Bring out the wine! It’s National Foundation Day! (Well, tomorrow.) Are any of Japan’s official nation-builders building reputations as wine connoisseurs? If so, I’ve yet to hear of it, but I did notice that on a state visit to Mexico a few years ago the then-Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu had no idea how to hold his wine glass.
Coming as it does between the New Year celebrations of January and the vernal anticipation of March, the month of February in Japan packs about as much anticipatory excitement as unsalted oatmeal. Thus I suggest that henceforth this unfortunately obscure month be designated Wine Celebration Month, and that in vinous terms the second week of the month be somehow particularly special. After all, it concludes with Valentine’s Day. Instead of the usual chocolate, why not give that someone special a rich, full-flavored red wine? Think any good cabernet sauvignon, perhaps a Washington state Merlot, almost any red from northwest Italy or Tuscany, a good Spanish Rioja, malbec from Argentina, or Dingac from Croatia. Any of those will express your feelings — and maybe encourage him to express his.
February. Hmm. What else? Ah yes, the Chinese New Year, going strong since Feb. 5 and now nearing midpoint. One significant little leap forward in wine terms is the production by a Beijing-based winery (since two years ago, actually) of some fairly well-regarded white table wines, under the tutelage of the outstanding Austrian winemaker Fred Lorimer. More on them, and him, in weeks to come.
You could brighten up your February the more if you follow up on my recent suggestion to exchange a few days of local winter chill for some California sunshine, including a winery visit or two. I further suggest a visit to Tri-Leopard Vineyard (Wightman Cellars), St. Helena; Sullivan Vineyards, Rutherford; and Sobon Estate, Plymouth.
The first two are smaller wineries in the San Francisco Bay area; Sobon Estate, which is larger, lies in the sometimes torrid Sierra foothills. All of them make very good wines, and Sobon Estate has achieved extraordinary critical acclaim.
Tri-Leopard makes only cabernet sauvignon, in one of the regions best suited for this grape: the foot of Howell Mountain near St. Helena. In this unique microclimate proprietor and vintner Orrin Sage Wightman produces a 100-percent cabernet sauvignon, Wightman Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon. The ’96 I sampled was superb: soft, full-bodied and bursting with cassis and black cherry fruit. It is well aged in French oak barrels, 40 percent new and 60 percent 2 to 3 years old. Not much of it is made (sometimes under 1,000 six-bottle cases), so the race is to the quick. It runs from $30 per 750-ml bottle in California.
Sullivan Vineyards also makes a distinguished cabernet sauvignon and several other excellent reds and whites as well, all of which are grown, vinified and bottled on the estate. They get the boutique-type attention one expects from a small but quality-conscious winery with a dedicated winemaker.
You might also have a look at some of the paintings of Karen Sullivan, the owner’s gifted daughter, whose atelier is in their home adjoining the vineyards.
Not for anything would I miss a visit to Sobon Estate, where second-generation vintner Paul Sobon presides over the production of a variety of reds and whites that include international grapes and others that have found an especially compatible home in the dry heat of the Sierras here in Plymouth, not far from Sacramento. Among the reds is sangiovese, the grape of Chianti, native to Tuscany but very much at home in this part of California.
Another is viognier, native to south-central France, where it is vinified into wines of sometimes rare quality. At Sobon Estates, under the gifted hand of Paul Sobon, it has adapted well in the estate’s Amador County vineyards. Figlike flavors are usually part of the fascinating viognier flavor spectrum; Sobon’s viognier is redolent of peach and honeysuckle.
Sobon is also working carefully on developing increasingly organic methods of grape growing and wine making, the wave of the future. Besides Sobon Estate’s pleasant tasting room, visit its adjoining museum of Americana, including an impressive display of 19th-century wine-making equipment.
These three wineries now sell some of their wines in Japan. Try the California Wine Institute for info.