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Monday, August 1, 2016

Is it time to discuss Amador County as a world class wine region?

Rolling hills of Amador's Shenandoah Valley

First things first: Amador County and its wines are unique unto themselves. That’s the beauty of this Sierra FoothillsViticultural Area region.

Let us count the ways in which Amador County wines are now distinguishing themselves among other wines of the world. I am not talking about the recent renaissance of visitor-friendly attractions and boutique lodging in nearby Gold Rush Country towns, or the plethora of bright, shiny, new tasting rooms and wedding sites springing up along Shenandoah Rd. I’m happy for all that, but I’m a geeky wine journalist, not a travel or lifestyles writer; and so everything I talk and think about has to do with vineyards, grapes and wines.

And after over 30 years of visiting the region, I can say this: the vineyards, grapes and wines of Amador County are getting serious. My thoughts, followed by tasting notes for 10 contemporary classics coming out of the region; most of these wines tasted just recently at the Amador County Fair this past July 30, 2016...

Deaver Ranch Mission vines planted in 1853

Small-scale, handcrafted wines

To begin with, Amador County is tiny: approximately 3,700 acres of planted wine grapes. There is a single vineyard in Monterey County that is more than twice that size.

Some more perspective: Amador County is a hillside wine region; its vines perched on slopes at mostly 1,200 to 2,000-ft. elevations. These are not the highest altitude vineyards in the state (vineyards in adjacent El Dorado as well as in Santa Cruz Mountains and Mendocino Ridge climb up to 2,000-3,000-ft.), but the region is still defined by its location along the western foot-slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Plantable space is limited. Compare the acreage devoted to grapes in Amador to the 45,000 planted in Sonoma County, 43,000 in Napa Valley, 26,000 in Paso Robles, 21,000 in Santa Barbara County, or the +110,000 acres in neighboring Lodi. Amador is minuscule geographically, but getting big-time in terms of the seriousness of what is produced.

According to Mike Baldinelli, second generation Amador farmer and president of the Amador Wine Growers Association, "Like all hillside regions, there is some soil and microclimate diversity, but one thing the vineyards have in common is that for the most part they are small, 30 acres or less, farmed by passionate people who live on their properties. Things are done mostly by hand, without mechanization, and so this is a region farmed by people who know their grapes intimately."   

Amador County Zinfandel on redleaf virused vine
No place like home in the Foothills

As small a region as it is, both the climate and topography of Amador County are ideal for grapevines. Think about the rolling hills of Italy, one of the cradles of the world’s wine culture. As you drive into the Sierra Foothills AVA from San Joaquin Valley in the spring, when the fine sandy-clay loam has absorbed enough winter rain to carpet the hills with green grass, you cannot help but think of the verdant, cinematic landscapes of Tuscany or Sicily.

It is no coincidence that the climate ascribed to the region between the historic Gold Rush towns of Plymouth, Fiddletown and Sutter Creek is squarely Mediterranean; marked by moderately cool, wet winters and dry, warm to hot summers. All the major varieties of Vitis vinifera – the family of European vines always known to produce the world’s finest wines – originated in the Mediterranean Basin; and so like other California coastal regions (from Mendocino all the way down to Santa Barbara) with climates classified as Mediterranean, fine wine grapes have naturally acclimated to Amador County.

To what extent? How about the fact that oldest, continuously farmed commercial wine grape plantings in the United States are in Amador County? The Deaver family cultivates several acres of majestic, own-rooted Mission vines originally planted in 1853, barely three years after the California Gold Rush. Across the road in Shenandoah Valley, there are 10 acres of Zinfandel in the Original Grandpère Vineyard – recently named the 2016 California State Fair Vineyard of the Year – that have been traced back to 1869. In nearby the Fiddletown AVA, a few of the oldest Zinfandel vines in the Rinaldi-Eschen Vineyard date back to 1865. Compare that to the oldest continuously farmed vineyards in Lodi, Sonoma County, Santa Cruz Mountains, Paso Robles or Contra Costa County, which go back “only” as far as the mid-1880s (which, of course, is still phenomenal).

Grapevines, mind you, are normally torn out and replanted after just 30 to 40 years because, simply, they are no longer healthy enough to produce commercially sustainable crops. The fact that Amador’s oldest plantings are still productive after over 140 years is staggering. It says a lot about how much grapevines love the natural growing conditions of Amador County; and it says a lot about how much these vineyards have been loved and fussed over by their owners all those years, though thick and thin, deluges and droughts, feast or famine.

Why Amador County terroir is unlike any other

At the same time, Amador County is not Tuscany; nor is it Napa Valley or Walla Walla Valley, Santa Barbara or Santorini, Catalonia or Casablanca, or anywhere. For example, take Zinfandel, which makes up close to a third of the grapes planted in Amador County. Amador Zinfandels are not big, thick and irrepressibly jammy like those of Sonoma County’s best vineyards. At least not naturally. When they are grown to be that way, the wines tend to get rough and awkward; which is why the finest Amador Zinfandels tend to be moderately scaled. Neither are they as comfortably black colored, and hard and structured with tannin as Napa Valley Zinfandels. They are certainly not soft and flowery like Lodi’s, nor as ultra-ripe as those of Paso Robles, or as rapier-like in acidity as Mendocino Ridge’s.

One person who should know is Tegan Passalacqua, the winemaker of Turley Wine Cellars, whose company organically farms over 200 acres of Zinfandel in no less than 7 major regions (from Mendocino down to Paso Robles). Turley’s single-vineyard Zinfandels are crafted in a native yeast fermented, unfiltered, “natural” style, and so what you taste in a bottle of Turley is pretty much what is grown in the field. “Amador County Zinfandels reminds me of Barolo” says Passalacqua, in reference to the long-lived Nebbiolo based red of Northern Italy’s Piedmont region. “There is not a lot of color, which can be a good thing, but they have good structure without a lot of weight.”

Continues Passalacqua, “You also find bramble and red fruit in the structure, plus a very fine grained, granitic tannin that you can taste, not unlike what you find in Barolo. It is not tannin resulting from winemaking, which comes from seeds, stems, jacks or use of invasive techniques like enzymes to maximize extraction. It’s a distinct tannin that comes from the sites, which is essentially a decomposed granite with volcanics and, in some places, quartz.”

Zinfandel, which characteristically retains a black peppery spice quality nearly everywhere it is grown, often veers off into dried, leafy green kitchen herb or baking spice notes suggesting cinnamon, clove, allspice or anise when grown in Amador. Old-timers describe it as “Shenandoah spice.” It’s not in every Amador Zinfandel – spice nuances tend to get lost in the aromas of riper wines or wines from riper vintages – but it is often there. Especially in Zinfandels crafted from clonal selections prone to grapevine leafroll virus, which is more common in Sierra Foothills plantings (historically, by choice) than elsewhere in California.

Ancient Zinfandel in Original Grandpere Vineyard in sandy-clay loam Sierra Series soil

Leafroll virus is a dysthemic disease that turns leaves of black skinned cultivars prematurely red – making for beautiful harvest photos, while stunting late season growth. Growers and winemakers are leery of it, but in Amador it is embraced. The diminishment of chlorophyll in leaves may inhibit plants’ ability to photosynthesize and accumulate grape sugars, and lead to fruit shriveling. But it can also accentuate Zinfandel’s natural tendency towards “hens-and-chicks” cluster morphology (i.e. uneven sized berries resulting from variant fruit set) and higher skin-to-juice ratios; not to mention the lighter pigmentation, acid balance, mineral/granitic structure, and to a certain extent, the moderate alcohol (14%-14.5%, as opposed to 16% common in other regions) considered characteristic of Amador County grown Zinfandel. Negatives can add up to positives!

The operative term generally used in the wine industry for qualities found in bottles that directly reflect intrinsic growing conditions – whether natural or as part of longtime viticultural traditions – is terroir, also loosely described as “sense of place.” Terroir, in other words, refers to both natural physical attributes of regions or individual vineyards (including all aspects of climate and topography) as well as sensory qualities that can be delineated in the taste of wines from those growths.

For Amador County, this comes down to higher elevation slopes with volcanic soils primarily falling in the Sierra Series; consisting of sandy-clay loam derived from decomposed granite. This is the kind of soil that can hold moisture from winter rains through spring months, yet is extremely well drained, which encourages the deeper root systems necessary for vines to sustain through hot, dry summers. Therefore, vines are healthy, yet not so well nourished that they produce an excess of foliage and forget to do what fine wine varieties are supposed to do, which is focus on maturing fruit to optimal levels of flavor and complexity, without sacrificing the acidity needed for wine balance and freshness.

What also makes Amador County unique is that its Mediterranean climate is a higher elevation thermal belt. Sunset Magazine, which has been advising Western gardeners since 1898, classifies Amador County as Zone 9 – different from other Mediterranean-type regions such as Lodi or the North and Central Coasts of California, which Sunset clumps together as as Zone 14. Amador’s Zone 9 is distinguished by hot summer temperatures and significant diurnal temperature shifts (30 to 40 degrees) similar to Zone 14 regions, but with less coastal fog influence and more constant sun exposure. It is Amador County’s lengthier hours of unobstructed sunlight throughout the day and the entire growing season that enhance plant photosynthesis and, ultimately, formation of sugar and flavor in wine grapes.

Mission cluster on 163-year-old Deaver Ranch vine

Passalacqua has also pointed out the advantages of Amador County’s elevated solar radiance – or what the French have called luminosity – particularly earlier in the growing season, when the grapes' usual response is to develop thicker skins in expectation of sunburn. Think of the way a Pacific Islander is able to absorb more sun than, say, a Caucasian of European ancestry who spends just occasional time in the sun. Thicker skins in grapes lead to increased skin phenolics, which elevate flavor and complexity in resulting wines. “In this area we can have intense sun that can lead to overripe fruit,” says Passalacqua, “but if you do proper canopy management early in the season, the grapes can adapt as they develop.”

Hence, the unique qualities of not just Zinfandel grown in Amador County, but also a host of other grapes that are now carving out their own unique, and critically acclaimed, niches among California wines: including Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot among Bordeaux types; Syrah, Carignan, Grenache, Viognier and Roussanne among Rhône varieties; Barbera, Sangiovese and Dolcetto among Italian grapes; and Tempanillo, Touriga Nacional and Verdelho among Spanish/Portuguese cultivars, plus at least another dozen and a half more.

10 quintessentially Amador wines

2014 Andis, Bill Dillian Vineyard Shenandoah Valley Sémillon ($21) – While Amador is best known for red wines, Bill Dillian’s 37-year-old, head trained Sémillon planting showcases the beautifully tart, lean, minerally yet silky and desert dry possibilities of white wine varieties in the region. If you’re into untrendy grapes, Sémillon is as unfashionable as it gets; chock-full of the underappreciated white fig, Meyer lemon and creamy viscosity characteristic of the varietal. Bravo to Mr. Dillian for sticking with a good thing, and to Andis Wines for knowing a great planting when they see it. Double-Gold winner at the most recent California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition.

2013 Vino Noceto, OGP (The Original Grandpère Vineyard) Shenandoah Valley Zinfandel ($33) – While Vino Noceto is known for its estate grown specialty, Sangiovese (their silky yet deep, sturdy 2013 Vino Noceto Dos Okies Sangiovese is another keeper), it is their yearly bottling of The Original Grandpère Vineyard (own-rooted Zinfandel traced back to 1869) that has garnered fully deserved renown. Their genius? Letting the vineyard, not a winemaker’s hand or brand of oak barrel, do all the talking; as in their latest vintage, which is fragrant with bright raspberry/blueberry, tinged with a faintly dusty minerality and autumnal pie spices. The nose suggests a certain rusticity, but on the palate this Zinfandel is, refreshingly, all about finesse: soft, quiet entry; moderately scaled fullness; unobtrusively rounded tannin, perky natural acidity, and silky, nimble sensations of the dusty, spicy, prettily scented fruit.

2014 Story, Quartz Vineyard Shenandoah Valley Zinfandel ($24) – What is quintessential Amador County Zinfandel? You can point to bottlings of classic +100-year-old plantings such as Original Grandère or Rinaldi’s Eschen; but in another sense, younger yet fully matured plantings like Story’s Quartz Vineyard (planted in 1989) are even more expressive of the exuberant – yet not overripe or “jammy” sweet – varietal fruit and spice that the region’s hilly, crushed granite sites invariably yield. In this vintage, the Shenandoah spice and cracked peppercorn varietal notes fill out flowery red berry aromas, while natural acidity brightens the feel of soft tannin, moderate oak and upbeat fruit on the palate. Not heavy, not overbearing, but just good, balanced, easy drinking and food versatility (think marinated summer barbecues). What California Zinfandel is supposed to be – useful, delicious!

2014 Sobon Estate, Fiddletown Zinfandel ($22) – Amador is dominated so much by Shenandoah Valley, it is easy to forget that Fiddletown has been a separate American Viticultural Area for going on 33 years. This is Amador’s highest elevation AVA (up to 2,500-ft.), dotted with a handful of ancient vine Zinfandel sites that take a little longer to ripen than vineyards in Shenandoah Valley; thus, building a reputation for darker berried Zinfandels (less red-towards-blue berry qualities), and more of a mountain tannin feel compared to the granitic-type structures of Shenandoah Valley Zinfandels. Still, Fiddletown Zinfandels are not always as big, brawny or jammy as you may think. Whether out of a winemaker’s choice or a reflection of the 106-year-old, own-rooted Lubenko Vineyard’s terroir, there are notes of dried herbs and a dusty minerality that are as prominent as the floral, black fruit qualities in the nose; and the sensations, while brambly and tingly on the palate, come across as finesseful if full in body, with firm yet svelte tannin, and smartly restrained sweet oak.

Dick Cooper in his Cooper Vineyards Barbera block

2013 Cooper Vineyards, Amador County Barbera ($29) – Grower/owner Dick Cooper is Amador County’s modern-day pioneer of Barbera, a grape native to the rolling hills of Northern Italy’s Piedmont region. Since Mr. Cooper’s first 5-acre planting of the grape went into the ground in the late 1970s, the county’s acreage has grown to over 300; becoming as closely identified with Amador as Cabernet Sauvignon is to Napa or Pinot Noir is to Willamette (despite, obviously, the considerably smaller scale). While Cooper remains the “king” of Amador County Barbera – his grapes going into a number of other outstanding, award winning bottlings such as those of Jeff Runquist Wines and Prospect Cellars – his own bottling of the grape is also a standard bearer. An unfettered harmony of blackberryish fruit sings from the glass in Cooper’s 2013 Barbera; the sensations, sumptuous, viscous, fluid and full, yet balanced by the grape’s typical zesty acidity. You can describe it as Italianate, but it doesn’t have nearly the acid bite or dank, shoe leather aroma or tannin typical of Italian Barberas. Its sun-soaked brightness (not overripeness) of fruit is indubitably, and thankfully, “Amador,” which is what makes it special compared to any other wine in the world.

2013 Wilderotter, Shenandoah Valley Barbera ($30) – Starting as a grower/supplier (80 acres planted), this family-owned estate has morphed into a boutique sized producer also discovering the considerable ease in which the Barbera grape has adapted to the Foothills. The Wilderotter achieves genuinely intriguing violet and wild scrub (rosemary and sage) perfumes – almost (or strangely) Syrah-like – to go along with the blackberryish varietal intensity; zesty and silken textured on the palate; full-bodied without being heavy or burdensome. Fully deserving of its Double-Gold at the 2016 Amador County Fair.

2014 Terra d’Oro, Amador County Teroldego ($18) – The suggested retail price of this wine is not the only thing that is outrageously good about this wine, crafted from Teroldego, a thick skinned grape of Alpine-Italian lineage. It’s also its totality of black color (the winery describes it as “obsidian”), pungent blackberry and pomegranate-like aroma and flavor, plus dense, broad, meaty, sinewy yet surprisingly svelte, fluid qualities in the feel. Yes, the phenolics are generous enough to qualify this red as “big,” but it does not assault the palate in the usual (for California) alcoholic way (a fairly moderate 13.5%). Hence, a limber, as opposed to lumbering, feel – think slow roasted beef or red game seasoned with peppercorns, mirto (myrtle berries) or juniper. Another varietal (even if still fairly obscure to the American market) proving natural to Amador’s hillside terroir!

2013 Sobon, Amador County Syrah ($18) – This year’s Amador County Fair “Best of Class Red” shows off the unabashedly upbeat, exuberant, lush and exotic side of the region's sun-soaked terroir. The violet/raspberry-towards-blueberry fruit falls on the ripe side, amplified by sweet oak flourishes, adding smoke and spice complexities. Full, firm yet eminently curvaceous on the palate. Yes, a bit of a coquette (to put it politely); but hey, there’s room in this wine world for drama queens, too.

Jeff Runquist punching down fermenting vintage

2014 Jeff Runquist, Shake Ridge Ranch Amador County Tempranillo ($32) – Shake Ridge Ranch – located southwards outside of Sutter Creek – stands apart from Amador’s Shenandoah Valley and Fiddletown’s sandy-clay loamed terroirs as a different kind of rocky hillside site; an almost magical convergence of crushed granite, basalt, shale and quartz which seem to contribute their own unique garrigue-like earthiness to multiple varieties. In the “R” label Tempranillo, the nose is teeming with roasted meats, sweet tea and maraschino cherry/berry perfumes; deepening in tone and meatiness on the palate, which is velvety, bright with acidity; the fruit and earth sensations understated, yet long, dreamily languourous. No wonder Amador growers are just as high on Spanish varieties as they are on anything from Italy or France.

2012 Andis, Amador County Painted Fields (35% Cabernet Sauvignon/28% Syrah/17% Merlot/10% Cabernet Franc/10% Petite Sirah; $20) – There is no reason why a region like Amador County, steeped in its own history of mixed cultural influences, should conform to traditional conceptions of “Bordeaux,” “Rhône,” or even new fangled Spanish or Portuguese blends. Not when you can compose a multifaceted (and amazingly well priced) red wine like this; pungent with dried-herby, red and black berryish, cocoa nuanced fruit, couched in gripping yet supple, dense, meaty, medium-full bodied sensations. Pass the hanger steak and chimichurri!

Wintering Shenandoah Valley Zinfandel

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 more emphasis 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

Friday, February 5, 2016

Is there such a thing as "Zinfandel Grand Crus" in California?

Room set for ZAP's annual Flights! tasting

Is there such a thing as “Grand Crus” rankings of California wines? No, there isn’t, and for good reason: the California wine industry is continuously discovering “new” vineyards of undeniably wonderful quality and interest. We’re not like places in France, where they carry children around in baskets and vignerons have had hundreds of years to figure out where the best wines are coming from.

In a recent blogpost on Tim Atkin MW’s, Ron Washam made some devastating comments on one attempt to do so; citing James Laube, who “wrote California’s Great Cabernets, a book published by ‘Wine Spectator Press’ in 1989.” Quoth Washam,

You read that right — “Wine Spectator Press.” Why does that bring the Special Olympics of Publishing to mind? In California’s Great Cabernets, Laube, in his adolescence as a wine critic, took it upon himself to classify California Cabernet producers into Five Growths — think Bordeaux’s 1855 classification... The book is a study in hubris, as well as cheap paper.

The point is that as soon as you make a list of the top 50 or 60 vineyards where the best Cabernet Sauvignons are coming from, another 50 or 60 vineyards pop up that seem to be just as good or better. It’s more like the book, Millions of Cats – an exercise not so much in hubris as futility. The California wine industry is growing too darned fast to make even tentative choices.

Lodi Zinfandel lover at ZAP

And so why, you may ask, is Zinfandel Advocates & Producers (a.k.a. ZAP) putting on a Zinfandel tasting of bottlings that, in their words, “sets the stage to push the conversation about California's own Great Growths” representing what might be considered the top of the top of our old vine Zinfandel plantings? This tasting takes place on February 26, 2016 in San Francisco, as part of the “Flights! Forum of Flavors” segment of ZAP’s yearly, three-day-long Zinfandel Experience.

On their Web site, ZAP goes on to say:

The Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855 ranked France's best wines according to a château's reputation and trading price and is still in use today. Ultimately 61 out of 5000 wine estates were given the highest ranking and are sometimes referred to as Great Growths or Grand Crus Classés... Is there a congruence between old vine vineyards and European great growths? 

The simplest answer to ZAP’s question, even before this tasting takes place, is: No. It is an exercise in futility, although we shan't say hubris (we love ZAP, and all great Zinfandels). Oh, it may be an amusing activity, but there are reasons why it can't be much more than that:

First: old vine vineyards are not necessarily the “grandest” sources of Zinfandel. Two of the highest rated Zinfandels in recent blind tasting competitions, for instance, have come from vines less than 10 years old (namely, Sam J. Sebastiani’s La Chertosa from Shake Ridge Ranch in Amador County, and the Mikami Vineyards Zinfandel from Lodi). Sure, no one goes around breathlessy proclaiming “Young Vine” Zinfandel; but doggone it, Zinfandel from young vines can be good, especially from fantastic sites cultivated by top-notch growers and finished by crafty winemakers.

One of James Thurber's most famous cartoons (The Thurber Carnival, 1945)

Secondly: neither critics nor consumers can ever agree on a criteria as to what constitutes the "best Zinfandels." The ZAP organizers, for instance, plan to present Zinfandels from seven vineyards to start their conversation about a possible “Grand Crus.” Five of those vineyards are located in Sonoma County and two of them from Napa Valley; and they all produce the deeply colored, densely textured, opulently fruited style of Zinfandel that many Zinfandel aficionados have come to love.

Ah, but what of the far less opulent, lower alcohol, decidedly more acid-driven styles of Zinfandels grown in, say, Mendocino Ridge? Or the more moderately structured yet suave, brightly balanced styles of Zinfandel coming out Sierra Foothills regions like Amador County, El Dorado and Calaveras? In both Paso Robles and Contra Costa County they grow full alcohol Zinfandels that often combine opulence of ripe fruit with almost improbable acid balance. Here in Lodi, we have recently come to appreciate a more delicate, perfumed, feminine (if you will) and often earthier style of Zinfandel.

Hey, don't ask us. It has been critics like Alder Yarrow, who in his widely followed Vinography blog last year (re The Lodi Zinfandel Revolution Continues) said that wines like the Lodi Native project Zinfandels "not only significantly redeemed my dissatisfaction with Lodi Zinfandel, it also inspired my faith in the future of California wine," while talking about the "incredible diversity and complexity" of Zinfandels from Lodi's better growths. They like us, they really do - sometimes more than others.

Lodi Native Zinfandels poured at 2015 ZAP

Point being: not everyone believes that the best Zinfandels are made in the big, black, thick and jammy fruited styles typical of much of Sonoma County and Napa Valley. Some critics actually hate that; preferring kinder, gentler, or more restrained, less obviously fruity styles. So by what standards do we devise a Bordeaux style classification of Zinfandels, sub-dividing “Grand Crus” growths into, say, five levels of “grandness?”

We don’t. Not so long as there is disagreement about such fundamental issues as: Is bigger better? Are the best Zinfandels the ones with lean and edgy acid balance, or the ones that bounce like a Sally Rand balloon? Do we give extra credit for earthy, non-fruit complexities, or do we measure by sheer amount of classic "jammy" fruitiness. Do we like Zinfandels so rich and dense with tannin they can absorb tons of pungent, sweet oak, or Zinfandels so delicate that the barest whiffs of wood will bruise it? Are not floral or more subtle berry fragrances better?

Then again, that’s the great thing about ZAP’s yearly Zinfandel Experience. There's no better place to be for a Zinfandel lover, which is why Lodi's finest will be there. if you have the stamina or wherewithal to sip and spit rather than swill everything in sight, you can experience well over 100 different Zinfandels in myriad styles from California’s fantastic multiplicity of regions – and then decide for yourself what is best, maybe even “Grand.”

Without any pesky list-makers telling you what's what!

Unsung hero: 115-year-old vine in Lodi's Marian's Vineyard

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Is California Grenache on a cusp?

Bokisch Vineyards Garnacha, lit up like Christmas during veraison

Letting a grape finally sing

Earlier in the month (May 2015), I endeavored to take a measure of California grown Grenache in a tasting of the very best varietal bottling of said grape.   

The tasting was a long time coming – I first thought about doing it at least five years ago, after tasting a pair of pure Grenache bottlings produced by Harrison Clark Vineyards, grown on a spectacular chalky hilltop estate in Santa Barbara’s Ballard Canyon AVA.  These sensuous, scintillating, ultra-spiced red wines were like a proverbial epiphany to me.  Never knew a California Grenache can taste so "complete."

Harrison Clarke's calcareous hilltop estate in Santa Barbara's Ballard Canyon AVA

It took a while to put together something of a definitive tasting, but I’m glad it’s finally done.  My thoughts on the matter...

First, over the past four, five years we have been hearing the rumblings; mostly out of the mouths of wine savvy friends and colleagues in the wine industry.  “Grenache is now my favorite grape.”  “Nothing is better than a good Grenache.”  “God, I love Grenache.”

I don’t know how much of this has been genuine, or just attributable to a coolness factor.  Certainly, we all occasionally do and say things just to be cool or different (or at least to make ourselves think we’re different).  But the point is:  I’m not the only one who’s been harboring a growing fondness for Grenache.

Michael McCay, Randy Caparoso & Markus Bokisch in Lodi Lake Park

Not, mind you, the usual Grenache based blends with SyrahMourvèdreCarignan, or other grapes deliberately used to beef up Grenache in some way, shape or form; based on the seemingly obvious assumption that Grenache makes too simple or feeble a red wine to stand on its own.  Bonny Doon Vineyard, for instance, has been on a tremendous winning streak with recent vintages of its Grenache driven Clos de Gilroy – buoyant, bosomy, irrepressibly lush and delicious red wines. 

Clos de Gilroy, however, is rarely more than 65% or 75% Grenache.  Grenache, as Randall Grahm contends, is “really the star” in his blends; but I still feel like you’re not really getting the taste of the grape in pure, unadulterated form.  What you’re getting is something of an “improved” Grenache – like the wonderfully improved versions of Barry Bonds (I was a big fan, and still am) in his latter years.

To appreciate Grenache, I think you need to accept the fact that, ultimately, the grape produces a lighter style of red wine than even the most moderated “GSM.”  It’s never going to soar as high as the finest Syrahs, and it’s never going to have the soulful, sonorous meatiness of Mourvèdre.  So what?

Grower Phil Abba and winemaker Michael McCay in Abba Vineyards (Lodi's Mokelumne River AVA)

I submit that the recent surge in interest in 100% pure Grenache as a varietal red is, more than anything, a sign that a growing segment of the wine market is finally willing to perceive subtlety as a quality, as much or even more so than sheer weight or intensity.  A wine need no longer be “big” or “powerful” to be impressive. 

It’s a mental thing, as much a shift in taste.  It entails dishing out "points" for expressions of less, not more.  Pure styles of red Grenache definitely fall within the softer, gentler, more floral spectrum of red wine styles; more often than not with its own modest complexity of red berryish fruit (often suggesting cherry, strawberry, raspberry or pomegranate), tinged with spice (black pepper or brown kitchen spices).  But if you expect power in the nose, or phenolic muscle in the body, you will usually be disappointed. 

Bottom line – the more you appreciate delicacy in red wine, the more you appreciate Grenache!

One of our tasters, noted Lodi winemaker Chad Joseph

McCay Cellars’ Michael McCay has been fond of describing Grenache as “Lodi’s Pinot Noir.”  McCay is alluding to the Lodi AVA’s Mediterranean climate – which is the natural environment for Grenache (but not so much for Pinot Noir, which reaches heights in colder climate regions) – as well as to the finely perfumed, mildly spiced, Pinot Noir-like qualities of the varietal. 

But red Grenache, of course, is not Pinot Noir; nor is it Carignan, Sangiovese, or any other variety with propensity towards red fruit fragrances and softer tannin structures.  It comes in its own package of attractive attributes; fairly defined only on its own terms.

Last year the San Francisco Chronicle headlined a story on Grenache’s recent “star turn,” describing the varietal as “the perfect Mediterranean grape” while proclaiming, “Now is the moment to embrace one of California wine's great successes.”  20 years ago, there was no way anyone would use words like “star” or “great” in the same sentence as Grenache.  There seems to be, borrowing Star Wars lingo, a “strong disturbance in the Force” – or rather, among those with say in the wine world.

Bokisch Vineyards' Markus Bokisch

Four of us, tasting from paper bags

For our blind tasting, I gathered 15 examples by producers who I believe are producing the finest pure styles of California Grenache today.  Oh, I may have left out another two, three, or even four, five other producers of merit.  But you have to start somewhere, and I choose to start from my own tasting experiences (never believing what I’m told or what’s being written).

Since it was easier to do this tasting in my own home in Lodi, I invited three of Lodi’s most respected vintners to help evaluate the wines along with me:  Markus Bokisch of Bokisch Vineyards, Chad Joseph of Harney Lane Winery and Oak FarmVineyards (plus three more Lodi based wineries), and Michael McCay of McCay Cellars.

Among the line-up, as it were, were the 2012 Bokisch Terra Alta Vineyard Clements Hills-Lodi Garnacha (Bokisch grows a clonal variant of the Grenache grape from Rioja Baja in Spain) and the 2012 McCay Cellars Lodi Grenache.  The various other Grenaches represented growths in Sonoma Valley, Inland Mendocino, Paso Robles, Santa Clara, Santa Barbara, Amador County and El Dorado.

McCay's 2014 Mokelumne River-Lodi Grenache harvest

Lest you think otherwise, none of our Lodi winemakers ended up recognizing their own wines in this blind tasting – not an uncommon occurrence in my experience, tasting with even the sharpest winemakers.  This means our Lodi guys were not predisposed towards Lodi grown wines while proffering their opinions and, in the end, picking out their favorite wines in the tasting.

Not only were none of us able identify the Lodi Grenaches among the others, following our discussion and voting of our favorite wines, we were actually shocked to discover that the Grenache everyone lauded as being the most intense in terms of spiciness, earthiness and perfume was, in fact, the 2012 McCay Cellars Grenache grown in Lodi.  Of course, we did not all agree that more was better, but c’est la vie.

Our "top 3" Grenache reds

Between the four of us, we came up with a total of 7 wines singled out as our three “favorites.”  We didn't "rate" the wines - all of them were damned good - but we jotted down our personal preferences, mostly for the sake of discussion.

Winemaker Jordan Fiorentini in Epoch's calcareous Paderewski Vineyard (Paso Robles Willow Creek District)

Full disclosure:  I picked the Lodi grown McCay and Bokisch Grenaches #1 and #2 – under the mistaken notion that these wines were more likely from Santa Barbara.  The wines I thought were from Lodi actually ended up being from Testa Ranch in Mendocino and the Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard.  If I’ve grown a “Lodi palate,” evidently it’s been by accident. 

In any case, my #3 choice was Epoch WinesSensibility, grown in the steep, white, calcareous shale slopes (+1,200-ft. elevation) of Paso Robles’ newly recognized Paso Robles Willow Creek District AVA.  Aside from the Baiocchi (Fair Play/El Dorado) and Neyers (Sonoma Valley), the Epoch was just about the most aggressive, full and densely structured Grenache in the bunch, exuding a pervasive, ringing peppery spice.  Mr. Joseph, on the other hand, found the Epoch to be a shade “clunky.”  A well-made wine is like a mountain – everyone looks at its features from slightly different angles.

Mr. Joseph, as it turned out, really loved the two Ballard Canyon/Santa Barbara bottlings from Harrison Clarke Vineyards, picking them as his #1 and #2.  All I can say is, he has very good taste.  His #3 choice, for the record, was the Lodi grown McCay.

Unbeknownst to each other, Mr. McCay and Mr. Bokisch ended up picking the exact same wines as their 1, 2, and 3:  first, the full bodied (by Grenache standards), fleshy, richly layered Baiocchi from El Dorado’s Fair Play AVA; followed by the more feminine, flowery, silky A Tribute to Grace from Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard, and the 2011 Harrison Clarke (the slightly leaner, yet somewhat brasher, of the two vintages of Harrison Clarke in the tasting). 

A Tribute to Grace winemaker/owner Angela Osborne in Amador County's Shake Ridge Ranch

In alphabetical order, more detailed notes on the seven wines that ended up among our “top 3”:

2013 A Tribute to Grace, Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard Grenache (about $50) – From a remote, high elevation (3,500-ft.) vineyard located in an even warmer site than anywhere in Lodi; furnishing more than enough proof that perfectly refined, feminine, silky yet zesty, upbeat Grenache can be grown in a place that is the opposite of “cold climate” (and is also why, when the French and Spanish talk about Grenache, they gleefully proclaim the merits of “hot climate” viticulture).  McCay described the finely wrought elegance of this bottling as “Sinatra-like,” and Mr. Bokisch loved the way its low-key cedarbox-spice/oak melded with its fragrant raspberry/cherryish fruit.

2012 Baiocchi Wines, Sharon’s Vineyard Fair Play (El Dorado) Grenache ($39) – Focused strawberry/plummy aroma backed by a faint note of minerality, mingling with a scrubby spice; firm, fairly full bodied style (relative to the rest of the Grenaches, which were by and large moderate in weight), with attractively round, fleshy, balanced qualities to the mineral-tinged fruit intensity.

Bokisch Vineyards' Rioja Baja Garnacha clonal selection

2012 Bokisch Vineyards, Terra Alta Vineyard Clements Hills-Lodi Garnacha ($23) – This planting – grown on the rocky, clay loam soils of Lodi’s Clements Hills AVA – comes across as notably svelte, refined, yet zesty.  The varietal qualities are properly soft and strawberryish – described as “bright” and “lifted” by Chad Joseph – augmented by a whiffs of leafy-greenery which added (for me) a nice complexity; the medium-weight, fruit-focused sensations coming across as gentle yet exuberant, stretching gracefully across the palate.

2012 Epoch Estate Wines, Paso Robles Sensibility (about $50) – Although in the past this winery has blended small proportions of Syrah in their Sensibility bottlings, their 2012 is 100% Grenache; evoking ultra-intense, almost heady strawberry/raspberry fruit with a cracked peppercorn spiciness, leaping from the glass; with a notably thick, full, bold yet typically soft (for the varietal), silken textured feel on the palate.

Harrison Clarke co-owner/winemaker Hilarie Clarke

2010 Harrison Clarke Vineyards, Ballard Canyon-Santa Ynez Valley (Santa Barbara) Grenache ($32) – This estate planting – on a dusty-white, calcareous limestone-replete hilltop in Santa Barbara’s Ballard Canyon AVA (a sub-appellation of Santa Ynez Valley) – remains one of my all-time favorite sources of Grenache.  The wines are unfailingly spicy and mobilized by zesty, fresh fruit acidity (high pH soils being more favorable to lower pH wines).  In this bottling, a fragrant, flowery red berry perfume is infused with an aromatic minty/sweet herb spiciness; tied together on the palate with still-youthful tannin, filling out a firm, medium sized body.

2011 Harrison Clarke Vineyards, Ballard Canyon-Santa Ynez Valley (Santa Barbara) Grenache ($32) – This vintage produced a slightly leaner prickly, layered, silken Grenache; with a brazen, generous fruit dimension verging on blackcurrant-like berryishness, tinged with fresh Bing cherry and mildly sweet oak flourishes; finishing fresh, sleek, lissome, lively.

2012 McCay Cellars, Lodi Grenache ($28) – From trellised vines in Phil Abba’s meticulously farmed Abba Vineyard, located on the east side of Lodi’s Mokelumne River AVA.  Notably the most pungent, perfumed, sweet black peppercorn spiced, veering on peppermint, Grenache in this tasting, with Old Worldish whiffs of organic loaminess (also the earthiest wine in this tasting).  The feel is soft, round, fairly fleshy, with mouth-watering zip.  Mr. Bokisch described its nose as “Santa Rosa plum and strawberry,” while Mr. Joseph singled out its “mineral texture” and “rich strawberry jam” qualities.

Baiocchi Vineyards owner/grower/winemaker Greg Baiocchi

The others – a litany of Grenache “stars”

I have done tastings, even entire judgings, where none of entries are “second-rate” – every wine a winner in any given wine aficonado's book.  This was one of those tastings, in spades.  We truly felt that the quality of each of the following wines was first-rate – indicative of the high standard of red varietal Grenache reached in California today.

In alphabetical order:

2013 A Tribute to Grace, Shake Ridge Ranch Amador County Grenache (about $50) – With the huge respect we all have for grower Ann Kraemer’s amazing work at Shake Ridge Ranch, the combination with A Tribute to Grace’s Angela Osborne’s customary minimalist winemaking regime – strictly native yeast, partial (50% to 70%) foot treading of whole clusters, neutral wood, et al. – seems like a hand-in-glove fit.  In this bottling, Osborne achieves an epitome of the varietal’s gentle, fragrant, medium bodied charms; the strawberry/cherry fruit spruced up by a cocoa-ish, baking spice complexity; some youthful tannins tightening the finish, which still projects a fine, almost ethereal texturing.

Shake Ridge Ranch, Amador County

2013 A Tribute to Grace, Besson Vineyard Santa Clara Grenache (about $50) – Ms. Osborne informs us that this is sourced from ancient vines, planted in 1910.  In comparison to her other two cuvées submitted in the tasting, this prettily scented wine seemed to register a slightly lower key expression of the cherry/strawberry varietal perfume, while remaining true to the pliant, feminine personality of the varietal; the nose exuding a flowery note, transitioning into a soft, almost airy, yet appealingly bright, snappy McIntosh apple-like crackle and pop on the palate.

2013 Beckmen Vineyards, Purisima Mountain Vineyard-Block Eight Ballard Canyon-Santa Ynez Valley (Santa Barbara) Grenache ($52) – Few vignerons lavish as much attention on Grenache as Steve Beckmen, and it shows in this bottling from a Biodynamic® farmed block of own-rooted, head trained vines, planted on a sparse calcareous slope.  Vividly rich and compact cherry/strawberryish varietal aroma touched up by a mild herbiness; fairly full, soft and fleshy, but seemingly held back a little by a young, linear, tight tannin component.

Neyers Vineyards winemaker Tadeo Borchardt in Sonoma Valley's Rossi Ranch

2012 Big Basin Vineyards, Coastview Vineyard Monterey County Grenache ($44) – Coastview is as the name implies – a 2,200-ft. elevation planting located in the Gabilan Mountains, overlooking Monterey Bay and Salinas Valley. This was also the only Grenache in our tasting blended with a small dose of Syrah (5%).  Nonetheless, the impression is very much, and thrillingly, “Grenache” – juicy, bouncy, strawberry fruit qualities in the nose and mouth, zipped up by notably bright acidity, a mild tug of tannin and just a smidgen of leafy green herbiness.

2014 Neyers Vineyards, Rossi Ranch Sonoma Valley Grenache ($35) – This was the only barrel sample included in this tasting (owner Bruce Neyers explaining that a bottle of their sold-out 2013 bottling was simply unavailable).  But I was determined to have some kind representation from Neyers; whose formidably talented winemaker, Tadeo Borchardt, has had phenomenal success with fruit from the Biodynamic® farmed Rossi Ranch, tucked away on hillsides not far from Jack London State Historic Park in Sonoma Valley.  This came across as the Grenache with the most intense expression of black-oriented fruit (plum, blackberry); and also as the one wine that could most accurately be described as “opulent,” or voluminous – zesty yet round, fleshy, layered sensations; tightly wound and compact with unresolved tannin, while finishing with a surprisingly sleek sense of grace and texturing.

Winemaker Chris Pittenger in his high elevation Skinner estate (Fair Play, El Dorado)

2012 Skinner Vineyards, Estate Grown El Dorado Grenache (about $30) – The Skinner estate plantings sit on a sandy loam saddle, some 2,700-ft. high in El Dorado’s Fair Play AVA.  This wine is effusive with bright, high-toned strawberry perfumes, complimented by the slightest herbal underpinnings; its medium body buoyed by fresh acidity, lending mouth-watering sensations.

2013 Skinner Vineyards, El Dorado Grenache ($26) – In this blend of estate and non-estate plantings, the nose projects more forward strawberryish qualities with scrubby, sage-like earth notes; and on the palate, the softness of the varietal, sweetened by restrained French oak, finishing soft, easy, ingratiatingly fresh and savory.

2012 Testa Ranch, Mendocino County Grenache ($30) – Grower/winemaker Maria Martison tends to this hidden treasure of a vineyard that has been in her family since 1912.  Employing straightforward, small batch, hand punched macro-bin fermentation, she exacts classically fragrant, flowery red berry/cherry, almost pomegranate-like perfumes and flavors in her Grenache; wrapped in a soft, elongated, easy-going medium body that seem to caress the palate.  Everything that we crave in pure (at long last) Grenache!

Testa Ranch owner/winemaker Maria Martison

Can we talk more?

By and large, all of these Grenache bottlings were sourced from vines growing in moderately warm Mediterranean climates.  Do not pay attention to yabberings about necessity of “cold climate.”  Grenache loves sun, while basking in a fairly wide range of topographies.

Where the wines in our tasting differed was in elevation (the Skinner, Baiocchi, Big Basin, Epoch, and A Tribute to Grace's Shake Ridge Ranch and Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard planted on the highest elevation sites), and soil (higher pH/calcareous soils in the Epoch, Beckmen, Harrison Clarke and Big Basin plantings).  These were nice, but wines grown in less alkaline soil on sub-400-ft. sites (i.e. McCay, Bokisch, Testa, Neyers' Rossi Ranch, and A Tribute to Grace's Besson Vineyard) seemed no less complex and attractive.

If anything, factors such as winemaking and picking decisions were also significant.  For instance, mildly green notes of pyrazine (which I love) indicative of earlier picking – presumably to achieve moderated natural alcohol and crisper acidity – were found in wines as varied as the Bokisch (grown on low-lying hillsides of rocky sandy clay loam), the Skinners (sandy loams at mountain-high altitude), Big Basin (2,200-ft. hillsides with veins of limestone), the Beckmen and Harrison Clarke bottlings (sparse, rocky limestone on hillsides topping out at about 1,200-ft.). 

In terms of style, Bokisch, A Tribute to Grace, and Testa Ranch all seemed to fall into the lighter, reddish berry perfumed spectrum of the varietal by design – a winemaker’s sense of restraint – despite coming from widely varying regions (Lodi’s Clements Hills, Santa Barbara Highlands, Amador County, Santa Clara, and Inland Mendocino).  Winemaking always has as much impact as terroir on finished product.

Skinner Vineyards in El Dorado's Fair Play AVA, on elevations reaching 2,700-ft.

It is interesting to note that with the exception of the Bokisch and Testa, all the wines were crafted by vintners devoted to native yeast fermentation and other methods associated with minimalist winemaking.  This was particularly telling in the comparison of the two Lodi grown wines – the native yeast fermented McCay showing rawer earth and spicy notes, and the inoculated Bokisch focusing on a purer red fruit expression.

Yet the wines falling on the fuller bodied end of the scale also varied.  The Baiocchi came across as successfully well balanced, while achieving a classic red fruit varietal fragrance, even in a riper, weightier style (alcohol hitting 14.9%).  The Neyers was among the fuller bodied wines, while hitting darker fruit notes – no doubt reflective of the classic red volcanic soil of Sonoma Valley.  The Epoch was downright thick, as opulent as the Neyers – you could almost feel the sweet kiss of sun on these shallow, rocky, calcareous slopes – and even spicier than the Neyers and Baiocchi.

Speaking of which, the spice factor:  we found the most intense peppery qualities in the McCay, Harrison Clarkes and Epoch Grenaches.  Again, these spice bombs come from a wide range of regions:  McCay grown in Lodi’s zero-elevation sandy loam; Harrison Clarke on a gentle slope of finely ground limestone hovering around 1,000-ft.; the Epoch on a steeper, mountainous, craggy site climbing above 1,200-ft.  What they do have in common is native yeast fermentation and squarely Mediterranean climate – chew on that.

If you enjoy complexity, Grenache is as much your grape as any other.  In the hands of crafty winemakers such as the aforementioned, any wine lover with a penchant for classic qualities like elegance and subtlety is bound to be thrilled.  I know I am.

Shake Ridge Ranch's owner/grower extraordinaire, Ann Kraemer