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Written by Nikitas Magel   

Sonoma County's Best of the Boutiques 2008 Wine Tasting Event

boutique_tasting_smallIn wine, as with many other artisan-driven commodities, small-scale production has a great deal of cachet.  After all, it implies attention to detail, passion for process, distinction in identity, and pride in outcome the likes of which we simply don't see in larger scale winemaking.  In an effort to reinforce an association of these qualities to the region of Sonoma in the minds of the wine trade and press alike, the county's associations of vintners and grape growers joined forces last week to launch a very special tasting event that showcased wines from over 50 producers that fall into the boutique-production category.  Ranging widely in style from whites that were lean and sinuous to reds that were powerful and opulent, the one common denominator joining the wines at the event was their provenance from the soils of Sonoma.  I arrived with lofty hopes that were unequivocally surpassed, proving once again that this winegrowing region teems with a tremendous amount of winemaking talent and fervor.

Best of the Boutiques was one tasting event that, in my opinion, seemed to resonate with a firm but gentle energy balancing connectedness with intensity.  I could always chalk it up to having walked through the door with a particularly positive mood and mindset.  But, there's something to a small tasting event that encourages, if not coaxes, an almost intimate dialogue between the artisans of the featured wines and the spectator-cum-enthusiasts who arrive on the scene to taste them.  On more than one occasion, I became acutely aware that I wasn't just tasting wine, but glancing ever so fleetingly into the heart and soul of the winemaker — one who, more often than not, I strongly suspect, thinks of him or herself, not as a person who merely crafts, but counterintuitively in its greater importance, acts as a medium between ourselves and the natural, perhaps even spiritual world.  In short: the earth has a message, grapes are but one of its media, and the skillful and talented vintner is a channeler tasked with delivering the ethereal dispatch in it's purest and most inspired of forms.  And in many cases, the wine was, indeed, sublime: Sonoma has a lot to be proud of.

But the realities of the real world have an uncanny way of shaking us out of our reverie.  In my case, it came in the form of a reminder that, as much as I would like to have gathered around all the producers at the tasting event and sing "Kum Ba Yah", the fact is that not every wine there sent me spinning out of my orbit.  While some were good, and even more were great, a couple even had me cock an eyebrow as I desperately tried to construct in my mind some rationale to explain the retail price per bottle that far exceeded anything in the glass for which I could fathom (though, in those cases, I bit my tongue; after all, I do my best to keep in mind that it's not just wine, but someone's livelihood in the glass I'm critiquing).

All that aside, I settled on what amounted to a small and special subset of the wines poured that, for one reason or another, made a definitive impression on me, and therefore stood out in my mind as wines worthy of specific mention.  Following are what I feel were the standouts of this year's Best of the Boutiques:

  • Acorn Winery: 2006 Syrah Axiom, Alegria Vineyards (Russian River Valley) [Elegant with its old world restraint, food friendly quality, and spicy finish, $33]
  • Alexander Valley Vineyards: 2005 Alexander School Alluvia (Alexander Valley) [Southern Rhone in style, with nice old world restraint and good acidity]
  • Arista Winery: 2005 Pinot Noir Longbow (Russian River Valley) [Generous with  flavors of black cherry, tobacco, and clove; $45]
  • Arrowood Vineyards & Winery: 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, Monte Rosso Vineyards (Sonoma Valley) [Gorgeous with its dry-leafy herbaceousness, soft mouthfeel and strong black currant flavors]
  • Atmosphere Wines: 2006 Syrah, Parmelee-Hill Vineyard (Sonoma Valley) [Northern Rhone in style; sexy and masculine with angular, but generous, fruit and spice, and a long finish, $40]
  • Carica Wines: 2006 Sauvignon Blanc, Kick Ranch (Sonoma County) [Delightful with its 40% Sauvignon Musqué rounding out the grassy elements of its flavor profile with an exotic tropical fruit quality, $21]
  • Charles Creek Vineyard: 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon & Merlot blend Miradero (Sonoma County) [Rich with dark berry and mocha qualities intermingled with an exuberant and spicy finish; a great value at $32]

  • Dutcher Crossing Winery: 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, Taylor Reserve (Dry Creek Valley) [Seductive with its herbaceousness and generous spice brought about by its blend with Syrah]
  • Elements of Sonoma: 2005 Malbec, Weeping Willow Vineyards (Sonoma Valley) [Sensuous with its strong violet aromas and plum flavors, chewy tannins, and long finish, $42]
  • Forth Vineyards: 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon All Boys (Dry Creek Valley) [Beautiful with its generous black current fruit expression and herbaceousness]
  • Garden Creek Vineyards: 2003 Tesserae Blend (Alexander Valley) [Elegant in its restraint and expression of dark berry fruit]
  • Inspiration Vineyards: 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, Gallaway Vineyards (Dry Creek Valley) [Delicious in its generous expression of dark, brambly fruit]
  • Paradise Ridge Winery: 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Elevation, Rockpile [Luscious and powerful with a rich mouthfeel and polished tannins]
  • Pezzi King Vineyards: 2006 Sauvignon Blanc (Dry Creek Valley) [Intriguing and unexpected with its hard-cheese aromas, generous fruit and great acidity, $25]

In all, the tasting was meticulously organized and executed.  I imagine that's something counterintuitively difficult to achieve with a smaller and more intimate event like this, since logistical details can't easily be overlooked in the din and diversion that's typical of larger ones.  Granted, I tend to favor events of this size, because they lend themselves to an intimate sort of ambiance that's conducive to conversations of depth with vintners and winery reps.  The only thing that came in the way of that, I have to say, was what I felt to be the frustratingly short span of time allotted for the entire event: an hour and a half doesn't provide quite enough opportunity for tasting wine and interacting with any degree of depth with industry folk.  As a result, the event had drawn to a close before I had the chance to try wines from any of the last handful of producers.  Nevertheless, I felt that overall the event managed to beautifully showcase the wineries and their wares, helping to increase local industry awareness of these small-production gems.

For further details on the general collective of Sonoma County producers, visit the websites of the Sonoma County Vintners or the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission. end