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Sotanum SI wouldn’t consider myself a Syrahist by any means, but to start this year I’ve already had a couple of bottles that are forcing me to reconsider that position. At a sample party, most recently, I pulled the cork on a 2006 Sotanum that outshone the rest.

A gathering of friends, bearing accessories (cheese, crackers and meats) and eager palates, arrived to help deplete old samples that had been collecting dust. We began with a couple white wines meant to abate the heat, before moving into the heartier reds. Halfway through the charcuterie board it was time to bring out something more interesting (and not a sample), enter Sotanum.

It was a bottle that I had purchased long ago, intrigued by the story of Les Vins de Vienne. Sotanum is a tip of the hat to Roman tradition, comprised of 100% Syrah from the periphery of the Northern Rhône (beyond Côte Rotie), made by a collective of experienced winemakers—at the time four of them—from the Rhône Valley, intent on restoring and farming ancient vineyard sources—another saga in itself.

This wine made a statement; I altered my oral chemistry (ate sopressatta) to accommodate the bold flavors of that Syrah as it began with a dark musky scent of smoked meat, olive brine, tobacco and plum—a textbook nose. With ripe, fine tannins, a body like a plume of smoke, nervy acidity and a sturdy finish that encouraged conversation.

Surrounded by six empty bottles, talk centered only on Syrah; Sotanum changed people’s opinion that night, erasing the bottles that came before it and bringing out a Syrahphile in all of us.

Sivi GrisAs sure as I have a pumpkin in my living room (still)…I was certain that Pinot Gris would not be the subject of my next entry. However a rash of warm weather, an intriguing Slovenian producer and a little Hall & Oates made for the perfect recipe.

Not that I am too cool for the grape, or a big fan either, but after being tasted on it for my primary job as a buyer I was stopped in my tracks. At home it wielded that same attention-getting effect.

Unlike most Pinot Gris/ Grigio, Kabaj  (Ka-Bye) hails from an exotic locale—with regards to traditionally accepted winemaking regions like Trentino Alto-Adige or Alsace—Slovenia. Kabaj’s Pinot Gris is engrossing with its luminous burnt orange glow in the glass that is achieved by extended maceration (two weeks on the skins). This technique, most often employed on red wines, also enhances other aspects of the wine like body and texture. This isn’t a typical Pinot Gris.

Sivi Orange I pondered its attributes over a re-run of Hello Ladies, stopping on the theme song (a favorite) a little while longer while delving into the wine. A moderate bouquet of nectarine, sourdough and lemon curd was interesting on its own, but this wine offered a lot more in the mouth. A round medium-body, almost creamy in character but with attractive acidity (medium-plus) that left a squeaky clean finish of cranberry-cherry tea, candied orange peel, dried apricot and toasted baguette. Despite the plush palate that finish was direct and snappy—this was a slam-dunk with my less daring meal of chicken breast, cauliflower and quinoa.

I am not sure if Kabaj changes how I feel about the varietal because I don’t come across many like it, but this puts Slovenia on my tasting map as well as showing me what’s possible for a varietal I’ve been skirting. It was a delicious reminder and a great way to beat the unseasonable heat.

Cop BakIn the midst of discarded Christmas trees and drained Champagne bottles, re-activating the long-neglected Maverick Palate was a pressing resolution. In the streets of San Francisco, drawing inspiration from culinary tastemakers and superb bottle shops and out among the Sonoma vineyards I was feeling the comeback.

I had lots of great wine in 2013 after I left you, my fantastic subscribers, in the lurch. There was so much I wanted to write about but after picking up a few more wine gigs (read juggling three jobs), the rest of the year flew past in a torrent. By the time I half-typed about a bottle of Field Recordings Chenin Blanc in early October it was time to saber that bottle of 2006 José Dhondt Champagne on NYE!

I am not sure what will come of 2014, with travel plans and wine adventures on the books; I don’t want to make promises this early, but, what I’m certain of is that my latest trip to Sonoma County, specifically at Copain, was a resounding success. Not only did I receive excellent customer service while visiting the property in Healdsburg, I was very much impressed by a graceful Syrah from Baker Ranch.

Baker Ranch—a single vineyard release from Copain in 2009—is a personal and individualized expression, rather than the ensemble cast of Les Voisins (the neighbors), which is to say, a cast of single-vineyards’ fruit blended together. Baker Ranch is in Anderson Valley, growing Syrah and Pinot Noir in a cool and a high elevation site.  Apart from the other single vineyards that were shown, like Halcon, this wine was confident and extraverted. Pronounced aromatics like violets and sweet spice notes tap-danced above red berries, pencil shavings and beef jerky. The Syrah was equally impressive on the palate with a fine and prevalent grip (med-plus, ripe tannins), cut medium figure, toned by medium-plus acidity and deep intensity of flavors that left a long lingering impression. Baker Ranch Syrah was in a great place, distancing itself from its parts in Les Voisins Syrah, but without losing focus or sacrificing balance.

There were a lot of good food and wine memories forged on my Northern California (San Francisco) expedition, especially that Syrah, enough to make my drive back to Los Angeles a little less exhausting. On that five-hour drive I also thought about how I had missed an opportunity last year to share some killer wines and superb meals worth checking out. I am hopeful that this year will be different, perhaps my vacation has me talking brave, but I am determined to learn from the past and propel this site to new levels. Only time will tell.

d OstertagWhy it took so long for me to cross paths with one of the most dynamic indie/natural wine producers, I’ll never know, but in all my time between restaurant and retail gigs, pleading with Kermit Lynch reps to crack a bottle of Domaine Ostertag’s deep roster, in hopes of saving my billfold an extra flex, the moment never materialized. It was high on my list of things to try and I would read about the Alsatian producer frequently as if to sate my parched lips vicariously, stubbornly clinging to hope for a chance encounter. That all changed on my latest trip up north.

After tasting at Donkey & Goat in Berkeley, turned on by the prospect of natural wine, and close enough to the Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant—the importer’s retail outpost and wine lover’s Candy Land—to hope that the stars would align, I thought about closing ceremonies of my San Francisco trips upon entering the iconic shop; shouldn’t a traditional late lunch at Mission Chinese be paired with a Domaine Ostertag Pinot Blanc, punctuating a sensational weekend spent eating through the Bay? To get there one had to first find the bottle.

General TsoStrewn with open cases of varied offerings from the importer’s reputable lot, I rummaged like a record collector in Pasadena to find the most fitting candidate. Striving for a modest introduction, not wanting to get ahead of myself, I purchased a basic Pinot Blanc “Barriques.” As I would learn, little was basic about that wine.

My friend and I stuck to the script, toting a chilled flûte d’Alsace into Mission Chinese as a fond farewell to San Francisco. Shellfish had been sidelined (taken off the menu), so we went heavier, ordering General Tso’s veal rib, egg-egg (sic) noodles and broccoli beef brisket, skirting what would have too easily paired with the wine, in order to challenge it.

egg egg noodlesChilling on the side, the Pinot Blanc exhibited buttoned-up traits, youthful notes of green apples, a squeeze of lemon and spice. The first sip followed the nose, but the medium-body had been graciously toned by the use of barrique (a 228 liter used barrel), rounding it out on the tongue—giving a textural omnipresence.

It was when the spicy food arrived that we saw what the Pinot Blanc wielded. A lot of fat and a hearty dose of capsaicin in General Tso’s veal rib was perfectly fit for the lush white wine to demonstrate its capacity. The medium-plus acidity inherent in the wine was able to squelch the heat while handling the fattiest elements of the entree. Interspersing veal tidbits with the mouth-coating egg-egg noodles, the Pinot Blanc squeegeed our taste buds clean, leaving a candied green apple, mineral and slightly herbaceous finish. It didn’t mesh too well with the broccoli brisket combo (the greener parts of a dinner [asparagus, artichoke, etc.] can prove difficult for most wines and it was no exception here), but that was no drawback, since by then we were already sold on the results.

Perpending our full bellies in Dolores Park, not quite sold on fate in our post-meal torpor, but not resisting it fully either, it seemed that these two things—an exalted producer in a far-off place at the side of a great meal—were meant to go together. Whatever the reason it took so long for me to cave and actually purchase a bottle of Domaine Ostertag, I’m grateful, because I couldn’t imagine that midday meal without it.

Ecard VVFive plus hours spent fermenting in a bucket seat works up quite a dream thirst of wine, so when I’d finally arrived in San Francisco last Thursday my friend must have anticipated it, having two Burgundy stems with their globes wetted by six-ounce pours of 2010 Domaine Ecard Savigny-Lès-Beaune Vieilles Vignes.

Demure, having a middle-sister way about her, the wine—a Pinot Noir from Burgundy, specifically the Cotes du Beaune—was youthful, prim and well mannered. Leading with ripe red fruit but yielding wet leaves, black tea and a pinch of cracked pepper that foreshadowed her development. A fitted medium-bodied dress hugged her hips, sporting modest acidity (medium), ripe tannins and leaving a trace of raspberries, cherries and a smidgeon of seductive earthy charm in an expected (medium) finish.

The wine was in a primary stage, delivering mostly fruit and minor earthen notes in liquid form to a wine-parched tongue, meanwhile portending a fantastic epicurean weekend ahead in Northern California. Though Domaine Ecard’s Old Vine Pinot Noir was in a youthful and less exciting stage, I knew that this wine would benefit from some maturing in the cellar because it possessed some key structural components and hinted at a really well-put together wine that needed a little time to coalesce. She was just letting her hair down.

Rose AbstractSipping wine under a backyard umbrella, we embraced the warm hug of summer at a safe distance, cooling down with an array of chilled brown-bagged-disguised rosés and a charcuterie spread accompaniment—our bare arms virtually as open and exposed as were our palates.

As rosés become more popular, consumers will be increasingly accepting of darker variations—ripostes to the wan glow of Provençal rosé—and origins from more exotic locales, but until then, we are happy to do the work for you! Our tasting group never shies away from these less desired places (that’s what happens when a bunch of wine nerds get together) and our tasting reinforced our risk-taking with a few new magnificent highlights.

ConfidenteThe most titillating example came courtesy of Spain, specifically a bottle of 2012 Ameztoi Rubentis from Basque country. An Ojo de Gallo (a rosado from Txakolí) captivated all in attendance… saline and spritely, the ruby-tinted Txakolina rosado was racy, light-bodied, with vibrant acidity (medium-plus to high), signature effervescence (minor but notable) and pitched a long finish of cranberry and red currants that had been sifted through the riverbed. Sexy, sharp and unlike anything else we tasted that night—fair to say it was unique.

Though there was no shortage of notable rosés, we had one bottle from Provence that showed beautifully. Saint André de Figuière La Confidentielle rosé wore a medium-bright salmon jacket, emitting an intense summer perfume of strawberries, fresh-cut flowers and apricots. In the palate, the dry, medium-bodied rosé brought with it tremendous structure (medium-plus acidity) and a lip-smacking finish of raspberries, red cherries and flowers under a light misting of white pepper. Classic and poised to catch the waning bits of sun.

This tasting embodied summer, and we stayed patio-side for hours after we had finished our assessment of the rosés, all identities revealed. The entire lot of wines offered immense pleasure and though we only paired them with a charcuterie board’s zakuskis, a few of these wines harnessed the potential to pair with main courses. If you were on the fence about pink/blush wines, you should reevaluate your position, even in the noonday sun.

Tyler Chardonnay With an intensely busy schedule, featuring lots of driving, Santa Barbara surfaced as the perfect escape from LA. On a rare Sunday off, I headed to Lompoc, forty minutes north of SB, cramming as much wine tasting into an afternoon as possible, and where I happened upon my wine of the month.

Tyler was an afterthought that took root shortly after my brief visit to the cellar doors of Zotovich, and for that, I was thankful. It was at Tyler that I was walked through an entire flight of the difficult 2010 vintage (the difficulty being a limited vintage because of heat spikes at harvest, generally in Santa Barbara) and where my pick—2010 Clos Pepe Vineyard Chardonnay—made an indelible mark.

Best in class, the Chardonnay distanced itself from its two siblings, not just in fruit source—hailing from a prestigious estate in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA rather than Sta. Maria Valley AVA—accounting for the brawn… it was the finesse that helped it distinguish itself. Humming with apple, lemon peel, warming spices and kissed with sea salt, the Chardonnay was quite attractive, marrying the youthful core of fruit with a puissant medium-full body, taut acidity and an exponential and direct finish.

A serendipitous encounter, I enjoyed every wine in the lineup from the robust Pinot Noirs to the marvelously dense Chardonnays. Tyler’s wines are balanced, forward and worth seeking out—especially the Clos Pepe Chardonnay!

Loire Grolle When I am in study mode I’ll scrupulously break down wine regions into manageable subsections, uncovering esoteric tidbits while committing requisite information like prominent varietals, climate/ microclimates and soil types to memory.  Often I am more democratic about where my information comes from, proffering an area or style to my tasting group to study, like I did a couple weeks ago for the red wines of Loire.

It wasn’t new to me that Cabernet Franc reigns supreme in the Loire Valley, or that even Cot (Malbec) makes an appearance as a blending varietal in Saumur. However, just reading about the expansive Loire Valley, or any appellation by study alone is only a part of it. Tasting wine is essential and is the most important clue in pegging down a region or varietal.

We tried seven red wines from Loire cloaked in brown-bags; we found afterwards that Cabernet Franc dominated the showing, which wasn’t surprising—lip-smacking tannins and herbaceous overtones, the trademarks of the varietal, confirmed our suspicions during the tasting.

The most intriguing wine of the night appeared early on and just funked up my taste buds. I was off-kilter, trying to determine what wine could possibly pitch such a wild aroma of earthen red fruits, fallen white flowers and a Compari note (strong herbal flavors). The dry red was light in body with medium but finely grained tannins and finished as it had started—complexly. It turned out to be a biodynamic Le Cousin Rouge, consisting entirely of Grolleau—an indigenous grape to the Loire, that was completely new to me.

One of the better examples of Cabernet Franc came from Charles Jouget—an established and well-known producer from Chinon, in central Loire Valley. The 2003 Clos de Chêne Vert, despite being harvested in a terribly hot vintage hadn’t lost its step, showing deftness (balance) and youthful vigor with its spectacular display of confected red berries, violets, black pepper and tomato stems. The old vines and a prime vineyard site within the town of Chinon itself produced a structured dry red wine with ripe tannins and finished long with plenty of red fruit and savory herbs.

Even if I study thoroughly there is a good chance I will miss things. My tasting group is not only a wonderful collection of friends and professionals with similar interests but they are a catchall, keeping me honest in my assessments and introducing me to nearly extinct grapes and better examples of wines I thought I knew well. Now it’s time to get back to the books.

Leroy BI was fourteen when the transformer blew out. On the eve of the millennium, in my brother’s home, someone on the block had the bright idea to ring in 2000 by candlelight, blowing out the neighborhood’s power during the Time Square countdown. Meanwhile, in France a bottle of unassuming Burgundy had just been bottled ready to forge an equally exciting memory in the future.

Thirteen years later I opened a seven-fifty of 2000 Maison Leroy Bourgogne Rouge while hanging out with friends; the culmination of love for Burgundy and reverence for a unique producer, this bottle was ready to be cherished by the august body of wine geeks with whom I shared it.

Lalou Bizet-Leroy, alchemist and owner, strongly believes in the tenets of biodynamic viticulture, converting all her family’s vineyard holdings over to the all-encompassing system by 1988. Her dedication to natural, low-yield wines that see no filtration or fining are considered some of the greatest examples of Burgundy.

I had opened this bottle of 2000 Maison Leory—a negociant bottling, unlike Domaine Leroy, which are purely estate grapes—that would test the limits on aging appellation wine.

I poured the contents carefully, mindful of sediment, between the three over-sized Burgundy stems. Wearing a medium ruby with tawny accents feathering clearly on the rim, laced with a bright aroma of maraschino cherry, black tea, clove, cinnamon and toasted fennel seeds. The scent continued to develop as the wine opened—emitting deeper flavors that made the wine quite compelling on the tongue. On the palate the Pinot Noir still showed fine and elegant tannins, with a medium, contoured body, low alcohol and taut acidity (medium) that helped deliver the developed flavors of cherry, mushroom, herbs and spices that echoed faintly after the final sips.

The Maison Leroy set an unattainable benchmark for the other wines we uncorked afterwards, exceeding expectations I’d put on Leroy, and forging an indelible memory that will rival some of my favorite wine tasting moments. With new friends and old wines it put the year 2000 in perfect perspective even if it didn’t blow the lights out.

Red CarBehind on rosé coverage, only sipping, spitting and noting for buying purposes, I wanted to highlight a recent personal experience I had with Red Car Winery’s rosé from the Sonoma Coast on a warm weeknight.

This rosé of Pinot Noir hailed from the Bybee Vineyard in the Russian River Valley, specifically the Green Valley AVA within it, close to Sebastopol. A cool microclimate allows these certified organic and biodynamic Pinot Noir grapes to achieve a delicate ripeness while balancing food-worthy acidity.

Getting past the sexy packaging, my eye focused on the color—a soft (medium-intensity) coral pink that was indicative of its abbreviated maceration (time in contact with the skin of the Pinot Noir grapes).

This rosé leapt from the glass with a youthful aroma of red cherry, peach and fresh rose petals. The mouth feel was decidedly rounder than expected, even with its medium-body and pert, mouth-searing acidity, which helped me negotiate slices of fatty salami. The finish smacked of apricot yogurt with a few fresh-picked cherries and strawberries thrown in for good measure.

A good start to my recorded rosé encounter, but if you were only mildly curious about rosé this one might be going slightly overboard—the price point is a tad steep (≈ $20)—for an introduction. For the more serious enthusiast, looking for something special, look no further.

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