True Extreme Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir – Fort Ross

Tuesday, September 6, 2016 8:09 PM

 
 
Fort Ross Vineyard & Winery
 
 
Back in the early years at TWH’s tenure on Carolina Street, a woman with long black curly hair walked in to our store, introduced herself and proceeded to ask a lot of questions about our business – who we were and what we did. Her South African accent beckoned John Carpenter out of his office, who before opening The Wine House had lived and taught for two years in Johannesberg during the early 70’s. They hit it off right away as this woman, Linda, was a whirlwind of energy with many interests. The upshot of the encounter was that Linda and her husband had planted a vineyard and were planning to make wine. She promised to come back to the store when they finally had it bottled.
 
all photos courtesy of the winery
 
This Linda that we met at The Wine House turned out to be Linda Schwartz of Fort Ross Vineyard and Winery, who with her husband Lester, purchased 976 acres of coastal land just north of where the Russian River meets the Pacific Ocean in 1988. Rather than hire people out to do the work, the Schwartz’s decided to become the experts themselves. Linda enrolled in viticulture courses and soon discovered yet another talent. In 1991 they began the first stages of their vineyard project by planting a test vineyard with an assortment of various trellis systems, varietals, clones and rootstocks, to learn what grew best in this extremely cool/high elevation climate. By 1994 they knew they needed to plant Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and then took the next 10 years to plant nearly 55 acres.
 
 
Though Linda and Lester are involved in all aspects of the winery, to help them with the arduous task of making wine from this challenging terrain, they hired a winemaker. In 2009 they met and hired renowned winemaker Jeff Pisoni. This collaboration has propelled the winery further towards excellence as the latest releases from Fort Ross are stunning and quite frankly, right up my alley as far as domestic Pinot Noir is concerned. For my taste, the fruit is present and deep, but notably restrained vis á vis most Sonoma Pinot Noirs and the structure is firm yet silky. It all comes down to the vineyard, and there is little doubt that the one the Lesters planted is quite exceptional. Fort Ross Vineyard lies at elevations between 1200 to 1700 feet and is said to be the closest to the Pacific Ocean; about a mile away as the crow flies. Anyone who has ever driven along Highway 1 in these parts knows how blustery and cold it can be even when temperatures are spiking 10 miles inland. The vineyard pops up above the fog line and is able to produce ripe grapes despite the coastal weather.
 
 
There are two wines from Fort Ross that we’re offering: 2013 Pinot Noir Sea Slopes and 2012 Pinot Noir Symposium. The Sea Slopes is blended for earlier release from various clonal selections and is aged in 100% French Oak of which only 10% is new. The grapes are hand-harvested at night before the pre-dawn light. A colleague of mine worked harvest at Fort Ross last year. He told me they picked in the dark with lights on their heads, just like a miner, from 2 to 9 am picking bunch by bunch…back breaking work! The Symposium is a darker, more brooding wine, with pronounced black fruit flavors and warm spice notes. The kicker here is the inclusion of 4% Pinotage. I don’t believe anyone could actually pull out flavors of Pinotage from the wine, but clearly it adds something to it.
 
 

The long Holiday weekend will find me enjoying family time not too far away from Fort Ross Vineyard & Winery up at the family dacha. September is my favorite time of year at the beach on the River; the riff raff is mostly gone and the sun’s rays are more golden and gently warming. The Redwoods have begun to drop their needles and our heritage pear tree is ready to ripen all at once. According to my Instagram feed, grape harvest is in full swing all over California. Fort Ross is probably getting close, but out along the coast, harvest comes mid to late September. There is a lot of excitement out there as winemakers are thankful for August’s cooler than usual yet sunny days. Here’s to their good and successful labor!– Anya Balistreri

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The Wine House SF – Our Top 10 Wines Of 2014

Thursday, February 12, 2015 9:08 PM

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The Wine House SF – Top 10 Wines of 2014

It started out as a concept brought to light while fighting off a bout of insomnia, but after five years, it seems to have stuck. A Top Ten Wines of the Year list. We taste so, so many wines each year – whether in the form of reps pouring samples on site, to airfreighted samples that arrive from overseas, the occasional trade tasting, here in SF, LA, Chicago, or New York, or the litany of wines that come at us on tasting trips overseas. Add them up, and we’re talking about thousands of wines made by hundreds of producers! Keeping that in mind, just making the selections as to which wines to stock is a fairly severe exercise which endorses a paltry few bottles compared to all that we taste. Now, take those wines and choose our ten favorites; that is a tough assignment! For a look at our previous lists, here are links to our Top Ten Wine lists from 2013,

2012,

2011,

2010,

and 2009.

There are no rules. They don’t need to cost an arm and a leg. They don’t need some sort of numerical justification from someone who prefers Pepsi over Coca-Cola. They could be surprise packages from unusual locales, well established producers with an exceptional vintage, terrific expressions of terroir, or the ineffable. Favorites are favorites. Some of the wines have sold out, but deserve to be listed due to their merits. Not in any particular order, The Wine House San Francisco’s Top Ten Wines of 2014:
 
NV Pascal Doquet
Grand Cru Le Mesnil Sur Oger Champagne
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Starting things off the same way we recently kick-startedour annual Post-Holiday Party. With Grower Champagne. Grand Cru, no less. Laure and Pascal Doquet own and run this 8.66 hectare estate which includes plantings in some of the finest Grand and Premier Cru vineyards in the Côte de Blancs. Pascal’s dedication to quality is relentless. Pascal took the reins of the family’s domaine in 1995, and since 2004, he and Laure are the sole proprietors. Pulling the curtain aside, Pascal shares a great deal of information about his wines on their back labels, such as disgorgement date and contents. For our current stock of Non-Vintage Grand Cru Le Mesnil, it is made up of the following vintages: 2003 (40%), 2002 (40%), and 2001 (20%). We taste a lot of Champagne during the year, and we chose to serve this one at our party! Life’s too short not to enjoy fine Grower Champagne like Doquet’s.

 

 

2012 Domaine Raimbault Sancerre “Apud Sariacum”
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The phantom. Depending on your timing, you may have seen it on our sales floor, or maybe not. You see, the “Apud Sariacum” Sancerre has been the darling of a high-profile, wine-centric restaurant in the Los Angeles area for a few years. Funny thing is, this resto is known for switching out its wine list often, yet the “Apud” resided there for FOUR VINTAGES! Yep, it’s that people-pleasing. It was a difficult task making sure that there was enough to keep them pouring it continuously, many times resulting in our pulling it from the sales floor. All good things must come to an end, and after a very long ride, the restaurant’s policy of mixing it up resulted in the “Apud’s” replacement. That’s good news for the rest of us! A phantom no more. This bright, refreshing Sancerre is full of life with its zesty citrus aromas framed in stony minerality. Easy to like, you can pour it as an aperitif, or pair it with those dishes that beg for a zippy Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc.

 

 

2012 Domaine Sainte Barbe Macon-Burgy “Terres Rouges”
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Throughout the course of each calendar year, we receiveover a handful of containers packed with wines from France and Italy. The arrival of each one is highly anticipated as there are always ‘little secrets’ on board. I say ‘little secrets’ because that’s what it’s like when we taste something new overseas, and return home only towait for what sometimes feels like a long, long timebefore we can put it in your hands. We waited patiently for this one to arrive, but once it did, patience flew out the window. David continues to find cool new wines from producers familiar to us and beyond. He hit paydirt with this little red from Macon. Wait. Red wine from Macon??Yes, indeed. Made from Gamay Noir, we all got a big kick out of Sainte Barbe’s “Terres Rouges”, and if you like Old World charm and sour cherry, wine-geeky Gamay, you will too.

 

2012 Orgo Saperavi
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If you’d have asked any of us last year if there would be a wine from the Republic of Georgia in our annual top ten, we may have reacted inquisitively, as in “really?” As you probably already know, we look all over the world for wines to stock here in our shop. And when we say all over, we mean ALL OVER! The Orgo Saperavi took us by storm with its juxtaposition of softness and solid structure.Kind of reminds us of the “fist in a velvet glove” analogy. It comes with a great story too. I love it when a wine gets us talking about history, clay kveri, and Teinturier grapes!

 

2011 Domaine Stephane Magnien Morey Saint Denis 1er Cru
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As David continues to travel to Burgundy (and beyond!) in search of new wines and producers, we are collectivelyexcited at the prospect of welcoming them to our shelves! If you think about it, it takes a lot of work. On these road trips, one tastes a lot of wine. Those outside the wine business make light of this with quips like, “tough job,” “it must be nice,” and “somebody’s got to do it.” Let’s just say that finding wines to bring back home takes a lot of time and patience. One thing that David does regarding new producers is he tastes several vintages before pulling the trigger. He tasted young Stephane Magnien’s wines again and again, and after a few years, bam! Here they are. The entire line is impressive, as Stephane’s holdingsinclude some fancy locales! But we were all quite taken by the 2011 Morey Saint Denis 1er Cru “Aux Petites Noix.”One thing that is never looked for, yet always mentioned in my tasting notes when present is “X-tra D,” or extra dimension. This one has it.

 

2012 Occidental Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
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And from right here in our own backyard, from theSonoma Coast, we were introduced to a new wine made by some old friends. The celebrated vintner Steve Kistler and business partner Mark Bixler teamed up once again to produce an amazing Pinot Noir under the Occidental label.There isn’t a whole lot of production, so when we saw the chance to get our hands on a teeny-tiny allocation, we jumped at it. You should have been in the tasting room when we all tasted the sample, it was poured into one glass, each of us taking tiny sips and emerging with wide eyes and happy disbelief! We weren’t the only ones who jumped at the chance. The Occidental Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir disappeared from our shelves literally hours after they were placed there!

 

 

2012 Domaine des Hauts de Sanziers Saumur Rouge
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This one was an example of a wine coming to us! Though there are wine reps here pouring wines multiple times per week for Anya, it is a rare occasion when a rep pours for Anya, Chris, Tom, and myself collectively. This meeting was set up by David, who knew of the 7 or 8 samples to be poured, and strongly advised us to pay close attention to the 2012 Saumur Rouge from Hauts de Sanziers. In retrospect, he didn’t need to mention it. However, mentioning it did create an expectation level that was not only met, but surpassed! It’s a light-styled herbaceous Cabernet Franc from Saumur that has a Burgundian feel, and as Anya once said, “It’s light, but without being thin.” More wine-geek wine here.Loire Valley Cabernet Franc is not for everybody, but if you like the woodsy herbal quality one finds in them, this one’s for you too.

 

2012 Domaine Michel-Andreotti Montagny 1er Cru
“Les Coères”
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We were already on board with Michel-Andreotti courtesy of their “Les Guignottes” bottling which landed them in our Top Ten list in their rookie year! Back in early 2014, before the move, we noticed a slightly different labelcoming from a box of their Montagny. Upon further investigation, we discovered that they make a Premier Cru wine called “Les Coères.” It swept us off our feet! Plenty of fresh, fleshy white fruit, a pleasant caress on the palate, sturdy structure, and a zippy, complex finish. Factor in the price, and it’s no wonder that it’s all gone.

 

 

2011 Roc de Cambes, Côtes de Bourg
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For red Bordeaux, 2011 was not like 2010 nor 2009,but just as each vintage is its own, there are almost always some successful efforts. 2011 was like that. A sensational vintage for the dry whites and gold wines, things were a little challenging for those who made Claret. Having tasted the wines out of barrel in the spring of 2012 and again from bottle in 2014, there were several wines that I would like in my cellar. None more than François Mitjavile’s Roc de Cambes. I vividly recall tasting this wine from barrel in François’ cellar in 2012. Interesting note, François chose to present the Roc de Cambes sampleAFTER his Tertre Roteboeuf sample … something he hasn’t done for me before nor since. He knew the potential of this wine back then. When I tasted it out of bottle last spring, it stole the show. Considering that it’s roughly 1/3 the price of Tertre Roteboeuf, it’s always a great opportunity to taste one of Bordeaux’s most charismatic winemaker’s wines without paying full fare.The 2009 and 2010 Roc de Cambes were both stellar, the former coming in a close 2nd to the latter in a local wine society’s annual taste-off in 2014. The 2011 Roc de Cambes will give both a run for their money!

 

2011 Château Coutet, Barsac
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Since April of 2012, I had a feeling that we would get here. It is fairly well documented that I am a fan of Château Coutet. Their terroir and style suit my palate to a T. They are not alone. There are several Bordeaux chateaux that I count as favorites in most vintages. Any kind ofpre-conceived notion of liking something before I taste itgoes right out the proverbial window once the time comes to actually taste. I’ve been disappointed plenty of times when a château that I fancy comes up short in a particular vintage, and Coutet is not immune to that. Butwhen I tasted the 2011 Coutet out of barrel, sparks flew. All of the components I look for in a barrel sample were right there! As mentioned above, 2011 was a sensational vintage for white and gold Bordeaux, and from that day up until I tasted it out of bottle in January 2014, all I could say about it was, “best Coutet barrel sample I’ve ever tasted.” The 2011 Coutet was the hit of the UGC tasting for me, but I was nowhere near being alone on this. Glowing reviews and huge scores from wine criticsfollowed, topped by The Wine Spectator’s James Molesworth, who gushed forth with a 97 point review.In his review, Molesworth said, “This just makes you feel special when you drink it.” We concur. A week or soafter the UGC tasting, when we all were here, we popped a bottle of 2011 Château Coutet, and it was a smash hit with all of us, leading Anya to pen this post.One for the cellar, I hope to enjoy this wine for many years to come!

 

So there we are, already well into 2015! The UGC deBordeaux passed through town pouring the 2012’s from bottle back at the end of January. 2012 is not a “vintage of the century,” but a solid one with plenty of wines to like. There are containers on the water. David will be headed to France next month, and I will follow shortly thereafter. All of that means we are hard at work, not only looking for our Top Ten of 2015, but for a fine stable of solid wines that we can present for your enjoyment. Onwards and upwards!! – Peter Zavialoff

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2012 Occidental Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

Monday, December 22, 2014 7:21 PM

 
 
Occidental is a new project dedicated to Pinot Noir from longstanding, cult status winemaker Steve Kistler and his partner, Mark Bixler. Maybe new isn’t exactly the right word to use here since the project took root awhile back with the acquisition and planting of two vineyards in far western Sonoma County, but it is the first time that Occidental’s Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir will be available in the market. Bear in mind that Kistler Vineyards wines are sold exclusively through their mailing list and to a few select A-list restaurants. Given this, it is with added excitement and great enthusiasm that we debut the Occidental 2012 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir to TWH customers!
 
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Running a successful winery for over 30 years with a long wait list just to get on to their mailing list to get an allocation of wine just wasn’t enough of a challenge forSteve Kistler and Mark Bixler. It is true that Kistler Vineyards built their reputation on Chardonnay, but many insiders like to talk up their smaller production Pinot Noirs. So it makes perfect sense that these two passionate wine producers would want to take their years of experience and custom build a winery and wine program to their exact specification and apply it to Pinot Noir. The two vineyards that comprise the 2012 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir are Bodega Headlands and Occidental Station. Much of the acreage is planted to Calera clone Pinot Noir, is south-facing and benefits from the Petaluma Gap’s cold, windy climate, being situated only miles inland from the Pacific Ocean.
 
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Steve’s approach to winemaking starts with meticulous work in the vineyards and continues with great attention to detail in the winery. The resulting wine is an alluring combination of silky, cherry-laden fruit and a persistent, charged finish. Fruit from both the Occidental Station and Bodega Headlands ended up as single-vineyard bottlings under the Kistler Vineyards label over the past several vintages, selling them only to mailing list customers. Starting with 2011 these two vineyards are now bottled under the Occidental label. The 2011 and 2012 vintage of these wines have been reviewed by Robert Parker and Antonio Galloni, garnering ridiculously high scores and gushing reviews. No reviews of Occidental’s 2012 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, a blend of Occidental Station and Bodega Headlands fruit, have been published yet, but I suspect when they are, they will be no less glowing.

 

 

I can’t deny that my expectations before tasting theOccidental 2012 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir were high- perhaps exceedingly high. For you see, there was a time, not too far in the distant past, that a dear friend of mine had stockpiled an allocation of Kistler wines and was extremely generous when it came to sharing them. As a result, I know the quality of wine that Steve Kistler and Mark Bixler deliver. Along with the entire Wine House crew, I sampled the Occidental 2012 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, trying hard to keep my expectations in check. I found the fruit to be precise and intense, though refined, with layered aromatics and a luxurious palate feel; nothing short of a wine with a background this prestigious should and does deliver!
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Ah, the holidays. Every year I am panic stricken that nothing will get done, but miraculously things work out in the end. Never how I intended or expected, but thankfully, usually even better! This week I attended a school musical featuring my daughter, prepared food for a bake sale and a teacher appreciation luncheon, dug out a trench to keep water from flooding my mother’s back yard, weathered the storm with my husband and daughter who both had school cancelled due to “incremental weather”, and so the week wore on with more excitement including a missed performance of A Christmas Carol because my daughter came down with a raging fever. I sure hope Santa leaves me a special bottle under the tree, say something like Occidental’s 2012 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, this year…I’ve done my best to be more nice than naughty!
 
 
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Cazar: Hunting For Quality

Monday, September 16, 2013 9:30 PM

 

The latest offerings from Cazar, the 2011 Chardonnay Russian River Valley and the 2012 Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast, may in fact be the best values in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from California. A strong case can be made for this opinion. Under the Chasseur label, winemaker William Hunter has been widely recognized for making some of the finest Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from “West County”, Sonoma County’s western edge of the Russian River Valley and Green Valley and the ocean-influenced Sonoma Coast. Taking his cue from Burgundy, William makes small lots of vineyard-designated wines. His wines are expressive and opulent. A few vintages back he created another label, Cazar, utilizing wine that doesn’t quite fit into his Chasseur offerings. His approach to making Cazar is not unlike his approach to making his vineyard-designated wines save for the oak regiment, which can dramatically impact cost. In essence, what you get with Cazar is something far more compelling and delicious than the majority of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir available for under $25. Seriously.

 

 

The 2011 Chardonnay is sourced entirely from the Russian River Valley. Aged in oak, this Chardonnay is full-bodied and rich. Golden-hued in color with notes of roasted hazelnuts, honey, ripe apple and pear, with a delectable, texturally rich, long-lasting finish. The intensity of this Chardonnay is bounded by the vintage’s trademark minerality. It is fancy through and through. The Cazar Pinot Noir has the coveted Sonoma Coast designation and comes from the picture perfect 2012 vintage. It is an intense Pinot Noir with notes of cherry and the sweet tangy goodness of ripe pomegranate seeds. Stylistically full and lush, this could easily be another winery’s flagship offering. I imagine there are probably wineries out there cursing William Hunter for offering wine of this quality for such a price. I just relish in knowing that bargains can still be found in the crowded wine market.

 

 

The appeal for these Cazar wines is not based solely on price. This pair successfully deliver the goods for a full-bodied, plush tasting experience. It was wise for William Hunter to create a separate label for Cazar as these wines are not sloppy seconds to his Chasseur wines, but can stand on their own. TWH has been carrying the Cazar wines for several vintages now and yes, they’ve all been great. However without a doubt, these new offerings are the very best yet. Stunning. Perhaps not collector’s wine, but if you are a devotee of sun-soaked California Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, these wines should not be passed by.

 

 

It was Back to School Night this week at my daughter’s school. They sure get you for fundraising, donations and volunteering. But it is all good – the school’s wonderful. We had to guess our child’s self-made profile which included a family portrait, favorite things, etc. Besides recognizing her hand-writing, I immediately knew which one belonged to Sascha because she listed baking and cooking as her favorite activities. I was relieved that wine tasting was left off, but I know now that I am raising a Foodie! —Anya Balistreri
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2009 Millworks Sonoma Coast Chardonnay

Monday, February 27, 2012 5:49 PM

You know the saying, “it is not what you know but who you know“. This aptly describes how we acquired the 2009 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay from Millworks. Millworks could be termed a pop-up label; there is no traceable link to its winery origins. It’s a one-off of sorts by an ultra-premium producer who is so sensitive to preserving its reputation of exclusivity that they chose to forgo a second label and created a totally new one to maintain anonymity. The wine came to us from a wine broker with whom we have had a long-standing friendship and working relationship, so we trusted him when he vowed thatMillworks’ 2009 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay comes from a pedigreed source. What he was able to disclose to us is that rather than bulk off the juice, which is common practice, this undisclosed producer felt the wine was just too good to let go and why they opted to create Millworks. So that’s the nuts and bolts of the business end of things. For the wine drinker what is important here to make obviously clear is that you get a wine made with grapes from a producer who sells their own Chardonnnay at upwards of $50 for $15.98!!!! Now that is what I call a screaming bargain. 60% barrel fermented in French Oak for 12 months so the creamy rich texture is there but then the balance is fermented in stainless-steel tanks so a freshness and brightness is retained on the palate. A supercharged burst of citrus and ripe apples glide along the finish. You may not mistake this for Batard Montrachet, but there is deftness and elegance here that can only come from quality grapes and skilled winemaking.

 

After an eleven and a half month house remodel, my family finally moved back in! I can’t begin to express how grateful I am. This truly has been a dream come true and one that could never have materialized without the help, encouragement and support of my parents, in-laws, siblings, friends, co-workers, neighbors and a bevy of building professionals like Cameron over at Belmont Hardware a block over from The Wine House (the bath and kitchen knobs look gorgeous, thank you!). The anticipation and adrenaline of moving home took its toll on our immune system; my husband, daughter and I spent our first week home sick. No pity party here…if you’re gonna be feeling ill, wellthere’s no place like home, there’s no place like home!
Anya Balistreri
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