Solano Cellars East Bay Winemaker Pair-Off

I had the opportunity to participate in yesterday’s East Bay Winemaker Pair-Off held at Solano Cellars in Berkeley. Five small but prominent East Bay garagiste winemakers showed their wines, which were paired with delicious cheeses, duck pastrami, glazed venison, and other tasty tidbits. Several of the wines were absolutely delicious, and all were great values. This entry continues the International Wine Review exploration of East Bay wines that began with our December 11, 2008, posting on A Donkey and Goat Winery: Berkeley Garagiste.

Two Mile Wines of Berkeley, CA, showed their 2008 Central Coast Viognier ($25), my favorite white wine of the Pair-Off. It has a gorgeous varietally correct nose of white peach perfume and is beautifully balanced on the palate with a brisk acidity unusual for a Viognier. They also presented their 2006 Jacob’s Landing Cabernet Sauvignon/ Merlot ($30). The fruit for this 65/35 Cabernet/Merlot blend comes from Dickson Napa Ranch. It has an herbal cedar nose reminiscent of Cabernet Franc, but the rich, full-bodied palate is more traditional in character. This goes to show one doesn’t have to pay $50+ to get a good California Cab.

Eno Wines, also of Berkeley, showed a food-friendly, fruit-driven 2006 Pinot Noir “Never Say Never” Santa Lucia Highlands ($32), which also includes some Russian River fruit. But the highlight for me was winemaker Sasha Verhage’s 2005 Syrah, Las Madres Vineyard, Carneros ($25). This Côte-Rotie style wine is fermented 10% whole cluster and aged 16 months in 20 percent new barrels. It is opaque ruby purple in color with blackberry and cedar on the nose and a delicious, smoky palate of blackberry, cedar and black pepper. It finishes long with a distinct black raspberry note and quite gripping tannins. I can attest that this is an excellent food wine, too, as later in the evening my friends and I shared a bottle over restaurant Postino’s famous Coda di Bue (brasato of short ribs) in Lafayette.

Winemaker Chris Brockway of Broc Cellars specializes in Rhone varietals, and he showed two good examples at the Pair-Off. The 2006 “Vine Starr” ($25) is a blend of mainly Zinfandel and Syrah with small amounts of Mourvedre, Petite Sirah, and Graciano. It paired beautifully with duck pastrami. However, it was the 2006 Ventana Vineyard Grenache “Cassia” Monterey ($24) that captured my attention with its nose of earth and dark cherry that carries over to a beautifully balanced, medium-weight palate. Chris ages this wine in 300 liter French Hogs Heads, so the wood is subtly integrated with the fruit.

Edmunds St. John, also of Berkeley, showed an interesting white blend, the 2008 “Heart of Gold” ($23) blend of Vermentino (59%) and Grenache Blanc (41%) fruit from El Dorado County. It has a perfumed citrus nose and is clean on the palate with good acidity and a long, flavorful finish. Winemaker Steve Edmunds also showed his 2007 “Bone-Jolly” Gamay Noir ($19) from Witters Vineyard fruit, also in El Dorado County. At 3400’ elevation near Placerville in the Sierra Nevada foothills, Witters Vineyard is one of the highest altitude vineyards in the state. Edmunds St. John is the only California producer currently working with the Gamay Noir Au Jus Blanc. The wine is delicious and reminiscent of a first-class Beaujolais. It has a slightly candied nose of raspberries and a very flavorful, medium weight palate. This wine is lovely just to either sip or, better yet, to combine with a nice, healthy California brunch.

Finally, Aubin Cellars showed two Pinot Noirs from the Russian River Valley and a Syrah sourced from Columbia Valley fruit. The 2005 Verve Syrah Columbia Valley ($28) has good varietal character and shows unusual finesse, but the delicious nature of the Pinots drew most my attention. The 2005 Verve Pinot Noir Russian River Valley ($35) revealed earth and forest floor on the nose and on the palate, where tasty dark cherry fruit also came to the fore, finishing long and complex. The 2006 Verve Pinot Noir Russian River Valley ($35) includes fruit from Aubin Cellars’ new vineyard. It is quite different from the 2005 vintage, with lovely purity of fruit and minerality on the palate. It was one of my favorite wines of the entire Pair-Off.

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