West of West Wine Festival – 2014

By Ken Zinns


Report on the 4th annual West of West Wine Festival Grand Tasting, on Sunday August 3rd, 2014, at The Barlow in Sebastopol, California. The emphasis of the event is on wines from the western part of the Sonoma Coast AVA.

This year’s West of West Wine Festival ran from Friday August 1st through Sunday August 3rd. Beginning with several winemaker Welcome Dinners on Friday evening, the event continued with two Saturday seminars – the first one entitled “The Evolution of California Cuisine & Wine”, and the other a review of Chardonnays from Charles Heintz Vineyard. The first of two Grand Tastings was on Saturday afternoon, followed by a Grand Dinner that evening prepared by some of San Francisco’s most acclaimed chefs: James Beard award winners Nicole & Stuart Brioza of State Bird Provisions, and James Beard award finalists Evan & Sarah Rich of Rich Table and Nick Balla & Cortney Burns of Bar Tartine. The Festival concluded with a second Grand Tasting on Sunday afternoon. I attended the Sunday afternoon Grand Tasting, and all of the tasting notes below are from that portion of the event.

The West of West Wine Festival is hosted by the West Sonoma Coast Vintners (WSCV) – an organization of both wineries and growers that was formed just a few years ago. Among the goals of the group is to “preserve and protect the history, landscape and culture of the West Sonoma Coast,” and to “promote the wines, vineyards, and culture of the region to the media, trade and public.” The WSCV also seeks to “increase collaboration and cooperation among producers and growers in the region.” Founding members of the WSCV included Failla, Freeman, Freestone (Joseph Phelps), Peay, and Red Car, and Red Car’s Carroll Kemp was the organization’s first president. Ted Lemon of Littorai is the current president.

Overall Impressions

This was my third year attending the West of West Wine Festival Grand Tasting. The WSCV currently includes over 40 member wineries, and nearly all of them poured their wines at the Grand Tasting on Sunday. It’s important to note that not all of the wineries themselves are located within the western Sonoma Coast area – a number of the organization’s winery members are located in other areas but source fruit from the western Sonoma Coast.

The western part of the Sonoma Coast AVA – sometimes referred to as the “true” or “extreme” Sonoma Coast – is a very distinctive cooler-climate growing area, and it is no surprise that its growers and vintners have created their own organization. For years, it has been evident that the current boundaries of the Sonoma Coast AVA include too broad a group of growing regions. The WSCV includes the more westerly regions – Annapolis, Fort Ross-Seaview, Occidental, Freestone, Green Valley and the Sebastopol Hills. Notably absent are the parts of the Sonoma Coast AVA that are farther east, such as the Petaluma Gap. While unquestionably a fine cooler-climate area in its own right, the Petaluma Gap is quite distinct from most of the growing regions closer to the Pacific coast.

Green Valley and Fort Ross-Seaview have already gained AVA status within the larger Sonoma Coast AVA, with Fort Ross-Seaview being approved in 2011. The other regions mentioned above – Annapolis, Occidental, Freestone, and the Sebastopol Hills – are under study as potential AVAs, though none of them have been formally proposed as such at this point. It’s tough to say whether creating more small AVAs will be beneficial to the growers and vintners there or whether it will further muddy the waters in the overly large and confusing Sonoma Coast appellation. Issues such as this will certainly be considered as study of these growing regions continues.

The West of West tasting always presents an excellent opportunity to taste wines from some highly-acclaimed producers, several of which don’t often pour at public tastings. This was the second year that the event was held at the Barlow complex in central Sebastopol. As was the case last year, people I spoke with who mentioned the venue were very positive about it. The Grand Tasting was held under a large tent set up at the Barlow, and like last year’s Sunday tasting, the weather was very mild and pleasant. And also like last year, several people mentioned that the Saturday tasting was more crowded – not surprising – though the attendance at the Sunday tasting seemed good. Winery tables were spread out nicely, and they were arranged alphabetically with good signage, making it easy to circulate throughout the tent and to find specific producers. There was a long food table just outside the winery tent, but as I was trying to make the best use of my time to taste wines, I didn’t check out the food at all. Other than a minor glitch during check-in, the tasting was well-organized and ran smoothly from beginning to end, thanks to the organizers and many volunteers on hand.

The line-up of producers pouring at the West of West Grand Tasting has been fairly consistent, and there are always a few new faces each year. Notably missing from this year’s tasting was Hirsch Vineyard. Many winery proprietors and winemakers were on hand at their tables again this year, more than you tend to see at many tasting events. I heard from a few people that even more of them had been there for the Saturday tasting but some decided not to attend the following day. I’m sure the smaller turnout that the Sunday tasting attracts is a factor in that decision, but I’m also sure that having fewer people there that day helped to make this tasting a relaxed, low-key affair – very much in keeping with the overall West Sonoma vibe.

Perhaps I was a bit too relaxed, since I didn’t manage to get to as many winery tables as last year. Grape-Nutz colleague Al Osterheld joined me at the tasting, and we made an effort to try some producers that were either new to this event or entirely new to us, and we ran out of time to taste at a number of tables we would have liked to – Red Car, Flowers, and others. And we had a rather rushed tasting at the Siduri table, the final place we stopped, trying to sample a last wine or two just as the event was closing down.

Being a decidedly cool-climate region, grape varieties grown in the West Sonoma Coast are largely Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, while Syrah plays a significant though smaller role. Other varieties comprise a much smaller percentage of the grapes grown in the region. Sure enough, besides a handful of Syrahs and Rosé wines, nearly all of the wines being poured at the West of West Grand Tasting were either Chardonnay or Pinot Noir.

Vineyard sources for the wines poured at the tasting were from all over the West Sonoma Coast, providing a good opportunity to sample wines from various parts of the overall growing region. Al and I did taste two or three wines that included some Petaluma Gap fruit, as well as a couple of non-Sonoma Coast wines. As was the case at previous tastings, many producers showcased their own estate vineyards, while it was also possible to compare wines sourced from the same vineyard but made by different vintners – Charles Heintz Vineyard Chardonnays and Hirsch Vineyard Pinots were notable in that respect.

Nearly all the wines that Al and I tasted this year were current releases, and we tried a few bottled but not-yet-released wines as well. In reviewing the wines we tasted, I found that over 85% of them were from the 2012 vintage. This vintage produced a much larger crop in the Sonoma Coast region than 2011 did, and I thought the 2012s were generally showing well right out of the gate in comparison to the 2011 wines. I always felt that quite a few 2011 Sonoma Coast wines held great potential but just needed more time in bottle, and I’ve found many of those wines have been developing beautifully over the past year. Overall, I didn’t feel quite the same excitement with the 2012 wines I tasted at this year’s West of West. There were certainly some very fine wines poured there but I’m not sure many of them will reach the level that the best of the 2011s will reach in time. I do hold high hopes for 2013, which should be an excellent vintage from the Sonoma Coast as well as for most other California wine regions.

My overall favorite wine line-ups at the Grand Tasting included Ceritas, Failla, Littorai, and Peay. Promising new producers included Alma Fria and Senses, while the new winemaking team at Claypool is paying immediate dividends. As I’ve found in the past at this event, the overall quality level of the wines was very high, and a number of other producers poured standout wines as well. And as is usually the case, there were a handful of other good wines that just missed being included on the list. I did limit wines on the list to one per producer for each of the two categories, though a couple of producers could have had additional wines listed.

The West of West Wine Festival Grand Tasting continues to be a “must” for fans of cooler-climate California wines, particularly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The Barlow in Sebastopol has proven to be a great venue for the event. West of West has quickly become one of the tastings I most look forward to each year, and once again it did a fine job of showing what makes wines from the West Sonoma Coast special.

Most wines were current releases, and there were some barrel and tank samples plus some bottled but not-yet-released wines to taste as well, plus a few older library wines. Most current release wines were from the 2010 and 2011 vintages, with a few 2008s and 2009s and a handful of 2012s. As I found at another recent wine tasting event, Pinots from the 2011 vintage are starting to show well – I felt that most 2011 Pinots have been very tight when I’ve tasted them earlier this year. That’s still the case with a number of the 2011 Sonoma Coast Pinots, but many of those showed the potential to be very good to outstanding given time to develop in the bottle. The exceptionally cool 2011 growing season was a difficult one throughout much of California, and ripening was not assured in some of the cool West Sonoma Coast vineyards, but I’m finding that many wineries produced excellent cool-climate wines from that vintage.

I must admit that I found myself looking for particular aromatic and flavor profiles that many of the West Sonoma Coast wines shared, and I felt some wines (particularly the bigger-styled ones) – while fine wines in their own right – seemed to miss the mark at displaying what makes this area distinctive.

Producers that poured particularly strong wine line-ups at the Grand Tasting included Baker Lane, Ceritas, Cobb, Failla, Freeman, Hartford Family, LaRue, and Littorai. The overall quality level of the wines at this tasting was very high, and a number of other producers poured some standout wines as well. This resulted in a higher-than-usual percentage of the wines I tasted making my list of favorites. As is usually the case, there were a handful of other good wines that just missed being included on the list. I did limit wines on the list to one per producer for each of the two categories, though a few producers could have had additional wines listed.

The West of West Wine Festival Grand Tasting was even better this year than last year. The new venue at The Barlow in Sebastopol was perfect for the event, and the tasting was a great size to be able to sample wines from plenty of top-notch producers without feeling overwhelmed. Once again, West of West was one of the best tastings of the year, and it did a fine job of showing what makes wines from the West Sonoma Coast special.

Alma Fria 2012 Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast. Sourced from Hawk Hill and Weeks vineyards in the Freestone area, full malolactic fermentation with no new oak. Light color, featuring pear and lemonpeel along with some spice and floral aromas. Medium-bodied with good acidity and lively finish, nice.

Alma Fria 2012 Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast. Sourced from four vineyards (including the estate vineyard), about 15% whole-cluster fermentation, aged in 10% new oak. Medium-light ruby color, with black cherry, tea leaf, and spices. Medium weight on the palate with milder tannins.

Alma Fria 2012 Pinot Noir, Holtermann Vineyard, Sonoma Coast. From Pommard, 115, 777, and 828 clones, aged in 20% new oak. Medium-light color, this was more earthy, along with black cherry and tea leaf notes plus a floral element. Medium-bodied with bright acidity, finishing with fine tannins.

Alma Fria 2012 Pinot Noir, Doña Margarita Vineyard, Sonoma Coast. From Pommard and 115 clones, aged in 25% new oak. Medium-light color, this showed brighter black cherry and plum fruit, spice, forest floor, and a touch of sweet oak in the background. Medium-bodied with a slightly richer texture and more structure than the previous wine, and firm tannins on the finish – already nice but this will benefit from time in the cellar.

Comments: Alma Fria is a new project started by the Holtermann family, whose background is in wine importing. In 2012 they purchased a small vineyard just north of Annapolis that’s planted to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. They also source fruit from Marimar Estate’s Doña Margarita Vineyard between Freestone and Occidental, and from other vineyards as well. Red Car’s Carroll Kemp makes the wines. Proprietor Jan Holtermann poured his wines, which were quite good.