Terroir – Rhoda Stewart's Journal on Wine

Posts tagged ‘Zinfandel’

Zinfandel: The State of the Art: In Memoriam – Kent Rosenblum (1944 – 2018)

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.

Kent Rosenblum – Photo copy of cover of “Celebration” program cover

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.


Zinfandel clusters from George Hendry Vineyard – Block 22

©Rhoda Stewart

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.

Cover, front and back, of A Zinfandel Odyssey

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.


El Dorado County: an historic region for wine tasting

On a gorgeous first day of spring 2014, I drove with a friend up to El Dorado County, California, for a visit to Boeger Winery, situated on a ridge rising above the historic village of Placerville.

Boeger Winery /Vineyard with Historic sheds

Boeger Winery /Vineyard with Historic sheds

Boeger Winery is a special and historic place to begin your wine tasting visit to El Dorado County. Established by Greg and Susan Boeger in 1972 with four acres of Zinfandel planted on phylloxera-resistant St. George rootstock, it is the oldest winery in the County. Greg and Susan (together with Lloyd Walker: Zinfandel planted in 1968), are also credited with re-establishing winegrape-growing in El Dorado County—some forty years after the 1933 repeal of Prohibition. Their wine offerings today are impressive, featuring in addition to a consistently wonderful Estate Zinfandel from his 1972 plantings a benchmark Barbera and, most recently, a stunning Burgundian style Pinot Noir.

It took many years for Greg and Susan to achieve such quality and consistency—twenty years, Greg would say, to the early 1990s for his winemaking and viticulture practices to evolve into the style and quality he knew was possible on that land, especially as concerning Zinfandel. While Amador County was making a big splash with its Sutter Home “Deaver Vineyard” 1968 Zinfandel, the luscious high alcohol and intensely flavored, almost overripe, style of that blockbuster wine was not the style that El Dorado County could produce. In this higher elevation (2100+ feet), cooler region with its thinner, rockier soil, Greg had no modern regional precedents to draw inspiration from.

Furthermore, Greg was also interested in discovering what other premium varieties might do well in his vineyards besides Zinfandel, and so his Zins were mostly left to their own resources. After all, his property had remnants of old Zinfandel vines dating to the mid-1800s; Zinfandel had obviously survived, even thrived, in the region for 100 years. But the results of such laissez faire practices showed in many of the early vintages: they could be a bit weak, said Greg, with a lighter, more fruity character.

By 1990, with interest in the production of premium quality red Zinfandel increasing throughout the North Coast and Sierra Foothills, Greg found himself at a crossroads with his Zinfandel: should he pull out his 1972 UC Davis clone vines; or revisit his viticulture practices. Greg opted for the latter choice, specifically, leaf-pulling, to allow for more sun exposure on the clusters; and crop thinning, to develop more intensely flavored grapes, both somewhat new practices in California viticulture. These two practices brought about the dramatic improvements in his Zinfandel that he was seeking. “We were getting more intensity, more pepper, an inkier, thicker wine,” Greg said, that came with a luscious ripe plums character, and an enviable balance of acids and sugar associated with high elevation vineyards. (A Zinfandel Odyssey 94)
These wines became something of a benchmark for El Dorado County Zinfandel.

Boeger Winery had also found white varieties such as Chardonnay suited to the region and the soils, Barbera and, most recently, Pinot Noir.

Chardonay Vineyard, Boeger Winery

Chardonay Vineyard, Boeger Winery

The Pinot Noir is after the fashion of some of Burgundy’s more elegant and delicate PNs. A bewitching wine, it’s nothing like the PN’s you will find coming out of such low-elevation American Viticulture Areas (AVA) as the Carneros of Napa County, or Mendocino County’s Alexander Valley. I found Greg’s 2011 to be an elegant wine with delicate raspberry notes balanced with some understated spices and a long finish, a wine that should do well in a cool dark cellar for a couple or three more years. It’s a wine, however, that should you today put it before guests who appreciate European style wines, I recommend you have a backup bottle or two on hand!

What is even better, perhaps, about a visit to Boeger Winery (and all El Dorado County wineries) than tasting the exquisite wines is their prices. Although the quality can equal or surpass the quality of such wines from the more famous regions of Napa and Sonoma Counties, the prices are usually a point or two below the prices of the wines of these renowned wine regions. (Remember: Price is not a score!)

I didn’t get beyond Boeger Winery on this visit to El Dorado County, since my friend and I were also taking in Daffodil Hill, a few miles to the south, in Amador County, that morning.

Daffodil Hill, Amador County, near Volcano

Daffodil Hill, Amador County, near Volcano

So my favorites at the end of the day were Greg’s 2012 Zinfandel Estate (the fruit from the 1972 vines supplemented since the mid-1990s by fruit from his Old Vine cuttings grafted onto French Columbard rootstock), the 2009 Barbera Vineyard Select, and the 2011 Pinot Grand Reserve.

Boeger Wines

Boeger Wines

I made my first visit to Boeger Winery in 1996, when I was launching my investigation of the Sierra Foothill Zinfandels for my book, A Zinfandel Odyssey (2002), just in time to taste the impressive results of Greg’s new viticulture practices. With its unbroken 40-year history of family ownership, Boeger Winery provides its visitors a taste of history, a taste of the evolution of a tradition, in every sip of wine. Greg and Susan’s son, Justin, now the winemaker, ensures that the family tradition continues.

Established by Greg and Susan when they were just a couple of kids with a passion for their venture, Boeger Winery is a nice place to begin your exploration of the wines of the high Sierra Foothills, and to be reminded that there still are regions in California where family-owned “estate” wineries are the rule, a way of life, and not the exception.

Today, Boeger Winery is just one of a growing collection of family-owned estate wineries in El Dorado County dedicated to making hand-crafted wines that express the piece of ground the vines grown in. A visit to any of these estates will be memorable not only for the lovely wines at affordable prices but also for the rustic charm, warm hospitality, and spectacular views from many of the ridge top locations.

El Dorado County, View of Sierra

El Dorado County, View of Sierra

A Walk through the Vineyards with Camillo Magoni, Baja California, Mexico

Farm Artifacts - Vinos L.A. Cetto Winery

Farm Artifacts – Vinos L.A. Cetto Winery

A couple of wine writers from Europe have suggested that because of his achievements in transforming Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California, Mexico, into the world class wine grape valley that it is today, and in winning international acclaim for Vinos L.A. Cetto wines from these vineyards in the last decade and a half, Camillo Magoni should be recognized globally as perhaps the most significant winemaker living today.

I could not demur.

It was June 1996 when I found myself in Cucamonga Valley, which lies about 60 miles east of Los Angeles, as part of my search for historic Zinfandel vines. I thought I was about as far afield as I could get from the more famous North Coast Zinfandel regions of Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino counties, and the Sierra foothills. Then I met Don Galleano (story to come), owner of the historic Galleano Winery, Mira Loma (now listed on the California and National Register of Historic Places). Galleano recommended that since I was this far south, I should cross the border into Baja, since he knew of a big planting of old Zin vines hidden away in a little valley somewhere between Tecate and Tijuana, owned by the Cetto family in Valle de Guadalupe.

I did just that.

With the help of a guide from Vinos L.A. Cetto, I found the lovely old Zinfandel vineyard, and so much more: I found Camillo Magoni, winemaker since 1965 for the Cetto family. From my first and subsequent meetings with Magoni that summer of 1996, he impressed me both as a winemaker and a person. It was, however, during my return visits to Valle de Guadalupe in spring and summer of 2011 that I experienced first-hand the full range of Magoni’s accomplishments—unparalleled at least in my experience.

Camillo Magoni showing Zinfandel clusters, Rancho Escondido July 2011

Camillo Magoni showing Zinfandel clusters, Rancho Escondido July 2011

I had gone down in early April at Magoni’s invitation to see what they “had been up to” since my last visit about 10 years earlier. It was a beautiful day, with the sun breaking through some early morning fog that had drifted into the Valle overnight from Ensenada. The vines were just leafing out. After meeting Camillo at the winery for a vertical tasting of six vintages of Zinfandel, it was time for lunch with Mr. Cetto and his guests (of which I was privileged to be one).
Vinos L.A. Cetto Zinfandel, 6-vintage vertical tasting - April 2011

Vinos L.A. Cetto Zinfandel, 6-vintage vertical tasting – April 2011

Following lunch, it was on to a tour with Mr. Cetto of the upper end of Valle de Guadalupe, near the headwaters of the River Guadalupe. The late afternoon light coming through the misty hills was so beautiful that I suggested to Camillo that we walk back to the winery. I wanted to try for some photos. So we exited the vehicle, and in the exquisite quiet of that secluded little vine-filled valley, we walked, I made photos, and Camillo talked—about the vines, the valley, and his philosophy of winemaking. The region enjoys a Mediterranean climate of sunny days cooled by breezes flowing inland from the nearby Pacific Ocean, fog-shrouded nights, and mineral-rich soils of varying compositions—all the components necessary for producing superb wines year after year.
Cetto Vineyards, Valle de Guadalupe, April 2011

Cetto Vineyards, Valle de Guadalupe, April 2011

In such an environment, Magoni’s philosophy of winemaking comes down to one phrase: understanding grapes.
“To make wine from the region, you have to understand the composition of the grape for each variety: the sugar, acid, and flavors. You have to understand how the composition of the grape changes with each vintage, how the vintage changes the composition in each lot of the same variety. Only then can you consider process of winemaking—the technology.”

When Magoni arrived in Valle de Guadalupe in the mid-1960s, the roads into the Valle were dirt, and only three varieties of grapes were planted, he said. Today, there is a paved motorway (Hwy 3) leading up from Ensenada, and the Cetto vineyards consist of 30 varieties of top European varieties covering over 1,200 hectares.

Among the most prestigious for Vinos L.A. Cetto are Zinfandel, Sangiovese, and Nebbiolo (Cetto Vineyards boasts the largest planting of Nebbiolo—134 hectares–outside the Barolo region of Italy). Each of these varieties presents special challenges and requires particular understanding in order to produce the world class wines deserving of the Vinos L.A. Cetto label.

The great charm and appeal of Zinfandel, said Camillo, is its fruit, and so he vinifies Zinfandel with just neutral casks, for the micro-oxygenation. “For me, because of its intense flavors and fruity character, Zinfandel is a unique variety. If you add wood character, you lose some of the fruit character. And if you lose the fruit character of Zinfandel,” he once famously said, “it is like a man without a last name.”

Zinfandel, Rancho Escondido - July 2011

Zinfandel, Rancho Escondido – July 2011

Nebbiolo (known in Italy as “Barolo) is one of the great wines in the world, believes Magoni, but “it’s late maturing in the bottle, so we have to leave the money for 5 years, occasionally longer. For this reason and because as a grower you have to understand its composition, Nebbiolo is not known world-wide like Cabernet or Pinot Noir or Syrah. Even though it makes, I think, one of the greatest wines in the world, not too many producers like to wait 5 years for the money.”

Nebbiolo vine dating to 1946 - Valle de Guadalupe - July 2011

Nebbiolo vine dating to 1946 – Valle de Guadalupe – July 2011

For Camillo Magoni and Vinos L.A. Cetto, it’s well worth the wait.
Nebbiolo, 15 vintage vertical tasting, Vinos L.A. Cetto - July 2011

Nebbiolo, 15 vintage vertical tasting, Vinos L.A. Cetto – July 2011

Sangiovese was the most difficult grape for Magoni to get a handle on.
“It takes several years to understand,” he said. “It’s a variety very easy to over crop and is difficult to regulate. Unless irrigation is strictly controlled, it is a variety that tends to make a big bunch with big berries so we have to control that. It’s taken us 10 years to understand it.”
Sangiovese clusters, Valle de Guadalupe - July 2011

Sangiovese clusters, Valle de Guadalupe – July 2011

For Camillo, there is no other way.

“It’s easy to make good wine—if you understand your grapes,” he says time and again. “That’s the key. You need to know the grapes, the varieties, like you know a person. It is imperative to know each one to assure the best quality wine as possible—and also knowing what kind of wine you want to make.”

When I asked him if he were saying that he knew the composition of all 30 varieties of grapes in Cetto’s vineyards, he replied with a little laugh that was in no way self-deprecating, “I’m saying that. It is imperative to know each one to assure the best quality wine as possible.” And if he makes a mistake in his understanding of a variety or a vintage? “Well, we just don’t bottle it,” he replied.

Price is not a Score

Nebbiolo clusters Valle de Guadalupe, Baja, CA, Mexico

Nebbiolo clusters Valle de Guadalupe, Baja, CA, Mexico

Zinfandel Clusters, Bedrock Vineyard, Sonoma Valley, California

Zinfandel Clusters, Bedrock Vineyard, Sonoma Valley, California

One thing to always remember when buying wines: Price is NOT a score! The price of a bottle of wine is never a reflection of the quality of wine inside that bottle.

Three basic factors go into the price of a bottle of wine no matter what the wine is or where it is produced. You have the cost of the grapes, the cost of equipment and labor necessary for their harvest and processing, and the cost of the bottle the wine is put into when it is finished.

These costs can vary greatly, depending on several additional factors:

• country of origin
• region where the grapes were grown (Bordeaux, Tuscany, Rioja, SW Australia, Sonoma Valley, the Okanagan Valley, etc.)
• the vintage (that is, the year)
• the varietal (CS, PN, ZIN, Nero d’Avalo, Malbec, SB, Chard, PG, etc.)
• winemaking practices, especially the barrel ageing protocol
• quantity of wine produced
• the reputation of the producer
• marketing and distribution of the finished wine (includes bottle selection and label)

The following five red wines are all from vineyards considered best suited to the variety, and all have been made in accordance with the best winemaking practices for their regions and varieties. The price per bottle, on average, varies from almost $100 US to under $10 US.

• 2009 Las Rocas Garnacha (Spain), sourced from 80-year-old vines from the DO of Calatayud, average price about $15 US,
• Ravenswood’s 2009 Bedrock Zinfandel (US), sourced from Sonoma Valley vines about the same age (80 years), priced at $35 US,
• Vinos L.A. Cetto’s 2006 Nebbiolo (Baja CA, Mexico), sourced from 60-year-old vines in Valle de Guadalupe, priced about $20 US,
• Donnafugata 2007 “Mille e una Notte” Nero d’Avalo (Sicilia), sourced from Sicily’s indigenous Nero d’Avalo grapes, recommended retail price $90 US.
• Viu Manent 2011 Gran Reserva Malbec (Chile), sourced from established vines averaging 15 years in Valle de Colchagua, priced at $8.

If you consider that each of these wines is priced exactly right in accordance with the criteria provided above, and that the prices do not reflect quality, then how would you go about making the best choice among them for your dining occasion?

Well, that’s where the fun begins: you have to taste them! If upon tasting these wines you decide that the Donnafugata “Mille e una Notte” Nero d’Avalo from Sicily is the one you like the best (it is a gorgeous wine; I’ve tasted it, and met the winemaker), then do you like it enough to pay between 3 and 11 times more than for the other selections, which are also lovely wines, understanding that probably at least $30 of that $90 bottle price of the Donnafugata goes towards winery aesthetics and marketing?

As Kermit Lynch, owner of Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants, Berkeley, CA, said to me a few years ago:

“ ‘I think a lot of people, not in France, not in Italy, but in California and maybe the rest of the U.S., think that price is a score; that a $300 bottle of wine is better than a $100 a bottle . . . .That’s completely false. Price is no reflection of quality. You can get such good wines for cheap.’” (Rhoda Stewart, “Affordable French Wines,” Napa Valley Register: 19 September 2009)

Because price is not a score! Not that scores, for that matter, are of much use, either.

Wines That Stop Conversation – III

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA“Our Zinfandel is about terroir,” said George Hendry, owner of Hendry Vineyards on the Napa Valley benchlands just off Redwood Road at the north end of the city of Napa.

As it turned out, it’s also about clonal distinctions in Zinfandel.

My third and most recent example of wines that stop conversation was the Hendry Vineyards estate 2003 Block 28 Zinfandel ($35). I was hosting visitors from Montreal, Canada, just one year ago (2012), and tucked a bottle of this wine under my arm as we left my house for dinner in downtown Napa.

While we were looking over the menu, our waitperson opened the bottle and decanted it. Once we had placed our orders, he poured out the wine. While checking the aroma and trying a little sip to be sure the wine wasn’t “corked,” I became aware that a silence had fallen over our table. I glanced up and saw looks of bliss on the faces of my companions. “It’s pretty good,” I said. “It’s at peak bottle age.” My companions only looked at me, seeming to have lost their power of speech. Finally, one of them exclaimed, “This is incredible, exactly as I always thought a Zinfandel should taste. It’s just amazing.” Then more silence. I, too, was struck by how luscious and beautiful this wine was. It had a deep ruby purple color, aromas of dark plums and blackberries, hints of chocolate, something like allspice and fragrant earth and more, was velvety in the mouth, and had a lingering finish. It was impossible to describe in words the sensory experience of this wine without rendering it simply prosaic. Once again, silence best expressed what was happening—simply a brush with the mystery and magic of a wine, in this case Zinfandel, at its finest—what happens when a well-chosen clonal selection of budwood is propagated in a piece of earth best suited to it, and the winemaking is done in harmony with these two factors.

Block 28 Zinfandel was propagated in 1995 from a field selection of budwood taken from the historic Brandlin Vineyard, situated on Mount Veeder a few miles above Hendry Vineyard.

Established on St. George rootstock in exactly the same way and at the same time as was Block 22 from UC Davis clone # 2 in an adjoining block, Hendry had done this to discover if the budwood (clonal) source would make any noticeable difference in the wines from these side-by-side blocks, or would terroir prevail and even them out. The Zinfandel that Hendry had produced in past years from the Brandlin Vineyard was remarkably different from the Zinfandel from Block 7 (UC Davis clone #2).

The first vintage from these two new vineyards was the 1997, when the vines were in their first crop year. Fortunate to be present as this uncorking, I was in great anticipation to see what distinctions these young wines, which had been harvested on the same day and vinified in the exactly same way, would reveal. I wasn’t left to wonder for long. Even as the wines were being poured, distinctions were obvious. The Block 22 was closed, yielding up only hints of delicate red berries and aromas of vanilla. The Block 28 had dramatic aromatics of dark spicy chocolate and briary earthy notes. The flavors were of dark berry fruits that seemed a mere suggestion of the potential awaiting the consumer who was patient enough to allow the wine a few additional years in the cellar.

“The Block 28 distinguished itself immediately in the aromatics during fermentation. I was not ready for such dramatic difference as exists between this first vintage of the Brandlin and UC Davis Clone #2. I could not have imagined it” said Hendry.

Nor was this a one-off phenomenon from very young vines. This clonal distinction has held, and while Hendry’s Block 22 is consistently a beautiful and elegant wine (as is his older Block 7 from the same UCD clone), it is still the Block 28 Zinfandel that is, for me, the stand-out Zinfandel between those two wines. And it still stops conversation when given sufficient time in the cellar to fully develop its luscious and dramatic potential.

(For the complete story on Hendry Zinfandel, please see my book, A Zinfandel Odyssey. San Rafael. PWV Inc., 2001)