes to a number of Rhône varietals, as well as fruit sourced from the Contra Costa Valley. Just below the Stags Leap District, James Cole Winery is a high-end, small production facility available only by subscription. Anchoring all of these is Regusci Winery, a rustic operation that heralds the old style Italian family wineries of a bygone era. I can still recall my first visit here meeting family patriarch Angelo Regusci, who every day would walk his dogs down to the tasting room and pick up two bottles—one red, one white—for the evening’s dinner fare.

The quaintness of this routine belied the sophistication of Regusci’s craft. Befittingly, their first pour came from the 2012 Patriarch, a refined blend of 58% Cabernet Sauvignon and 42% Merlot, with plenty of ageability ahead. On its own merits, the 2012 Merlot Stags Leap District proved even more impressive, while the 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District could best be described as splendiferous. All these wines, however, paled in comparison to Regusci’s flagship, the gracefully aged 2001 Angelo’s Cabernet Sauvignon, perhaps the best wine overall for the afternoon. If he were alive, I’m sure Angelo would be carting off a bottle home tonight.

As a denizen of the wine trade, I have often bemoaned the decline of trade tastings these past few years. Seeing a new event, especially one consistent in its focus and the quality of its wines gives hope for a resurgence in what has long been a vital component to building the comprehensive wine program Sostevinobile proposes. This past month also saw the launch of a similar event from Napa’s Spring Mountain District, a remarkable maturation at Petaluma Gap’s second annual trade tasting, the naisence a fledgling collective known as New Mission Winemakers,  and the crowning dénouement for In Pursuit of Balance—all of which I hope to cover in subsequent installations.

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.