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Go Offbeat to Beat the Summertime Blues
By Linda Murphy
May 14, 2013
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Late-1950s rockabilly star Eddie Cochran was wrong:  There is a cure for the summertime blues.

It’s a seven-percent solution of Trousseau, Semillon, Montepulciano, Chenin Blanc, Picpoul, Grenache, Touriga Nacional, Albariño, Mourvedre, Vermentino, Gamay, Ribolla Gialla, Counoise, Barbera, Grenache Blanc, Cinsault, Carignan, St.  Laurent, Tinta Cao, Aglianico and Verdelho.  Drink one a day, as needed.

Seventeen California wineries, calling themselves the “Seven % Solution,” poured these oddball varietals at two tastings last week in Healdsburg, where the Alexander, Dry Creek and Russian River Valleys meet in northern Sonoma County.  Sonoma is most-planted to Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Zinfandel, yet man and woman cannot drink by these wines alone, particularly when the weather heats up and the need for excitement and discovery in wine escalates.

The “seven percenters” point out that some 93 percent of North Coast AVA vineyard acreage is devoted to the eight grape varieties listed in the preceding paragraph.  The remaining 7% is a hodgepodge of weirdness -- lesser-known varieties such as Ribolla Gialla and Touriga Nacional -- upon which some adventurous, mostly younger winemakers have seized upon in their mission to produce intriguing wines that are not vanilla or chocolate, and that either pay tribute to old vines, distinctive terroirs, forgotten varieties, and/or wines they’ve enjoyed from Italy, Portugal, Spain, the Rhône Valley and elsewhere. 

I love Cab, Pinot and Zin as much as anyone, but on a warm afternoon at the Bergamot Alley wine bar on the Healdsburg plaza, my desire was for something different, such as Arnot-Roberts’ Compagni Portis Vineyard Sonoma Valley Old Vine White, from a 1950s-era vineyard planted to a mix of Sylvaner, Green Hungarian, Riesling, Berger, Gewurztraminer and French Colombard.  The wine has amazing depth and complexity.

Arnot-Roberts also lives on the edge with Trousseau and Touriga Nacional, grown in the Luchsinger Vineyard in Lake County. 

Steve Matthiasson and Daniel Petroski have assumed superstar status for their devotion to northern Italian white varieties grown in Napa Valley.  Petroski, a winemaker at Larkmead Cellars in Calistoga, is the architect of his own Massican label’s Annia white wine, a minerally, refreshing blend of Ribolla Gialla and Tocai Friulano.

Matthiasson, an in-demand viticulturist, teamed with George Vare to grow Ribolla Gialla in Vare’s Napa Valley vineyard.  Vare, whose wine career included ownership and development of some of California’s most important wineries, had a fascination with Ribolla Gialla, and Mathiasson tended his vines.  Vare died in April 2013 at age 76, and the future of his vineyard is uncertain.  But for now, Matthiasson produces a nervy, stony Ribolla Gialla Vare Vineyard, and a Napa Valley White Wine that is a racy blend of Ribolla Gialla, Tocai Friuliano, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon.

Megan and Ryan Glaab of Ryme Cellars poured several wines, and I was most interested in the “hers” and “his” Vermentinos from the Las Brisas Vineyard in Carneros -- one made by her, one by him.  “Hers” was harvested for freshness, whole-cluster-pressed and bottled early.  “His” was fermented on the skins and spent time in barrel.  I would happily drink both.  Their 2010 Aglianico was remarkably fresh, for all its black-fruit aromas and flavors.

Hardy Wallace’s Dirty & Rowdy 2012 Semillon was poured out when I reached his station -- my loss, another taster informed me.  His 2011 Mourvedre from Shake Ridge Ranch in Amador County was pleasingly earthy and pure.

Mick Unti of Unti Vineyards in Dry Creek Valley showed me his stony, savory Fiano, an uncommon grape for California.  Unti and his winemaker, Sebastien Pochan, also produce Montepulciano, Barbera and a beautiful Grenache-Mourvedre rose.

For more many years now, one of my favorite wines has been Leo Hansen’s dry Chenin Blanc from Saini Farms in Dry Creek Valley, under the Leo Steen label.  Hansen’s middle name is Steen -- which happens to be the name for Chenin Blanc in South Africa -- and this former restaurateur/sommelier from Denmark is doing fantastic things with Chenin Blanc.

Then there is Bedrock Wine Co., Morgan Twain-Peterson’s Sonoma-based label (he’s the son of Ravenswood founder/winemaker Joel Peterson).  His 2010 Compagni Portis Heirloom White Sonoma Valley pays tribute to the old field-blend concept of growing grapes, and I also loved his Ode to Lulu Mourvedre-based Sonoma Valley rosé and Abrente Napa Valley Albariño.
Rhône Valley white varietals were well-represented, by Christian Stark’s Stark Cellars 2011 Damiano Vineyard Viognier Sierra Foothills, and William Allen’s Two Shepherds Pastoral Blanc from Sara Lee’s Vineyard in Russian River Valley.  Never had a Picpoul?  Look for Broc Cellars’ sprightly 2011.

This is such exciting -- and yes, eclectic -- stuff.  These wines have become sommeliers’ darlings and are largely sold to restaurants and mailing-list subscribers.  They are produced in extremely small quantities, in the hundreds of cases rather than thousands, and for some, less than 100 cases.  They are labors of love for the winemakers, and heartbreakers for consumers who will likely never find these wines in retail shops.

Tastings such as the ones at Bergamot Alley will be few and far between, as the producers simply don’t have enough wine to pour.  They need to sell every bottle they can, because their costs are high and their risks deep.

These small-batch, artisanal wines won’t turn their makers into millionaires.  The producers do it because they love wine, they love the challenge, they love the discovery, and they love to be different.  While many vintners find it easy to throw about the word “passion” when they talk about their endeavors, the seven-percenters wouldn’t pursue their arduous paths without true  passion.

Cheers to that -- and to the cure for my summertime blues.