Posts Tagged ‘Zinfandel’

I have a friend who looks for the organic label every time he shops—not just for produce, but for all consumables. He lives in Portland, for the love of tiny houses and mushroom foraging—of course he buys organic! But when it comes to wine and this same friend sees the word organic anywhere on the bottle, he firmly takes a pass. “I find that whenever a wine person in the store or restaurant adds to their suggestion that it’s organic, I immediately think, ‘I don’t want it,’” he recently told me. “Organic is important to me in every food product I eat. If it’s available organic, I assume it will be better. But with wine, I assume it will be worse. It’s like a criteria I don’t want applied to wine for some reason. Like it screws it up. Am I alone?”

He is not. Quite a few wine experts complain that certified organic wine can veer a little to closely toward, well . . . vinegar. The problem seems to be this: producers of wine made from organically grown grapes can’t actually label their wine organic unless they bypass the use of sulfur dioxide in their production process. The omission of SO2 makes preventing spoilage a tricky business, and it sometimes necessitates storing the wine in a stainless-steel tank without letting it breathe. As a result, wine made this way either has a high potential of spoiling (vinegar) and getting a bacterial infection that could lead to odors of sauerkraut or paint thinner or the stainless steel storage process that prevents spoilage keeps the wine “closed” and lacking in depth.

For this reason, truly organic wines are quite distinct from wine made from certified organically grown grapes but not labeled organic. The latter simply means that no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides were used in the vineyard. More and more wines fall into this category these days, thanks to a mix of market demand and eco-consious vineyard management. Health concerns are much less of a factor, since the fermentation process seems to do away with any chemical residue in a wine that would otherwise result from the use of pesticides in the vineyard. And while the omission of SO2 makes organic wine the healthier choice for those allergic to SO2, for the rest of us the difference is negligible.

With all that said, here are a few quick and dirty tips for drinking organic:

Understand the difference. There’s wine that’s 1) made from organically grown grapes and organically produced,  2) just made from organically grown grapes, and 3) neither. If the environment is the big factor in your purchasing decision, there’s really no difference between No. 1 and No. 2. If the deciding factor is your health, all three are fair game.

Be prepared to pay more. Just as organically grown produce costs more, so does wine produced from organically grown grapes. Blame the added labor involved, and the cost of certification.

And, if you do go for full-fledged organic . . . 

Consider going directly to the source. Since organic wines can be more vulnerable to spoilage during bottling and shipping, the optimal way to experience these wines would be straight from the barrel. If you live near a wine region, look for opportunities to barrel-taste or bottle your own.

Choose typically robust and higher-alcohol varietals over lighter, more delicate wines. Big reds like Zinfandel are likely to fare better without the SO2 than something like Sauvignon Blanc.

Drink it soon. The omission of SO2 does not set the stage for graceful aging. The best strategy is to pick a wine that typically does age well (again, think big reds like Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon) and consume it soon after purchase.


The options for drinking wine made from organically grown grapes are plentiful—and if you’re still a skeptic, one great place to start would be Robert Sinskey Vineyards. Sinskey winemaker Jeff Virnig started down the path of organic farming back in the early 1990s, moving to enhance vineyard fertility through composting, green manuring, and cover cropping. By 2001, all of Sinskey’s vineyards were certified organic.

Sinskey is probably best known for its much-loved Carneros Pinot Noirs, but this rosé is my personal favorite. I’ve also heard good things about this Pey Marin dry Riesling, made from organic grapes grown here in coastal Marin County, and friends rave about this Alexander Valley winery, whose vineyards are also 100 percent organic. For the PDX dwellers among you, consider following the musings of my favorite Portland wine correspondent, who often covers organic and sustainable viticulture practices.


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The Story Arc of Wine

I love it when wine gets to be its own character in a great novel—so my hopes were high when Zinfandel made a daring appearance on page 4 of Freedom, Jonathan Franzen’s much-discussed latest book. In introducing the main female character, Franzen writes:

Behind her you could see the baby-encumbered preparations for a morning of baby-encumbered errands; ahead of her, an afternoon of public radio, the Silver Palate Cookbook, cloth diapers, drywall compound, and latex paint; and then Goodnight Moon, then zinfandel.”

Sounds innocent enough—and, to some of us, eerily familiar—right? Unfortunately things go downhill from there, and by page 15, Patty is described as “all Chardonnay Splotch.” I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to reveal that by page 162, she’s drinking cooking sherry.

Happily, wine regains its dignity by novel’s end—although it’s somewhat overshadowed by beer, martinis, and, of course, the completely absorbing and labyrinthine primary story line.

If you’re looking for other literary works in which wine gets a satisfying cameo, a little anthology called Wine Memories: Great Writers on the Pleasures of Wine (Chronicle Books, 2000) serves as an excellent source. Edited by Sara Nicklès, the book consists of 40 excerpts from novels, essays, and memoirs. A favorite, from The Sun Also Rises:

“This wine is too good for toast-drinking, my dear. You don’t want to mix emotions up with a wine like that. You lose the taste.”

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A bad cold kept me from attending last Saturday’s 20th annual Zinfandel Festival Grand Tasting, presented by ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates & Producers) in San Francisco’s Fort Mason Center. Luckily my overqualified envoy was happy to taste some 50 California Zins, and he’s provided this list of six that stood out:

2007 Carol Shelton Rocky Reserve Rockpile Zinfandel, $33

2007 Guglielmo Private Reserve Estate Santa Clara Valley Zinfandel, $22

2008 Gundlach Bundschu Sonoma Valley Zinfandel, $38

2008 MoniClaire Estate Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel, $23.99

2008 Ravenswood Barricia Vineyard Sonoma Valley Zinfandel, $35 

2007 Scott Harvey Vineyard 1869 Amador County Zinfandel, $45 

If you’d like to try one of these wines but aren’t sure which to choose, here’s a cheat sheet—borrowed from my 2009 article on California Zinfandel—on Zins in three of the regions represented above:

Amador County
Old vines are especially abundant in the Fiddletown AVA of Amador County—an area hotter than its surrounding regions [in the Sierra Foothills], where Zinfandel accounts for three-quarters of all grapes grown. … Sierra Foothills Zinfandels may occasionally get a bad rap for a lack of finesse—blame the high alcohol that results from the region’s blazing heat. But the best examples can actually boast deep, intoxicating aromas, clean flavors, and plenty of fruit on the palate.

Dry Creek Valley
It’s generally thought that the wines made from Zinfandel grown above the fog line in Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley are the best examples of the varietal you can find—in California if not in the world. In an irony that speaks to Zinfandel’s status as a truly “populist” grape, much of that Dry Creek Zinfandel acreage was originally planted with the intent to cultivate it as bulk wine. Hot days, cool nights, and fine craftsmanship have all allowed the wine those grapes produced to escape that humble fate. … Spicy, berry-filled Zin…

The Rockpile AVA adjacent to Dry Creek is also making a name for itself with interesting Zins that are lush and intense.

My article didn’t mention Zinfandels from the Sonoma or Santa Clara Valleys specifically, but you can read more about the Gundlachs, Bundschus, and Guglielmos—and their families’ long histories with California winemaking—here and here.

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California's Central Valley

A few years ago I used my old wine column to write a love letter of sorts to Lodi, California. My newfound Lodi love was based on the many good, inexpensive wines made from Lodi-grown grapes that I’d tasted at that year’s Zinfandel Advocates & Producers Festival (ZAP) in San Francisco.

That was early 2008. In the recession-plagued years since, Lodi’s low prices have started looking pretty good to consumers who may once have scoffed at Central Valley wines. At the same time, grape prices have dropped all over California—including in swankier regions like Napa and Sonoma—so good values are suddenly a lot easier to find than they used to be.

All of which made it a little confusing when I recently received a bottle of 2008 Michael David “Lust” Zinfandel from Lodi priced at $59. There’s an old rule of thumb in the wine industry that in order to break even, your per-bottle price needs to be roughly the price you paid for a ton of grapes divided by 100. This is somewhat reassuring to a consumer who’s handing over $50 for a Napa Cab (2008 average price per ton: $4,780) or $35 for a Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($3171). But it’s less heartening if you’re drinking a $59 bottle of Lodi Zin, where the average price per ton in 2008 was $311.

Lust would have made one fine $3 wine, with its liquorice nose, luscious mouthfeel, strong finish, and 16.9 percent (!) alcohol, but at nearly 20 times that price, it’s a harder sell. If you already have plans to be at the 20th annual ZAP festival at the end of this month, however, you can try it for free; the three-day Zinfandel celebration runs January 27-29, with admission fees varying by event. For more information visit zinfandel.org.

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Yesterday when Peter mentioned our plans to have a barbecue this afternoon, I had to correct him: not a barbecue, a cookout. It’s a Southern distinction—and one about which I, despite being the daughter of a Southerner, remained unaware until our friend Steele recently explained it. Turns out that, common usage notwithstanding, the word barbecue doesn’t mean grilling, or have anything to do with hotdogs and hamburgers—it means smoking meat slowly at a low temperature, in a closed chamber, over wood coals.

True barbecue: photo and ribs by Steele Douglas

Steele had a true barbecue the other week—St. Louis-style spice-rubbed pork ribs smoked over hickory for four-and-a-half hours; beans baked with bacon, dark beer, and molasses; cornbread cooked in a cast-iron skillet; and for dessert berry tarts served with grappa. Perhaps that’s not a food-and-wine pairing that would have occurred to you, but the grappa’s high-alcohol, clean, and subtly fruity taste actually made it the perfect digestif to complement the meal’s hearty flavors.

The grappa we enjoyed that night had a story to go with it. Grappa is a byproduct of winemaking, and Peter made this particular bottle in a still years ago while living in Fiddletown, a vineyard-speckled hamlet in the Sierra Foothills. He took the lees, or tank sediment, from Amador County Zinfandel grapes and extracted the alcohol so that the spirit came out of the still clear and 89 percent alcohol. (He then added water, to bring it down to a more-manageable 90 proof.) Not entirely legal, but as Peter likes to say, nothing’s illegal in Fiddletown until you get caught…

Homemade grappa from Fiddletown

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Writing about Zinfandel for the October issue (see “Original Zin”) got me thinking about my personal connection to the varietal, and how that’s changed over the years. Zinfandel didn’t really enter my consciousness until 1999, when I first moved to the Bay Area and a friend gave me a bottle of Ravenswood Zin as a welcome gift. Now along with Ridge and more recently, Rosenblum, Ravenswood is one of *the* names in Zinfandel, with winemaker Joel Peterson offering up numerous examples of the varietal. These offerings range from the high-end Vineyard Designates to the more-moderate County Series and the budget-friedly Vintner’s Blend.

You can be sure that the bottle my friend gave me back in ’99 was the latter, given that we were all starving twenty-somethings at the time, and Ravenswood Zin quickly became a favorite for both its price tag, rich flavors, and almost-cocktail-like alcoholic punch (which is, let’s face it, another favorite characteristic among beverages of starving twenty-somethings…).

It’s that alcoholic punch that can occasionally get the varietal into trouble: witness Darrell Corti’s decision to no longer sell his once-beloved Amador County Zinfandels at Corti Brothers gourmet grocery and wine store in Sacramento. Now, if you read my article, you’ll recall that Corti was largely responsible for putting Amador wines on the map in the ’60s and ’70s, thanks to his successful lobbying campaign on behalf of the county’s Zinfandel grapes. That campaign was aimed at Napa winemakers, and given Corti’s reputation as something of an industry sage, those winemakers listened and began to source their grapes from the region — with impressive results.

But in recent years, the alcohol content in Zinfandels has been sneaking ever higher (16 percent isn’t unheard of), perhaps in an effort to suit the tastes of critics who bestow their highest scores upon wines that are big and bold. Corti has said that his objection is not with Amador Zins in particular, but with all unfortified wines whose alcohol content exceeds 14 percent.

Fair enough — even this Zinfandel lover can now only handle the occasional glass of Amador’s old-vine finest. Guess I’ve mellowed with age.

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I mentioned in my last (and so far only) post that my husband is a winemaker, so during the harvest months of September and October, his long work days begin before dawn, and his weekends are nonexistent. You can therefore imagine the twinge of panic we felt upon learning that our first child’s due date was September 3 of this year — a date that can often mark the harvest period’s beginning.

Well, it turns out that our happy and healthy new daughter, Willa, sensed the urgency and decided to arrive a month early — which accounts for the long lag between that first blog entry and this one. Her considerate timing afforded Peter a few calm weeks with her before harvest chaos descended (which happened, at his winery at least, on September 4th).

My return to the blog coincides with the October issue of Marin Magazine hitting the stands, arriving in mailboxes, and appearing online. I plan to devote the next couple of posts to ‘outtakes,’ if you will,  from “Original Zin,” the article I wrote for the October issue about Zinfandel, California’s signature grape. But let me quickly address here one correction:

A sentence in the story’s introduction refers to Zinfandel as the second-most-planted grape in California. While it’s true that Zin is the second-most-planted *red wine* grape in the state, after Cabernet Sauvignon, both Thompson and Chardonnay have it beat in the non-wine and white wine categories, respectively. My apologies for the error.

Finally, with all due respect to my beloved Zinfandel, I want to mention a great-value Cab I recently discovered. The 2007 Bon Anno Cabernet Sauvignon, from Napa Valley, has an aroma of leather and dried cherries, with big, ripe, flavors and soft tannins on the palate. At $20, it’s a rare — and delightful — Napa bargain.

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