More of Randy's must-reads...

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.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Questions of terroir and minerality

Luis Zabala in his singularly unique Arroyo Seco (dry riverbed) Chardonnay growth
This post is a combination of "Bottom Line" columns previously published in The SOMM Journal and Sommelier Journal

Is it okay to talk about terroir in terms of minerals?

When you become a working 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.

The Mittelmosel's ridiculously steep Wurzgarten
But what of wine aromas and flavors commonly associated with regions and vineyards, 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.” I cannot 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, papaya or peppercorns growing in the ground among 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.

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, most likely 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 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 variations of aspect, slope, soil, or any number of topographic factors that influence grape expression, 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 NackenheimerRothenberg or the Pfalz’s Forster Ungeheuer.

Langley Hill block in Santa Cruz Mountains' Thomas Fogarty Vineyard
Yet the connection between minerality and acidity make sense. A few years ago I spent a day studying Chardonnays grown on four different slopes in the immediate vicinity of Thomas Fogarty Winery & Vineyards, 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 04 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, 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.

Ken Wright Cellars image
“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.”

Is terroir a crock?

Yet lately I have been feeling a disturbance in the universe. The profession of sommelier has been under fire, which is not surprising. The number of working sommeliers has increased significantly in recent years, which leaves the trade all the more open to persistent stigmas: sommeliers are snobs, sommeliers are arrogant, sommeliers are the cause of ridiculous restaurant prices and, apparently, numerous other things “wrong” with the wine and restaurant industries.

Earlier this year I found myself taking flak for suggesting that a newly published book, entitled Terroir and Other Myths of Winegrowing (University of California Press), is not entirely copacetic. According to the author, Mark A. Matthews (a Professor of Viticulture at U.C. Davis), terroir is a crock essentially because “minerals derived from rocks may represent a relatively small part of the soil’s impact on plants,” and “mineral nutrients have no established contribution to flavor” in wines. Because of that, Matthews concludes, terroir is nothing more than a “shibboleth that establishes an in-group in a world unto itself... This isn’t wine appreciation… it is more like wine snobbery.”

Soil pit showing deep fine sandy loam in Lodi' Becthold Vineyard (Cinsaut planted in 1886)
Aside from the professor’s value judgement, the idea that there is no direct correlation between flavors in wines and minerals in soil is nothing new. We concur. The SOMM Journal (and its previous incarnation, Sommelier Journal) has published several articles explicating this very issue. Matthews errs, however, in his interpretation of the consequences of this observation. Most of us (I can’t speak for everyone) who speak often of terroir are not talking about “flavor” uptake from soil. We are simply talking about the direct influence of physical attributes of a given vineyard or region on the sensory qualities of wines.

You know: The things that make, say, a classic Chablis taste lean, lemony and minerally, whereas a Carneros grown Chardonnay taste fuller, fleshier, and intense in floral tropical fruit. Terroir matters... a lot. By Matthews’ implication, we “terroirists” would have everyone believe that Chablis tastes minerally because of minerals in the calcareous soil of Chablis, and that Carneros Chardonnays taste tropical because there is papaya, mango and passionfruit growing under the ground. I’m no agronomist, but that doesn’t make me stupid. 

Yet somehow, the myth of sommelier imprudence persists. One of many responses to my online objection to Matthews’ thesis, and I quote: “For every level headed article you write about ‘sense of place’ some jackass is writing an article about tasting dirt. Master Sommeliers insist that the ‘blood’ note is the result of iron in the soil. Which is another problem; terroir is almost completely attributed to soil... I believe that the influence of the sun, when the grape sees it and doesn’t and the resulting temperature dynamics create a huge diversity in a small area. How many somms, writers and even winemakers are open to the idea that something other than soil can be the predominant factor in ‘place’?”

Bandol's Domaine Tempier
Ahem... all of us? Who among us are not cognizant of the impact of much more than soil, but also topography, aspect, elevation, latitude, climate, temperature, wind, and endless other natural factors – not to mention typicité contributed by grower (choice of grapes, clones, rootstock, vine training, pruning, picking decisions, ad infinitum) and, of course, winemaker decisions – on our best and most interesting wines? 

The simplest, and still most accurate, definition of terroir is “sense of place.” No one says “sense of dirt.” If some people think sommeliers do, maybe the trade simply needs better PR. I’m more concerned about the concept of terroir driven wines. If there is an element that believes it is more important that wines express “varietal” character or winemaking technique instead of the special places they are grown, then we really are in trouble. Although the fact of the matter remains, you cannot sprout a Chablis in Carneros, and vice-versa. No matter how many times you blink, terroir is that giant elephant in the room.

Still, I cannot fathom the likes of a Tempier, Mouton, Scharzhofberger, Fiddlestix, Rued or Original Grandpère going the way of minotaurs, unicorns, or Tinker Bell. But many lesser known yet distinctively terroir driven, worthy wines could fade away for sheer lack of love, if we let them. All the more reason to be a sommelier...

All the more reason to double-down on the significance of terroir!  

View from Fiddlestix Vineyard barn in Sta. Rita Hills

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