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Panic at PinotFest SF

by Darren Delmore, November 23, 2011

Refrigerated clouds hovered over Union Square, breathing their wet, cold exhalations against the window panes of the fourth floor of the Kensington Park Hotel. The occasion was San Francisco’s PinotFest, a Farallon restaurant showcase of 30 plus wineries pouring their latest and greatest Pinot Noir to members of the wine selling trade and media. Famed sommelier Peter Palmer put this semi-hush-hush annual affair together years ago, and now his successor Luke has taken the reigns rather well. Last Friday’s ordeal was my first time attending, and having been Mendo bound and shackled for seven weeks running, my girlfriend Jazza and I created a hedonistic, metro-agenda around the daytime swirling and spitting scene.

At ten til noon we took the hotel’s rickety elevator up to level four, and the door opened to a packed, high ceilinged arena of three rooms hosting a bevy of winery tables and cheese stations. The female attendees were making it clear that their boots were made for walking, and that’s just what they were gonna do. Boots and boots everywhere, with expensive leather slithering up black-tighted industry femme flanks, and it’s fair to report that shoulder padded suitcoats are coming back hard in men’s fashion.

Before we picked up the tasting program and our stemware, I double checked to make sure we were on the right floor, and that this wasn’t Love Handle Fest 2011. I’d read somewhere that men in Napa and the Bay Area wine industry had been consuming an alarming amount of fois gras and duck fat in general, and les hommes on hand were surely showing signs of it.

For those who’ve never attended such an event (such as my industry innocent Jazza), it can be plenty panic-attack inducing. Especially with its abbreviated time-frame and shoulder-checking sommeliers bustling their way up to each winery representative’s table with their goblets often extended over strange scalps for their pour of wine RIGHT NOW. And even worse, the hanger-on’ers blabbing away to each winemaker, holding up the flow, and fully terroir-blocking at the front of the line.

It’s all a little too much, especially when you’ve been living beneath that mellow Nash Mill Skyline and not venturing into mass civilization. All this plus the soundtrack of hundreds of people openly gargling and hawking purple loogies into spittoons. Needless to say my partner was pretty over it twenty minutes in the door and even retreated to get her nails done. I never believed that San Francisco “Nail Spas” actually provided manicure services, but lo and behold she returned with a fresh French Mani.

It appeared as if free $100 bills were being handed out at the mobbed tables of Williams-Selyem, Littorai, and Domaine Serene. We found a more spacious respite at ol’ Hank Skewis’ cornerside spot, who is a true denizen of Anderson Valley dirt, having crafted artisan micro-wines out of vineyards like Floodgate, Demuth, and Corby for years. He now works with grapes from Jack Ridley’s valley floor site between Philo and Boonville. His 2009 Russian River Valley Lingenfelder Vineyard, planted to the heirloom Martini clone of Pinot Noir, lit our palates up. He had a 2004 open from the same vineyard, boasting the same fresh color and aromatics, seven years down the line. I’d heard Hank was a modest, friendly, talented man, and it was true. His elegant wines age well, and, as a byproduct of their small production, are hard to find.

So which vignerons from Anderson Valley were a part of this affair? Londer’s winemaker Rick Davis was there, pouring 2009 Estate and Paraboll bottlings. Milla Handley had her nice Brut cold sizzling in the stems, and Allan Green of Greenwood Ridge Cellars was pouring a couple new releases. When we blew our neighborly cover he said, “Tell me you two don’t have a vineyard, do you?”

With the only personal estate tendrils to speak of being my current wintertime pubic plantation, I shook my head to the negative, and he said, “Good,” as if we were safe of the current economic hardships that wineries in the $30+ per bottle range are flailing in the face of.

What was interesting to me was how many non-Mendocino County based wineries were proudly pouring Anderson Valley grown wines, like Paul Hobbs (the 2009 Crossbarn was dynamite for the price), Twomey (Silver Oak’s non Cabernet project), Saintsbury, and Radio-Coteau (the stellar 2009 Savoy Vineyard). One would think local heavy hitters like Breggo, Drew, and Goldeneye would be in the house, but this is an event where wineries are invited to attend, and to keep the diversity of the affair, the organizers switch the list up from time to time.

With a sweat slicked forehead and goat cheese plastered lips, my Bay Area wine-slinging friend Wesley Box rolled up to inform me that “Oregon is blowing doors.” To his credit he was pretty spot on. Not that there was a competition happening or anything. Beaux Frères of the Willamette Valley was oenologically on fire with their 2009 releases, and the lively gentleman pouring them mentioned to some beefy wine vixen to my right and I that he also had “something special under the table” for us. What I expected to be a zipped down fly revealing an angry, furry, uncircumcised erection turned out to be a rare bottle of 2006 Beaux Frères Estate Willamette Valley Pinot Noir that was wine of the show for me. This is a winery part owned by world famous wine critic Robert Parker, who participates in all of the blending decisions. He and his winemaking brother-in-law consistently make outstanding — albeit expensive — bottlings from the North Country. Domaines Drouhin and Serene were in tip-top shape, and Tony Rynders of the latter of Domaine fame was debuting his new solo project called Tendril, which was impressive with a White Label Pinot Noir and a more seductive reserve called TightRope. On the alleged budget end of the Oregonian spectrum, the $29 Siduri Chehalem Mountains blend was stellar, as was the entry level wine from Soter Vineyards called North Valley, which you can buy at Bottle Barn in Santa Rosa for under $26. I love the foresty flavors and acidic backbone of Willamette wines, coupled with lower alcohol than their sunnier southern counterparts. That puts them somewhere between the Pinot Noirs of the Sonoma Coast and Burgundy, and the growing years of 2008 and 2009 blessed them to bits. Seek these wines out because I’ve gathered that the 2010 and 2011 wines are haggard due to unruly weather, which required extreme additive and scientific intervention.

Pledging allegiance to my central California roots, I wandered on to check out the complete lineup of 2008 single vineyard sourced wines from Bonaccorsi. This is a top shelf tiny operation in Lompoc with a lot of tragedy behind it. It’s amazing to see the late Michael Bonaccorsi’s widow Jenne still keeping the brand alive and elevating the quality to newer heights. Their winemaker Clarissa Nagy has the magic touch with vineyard sources in Santa Maria Valley and Santa Rita Hills. Clarissa’s husband was in the house pouring the Byron releases, and the 2009 Byron Nielson Santa Maria Valley was on fire, balancing earthiness and hallmark strawberry fruit. Melville Winery’s whole-clustery 2009’s were standouts from this region, and Foxen Vineyard’s rich, oaky Santa Maria Valley bombshells were hard to ignore. My favorite wine of their lineup, however, was the 2009 La Encantada Vineyard, which is a certified organic vineyard farmed by the legend Richard Sanford just west of Buellton.

Thanks to roving platters of duck sausage, ahi tartare crostini, and deep fried squash balls, I was able to hold my ground, take a few notes here and there, and try just about everything I intended to. I left PinotFest SF with the knowledge that America’s best ever Pinot Noirs are out there for sale right now, with Oregon’s underripe 2007 vintage good and gone, and Northern Cal’s smoke tainted 2008’s having been sold somewhere on the planet. And even better is the awareness that prices for a lot of these new wines are reflecting the financial weather upon us, and that the wineries actually might need us, the consumers, to keep the shimmering duck fat going round and round.

One Response to Panic at PinotFest SF

  1. David Reply

    November 26, 2011 at 8:44 am

    …enjoyable article. I’ve been delving into the “organic” angles of food wine drink here in NorCal and my native Chicago for almost twenty years. Thanks for not coming right out and saying that California Burgundy is negligible, which it is. I wouldn’t turn down something from Bob Sanford, but he’s obviously an exception. And perhaps you SHOULD flat out tell your readers that almost every wine you mention uses drip line irrigation (read: bulk jug wine) systems that are illegal in any decent European viticulture area. Namaste, DSS

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