"I think being funny is not anyone's first choice."--Woody Allen
Monday, February 10, 2014
My Fickle Friend, the Somerston
Somerston Wine Company Wines I’m Using to Talk About Myself
Somerston 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley $120
Somerston 2010 Stornoway Napa Valley $90
Priest Ranch 2012 Grenache Blanc Somerston Estate Napa Valley $22
Priest Ranch 2012 Sauvignon Blanc Somerston Estate Napa Valley $26
Priest Ranch 2010 Petite Sirah Somerston Estate Napa Valley $40
Priest Ranch 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon Somerston Estate Napa Valley $48
I live and work in Sonoma County, and living here you often hear visitors remark, “I like Sonoma so much better than Napa. It’s not as touristy. Napa’s like Disneyland.” The Napa/Disneyland comparison has become jejune. Yet the people who express it seem to think they were the first one to think of it. Like wine blogs that begin, “Please join me on my journey to discover wine.” Oh, bite me. And it’s odd that people use Disneyland, a place most people love, to refer to a place they find overcrowded and obnoxious. I always compared Disneyland to Viagra—a one-hour wait for a three-minute ride.
I happen to love Napa Valley. I remember driving home through Napa Valley after a trip two college friends and I took to several National Parks on the west coast. At the time, I was a junior at Occidental College, I had no interest in wine, and wasn’t old enough to drink anyway. I guess we thought of Napa Valley as some version of a National Park, and we wanted to see it. The three of us worked in the same restaurant in Pasadena, and every damn restaurant in Southern California in those days had Charles Krug Chenin Blanc on the wine list, and Inglenook Chablis as the house wine. Even then people talked dry and drank sweet. I can still remember entering Napa Valley via Calistoga and seeing Napa’s famous “And the wine is bottled poetry” sign. That hack Stevenson could have written for the Wine Advocate with that gift for bullshit.
It was 1973, the year of the Gas Crisis, and, if memory serves, there were only about six tasting rooms along Highway 29—Charles Krug, Christian Brothers, Beringer, Heitz (I think), B.V., Inglenook and Robert Mondavi. (I’m sure someone will correct me.) We didn’t stop to taste, although one of my friends was 21, but just leisurely drove down the valley making our way home. At 20 (I was a few months from 21), I had never had an alcoholic drink, save for a swallow of beer an older cousin had given me when I was about 14, which promptly found the closest exit out my nose. I had never been to such a beautiful agricultural area. Perhaps it was that side trip, after three weeks on the road, a trip we took at the very last minute to see Napa Valley out of simple curiosity, that planted a seed that one day bloomed into my long love affair with wine. More likely, I’m still searching for bottled poetry. It’s at your grocer’s, right next to the bottled orgasms. And, of course, Boner in a Can.
Many years later, when wine had become a full-blown passion, but before I was a sommelier, I won a bunch of money on a game show, and, to celebrate, took my girlfriend to Napa Valley. We had a great time. Sadly, one of the last great times she and I would share. She died very young, and tragically, and when I want to remember her at her happiest, I remember those days in Napa, when money was no object, and the wines were cheap, and she was radiantly beautiful. I do miss you, Josephine.
One last thing, I coined my HoseMaster moniker in Napa Valley, at the old Robert Pepi Winery, now Cardinale, along Highway 29. That was in 1987. I’m assuming there’s a plaque. Or a curse. So I have many fond memories attached to Napa Valley.
Napa Valley comes in for endless criticism, and yet there’s no denying its place in the pantheon of great winegrowing regions. I find far more to love in Napa Valley than despise. People who utter the name “Napa” almost in disgust (and use the “Auto Parts” joke—yet another measure of a human’s stupidity), are the same people who most likely would kill to own a winery there, or a cellarful of the wines. Napa Valley was trendy back in the 1970’s, like Sicily is today, or the Jura. Brands like Caymus, Cakebread, Clos du Val, and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars were in their infancy. Chateau Montelena and Stag’s Leap won the Paris Tasting in 1976. Heitz “Martha’s Vineyard” was the cult wine. Everyone wanted the ’74 Martha’s, though the ’73 was better, and maybe the ’75, for its special label. Napa won’t ever be trendy again, but for a few acres of Ribolla, any more than Bordeaux will become trendy, or the Barossa will become trendy. But chase trendy in the wine business, friends, without first understanding the classics, and you’ll never really know much. You’re just the girl wearing the meat dress.
For many years, I bought Miner Family Wines from their National Sales guy Jack Edwards. Jack is a standup guy, the epitome of the guy who pounds the pavement, wears the soles of his shoes thin, but never complains, and never wears you out with a Woe Is Me story when sales might not be where they should be when it’s not your damn problem. After a long career at Miner, Jack recently went to work for Somerston Wine Company. Jack offered to send me samples of their wines, and knowing Jack wouldn’t work for fools making lousy wine, I accepted. Here’s the part of the Wine Essay where the winery being reviewed starts reading, and most of you stop. The part where I actually talk about the wines. Are these Wine Essays too long? Yeah, I know, if you have to ask…
The Somerston Estate, from the website, looks pretty spectacular. More than 200 acres of vines on 1628 acres. Funny, they’re specific about the acreage, vague on how many are planted. Why I’m more than 60 years old, having lived 22,308 days. The property is “sustainably farmed,” one of those phrases than can mean anything, like “New and Improved!” But their heart is in the right place. They even raise sheep.
Jack sent me six wines. The first wine I tasted was the Priest Ranch 2012 Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley. Apparently, they also raise priests to keep the sheep company. No, actually, part of the property was known, historically, as the Priest Ranch, after some unfortunate guy who had Priest for a last name. They’re never going to let you teach gym class.
Does it seem like everyone loves Sauvignon Blanc these days? Thank God the days of calling it Fumé Blanc are over. Never trust a wine under an assumed name. If Sauvignon Blanc can be called “Fumé Blanc,” why can’t I call my cheap Pinot Noir “Burgundy?” Is Burgundy more important than Pouilly-Fumé? Is it OK to call my Chardonnay “Chassagnes” Chardonnay? Chassagnesonnay? I don’t know, it’s just stupid. Fumé Blanc should be illegal, like 5¢ Sales.
Oh, the wine. I found the Priest Ranch Sauvignon Blanc ponderous rather than refreshing. The aroma was of pineapple and some other tropical fruits (very vague, but that was sort of the problem), but more like canned fruit than fresh. Even over the course of a couple of hours, the wine just never came together. It clobbered my palate rather than caressed. I kept tasting heat on the finish, and the wine’s overall impression is one of great clumsiness, like the first time you try ice skating. The wine kept falling on its butt. This is not what I crave in Sauvignon Blanc. I love the beauty and power of a great Sancerre, the delicacy of their fragrance. And I also love a good white Bordeaux, so differently structured, more tightly wound and muscular, yet still screaming Sauvignon Blanc (and its ugly sibling Semillon). But the Priest Ranch 2012 Sauvignon Blanc seemed hopelessly lost. Well, one of us was.
Luckily, the Priest Ranch 2012 Grenache Blanc was a different story. Grenache Blanc seems to be one of the darling varieties these days, alongside Torrontes and Ebola Gialla. I’m not sure why, maybe just riding the coattails of its Noir brother? At the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition in early January, the panel I was on judged 11 Grenache Blanc. Only a few years ago, out of 5000 wines entered, there might have been one Grenache Blanc. Of the 11 entered this year, we gave one Gold Medal, though I found the wine flabby, even for Grenache Blanc. Most of the others were just lousy. Looking through my notes (blind tasted, of course), the word that appears most often is “boring.” Sounds like my dating profile. So I wonder at the current fixation on the grape.
I quite liked the Priest Ranch version. Fermented in stainless steel primarily, there’s nice stone fruit in the nose, a bit of fresh lime, and, overall, it had a liveliness to it that the Sauvignon Blanc didn’t. Wisely, I think, the wine didn’t undergo ML, and that keeps its acidity in the right place. It’s not at all boring. It has a nice presence, a nice mouthfeel, and even seems like Grenache Blanc, though I certainly can’t claim any expertise in Grenache Blanc. I will say that I liked it a lot more than my wife did. She found something quite unpleasant in the finish that I didn’t, a bitterness. Well, she’s married to me, she knows the taste of bitterness. I liked the wine, and at the price, which I’ve seen as low as $18, it’s worth a try. Unlike most Grenache Blanc from California out there.
I was anxious to try the Priest Ranch 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley. It’s the first 2011 Cabernet I’ve tasted from Napa Valley. 2011 won’t go down as a classic vintage for Napa Cabernet, it was a miserably cool and wet vintage, but it’s always fascinating to see what ends up in the bottle. The 2011 Priest Ranch has a listed alcohol level of 14.6%, pretty low for most vintages of Napa Cabernet these days, and it seems relatively accurate. Alcohol levels on wine labels are usually about as accurate as a one-legged archer. I liked this wine quite a bit. The nose showed blackberry, a lot of spiciness, and some underlying tobacco notes that I like in Cabernet. Of course, those tobacco notes are indicative of the coolness of the vintage. It’s already drinking nicely, deeper than I expected, and very accessible. It gained some richness after a few hours, but it was very drinkable from the very first moment, and that’s clearly the winemaker’s intent. At the price, and considering its tony address, it’s a nice bottle of wine, about as easygoing as serious Napa Cabernet gets. (I’m sure you can find it under $40 if you try.) But I wouldn’t want to be the guy selling 2011 Cabernets, a vintage nestled between the elegant 2010’s and what will surely be the exuberant 2012’s. Go get ‘em, Jack.
A few nights later, we tackled the Priest Ranch 2010 Petite Sirah Napa Valley. I would assume that when you are a professional wine critic, it’s your obligation to try to appreciate every grape variety. For me, and luckily I’m not a professional, I have a hard time enjoying Petite Sirah. For the most part, I find them simply very big and one-dimensional, like the average NBA player. Petite Sirah’s only job in life is to be big, like a Kardashian butt. Well, the 2010 Priest Ranch is big. You know those women who can put their entire fist in their mouth? That’s how I feel about drinking Petite Sirah. Now, as an objective critic, this is definitely a powerhouse Petite Sirah. Huge doesn’t begin to describe it. Intensely blackberry, with the iconic dash of pepper, it also has fierce tannins. This is certainly a wine that will live another 25 or 30 years, but it’s kind of like those poor, dramatically obese people Dick Gregory used to rescue. It will live for 25 years, but it won’t be that much fun. If you are a fan of huge, dense, chewy, tannic, monolithic Petite Sirah, you cannot do better than this 2010 Priest Ranch. After four days, it wasn’t any tamer than the first. Wow. After a glass, I looked like I’d been chewing betel nuts in Papua New Guinea.
As good as the Priest Ranch wines were, and I liked them all but the Sauvignon Blanc very much, for different reasons, the two wines under the Somerston label were even better. In fact, both were superb. They represent what Napa Valley can do best, make amazing wines from the Bordeaux varieties.
The Somerston 2010 Stornoway Napa Valley is an estate blend that’s 89% Merlot and 11% Cabernet Franc. I loved this wine. I’m a sucker for a wine that’s gorgeous from the first taste but then just keeps getting better and better as the evening wears on. That sort of energy is thrilling. It’s like a first date with a beautiful woman who then turns out to be funny and interesting and brilliant as well. I married one of those. The Stornoway is powerful, but also shows the restraint that great wines exhibit. You feel when you taste it that there’s always something more to discover underneath. My tasting notes say blackberry, black cherry, violets, mint and plenty of new oak. But there’s plenty of stuffing to soak up all the new oak, new oak that graciously stays in the background. The finish is lovely and very long, holding a sweet note like Renee Fleming. What a beautiful wine, very expressive, full of tension and energy. Yeah, it’s $90, but it can play in that league easily. Wouldn’t surprise me to see it age gracefully for more than a decade.
Finally, there’s the Somerston 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley. Who doesn’t love great Napa Valley Cabernet? Here’s one. Everything about this Cabernet is right, sadly, even the price. Like the Stornoway, it is sensational from the very first sip, though I did immediately decant it upon opening because I felt like it. And several hours later it was still gathering steam. What a beautiful profile a wine like this has, maybe Lauren Bacall in partial shadow. The fruit has great depth and intensity, plenty of cassis and blackberry, as it opened I sensed a bit of green olive, and always mocha and cloves. The wine is seamless, beautifully rendered, completely thrilling. It shared restraint with the Stornoway, but has even more power. And the overall impression is one of great elegance, yet more Lauren Bacall, and classic Cabernet Sauvignon presence. If they can keep this up, Somerston will soar to the top ranks of Napa Valley Cabernet. I can’t afford to play in that sandbox, but if I could, I’d be putting half a dozen of these in my cellar.
After 19 years as a Sommelier in Los Angeles, twice named Sommelier of the Year by the Southern California Restaurant Writers' Association, I moved to Sonoma County to explore the other aspects of the wine business. I've spent, OK wasted, 35 years learning about and teaching about and swallowing wine. I am also a judge at the Sonoma Harvest Fair, San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and the San Francisco International Wine Competition--so I can spit like a rabid llama. I know more about wine than David Sedaris and I'm funnier than James Laube. Stay tuned for an informed but jaded view of everything wine and everything else.
I'm living proof that alcohol kills brain cells.
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