Stonestreet, Rehabilitated

Picking up the thread of a prior post, about Stonestreet Winery, and how I was a given a bottle of Stonestreet Merlot. The way I was given it, by a friend apologizing about buying a bottle at the corner bodega on his way to my house, had led me to believe it wasn’t drinkable; I used it as a marinade for a leg of venison.

I learned soon after that Stonestreet actually makes good wine, and then I even got an impromptu invitation to dinner with the Stonestreet winemaker. And so, with all those clouds of ignominy trailing behind me, I drove down to the Embarcadero waterfront in San Francisco, parked in a huge concrete parking structure, ran among cars and livery cabs, wove past security men at the entrance to a new hotel, and found my way to the restaurant, Americano. It was a gloriously warm evening, and the restaurant’s outdoor seating area teemed with healthy, good-looking young people in expensive and surprisingly formal office attire. These were not graphic designers, and they were certainly not architects or journalists; they were young corporate lawyers or bankers. I always feel a little sloppy in crowds like that: No longer young, I still don’t have a reliable haircutting regime, or a regular shaving schedule. I haven’t worn a pressed shirt in months.

I found my way to the back of the restaurant, and there was Graham Weerts, the Stonestreet winemaker, a sandy-blond South African guy in his early 30s. As soon as I’d taken my seat and decided not to say anything about the Stonestreet Merlot I’d recently uncorked just to pour it into a pot for a marinade, we got to talking about the weather up on Alexander Mountain, site of the Stonestreet estate. They’re on the fifth ridge back from the Pacific Ocean—the first ridge being awfully cool for winemaking, the second being the site of the great Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vineyards at places like Flowers and Fort Ross. Alexander Mountain is high, so it’s still relatively cool, but the area’d also had a snap of hot weather, and Weerts said he’d be out in his vineyards at six the next morning, kicking off the 2007 harvest.

But for now, in the hustle and bustle of that splashy restaurant, among all those good-looking, successful young people, it was time to drink. In this case, three single-vineyard 2005 Chardonnays, all of which had been picked at the same time and vinified in the same way: barrel fermented, fined, and filtered. The Stonestreet Red Point Chardonnay smelled like Meyer lemons and tasted like normal lemons, with a little honeysuckle and vanilla softening the edges, and I couldn’t taste much oak at all. The Upper Barn Chardonnay, which comes from oldish vines at 1,800 feet above sea level, had just a hint more of the oak-and-butter deal you associate with California Chardonnay, but still in a very balanced and smooth way, with an unusually crisp acidity. The Broken Road Chardonnay, from a vineyard across the way from Upper Barn at the same altitude but with different soil, had this curious bacon smell I liked. And they all struck me as surprising and interesting wines, much brighter and flintier than most of the California Chardonnay I’ve tasted.

Weerts’s mobile phone rang as the waiter took our glasses, and he answered it, and he listened and nodded and muttered and then he turned the phone off and said it was his assistant and that the “numbers” in the vineyard looked great for the next morning. I asked if it would be a long day, and he said he’d start early but knock off by 11. Once the grapes heat up it’s better to leave them on the vine and let them cool off overnight before you pick them, Weerts said, as he began pouring his red wines. First up was a Merlot-based blend, the 2004 Fifth Ridge—with a plush, cassislike nose and a great combination of ripe, concentrated fruit and toasted leather, with firm, smooth tannins. There was a hint of herbal bitterness in the finish, but I like that in a red, especially if I’ve got something salty to eat. The 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon had more black pepper and green bell pepper, but there, too, I tasted that herbal quality, and enjoyed the tannins.

The night trailed off after that; our food came, and it was surprisingly good, and as I ate a braised beef short rib and moved back and forth between the wines and watched the drinking and chatting of all those gleaming after-work types, in that well-appointed and expensive new restaurant, I was surprised anew by the ability of a wine to speak a clear message, despite the surroundings. The Stonestreet wines are not generic monsters, and they’re not glamour wines, and they didn’t finally make much sense in the aesthetic setting of that place at that moment. Which is a good thing, because the Stonestreet wines, against the odds offered by that evening, had something that interests me much more: a subdued, earthy sense of place. They tasted almost rustic, which is downright rare in California wine, and worth applauding.

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