ZAP. For Bay Area wine lovers, especially those with a fondness for Zinfandel, those three letters forming that one little word bring an automatic smile. ZAP is short for Zinfandel Advocates & Producers, a wine industry group dedicated to the promotion of Zinfandel wine and the Zinfandel grape, and although they are attempting to brand their January event as the Zinfandel Experience, or #ZinEx, for many their big January event is also referred to as ZAP, as in, ”I’ve got my tickets to ZAP, I can’t wait to get my Zin on.”

#ZinEx is not a single January event, but a series of events held over four days. This year, on Wednesday, January 29, a trade and media tasting event was held away from the crowds at Rock Wall Wine Company in Alameda. I did not attend this event, but my friend John Compisi did attend and I’ll link his recap here for you to read about it.

For me, #ZinEx started Thursday night, at the Golden Gate Club at the Presidio in San Francisco with Epicuria, an evening of wine and food pairings, where top chefs from restaurants, catering companies, and culinary colleges create delicious bites specifically intended to complement the flavors of Zinfandel wine. 32 wineries and kitchens were represented.

Here are some pairings I enjoyed immensely:

2013 Carol Shelton Wines Wild Thing “Old Vines, Mendocino County with Ruth’s Chris Steak House of San Francisco and Walnut Creek’s Double Chop Lamb Lollipops with Veal Demi Glaze.

Yes, that is a Ruth's Chris double lamb pop and Carol Shelton Wild Thing Zin

1995 Old Hill Vineyard from Ravenswood, poured by Joel Peterson; Zinfandel plus 40 other varieties from a vineyard planted in 1862 and replanted in 1885. Paired with a Lamb Merguez Sausage with Mango Chutney, Paprika Spiced Onions and Italian Giardiniera Peppers from Rosamunde Sausage Grill in San Francisco.

1995 Old Hill Vineyard from Ravenswood, poured by Joel Peterson. Zinfandel plus 40 other varieties from a vineyard planted in 1862 and replanted in 1885.

Pacific Fine Food Catering of Alameda stepped up at the last minute, filling in for a fail restaurant, and had every taster talking about their amazing ribs, which I paired with the 2014 Mendocino County Fair wine Competition’s Best of Show Red, the 2012 Artezin Zinfandel, Mendocino County.

Artisan ribs with Artezin Zin. Retasting the 2014 Mendo Wine Comp Best of Show Red Wine

Seghesio Family Vineyards’ 2012 Rockpile paired perfectly with the Seghesio Zin and cherry glazed St. Louis Ribs prepared by their executive chef, Peter Janiak. Perfect smoke bark, delicious.

2012 Seghesio Rockpile with Seghesio Zin and cherry glazed St. Louis Rib

2012 m2 “Old Vine” Saucie Vineyard, Lodi paired with the San Francisco Cheesecake Company’s Dark Chocolate m2 Zinfandel SF Cheesecake and their Wild Huckleberry m2 Zinfandel SF Cheesecake were wonderfully creamy and lovely bites with sips.

2012 m2 old vine Zin with SF Cheesecake Company's treats

I paired a barrel sample of 2013 Andis Wines Amador Zin with Santa Rosa’s Flavor Bistro Sweet Potato Timbale with a trio of Cheeses garnished with Alba Mushrooms and Redemption Glaze and the Presidio Social Club of San Francisco’s Sea Salt Roasted Devil’s Gulch Pork Leg.

2013 Andis Wines barrel sample with Flavor Bistro sweet potato timbale with a trio of cheeses garnished with alba mushrooms & redemption glaze

The 2012 Dry Creek Vineyard Wallace Ranch Estate Zin with the Bistro Boudin of San Francisco’s Braised Beef Stew was my last bite and sip and, with apologies to all the unsipped and untasted treats remaining, I was delighted with everything that passed my lips.

2012 Dry Creek Vineyard Wallace Ranch Estate Zin with Bistro Boudin Braised Beef Stew.
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Friday morning, I attended Flights! at San Francisco’s Four Seasons hotel, a seated panel tasting with an educational component. This year’s Flights! Tasting would feature three panels of winemakers with wines from three different American Viticultural Areas, AVAs, for an exploration of the area specific characteristics, or Terroir based differences, that result in the Zinfandels produced from these three very different areas.

Readying bottles for Flights!

I was seated at a table with Joel Butler, MW. MW is the designation for a Master of Wine, which means that Joel has a remarkable palate and an amazingly encyclopedic knowledge of the world’s wines.

Flights! was moderated by a personal hero of mine in the wine world, Joel Peterson of Ravenswood. Joel told those assembled that, “we’re going to be talking about Zinfandel, the shape shifter. As we go on, you’ll see what I mean,” and, “the driver of difference is place; it has a wider range of growing locations than almost any other grape, we’re going to watch it change colors.”

The first panel focused on the Zinfandel of Contra Costa County, and Joel told us, “Contra Costa County is really sandy…the sands are really amazing. Phylloxera cannot live on sandy soil; these Zinfandel are planted on their own roots.”

Contra Costa

John Kane poured the 2012 Carla’s Reserve from Rosenblum Cellars, and painted a picture of the vineyard near the Antioch bridge, a K-mart, rail road tracks, in the middle of town. The wine was marked by notes of light tar, caramel, cherry, chocolate and salt, and was made using 3-4 styles of yeast, 15% new oak, micro bin small lot whole cluster fermentation, and had Mourvèdre (also known as Mataró) from the field in the blend.

Nathan Kandler poured Precedent Wines’ 2012 Evangelho Vineyard Zinfandel, running 75-80% Zin, with Mataró, Carignane, as well as two white grapevines, Palomino and Muscat, also in the block. Nathan described the vineyard, planted in 1890, with delta drift sands 30-40 feet deep, and said “sandy soils give bright acidity, fruit driven, suave tannins.” The wine tasted of ripe bright strawberry and raspberry fruit. Nathan used no new oak, but used French Chardonnay barrels.

Charlie Tsegeletos offered up his 2012 Big Break Vineyard Zin from Cline Cellars, and described the, “very, very deep sand,” and, “roots penetrating 30 feet.” Charlie told us the, “old vines [were] planted when Woodrow Wilson was in office, when Henry Ford established the assembly line.” With no fining, this was essentially a vegan wine, and the vineyard relies on “dry farming in these near desert conditions and sandy soil.’ The result was a darker, but balanced, multi-noted, meaty wine, plummy with cassis and a touch of mint,

Matt Cline poured the 2012 Three Wine Company Zinfandel, Live Oak, a vineyard with about nearly equal parts Zinfandel, Carignane, and Mataró originally planted mid 1888, with less than 10% Mataró and Carignane remaining today. There is also some Alicante planted perpendicular to the vineyard block. Matt humorously noted, “I’ve been making wines for about 30 years, and I think I’m the only one doing it right. Listening to these new guys, I think they’re coming along.” Matt added the river influenced winds of Contra Costa’s delta to the list of influences, and noted the “many droughts in the last 125 years, and these dry farmed vines in sand just keep going.” Fermenting in the 60’s, cool temperature wise, using a mix of American and French oak, 30% new, the sandy soils and wind resulting in “dusty berry earth,” notes, I picked up herbal blackberry, sweet tart black cherry, and floral raspberry notes.

Last up for Contra Costa County was Shauna Rosenblum, who of course started at her parents’ winery Rosenblum Cellars before creating wines at Alameda’s Rock Wall Wine Company. Shauna poured her 2012 Jesse’s Vineyard, which is also planted to Carignane and Mataró, “old school field blends,” harvested and co-fermented. About the vintage, Shauna shared the words of a sage industry friend, “2012 is a one in a hundred year vintage.” About 2013, she shared, “2013 is a one in a hundred year vintage.” Using multiple yeasts, including sparkling wine yeasts, 15-20% new oak, Shauna let the fruit show. The wine had a dessert custard nose, and notes of pepper, salt, tobacco, cocoa, blackberry, and a raspberry chocolate brownie flavor.

Joel Butler asked the panel about low pH and TA for Contra Costa wine, and Joel Peterson followed up asking if the sandy soil and deep roots or the climate were responsible. Matt Cline suggested the Contra Costa’s grapes are within ½ mile of water, so much cooler than the 1 ½ mile from water people typically think of when they think of Contra Costa locations, and this water is a cooling influence.

The second panel featured winemakers from Amador County. Amador County is made up of granitic soil, and is sometimes rocky, with Joel describing, “decomposed granite, low humidity, high luminosity, with 65 acres of vines 65 years or older.

Amador

Scott Harvey was up first with his 2012 Vineyard 1869 wine from his eponymous winery. The vineyard is, “the oldest document Zinfandel in the nation,” relying on, “a mining claim identifying one plot corner as being this vineyard planted to Zinfandel,” as the documentation for the claim. Scott described higher altitude planted vines, leading to higher tannins, a warm region, old vines with no irrigation, running out of available moisture at the end of vintage, higher alcohol wines, a touch green, from dehydration of the grapes, the best wines come from grapes picked after the first rain, and a second ripening. The wine showed tea, meat and soil, and raspberry.

Paul Sobon of Sobon Estate poured his 2012 Rocky Top. I visited Sobon perhaps a half dozen times in 2000 and 2001, when matriarch Shirley Sobon would order books and imprinted corkscrews from me, back when I worked for the Wine Appreciation Guild. When Paul described, “pretty intense volcanic mud flow, and solid, solid, solid rock,” I could picture it clearly. Paul also talked about ‘tractor blight’ as some near vertically horse or mule planted vines were taken out by less nimble tractors. 30-35% new oak, 16-18 months, 3-5% Carignane in the mix, the Rock Top showed familiar Amador dry Amador spic, clove, woody, and red fruit notes, almost structural.

Chris Leamy brought the 2012 Terra d’Oro, Deaver Vineyard, Zinfandel. 20 acres, 1881, swailed horseshoe shaped, the vineyard presents many different sun exposures, which makes an already uneven ripening variety an even greater challenge. Chris described Deaver as, “a really high acid vineyard,” that shows Amador clove, allspice, and cinnamon, and tends to tannin. To bring fruit forward, Chris ferments in stainless steel, drains and puts back on top of the skins, presses sooner, so the tannins don’t catch up, seeking balance. The wine showed a nice floral perfume. Chris also spoke to the lack of moisture in Amador vineyards, “because they start running out of water, you just have to make a call and go with it, because then you find – in 2002 – you should have picked 3-4 days ago; you really, really should have picked.”

I knew the next winemaker, Randle Johnson, because his 2012 Artizen Zinfandel, Mendocino County had been judged the Best of Show Red Wine at the 2014 Mendocino County Fair wine competition, and I have tasted it often. Today, he poured the 2012 Artezin, Esola Vineyard Zin. Planted own roots vs. root stock, Randle noted that like Contra Cost’s sandy soil, Amador’s volcanic soil allowed Vitis Vinifera’s own stock to survive Phylloxera. “We have water issues, and Zinfandel loves to set a second crop, but we have the money at esola to cut the second crop which helps with water,” explained Randle, adding,”a little rain, I just love fall rain for any non-irrigated Zinfandel vineyard grapes.” Randle also shared, “we try not to add any Jesus units,” and uses 100% French old Cabernet barrels. The wine through perfume, soft floral, and was surprisingly light in body considering the 15.4$ abv. There was abundant cedary red fruit.

The 2012 Turley Wine Cellars, Sadie Upton Vineyard Zin was shared by Tegan Passalacqua, who said, “Amador does get cool at night,” leading to, “higher natural acidity.” Again, the vineyard is ‘own rooted’ which became a bigger buzzword than ‘old vine’ at the tasting. Planted in 1922 by Sadie Upton, Tegan said, “not once have we had dehydration issue in this vineyard.” 20% new oak. There is Cinsault co-planted, and “we take everything in the vineyard and throw it in the fermenter.” Tegan shared a classic description of Amador Zin, “Tastes like it was poured out of a miner’s bucket,” with natural acidity and tannin from granitic soil. I tasted a bright, ref fruited, rose, tar, spice, cherry, strawberry, raspberry wine. Amador’s “wines are very serious, not for noobies, and demand food,” was a final thought shared by Tegan.

I found all five Amador wines threw minerality.

Chris Sawyer, sommelier and writer, asked about the characteristics shared by Amador Zins, and the panel spoke to a combination of tannins and low pH that allow Amador wines to hold up, reduce oxygen absorption, and retain ‘zinniness.’ They also talked about the advantage that comes with using old vines. “Young wines do not develop the character of old vines. An 85 year old guy knows his neighborhood better than a 12 year old. Young vines do not go as deep and do not pick up [as many] flavors [from the soil].”

The last panel of winemakers represented the Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma County, the area I visit the most often among the three, largely because I grew up nearby in Santa Rosa, and it remains the closest of the three areas to where I now live in Ukiah. Joel on Dry Creek Valley: first planted in 1869, dominant grape is Zinfandel, cooler than Amador or Conta Costa. Many series of soil, loam, yolo. Warm days, cool nights. Four of this panels wines were on St. George, with only one on own roots.

DCV

The first Dry Creek Valley winemaker was Tim Bell of Dry Creek Vineyard, coiners of the term “old vine” and Tim brought the4 2012 Beeson Ranch Zin. Tim first described the dry Creek Valley, a “long and narrow valley, almost two different regions north and sounth, sixty miles long by two miles wide, warmer in the north, cooler in the south, with a marine influence, fog, and red and brown soils.” About Beeson Ranch, Tim said it is a “field blend vineyard, to me it feel like a lot of soul,” with Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Carignane, Grenache, Trousseau Gris, Alicante Bouchet, and St. George. In general, Tom said Dry Creek Valley fruit shows, “cherry, raspberry leather, rose petal, with spice laid over the top of it.” About this Dry Creek Vineyard wine, I picked up floral perfume, cherry, raspberry, rose petal, and earth. Tom found, “the wine has distinctive fruit, white pepper, coriander.”

Jamie Peterson, the next winemaker, is no relation to Joel Peterson, but was likely not alone in wishing Joel was his uncle. Jamie poured his 2012 Peterson Winery “Tradizionale” West Vineyard Zinfandel, planted 6’ x 6’ (pre-tractor, which sees 8’ x 8’ spacing) in 1902, and made using, “native yeast when applicable, letting the site express itself,” showing, “lots of complexity and balance,” and, “always ripens a little on the later side, looking at acidity, sugar, flavor,” remarked Jamie about his wine. The vineyard has 5% ‘other’ including Alicante and even Concord. Jammy fruit, spice, herbal, dark cherry, a touch of funk, almost Pinot-esque but on steroids and covered with muscles.

The 2012 Quivera Vineyards Zinfandel, Katz Vineyard was presented by Hugh Chappelle, who described temperature swings in the vineyard of up to 50 degrees, and the soil of the Dry creek Valley as clay loam. “Old vines are truly special…it is just wonderful to capture that in the glass,” enthused Hugh, adding, “deciding when to pick Zin, the lack of uniformity, finding that perfect mix, is quite hard.” According the the Sonoma County assessor’s office, these grapes were planted in 1900, and are a field blend vineyard, including 2$ white varieties. Hugh uses a light touch of oak, “typically French, 20-25% new,” and the wine showed flora rose perfume, and deep rich layered raspberry and chocolate notes.

Glenn Proctor brought the 2012 Puccioni Vineyard Old Vine Zinfandel. Of the 40 acres planted by 1911, today just 3 ½ acres are old vine. Relatively warm, by late afternoon that temperature is lost. 7’ x 7’ mule and plow farmed until 1968, “old vine is history; wine is more than the wine; it is the experience, the history,” said Glenn, a fourth generation winemaker, who will see his son become the fifth generation winemaker on the land. The wine had a nice edge, rhubarb, deep reduced strawberry and cherry jam, and herb notes.

Kerry Damskey rounded out the final panel with his presentation of his 2012 Dutcher Crossing Winery Maple Vineyard “Bill’s Block” Zin. The vineyard was planted in 1940 on the Dry Creek bench, by Lytton Springs, in gravely loam; dry farmed, head trained, a field blend with 82% Zinfandel, and Petite Sirah, Carignane, Alicante, and a single Ruby Cabernet vine making up the balance, and co-fermented. Kerry explained, “when you co-ferment, it helps the fermentation to finish. It always gives a nice integration. Maple Vineyard makes itself.” About the temperature, Kerry said, “Dry Creek does get quite warm and really gets cold at night.” 3.7-3.75 pH, not that low, pushes cherry – black cherry flavors, and Kerry uses 30% new tight grain oak, with 10 months in barrel. I picked up notes of black cherry, strawberry pie, basil herb, and cedar.

Cheese and DCV Wines

I love Flights!, because I love learning, and being able to taste how each area produced wines that were distinctively expressing terroir, while winemaking allowing differences, was a terrifically worthwhile way to spend a morning.
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There was a fancy dinner Friday night, featuring large format bottles, and while I found the bottle room, I was not able to attend the event. One day.

Large Format Bottle storage
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For most folks ZAP brings to mind the insane crowds that used to pack first one, then two enormous halls at Ft. Mason in San Francisco. I used to attend these events, and loved them, but started attending in the early trade and media hours and then abandoning the event when the doors were opened to the hoards.

For the last two years, I have attended a much nicer event at the Presidio in San Francisco. Not as crowded, the folks at Zinfandel Advocates & Producers clearly are selling fewer tickets, and the quality of the event has skyrocketed.

The Tasting on Saturday features 116 wineries pouring Zinfandel. I intended to taste all of the wines made from Mendocino County’s grapes, but I pretty much already had, and reviews of those wines have been featured in previous articles in the Ukiah Daily Journal. This Saturday, I simply let myself taste in a more delightedly haphazard fashion, with little concern for where the grapes came from.

First up, I visited the Bedrock Wine Company table. Pouring were Chris Cottrell and Morgan Twin-Peterson (Joel Peterson’s son). I first met Morgan at a previous Flights! tasting panel tasting, and consider him a young superstar winemaker. Great place to start, I figured.

Morgan

2013 Bedrock Old Vine, California – 75.6% Zin with Carignane , Mourvedre, and Alicante. Bright strawberry, lovely cherry, herb, and mint.

2013 Bedrock Evangelho, Contra Costa County – This wine is from the same vineyard that Nathan Kandler presented the day before at Flights! A little closed, a wine to lay down. Deeper sniffs pulled spice, wood, clove, cranberry. Nice acid.

2013 Bedrock Heritage, Sonoma Valley – 1888 vineyard, 24 interplanted and co-fermented varieties. Native yeast and fermentation. No racking until bottling. Loved this wine. Just so multi-noted. Fruit basket roll up. Depth, layers, plenty of tannins, but soft. Ageable.

2012 Ballantine Old Vine, Napa Valley – Frank Ballentine poured his three vineyard blend. Ripe, ripe, ripe fruit. Raspberry and chocolate.

2012 Beltane Ranch, Estate, Sonoma Valley – I first tasted Joy Wesley’s wines when I visited Beltane Ranch last summer, with my friend Serena Alexi. This wine was a little tight then, but has opened up and now shows deep warm pie baking spices, dark blackberry, currant, jam, and herb.

Joy Wesley

2013 Beltane Ranch, Estate, Sonoma Valley – Clearly a year younger, a touch lighter, less deep notes now, redder fruit, cedar, spice, herb, raspberry.

2011 Dashe Cellars Dry rose of Zinfandel, Todd Brothers Ranch, Alexander Valley – Mike Dashe poured me his “very dry” blush Zin, made from 50 year old vines, barrel fermented, and native. Lovely, light, but flavorful, balanced, citrusy, dried mandarin orange, persimmon, spice, herb.

2012 Andis Wines, Amador County – Really delicious, balanced, earthy, dry cherry, raspberry, clove spice, great integration.

2012 V. Sattui Winery Quaglia Vineyard Ancient Vine, St. Helena – First, I should note, the folks at V. Sattui have been very kind to me over the years. I attended their 125th anniversary lunch at the North Beach Restaurant in San Francisco and sat directly across from Dario and Yana Sattui, Dario has been generous with quotes, and V. Sattui Winery regularly sends review samples of new release to me. All that said, these are uninfluenced notes: Firm, dark, deep, rich, cocoa spice, raspberry reduction, soft but abundant tannin, well balanced.

2012 V. Sattui Winery Crow Ridge Vineyard Ancient Vine, Russian River Valley – orange, eucalyptus mint, black pepper spice, cassis, persimmon, integrated, lively.

2012 V. Sattui Winery Black-Sears, Howell Mountain – Lovely nose. Got into a conversation with Jim Goodman, a Zinfandel Enthusiast, then came back and smelled again, “ahhhh.” Cola, cherry, berry, cassis, great drink!

2013 Jeff Cohn Cellars The Imposter, California – A cellar blend…blends work! Chocolate, smooth spice, layered smooth balanced fruit, raspberry and cranberry, really terrifically integrated wine.

2013 The Prisoner Wine Company Saldo, California – I LOVED Jenifer Beloz’s two wines. Saldo is latin and refers to “from here to there” and this wine takes grapes from Sonoma Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Mendocino County, Lake County, Sierra Foothills, Contra Costa County, and Lodi. Three Mendocino County vineyards are Mattern Vineyard, Dark Horse Vineyard, and Tindall Ranch…see, I was able to get some Mendocino County love into this piece. 85% Zin with Syrah, Petite Sirah, and Mourvedre. More Zin than a Coro, but similar. So good. Chocolate wrapped raspberry, cherry, and berry.

Jennifer Beloz

2013 The Prisoner Wine Company The Prisoner, Napa Valley – First, this wine knocked my sock off. 44% Zinfandel, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Petite Sirah, 16% Syrah, 2% Charbono. This Napa blend, based on Zinfandel was just incredibly balanced and so nuanced. What a great wine! Blackberry, cranberry, persimmon, floral, rose, spice. Love, love, love. Jennifer Beloz, the winemaker, is incredibly personable, which was wonderful as well.

1997 Ridge Vineyards, Jimsomare – I walked up to the Ridge table and all I saw was the word Jimsomare and my heart started beating a little faster. I didn’t even see the 1997 vintage date when I asked for a taste. A great vintage, and my son’s birth year, the fruit might be a little in decline, but there was still plenty of bright raspberry and cranberry fruit, and spice. A real treat tasting this blast from the past.

97 Jimsomare

2013 Ridge Vineyards, Barrel Sample, Pagani Ranch, Sonoma Valley – 83% Zinfandel, 16% Alicante. I think the remaining 1% might be love. A terrifically lush and drinkable wine, great berry cherry fruit. Young, will benefit from age.
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To finish my The Tasting experience, I attended an exploration of what Randy Caparoso described as “under-appreciated Zinfandel areas” sponsored by the SOMM Journal.

Rich and Chris

SOMM Chris Sawyer led a quick look at Lake County’s Jelly Jar Wines and Mendocino County’s McNab Ridge Winery, using them to talk about the larger areas.

Chris shared that the Lake County AVA is above the fog line, high elevation, with intense sun exposure mitigated by the largest lake in California pulling in cool temperatures at night. Mendocino County is closer to the ocean, hotter, with a maritime channel bringing a diurnal swing draft, and influences are the Russian River and gravelly alluvial and volcanic soils.

2012 Jelly Jar Wines Old Vine, Lake County – Growing up, the jars that jelly came in were called jelly glasses at our house, because they so often served as glasses for red wine at the table. In a nod to the same experience, the folks at Jelly Jar Wines knock the pretension of stemmed glasses, that all too often get knocked over and break, right out of what they do, embracing the wine glass of choice in our past, the humble but virtually unbreakable jelly jar. 50+ year old grapes from the Nova Vineyard on the Kelseyville Bench, up at 1,500-1,600 feet in elevation. Andy shared that the vineyard location and elevation brings frost worries and a late October pick, and the wine is imbued with late growing season attributes. Winemaker Andy Pestoni shared his Goldilocks wine, not too jammy, not too lean, but just right. Dusty cocoa powder, pretty elegant strawberry, raspberry, and dark cherry notes. Soft, smooth, with nice tannin.

2012 McNab Ridge Winery, Cononiah Vineyard, Mendocino – I tasted through all of Rich Parducci’s wines recently, and ran a feature piece on McNab Ridge Winery. I wrote then that I like Rich and his wines, and nothing has changed in the week since that was published in the Ukiah Daily Journal. Rich, and his wines, are a terrific representation of Mendocino County. 35 year old vines, Ed Berry is the grower, rocky volcanic soil, vineyard gone through multiple times for uniform fruit, Chocolate, strawberry jam, and white pepper spice.

2012 McNab Ridge Winery, Old Vine, Mendocino – A little more rocky soil, 75 year old vineyard, about 1½ tons per acre. Minerally, perfumed, rich fruit.

Rich shared a great compliment from Paul Draper, the God of Zin from Ridge, who upon tasting Rich’s Zin shared, “great job, you’ve done justice to these grapes.”
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To say that I had a great time, and am grateful to Zinfandel Advocates & Producers for their media invite, would be an understatement. Thank you!

I love single vineyard Zinfandel, and 100% Zinfandel, but I came to reinforce my greater love for blends, whether field blends or cellar blends, and in much the same way came to really appreciate some of the California blends that took advantage of the very different and distinct notes each different growing area pushed into the vines that grow there, so that the resulting blend was so much better than any individual wine might have been. What the House of walker does incredibly well with blended scotch, often sourcing from 40 individual single malts, winemaker Jennifer Beloz did with her wines at The Prisoner Wine Company. Not alone, there are other winemakers picking and choosing the best grapes for their California blend Zinfandels. Where once California on the label was a way to hide a bad source of grapes, now often it presents an invitation to something wonderful.

I fell in love with wines from Contra Costa County and Amador County, reconfirmed my love for wines from Dry Creek Valley and Mendocino County, and found new appreciation for wines that just said California.

Bottom line, if it says Zinfandel on the label, buy it and enjoy it. You are supporting family farming and passionate winemakers with each bottle you consume.

EPICURIA, the amazing Zinfandel and food pairing tasting is tonight, Thursday, January 29 at The Golden Gate Club in the Presidio of San Francisco, 135 Fisher Loop, San Francisco, CA 94129

ZAP, Zinfandel Advocates & Producers, member tickets are just $105, and non-member tickets are just $130, and are available online through the #ZinEx website.

Epicuria

Here is what is on the menu tonight from 6:00 pm – 8:30 pm:

Sweet Potato Timbale with a Trio of Cheeses Garnished with Alba Mushrooms & “Redemption” glaze from Flavor Bistro with Alexander Valley Vineyards Zinfandel

Smoked Duck Breast with Caramelized Onions, Bleu Cheese, and Aged Balsamic Reduction from Stanley’s Steakhouse with Andis Wines Zinfandel

Duck Rillette with Black Mission Fig & Balsamic Jam from Estate Chef with Artezin Wines Zinfandel

Tiramisu (made with Zinfandel) and a Delicious Chocolate Pepper Cupcake with Zinfandel infused Bacon from Sonoma Cake Creations with Barefoot Cellars Zinfandel

Sea Salt Roasted Devil’s Gulch Pork Leg from the Presidio Social Club with Bella Vineyards Zinfandel

Lamb Lollipops with Veal Demi Glaze from Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse with Bonneau Wines Zinfandel

Texas Wild Boar Chili- Slow-Braised Spicy Chili with Sour Cream, Green Onion and Cheddar from Sauce with Brazin Cellars Zinfandel

Chilled Red Beet Soup, with Zinfandel Creme Fresh from Pegi Ball Catering Company with Carol Shelton Wines Zinfandel

Spicy Olive Flatbread & Fig Soppressata Flatbread from SF Local with D-cubed Cellars Zinfandel

Braised Beef Stew from Bistro Boudin with Dry Creek Vineyard Zinfandel

Duck Tacos with Mole from City College of San Francisco with Four Vines Zinfandel

Pork Tostaditas from Cindy’s Back Street Kitchen with Hendry Zinfandel

Mystery Treat from Trabocco Kitchen with Jeff Cohn Cellars Zinfandel

Baccalou Cumber Rounds & Savory Cream Cheese on Baguette from Breadfruit Tree with Jessie’s Grove Winery Zinfandel

Dark Chocolate m2 Zinfandel SF Cheesecake & Wild Huckleberry m2 Zinfandel San Francisco Cheesecake from San Francisco Cheesecake Company with m2 Wines Zinfandel

Arrabiata Penne and Braised Beef Bourguignon with Bacon and Mushrooms from Estate Chef Charles Nelson with McCay Cellars Zinfandel

Shrimp Cocktail from Swan Oyster Depot with Peachy Canyon Winery Zinfandel

Bisou Group Small Plates from Chez Papa Bistrot with R&B Cellars Zinfandel

Muleheart Farm Fresh Ham Bocadillo from Central Market with Ravenswood Winery Zinfandel

Pastrami Duck Breast from Schroeder’s with Ridge Vineyards Zinfandel

Dried Fig & Marcona Almond Chicken Salad on House Made Bread from Scolari’s Good Eats with Rock Wall Wine Company Zinfandel

House Made Chocolate Salumi with Assorted Cheese and Fruits from Kuleto’s Italian Restaurant with Rombauer Vineyards Zinfandel

House-made Cracker, with Ciccioli, Stone Ground Mustard and Pickled Onion from Longomare with Rosenblum Cellars Zinfandel

Lamb Merguez Sausage with Mango Chutney, Paprika Spiced Onions & Italian Giardiniera Peppers from Rosamunde Sausage Grill with Saddleback Cellars Zinfandel

Slow smoked St. Louis Cut Pork Ribs with a Zinfandel Preserved Cherry Glaze from Winery executive chef Peter Janiak with Seghesio Family Vineyards Zinfandel

Classic Chocolate Salad – spring mixed baby spinach medley tossed with crumble Gorgonzola sundried cranberries brownie crouton crumbs drizzled with a chocolate raspberry rice wine from A Winechef For You, LLC with St. Amant Winery Zinfandel

Fennel Olive Oil Pound Cake from Taste with Terra d’Oro Wines Zinfandel

Hanger Steak with Watercress Aioli and Red Wine Onion Jam on Housemade Potato Chip from Mustard’s Grill with Tres Sabores Zinfandel

Savory Sicilian Cannoli with Wild Boar-Mascarpone Mousse and Marjoram & Mini Tiramisu’ of Angel Wings (fritters) and Espresso Sauce from Canneti Roadhouse Italiana with Three Wine Company Zinfandel

Rolled Housemade Bresaola and Arugula with Lemon Aioli and Parmigiano, Crostini with Housemade Mozzarella, Olive Tapenade & Roasted Tomatoes & Crostini with Housemade Sausage, Caramelized Onions & Roasted Peppers from Winery Executive Chef with V. Sattui Winery Zinfandel

Roasted Beet Salad with Grains and Herbs from Chef Tyler Stone with XYZin Wines Zinfandel

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John On Wine – A New Zin Tradition

Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal on Thursday, August 28, 2014

John Cesano of John On Wine

John Cesano of John On Wine

On a sunny Saturday in August, I spent some time in Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley at the ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates & Producers) Simply Summer Celebration, an inaugural event billed as “a new Zin tradition.”

A large white tent was set up in the center of Ridge Vineyards’ Lytton West Vineyard and over 125 Zinfandels were poured by the 50 wineries set up underneath the canopy, with Petaluma’s Pizza Politana set up just outside the tent and serving wood-fired artisan pizzas and a mixed green salad for the over 400 assembled wine lovers that day.

I love Zinfandel, but it can be a pretty big varietal, often tending toward high alcohol and massive dense fruit jam bomb flavors. On a hot day, outside, with plenty of sun, surrounded by other tasters, I was pleased to be writing for the Ukiah Daily Journal, as I could focus on the few wines made from Mendocino grapes and sensibly limit my tastes.

First up, I tasted the wine that won the John Parducci Best of Show Red Wine award at the recent 2014 Mendocino County Fair Wine Competition, the 2012 Artezin Wines Zinfandel, Mendocino, $17. Pouring it was winemaker Randle Johnson.

Artezin is a Napa winery, part of The Hess Collection, and the grapes for this top medal winning Zinfandel come from all over inland Mendo, including from Laviletta Vineyard on Mill Creek Road in Talmage, Seebass Family Vineyard and Paul Dolan’s Dark Horse Ranch on Old River Road near Talmage, Brown Vineyard in Redwood Valley, and Eddie Graziano’s Rovera Ranch near Calpella, among several others.

The wine was lush, showing clear berry, cherry, spice and herb notes up front, leading to red and purple fruit, including pluots. There is a lot happening in this wine, well integrated, marked by balance and finesse. 14.5% alcohol but doesn’t drink hot, feels like 13.9%.

Randle asked about the Mendocino Wine Competition, and if his award meant that the judges chose it above the best Cabernet Sauvignon, best Syrah, best Petite Sirah, best Carignane, over the best of all of Mendocino County’s red wine varieties, and not just above all of Mendocino County’s Zinfandels – which would be an impressive feat by itself. I told Randle that, yes, his Zinfandel was chosen best of all red wines entered into competition. Randle responded, “this award means more to me than a 95 in Wine Spectator.”

Josh Wagner, an employee at one of Kendall Jackson’s other wine concerns, poured three wines for Edmeades of Philo, between Boonville and Navarro, in Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley. I tasted a 2012 Edmeades Zinfandel, Mendocino, $21, a blend of Zin, Petite Sirah, and Syrah, a decent weight wine at 14.7% alc but a little soft in the mouth, without discernable oomph. Next, Josh poured the 2012 Edmeades Zinfandel, Perli Vineyard, $31, a Zin, Merlot & Syrah blend, that tasted like a walk through the black pepper forest, with oak, anise, and plummy meaty raspberry. Finally, I tasted the 100% Zinfandel offering from Edmeades, a 2011 Shamrock Vineyard, with fruit taken at 2,800 feet in elevation. Lighter mouth feel than the Perli, but not dismissible at all. Plenty of flavors, and a wine that begs to be paired with food, where herbs and fruit would pop.

Carol Shelton poured her eponymous wines, and I tasted her 2012 Carol Shelton Wines Wild Thing Old Vines Zinfandel, Mendocino, $19. Carol’s Zinfandel showed brambly bright raspberry and darker blackberry, with herb and black pepper. I worked with Carol from 1993 to 2001, and have an affinity for her wines. Not too big at 14.5%, but certainly not too light. This would be a Goldilocks’ choice wine. 83% Zinfandel , 15% Carignane , and 2% Petite Sirah; the 92% of grapes coming from Mendocino County are from the Cox Vineyard, just north of Ukiah.

Not Mendocino County, but close, I tasted a wine from Chacewater Wine from over in neighboring Lake County’s Kelseyville. The 2012 Chacewater Zin, Sierra Foothills, $20, ran 14.5% alc and had dusty rhubarb, cherry, and oak notes throughout.

Bonus non-Mendo Zinfandel tastes: I tasted the 2012 Barefoot Cellars Zinfandel, Lodi, $7, because winemaker Jennifer Wall had done such a good job with social media marketing, inviting those who ZAP indicated would be attending to come and taste her wines. The Barefoot Zinfandel had smoky, woody, darker color and flavors without being heavy, with a dominant dark strawberry jam note.

Beltane Ranch winemaker Kevin Holt poured their inaugural 2012 Beltane Ranch Estate Zin, $44. I visited Beltane Ranch in the Sonoma Valley’s Glen Ellen with my friend Serena Alexi earlier this year. A blend of Zin, Alicante Bouschet, Carignane and Petite Sirah, the wine drank young, with intense flavors of black raspberry jam, herb, and oak supporting the fruit in this 15.5% Alc wine.

I tasted the 2012 Ridge Lytton Springs, as a good guest should always taste the host’s wine. At just 70% Zinfandel with 21% Petite Sirah, 6% Carignane, and 3% Mourvedre, this wine is technically not a Zinfandel, although it is sufficiently Zinny to me and, if grown and made one county north, could be called a Coro. 14.4% in alc and loaded with flavor, plenty of brambly ripe berry and a little firm. This is a wine that can lie down and improve with cellaring.

I recognized plenty of other wine writers, and saw that some of my favorite other Zinfandel producers were pouring, but as the attendance grew to over 400, counting winemakers, I decided to call it a day, and headed home to relax in an air conditioned room. That night, I baked spicy chicken wings and paired them with the 2012 Artezin Zinfandel, the Mendo Best of Show red, and that pairing may have best defined a simply summer celebration and new Zin tradition, as it was perfect.

Here’s a link to the Zin friendly baked chicken wing recipe.

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John On Wine – The Perfume of Zinfandel

Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal on January 30, 2014 by John Cesano

I love women. I love perfume. I love how the same perfume can smell different on different women. I am fond of all things sensual, and scents from flowers, foods, wines, and a woman’s perfume are all wonderful.

Generally speaking, I concur with John Barlow and Bob Weir; “too much of everything is just enough,” is a phrase from their song I Need a Miracle that just makes me smile. Perfume at a wine tasting, however, is the exception, and almost any is too much. Men, and their cologne, can trigger an inner groan, a silent shriek of exasperation, as well.

Wine tasting, whether at a winery tasting room, or a big event like last weekend’s Zinfandel Experience, put on by the Zinfandel Advocates & Producers, is about pulling notes from a wine; aroma and bouquet for the nose, taste for the mouth, and deciding if this is the wine for you, if this is a wine worth plunking down your hard earned dollars for.

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It is hard to discern subtle nuance, the difference between green apple and yellow apple, apricot and nectarine, plum and cassis, in a wine when your nose is assaulted by waves of woody, floral, citrus, or other fragrant notes of perfume or cologne, sometimes freshly reapplied in the car moments before entering a wine tasting.

Wine tasting in a spring garden with fresh and fragrant blooms is similarly unkind to the wines, as is tasting in a room that smells of recently applied paint, wood floor polish, or other maintenance or cleaning products.

Last Saturday, coincidentally my birthday, I was at the Presidio in San Francisco to take part in three tasting track sessions, each held in a different building located at the Parade Ground.

The parade grounds at the Presidio in San Francisco

The parade grounds at the Presidio in San Francisco

The Terroir Tasting track, held in the Observation Post offered an incredible view of both the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz, and grouped Zinfandels by appellation, so you could visit a table and taste wines from Mendocino and Lake Counties, or the Dry Creek Valley, or Lodi, or Paso Robles, or any of the other main growing regions for Zinfandel, and explore how these different growing regions affect the varietal’s characteristic notes.

I was joined by my friend June Batz, and we tasted Zinfandels from nearly every region. There were good wines from every growing region. It was a treat seeing Anne Alderette pouring wines for Dry Creek Valley and Zinfandel icon Joel Peterson wearing a stylish black cowboy hat.

Mendocino and Lake County wines lined up for tasting at the Terroir Tasting track

Mendocino and Lake County wines lined up for tasting at the Terroir Tasting track

The Sensory Tasting track was held at Herbst and was most similar to the old Grand Tasting, featuring the most producers in one spot, arranged alphabetically, pouring their Zinfandels. I talked with producers and tasted their Zinfandels made from Mendocino County grapes.

Carol Shelton, Carol Shelton Wines

Carol Shelton, Carol Shelton Wines

My good friend Carol Shelton poured me a taste of her 2012 Wild Thing Zinfandel, Mendocino County. We worked together eight years, she made great wine, and I traveled the country selling her wine. We worked a spectacular dinner together in Chicago. Made from organically-grown old-vine grapes, Carol’s Wild Thing showed plum and pepper with a little edge on the finish. $19.

Next up, I tasted a Zinfandel from Artezin, the 2012 Artezin Zinfandel, Mendocino, $18, made from bench fruit grown on the east side of Ukiah. The wine was medium bodied, but had a big nose, rich and deep, leading to a medium mouth of cherry and spice.

Edmeades Winery poured four Mendo Zinfandels; the 2011 Mendocino $20, 2010 Piffero $31, 2011 Shamrock $31, and 2010 Perli Vineyard $31. My favorite, the Perli Vineyard Zinfandel saw a little blending of Primitivo, some suitcase cuttings, and Merlot into the Zinfandel, and was grown above the fog line on the Mendocino Ridge, yielding bright acid to provide structure and balance for loads of spice and fruit notes of raspberry and darker berry.

Rich Parducci of McNab Ridge Winery

Rich Parducci of McNab Ridge Winery

Finally, I tasted three Zinfandels from McNab Ridge Winery, poured by winemaker Rich Parducci. First, I enjoyed the 2010 Cononiah $26, soft and drinkable with delicate white pepper and French oak smoothness, lovely classic Zin fruit from 100% Zinfandel grapes. Next, I tasted Rich’s 2011 Mendocino Zinfandel $18, which has a little Petite Sirah blended in, and is all chocolate and ripe berry cherry fruit. Finally, I tasted the 2011 Zinzilla $13, an unpretentious blend of Mendocino and Lodi grapes that I carried with me and paired with cheeses, an aged Gouda, a Manchego, a soft blue. Completely unfair to all of the other Zinfandels tasted but, when paired with cheeses, the Zinzilla was the best wine of the Sensory Tasting track.

The Reserve and Barrel Tasting track, held at the Film Center, should have been my favorite track, and my two favorite wines of the day came from here, but the words “Reserve and Barrel” acted as a magnet for every overly perfumed woman, and the Film Center had recently received a splash of paint and application of floor wax, and I could not stand to taste wines in the room. I did get a pouring of 2012 Bedrock Wine Company Zinfandel, Monte Rosso, Moon Mountain, $50, which I took back outside to experience, and what another fine wine, in an endless series of them, Morgan Twain-Peterson has produced. Weighty, full, balanced, with big bold flavors of fruit and spice harmoniously blended.

The Film Center at the Presidio, site of the Reserve and Barrel Tasting track

The Film Center at the Presidio, site of the Reserve and Barrel Tasting track

While outside, Christopher Watkins, writer of 4488: A Ridge Blog, and manager of Ridge, stopped to say hello to me. We have enjoyed each other’s writing in the past, he has kindly linked to things I have written, and we both love the wines he pours daily. We shook our heads, together, at the unfortunate smells inside the Film Center that made outside tasting necessary, and he extended an invitation to quarterly tastings at Ridge which I leaped to accept.

Inspired by my meeting with Christopher, I ventured inside for one more taste; winemaker Eric Baugher poured me a barrel sample of the 2012 Ridge Vineyards Jimsomare Zinfandel. This wine will be bottled in March and be released in November but, tasted outside, was drinking beautifully now, with lush plum, cherry and strawberry fruit notes, wedded to a little classic pepper spice.

I am sure no one wears perfume to a wine tasting maliciously; I’m sure no one has had the gumption to ask you not to, explaining that the result is about as welcome as a fart in an elevator, for fear of causing you pain through embarrassment. I loved the Zinfandel Experience, but between building maintenance and perfume smells, I was driven right away from what should have been the most overwhelmingly amazing part of the experience after only two spectacular tastes.

Venues are booked well in advance, and the folks at ZAP had no idea that one of their tasting track locations was going to get some fresh paint and polish applied too shortly before a wine tasting. Nothing that can be done about that. The heavily perfumed women flocking to the Reserve Tasting was also beyond control, and can only be addressed through education.

Class dismissed.

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John on Wine

Spotlight Winery: Rosati Family Wines

Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal on September 5, 2013 by John Cesano


In 1980 Mario and Danelle Rosati bought 960 acres just off Highway 101 at Comminsky Station Road, 1.7 miles south of Squaw Rock, near where Mendocino County borders Sonoma County. The ranch has grown to 1,500 acres with another 1,300 acre companion ranch, and is mostly natural and unplanted land.

Told at purchase that all of the buildings would have to be torn down, Mario completely rehabbed and restored a large red barn, which is now the nicest guest house you might imagine, filled with wood and stone, a showplace kitchen, soaring open space; both comfortable and gorgeous at once.

“Maybe one plank from the original barn is left,” Mario told me, as he welcomed me for a tasting and dinner.

A lawyer by training in Palo Alto, Mario graduated from U.C. Berkeley’s law school and joined a small firm, Wilson Sonsini, in 1971. The firm grew from nine to more than 600 lawyers, and is now global. Mario went from associate to partner in 1975, to having his name included in the firm’s name, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati.

The seeds of Rosati Family Wines were planted in 1971 when Mario’s boss and firm founder John Wilson asked, “do you like to drink wine,” before assigning him a new client: Ridge Vineyards.

For those unfamiliar, Ridge is one of the most revered wineries in California, and the wines produced from their various Monte Bello Ridge vineyards are highly sought after. The 2007 Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon is currently going for $160 at the winery, as an example.

David Bennion, a founding partner at Ridge, and Mario worked together for years; and with the purchase of his Mendocino County ranch, Mario invited Dave up to hunt for mushrooms. Mushroom hunting became pig hunting too, and after having visited for years, Dave suggested that grapes might grow well on the ranch.

Using precious Monte Bello bud stock from Ridge, David helped Mario plant 10 acres to Cabernet Sauvignon on a mountain ridge with elevation ranging from 1,000 to 1,200 feet in 1987. Subsequently, vines were filled in and an additional three acres were planted with Jimsomare bud stock. Jimsomare is one of four Monte Bello ridge vineyards that Ridge considers estate vineyards. Peter Chevalier is the vineyard manager for Mario and Danelle.

Mario gave me a ride from the “barn” up to the vineyards, about 800 feet above the Russian River below. The grape set looked spectacular, but Mario told me that his winemaker, Zelma Long, would drop about half the grapes and, during sorting after harvest, Zelma and Danelle would further reduce the yield, until only about 1 ton of the best, most flavorful grapes remain to make the vintage’s wine.

Zelma Long’s Cabernet Sauvignon winemaking credentials are as solid as they come, making stellar Cab for both Robert Mondavi in the 70s and Simi in the 80s and 90s.

Zelma and Alex MacGregor work together at John and Patty Fetzer’s Saracina winery to turn Rosati’s Cabernet grapes into wine.

I tasted five vintages of Rosati Family Wines Cabernet Sauvignon, 2000, 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007.

Tying each of the five vintages together was a rich earthy quality, a chewiness, firm tannins, a “dustiness” that echoes the best of Napa Cab’s “Rutherford dust” quality, and clear rich ripe fruit.

Mario said of the 2000, “when we first bottled this, it had so much tannin, but now Š” as he poured it for me. With age, this wine showed rich dark chocolate and cherry notes, and still had enough tannin left that this was a hold or drink wine.

Opening a bottle from one of the last three cases, Mario poured the 2004, which showed bright cherry berry fruit in the nose and was so enjoyably easy to drink. Perfect right now, with light tannin and oak providing a backdrop for earthy, dusty, cassis, blackberry and cherry in the mouth and a long beautiful finish.

The 2005 is classic Cabernet, all earthy dark fruit, plummy blackberry, boysenberry, and tannin. Pretty big, lay it down and hold, or drink.

2006 Rosati Family Cabernet Sauvignon is a gorgeous, food friendly, not overpowering, but bursting with candy like blackberry and black currant wine. Earthy, oaky, tooth coating chewiness upon opening gives way to rich and bright fruit, beautifully balanced and integrated, a lively and delightful wine.

The 2007 is plummy rich, dense, and packed with dark fruit. Maribeth Kelly brought an aerating decanter and this wine, which is a definite hold, a wine that can be laid down longer still to benefit, was magically turned into a drink.

Rick Berry and Maribeth were guests at a dinner Mario and Danelle kindly invited me to share, with fresh salmon caught by Rick being served. Steaks were also grilled with the most delicious rub, and were a perfect pairing for the several vintages of Rosati Cabernet at the table.

In Mendocino County both SIP! Mendocino in Hopland and the Mendocino Wine Shop in Mendocino carry Rosati Cabernet Sauvignon, and it is well worth a visit to either to try some, especially at a surprisingly affordable price of $32-$33.
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This piece was written over a month ago. This morning, I received an email announcing the release of the 2010 Ridge Monte Bello Cabernet at $160 per bottle. These Rosati wines are like those Ridge wines, but you get five bottles for the price of one.

When you have to eat your words, use a Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel to wash them down.

Recently, I wrote that while the Passport to Dry Creek Valley is the big daddy of wine events, Hopland Passport is the better value.

I’m a little jaded, I work for what I think is the best tasting room in Hopland; the wines we pour and the food we serve with them are unmatched in quality, so I allowed my pride for what we do half an hour north of Healdsburg with our wine and food at our event to color my writing.

I write about wine while running a tasting room; and in the past I used to sit on the board of, and then did marketing for, Destination Hopland – the folks who put on Hopland Passport. Perhaps, I was a touch biased in my piece for the local paper.

I received a media invite to Passport to Dry Creek Valley from Anne Alderette and Melissa McAvoy, two superstars of media outreach hired by the Winegrowers of Dry Creek Valley (WDCV) to make magic happen.

Passport to Dry Creek Valley

Passport to Dry Creek Valley


I have shared my opinion, long held, that Hopland Passport is the better event value for some time now, and in email exchanges I included a past piece where I wrote as much along with several other wine event recap pieces when corresponding with Anne and Melissa before Passport to Dry Creek Valley.

On the last Saturday in April, I drove to Seghesio Family Vineyards in Healdsburg proper, and was allowed to check in a little early. I am glad that media check in was at Seghesio because the food and wine served up set the tone for much of what would follow.

Seghesio Gamberi e Fregola

Seghesio Gamberi e Fregola


Gambero e Fregola (the most deliciously fried shrimp ever, covered in a romesco, served on a bed of lemon zest cous cous), Penne Bolognese, and homemade Seghesio Italian Sausage were paired up with reds of wonderful body and flavor. With a terrific band laying down great electric jazz jams, I enjoyed one perfect Italian varietal wine after another, with my favorite two being the 2010 Sangiovese and the 2010 San Lorenzo Estate wines.

Next great stop: Amphora Winery, where my high school classmate Karen Mishler Torgrimson works. Amphora is one of over a half dozen wineries that operate in a winery complex just off of Dry Creek Road. Previously, I had focused on Amphora’s Zinfandel, after all, when in Rome and all of that. This time, I tasted Chardonnay to pair with both fresh shucked oysters and a tuna croquette. The oysters were delicious, and the tuna croquette tasted exactly like a good tuna melt tastes – which is a compliment because I love tuna melts on toast. The Chardonnay pushed the limits of tropicality (yeah, I make up words when they don’t but should exist), also a good thing. I also tasted a 2007 Amphora Cabernet Franc, Pedroni Vineyard that showed great fruit and body.

Amphora

Amphora

In the same complex of wineries as Amphora is Dashe. Mike Dashe buys grapes from my boss for his wines (and gets huge acclaim), so I always look in when I’m in the area. Dashe shares a tasting room with Collier Falls and it was actually Collier Falls that was on the passport for this tasting room, although all of the family wineries were pouring.

Collier Falls at Family Wineries

Collier Falls at Family Wineries


One of our wine club members, Jenny Candeleria, was greeting folks at Collier Falls and she pointed me to some wines to taste and made sure I got a plate of food. Lots of red and white country western check and hay bales, and the Steve Pile Band laying down bluesy country music. I enjoyed Estate Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel and a country cover I heard cowboy Bob Weir also cover countless times in concert. The food was simple hearty fare with a terrific sandwich of pulled bbq smoked meat and slaw and the chocolatiest chocolate brownie anywhere.

Truett Hurst. I do not know what caused me to stop in, but I am so glad I did. Preston has been my longtime favorite place to spend an afternoon in the dry creek Valley, with their great wines, arbor shaded picnic tables, and bocce courts. Before my visit to Truett Hurst was done, I had a new favorite Dry Creek Valley stop, or a tie between two favorites, one old, one new.

Me at Truett Hurst

Me at Truett Hurst


I was greeted at the door by a lovely schoolteacher from Ukiah, where I live, who works some weekends at the winery. Upon check in, she told me that after getting some wine, I needed to head out back for some food and then, if I could make the time for a short walk, I had to go sit in a chair beside the river. Best advice all weekend!

Herb gardens at Truett Hurst

Herb gardens at Truett Hurst

The tasting room building is comfortable, well laid out, features two tasting bars, upright refrigerators filled with yummy picnic provisions, and spectacular photographic art that let me know immediately: I was in a winery with biodynamic wines. The animal photos told of wines made from grapes grown in a biodiverse and organic manner, with a touch of ritualistic magic on the side.

The River at Truett Hurst

The River at Truett Hurst


The tasting room staff at Truett Hurst Winery confirmed that they had recently received their Demeter Biodynamic Certification, a many year process, and then listing the owner partners they surprised me: Paul Dolan, iconic Mendocino County grower, winemaker, and a past guest at our Wine Club Dinner, was one of the owners. I like Paul Dolan a ton, and was now, perhaps, predisposed to like Truett Hurst.

Okay, a quick review of biodynamic growing practices: start with organic growing; no synthetic pesticides, insecticides or fertilizers – No Monsanto RoundUp! Next, grow beneficial cover crops to fix nitrogen, attract beneficial insects, and possibly provide some food (fava beans do go great with a nice Chianti). Now bring in some happy animals; chickens to eat less than beneficial insects, sheep to mow the covercrops down, and of course the animals leave behind a natural and unmanipulated fertilizer for the grapevines. Okay, now comes the magic: take a cow horn, fill it with cow poo, and bury it by the light of the moon on one solstice. Near six months later, unbury the cow poo filled cow horn on the next solstice and place it in a barrel full of collected rainwater, or virgin tears, to steep, making a cow poo horn tea. Do not drink the tea, but instead use the liquid preparation to spray the vines. Seriously, you have to do this if you want Demeter Certification. I don’t know if the ritual magic has any real benefit, but I know that time spent in the vineyard with the grapevines is never bad, so while maybe not any better than simply growing organically with maybe some biodiversity in the mix, it isn’t a bad thing. Heck, maybe the magic does great things, I don’t know, but I do know the practice has passionate adherents, like Paul Dolan. Cesar Toxqui, another winemaker from my area is another true believer and he, like Paul, makes great juice.

Anyway, back to the juice. I tasted the 2011 Red Rooster Old Vine Zinfandel, a solid offering made even more solid when I stepped into the large back yard and found three delicious treats to pair it with served up by Peter Brown, the chef at the Jimtown Store: Pork Rillettes (think phenomenally flavorful pork pate), deliciously light slaw with lots of nice acid and herb, and possibly the weekend’s best bite, a mascarpone and pistachio stuffed date. The pourers were generous with pours, and I took a decent 4 oz of the 2011 White sheep Pinot Noir with me as I walked through flower and herb gardens, planted to attract beneficial insects but also offering up the most intensely pungent natural perfume, and on a short distance to where I found groupings of red Adirondack chairs arranged under tree shade on the bank of a calming babbling river – it looked more like a creek, but why quibble?

The peacefulness, sitting comfortably in a chair, glass of delicious Pinot Noir at hand, the lovely earthy dried cherry aromas and flavors, everything at Truett Hurst made me happy.

Who has the biggest balls in wine country? The folks at Malm Cellars, that’s who. Enormous cajones, I tell you. Words I thought I would never write: “and I poured out the Chateau d’Yquem,” but the folks at Malm had me writing it before I was done visiting them.

Malm Cellars

Malm Cellars


I had friends in the Dry Creek Valley, tasting wines, but had no idea where they were; my phone and mobile internet coverage were non-existent for most of the day throughout the valley. At one point, I headed back to Hwy 101, for a wi-fi connect, and in checking out #dcvpassport tweets, I got into an exchange with Lori Malm, no relation, about Malm Cellars, and decided to visit them.

Hardest to find winery of Passport to Dry Creek Valley may go to Malm Cellars. Like many of my favorite adult juice makers, Malm makes their wines in an industrial park. Down a dead end (W. North) street,  behind a row of buildings, I found them at last.

The food was flavorful, from butter drenched scampi shrimp to simple but perfectly executed bbq, and the wines were delicious from a 2012 Sauvignon Blanc through a 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, but if I had any criticism it would be that the food flavors were a bit intense, overpowering the wines a bit. I just took them separately, along with lots of water in between.

A major highlight of the entire Passport to Dry Creek Valley weekend event came when I tasted, side by side, a 2005 Chateau d’Yquem (rated 97 points by Wine enthusiast, 97 points by Wine Spectator, and 92 points by Robert Parker’s wine advocate) at $429 for a 375 ml half bottle up against a 2010 Malm Cellars Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc at $97 for a 375 ml half bottle.

At $429 for a half bottle, I do not taste a lot of Chateau d’Yquem, a late harvest, botrytis blessed Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc blend, usually 80%/20%. This was a terrific wine, as you would expect, but I liked the 2010 Malm Cellars Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc more. It wasn’t even close.

I will forever be impressed with Malm’s courage to compare themselves with the best, and prove they are better.

I will also be picking up a bottle to pair with foie gras, ordered in from outside the state, because a wine this good demands a pairing this great. Malm Cellars is located at 119 W. North Street near Moore Lane in Healdsburg.

I finished day one on Westside Road, near West Dry Creek Road, at DaVero Farms & Winery, but I would recommend starting there instead of finishing there. It was hot Saturday afternoon, and most of DaVero’s offerings were arrayed outdoors among the organic and Biodynamic fields, where shade was short.

Salmon at DaVero

Salmon at DaVero


A welcome bite of skewered salmon, with a very little farm olive oil, lemon, and salt, reminded me why I consider salmon a perfect food. Paired with Malvasia Bianca, a varietal I first fell in love with years ago when Bonny Doon’s Randall Grahm was introducing many of America’s wine lovers to it, I was pretty happy. The DaVero Sagrantino, a rose berry Italian red varietal, went great with bites of grilled lamb and rustic pizza slices.

One of the things that impressed me about Passport to Dry Creek Valley was that each of the participating wineries had a 5 gallon thermos cooler for water, each with a matching “hydration station” sign. I took advantage of the offered water at every stop, consuming far more water than the amount of wine I tasted. Kudos to the folks at WDCV for the thoughtful and caring touch. Hey, Destination Hopland, I’m looking at you, follow suit, okay?

Meyer Lemonade at DaVero

Meyer Lemonade at DaVero


DaVero went one step further. In addition to the hydration station water, DaVero provided Meyer lemonade. Thank you, thank you, thank you. In the heat of the afternoon, this was a most appreciated touch. You are the bomb!

Day two, I was joined by my good friend Serena Alexi. Serena has joined me for other tastings, and has helped me by making sure I get the good picture, or taste the yummy wine, or pick up my notebook when I leave. That, and she knows more folks in Sonoma County’s wine industry than I do these days.

Serena Alexi at Passport to Dry Creek Valley

Serena Alexi at Passport to Dry Creek Valley


Our first great stop was Ridge Vineyards. Everything, as expected, tasted great, but my favorite was the 2011 Zinfandel, made from Benito Dusi’s grapes in Paso Robles. Paired with the Sonoma duck mole and corn spoon bread prepared by feast catering, this was a great start to our day.

Under the shade at Ridge

Under the shade at Ridge


Kachina Vineyards is off Dry Creek Road about as far as any winery has ever been off any road. It is way the hell back off the road, a decent drive. The location is worth the travel. Remote, quiet, and bucolic, Kachina welcomed guests with a quiet and relaxed greeting…and homemade corn nuts. Kachina is off the grid, relying on solar energy to power their endeavors. The sun was out and Serena and I found a couple of comfortable wooden chairs at a table in the shade and set up base camp, leaving only to try a new wine and quickly return to the comfort of our camp.

A paper bowl of yum at Kachina

A paper bowl of yum at Kachina


I found myself favoring a Sangiovese Rose at Kachina, and a terrific simple rustic grilled meat, onion, potato and tomato dish.

Back to the road, we made our way next to Unti Vineyards. I think Unti Vineyards was the favorite stop on day two for both Serena and me. 

Everything Unti did at Passport, and they did a lot, worked effortlessly. Okay, that isn’t fair, there was obviously a lot of work that went into everything, but it was presented so well as to seem effortless.

Oysters at Unti, fresh from Tomales Bay

Oysters at Unti, fresh from Tomales Bay


The wines, from a 2012 Rose, through Grenache, Segromigno, Montepulciano, and Zinfandel were all excellent. The food, from the best guacamole ever (www.poormansbutter.com) and the tastiest oysters from the famed Tomales Bay Oyster girls (you’ve got to try the sassy pink horseradish sauce) outdoors, to the indoor food: truffled duck liver terrina with grilled bread and truffled salt, meatballs “dabe glace” with roasted red pepper salad, and eggplant caponata bruschetta, was varied and uniformly outstanding. The music, when we were visiting, was provided by the local high school’s jazz combo, and they were great.

Proof for the existence of a loving God: Truffled Duck Liver at Unti

Proof for the existence of a loving God: Truffled Duck Liver at Unti

The reds at Unti Vineyards were excellent, but Sunday was a scorcher, hotter than Saturday, which made me really appreciate the 2012 Rose, a Grenache/Mourvedre blend, so juicy crushed berry over ice yummy, and the 2012 Cuvee Blanc, a blend of Vermiento, Grenache Blanc, and Picpoul, that paired perfectly with the oysters.

Because, I was so impressed with Truett Hurst the day before, I returned to share my find with Serena. We have often visited Preston before, and she could see easily why I loved this spot as much. Serena also liked the wines, the herb and flower gardens, the food from Jimtown store, and the comfy chairs by the river.

The final stop for this year’s Passport to Dry Creek Valley was at Michel-Schlumberger. I decided to visit, finally, because the winery fields two teams that I golf against each year in a wine country invitational tournament at the nearby Windsor Golf Course each year, and because they put up fellow wine blogger Hardy Wallace as he transitioned from a Really Goode Job to a great one.

The courtyard at Michel-Schlumberger

The courtyard at Michel-Schlumberger

What a lovely spot, again a bit of a drive off a main road, off West Dry Creek and up Wine Country Road, Michel-Schlumberger offered up a gorgeous courtyard, shaded places to sit and enjoy their wines and food offerings, and a very skilled Spanish flamenco styled guitarist.

I had a delightful Pinot Blanc paired with a cucumber and grape gazpacho, served in the cool cellar, that made me glad we were finishing our weekend at Michel-Schlumberger, a perfect last taste on a hot day.

I wrote, perhaps foolishly that, at $45, Hopland Passport was a better value than the $120 Passport to Dry Creek Valley. I visited the same number of wineries that participate at Hopland Passport, 17, and wrote up the 9 I loved when visiting Dry Creek Valley. I expect the experiences would be the same at either event, visit 8-9 each day, and absolutely love a little over half.

That said, next year, I could visit a completely different 17 wineries at Dry Creek Valley, and a completely different 17 the year after. With a greater number of tickets sold, and at the higher price, participating wineries can spend more and offer more, knowing they will see substantial reimbursement checks. Every Dry Creek Valley winery treats folks like McFadden does in Hopland -or better, with the crazy large reimbursement money to do it. The signage, the hydration station water coolers, comfort stations, spectacular food, live music, the appreciation of marketing, the emphasis on quality media outreach; we in Hopland could learn a lot more from our friends to the south.

Passport to Dry Creek Valley rocked my socks off, and is the undisputed heavyweight wine weekend event champion of the world. The preceding words were washed down with a glass of 2010 Seghesio Cortina Zinfandel from a bottle I bought shortly after checking in.

I grew up with Zinfandel. When I was a kid, my dad Charlie and his friends would hunt almost every weekend; duck hunting, pig hunting, deer hunting. Our freezer was always full of meat. I grew up thinking that everyone was Italian, and that everyone hunted. My folks never took me to see Bambi.

My dad was part of a group of about 20 guys who went in together to lease large pieces of property to hunt. Their hunting clubs were scattered all over Mendocino and Sonoma Counties. For a long time, we hunted the 12,500 acre Rockpile Ranch straddling both Mendocino and Sonoma Counties, being the largest piece of property in either county. I remember my dad taking me for weekends to the club. I would ride in a jeep or truck during the day as the men looked for a large pig, or buck. Lunches would invariably be Salumi and Cheddar on hard French bread rolls. Any game taken would be field dressed, then cleaned and hung back in camp at the end of the day. After cleaning up after the day’s hunt, the men would cook a big dinner. Polenta, meats, Italian sauces, pasta, vegetables, salad, Zinfandel.

Growing up, all the Italian men I knew drank Zinfandel. It came in jugs, it wasn’t complex, it was good and it was cheap. It went into the food, and into coffee cups and high ball glasses, styrofoam cups and complimentary collector jelly glasses from the gas station – free with an 8 gallon purchase.

I crushed Zinfandel grapes when I was my son Charlie’s age, just 12 years old, and the juice was made into wine that I was allowed to taste with food.

Zinfandel has been my first wine love, my longest loved wine, my favorite wine for most of my life.

Big, bold, very red, often high in alcohol, with flavors of brambly raspberry and black pepper spice; Zinfandel is as big as Cabernet Sauvignon in body, structure, and flavor profile but more affordable. Although DNA tests have shown Zinfandel is really the grape varietal Crljenak Kaštelanski from Croatia, and also Identical to Italy’s Primitivo grape, it has been thought of as California’s grape by generations of California’s wine drinkers.

Years ago, I attended the ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates and producers) tasting, a tasting of Zinfandels put on at Fort Mason in San Francisco in January. Hundreds of Zinfandels to taste. Thousands of people tasting. A perfect day spent tasting some iconic Zinfandels, like Carol Shelton’s Rockpile Zin, and discovering new stars.

ZAP is marking the 19th Zinfandel festival this year with the theme Zin in Paradise, and it isn’t just the incredible Saturday Grand Zinfandel Tasting, but three days of events. Tickets are still available for most of the events.

http://www.zinfandel.org/

The festival kicks off Thursday evening with the Good Eats & Zinfandel Pairing at Fort Mason’s Herbst Pavillion. Celebrity chef Beverly Gannon will be serving up Hawaiian Regional Cuisine with Zinfandels, along with 49 other chefs and wineries. As I read the list of wineries, restaurants, and dishes being served, my mouth goes into watering overdrive mode, and I am actually excited about attending this event. The list is too long to print here, but go to the event page and look at the amazing bounty of food, and the participating wineries, and get yourself to this event! If you are looking for me, I’ll be the very happy, short, round, bearded man in line in front of you for more yummy food and wine.

On Friday, I am going to sit down with a group of about 150 people at the Intercontinental Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco for Flights, a showcase of Zinfandel.

The panelists will discuss blending, Zinfandel’s uniqueness, preferred blending varietals, and each panelist will bring a proprietary blended Zinfandel to pour and discuss.

The wineries, panelists and Zinfandels include:

  • Ridge Vineyards, winemaker Eric Baugher, 2007 Zinfandel Paso Robles and the 2007 Geyserville
  • Three Wine Company, winemaker and proprietor Matt Cline, 2007 Old Vine Zinfandel, California and 2007 Old Vines, California (Field Blend)
  • JC Cellars, founder and winemaker Jeff Cohn, 2007 Imposter Blend and 2007 Sweetwater Zinfandel
  • Robert Biale Vineyards, winemaker Steve Hall, 2007 Aldo’s Vineyard Zinfandel and 2007 Stagecoach Zinfandel
  • Bedrock Wine Company, winemaker and proprietor Morgan Twain Peterson, 2007 Heirloom Wine, Sonoma Valley and 2007 Ravenswood, Bedrock Vineyard Zinfandel, Sonoma Valley

Friday Evening, also at the Mark Hopkins, is an Evening with the Winemakers, Benefit Live Auction and Dinner, where Chef Beverly Gannon will prepare:

  • Asian Duck Tostada
  • Blackened Ahi with Sweet Thai Chili Sauce, Wasabi Micro Greens, Tobiko, Mashed Potato in Filo Cup
  • Smoked Salmon Pinwhhels with Chipotle-Chili Fresh Fruit Salsa
  • Kalua Pork and Goat Cheese Won Tons with Mango Chili Sauce
  • Terrine of Foie Gras, BBQ Eel, Potato Pineapple Compote, Vanilla Syrup and Spicy Micro Greens
  • Lamb Shank Canneloni with a Poached Fig Demi-Glaze Double Cut Lamb Chop, Lavendar Honey Glazed Baby Carrots
  • Chocolate Macadamia Nut Tart

I had the opportunity to take part in a high end food and wine dinner like this when I helped winemaker Carol Shelton, who had the Best in Class Zinfandel at the California State Fair – a Zinfandel with four gold medals – pour her Zinfandel and other favorite wines at the best Meet the Winemaker dinner I have ever attended. The dinner was at Susan and Drew Goss’ Zinfandel restaurant in Chicago’s River North area, near the Fonterra Grill and Spago. Without exception, the sold out (it sold out in under 3 hours, a record for the restaurant) 110 seat restaurant’s diners enjoyed one of the best dining experiences of their lives. Many hundreds of bottles were opened and consumed (I helped Carol taste them all earlier that day and found all 5 TCA tainted corked bottles – unlucky me) and Susan Goss prepared a multi course menu around Carol’s wines that amazed, delighted and thrilled everyone who attended the dinner.

This is going to be one of those kind of once in a lifetime dining experiences and Beverly’s menu looks even more fantastic than Susan’s menu. In addition to the incredible sit down mind blowing meal with Zinfandels poured to pair with each course, there will be 25 or so one of a kind Zinfandel themed live auction lots to bid on during the evening.

ZAP’s Zinfandel Festival culminates Saturday with the epically huge Grand Zinfandel Tasting in both the Herbst and Festival pavilions at Fort Mason in San Francisco from 2 p.m. – 5 p.m., ZAP members get an hour start on the general public and can taste from 1 p.m. – 5 p.m.

Over the years, ZAP’s Zinfandel festival has grown, more than doubling in size. The number of Zinfandels poured couldn’t be tasted by any one person, be they veteran wine reviewer or liver compromised bum.

Plastic lined garbage cans are provided throughout the festival and serve as giant wine spittoons. I hate spitting out perfectly good wine, but it is the only way to go as an attempt is made to taste as many Zinfandels as possible before my palate is completely blown out by the plethora of high alcohol hugely bodied monster Zinfandels.

I am thrilled to be attending this years Grand Zinfandel Tasting, and getting an early 10 a.m. start as part of the media tasting. I will have my red wine notebook and pen with me.

It almost goes without saying, but eat before, during and after the event, be safe, and consider public transportation.

DISCLOSURE: ZAP is covering my attendance to events with a press pass. I love this event and would have gushed about the event if I was paying out of pocket to attend. I will be writing a couple of articles after the event. One will focus on the events generally, the other will include tasting notes for Zinfandels tasted over the weekend. Full disclosure requires that I think Julie Ann Kodmur is an angel.

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