Tag Archives: Russian River Valley

The Fanatical But Forgotten Legacy of Martin Ray

As California Wine Month comes to a close, I want to spend some time reflecting on the men and women who have made California what it is today.

Folks like Agoston Haraszthy, H.W. Crabb, Charles Krug, Josephine Tychson, Louis M. Martini and, in more modern history, people like Andre Tchelischeff, Robert Mondavi, Warren Winiarski, Robert Haas, Donn Chappellet, Fred and Eleanor McCrea and Dick Grace.

Truthfully, the list could go on ad infinitum because the history and story of California wine is truly a patch work quilt of individual dreams and efforts.

But I’m willing to bet that if you asked most wine lovers to list some of the influential figures in California wine history–only the truly old timers and the geekiest of wine students would mention Martin Ray.

Which is remarkable considering the modern legacy of all “the Martians” that came after Ray.

The Invasion of Quantity over Quality

In the link above, wine economist Mike Veseth highlights the dichotomy in thought of two post-Prohibition wine pioneers over what the “idea” of wine should be–a topic he greatly expands upon in his 2011 work Wine Wars: The Curse of the Blue Nun, the Miracle of Two Buck Chuck, and the Revenge of the Terroirists.

Philip Wagner, who founded the Maryland winery Boordy Vineyards, bequeathed the Wagnerian ideals of wine being an everyday commodity–much like any other food and beverage–that should be affordable and accessible. As Veseth notes, the existence of “Two Buck Chuck” is a very Wagnerian model. However, Wagner’s idea of everyday affordability wasn’t just limited to bottom of the barrel prices.

Photo from Radicaldreamer29. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Martin Ray in the 1960s.

Martin Ray, on the other hand, thought that American wine should aim high and not settle for just being a commodity like milk and grains. Inspired by the great wines of Europe, the original “Martian” was convinced that California had the potential to reach similar heights.

Post-Prohibition Blues

As Thomas Pinney notes in A History of Wine in America, Volume 2: From Prohibition to the Present, the American wine industry was in a bit of a funky, cloudy haze in the years after the repeal of Prohibition–just like many of the wines of that period.

The goal of most post-Prohibition wineries was cheapness and quantity with quality being a distant third. In chapter 4 of his work, Pinney quotes UC-Davis professor Maynard Amerine’s 1940 letter bemoaning the fact that many producers ignore their vineyards until late in the harvest season, letting the grapes go far past their ideal harvest time and producing wines that were “…heavy, lacking the essential fruit quality and frequently have an overripe grape or raisin taste.” Beyond the poor condition of the fruit, Amerine noted, in the winery this often led to the presence of spoilage bacteria.

Amerine’s letter (as quoted by Pinney) would go on to say:

Aside from [Martin] Ray you would be amazed at how few of our growers or vintners have the least conception of these facts. This is one of the recurring reasons for the lack of quality (or even drinkability) of California wines.

— Maynard Amerine’s October 20th, 1940 letter to Julian Street as quoted in Thomas Pinney’s A History of Wine in America, Volume 2

Martin Ray was different.

 

A protégé of Paul Masson, Ray grew up near Masson’s vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Francisco.

While today his name is synonymous with low quality jug wines made by Constellation Brands, Paul Masson was a pioneer in his own right aiming to make high quality sparkling wines in the style of his homeland of France–even importing his own cuttings of Pinot noir and Chardonnay vines from Burgundy (likely from his friend Louis Latour’s vineyards).

During the Great Depression, Martin Ray quit his career as a stock broker to joined his neighbor Paul Masson at his winery. Falling in love with the industry, Ray bought the Paul Masson winery in 1936.

Seeing the poor quality that dominated the post-Prohibition wine industry, Ray made it his personal mission (a fanatical obsession as Pinney describes) to bring back the quality levels and standards that trademarked the industry in the Pre-Prohibition days of Haraszthy, Krug, Lily Langtry, Tychson, Jacob Schram, Gustave Niebaum and Georges de Latour.

The Best Of Intentions, The Poorest of Results
Photo from the California Historical Society. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD US

A 1935 advertisement for California port with a hefty 18-20% ABV.

But he had an uphill battle with the legacy of bootlegging, speakeasies and moon-shining leaving American drinkers with a taste for things strong and sweet.

Many of the California wines that dominated the market were often fortified with brandy and sweetened up with the use of raisins or very late harvested grapes made from Muscat, Thompson Seedless and Sultana. Thomas Pinney notes those three grapes represented nearly half (44%) of the 1941 vintage alone.

The nature of the industry and a devastating winery fire were too much to overcome. In 1942, Ray accepted an offer from Seagram’s for the Paul Masson brand and what was left of the winery.

The Sky’s The Limit

However, rather than retire, Ray tried his hand again in his fanatical quest for quality. Purchasing land on the hilltop across from the old Paul Masson vineyards, Ray transferred many of those Burgundian cuttings of Pinot noir and Chardonnay to plant what is now known as Mount Eden Vineyards–2000 feet above the Santa Clara Valley. His widow Eleanor Ray and their daughter, Barbara Marinacci, detailed Ray’s passion and goals in their book Vineyards in the Sky: The Life of Legendary Vintner Martin Ray which is a great read for folks wanting to know about this pivotal time in California’s wine history.

By Radicaldreamer29 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The Martin Ray vineyard was renamed Mount Eden in 1972 with the legendary Dick Graff and Merry Edwards making the first few post-Ray vintages. Today Jeffery Patterson tends to these grapes.

Branded under his own name, Martin Ray spared no expense in making Pinot noir, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon wines that he felt could compete with the best that Europe offered. In the vineyard, he focused on lowering yields and refused to irrigate–believing that excess water diluted the vine’s potential to make great grapes.

After the grapes were harvested, he rushed to get them crushed and fermenting within an hour of leaving the vine in order to minimize the degradation of quality and exposure to spoilage bacteria.

The wines were barrel fermented and then pressed in a custom built hand press that Ray designed himself to minimize extraction of harsh tannins. He then aged the wines in oak barrels before bottling them unfined and unfiltered. However, rather than releasing the wines soon after bottling, Ray kept the wines back and aged them further in cellar until he felt that they were ready for the market. Sometimes this meant holding them back as long as ten years.

Recognition, at last?
Photo a derivative of photos on Wikimedia Commons uploaded by self under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Unfortunately by the time Steven Spurrier was touring California to select wines for his famous tasting, the wines of Martin Ray were fading into obscurity.
S

Ray’s efforts and dedication to quality allowed him to ask for and receive some of the highest prices in all of California at the time–$2 a bottle.  Martin Ray wines were even served at the White House for both Johnson and Nixon.

However, Ray still had the cards against him. Many American drinkers of dry wines were more apt to look eastward towards Europe than to the home grown products of California. The costs and expenses of his quality-driven style–plus some bad business decisions with investors–caused Martin Ray to lose his winery in 1970. The new owners did allowed him to spend his remaining years living in a house below the vineyard.

He passed away in 1976–the same year that the famous Judgement of Paris wine tasting took place. It seems both fitting and tragic that the moment when Martin Ray’s passion and vision were actualized was when he left this earth.

That year, American wines truly did compete with the best that Europe offered.  The embrace of American consumers came shortly after.

His life’s work. Finally completed.

Rediscovering Martin Ray

Following the Judgement of Paris, the California wine industry entered a boom period of prosperity and acclaim. In the dust, the name of Martin Ray continued to fade into obscurity until 1990 when a young entrepreneur named Courtney Benham stumbled upon a warehouse in San Jose that contained 1500 cases of old Martin Ray wines along with Ray’s letters and winemaking notebooks.

That same year Courtney Benham had founded Blackstone Winery with his brother Derek. Intrigued, Benham inquired with the family of Martin Ray about acquiring the rights to Ray’s name.

Lindsey Haughton and Bill Batchelor of Martin Ray.

In 2001, the Benham brothers sold Blackstone to Constellation Brands for $140 million and in 2003 acquired the historic Martini & Prati Winery in the Russian River Valley to be the new home of Martin Ray Winery.

Blackstone’s winemaker Dennis Hill made the first vintages of the new Martin Ray wines until the 2001 sale. Then Bryan Davison succeeded him. The new winery building in 2003 saw the hiring of Bill Batchelor. The brand expanded to with the introduction of sister labels, Angeline and Courtney Benham Wines.

Batchelor eventually left Martin Ray in 2017 to take over the winemaking operation of Gundlach Bundschu. He was succeeded by his assistant winemaker, Lindsey Haughton who has been with the winery since 2012. Prior to joining Martin Ray, Haughton worked harvest at Heitz Cellars in Napa and studied at Fresno State University. While at school, she worked at Engelmann Cellars.

The Wines

2016 Martin Ray Sauvignon blanc Russian River Valley ($16-20)

100% Sauvignon blanc sourced from vineyards mostly in the Green Valley of the Russian River.

High intensity nose. Very intriguing mix tropical citrus fruit like starfruit and pomelo with richer honeydew melon and subtle grassiness. It’s not as green as a New Zealand Sauvignon blanc but the nose is as intense as one.

On the palate, the citrus notes hold court and add a lemony note. Medium-plus acidity is mouthwatering and fresh but doesn’t stray into tartness. Good balance with medium bodied fruit. Moderate finish brings back some of the honeydew notes.

2016 Martin Ray Sonoma County Pinot noir ($23-28)

A gorgeous Pinot that way over delivers for the price.

100% Pinot noir sourced from the Ricioli and Foppiano Vineyards in the Russian River Valley and the Sangiacomo Vineyard in Carneros.

WOW! High, high intensity nose. Mix of dark cherries with red raspberries and some subtle dried floral and earthy notes. With air those earthy notes become more defined as forest floor and cola nut.

On the palate the red fruit comes out more than the dark but feels weightier with medium-plus tannins. Noticeable vanilla oak also brings spices like nutmeg and cinnamon to the party. Medium-plus acidity is very lively and balances the weight of the medium body fruit. Long finish lingers on the juicy fruit at this point. It will become even more complex as the baby fat of oak fades and the floral and earthy notes develop.

2016 Martin Ray Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon ($18-22)

100% Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from vineyards in the Alexander Valley, Sonoma Mountain and Dry Creek Valley.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Very jammy dark fruits of black currants and blackberries. More noticeable oak on the nose with toasty vanilla and some clove.

On the palate those jammy dark fruits come through with medium-plus body weight. Ripe medium-plus tannins holds up the fruit and contribute to the smooth mouthfeel with the vanilla. Medium acidity gives some balance but has me wishing for more. Reminds me a lot of the Justin Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon. Moderate length finish continues with the dark fruit and vanilla oak.

Final Thoughts

It’s interesting that the modern incarnation of Martin Ray seems to combine the “Wagnerian” and “Martian” ideals. These wines offer affordable everyday drinking of very good quality.

I know that not every household has $20 wines as their everyday drinkers. But compared to many higher priced $30-40 bottles, these wines certainly make that kind of quality level more attainable.

Compared to many Napa and New Zealand Sauvignon blancs over $20, this Russian River Sauv. blanc is extremely tasty and vibrant.

The Pinot noir, in particular, is outstanding for the price with single vineyard designates from the legendary Sangiacomo vineyard rarely dropping below $35. The Ricioli and Foppiano vineyards in the Russian River Valley also tend to fetch higher prices.

While the Martin Ray lineup certainly does include more expensive wines from the Diamond Mountain District and Stags Leap District of Napa Valley, I don’t think the original Martin Ray would balk at these more affordable bottles from Sonoma.

 

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Getting Geeky with Tablas Creek Vermentino

Back in January I wrote a post called Wine Clubs Done Right which detailed my discovery of Tablas Creek’s Wine Club program and ultimate decision to join it. As I noted in that post, I don’t join many wineries’ wine clubs because they rarely offer (to me) compelling value and I don’t like being committed to buying quantities of wine that may eventually shift in style due to changing winemakers/ownership, etc.

However, while exploring the Tablas Creek story and all they had to offer I found many compelling reasons to pull the trigger and join. Much to my surprise, the folks at Tablas Creek were actually interested in my tale and offered on their blog some cool behind the scene insights into their own thought processes in how they set up their wine club programs.

You usually don’t see that kind of receptivity and transparency with many wineries but, as I’ve found out in the nearly 8 months since I’ve been a member of Tablas Creek’s wine club, that is just par for the course with them. It’s not marketing or show, these folks are really just wine geeks through and through who clearly love what they are doing and sharing that passion with others.

If you are wine geek yourself, I honestly can’t recommend a more exciting winery to discover.

Beyond their hugely informative blog with harvest and business details, the Tablas Creek website also offers a fantastic vintage chart of their wines that is updated regularly and an encyclopedic listing of grape varieties they farm complete with geeky history, winemaking and viticulture details.

Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes is still my holy writ (and I really like Harry Karis’ The Chateauneuf-du-Pape Wine Book chapter on grapes) but when I’m away from my books and want to check up on a Rhone variety there is no better online source than the Tablas Creek site. Plus, the particular winemaking details they cover in the entries is often stuff that you won’t find in many wine books because it comes from their decades of hands-on experience working with these grapes between themselves and the Perrins’ Ch. Beaucastel estate.

Photo taken by self and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Counoise vine outside the tasting room at Tablas Creek.


But enough with the effusive gushing and let’s get down to some hardcore geeking over the 2017 Tablas Creek Vermentino from the Adelaida District of Paso Robles.

The Background

Tablas Creek Vineyards was founded in 1989 as a partnership between the Perrin family of Château de Beaucastel and Robert Haas of Vineyard Brands. As I noted in my 60 Second Review of the 2000 Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the Perrins have been in charge of the legendary Rhone property since 1909.

Robert Haas established Vineyard Brands in 1973 as part of a long wine importing career that began in the 1950s working for his father’s Manhattan retail shop M. Lehmann (which was eventually bought by Sherry Wine and Spirits Co. to become Sherry-Lehmann). After World War II, he was the first American importer to bring Chateau Petrus to the United States. Haas also helped popularize the idea of selling Bordeaux futures to American consumers.

In addition to Beaucastel, Haas represented the importing interests of the Burgundian estates Domaine Ponsot, Henri Gouges, Thibault Liger-Belair, Jean-Marc Boillot, Etienne Sauzet, Mongeard-Mugneret, Domaine de Courcel, Thomas Morey, Vincent & Sophie Morey, Vincent Girardin and Vincent Dauvissat as well as the Champagne houses Salon and Delamotte. Haas would go on to sell Vineyard Brands to the firm’s employees in 1997 with his son, Daniel, managing the company today.

Aaron Romano of Wine Spectator noted that Haas also helped launch Sonoma-Cutrer and promoted on a national stage the prestigious California wines of Chappellet, Joseph Phelps, Hanzell, Kistler and Freemark Abbey. In 1980, he co-found the distribution firm Winebow Group.

Photo by Deb Harkness, Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-2.0

The vineyards of Tablas Creek with some of the rocky limestone soil visible.

The similarity in the maritime climate and limestone soils of the Adelaida District, west of the city of Paso Robles, inspired Haas and the Perrins to purchase 120 acres and establish Tablas Creek. Planting of their estate vineyard began in 1994 and today the winery has 115 acres of vines that are biodynamically farmed–producing around 30,000 cases a year.

Utilizing its close connection to the Chateauneuf estate, Tablas Creek would go on to become an influential figure in the Rhone Ranger movement in the United States. Doing the heavy lifting of getting cuttings from Beaucastel through quarantine and TTB label approval, Tablas Creek would help pioneer in the US numerous varieties like Counoise, Terret noir, Grenache blanc, Picpoul and more. Additionally the high quality “Tablas Creek clones” of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre have populated the vineyards of highly acclaimed producers across California, Oregon and Washington.

In the mid-2000s, Robert’s son Jason joined the winery and is the now the general manager as well as the main contributor to Tablas Creek’s award winning blog.

Photo provided by NYPL Digital Gallery. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-PD-Mark with an author that died more than 100 years ago.

Vermentino from Giorgio Gallesio’s ampelography catalog published between 1817 and 1839.

In March 2018, Robert Haas passed away at the age of 90 leaving a lasting legacy on the world of wine.

The Grape

The origins and synonyms of Vermentino are hotly debated. Some ampelographers claim that the grape came from Spain via Corsica and Sardinia sometime between the 14th and 17th centuries with modern DNA evidence suggesting that the Vermentino vine of Tuscany, Corsica and Sardinia is the same grape as the Ligurian Pigato and the Piemontese Favorita.

However Ian D’Agata, in his Native Wine Grapes of Italy, notes that these conclusions are vigorously disputed by Italian growers, particularly in Liguria, who point out that different wine is produced by Pigato compared to other Vermentinos. D’Agata, himself, relays that he usually finds Pigato to produce “bigger, fatter wines” that have a creamier texture than most Vermentinos. The name “Pigato” is believed to have been derived from the word pigau in the Ligurian dialect, meaning spotted, and could be a reference to the freckled spots that appear on the berries after veraison.

The absence of Vementino being mentioned in the 1877 Bollettino Ampelografico listing of Sardinian varieties suggest that it could be a more recent grape to the island (though it was later included in the 1887 edition). Today the grape plays a prominent roll in Sardinia’s only DOCG wine–Vermentino di Gallura.

Photo by 	trolvag. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Vermentino vineyards in Sardinia.


The connection to Favorita seems to be less disputed though Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz note in Wine Grapes that historically the grape was believed to have been brought to Piedmont originally as a gift from Ligurian oil merchants. The first documentation of the grape was in the Roero region in 1676 where it was reported to be a “favorite” for consumption as a table grape.

Almost two decades earlier, in the Piemontese province of Alessandria, a grape named “Fermentino” was described growing in vineyards along with Cortese and Nebbiolo with this, perhaps, being the earliest recorded mentioning of Vermentino.

Historically, as Favorita, the grape has a long history of being blended with Nebbiolo as a softening agent to smooth out the later grape’s harsh tannins and acid in a manner not too dissimilar to the use of white grape varieties like Trebbiano and Malvasia being blended with Sangiovese in the historic recipe for Chianti.

While once the primary grape of Roero, in recent decades Favorita has fallen out of favor as Arneis and Chardonnay have gained in popularity.

Photo by Magnetto. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Rolle/Vermentino grapes growing in southern France.

Outside of Italy and Corsica, Vermentino can also be found in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France where it is known as Rolle. Beyond Europe the grape is grown in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon and has become one of the fastest growing “alternative grape varieties” in Australia with nearly 300 acres planted in 2016 in areas like Victoria, the Hunter Valley, King Valley, the Barossa and Murray Darling.

While Tablas Creek mostly focuses on Châteauneuf-du-Pape grapes, they were one of the first domestic producers of Vermentino in the United States when they planted the vine in 1993 based upon the recommendation of the Perrin family’s nurseryman who thought the vine would do well in the soils and climate of the Adelaida District. While originally used as a blending component, the winery has been making a varietal Vermentino since the 2002 vintage.

In 2008, there were around 20 acres of the Vermentino planted in California when there was some speculation that the grape could have appeal to Sauvignon blanc drinkers. By 2017 that number had jump to 91 acres as producers like Tablas Creek, Seghesio in the Russian River Valley, Mahoney Vineyards, Fleur Las Brisas and Saddleback in Carneros, Unti Vineyards in the Dry Creek Valley, Gros Ventre Cellars in El Dorado, Brick Barn in Santa Ynez, Twisted Oak in the Sierra Foothills and others began receiving acclaim for their bottlings.

Outside of California, notable plantings of Vermentino can be found in the Applegate Valley of Oregon (Troon Vineyard and Minimus Wines), the Texas High Plains (Duchman Family Winery) and the Monticello AVA of Virginia (Barboursville Vineyards).

In 2017, Tablas Creek produced 1430 cases of Vermentino. While some producers age their Vermentino in neutral oak, Tablas Creek fermented the wine with native yeast and aged it in stainless steel tanks.

The Wine

High intensity nose. Very citrus driven with kiffir lime, pink grapefruit and pummelo–both the zest and the fruit. There is also a tree fruit element that seems a bit peachy but I would put it more in the less sweet yellow peach category than white peach.

Photo by David Adam Kess. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

The mix of citrus and yellow peach notes are very intriguing with this wine.


On the palate, those citrus notes carry through and have an almost pithy element to them. Not bitter at all but it definitely adds weight and texture to the medium body of the wine. The medium-plus acid is mouthwatering and lively but well balanced with the acid highlighting the yellow peach note. The palate also introduces some racy minerality with a very distinctive streak of salinity that lingers long throughout the finish.

The Verdict

The best way I can describe this 2017 Tablas Creek Vermentino is if a New Zealand Sauvignon blanc, a sur lie Muscadet from the Loire and an Italian Pinot grigio had a threesome and produced a baby, this would be it.

This is a fascinatingly unique and character driven wine that combines multiple layers of tropical and tree fruit with acidity, minerality, weight and texture. Well worth its $27 price.

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60 Second Wine Review — Tuli Pinot noir

Update: The 2016 version of this wine was included in my blind tasting of Joe Wagner vs Oregon Pinot noirs. The Tuli was picked by the majority of tasters as a clear Wagner wine.

A few quick thoughts on the 2013 Tuli Pinot noir from Sonoma County.

The Geekery

Tuli is made by Joe Wagner, son of Chuck Wagner (of Caymus fame), and is part of a portfolio of wines that he produces for his Copper Cane Wines & Provisions company.

Along with Tuli, Copper Cane also makes Belle Glos, Elouan, The Willametter, BÖEN, Torial, Quilt, Beran, Carne Humana and the sparkling wine Steorra. Many of these new brands were developed by Wagner after he sold his Meiomi label to Constellation Brands in 2015 for $315 million dollars.

The name Tuli comes from the language of the native Wappo tribe that originally inhabited Sonoma County and means “sharing”. The fruit is sourced from throughout the county, including the Russian River Valley, with a primary focus on the cooler coastal regions of the Sonoma Coast, Fort-Ross Seaview and parts of the new Petaluma Gap AVA.

The Wine

Medium intensity nose. Very ripe black cherry with noticeable vanilla oak and baking spice–particularly clove and nutmeg. Around the edges some cola spice comes out with air.

Photo by Benny Mazur. Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-2.0

With the very ripe cherry fruit, vanilla and baking spice, this Tuli Pinot has a lot of cherry pie notes.

On the palate those very ripe cherry notes come through and, coupled with the vanilla richness, gives this wine a lot of weight. Medium acidity helps balance the medium-plus tannins and body but could probably be a tad higher. The spices still make their presence known as they extend through the moderate-length finish.

The Verdict

The Tuli is a “Joe Wagner Wine” through and through with its big body and soft, plush fruit. It’s not as sweet tasting as Meiomi was (probably because it doesn’t have Riesling and Gewürztraminer blended in) nor is it quite as full-bodied and oaky as the Belle Glos Pinots are–though there is definitely oak and weight in the Tuli.

At around $25-30, it hits a “Goldilocks niche” between the two styles. Above all, this is a Wagner wine with the family pedigree very evident.

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Hospice du Rhône Weekend 2018

The BBQ prep for the closing dinner.

Just got back home from a wonderful weekend down in Paso Robles attending the 2018 Hospice du Rhône. This was my first time attending the event and I can tell you that my wife and I are already making plans to attend the 2020 event April 23rd-25th.

To be honest, we are even thinking about attending the 2019 event in the Rhône Valley.

We purchased two weekend passes at $995 each which got us:

4 seminars featuring 9-11 wines each including many wines with limited releases and very small production.
Two lunches (a Rosé lunch on Day 1 and Live Auction lunch on Day 2)
An Opening and Closing Tasting featuring hundreds of wines with each tasting having a different theme (older vintages for Day 1 and newer vintages for Day 2) so each day had different wines to try.
Farewell dinner and BBQ

As you can probably garner from the first paragraph, my wife and I left the event feeling that the cost of the weekend pass was more than worth it for the experience we got. So I’ll share some of my favorite geeky moments, top wines and the two slight negatives that put a damper on an otherwise stellar event.

I’ll save my reviews of the 4 seminars (South Africa’s Cinsault Renaissance, A 6th Generation Crusade in the Barossa Valley, Lost and Found: Old Vine Rhônes Across California, The Majesty of Guigal) for their own individual posts because there was a lot of great stuff from each to unpack.

Top 3 Geek Moments

Meeting two Masters of Wine in Billo Naravane of Rasa Vineyards and Morgan Twain-Peterson of Bedrock Wine Co. I got a chance to talk to Billo about the possibilities of Walla Walla hosting a future Hospice du Rhone (would be incredibly exciting!) and with Morgan it was hard not to be charmed with his unabashed geekiness for old vine vineyards in California.

John Alban, Morgan Twain-Peterson and Tegan Passalacqua at the old vine seminar.

Which along those lines….

Having the light bulb flick on about the treasure of old vine field blends. Some of the most exciting wines at the event were old vine field blends featuring a hodge podge of grapes like Mataro (Mourvedre), Syrah, Peloursin, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Trousseau noir, Grenache, Mondeuse, Alicante Bouchet and the like inter-planted and fermented together. In an industry dominated by monoculture and mono-varietal wines, the character of these field blends like Carlisle’s Two Acres and Bedrock’s Gibson Ranch are off the charts.

And no one is intentionally planting field blends right now. This truly is a treasure of the past when farmers, rather than viticulturists, just kind of did their thing and let what would grow, grow. That kind of proposition is way too risky today but that only heightens the importance of saving these old vineyards and supporting the wineries who source fruit from them.

As a Millennial, the character and stories behind field blend plantings is the perfect antidote to the mind-numbing boredom of the “same old, same old”. Millennials are changing the wine industry with their craving for new experiences and new things as well as authenticity–which an old vine field blend delivers in spades. It’s why I’m skeptical that Cabernet Sauvignon will continue it dominance and why I don’t think Merlot’s downturn is just because of a movie.

Potek Winery’s Mormann Vineyard Syrah from the Santa Rita Hills.
Great wine but Potek’s labels are WAAAAAAY too busy. Admittedly in a wine shop I wouldn’t even give them a second look because they’re so hard to read.

Though speaking of that movie…

Screw Pinot. Let’s start drinking Santa Barbara County Rhônes. I mentioned this in my quick take on Day 1 and day 2 only reaffirmed how special these cool climate Rhônes are. I’ll also add the Russian River Valley of Sonoma because not only can you find Carlisle’s Two Acre gem there but I was also thoroughly impressed with the wines from MacLaren.

Top 10 (non-seminar) Wines of the Event

When you have wines like a 2005 Guigal La Turque being poured at the seminars, it would be easy to fill up this list with nothing but seminar wines. But there were a lot of fantastic wines poured at the Opening and Closing tastings so here are 10 of my favorites in no particular order.

2016 Jada Hell’s Kitchen Paso Robles — It was actually hard to narrow down just one of the Jada wines to put on this list because every single one of them were stellar. This one was very full bodied and hedonistic with rich dark fruit, velvety smooth mouthfeel and a long finish with dark chocolate notes.

2016 Louis Cheze Condrieu Pagus Luminis — Crisp but mouthfilling. Lots of fresh tree fruit notes–apricots and peaches–with some stony minerality.

While I enjoyed the opportunity to try Saxum, I’m actually far more excited about the wines being made by their assistant, Don Burns, with his wife Claudia at their Turtle Rock Winery.

2016 CR Graybehl The Grenachista Alder Springs Grenache Mendocino County — I guess I could add this to my cool-climate Rhône discoveries. Like Jada, this was a hard one to narrow down because I loved everything from this producer. The Alder Springs had a particular vivacious mouthfeel of juicy blackberries with some spice and floral notes.

2012 Turtle Rock Willow’s Cuvee Paso Robles — Made by the assistant winemaker of Saxum. Truthfully, I liked these better than the Saxum wines I tried. Very floral with a mix of red and dark fruit. One of the best noses of the night.

2012 Dos Cabezas Wineworks El Campo Sonoita Arizona — One of the surprises of the event. A Tempranillo-Mourvedre blend from Arizona that tasted like a spicy Ribera del Duero and juicy Jumilla had a baby. Very impressive.

2008 Kunin Alisos Vineyard Syrah Santa Barbara County — Winners across the board from Kunin. Great mix of dark fruit and earthy forest floor. Very long finish. These were wines I wished I had more time to savor.

2012 Le Vieux Donjon Châteauneuf-du-Pape — This hit my perfect catnip style of savory, meaty undertones wrapped around a core of juicy, mouthwatering fruit. Such a treat to have and I suspect that the 2015 will be even better with a few more years.

2007 Carlisle James Berry Syrah Paso Robles — All in all, Carlisle probably made my favorite wines of the entire event. I can still taste the 2016 Two Acres from the old vine seminar but this James Berry was a close second. Still very lively with dark fruit, mouthwatering medium-plus acid and some spicy minerality on the finish.

A 100% Cinsault pet-nat was not only geeky good but also a palate savior.
Would really love to see more sparkling wines like this at future Hospice du Rhone events.


2017 The Blacksmith The Bloodline Cinsault Pet-Nat Darling W.O. South Africa — This was much needed salvation for the palate (see below) but it would have been a treat to try under any circumstance. Super geeky Cinsault pet-nat, this wine had a huge nose of orange blossoms and cherries that jumped out of the glass.

2005 Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage — This wine wasn’t part of any featured tasting and was certainly an unexpected treat that someone brought to the Live Auction lunch on Day 2. This was my first Chave and my lord! Still quite young and powerful for its age with layers of red fruit, savory Asian spices and a long finish of smokey BBQ notes.

Palate Fatigue and a little clicky culture

While overall the event was fantastic, there were two things that stuck out as minor negatives. One was the absence of sparkling wines which are the guardian angels of the palate at tastings like these. As readers of my flashback review of the 2017 Taste Washington know, periodically taking a break from big, heavy reds with some palate cleansing bubbles is a must if you’re going to maximize your tasting experience.

There were a few producers pouring some roses and crisp white wines which helped but it was disappointing not to see more sparkling examples. I know that the Rhône is not particularly well known for bubbles but there is the Clairette de Die and Saint-Péray AOCs producing sparkling wine and Australia has a good tradition of making sparkling Shiraz. I’m sure there are also examples from New World producers experimenting with sparkling Viognier and other varieties. It would be great to give these wines more visibility and they would be absolute god sends during the big tastings.

While some of the “clickiness” at lunch was disheartening, the gracious couple who shared this wine from their table gave me an amazing thrill that was a joy to try.


The second negative was how “clicky” the culture among the attendees were–especially at the lunches. It’s wonderful that the Hospice du Rhône is in its 22nd year and it’s clear that there are many people who have been attending this event regularly. But for a “newbie”, it felt hard at times to break into the crowd.

Again, this was most felt at the lunches where several times seats and entire tables were reserved not by official organizers but other attendees who didn’t seem to have any interest in interacting with people who weren’t part of their local scene.

But there were certainly more than enough gracious attendees who were welcoming and approachable (as well as the organizers themselves like John and Lorraine Alban, Vicki Carroll and Faith Wells) to make the event exceedingly enjoyable and well worth attending again.

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Product Review — SommSelect Blind Six

Master Sommelier Ian Cauble (of the movie Somm fame) has a unique subscription program designed to teach people how to blind taste better–the SommSelect Blind Six.

Each month for $199 you receive 6 bottles (3 whites and 3 reds) that are individually wrapped in black tissue paper. I decided to give the subscription a go. Below is my experience with my first month’s box (Spoiler alert if you haven’t done April’s wines) and my thoughts on if the subscription (and wines) are worth the cost.

What You Get

In the box, you’ll find 6 individually wrapped bottles numbered 1-6 as well as an envelop containing both instructions and an answer packet to reference after you’ve tasted the wines. The first thing I noticed when I opened the box was that they didn’t indicate on each bottle if they were red or white nor was there any info in the Blind Tasting Instruction Packet. The numbered stickers on each bottle are different colors but not with a consistent pattern to distinguish white versus red. I took a wager on the most logical set up being trying the 3 whites first so I went with trying bottles #1-3 which, happily, were all white.

In the instruction packet, Cauble gives tips on what to look for in each stage of the evaluation as well as what common “clues” often mean. These tips range from things that are fairly well known–like under Sight the tips about looking at the meniscus and how the color varies from the intensity of the core to the rim is a sign of age–to more interesting observations like his note under Nose & Palate that the aroma of dry bay leaf is common in Cabernet Sauvignon from moderately warm climate regions like Napa. While the former can often be found in discussions about blind tasting, the later is the kind of insight you usually only get first hand from someone with experience in blind tasting.

Likewise, the answer packet (which I’ll discuss below) also gives numerous precise details about things to look for in evaluating color and structure that you don’t readily find from other resources.

Tasting the White Flight

Using the Coravin on the white wine flight.

Cauble recommends having a neutral third party person open the wines and pour them into a decanter. While I clearly see the benefit of this approach–not the least of which is that splash decanting is probably the most underutilized tool in wine appreciation–I went a different route for three reasons.

1.) Neither my wife nor I wanted to miss out on the fun so we didn’t have a “neutral third party”
2.) I didn’t want to open up and waste 3 bottles of wine. [Note: Cauble does recommend doing the tastings as part of a multi-course dinner and with friends]
3.) I didn’t have 3 decanters of the same size and shape–which does make a difference
3.5) I also didn’t want to clean 3 decanters along with 6 wine glasses to be brutally honest

So we decided to break out the foil cutter and as carefully as possible use scissors to cut off the tip of the black tissue paper and remove the top of the capsule without seeing any identifying markings. Wine #3 was a screwcap so I just closed my eyes and twist. It felt like I was kid back at home trying to get something out of my parent’s closet while deliberately avoiding the corner where they kept the presents. Then we Coravin each bottle to pour out 2 samples of the cork-sealed wines.

Now other people might take the approach of just blind tasting one bottle a night and enjoying the wine with dinner or what not. It’s certainly an easier and less wasteful approach. However, we really wanted to compare the 3 together because we felt that it allowed us to go back and forth with contrasting color and aroma. It is also more conducive to the blind tasting format of formal examinations. The beauty of the Coravin is that it allows us to only pour two samples of each without pulling the cork and wasting the wine.

Wine #1

The most noticeable thing about this wine was the “onion peel” color with pink hues.

Medium intensity nose with apple and citrus notes along with a white floral element that wasn’t very defined. There was also a subtle doughy element that made me think of raw pastry dough as opposed to something toasty like oak or Champagne.

On the palate the apple fruits came through much more than the citrus with a lot of weight and depth for a medium-plus bodied white wine. This wine had texture that filled the mouth which started my brain going towards Oregon Pinot gris. Medium acidity was enough to keep it fresh but not racy or citrusy like I associate with Italian Pinot grigio. No signs of new oak but that doughy element from the nose could have been from partial neutral oak. Moderate length finish ends with the lingering white flower notes that I still couldn’t quite pin point.

My guess: An Oregon Pinot gris in the $18-20 range. At this point in my practice I’m not going to focus on guessing age.
Turned out to be: 2016 Scarbolo Pinot grigio, Friuli Venezia Giulia, Italy (Wine Searcher Ave: $14)

Wine #1 — Should have paid more attention to the color.

In hindsight, I should have paid more attention to the color that comes from a practice of skin contact that is far more common in Italy than Oregon. I let the stereotype of “light, citrusy” supermarket Italian Pinot grigio sway me into thinking that this wine was too good and too weighty to come from Italy. Granted, living in the Pacific Northwest I’m naturally bias due to my greater familiarity with Oregon Pinot gris.

Also, (thanks to Cauble’s notes in the Answer Packet) I realized that I should have paid more attention to that “subtle doughy element” from the nose. In Cauble’s notes he describes “hints of peanut shells, stale beer” which plays along those lines of what I was picking up. It wasn’t Champagne biscuity or Muscadet leesy but there was something there that I now know I should look out for–particularly in higher end Italian Pinot grigio from regions like Friuli.

Wine #2

Light yellow color, almost watery with some green specks.

High intensity nose. Wow! This wine is screaming out the glass with lemon citrus (both fruit and zest) and the smell of concrete after rain.

On the palate, those citrus notes comes through but so does the stoniness. This wine is screaming minerality–like liquid stones in your mouth. There is also a sense of salinity in the wine that amplifies the minerality. Clearly I’m thinking Old World here but which grape? Medium-plus acid tilts me away from thinking Sauvignon blanc/Sancerre and more to Chardonnay/Chablis. Medium body with a long finish that lingers on those stoney notes. Very fantastic wine and my favorite of the flight.

Crazy good Petit Chablis. Minerality for days.

My guess: A village-level Chablis in the $25-30 range.
Turned out to be: 2016 Agnes et Didier Dauvissat Petit Chablis, Burgundy, France (Wine Searcher Ave $17)

Outstanding wine and a scorcher of a deal for a Petit Chablis. I was even tempted into thinking this could be a Premier Cru instead of a village-level Chablis because of how vibrant it was. Ultimately I defaulted back to village level because, while it did jump out of the glass, my notes on the wine were still rather short. You expect more layers and complexity with a higher level Chablis. But still, an outstanding bottle and way above what a Petit Chablis typically delivers.

Wine #3

Moderate yellow. Definitely darker than #2 but not golden or anything that would hint at oak.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Spiced d’Anjou pear with LOTS of white pepper. I tried really hard not to jump to conclusions but this was screaming Gruner Veltliner right from the get-go.

On the palate the spiced pear carries through and is joined by some ripe apple notes. The ripeness of the apple and the pear had me wondering if this was maybe a warmer climate Gruner like from California or (Northwest bias again) Oregon. Medium-plus acidity and a sense of stoney river rocks ultimately brought me back to Old World and Austria. No signs of oak. Light bodied with a moderate finish that lingers on the white pepper spice.

My guess: An Austrian Gruner Veltliner in the $14-17 range.
Turned out to be: 2016 Weingut Bauerl Gruner Veltliner Federspiel, Wachau, Austria (Wine Searcher Average $9)

Another crazy good value. Would be a killer glass pour at a restaurant.

While not “New Zealand Sauv. blanc easy”, this was definitely the easiest one in the entire Blind Six. Cauble promises to pick classic examples of each wine style and I don’t think he could have picked a more classic Gruner Veltliner than this.

Tasting the Red Flight

I had a bit of a ego boost with the white flight getting 3/3 grape varieties right and 1.5/3 with the regions–going to do a half point for that way over-performing Petit Chablis. However with the red flight my ego got thoroughly deflated.

My wife and I did the red flight tasting before a meal and decided to make a game of it. After we sampled and evaluated the wines, we compared each to our meal to see what was the best pairing. The “winning bottle” got the cork pulled to be finished with the rest of the meal. We really liked this game and think we’ll make it a staple moving forward with doing the Blind Six.

Wine #4

Light ruby color. Can read through it. Some fuschia hues.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Very ripe Rainier cherries, cranberries with herbal notes–mint and fennel.

Those red fruits and herbal notes carry through but the cherries taste more richer on the palate than they smelled on the nose. Almost candied even. High acidity balances that richness and still keeps the fruit more red than black. Medium tannins and medium body contribute to the wine feeling a little thin. Rather short finish ends on some spice notes that aren’t very defined though hint at being in the baking spice family (cinnamon, clove) suggesting partial new oak? Definitely thinking Old World Pinot with this.

Should have paid more attention to the fuschia hues and candied cherry notes.

My guess: A basic Bourgogne rouge (maybe Cote de Beaune-Villages?) in the $25-30 range.
Turned out to be: Jean-Paul Brun Domaine des Terres Dorees Morgon, Beaujolais, France (Wine Searcher Ave $18)

My wife briefly suggested Gamay as a possibility but we dismissed it because the acids were too high–though in his notes Cauble rates the acidity of this wine as medium-plus. In hindsight, the “candied cherry” and the fuschia hues should have registered more.

Yeah, this was a total miss for me.

Wine #5

Moderate ruby. Can still read through it but much darker than #1. Slight blue hues.

Medium intensity nose. Noticeable oak spice and vanilla. Black cherries and black berries.

On the palate, the oak still dominate with the dark fruit. Medium-plus acidity keeps it from being syrupy with medium tannins holding the structure well. Moderate length finish ends on the oak. This is screaming California Pinot.

While you probably wouldn’t suspect Syrah being blended in, it would be hard not to peg this as anything but a Cali Pinot.

My guess: A California Pinot noir in the $33-38 range.
Turned out to be: 2016 Tyler Pinot Noir, Santa Barbara County, USA (Wine Searcher Ave $36)

This was, by far, the easiest one of the red flight and I was seriously close to taking a stab that it was Central Coast as well. It was very oak driven and didn’t have any of the elegance I associate with Sonoma Coast, Russian River or Carneros Pinot noir. It wasn’t bad at all (and it certainly not a huge Kosta Browne wannabe) but it definitely was as stereotypical “Post-Sideway Cali Pinot” as you can get.

Wine #6

Medium garnet with some rim variation that has an orange huge. Can’t read through the core.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Lots of dried roses and tarry tobacco spice. Some red fruits–cherries, pomegranate and cranberries. Also a little animal earthiness.

The red fruits carry through but aren’t as defined on the palate as they were on the nose. It’s the tarry tobacco and high tannins that dominate. Still just medium-plus body though with the alcohol weight. High acidity makes your mouth water and highlights tobacco spice notes and helps keep the floral rose petals from the nose alive. The animal earthiness become more defined and linger on the moderate finish.

This isn’t your “modernist” style Gaja, Antinori, Renieri or Banfi style Brunello. Tasting this made me realize that I need to look into more “old school” style producers.

My guess: A basic Barolo in the $40-45 range.
Turned out to be: 2012 Padelletti Brunello di Montalcino DOCG, Tuscany, Italy (Wine Searcher Ave $48)

Once again my wife had the suggestion that maybe this was Sangiovese–which we evaluated more critically this time. The orange hue and the cherry notes played along. But ultimately we thought that the high tannins and high acidity fit the profile of Nebbiolo/Barolo much more than Sangiovese. Turns out, our scale of “high” is apparently Ian Cauble’s medium-plus.

In hindsight, and after reading Cauble’s notes, I realize that I have vastly more experience with “modern” style Brunello producers than I do with some of the classic, old school style of Brunello that Cauble describes in the Padelletti. A big takeaway from this experience is that I need to branch out more in this area.

For dinner we were having Italian sausage with penne and red sauce so this was the “winning bottle” from a food pairing point of view though the Morgon with the fennel notes was a close second.

Ian’s Notes — aka Where You Went Wrong

It’s incredibly enlightening (and humbling) to read a Master Sommelier’s notes on a wine you just tasted. For each wine there are numerous “clues” in color, aroma and structure that Cauble points out that make perfect sense when you go back and revisit the wine.

Like how did I miss the crushed raspberries with the Morgon Beaujolais–one of the tell tale signs of Gamay? How did I not notice the fennel and orange peel from the Brunello?

Tasting a Pinot grigio and Gruner in a flight together really highlighted the similarities and differences between the two.

While there are going to be subjective differences (like the high/medium-plus ratings), overall there is immense insight to be gained in reviewing Cauble’s notes. Beyond just laying out all the clues that you may or may not have gotten, Cauble chimes in with tips about other “lateral wines” that blind tasters often confuse with each other.

For instance, Pinot grigio, Albarino and Gruner Veltliner are part of a trio of “neutral bitter varieties” that often trouble blind tasters. Cauble encourages you to look for a subtle sensation of “over-steeped green tea” at the back of the palate and front of the lips and then try to differentiate from there. Gruner will have the distinctive white pepper (and apparently daikon-raddish which I need to look for) while Albarino will have more canned peaches and Pinot grigio will have that “stale beer” and “peanut shell” element that I also need to start looking more for.

With the Morgon Beaujolais that I completely whiffed on, Cauble goes into brief detail about how different Cru Beaujolais are from the popular associations with Gamay and describes how they are commonly confused for Northern Rhone Syrahs and Loire Cabernet Franc from Chinon. While I, personally, didn’t confuse the Morgon for either of those two–I have a motivation now to actively compare good quality Cru Beaujolais with each.

In fact this is a suggestion that Cauble makes repeatedly throughout the tasting packet–if you have trouble with something then do comparison tastings (non-blind) with what you tasted and what you thought it was. This is another area where the Coravin becomes a valuable tool. The next night after we did the red flight, my wife and I grabbed a Beaune Montrevenots (a tad higher than Cote de Beaune-Village level) and compared it side by side to the Morgon. That was immensely educational (the candied cherry of the Beaujolais was even more pronounced compared to the tart cherry of the Beaune) and we plan to do the same with getting a Barolo to compare side by side with an old school Brunello.

Is it Worth it?

Depends.

If you are looking at it from a straight dollar value of the wine, then maybe not. At $199 for 6 bottles you expect an average wine value of around $33 a bottle. I don’t know how close this month’s box is to the norm but going off of Wine Searcher’s average prices (which is based on retail and not the wholesale that SommSelect is likely getting), I received $142 worth of wine for an average of $24 a bottle. Assuming that SommSelect is already making a healthy retail mark up, it’s fair to see how some subscribers might chaff at the hard numbers.

That said, these were exceptionally well curated wines that in nearly each case drank at a higher price point. If I went with the upper end of my price ranges for each wine (which, like how I score wines with my 60 Second Reviews, is mostly based on what price I feel would be a good value for this wine) that would be $180 for an average of $30 a bottle. Not ideal but not feeling like I’m getting ripped off either.

But the bigger value in the SommSelect Blind Six is truly with Cauble’s notes. For students seeking higher level certifications with WSET and the Court of Master Sommeliers, there is a dearth of material out there when it comes to learning more about blind tasting. There are some online resources (and great podcasts) from GuildSomm and each program includes some material when you pay for courses. When it comes to wine books, Neel Burton’s The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting is pretty much the only game in town.

Truthfully, for the most part, budding wine geeks are on their own in this arena.

If you are serious about wanting to be a good blind taster and are already investing thousands into seeking higher level certifications–this will probably be well worth it to you.

The benefit of the SommSelect Blind Six is that you can easily structure your own self-study program for blind tasting with essentially a Master Sommelier as your personal tutor. The examples that Cauble pick are truly classic and while you might disagree with some of his assessments, you can’t fault the logic and soundness of his conclusions.

But, most importantly, along with the individual wines you taste in the Blind Six, Cauble’s notes helps you pinpoint the strengths and weakness in your approach. With his suggestions of other things to taste and insight into his own personal approach, you can craft a game plan to tackle those weaknesses so you can become a better blind taster.

After one round of the Blind Six, I feel that, yes, it is undoubtedly worth it. Maybe not for the casual wine drinker but most definitely for the wine geek or ambitious wine professional who truly wants to get better at blind tasting.

I’ll continue to review each month’s box to not only track my own progress in blind tasting but to also see how the value/price per bottle ratio trends.

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Zin-ful Thoughts

For a de facto Zin-ful Thoughts Part II see my post Zinfandel — The “Craft Beer” of American Wine

Joseph Swan Zinfandel from the Bastoni Vineyard in the Fountaingrove District of Sonoma County.Originally planted in 1906, the vineyard was significantly replanted in 2005.

In honor of the upcoming ZAP 2018 Zinfandel Experience in San Francisco, the Lodi Winegrape Commission released a very informative FAQ page on Zinfandel written by sommelier Randy Caparoso.

I must confess that being based in the Pacific Northwest and a bit of a Francophile, my experience with Zinfandel has been limited—mostly the uber jammy and commercialized examples from producers like Rombauer, Michael David and Klinker Brick. We do grow a little bit of the variety here in Washington State (65 acres as of 2017) but many of the examples that I’ve tried have been a bit underwhelming.

A trip last year to Joseph Swan Vineyards in Sonoma started to change my perception of Zinfandel. Here I found examples of this “big bruising grape” that were elegant, spicy and downright mouthwatering. So I was very intrigued to read Caparoso’s post and ended up learning a lot.

Some of the cool things (not all Zin related) I learned from Caparoso’s post:

1.) One of the reasons why Zinfandel likely became such a popular and widely planted grape in California during the 1800s was because of how easy it is to grow, particularly in the goblet “bush vine” style. Growers could just stick cuttings into the ground, without the expense and labor of trellising, and tend to the vine with the relatively low-maintenance spur-pruning system. Add to the fact that Zin produces reliable yields, it makes sense why this was a choice variety for many of the European immigrants who planted the early California vineyards.

2.) Due to the decline in popularity of White Zinfandel, overall plantings of Zinfandel have decreased which means that when the 2017 USDA acreage report comes out, it will likely show Zinfandel as the 4th most widely planted wine grape in California behind Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. I wouldn’t shed a tear for desperate housewives as pink Moscato is there to fill their empty glasses. I’m sure Zinfandel fans are not going to mind.

I appreciated how the Sobon Primitivo was full bodied with rich dark fruit without being overtly jammy.
The Rocky Top was spicier and more my style but the Primitivo had it charms.


3.) While Buena Vista, established in 1857 in Sonoma, is widely credited as being the first commercial winery in California, that honor actually belongs to the Vignes Winery that was established in Los Angeles in 1833 by Jean-Louis Vignes. In the Zin hotbed of Amador County, d’Agostini Winery was founded a year before Buena Vista in 1856 with the cellars and vineyards now owned by Zinfandel specialist Sobon.

4.) While currently terms like “Old Vine” and “Ancient Vine” are unregulated and can apply to anything that a winery’s marketing team wants it to, there is a movement in Lodi and other Zinfandel regions to adopt something similar to the Barossa Old Vine Charter. This charter established designation of 4 tiers of “old vines” covering a span of vine ages. On the LoCA FAQ, Caparoso gives his suggestions on tiers beginning with ‘Old Vines’ denoting vines at least 50 years of age going up to ‘Historic Vines’ that are over a 100 years of age.

5.) It’s hard to define a “Lodi-style” of Zinfandel because many of the region’s largest producers (like Michael David & Klinker Brick) tend to produce a very commercialized style of Zinfandel that often sees a significant portion of Petite Sirah blended in as well as judicious oaking.

My Zin-exploration plans for the year

Located across the street from the Mancini Ranch (notably used by Carlisle), the vines here are over 100 years old

I want to explore more terroir driven examples from vineyard designated bottlings of Zinfandel. At Joseph Swan, in addition to trying their Bastoni Vineyard pictured above, I also got a chance to taste a bottling from the Zeigler Vineyard in the Russian River Valley. This one had a intriguing floral smokiness to it that I didn’t find in the more peppery Bastoni. It was almost as if a Pinot noir and Syrah had a baby. It was very fun trying these two Zins side by side. They had a streak of similarity but were very different.

I also want to hunt for this elusive “Lodi-style” that is hiding under the shadows of the area’s big producers. I’ve had the opportunity to try wines from St. Amant Winery that Caparoso highlights as one of Lodi’s Zinfandel specialists. Here, again, trying two different vineyards side by side was incredibly fascinating with the century plus vines of their Marian Vineyard (planted in 1901) showing spicy, dark fruit notes while the Mohr-Fry (planted in 1945) was more more berry fruit and floral.

Some of these differences could be terroir, some could be vine age. I want to learn more about that.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Zinfandel#/media/File:Crljenak_kastelanski.jpg

A Crljenak Kaštelanski vine from the village of Kaštel Novi in Croatia. Read the Wikimedia Commons link for some more fascinating info about this vine from the photographer User:Amatulic!


A holy grail of geekdom for me would be to get my grubby little hands on a Croatian Zinfandel. When I visited Croatia in 2016, I was quite disappointed in that all I could find among reds was Plavac Mali, which was a tasty grape but no Crljenak Kaštelanski.

Finally, I want to keep a more open mind about Washington (and Southern Oregon) Zinfandel. I have a hunch that two factors that have been driving their (in my opinion) underwhelming style has been a combination of very young vines (I couldn’t find any info on what is the oldest planting of Washington Zin but I would be shocked if it was more than 25 years) and that many winemakers here haven’t figured out what they want to do with the grape yet.

We produce so many exceptional red wines from varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah that I feel like producers are throwing the techniques that have made those wines successful against the wall and seeing what sticks. A Zin that taste like an oaky Cab or a more alcoholic version of Syrah is not very appealing. On the flip side, Washington-versions of the jammy commercialized Zins aren’t very exciting either.

The art of winemaking involves a lot of trial and error so this seems like something that will work itself out. There are just too many talented winemakers in the Pacific Northwest to think that someone is not going to hit on something delicious when it comes to Washington Zinfandel.

Till then, I’ll keep my eyes open and drink up where I can.

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