Viognier, A Crowd-pleasing Wine

Last week my cookbook club as a group went for lunch at Wayfare Tavern in San Francisco.  It’s one of several new restaurants opened by celeb chef Tyler Florence in the Bay Area in the past year.  We had to wait a long time to even get a reservation, but perseverance pays off.

I like to look at the menu and wine list before I go to a restaurant.  As long as they keep it updated that is.  So that’s what I did before going to Wayfare.  There were a couple of dishes I really wanted to try.  Reading the wine list, once I got to the Cold Heaven Viognier, I didn’t have to look any further.  I love Viognier, and this winery’s Viogniers in particular.  Cold Heaven is made by Morgan Clendenen in Santa Barbara County.  If the name Clendenen rings a bell, Morgan’s ex-husband is Jim Clendenen of famed Au Bon Climat, a leading Chardonnay and Pinot Noir producer.

I have been a fan of Cold Heaven for many years.  Alas, Viognier remains a wine varietal that most people don’t know.  And they certainly don’t know how to pronounce it.  Vee-on-yeay.  Viognier’s spiritual home is Condrieu, in the northern Rhone Valley region of France, best known for Syrah-based red wines.  This white wine is perfumey, luscious and I wine I want to go back to again and again.

When we all met up for lunch, we were all talking about the menu.  I told a few people I said I already knew what wine I was drinking.  That got a good laugh.  Some people start with the food; I start with the wine.  It’s kind of like a way to get dressed. I usually start with the shoes, or a piece of statement jewelry that I feel like wearing, then I build the outfit around it.  When cooking or dining out I pick the wine first, then the food to match it.

At the table, a few other club members said they wanted to try the Cold Heaven since I’d been raving about it.  So we decided to get a bottle.  That quickly became two bottles, since just about everyone wanted to try this wine.  Talk about pressure – I certainly hoped they’d all like it.

I shouldn’t have worried, everyone loved it.  We had the 2009 Cold Heaven Le Bon Climat Vineyard Viognier.  Even the servers love it.  Ken Wagstaff, Wayfare Tavern’s Wine Director tells me later that he really likes it too.  The wine’s floral aroma, with apricot and honey is irresistible, and its voluptuous body paired well with most of the dishes we ordered, from sea bass to crab Louie to fried chicken.  I’m pretty sure at least one or two more bottles were ordered.  Best of all, the price, at $52 per bottle, was reasonable especially for such a wonderful wine.  It’s even better at retail; you can find bottles priced in the $29-$35 range online.

Icing on the cake – after our lunch I found an article that Wall Street Journal wine columnist Jay McInerney wrote just a week earlier that features Morgan Clendenen and Cold Heaven Viognier.   No, I was not influenced by this article.  It just confirms what I’ve known for a long time.

There are two other Viognier producers in California that I highly recommend.  Skipstone is a small boutique winery, with vineyards in Alexander Valley.  The Viognier comes from a special place, a hillside plot called Makena’s Vineyard.  In Livermore Valley, Thomas Coyne makes an ethereal Viogner that’s a bargain at $16.
For Viogniers that are more widely available, Cline Cellars in Sonoma and McManus Family Vineyards make wallet friendly Viogniers that are reliably good.

Viognier as a crowd pleaser?  Give it a try.

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