How the West Won Me – West of West Wine Festival

By Ilona


If you consider yourself any sort of Pinot lover, friend or even a distant acquaintance, you may want to block next’ year’s first weekend of August on your calendar. West of West is a two day festival that takes place in the city of Sebastopol, located in the heart of Sonoma County. The event offers seminars, tastings and elaborate dinners hosted by wine making luminaries.

This year’s event featured:
Forty extraordinary wineries pouring Pinots and Chardonnays during two grand tastings

Seven winemaker dinners
Two educational seminars
The Grand Dinner featuring forty wineries presented by the winemakers themselves
The event took place at The Barlow, a former apple processing plant that is now home to art galleries, retailers, a coffee roaster, a micro-brewery, restaurants, wine tasting rooms, a gin distillery and a fantastic ice cream shop.

Leading up to the event were two fabulous winemaker’s dinners, the Littorai dinner at Chalkboard in Healdsburg and the Freeman Winery dinner, which was held at the winemakers’ beautiful home. The Littorai Vineyards dinner at Chalkboard restaurant that evening was superb. Chef Shane McAnelly’s daily changing menu celebrates the finest local ingredients. If the food doesn’t entice you, their wine list and innovative cocktail menu will. The dinner began with a big-eye tuna crudo with iberico lardo, umeboshi, ponzu and scallion appetizer. Paired with Littorai’s stunning 2012 Savoy Pinot Noir, it hit every hedonistic note. The main course, Misoyaki black cod with duck fat potatoes, roasted grapes, pink peppercorn jus and house pickled ginger, just about send me over the edge. Littorai’s wines are undeniably consistent, age-worthy, and impeccably crafted; a perfect pairing with Chef McAnelly’s marvelous meal!

I started the next day at Flying Goat Coffee, with a beverage titled Bangkok, a Vietnamese style espresso based drink with house made sweetened condensed milk. Yum.

Ken and Akiko Freeman’s dinner was catered by none other than Christopher Greenwald, a highly regarded chef from Bay Laurel Culinary. The menu featured cast-iron seared wild king salmon, locally grown “Liberty” duck and a variety of fascinating wines. We tasted Freeman’s entire portfolio of current releases in the wine cave prior to the meal. Rather than pairing their own wines with the meal the Freemans offered 2006 Pinots from Oregon and France to compare and contrast with their 2006 Akiko’s Cuvee. My thoughts? Akiko’s Cuvee clearly prevailed.

The WOW event kicked off the next morning with a seminar titled “The Evolutions of California Cuisine & Wine” hosted by renowned chefs such as Stuart Brioza of State Bird Provisions, Evan Rich of Rich Table, and Nick Balla and Courtney Burns from San Francisco’s Bar Tartine.

The seminar centered around how today’s most admired chefs focus on fresh, local ingredients and how wine plays into the gamut of flavor combinations. A main topic of discussion was the symbiotic relationship that today’s great chefs have with the local farmers. The best chefs spend tremendous amount of time, energy and thought sourcing the finest local ingredients. It was also apparent, that due to the efforts of chefs such as Stuart, Evan and Nick, menus are more frequently placing fresh vegetables in the coveted front and center position, with proteins playing a supporting role!

It was great to hear Chef Rich speak of his wine list evolving from mainly imports to a heavy focus on California wine, specifically Pinot Noir. West Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir naturally lends itself to food and wine pairings due to its acidity, minerality and delineated, robust aromatics and flavors. It makes complete sense to match local wines to local cuisine and it was very gratifying to hear such talented Chefs fully embrace the concept. We clearly are eating and drinking better that we ever have, in no small part due to the efforts of the above mentioned chefs, who push the envelope and supply the inspired, unforgettable culinary experiences.

After a delicious lunch, prepared by Rocker Oysterfeller and Firefly Fine Catering, we reconvened for the seminar on Charles Heintz vineyards featuring several producers who source fruit from his renowned estate, located just outside Occidental. Some of California’s most revered Pinot Noir and Chardonnay producers including Ceritas, Duckhorn, DuMOL, Flowers, Freeman, Littorai, Peirson Meyer, Moone-Tsai, Radio-Coteau, Von Holt, Williams Selyem, and Zepaltas produce wine from Charles’ grapes. His criteria for choosing which wineries? Sell fruit to winemakers whose personalities and winemaking philosophy he likes, a synergy of art and science that honors the vineyard he nurtures daily. In that spirit, Charles even gives away fruit to the aspiring winemakers who are passionate about their craft. The seminar was fantastic and focused on the unique confluence of soil, climactic condition and meticulous viticultural practices that provide winemakers with high typicity, physiologically ripened, no expense spared, no compromises fruit that they personalize in the cellar. 2013 Barrel samples, as well as blind tasting of three Chardonnays, were a revelation. It looks like 2013 may be the vintage of the century for California.

After a short break, the Grand Tasting was upon us. 40 producers vying for your palate, offering some of their best efforts, some in Magnum format. Here are a few highlights:

32 Winds 2011 Chardonnay, made by Ehren Jordan from fruit sourced from Lucky Well Vineyard planted by Ulises Valdez to Ehren’s specs. This elegant, high toned, Chardonnay with gorgeous minerality, showcases beautiful vanilla, peach and floral aromas.
Alma Fria Chardonnay and Pinot Noirs, crafted by Carroll Kemp of Red Car. They speak to the soil and the soul of winemaking. Concentrated and balanced, these wines will age gracefully, and yet, are a pleasure to consume now.
Readers and Twitter followers may be familiar with my ongoing affection for Benovia, Hartford, Failla, Flowers, MacPhail, Ramey, Red Car and Siduri wines. They are consistent, always well crafted, invariably delicious and the winemaking personalities behind these brands are off the charts.
A couple of notable mentions go out to Senses Wines. Their 2012 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are easily the QPR of the event. Notably, the 2013 vintage was shepherded by the exceptional winemaking talent – Thomas Rivers Brown. These are modest, down to earth, wildly talented folks that you should get to know.
Wayfarer, the inaugural release of Jayson and Cleo Pahlmeyer are on the opposite end of the spectrum, price wise yet deliver elegance and finesse of withering heights. Crafted by Bibiana Gonzalez Rave, a winemaker to watch (she has her own brand she co-crafts with her husband, Jeff Pinsoni, called Shared Notes), these wines are stunning, ultra-refined, and polished.

The Grand dinner that evening was superb, offering the best salmon I’ve had in my life. The mouth melting, sublime goodness, flanked by summer beans, punctuated with salmatto sauce delivered by the genius of Bar Tartine, left a lifetime impression. The dessert, made by State Bird Provisions, roasted peach melba, oozed exquisite sensuality.

Winemakers brought copious amounts of wine (many in Magnums) as well as library vintages, so one can imagine that nothing short of palatal orgy ensued. If I could stretch that evening over six months, I gratefully would. Alas, time machines do not exist, so I was forced to consume a half year supply of West Sonoma Coast greatness over a few hours.

Not quite ready to depart, I stalled the next day, spending quality time at Zazu’s Sunday brunch. I savored their fabulous spicy Bloody Mary cocktail and unbearably tasty fried rabbit sandwich. If you get a chance, check out Chef Duskie Estes’ homage to all things pig.
Spending time in West Sonoma is a treat for the senses in a variety of ways. Each bite of food, taste of wine and tidbit of conversation leaves an indelible impression. The folks there are genuine and have a strong sense of community, a strong bond with their land and a huge capacity to connect with one another. The West of West event embraces and frames all of this. It is one of the best, most intimate, soulful wine events in the country. You will leave wistful and fulfilled; yearning for your next encounter. You will leave a piece of yourself in the foggy, magical forests, vineyards and mountains of the Sonoma Coast. It will win you over when you are not looking and you will fall in love.