One of the major benefits of Super Bowl Sunday is that you can do just about anything you like, without a mass of humanity to contend with. If you are lucky enough to be on the mountain, skiing the un-crowded slopes is blissful. The same is true for the mall, or anywhere, for that matter.
Last weekend, I was in San Francisco for the annual ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates & Producers) tasting, a veritable Super Bowl of zin, with hundreds of jammy gems all lined up, alcohol levels pushing the sixteens; and, by the end of the afternoon, the majority of attendees acquire a Billy Simms- or Barry Sanders-esque swerve. Make that a stagger, and enough about that.
The next morning, I took a bright blue-sky drive north to Sonoma, wheeled around Dry Creek Valley for a minute and ambled out Westside Road towards the Russian River Valley to track down some pinot noir. Normally, a day like this would attract throngs of wine tourists, packing the roads and tasting rooms.
Not on this day, what with the 49ers playing in the big game. Only an occasional tumbleweed and spandex-clad throngs, as eager bikers were giddy with the rare opportunity the open country roads provided on this day.
I stopped into the VML Winery, catching up on a tip from a wine tour guide friend who noted it as one of his favorites. The scene, as with almost every property on this storied stretch, was stunning. Gardens are laid out all over the property, and as it goes in Mediterranea, some of the bushes and trees are blooming purple, red, blue, yellow and white. Fountains bubbled and murmured. The parking lot and tasting room were empty.
I strolled in and set to tasting a beautiful sparkling blanc de noir made in a seven-year partnership with Iron Horse Winery a few miles closer to the coast (one of my favorite destinations). It was soft and elegant, reminding me of their Wedding Cuvee. Next was a dry Russian River Valley gewürztraminer that came on like ginger carrot cake, then lavender dust, with bananas slowly filling in the palate and a refreshing lemongrass finish. While I sipped I listened to the VML story, and how Dry Creek winemaker Virginia Marie Lambrix of Trueheart Vineyard came to work this property. The estate was originally the Belvidere Winery, just like the vodka company. The two entities would meet in court, with the winery winning the rights to the name, and eventually selling the name to the vodka. Owner Bill Hambrecht then leased the operation to Chris Donatiello and C. Donatiello Winery, which eventually folded, making way for Lambrix to extend her petite sirah-inspired wine-crafting zone from just around the bend in Dry Creek.
Now she makes estate wines and cuvees from both the Russian River and Dry Creek Valleys, which meet in a merger of cool and warm climes in northern Sonoma County. She makes approximately 6,000 cases a year for VML and another 6,000 for Trueheart out of the old Belvidere facility, which used to pump out 150,000 cases per year.
I came for the pinot noir, and on offer this day was the newish 2010 RRV, comprised of fruit from the estate, as well as from the nearby Floodgate Vineyard. The wine was medium to light in color, with a bold, full nose of stewed plums and raspberry liqueur, and very dry on the palate, with bergamot, black tea-like flavors and astringency, and a white peppery finish. The label is the real show stealer: It depicts a gothic cosmology of human/seed/sun with Dervish spinners standing atop an anthropological circle; angles, honey bees, sunflowers, sun and moon charts and maps. It’s like the pre-Raphaelite cherub before it falls into a nest of gargoyles.
After that, the 2011 Floodgate pinot was a little anti-climactic, mainly because of its oaky youth. Part of the process for a young winery with small production, coming off a few lean years with cold growing seasons, is they can’t really hold onto the wines for very long. I finished my tastes with a 2009 Ivywood Vineyard pinot, sourced from a few rows planted in an old merlot vineyard, which showed delicate, floral qualities with punchy blackberries and high acid.
Next, I rolled on past Rochioli, Hop Kiln and Thomas George Estates to make my way into another of my longtime faves, Moshin Vineyards. Some of you may have met Rick Moshin at tastings in Aspen over the years. On this day, he was not able to come out and greet me because, as the staff indicated, his face was glued to the TV. Ha!
Anyhow, Moshin is known for exquisite small lots sourced from very small, obscure and wonderful vineyard parcels throughout the RRV and Sonoma Coast. Native yeast ferments and gentle handiwork ensure flavor profiles that are layered and distinctive. The offerings are vast and varied, with eleven pinots currently available for purchase. Beyond the realm of some beautiful pinot, things got really interesting.
His Bacigalupi Vineyard chardonnay had brioche-like, savory naan bread essences, which I can say both surprised and blew me away, as chard often seems to have the oaty, sweet pie-crust flavor instead. Another pleasant surprise was an unfiltered and unfined grenache, which had the cloudy appearance of a wine just put to barrel. But clarity struck the palate: It was full of violet and pepper spice.
The real hidden gem on this stop was the 2007 Molinari Vineyard Dry Creek merlot: Supple and silky for sure, but it stood upright, clear, clean and crisp. It is my new all-time favorite Cali merlot, especially for $20 a bottle.
I had nothing left to do at this point except drive to the coast, watch twelve foot waves crash, burn one down, and drive back to the city in the golden hour, having the 101 all to myself.
Cheers! Remember, wine reveals truth.
I’m gushing to say this piece completes five years of consecutive weeklies. Thanks for putting up with my never-ending wine non-sense and thanks for all the great comments and e-mails at email@example.com