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Randy Caparoso's Culinary Wine & Food Matching is everything you wanted to know about wine in the context of food, sans the usual gibberish and vague generalities.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Homage to Paul Draper: Do the best Zinfandels age?

 A 1998 Vertical (1964 through 1995) & Horizontal of Ridge Zinfandels

Paul Draper, early 1970s (from Benson, Great Winemakers of California, 1977)
The following report is my accounting of a marathon 33-wine vertical/horizontal that I once put together with industry icon Paul Draper; the CEO of Ridge Vineyards, who this past week announced his retirement after 45 years at the helm of this Santa Cruz Mountains based winery – the original instigator of the modern day “pre-industrial” approach to winemaking that has become so hip today.

Anticipating the need (and want) for nourishment while taking our time to assess, and truly appreciate, these bottlings, Mr. Draper and I also enlisted Hawaii Regional Cuisine Chef Roy Yamaguchi to prepare 5 dishes to compliment the wines, tasted in 5 flights. We were joined by four Honolulu wine lovers, all longtime aficionados of Ridge wines (notably, local physicians Eugene Wong and Gene Doo).

In 1998 a version of this report originally appeared in the biweekly wine column I bylined for The Honolulu Advertiser (which has since morphed into the Honolulu Star-Advertiser). A second version of it was posted in Robin Garr’s Wine Lovers Page in September 2004.

Resisting the usual urge to tweak, my findings in their original text:

Although even the most hardened Zinfandel lovers drink their prized bottlings young, there are still many who tempt fate by laying them down. In the case of Ridge Vineyards – the winery that first brought respect, and even reverence, to the grape with its single vineyard bottlings beginning in the mid '60s – sometimes as long as 30 years.

In early 1998 I joined up with Ridge's CEO and longtime winemaker, Paul Draper, for a look at his Zinfandels going back to 1964. The bottles, 33 in all, were combined from temperature-controlled cellars of several collectors, supplemented by some from Ridge's own cellars. And because of Draper's interest in seeing his wines enjoyed in the context of food, we also customized a few Asian influenced courses to carry us through this long and deliberate tasting.

Some initial conclusions:

1. Zinfandels, both young and old, taste great with Asian influenced food; a happy confluence of exotically spiced, concentrated, fruit toned flavors in both wines and dishes.

2. Even big-time Zinfandel specialists like Ridge have their ups and downs --great years, merely "good" years, and their tough, average years. But what incredible ups!

3. Based upon the incredible showing of Ridge's stable of 1990 and 1995 growths – and the good showing of some '88s, but average to lackluster showing of most of the other vintages – one is led to conclude that even the greatest California Zinfandels are probably best drunk well within 12 years of age; and in most (average quality) years, during their first 4-6 years.

In the following accounting, all of the Ridge bottlings were predominantly Zinfandel "field blends" – typically mixed with smaller portions of Petite Sirah, Mourvèdre, and/or Carignan – which Ridge has always done out of respect for the wisdom of each vineyard source's original planters (usually Italian-Americans).

Remains of Ridge's Monte Bello Zinfandel planting (2013)

The wines tasted, along with their accompanying dishes:

Flight 1
Ahi Tuna Vegetable Tortellini in Natural Beef Broth
1964 Monte Bello
1968 Geyserville
1969 Monte Bello
1970 Occidental Late Harvest (Sonoma)
1973 Geyserville (Late Picked)
1973 Monte Bello

Flight 2
Napa Cabbage Winter Rolls with Rice Noodles, Shiitakes & Pork in Mild Wasabi Mustard Sauce
1974 Geyserville (Trentadue Ranch)
1974 Monte Bello
1976 Pecchetti (Late Picked/Monte Bello)
1976 Esola Ranch (Late Harvest/Amador)
1977 Geyserville (Late Harvest/Trentadue Ranch)
1978 Monte Bello (Jimsomare & Pecchetti Vineyards)
1979 York Creek (Spring Mt.)

Flight 3
Waimanalo Mesclun Salad with Crispy Gizzard Croutons in Warm Balsamic Vinaigrette
1980 Geyserville (Trentadue Ranch)
1981 Geyserville (Trentadue & Angeli Ranches)
1982 Geyserville
1983 Geyserville
1984 Geyserville
1985 Geyserville

Paul Draper (recent photo from Ridge Vineyards Web site)

Flight 4
Wood Roasted Salmon in "Drunken" Sake Sauce
1986 Park/Muscatine Vineyard (Howell Mt.)
1987 Lytton Springs
1988 Beatty Vineyard (Howell Mt.)
1988 Geyserville
1989 Geyserville
1990 Geyserville
1990 Lytton Springs

Flight 5
Rosemary Spring Pork Loin Skewers in Natural & Green Herb Sauces
1991 Geyserville (50% Zinfandel/Carignan & Petite Sirah)
1991 Lytton Springs
1992 Lytton Springs
1994 Geyserville
1994 Lytton Springs
1995 Geyserville
1995 Pagani Ranch (Late Picked/Sonoma Valley)

The most impressive Zinfandels were undoubtedly the ones that were less than eight years old; beginning with the 1990 Geyserville, a sweet, juicy, massive concentration of blackberry (verging on blueberry) fruit with black pepper and soy-like intensities in the nose, flooding the palate with round, dense, plump, smoky-oaked flavors. At just over seven years of age, a perfectly scaled behemoth.

Not far behind was the 1990 Lytton Springs; a thrilling wine, revved up with even zestier, higher toned blackberryish fruit than the 1990 Geyserville.

But in this tasting, extreme youth was also served: the 1995 Pagani, hugely lush, forward, and concentrated with wild berry flavors; and the 1995 Geyserville, a brash, wild, intoxicatingly aromatic bottling, with exotic spice and framboise-like fruit wrapped in glistening jet ink and sinewy texture.

To give them all the benefit of the doubt, we had tasted the older wines first, when our senses were most alert and ready with anticipation. But of all the older vintages, only the 1988 Beatty appeared to retain that fresh, buoyant raspberryish zing I like in a Zin.

The 1973 Geyserville was the true anomaly among the Zinfandels over 20 years of age; showing miraculously refined and focused berryish fruit, still soft and pliant.

Ridge Geyserville (from Ridge Vineyards Web site)

Of special interest, however, was the 1970 Late Harvest bottling from Occidental, a Sonoma Coast planting pulled up long ago. I found its aroma to be sweet, smoky and caramely - sort of like roasting marinated beef – but nothing like the huge, opulent, raspberry liqueur-like intensity that I distinctly remember finding in the wine when I first tasted it 20 years earlier.

Notable for some attractive notes – but certainly past their peak in respect to intensity and/or overall balance – were the 1989 Geyserville (in spite of leathery tones), the 1987 Lytton Springs (fleshy and tobacco-like), the 1986 Park-Muscatine (silken raspberry roundness), and the 1986 Rancho Pequeno (leather encased blackberries).

Finally, noteworthy because of their durable, rather than earth-shattering, qualities were the 1981 Geyserville (even if slightly gamey), the 1977 Geyserville/Late Harvest (an almost caramelized, smoky intensity), the 1973 Monte Bello (herbal, but smoky and prettily scented), and the sweetish, tarry, but ultimately coreless 1970 Occidental/Late Harvest.

So do the best Zinfandels age? Yes… but not necessarily for the better.

Then again, there is no accounting for taste; especially since the only one that matters is your own!

Ridge barrel room, Monte Bello estate

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The question of minerality

The author with 7th generation Arroyo Seco grower Luis Zabala in his "Macho Block"

Is it okay to talk about terroir in terms of mineral sensations?

The following post is a revision of a column originally published as one of the author's Bottom Line columns in the April 2012 issue of Sommelier Journal (now known as The SOMM Journal).
When you become a sommelier, and are privy to tastings of wines from around the world, you invariably develop an increased appreciation for wines tasting distinctly of their “sense of place” – commonly known as terroir. The current obsession with concepts like “balance” in lieu of sensations associated with oak, overripe fruit, alcohol or other excesses is, in one sense, really an expression of our longings for wines that taste more of vineyards or terroir, rather manipulations thereof through the heavy handed intervention of winemakers. 

I have always thought of terroir as like a tree falling in the forest. Just because you can’t hear it, it doesn’t mean there is no sound. As subtle as terroir related sensory delineations can be, they often aren’t. A Chablis, for instance, is far less weighty than a Puligny-Montrachet, even though both are grown in Burgundy and made from Chardonnay. The difference between a Chablis and Carneros grown Chardonnay is even more graphic – more acid, less alcohol/body, and far less tropical fruit aromas. The impact of terroir – entailing everything defining a vineyard or region, from soil to climate, aspect to temperature, altitude to latitude, viticultural decisions to winemaking practices, et al. – can be so big, wines made from the same grapes often barely resemble each other.

Practicing the fine Mendocino art of stuffing shit into cowhorns with vintner Paul Dolan
But what of aromas and flavors commonly found in wines that are usually described as some kind of minerality? Chablis is commonly identified with sensations of chalkiness, Pouilly-Fumé by a flintiness, Savennières by a somewhat loamier flintiness, and Mosel-Saar-Ruwers by an entire range of sensations suggesting slate or flint. In the past, these would all be examples of wines with characteristics traditionally attributed directly to components contained in the soils in which they are grown.

“Bullshit,” I once heard Santa Barbara’s Peter Cargassachi say, “vines do not have the capacity to uptake the taste of minerals through root systems... that’s been proven over and over again.” Who can disagree with that? We all know, of course, that aromas and flavors of wines are not directly related to biological factors such as soil. When you describe a Riesling as flowery, a Chardonnay as tropical-fruity, or a Zinfandel as peppery, it doesn’t mean there are flowers, mango, pineapple or peppercorns growing in the ground below the vines, directly effecting the taste of resulting wines. By the same token, mineral sensations in wines do not come from minerals in the ground. But if this is so, where do sensations of minerality come from?

In a piece by Jordan Ross called “Minerality, Rigorous or Romantic?” published in Practical Winery & Vineyard Journal (Winter 2012), scientists like Alex Maltman (University of Wales), Anna Katherine Mansfield (Cornell Department of Food Science) and Carole Meredith (U.C. Davis Department of Viticulture & Enology) are all quoted to say basically the same thing: tiny amounts of dissolved ions are typically absorbed by vine roots, but none of them are of sufficient enough efficacy to contribute to actual sensations of minerality in a wine’s aroma or flavor.

The author with winegrower Ken Wright during 1999 Willamette Valley harvest
But it is no coincidence, Ross explains, that sensations of minerality also happen to correlate with wines grown in colder climates – wines, as such, retaining higher natural acidity. In his article, Ross cites Grégoire Pissot of Cave de Lugny in Mâcon as saying, “’Mineral’ is, at times, used when ‘acid’ would be more appropriate.” The Mosel’s Nik Weis concurs, drawing attention to the fact that, although grown in similar gray slate, a higher acid Ockfener Bockstein will always taste more minerally than a lower acid Piesporter Goldtröpfchen, basically because Goldtröpfchen is a warmer site.

Still, as sommeliers we know that minerality is not an abstraction – we can taste it. An Ockfener Bockstein, for instance, retains mineral notes that are slightly different from that of nearby Üziger Würzgarten. The question is, are the differences logically attributable to the high iron content of Würzgarten’s red slate encrusted slope, as opposed to Bockstein’s gray slate and sandstone? Würzgarten, after all, does not translate as “spice garden” for nothing.

Whether or not the differences among Germany’s great Riesling growths are directly related to soil variation, the fact remains: under similar cold climate conditions, the minerality of a Bockstein is different from the minerality of a Würzgarten; just as both taste different from a pungently minerally Maximum Grunhauser Herrenberg, and the oft-times dramatic, pervasive earthiness found in Rieslings grown in even warmer sites, such as the Rheinhessen’s Nackenheimer Rothenberg and the Pfalz’s Forster Ungeheuer. Soil distinctions may not have a direct effect on flavor, but are undoubtedly one of the factors.

Memories of Rheinhessen's Weingut Gunderloch with the amazing Fritz Hasselbach
Yet the connection between minerality and acidity makes sense. A few years ago I spent a day studying Chardonnays grown on four different slopes in the immediate vicinity of Thomas Fogarty Winery, 1700 to 2000 ft. up in the Santa Cruz Mountains. All four vineyards were planted in the early 1980s on identical trellis systems, and all to Clone 4 Chardonnay (California’s most ubiquitous selection, known for its tabula rasa amenities). No question:  across multiple vintages, Fogarty’s two coolest, slowest ripening sites (Portola Springs and Albutom Estate) consistently taste more minerally – like the common taste of “wet stones” – than the two warmer sites (Langley Hill and Damiana Vineyard). Higher acid sensations also correlated with increased minerality. Moreover, the more a Fogarty Chardonnay tastes of ripe, sweet toned peach, pear or apple-like fruit, the less minerally the flavor.

Then there is the consistent inverse relationship between high pH in soil and lower pH in wine, which is another reason why wines grown in more alkaline, calcareous soils are often associated with increased minerality. Nonetheless, warmer climate wine regions that have calcareous soils with off-the-charts alkalinity, such as much of California’s Paso Robles AVA, are not nearly as closely associated with wines replete with minerality as colder climate calcareous terroirs such as those found in France’s Burgundy and Loire Valley. Climate clearly trumps soil when it comes to higher acid wines with actual imprints of minerality.

Still, as difficult as it is to prove direct connections between minerality and soil composition, there will always be hard working vignerons who will vouch for it. WillametteValley’s Ken Wright (Ken Wright Cellars), for instance, is as respected as they come. He says that it is precisely because there is a “symbiotic relationship” between positive microorganisms in soils and healthy plants that there is a direct contribution to wine flavor from soil via root systems.

Ridiculously steep red slate slope of Mosel's Urziger Wurzgarten
“As someone who has planted many a vineyard over 35 years,” says Wright, “I can say that without question, when vines roots reach the mineral rich parent material something wonderful happens.” Wright’s conclusions are based upon his own lab reports tracking soil composition as a result of farming improvements documented over several decades: the higher the uptake of ionic minerals through enhanced root systems, the higher the clarity of resulting wines. “Wines from these vines go from being muddled and indistinct to having recognizable, crystal clear aromatic and flavor traits.” Wright, however, is not talking exclusively about sensations associated with minerality. He cites aroma-related flavors such as “chocolate, tobacco, anise, or cola,” on top of “increased profiles related to iron/stony qualities, which remain consistent from year to year.”

They say a good winegrower knows his wines like a mother knows the smell of her babies. Okay, so I just made that up, but it illustrates my abiding respect for Mr. Wright. His truths are always in his bottlings, reflecting intimate relationships with vineyard sources.

Bottom line: It's okay. Go ahead and talk about perceptions of minerality in terms of terroirs of individual vineyards, and even characteristics of whole wine regions; as long as you're correctly defining terroir in terms of entire ecosystems rather than strictly soil content. Don't let "terroir naysayers" tell you otherwise. We all know it when we're tasting it; even if, like the proverbial tree falling in a forest, it is a philosophical as much as metaphysical discussion.

Thomas Fogarty winemaker Nathan  Kandler in one of his Santa Cruz Mountaintop growths

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

2016 World of Pinot Noir: Are American Pinot Noirs from “good” vintages actually good?

Entry to Bacara Resort in coastal Santa Barbara
As in previous years, the 2016 World of Pinot Noir in coastal Santa Barbara’s Bacara Resort this past March 4-5 was an incredible opportunity to glean the state of American Pinot Noir; particularly California Pinot Noirs from the 2013 vintage which, by all accounts, was a remarkable one (re the California Institute’s detailed,unequivocally positive report on the “warm and dry spring with near ideal conditions for bringing grapes to maturity...”).

But do remarkable vintages equal remarkable wines? Permission to speak frankly, if somewhat like a wine geek spoiled by the recent embarrassment of richly endowed, undeniably world class Pinot Noirs currently being grown up and down the West Coast, from British Columbia to Santa Barbara: the 2013s in general are not blowing my mind -- at least no more than the fewer 2012s and 2014s tasted over the past weekend.

Sure, there is the usual spate of fantastic wines among the 2013s, giving you everything you want in an American Pinot Noir:  generous, beautifully perfumed varietal fruit; silken, layered texturing; lively yet unrepentantly opulent feels (this is America, mind you, not Burgundy, France) with a sense of proportion.

But overall, there was also a disconcerting number of 2013s that seemed to sacrifice other varietal traits – namely, spice, some semblance of delicacy, floral notes (especially rose petal) or terroir related transparencies (i.e. scrubby or loamy nuances) – for a sheer, ripe opulence. A good number of 2013 California Pinot Noirs were smelling, and tasting, downright sweet – more suggestive of red cherry or cranberry than of raspberry, blueberry or even strawberry – which led me to even think, is this a “White Zinfandel” vintage for California Pinot? In a number of less pleasant examples, this sweetly perfumed fruitiness was not helped by intrusive levels of volatile acidity (i.e. VA), adding that duller-sweet, vinegar-like quality to aromas and flavors.

2013 Pinot Noir in Laetitia Vineyard (Arroyo Grande Valley)
Yet here’s the paradox: neither excessive alcohol nor oak or actual residual sugar seemed to be real issues. Most of the 2013s hovered near or just above 14% alcohol, which is about par in this day and age, even with the usual label-fudging. I didn’t taste one Pinot Noir that came across as sweetly (i.e. overly) oaked; unlike what was more typical of American Pinot Noirs 10, 15 years ago. And much of the overt sweetness of fruit came across as retro-nasal – sweet sensations more strongly influenced by aromatic tones in the nose rather than on the tongue – since residual sugars seemed no higher, and no lower, than in “normal” years of late.

Example: I watched one super-experienced sommelier (tasting alongside me) pick up a single-vineyard 2013 bottling by one of Sonoma Coast’s most prestigious Pinot Noir specialists, and physically wince when tasting it. “I mean, I always love their Pinots,” she said, “but I can’t believe how over-the-top this wine is.” I poured myself a taste and found an ultra-ripe cherry/berry aroma and full (14.4% alcohol) yet tightly wound wine; densely layered with tannin and glycerol, while finishing completely dry. Yet the sommelier was entirely correct – the wine also came across as over-the-top in a perceptively sweet fruitiness, despite its dryness, crossing a line into the realm of annoyance.

Here’s the thing: I happen to have huge respect for American Pinot Noir producers. Unlike, say, most Cabernet Sauvignon producers, most of them don’t seem to be seduced by the almighty 100-point score. They are genuinely interested in achieving terroir driven expressions, especially in single-vineyard bottlings. They don’t believe in “200%-new-oak.” They tend to err on the side of lower intervention winemaking. And unlike most Chardonnay or Zinfandel producers, they are not overly obsessed with achieving “varietal” consistency; graciously acquiescing to vintage variations (which can be hell on artisanal Pinot Noir). Not all of them, of course, but a good chunk; which is why so many of us love American Pinot Noir.

Press room at 2016 World of Pinot Noir
So what’s up with the 2013s from California? (There wasn’t enough representation from Oregon at WOPN to draw conclusions). Curious about the gulf between what I know about the vintage and what I actually tasted in Santa Barbara, on Sunday after I got home I picked up the phone to call my old go-to for honest and authoritative information on anything related to Burgundian grapes: Greg La Follette of La Follette Wines.

Quoting Mr. La Follette, in so many words:

2013 was a very good year for California Pinot Noir; and in similar ways, so was 2014. But in a lot of ways, these “good” years can be just as problematic as the “tough” years. Certain things, like wild fermentations, are endemic to so-called “easy” vintages. In years when there is plenty of sugar and the grapes are coming in great shape, you can just as well end up with sluggish fermentations and secondary microbiological super-bugs running around wreaking havoc, which is exactly what happened. We saw a lot of stuck fermentations and VA in 2013.

There are a lot of receptors sensitive to those conditions, which can be exacerbated by use of less SO2. You end up with a big bloom of VA and stinkiness in the fermentors. We are going through one of those cycles right now, where the trend is to back off on SO2. Everybody’s questioning how much SO2 to use; when really, the question should be when and how to use SO2.

Plus, for whatever reason, a lot of winemakers have been getting away from the use of microscopes. They have less training. Many of them don’t even know how to use a microscope. There is less knowledge of fundamental aspects of fermentation. You become susceptible to the influence of trends, which are hard to do without the basics. This sort of reminds me of many of the problems we saw in the early 1980s.

Greg La Follette in Sangiacomo Vineyard (Sonoma Coast)
As you know, I have never practiced “safe winemaking.” Pinot Noir responds famously well to unsafe winemaking, but there are pitfalls. The collective action of Pinot Noir producers diving into the latest batch of trends can have an adverse effect on what you may now perceive as a byproduct of a vintage. Is 2013 a “sweet” vintage? Well, in both 2013 and 2014, a lot of the sweetness that you find is not so much because grapes are picked at higher sugars, but because of the nature of the sugars.

Ripened grapes accumulate primarily two types of sugars, glucose and fructose. In a good year, when grapes are in balance, the temptation is to turn to wild yeasts, which are wimpier yeasts that preferentially consume more glucose, leaving fructose sugars behind. In a year like 2013, you might end up with slightly more residual sugar than normal – 1.5 to 2 grams, as opposed to 1 gram or less. That’s okay, you’re still below the threshold; but the tricky part is, wild yeasts leave more fructose than glucose behind, and fructose tastes twice as sweet as glucose. So your 1.8 grams of fructose sugar tastes more like 3.6 grams of glucose.

Another trend is towards increased use of whole cluster. In 2013 we had riper stems than normal, which is a good thing. Therefore it was a good idea to do whole cluster fermentation; which, as you know, also builds fruity aromas called esters – the fruitiness often associated with wines like Beaujolais Nouveau. Esters only increase aromatics that can be perceived as sweetness. Together with higher amounts of fructose in the residual sugars, you end up with your phenomenon of a “sweeter” tasting vintage.

I’m glad we got that straightened out. 

As for the wines themselves: each year I am pleased to find a slightly different line-up of wines at World of Pinot Noir that strike me has having a leg up – or at least a more shapely, or seductive, leg up – over others. First, I was mightily impressed by two producers in particular – Patz & Hall and Rusack Vineyards – which I have not counted among my personal favorites in previous tastings, at least not in recent years.

Patz & Hall kicked Pinot-butt by balancing the 2013 vintage’s fruit intensity with keenly focused vineyard delineations: particularly a 2013 Patz & Hall Gap’s Crown Vineyard from Sonoma Coast (the west facing slopes of Sonoma Mountain, looking into the Petaluma Gap), exuding black fruit and spice sprinkled strawberry fruit, dense, velvety and full without being weighty or cumbersome. You could contrast this with the more floral, fluid, strawberry and kirsch layered 2013 Patz & Hall Hyde Vineyard from Carneros (on the Napa Valley side), revved up by bright natural acidity. The 2013 Patz & Hall Chenoweth Ranch from Russian River Valley (Green Valley) seemed to hold back with a quieter, strawberryish concentration in the nose, and then kick into a couple more gears on the palate with a vibrant, round, fleshy, seamless wall of flavors, inundated by the bright red fruit feathered by foresty, spiced notes.

I don’t know exactly what it was, but in the middle of going through over 60 Pinot Noirs on the first day of WOPN, I seriously started thinking about the crazy-catchy opening chords of T-Rex’s Bang a Gong when tasting the 2013 Rusack Solomon Hills Vineyard from Santa Maria Valley – the violet tinged, physically drippy, juicy, wild raspberry/strawberry fruit driven like a rhythm guitar by spiky acid and ample tannin (wellyou’redirtyandsweet, cladinblack, don’tlookback...). Maybe it was the beat, but more likely the wine, but I found the same satisfyingly metered, lip smacking energy in the 2013 Rusack Sta. Rita Hills (50/50 from Fiddlestix and Sebastiano Vineyards), veering more towards cherry cola tinged by a dried leaf earthiness. On the other hand, the 2013 Rusack Santa Catalina Island Vineyards was shyer in the nose – more of a reticent cherry/pomegranate than the exuberant, lush red fruits of the mainland Santa Barbara bottlings – yet finished surprisingly on the palate, with an almost sticky fingered, brightly acid driven intensity, offset by politely silken texturing.

The banging music mercifully stopped, as it were, just after I tasted the Rusacks and moved on to the Patz & Halls; and I started hearing more majestic, and appropriately meditative (at least for Pinot Noir exercises), Borodin strings.

The author with Geoff Rusack in Santa Catalina Island Vineyards
Among other producers sporting a lyrical array of single-vineyard cuvées, I confess that the 2013 Côtiére Presqu’ile (Santa Maria Valley) was my personal favorite – primarily because I’m a sucker for lighter, feminine, flowery perfumed (in the Presqu’ile, more like spicy rose petal potpourri) styles with noticeably sharp acid. During that, I think I was hearing Mozart. The 2013 Côtiére Laetitia (Arroyo Grande Valley) is crafted in the same flowery, tart edged vein, with an even more upbeat cherry perfume, tinged by a lavender-laced, almost herbes de Provence–lke sweetness. The 2013 Côtiére La Encantada (Sta. Rita Hills), however, is denser, meatier, more savory on the palate; juxtaposing plummy, dark cola notes alongside flowery perfumes – finishing with that levitating Côtiére touch. Bravo!

If forced to make a second Sophie’s Choice of favorite Pinot Noir of the weekend, it would probably be the 2012 Kitá Hilliard Bruce Vineyard (Sta. Rita Hills); one of the few 2012 California bottlings shown, with an enthralling peppercorn/cardamom spice (a nuance lacking in the unruly 2013s), lacing rose petal, raspberry and smoked meat qualities in a zippy yet broad, judiciously full flavored palate-feel.

From among the few Oregon producers present, the Pinot Noirs of Patricia Green Cellars stood in graphic contrast among the sea of hefty fruit bombs from California. The 2013 Patricia Green Estate Etzel Block (Ribbon Ridge, Willamette Valley) had that beautiful-ex-girlfriend appeal – pretty cherry/berry perfume highlighted by peppermint spice plus a sullen side of somewhat old fashioned rubbery/leathery boot; nonetheless couched in a compellingly lean, lanky, zippy, medium sized body. Love it or leave it. The 2013 Patricia Green “Dijon 115” Freedom Hill Vineyard (Willamette Valley) was a little more grippy in its black cherry concentration; with a nice, if nervy, tart edge snap (think Rosamund Pike’s spooky-seductive smile in Gone Girl).

Out of the hundred-something tasted, a few more of the more impressive wines swaying down the runway at the 2016 World of Pinot Noir:

2013 Freeman, Akiko’s Cuvée (Sonoma Coast) – Floral/rose petal laced raspberry/cherry Pinot fruit shines brilliantly through with a remarkably light and delicate feeling on the palate; with a zesty edge, and an entirely finesseful, elegant touch. My kind of wine.

2013 Talley, Rosemary’s (Arroyo Grande Valley) – Focused (make that laser-like) nose of strawberry, underlined by the slaking “acid” scent of cranberry or pomegranate; these bright fruit sensations playing out in a silky, meaty, sinewy body, electrified by lip smacking acidity. I also wrote, more succinctly, “wow.”

2012 Flying Goat, Rancho Santa Rosa Vineyard (Sta. Rita Hills) – Flush with luscious strawberry and blackberry toned fruit aromas, with notable yet altogether compelling toasted oak spices; bright and upbeat on the palate, the yummy (yeah, I occasionally use the prissy term), spiced fruit qualities extending over a long and silky frame.

2013 MacPhail Family, Mardikian Estate (Sonoma Coast) – The word now out is that it’s best to enjoy winemaker James MacPhail’s distinctively crafted wines – known for his aggressive yet undeniably fine touch with the grape – while you can, since he has recently relinquished control of his eponymous brand and operation to its parent company (Hess Collection). I could comment on this being another example of corporate management not quite getting what makes businesses successful in the first place (the little things that mean tons to Pinot Noir lovers; like terroir focus executed with vision, originality and artistry), but I won’t (whoops, too late). As in previous vintages, the 2013 Mardikian is heady, densely muscled, shamelessly opulent, meticulously rounded; at the same time, not without its peculiarities, like a pungent, wild-brushy herbiness and licoricey spice – the oft-times feral imperfections that make Pinot Noir so deliciously “Pinot.”

2013 Maggy Hawk, Jolie (Anderson Valley) – Speaking of peculiarities: I found myself dallying over this wine – from Anderson Valley’s Deep End (the AVA’s westernmost, cooler climate sites) – spending a good 5 minutes sitting and pondering its exuberant, sweetly spiced nose, puntuated by caraway (or a vanillin licorice) and exotic floral notes upon which I could not quite put a finger (I’m leaning towards earthy/sweet Oriental lilies). Neither is the Jolie a light-weight (14.5% alcohol) on the palate; yet the sensations still come up finesseful and pinpoint with plenty of natural acidity, lighting up the strangely scented fruit.

The author with James MacPhail
2013 Stephen Ross, Stone Corral Vineyard (Edna Valley) – Intoxicating, sensuous strawberry/black cherry perfumes with an allspice "complexity" (I hate that word in wine lingo, but there you go). Pinot purity in the mouth; soft, velvety entry, becoming broad, round, downright voluptuous in the middle, and dense and layered towards the finish. 

2013 Ancien, Toyon Farm (Carneros) – "Super spice" was my first impression (no, I didn't start singing Curtis Mayfield; although I am now, as I write). Whatever the case, the nose is pungent with peppery spiced black cherry, backed by perhaps a slightly unfashionable toasty oakiness; medium-full yet fairly thick, dense and sinewy on the palate; the spiced black cherry fruit becoming meaty, almost toothsome. 

2012 Fiddlehead, Seven Twenty Eight - Fiddlestix (Sta. Rita Hills) – Another 2012 that I found a refreshing distraction from the fruity 2013s; the Fiddlestix vineyard’s signature bass toned, loamy/earthy notes underlining a harmony of black cherry and darker berry fruit qualities; good zip, meaty density and fluidity to its length of earth toned flavors.

2013 Hilliard Bruce, Sky (Sta. Rita Hills) – In 2013 this vineyard estate’s Sky cuvée positively soars with high toned, flowery, raspberry/cherry perfumes that manages to avoid overly sweet confection; instead, the fruit is manifested by exceptionally fine, tight, medium-full sensations; pleasingly sharp, harmonious, tightly wound on the palate.

2014 ROAR, Gary’s Vineyard (Santa Lucia Highlands) – Lusciously rich strawberry nose with the herby, scrubby sensations (sagebrush, pennyroyal, bay laurel) that make Santa Lucia Highlands wines so compelling; deep, fleshy, round and, again, sticky-rich and unimpeachably balanced on the palate, in the appellation’s perennial defiance of the usual nattering nabobs of negativity's protestations about alcohol (14.9%).

2013 Bruliam (“Bu”), Gap’s Crown (Sonoma Coast) – Does the hat (i.e. vineyard) make the man (producer), or vice-versa? I lean towards the hat, because this vineyard source sure makes this producer look good – beautifully round, yet fleshy with tannin muscle below, eschewing the licentious, perfumey fruitiness of the vintage for a more compact mix of cherry, black-towards-blue berries, and subtle spices (pepper, star anise).

2013 De Loach, Olivet Ranch (Russian River Valley – I was attracted by the coiled, sleekly textured yet edgy (with bratty teen-tannin) qualities of this medium-full bodied wine; the nose, more floral than fruit driven, heightened by the lacy perfumes intertwined with subtle yet intriguing spices (pepper, nutmeg, and the requisite, albeit tastefully restrained, French oak).

2013 Timbre, Bien Nacido Vineyard “Old Vines - Lead Vocals” (Santa Maria Valley) – You say ee-ther and I say eye-ther. Especially sommeliers, who often ask for this style of transparently pigmented, light-weight Pinot Noir that some may call feeble, but others call gentle, feminine, “balanced.” What you cannot dispute is that this gimmicky-named Timbre bottling retains a pretty clarity of cherry/berry perfume, complimented by sweet kitchen herb spices.

2013 Gypsy Canyon, The Collector’s (Sta. Rita Hills) – While, in this instance, I don’t think it’s meant to appeal particularly to sommeliers – but rather, to reflect this tiny estate’s rugged, sandy terroir, hidden in a narrow nook well off the beaten track of Sta. Rita Hills – this producer has been consistently exploring the light, lacy, ultra-fine side of the varietal profile, which doesn’t keep it from billowing with flowery, cherry-berry perfume, inundating the senses through a gently tart finish.

2014 Laetitia, Whole Cluster (Arroyo Grande Valley) – Among the few 2014s being shown, I liked this one for its infusion of sweet cherry, dried kitchen herbs and licorice in the nose; a zesty medium-to-full body pinned down by zippy acid and moderate yet firm, youthful tannin.

2014 Melville, Block M (Sta. Rita Hills) – Another one of the more impressive 2014s – very pretty, lifted raspberry/strawberry fragrance; very fine, silky, and lively with snappy acidity, imbuing the pristinely poised fruit with crinkly, palate freshening qualities.

2014 Siduri, Pisoni Vineyard (Santa Lucia Highlands) – This combination of steady winemaking hands and iconic vineyard source more than meets expectations; tightly wound yet focused, with black fruits dominating red berry perfumes, tweaked by scrubby notes of sagebrush and sweet peppercorn; dense, thick, layered “awesomeness” (why did I write that?) on the palate.

2014 Westwood Estate, Pommard Clone, Annadel Gap Vineyard (Sonoma) – From, evidently, an up and coming property adjacent to Sonoma Valley, between the Sonoma Mountains and Hood Mountain, a laudably intense, nostril tingling wine, teeming with smoked pepper-spiced black and red berryish fruit; rounded with a good girth of meaty tannin and generous, pliant fruit.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Zinfandel (and ZAP) at a crossroads

Wintering 100-year-old Zinfandel in McCay's Lot 13 on Lodi's east side

This is the Big Week for Zinfandel Advocates & Producers (a.k.a. ZAP): their annual Experience in San Francisco, self-billed as “the world’s largest single varietal wine tasting event.”

This year, three days of seminars and parties are capped by a “Grand Tasting” at Pier 27 on the Embarcadero on Saturday, February 27, 2016; when consumers may pick and sip among hundreds of wines, produced by California’s finest Zinfandel specialists. A literal Bacchanal.

Though, these are funny times for Zinfandel. As a varietal, it is still an awkward, bratty, painfully hormonal adolescent. Yet in many ways, it is thanks to the founders of ZAP – classic producers like Ridge, Ravenswood, Rosenblum, and a meritocracy of a few others – that the Zinfandel grape avoided what looked like an inevitable demise as a major red wine varietal, back in the mid-1990s.

Those were the days, many will recall, when most of what was being grown was being churned into the discernibly sweet, fruity pink wine we know as White Zinfandel.

Not that there’s anything wrong with White Zinfandel. Lovers of sweet, fruity pink wines deserve their desserts, too.

But instead, the positively huge response to ZAP’s yearly events lit up renewed ardor for the grape in its true, black skinned guise: as a lush, generous, oft-times spicy red wine. Delicious with an endless variety of foods; delicious by itself, in all its big, bad, brazen badda-bing badda-boomness.

The trend of “serious” producers dropping the varietal from their lines in favor of so-called “classic” varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir was suddenly reversed. New fangled specialists, such as Turley and Robert Biale, also popped up, creating almost cult-ish followings for pricey, single-vineyard bottlings. At a time when video had killed off the radio star, Zinfandel was being saved!

Or was it? Somewhere along the line, Zinfandel began to lose some of its luster. The latest Nielsen market reports are showing a slight decline in consumer interest in the grape as both a red and pink wine. You can chalk this up to the fact that almost all trends eventually putter out. Chardonnay sales, for instance, have been leveling off, and Merlot has never quite recovered from its post-Sideways malaise. Yet, on the other hand, interest in Cabernet Sauvignon is still growing through the roof; and Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio, of all things, are more popular than ever.

Are today's consumers still amused by Zinfandel's big, bratty styles?

So what’s up with Zinfandel? For one, the very things that made Zinfandel such a favorite red varietal 10, 20 years ago. When ZAP began heating up the ‘90s, consumers were just “discovering” the joys of big, juicy, jammy and, frankly, sweetly oaked red wines, and Zinfandel fit the bill. “No wimpy wines!” was a popular mantra, and the t-shirt is even enshrined in the Smithsonian.

Well, guess what: many wine lovers, especially younger ones, now seem to be gravitating to “wimpy.” They want their wines a good 2% or 3% lower in alcohol. Dryer and edgy with tartness rather than annoyingly fat or fruity. Many of them hate the taste of oak; and the smoky, sweet, pungent, caramelized, oft-times furniture polish-like taste of oak is practically a Zinfandel signature, even if barrels have nothing to do with the natural taste of the grape.

Here in our second decade of the new millennium, we seem to be living in a wine world heavily influenced by sommeliers. Everyone is studying to be a sommelier. Like Spartacus, everyone is a sommelier, whether or not they are working in a fancy restaurant.

But take a look at the long, seemingly all-encompassing wine lists being written by top sommeliers in the best American restaurants today. Find any Zinfandel on those lists? Maybe one or two, if not zero; but certainly nothing comparable to the long lists of Pinot Noirs, Cabernet Sauvignons, or even wines that many sommeliers wish people would drink more of (i.e. Riesling, Ribolla Gialla, MencíaBlaufränkisch, etc.). Today’s Zinfandels, it seems, are not quite up to snuff in the sommeliers’ world.

115-year-old Zinfandel in Harney Lane's Lizzy James Vineyard

In a post in his popular blog Vinography this past November, Alder Yarrow fesses up to some of his own reasons why his enthusiasm for Zinfandel has waned like a shrunken orange in recent decades:

Let me begin with total honesty. I fell out of love with Zinfandel. When I first got into wine, I loved the carefree jubilation that spilled out of every bottle of Zinfandel I opened. Zinfandel is a wine that makes no apologies for its exuberant fruit.

As authentic as this personality can be, Zinfandel all too easily strays into the realm of caricature. If its boisterous blackberry, black pepper, and blueberry essence is good, surely a bit more of that is even better, right?

Wrong. As much criticism as California Cabernet receives for a shift towards bigger, better, richer, and riper in the last 20 years, in some ways Zinfandel's shift has been even more egregious.

Zinfandel probably started off riper than Cabernet to begin with, as it easily strays into the high 14% and low 15% range while continuing to develop those rich flavors that so many seek from the grape. But in addition to being left longer and longer on the vine beginning in the late 1990s, winemakers in California began to apply increasingly higher levels of new oak to the wines, resulting in bigger, richer, jammier, and sweeter versions of the grape. After a while I just got tired of it.

Apparently I do have a threshold for fruit overload, especially when that fruit is offered almost in singularity, with few other dimensions of interest. And this is precisely what became of California Zinfandel until recently. Many, many of these wines left behind nuance for power of fruit, and as a result, became less interesting to me.

But then recently...

And, ta-da! Yarrow goes on to describe a recent taste of an Amador County grown Zinfandel plus, “around the same time... a box of six Zinfandels from Lodi, all bearing the same label, but from different producers.” It was Yarrow’a discovery of six 2012 Lodi Native Zinfandels – deliberately crafted in a lower key fashion to emphasize the taste of vineyards rather than the sweet, jammy, oaky taste typical of the varietal – that Yarrow found to be “transformative, not only for my vision of what California Zinfandel had become, but also for my opinion of what Lodi was all about. I was back in bed with Zinfandel.” And not only that, the Lodi Natives “also inspired my faith in the future of California wine.”

Lodi Native winemaker/growers

Here’s the thing: most Lodi grown Zinfandels, like most commercial Zinfandels from everywhere in California, are still produced primarily to appeal to consumers with a  yen for the jammy, sweetly oaked taste commonly associated with the varietal category. But if you go to the ZAP Experience Grand Tasting this Saturday, you will be able to taste a small but growing number of Zinfandels made more in a style similar to the Lodi Native project.

That is, more Zinfandels that

1. Put on an emphasis more on earthy tastes associated with particular vineyards, not just exaggerated varietal fruit character.

2. Veer away from the heavy-handed oakiness.

3. Are mercifully lower in alcohol (closer to 13% rather than 16%).

4. Have a lip smacking tartness, rather than fat fruitiness.

As we said, these are funny times for Zinfandel. Grower and winemaker styles are transitioning, slowly but surely, in order to keep up with evolving consumer preferences, and the tastes of all those pesky, slow-to-buy-in sommeliers. We have the three Rs (Ridge, Ravenswood and Rosenblum) to thank for firing up the popularity of the grape, which still dominates the Lodi landscape. But the crafting of Zinfandel as more subtle expressions of terroir (i.e. sensory sense of place), rather than brand or varietal caricatures, is still a long time coming.

But you know, the darkest hours are still in the ‘80s or ‘90s. No one here in the Delta is really afraid that Zinfandel will go the way of radio, or video, stars. There are too many consumers in Europe and Asia now clamoring for varietal bottlings, even if consumption in the U.S. is in a slight funk. Now there’s Cuba, plus that giant continent down below that, as Randy Newman sang, stole our name (South America). Things are looking good. We're going to be great again.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, we are also trying to take that next step: popularizing the grape as a more delicate, floral, earthy style of red wine, which Lodi seems to naturally engender.

2014 ZAP trade tasting