If we only live once, then 2015 was a benchmark in my life so far. For starters, it almost makes me blush when I think of all the projects I worked on with so many great wine associations, winemakers, star chefs, actors, musicians, corporate groups, economic analysts, and even President Obama.
In the wine industry, 2015 will certainly be remembered as the year of the drought. And while the lack of rain hurt the yields, the quality was there in the grapes that were picked. The year also marked the 50-year anniversary of the planting of the first Pinot Noir grapes in Willamette Valley. And closer to home, some of the most notable news stories were focused on the devastating Valley Fire in Lake County; the departure of Sunset Magazine from its historic headquarters in Menlo Park to new offices in Oakland and Sonoma; and the heist of $300,000 in wine from the French Laundry in Yountville.
Below is a list of my favorite accomplishments in 2015. Alas, I also have plenty of fond memories catching up with old friends; enjoying delicious lunches and dinners or attending lavish parties with winemakers, proprietors, marketing gurus and other pals in the wine industry; travels with the family; winning the Bohemian magazine’s Top Sommelier of Sonoma County award for the second straight year; and watching the Warriors win the NBA Championship.
On a more personal level, the year also marked the passing of my mom, Linda Sawyer, at the age of 67. It was a hard loss for our family, but we were happy that she died peacefully after a long battle with cancer. Recently my mentor, Master Sommelier Bob Bath, sent me a very nice note about my mom, in which he wrote: “She will always be proud of you…I sure am.” That really touched my heart and made me realize how lucky I am to have support from such an amazing group of friends, colleagues, and family.
With that in mind, I’m looking forward to a very exciting 2016. As a preview, the year will kick-off quickly with me judging three major wine competitions between now and mid-February. At the same time, I’ll be starting more new projects with Feast It Forward, Allvino, ZigSaw Production, and ramping up my activities with the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone as the official Wine Director for the Flavor! Napa Valley Festival, March 16-20.
In a nutshell, I can’t wait to start sharing more cool, fun, and educational stories about wine, food, travel and philanthropy with you in 2016. In the meantime, thanks so much for following SawyerSomm.com and best wishes for a Happy New Years to all! –CS
“Sommelier to the Stars” Christopher Sawyer’s Top Picks of 2015
1. Wine Writers Symposium: Held annually at the Meadowood Napa Valley Resort & Spa near St. Helena, this exclusive gathering of professional writers was a true learning experience for me and all those in attendance. Guest speakers included marquee writer Jancis Robinson MW, Evan Goldstein MS, Andrea Emmer Robinson MS, Karen McNeill, Wall Street Journal Wine Columnist Will Lyons, and Poet Laureate Billy Collins. Great discussions, education, opportunities, fabulous tastings, fine cuisine and bright ideas resonated throughout this superb three-day event!
2. Speaking Engagements: 2015 was a monumental year for me at major speaking engagements for an assortment of wine consumers, collectors, private parties, media, sommeliers, winemakers, winery proprietors, and bigger wine associations. Here are some of the highlights:
– Santa Barbara Vintners Seminar. As a special part of the Santa Barbara Spring Weekend, I was honored to moderate a fabulous seminar with gifted winemakers Jim Clendenan of Au Bon Climat, Bob Lindquist of Qupe, Ken Brown of Ken Brown Wines and Eric Mohseni of Zaca Mesa, whose careers were all influenced by stints at Zaca Mesa Winery and the development of the Santa Ynez Valley, which became an official appellation on April 15, 1983. Other highlights included a magnificent Winemaker Dinner at Mattei’s in Los Olivos; a fun Sauvignon Blanc-inspired lunch with winemaker Fred Brander and MW Patrick Farrell; the Festival Grand Tasting at Grand View Park’ a few late night shenanigans; and some great time spent with Chad Melville and his staff during my stay at Melville Winery. For tickets to the 2016 Spring Weekend April 21-24, visit www.sbvintnersweekend.com.
– Banfi’s Cru Artisan College 2015. Highlighted by a colorful cast of some of the world’s leading winemakers and me as the “Head Master” at the San Francisco stop on this exciting multi-city tour; this unique wine education platform explored the different ways that terroir, plant material, sustainable farming practices, new technology and the winemaker’s touch can add more personality to the flavor profiles of some of the finest wines of Italy, Chile, and Washington State. In 2016, the Cru Artisan College Campus Tours will be happening in new metropolitan markets across America. For information on these comprehensive seminars and intimate wine tastings and pairings, visit www.cruartisancollege.com.
– Mt. Veeder Media Lunch and Q & A Session To celebrate the 25-year anniversary of the Mount Veeder appellation in Napa Valley, this year’s panel featured Chris Carpenter of Loyoka Winery, Steve Lagier and Carol Meredith of Lagier-Meredith Vineyard, and me as the moderator. Kudos to Sam Peters for organizing this great discussion, luncheon, and public tasting at the Golden Gate Club in San Francisco! www.mtveederwines.com.
– “A Winemakers Perspective on the Petaluma Gap AVA” Seminar As the VIP and Media kickoff to the “Wind to Wine” Festival put on by the Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance, I was happy to do this interactive seminar with talented winemakers James MacPhail of MacPhail Family Wines and Ryan Pritchard of Three Sticks Wines at the Sheraton Hotel in Petaluma. Overall, the festival was a smashing success and a great sign of things to come in wines made with fruit grown in this cool climate area in southern Sonoma County, which is currently under review to become its own appellation. For breaking news in 2016, check out www.petalumagap.com.
– Taste of Sonoma “The Glass makes a Difference” Seminar For the second year in a row, the two special seminars I taught at the historic MacMurray Estate in Russian River Valley were focused on showing how Stolzle Stemware brings out the unique flavors in special wines made in Sonoma County. Tasty delights for the seminar were provided by Bennett Valley Cellars, Matanzas Creek, St. Francis, Stryker Sonoma, and Dutcher Crossing wineries. Other highlights of Sonoma Wine Country Weekend included attending special dinners and lunches, working with the Somm Stars team, and once again being the private sommelier for the top table at the Sonoma Harvest Wine Auction which raising $4.5 million for local charities. Job well done by everyone involved! www.sonomawinecountryweekend.com.
– “Sip & Discover: Livermore Valley Wine Stories” In the luxurious Grand Hall at the St. Regis Hotel in San Francisco, this brilliant seminar explored how the unique growing conditions, rich history, specially selected grape varietals, farming techniques, and a modern approaches to winemaking make the wines from Livermore Valley so special. After my intro, I passed the microphone to the passionate “storytellers” of the region: Karl Wente of Wente Vineyard; John Concannon of Concannon Vineyard; Steven Kent Mirrasou of The Steven Kent Winery; Collin Cranor of Vasco Urbano Wine Company; Bob Bossi of Dante Robere; Steve Burman of 3 Steves Wines; and John Kinney of Occasio Winery. For more information about this unique appellation, visit www.lvwine.org.
– Single Varietal Tasting Series at Napa Valley Wine Academy. Organized by Jolene Patterson of Discover Napa Valley Wine & Discover Sonoma County Wine, this magnificent series of in-depth tastings was designed to educate members of the media, sommeliers, wine buyers, vintners, winemakers and other wine professionals from the Bay Area. As the official moderator of the series, I got to work with a fascinating group of winemakers who are also grape varietal experts: John Skumpky of Lang & Reed Winery (Cabernet Franc); Ehren Jordan of Failla Wines (Syrah); Michael Scholz of St. Supery (Sauvignon Blanc); Chris Pettinger of Skinner Vineyards (Grenache); and Tegan Passalacqua of Turley Wine Cellars (Petite Sirah). Stay tuned for the continuation of the series in 2016!
3. Epic Wine Cruise on the Mediterranean: In July, I spent eight amazing days sailing from Rome to Venice on the Oceania “Riveria” with Chris Silva, the president & CEO of St. Francis Winery, and Steve, Lawrence and Emily Lohr from J. Lohr Vineyards & Wine. Organized by Brian Murphy of Expedia Cruise Ship Centers in Petaluma, the “Isles & Empires Wine Cruise” included stops in Sorrento/Capri in Italy; Taormina, Sicily (with a magnificent side trip to Benanti Winery near Mt. Etna); Argostoli, Greece; Kotor, Montenegro; Zadar, Croatia; Koper, Croatia; and a memorable day in Venice at the end. The food was fantastic and Chris, Lawrence, and I hosted informative wine education classes along the way. Can’t wait to go on my next trip with Oceania Cruises!
4. Napa Valley Film Festival
It’s back! This year marked the 5-year anniversary of the Napa Valley Film Festival, a magnificent experience which fused together film, wine, talented actors, star chefs, sommeliers, mixologists, and other colorful characters in mid-November. Highlights of this year’s event included the cinematic debt of SOMM Into the Bottle, an extremely entertaining exploration of some of the greatest wines of the world through the view of the sommeliers, winemakers, and world-reknown experts; a set of unique Celebrity Tributes honoring John Travolta, Bruce Dern, Keegan–Michael Key and other talented actors; lively parties and culinary events; and a continuous flow of remarkable features and documentary that make this annual event so special! www.nvff.org.
5. Memorable Tastings
While there were plenty of special tastings of international wines in the Bay Area in 2015, some of my favorite memories were based on the accomplishments of gifted winemaker and family owned wineries in Napa Valley and Sonoma County.
– Celebrating the 50 years of Winemaking with Winemaker Richard Arrowood. To kickoff his monumental 50th vintage, Sonoma County icon Richard Arrowood hosted a series of retrospective tastings featuring over 60 wines from his private collection. My great mentor Master Sommelier Fred Dame and I were there to help with each of these tastings. I must say it was a pleasure to taste through this vast collection of gems. Highlights include: a rare series of vineyard designate wines made with Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Riesling and Chardonnay grapes from legendary sites like the Laurel Glen, Wildwood and Glen Ellen (now Moon Mountain Vineyard) that were part of the Chateau St. Jean collection from 1974 to 1988; to a series of elegant and ageworthy wines from Arrowood Vineyards; and finishing with an impressive grouping of the more powerful styles made under the Amapola Creek label from 2005to the present. My stories on this experience appeared in Tasting Panel and Napa Sonoma Magazine in 2015 as well.
– The 40th Harvest Luncheon at Jordan Winery. This special gathering honored winemaker Rob Davis and his dedication to the craft, the winery and his family. Other special guests included SF Giants coach Bruce Bochy and radio announcers Mike Krukow and Duane Kuiper; winemaker Jean-Claude Berrouet of Chateau Petrus, Dr. Ann Noble of UC Davis, and the dazzling meal was prepared by Executive Chef Todd Knoll and his fabulous staff. A winning combination!
– The 25th Anniversary of Robert Biale Winery: Hosted by co-founders Robert Biale and Dave Pramuk, this magnificent tasting of single-vineyard designates wines made with pristine fruit from old Zinfandel and Petite Sirah vines was a complete joy to the senses. Through the years, the winery has done a great job of protecting these old vines and it showed in the lively flavors in each of the wines we tasted. For that reason, I’m looking forward to Robert Biale being part of the Preservation Society Seminar I’m moderating at CIA Greystone as part of Flavor! Napa Valley on March 18. For more info, visit www.flavornapavalley.com.
6. Wine Writing: This year included a wide range of writing assignments, as well as reviewing wines for Vivino and other wine, food, and travel projects.
– At the top of my list is the article I wrote about chefs Duskie Estes and John Stewart of ZaZu Restaurant in Sebastopol for the inaugural release of The Clever Root, a new cutting-edge culinary magazine created by the publishers of The SOMM Journal and The Tasting Panel. The next issue will feature my article on Chef Trevor Kunk of Press Restaurant and the Rudd Farms in Napa Valley. Can’t wait to work with Editor Meridith May and the team in 2016!
– For Diablo Publications, I wrote a series of articles focused on wine, food and travel in Napa Sonoma Magazine. In addition to the story on Richard Arrowood’s 50th vintage and another I did on hip wine caves; one of my favs was the “Power Duos” article focused on intriguing teamwork between family-based winemakers and proprietors featuring Heidi and Bo Barrett, Joel Peterson and Morgan Twain Peterson, Mike and Violet Grgich, Jamie and Lisa Whetstone, Susan Lueker and Chef Ralph Tingle, and Jesse Katz and star photographer Andy Katz. In the fall, my story on Urban Tasting Rooms highlighted Cornerstone Cellars in Yountville, Starmont Winery in Napa, Ramey Wines in Healdsburg, MacPhail Family Wine Salon in Sebastopol, Corner 103 Wines in Sonoma, and Ancient Oaks in Santa Rosa. Versions of the article were published in both Napa Sonoma and Diablo magazines. Coming soon is my article on the new Virginia Dare brand started by Francis Ford Coppola at the old Geyer Peak facility in Geyserville.
– With Vineyard & Winery Management Magazine, I did a special article on the 50-year anniversary of the planting of the first Pinot Noir vines in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and two dynamic Q & A articles focused on Jean Arnold Sessions of the Jean Arnold Group and Chris Indelicato of Delicato Vineyards. In November, I also served as the official spokesperson for VWM Media at the 25th Anniversary of the Grand Harvest Wine Competition.
– As a side note, it was also nice to have my sister-in-law, Alexander Russell, write a fantastic profile piece on me in North Bay Biz Magazine. Thanks, Alex!
7. Thanksgiving Wine Pairings for President Obama: Finally, I must say that it was a pleasure to be asked to do a special set of Thanksgiving pairings with Sonoma County wines for President Obama. The premise behind the pairings was the fact that the two birds the president pardoned, Mac & Cheese, were from a unique breed developed at the Nichols Ranch in Sonoma County. Articles with my pairings ran throughout the United States, including a great story written by Diane Peterson for the Press Democrat. Featured wineries included Gloria Ferrer, Gundlach Bundschu, Balletto Vineyards, Cline Cellars, St. Francis Winery and Dry Creek Vineyard. Special thanks to the President Obama, Foster Farms and Fineman PR for getting me involved in such a unique project.