May 2019 ©Rhoda Stewart
The Zinfandel Experience, as the Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP) event has recently been called, took place January 19 in San Francisco. This year, one of ZAP’s brightest stars was missing: Kent Rosenblum.
One of the three founding members of ZAP, Kent died September 5th, 2018, unexpectedly, according to some reports. When I heard of his death, my heart went numb. W.H. Auden’s poem “Funeral Blues” came immediately to mind:
“Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone.
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come. . . . .
[For] He is Dead”
Immortalized in the 1994 British film Four Weddings and a Funeral, the lines of this poem were etched in my memory when I left the first screening of that bitter/sweet film.
Last September, I felt as if it had been written for Kent.
Kent’ was one of the brightest stars in the world of Zinfandel, his contributions and his legacy a product of love of the grape and wine, not love of money. Kent’s work ethic was “Make wine; have fun; make money.” However, “make money” never turned into “get rich” in Kent’s ethic. In fact, his view of making money reminded me of Caleb Garth’s words to his wife in George Eliot’s 19th century novel Middlemarch (1875). Caleb, having 5 children all of whom he wanted to educate, depended on his reputation as good farm manager, work he loved, to support his family. Having just gotten a new and lucrative contract, he was joyous. As he said to his wife,
“It’s a fine bit of work, Susan! A man without a family would be glad to do it for nothing.”
“Yes,” she replied, “but mind you don’t.” (278, MM. Bert G. Hornback, ed. New York: W.W. Norton &Co., 1977)
When you have a family to support, making money is important. Getting rich is something else altogether.
Kent had established his career as a respected veterinarian of small animals and exotics; winemaking began as a hobby. But he caught the winemaking bug, and began devoting his evenings to his wine after a full day at his animal hospital. By 1984, with 2 small children added to his family his wife demanded that the winery yield a profit or be abandoned. Having no choice but to agree, Kent was ready to face the unhappy truth when he got a call about some bulk Hendry Napa Valley Zin available. This serendipitous phone call became the key to the commercial world of wine, enabling him to meet his wife’s demands and fulfill the last requirement of his work ethic: make money. And launch his tiny garage winery into the big time.
That he did get rich was, for him, merely a by-product of doing well what he loved. So it was a bitter pill for him to swallow, according to his winemaker daughter, when Rosenblum Cellars, born of love in his garage in Alameda, attracted the attention of the British alcohol beverage company, Diageo Brands, which in 2008 offered a price Kent’s chief investors couldn’t refuse, and he was forced to sell his beloved winery. (2008)
I had spoken to Kent for the last time just six months before his death, in SF at the 2018 Zap Experience event. Although I was momentarily shocked by his physical appearance that day—he was stooped, his face deeply lined, and he walked with a shuffle—he seemed to have aged 15 years since I had last seen him just 5 years earlier—his greeting was nonetheless as cheerful as always, and his hug as warm. Before I could ask him if he were OK, he indicated that there was something on his mind he wanted to talk to me about. He expressed concerns that ZAP had not given me the support that he felt I and my book (A Zinfandel Odyssey, San Rafael: Practical Winery and Vineyard, 2002) deserved. I knew what he was talking about, and understood his concern, but it was old history, and I wanted to tell him it was no big deal. But the event was a busy place, and he was helping his daughter with Rock Wall wines, so we talked only briefly. I did get a chance to taste a few of his daughter’s wines a bit later, and told Kent I would get over to Alameda soon to visit their winery. I didn’t, however, and the next news I heard of Kent was that he had died.
I felt as if a piece of my heart died along with him
Kent was truly one of the best. Not a perfect person, but one of the most decent and fair-minded you could ever meet. I can’t tell you how much of a gap in my life his death has left. When I met him fall of 1989, he was giving a lecture to a group of wine educators at his Rosenblum Cellars. I set up an interview with him that day for my second two-part report on Zinfandel, asking the question, “Where is the money in Zinfandel,” assigned by the publisher of Practical Winery and Vineyards (I suspect the same question his wife had been asking him in 1984), Kent told me in that interview about his joint venture with George Hendry, and how that gift from heaven, so to speak, saved his fledgling winery and established him as a premier Zinfandel producer.
My Zinfandel report Part II came out in PWV, Sept-Oct and Nov-Dec 1991. Following the publication, Kent and a couple of enthusiastic Zinfandel producers from the Sierra Foothills region encouraged me to continue my research into a book. They told me I should interview all the old-timer growers and get their stories while they were still available. As well, one much respected Zin-loving journalist told me I would have to get “down south,” meaning Cucamonga Valley and Don Galleano, if I intended my book on Zinfandel to be complete.
So I decided to take the plunge, and applied to my college for a full-year sabbatical, knowing that I would have to see it through once approved and underway. But with support and encouragement by such as Kent Rosenblum, and accommodation by my English Department, I believed I could pull it off . . . and I did. A Zinfandel Odyssey (ZO), published by Practical Winery and Vineyard (PWV), came out in January 2002.
A veterinarian first, winemaker later, Kent soon became known as Dr. Zin, and for those who didn’t know, the license plate on his van would enlighten them.
One of my last interviews with him was on a warm and sunny day in April 2000. We sat in front of the winery under umbrellas and enjoyed the mild breezes off Alameda Bay. Over a lunch of burritos and salsa, I was able to ask him the last question on my mind—was his winery was just one more stage along his adventurous road of life or was this going to be his final adventure. His answer was unequivocal.
“Oh, no!” he exclaimed, “This is a life-long venture. You don’t leave what you love!” So when I learned in 2008 that he had sold his Rosenblum Cellars, I was surprised. I never would have imagined that he would have followed in the path of a few of his Zin contemporaries and taken the money over his joy, the love of his life. At the Celebration of his Life event last October, his daughter cleared up my doubts: He didn’t want to follow the money over his joy but his shareholders did. A bitter pill to swallow, indeed, his daughter said.
But time moves on, the clocks don’t stop, and dogs still bark . . .and winemakers move on, too. In the spirit of a true optimist and adventurer, Kent immediately founded The Rock Wall Wine Company with his elder daughter also in Alameda (and with a better view of the Bay and the two Bay bridges!) . Together they made their first Rock Wall vintage that same year with fruit from a few of his favorite vineyards.
The other two “Rs” of the ZAP founding trio (Ridge and Ravenswood) have moved on, too.
Joel Peterson, founder/winemaker of Ravenswood in the mid-1970s, in 2001 received an offer from Constellation Brands that his investors couldn’t refuse, and acquired Ravenswood. Joel became General Manager and Head Winemaker of Ravenswood Winery for Constellation Brands. A remarkable achievement, but missing the joy of his earlier dream, Joel went back to his roots a few years later by establishing a new small winery named “Once & Future.” In his own words, Joel describes his new label as “the return to the original vision I had for Ravenswood so many years ago—a small project specializing in wines from unique older vineyards, made with sensitivity to place and in a style that I personally love and believe in.” (From https://www.onceandfuturewine.com)
Paul Draper, winemaker since 1969 for Ridge Vineyards, decided in 2016 that his 80th birthday was a good time to step down from active winemaking, while remaining Chairman of the Board and advisor to his winemaking team. Apart from change in ownership in 1986, when the original owners sold to a Japanese company, neither Paul Draper nor Ridge Vineyards have undergone any other significant changes . . . until 2016. Yet the team of winemakers that he brought up over the years is so schooled in the Paul Draper (Ridge) style that probably no one realized that the wines of the past 10 years were primarily the work of Draper’s team. As a result, its wines have remained balanced and consistent in the style envisioned, developed, and perpetuated by Draper. While his 80th birthday and retirement formed a momentous change for Draper, yet hardly a ripple will be felt in the style and character of the wines he brought to the global wine world. Despite changes, some things never change.
Then there is also Tom Mackey, winemaker for St. Francis Winery, Sonoma, who stepped down from that position in 2011. Not about to stop there, Tom today has his own label, Tom Mackey Cellars. “With starting our own winery in 2014,” writes Mackey, “we look to the future 41 years in this business.” (MackeyCellars.com)
As for ZAP’s legacy, it is far-reaching, as are the legacies of its three founders. Paul Draper and Joel Peterson are rightly credited with being among the first to recognize the historical value and viticultural potential in the pre-prohibition Zinfandel vines, vines dating to the 1880s, especially in the North Bay (including Mendocino County) and Sierra Foothills regions of Amador and El Dorado. Known for treating the fruit from their historic old Zinfandel vineyards with the same respect and priority treatment they gave to their French varieties, they nonetheless developed distinctive styles for their Zinfandels. While Draper was seeking balance and consistency in both the vineyards and his wines, Peterson was looking for a more extracted style, one that yielded a strong tannins backbone to sustain the wines through a few years in the cellar. Collectively, through ZAP, Peterson, Draper, and Rosenblum were the pioneers in developing awareness of Zinfandel as a world class red wine. As the number of serious Zinfandel producers increased from a few dozen in 1991 when ZAP was launched to several hundred members over the next 30 years, so did the number of consumers of red Zinfandel increase. Prices per ton of grapes from old (pre-prohibition) Zinfandel vines also increased dramatically for those growers who had the wisdom to keep their old vines in the ground through hard times. Acreage of new vines also increased dramatically.
As for Kent’s legacy, his style took a slightly different bent from his two ZAP co-founders. He believed that Zinfandel should taste good at every stage, from the harvested grapes to the fermentation tank to barrel to bottle. “The best red wines in general . . .will taste absolutely stunning right at the press, and they will taste and smell absolutely stunning all the way through the process until they are bottled. These are the wines that will still be absolutely stunning in 20 years,” said Kent during one of my many interviews with him.
In this philosophy, Kent shared a view with Jed Steele, owner of Steele Wines, Lake County, who also must be credited with establishing Zinfandel as a world-class red wine grape while he was winemaker in the 1970s for Edmeades of Mendocino County, and later Kendall-Jackson wines. “Everyone likes Zinfandel because it gives pleasure at every stage,” Steele told me when I interviewed him for my Zinfandel book. “You can savor it in the cellar as it matures, you can savor it at release, and you can lay it down for several years. Zinfandel represents a constant string of enjoyable moments. It’s the most hedonistic wine I know,” he concluded. (ZO 227)
Steele was one of the first, along with Paul Draper and Joel Peterson, to give Zinfandel priority treatment in winemaking, specifically, for Steele, ageing it in Nevers French oak barrels for 6 – 16 months, a bold step at that time. “Old Vine Mendocino ridge top Zinfandel,” he told me, “is a classic match of grape variety with a particular climate, one that leads to the ultimate in winemaking fruit.” ZO, 226. While other top Zinfandel producers have moved on by going back to their roots, Jed has moved on by staying with his Steele Wines and changing with the times with a second label (Shooting Star), and other practices to meet his goal of providing well-made varietal wines at affordable prices, Zinfandel being one of his small but consistent offerings.
As for Zinfandel itself, its great charm is still its luscious fruit, whether vinified into the more elegant style of a Ridge Zin, the more extracted style of Ravenswood, or as the fruit forward style of Kent Rosenblum Cellars (and taken to its extreme by Turley Wines).
All styles have their fans, and their detractors. Old-timers like the late George Zeni of the Mendocino Ridge Top appellation felt that modern zins had strayed too far from what Zinfandel was supposed to be like. In my last interview with him at his vineyard high up on Fish Rock Road in Feb. 1999, Zeni gave me his final pronouncement on the subject: “Zinfandel producers have lost the Zinfandel flavor in the last 40 years. They are making Zinfandel too sweet. You were supposed to feel Zinfandel going down over your tongue” (ZO 253)
On the other side of the coin, a sly and knowledgeable Zin grower once told me that “roadsides are littered with broken egos [of winemakers who believed that highly extracted, tannic Zins that required 10 years in the cellar was the way to go].”
But whatever your tastes in a red Zinfandel, with so many producers making Zinfandel from regions north to Mendocino and south to Baja . . . there is a Zin for just about every taste that enjoys, above all else, the rich, spicy fruit character that is the hallmark of a well-made red Zinfandel.
For this we have to thank those early stars in California’s wine history who saw the potential in Zinfandel to make an iconic California red wine, and devoted their lives to developing this potential into the best samples they could come up with, according to their own talents, lights, and available vineyards.
Kent certainly was one of the brightest of these early stars, and will live long in the memories of those who knew and loved him, and in the wines, born of love, that continue to carry his imprint, albeit with the slightly modifying feminine touch of his winemaker daughter, through Rock Wall Wine Company . . . .which is in keeping with the true historical legacy of Zinfandel itself. People grew it, made it, and stayed with it even through the 13 years of Prohibition and beyond, not for the money they could make from it, but because they loved it.