SF Wine Blog

Exploring wine in and around San Francisco.


Wanted: Vineyard Owners with a Sense of Daring

Here’s to the crazy ones.  The misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers…..

Last weekend, on a gorgeous and balmy Saturday afternoon, consumers packed Bergamot Alley in Healdsburg to drink Aglianico, Ribolla Gialla, Semillon, Trousseau Gris and Trousseau Noir from “a veritable Who’s Who list of many of the hottest small wineries in California” — Arnot-Roberts, Wind Gap, Ryme, Matthiasson, Massican, Broc Cellars, Scholium Project.  These may not be household names, but amongst the trade, these producers have a lot of pull and have garnered a fair amount of attention.  And deservedly so.  They are making exciting wines.

But in order for these producers to keep capturing our imagination, they need to secure the raw materials, the grapes, to keep producing these wines.  And as Jon Bonne pointed out in a post over a year ago, “the vast majority of California up-and-comers” don’t have the resources to own their own vineyards.  Instead, they’re buying fruit from growers.

These farmers and vineyard owners are the unsung heroes of the “new” California.  They may be growing unheralded grapes, planting vines in areas consumers are only starting to discover, or holding on to old vines that still manage to eek out enough grapes to make a barrel or two.  And at the same time, they are helping fuel a very exciting and dynamic part of the California wine industry.

Sadly, this wine world recently lost one of these daring vineyard owners:  George Vare.  George’s wine career included many blue-chip names:  Geyser Peak, Beringer Vineyards, Henry Wine Group.  But he also had a sense of adventure, founding Luna Vineyards and being the first to introduce Ribolla Gialla to California.  George planted about 2.5 acres in his own vineyard in Napa and shared the grapes and his knowledge of Ribolla from various trips to Italy and Slovenia with a talented group of winemakers.  I never met George, but I admired what he did, and have talked to many who directly benefitted from his vision, his moxie, and his friendship.  Here’s what the Napa Valley Register had to say about George and his Ribolla upon his passing:

His last great project arose as a result of his work at Luna and the many friendships and visits he made to vintners in the Collio region of Friuli, Italy, and Slovenia. George loved small family winemakers, and became interested in the ancient Friulian grape variety Ribolla Gialla. An idiosyncratic grape, tough to grow, different to make wine from, and hard to pronounce, it is also fascinating to taste, great with food, and represents a long tradition in Italy of toiling out of love, rather than following the latest trend. George loved this about the variety, and decided that it would be his retirement project.

As much as George loved Ribolla Gialla, he was equally passionate about the help he could give to young winemakers with a vision, whether his help was advice, encouragement, or access to his precious Ribolla Gialla grapes, which he shared with a group of young iconoclastic winemakers.

From his time at Luna, where he provided an incubator for young winemakers, to his Ribolla Gialla vineyard, George was a sort of godfather for the current “new wave” of California winemakers. Ribolla Gialla to him was more than just a grape variety … it represented everything impractical but meaningful about the wine business — the business he loved and help lead for 40 years.

At events like the 7% Solution, I find myself wondering if there are enough vineyard owners who have the vision and daring to follow in George’s footsteps.  People who are willing to take a gamble on unknown grape varieties even though they could get more dollar-per-acre or ton for Cab.  Farmers dedicated to making sure that California — a state with a very young winemaking history in the grand scheme of things — continues to figure out what-grows-best-where.

I worry that with all the talk of a California grape shortage, vineyard owners (large and small) will try to play it safe and focus on brand name grapes and AVAs and try to maximize production at the expense of quality.  I worry that they may rip out old vines or be tempted to sell solely to large, mass-produced brands that they know will be around 5 years from now, and  less willing to take a chance on a year-to-year contract with a young winemaker just starting out.

We can and should continue to celebrate the winemakers who are experimenting with lesser known grapes and sourcing from lesser known places.  But we also need to tip our hats to and encourage vineyard owners and farmers who are providing the very ground upon on which these winemakers stand.


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Psst. Hey kid — want some Cru Beaujolais?

“These days, there is probably no wine that I am more excited about (well, along with the reds of the northern Rhône) than Beaujolais. I drink it at home, I drink it at restaurants, I push it at RN74. I cannot get enough of it.” – Jordan Mackay / Rajat Parr, Secrets of the Sommelier

Most wine fans fondly remember that one wine that made them think, “Whoa, there's a lot going on here!” And from that moment, they're hooked. They start buying wines from different regions, varieties, and producers. They start asking questions about vineyards, soil, and winemaking practices. Before they know it, they've jumped down the rabbit hole. For me, that wine — my gateway drug — was Cru Beaujolais. At their best, these wines display an enjoyable combination of fruit, minerality, and acidity that can be appreciated by everyone from the novice wine drinker to the seasoned expert.

Knowing my affinity for Beaujolais, my friends over at wine app startup Delectable have invited me to talk about my recent trip to the region and host a tasting next Wednesday, September 19 from 7pm – 9pm. I was able to pick up wines from great producers (Lapierre, Foillard, Sunier, Clos de la Roilette and Descombe), including wines from the 2007-2010 vintages. And here's the kicker: you can win an invite to join in on the fun.

Here's how you can win:

  1. Download the free Delectable app for iPhone.
  2. Use Delectable to take a picture of your favorite Cru Beaujolais.
  3. In the comment section, use the hash tag #sfwineblog.
  4. Use Delectable to share your wine on Twitter.
  5. The first three folks to do so will win an invite to the tasting on Wednesday, September 19!

And here's what I'll be pouring on Wednesday (we picked them up at Arlequin Wine Merchant):

  • Julien Sunier Regnie 2010
  • Clos de la Roilette Fleurie 2010
  • Jean Foillard Fleurie 2007
  • Descombes Morgon Vielles Vignes 2009
  • Jean Foillard Morgon 2008
  • Marcel Lapierre Morgon 2010

Hope to see you next week!

Jean Foillard in Cote du Py (Morgon)


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Ramblings: Debunking the term “Wine Lifestyle”

I understand that marketers in the U.S. like to glorify and romanticize wine, and often try to paint a glamourous picture of  “the wine lifestyle.”  You know what I’m talking about — the images of a pristinely dressed couple strolling through the vineyards holding hands.  The hip millennials in their untucked stripped shirts and little black dresses, a glass of wine dangling from their hands.  The dinner table with a full spread of immaculately served food and a bottle of wine in a silver ice bucket.

I get it – people think of wine as a luxury product, and wine is a token symbol of “the good life.”

But can’t wine be approached and marketed in a different way — one that is a more closely tied to wine’s agricultural roots and one which more accurately reflects the “wine lifestyle?”  When I think “wine lifestyle,” I think of walking through a fog-laden vineyard in jeans and a fleece, worried if the fruit is going to ripen enough before harvest.  I think of a winery team throwing together some ham sandwiches for lunch and drinking beer during a long stretch of punchdowns and hose-wrangling.  I think of calloused, grape-stained hands.

© 2011 John Trinidad

OK, so the picture above is a bit over the top.  But I’d love to see wineries adopt a new approach to the term “wine lifestyle” — one that is more Ace Hotel and less W Hotel; more comfort food and less micro-gastronomy; more pick-up truck and less SUV.  Maybe then consumers will start thinking about wine as part of our food system, rather than as an accessory.

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Wine Events: Week of Sept. 13

Football on TV, a little chill in the air, and those spicy reds are tasting pretty good right now — yup, fall is here.  Another season to explore new wines.


K&L Wine Merchants

Wed. Sept. 15:  Italian Wine Tasting @ K&L Wine (SoMa)

K&L Wine Merchants
638 Fourth Street
San Francisco, CA

5:00pm – 6:30pm – $10 (8 wines)

I’m starting to develop a liking for italian wines:  the diversity of varietals, the breadth of styles, and the food-friendly nature of most of these wines is starting to win me over.  One problem:  I can’t remember half the names of the wines I’ve tried, so I’ve resigned myself to keep trying them in hopes somethin’ will stick.  Just my luck:  K&L is hosting a tasting of Italian wines imported by  Caroline Debbane. Highly recommended by K&L’s Italian wine buyer.


Wed. Sept. 15:  Chehalem Wine Tasting @William Cross (Polk Street)

William Cross Wine Merchants
2253 Polk Street
San Francisco, CA

6:00pm – 9:00pm

During my first visit to the Willamette Valley in Oregon, I stopped by a little tasting room for Chehalem wines.  Ant it was good.  Oh so good.  great portfolio of pinots, and some good whites to boot.  Local wine shop saves you from having to buy a roundtrip ticket to PDX.


Omnivore BooksThurs. Sept. 16:  Daring Pairings @Omnivore Books (Mission)

Omnnivore Books
3885 Cesar Chavez
San Francisco, CA

6:00pm – 7:00pm

Wine Spectator recently did a special on food and wine parings, and devoted a few pages of print to tell readers that steak and Cabernet go well together.  Shocking.  If you live on the slightly more adventurous side, you may want to check out Master Sommelier Evan Goldstein’s new book, Daring Pairings: an attempt to pair the odd-ball varietals with food.
You can catch him signing books this Thursday.


Jellyfish at Cal Acad. Sciences

Thurs. Sept. 16:  Crushpad at Academy of Sciences (Golden Gate Park)

Cal Academy of Sciences
55 Music Concourse Way
San Francisco, CA

6:00pm – 10:o0pm – $12

Thursday night, the California Academy of Sciences breaks out the DJs, the adult beverages, and dussies itself up for the appropriately title ‘Nightlife!” events.  This week, custom-crush champions Crushpad will be hosting a “Wine Tasting Laboratory” — a bunch of stations that walk you through the wine making process.  Break out your lab coat and beakers, and head on over to Golden Gate Park. (NOTE:  The museum website states that there is limited capacity in the Laboratory, and “entrance is available to NightLife patrons on a first-come, first-served basis.”)