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.

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John On Wine – John gives thanks

Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal newspaper on Wednesday, November 26, 2014 by John Cesano

Hi, and welcome to a special Wine Wednesday edition of John on Wine. Regularly, this column runs on Thursday, but tomorrow there will be no newspaper so folks that work for the Ukiah Daily Journal can spend Thanksgiving with their families.

Today, I get to give thanks and I am thrilled to be able to do so, and so publicly. I am blessed, and I am wholly aware of it at this moment.

First, I have to thank you, the readers. You are incredibly kind, and you spring your kindness on me, often catching me unaware and surprising me with it. I have been target shooting at the Ukiah Gun Club and shopping for milk at the supermarket, lost in my own mundane thoughts when you stop me, introduce yourself and tell me that you like my column, and then share a specific favorite column. I have had the phone ring and in-person visits at my work from you, my readers, and that just knocks me out. You have sent me messages on Facebook, by email, by letter, and your input has made the column better. It will likely always freak me out a little to be recognized as a writer. I started the column from the relative anonymity of the Internet, and although my blog is well read, those readers come from all over the world; where the pieces I write for the newspaper push me a little more directly into the awareness of the community I live in. I didn’t anticipate your direct and personal feedback, but I have come to be very appreciative of it.

I have to thank the paper, and my editor Kelly Hancock. Kelly extends an extraordinary amount of freedom to me, undoubtedly fixes countless flaws in my writing, and is terrific about making last minute changes to pieces when events change after a piece is written for deadline but before it is published.

I have to thank all of the folks that work in the wine industry for being incredibly supportive of the column and for putting up with the reality that I mention where I work with some frequency. The column was born of a blog and I write about what I know, what I do, so the work I do often allows me to pivot to some pieces with a handy frame of reference that is easily understood. Where some could question a seeming conflict of interest, my pieces are almost universally positive in tone, supportive of my subject — the wine industry as a whole, and intended to move readers to visit winery tasting rooms, or winemaker dinners, taste wines, and hopefully buy some; ideally here in inland Mendocino County along Highway 101, but in the Anderson Valley, or Sonoma County, or wherever my readers might find themselves. I want to increase wine enjoyment and tourism for the area I work and those aims are shared by the folks who work in vineyards or tasting rooms other than the one owned by my boss as well.

Speaking of my boss: Thanks to Guinness McFadden for allowing me to do what I do in the tasting room. I know I am not ordinary, and the write ups for the tasting room come in nearly as fast as the attention your grapes and the wines made from those grapes receive. I love giving folks a show, an experience, a touch of education built around your wines and the farm they come from, and I am thrilled that you let me do so with – here’s those words again – incredible freedom.

Thanks to my tasting room team. This year, Eugene, Ann, Juanita, Amanda, Ashley, and Gary kept the wine pouring on my days off and much of our reputation is owed to each of you. Thanks also to everyone at the farm; we could not do what we do unless you did what you do.

I would like to thank my partners, Visit Mendocino County (VMC) and Mendocino Winegrowers, Inc. (MWI) in spreading the good word about Mendocino County as a tourism destination and about the quality of our grapes and wine.

VMC has been in the news lately, but they should be in the news every day for all of the good work they do getting the many stories of Mendocino County told to a wider audience.

On a macro level, VMC puts on the Mendocino County Mushroom Wine & Beer Fest in November and the Mendocino County Crab Wine & Beer Fest in January.

On the micro level, VMC’s Gracia Brown convinces Crush Italian Steakhouse to host what will go down as “the premier event of the 2015 Mendocino County Crab, Wine & Beer Festival” by pairing with McFadden Farm for a Dungeness crab and wine extravaganza. Perhaps eight to 10 mind-blowingly delicious crab dishes and bubbly from the California State Fair Wine Competition’s Best of Show Sparkling wine producer. Oh, and three Wine Enthusiast 90 Point Whites and a 95 Point Wine X/Just wine points Old Vine Zinfandel. Did I forget to mention the three time Double Gold or better Dessert Wine?

Seriously, this sort of thing should just happen, but it takes work, and specifically it was the work of Gracia and VMC that will result in possibly the best dinner 70 lucky patrons will experience the whole year. First come, first served, $75 for wine and food, with tax and tip included, and it will sell out through the McFadden Farm tasting room long before the Jan. 21 event date. Thank you VMC, thank you Gracia, from both my boss and I. We love Visit Mendocino County.

Similarly, huge thanks to MWI and both Aubrey Rawlins and Amelia Weir who do so much work to benefit Mendocino County’s prestige in the eyes of the wine world. I had the opportunity to pour for my wine writing counterpart at the Village Voice, and she wants to tour the farm with Guinness on a return visit, leading to a high visibility piece that will benefit all of the county’s winegrowers. Amelia Weir made that happen. Aubrey is responsible for bringing a group of wine writers here, and I got to pour for them all. That tasting this year led to more positive press for all of the county’s growers. Thanks Aubrey. Thanks Amelia.

Readers, I started off thanking you, but I want to bring it back around and thank you last too. Without you, my words are pointless. Thank you for giving my writing meaning, life.

Happy Thanksgiving; please pair wine with your dinner. Thanks.

 

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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.

Recently, I took an allrecipes.com recipe for baked chicken wings found online and changed it a little, to suit my taste. I paired the wine with a bottle of 2012 Artezin Zinfandel, Mendocino and there will be a mention of that pairing in an upcoming Ukiah Daily Journal wine column. I promised that the wing recipe would be posted here, online, and consider this a promise fulfilled:

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I yoinked this picture from the Allrecipes site. This looks, pretty much, like the wings you’ll cook.

John On Wine Baked Chicken Wings to pair with Zinfandel

Ingredients

  • 9 tablespoons olive oil
  • 15 cloves McFadden premium garlic, pressed
  • 1 Tablespoons McFadden chili flakes
  • 1 Tablespoon McFadden garlic powder
  • salt and ground black pepper to taste
  • 40 chicken wings

Directions

  • Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
  • Combine the olive oil, garlic, chili flakes, garlic powder, salt, and pepper in a large bowl. Add the chicken wings, toss by hand to thoroughly coat the chicken wings.
  • Arrange the chicken wings on raised racks above a baking sheet so they do not lie in rendered fat and oil. I used racks ordinarily used to cool baked goods.
  • Cook the wings in the preheated oven 1 hour, or until crisp and cooked through, turning once midway through cooking

The original recipe was designed to make only 10 wings, which is a waste of effort. My version is for 40 wings, although doubling the recipe to make 80 wings is completely reasonable. Enjoy!

Note: this recipe is simple, and after a day outside at the ZAP Simply Summer Celebration, I wanted simple and something to go with a bottle I was given. To read the review of that wine, the 2012 Artezin Zinfandel, Mendocino, $17, the wine that earned the John Parducci Best of Show Red award at the recent 2014 Mendocino County Fair Wine Competition, you’ll have to pick up a copy of the Ukiah Daily Journal on Thursday, August 28, 2014 and read my wine column there…or wait until a copy is archived here. Next Thursday’s wine column will feature a complete recap of ZAP’s new event.

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John On Wine ­ – Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival

Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal newspaper on Thursday, May 22, 2014
By John Cesano

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For me, this year’s Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival started last Thursday at Champ de Reves, which translates as Field of Dreams, in Philo. Dr. Edmeades planted the first Pinot Noir grapes in the Anderson Valley 50 years ago, and started making, selling wine from his grapes in 1972. In 1988, Jackson Family Wines, the empire Kendall-Jackson built, bought Edmeades and now it has been rechristened Champ de Reves. The location and the view of a big chunk of the valley was gorgeous. The wines were selected by winery owners from throughout the valley and the dinner of carved roast beef and plank salmon was made spectacular by both their wines and their company.

I was fortunate and sat with Allan Green of Greenwood Ridge; Mary Elke of Elke; Douglas Stewart of Lichen; John Osborne, an event volunteer; and Laura Barnard, who works in marketing for Jackson Family Wines’ West Burgundy Wine Group, of which Champ de Reves is just one winery. After dinner we were also joined in conversation by Paula Viehmann of Goldeneye.

Friday morning started early with coffee and a selection of quiches prepared by Julia Kendrick Conway, as winemakers, press, and consumers gathered at the fairgrounds in Boonville for a technical conference. Greg Walter, publisher of the Pinot Report, introduced the morning’s sessions, which featured The Nature Conservancy’s Jason Pelletier sharing the results of an incredibly detailed study on water flow and water use throughout the year. The study focused on grape growing water demands within the Navarro watershed and then segued into a similar talk by Jennifer Carah, but with a focus on marijuana growing water demands. Unsurprisingly, marijuana growths use much more water — 19 to 50 times more — for production, and do not share the same land and water stewardship ethos as many grape growers. This is especially significant in drought years ­ like this year.

Glenn McGourty gave a talk on best practices for grape growing during a drought year, or years. Winemakers in attendance were certainly leaning forward during this session. Lunch was delicious, prepared by Boont Berry Farm and paired with a huge selection of Pinot Noir from the Anderson Valley. After lunch, there were two tasting sessions. The first focused on the many faces of Pinot Noir and featured Arnaud Weyrich’s zero skin contact Pinot Noir, picked early, and briskly acidic for Roederer’s bubbly; Alex Crangle’s White Noir for Balo; the Dry Rose of Pinot Noir by Jim Klein of Navarro; the round, rich red Pinot Noir by Anthony Filiberti of Knez; and the purple dark version made by Michael Fay of Goldeneye.

Next, we looked at the fruit of Angel Camp Vineyard and how different winemakers used it to make distinctly different wines; the winemakers and wineries featured were Brian Zalaznik of Angel Camp, Dan Goldfield of Dutton Goldfield, and Anne Moller-Racke of Donum. The technical conference ended with a sharing of accumulated extensive knowledge by Clark Smith on the arcana of winemaking.

Friday night’s dinner was a barbecue at Foursight Winery with grilled lamb from Bone Daddy of Bones Roadhouse and music by Dean Titus & The Cowboys. Relaxed, fun, another delicious event with enough Pinot Noir to fill an Olympic sized swimming pool, I sat with folks from Southern California and Washington who heard about the event from someone they ran into in the Middle East. It turns out I knew who they were talking about, John Gaudette. The world of wine is close and doesn’t need a full six degrees of separation to connect us all, I’m convinced.

Saturday morning, Margaret Pedroni, Mendocino County wine personality, joined me at Balo in Philo for an early private press tasting. The Ukiah Daily Journal was represented beside tasters from Wine Enthusiast, Wine Spectator, Wine & Spirits, Connoisseurs’ Guide, San Francisco Chronicle, Examiner, Pinot Report, Pinot File, and more. Heads down, no talking, serious tasting. I’ve done it before, but I preferred the fun and conviviality of the Grand Tasting that followed at Goldeneye.

Goldeneye has a breathtakingly beautiful tasting room and the Grand Tasting event was held behind the tasting room under the shade of a huge white tent in their vineyards. About 750 ticketed guests Pinot Noir based wines; bubblies, blancs, roses, and full on reds; from all of the producers in Anderson Valley and a few producers from farther away who make one or more wines exclusively from Anderson Valley Pinot Noir grapes. Not too big, not too small, but just right, with opportunities to place silent auction bids on donated Pinot-centric items to help the Anderson Valley Health Center, plenty of exceptional food bites, water and soda to remain hydrated, and the fermented juice of Pinot Noir grapes from 45 producers to experience.

I tasted more than 100 wines over the course of the weekend, one was corked ­ and poured at the press tasting ­ but I had tasted it elsewhere already, one didn’t really make me love it, but the vast majority of wines I tasted, over 99 percent, were good at least and great at best. The 2011 vintage wines were brighter and more elegant, coming from a cooler year and the 2012 vintage, being warmer, yielded wines of greater weight and intensity. All of the wines taste of cherry, that is Pinot Noir, but the expressions were varied: black cherry, red cherry, candied cherry, dried cherry, and the supporting notes ranged the gamut from rose petal to cedar, and mushroom to barnyard funk. Some of the Pinot Noir I loved included the 2012 Fel Wines, Ferrington Vineyard; 2007 Elke Pinot Noir, Donnelly Creek Vineyard; 2011 Witching Stick, Cerise Vineyard; 2011 Williams Selyem, Ferrington Vineyard; 2011 Donum, Angel Camp Vineyard; 2012 Baxter, Anderson Valley; 2011 Goldeneye, Gowan Creek Vineyard; 2012 Waits-Mast, Deer Meadow’s Vineyard; and both the 2012 Lichen, Estate and Solera Lichen, Estate. That’s my unordered top 10 for this past weekend.

I urge you to visit the Anderson Valley, taste their Pinot Noir, and their other wines, notably Alsatian varietals like Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, and Riesling, and find your favorites. Also mark the third weekend of May next year on your calendar and plan on attending the 18th annual Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival next year. Huge thanks to my hosts, the Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association, and Janis MacDonald and Kristy Charles specifically, for the kind invitation and warm welcome. I had a terrific weekend because you present a first class festival.

 

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John Cesano of John On Wine

John Cesano of John On Wine

John On Wine ­ – Thank you

By John Cesano

Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal on Wednesday, November 27, 2013

I like that we kick-off the holiday season with a giving of thanks. Facebook has featured 30 days of thanks – a note about something that moves someone to thanks – posted each day in November, 30 notes of thanks with several of my friends participating.

These many notes of thanks and the other upbeat, positive, and inspirational messages have made Facebook more joyful this month. I’ve participated; it isn’t a stretch imagining me writing 30 notes in 30 days, after all. A few of my notes touched on wine, pouring it, tasting it, writing about it, drinking it. I’ll be doing a bit more of that here.

First, I want to thank Guinness McFadden for giving me a job, for hiring me to take over your tasting room in Hopland. You hired an unknown quantity, I had never worked as a tasting room employee before. I hope your risk has been rewarded. Thanks to the wines and other foodstuffs from the farm that you provide me with, our numbers have never been better and we have the highest rated tasting room in the over five year history of San Francisco Chronicle tasting room reviews. I love that you tell me what, not how, and allow me to do my job with an amazing amount of freedom. I am thankful to be able to do something I am very good at.

I also want to thank my crew: Eugene, Gary, Ann, Juanita and Catrina for giving our visitors the same care I would give them, and freeing me up for days off.

I want to thank Bob Swain and, now sainted, Raphael Brisbois for making the wines I sell. You two have made wines with tons of medals and 90-plus ratings from Guinness’ grapes, and I am extraordinarily grateful to be able to pour them. Thanks also to Bob for sitting down with me and tasting 11 wines for a piece that ran online in March of 2010. Parducci Wine Cellars and Paul Dolan Wines were the first inland Mendocino County wines to get a feature piece written by me. I’ve asked Bob to sit down with me again and when he does, I’ll be thankful and write an updated piece featuring Parducci for the newspaper.

I’m thankful for Kelly Hancock, my editor at the Ukiah Daily Journal. Your stellar work editing previous pieces made saying yes to writing this column easier.

Thanks to my predecessor, Heidi Cusick Dickerson, a better wine writer than I am, for being constantly supportive of my efforts and for sending folks my way.

Thanks to so many local folks for being so welcoming, helpful, and ­ again ­ supportive. Alan, Louis and Hairy Putter, Di Davis and the entire Davis family, Lorie Pacini and Allen Cherry; thanks to all of you.

Thanks to all of the winery tasting room folks, owners and employees, from Potter Valley to Ukiah, Redwood Valley to Talmage, and Capella to Hopland. There are so many more features yet to write. Some of you, I’ve visited but haven’t written up yet; I will, after visiting again.

Thanks especially to the folks at Barra and Girasole: Martha, Charlie, Katrina, and my tasting buddy Gracia; and to Maria Testa at Testa Vineyards, who always has a smile and a good glass of red. I do not know what they put in the drinking water up in Redwood Valley, but I appreciate your every kindness.

Thanks to Bernadette Byrne at Sip! Mendocino in Hopland for helping point a few of the folks behind the labels you pour my way. Two of the biggest treats that I am most thankful for are meeting Fred and Alberta of Albertina Vineyards, and Mario and Danelle of Rosati Family Wines; a pair of husband and wife couples, growing grapes, making wine and selling it in entirely too much anonymity. I loved your wines and enjoyed spending time with you – thank you for making me feel so welcome. For those reading this, wines from both Albertina and Rosati are available at Sip! Mendocino.

I get invited to things because I write. Thanks for all of the invitations to events, dinners, and tastings. I see some of the same folks at various events and two people I am very thankful for are Sheriff Tom Allman and District Attorney David Eyster of Mendocino County. These two do more than merely administrate, they care about and constantly engage the people in the communities they serve. I am thankful for such dedicated public servants.

I got a head start with hundreds of McFadden wine club members who already knew me, but the response to this column from the public has been surprising to me. I am thankful to each and every person who reads my column. It is still slightly unsettling to have people I’ve never met, in places other than wine shops, recognize me and compliment me on a column they read and remember. Whether I’ve been in line to get coffee, seated at a restaurant, or on the firing line at the gun club, you have come up to me to tell me you read my column and even if I am not used to being recognized, I am thankful for your readership and humbled by your feedback.

I’ll be in my tasting room today until 5 p.m. to help people with their very last minute Thanksgiving wine selections and while the room will only be closed one day for Thanksgiving, I will very thankfully take most of four days off, enjoying a family dinner on Thursday, and trying to buy some great cookware on a Friday sale. Maybe, I’ll taste some wines on the weekend for a future column, which would make my editor thankful. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!
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Here’s some extra “thank you”s for my online readers to wade through. Thanks to my son Charlie; you are, by and large, a good boy. Thanks to Heather from Ft. Bragg; it is nice when we find the time to walk paths together. Thanks to Millesima USA, who inexplicably named this blog one of the Top Ten Wine News Blogs being written.

Top 10 Wine New Blog Award

John on Wine- Friends don’t let friends Vacu-Vin

By John Cesano

Updated:   04/04/2013 10:58:27 AM PDT

(NOTE: This piece was edited down for the paper from a longer piece that ran here in the blog years ago. -John)

One of my wine industry jobs was with the Wine Appreciation Guild, one of the industry’s largest publishers of wine books and a one-stop distributor of both wine books and accessories. My job was to sell wine books and wine accessories to winery tasting rooms, wine shops, and other specialty merchants in 42 California counties.

There was one item I refused to sell.

Vacu-Vin. There is no wine preservation system more ubiquitous. Gwyneth Paltrow told Oprah that it is a “must-have” in her kitchen. Every frau and pretentious wine poser in the country has one. Sales of the devices number in the tens of millions.

For the one or two of you who are unfamiliar with Vacu-Vin, here’s what the manufacturers say:

“The Wine Saver is a vacuum pump, which extracts the air from the opened bottle and re-seals it with a re-usable rubber stopper. Place the re-usable stopper in the bottle and extract the air from the bottle using the Wine Saver pump. A “click” sound tells you when you have reached the optimum vacuum level. The vacuum slows down the oxidation process which makes it possible to enjoy your wine again at a later date. The question “how often do I have to pump?” is a thing of the past. The unique and patented vacuum indicator will emit a “click” sound when the correct vacuum is reached.”

The Wine Appreciation Guild carried them, and everyone I worked with wanted them to sell in their stores.

I had a problem. To my mind, the Vacu-Vin doesn’t work:

“The “Vacu-Vin” device as submitted was evaluated to determine efficacy in reduction of oxidative spoilage in opened wines. Using the protocol described above, the “Vacu-Vin” device was found to have no measurable effect in reduction of oxidative spoilage.” -Gordon Burns, ETS Laboratories, 1204 Church Street, St. Helena, CA 94574

and:

“Vacu-vin” doesn’t work, It never has. Sensorily – to me anyway – the Vacu-vin was a shuck. You could track the deterioration in each sample. Indeed, just recorking the wine worked equally as well ­ or as badly.

The (Wall Street) Journal asked Professor David Roe of the Portland State University chemistry department to test the gizmo. At best he achieved a vacuum of somewhat less than 70 percent. In just 90 minutes, he reported, the vacuum pressure diminished by 15 percent.

I asked Professor Roe to repeat his test with a newly purchased (newer, ‘improved’, model) Vacu-Vin. The results? “The pump is more efficient, but no more effective,” he reports. “The vacuum is the same, around 70 to 75 percent. And the leak rate is the same: After two hours you lose 25 percent of the vacuum. Overnight ­ 12 hours ­ the vacuum is totally gone.” -Matt Kramer, “A Giant Sucking Sound And That’s All”

and:

“Unnecessary equipment: There’s no clear need for Vacu-Vin Vacuum Wine Saver and other wine-preservation systems, our tests suggest.

A lot of people turn to wine-preservation systems that seek to retard or stop oxidation, the chemical process that degrades wine. If you’re among those who swear by such systems, we have surprising news, based on our tests of four widely known brands: No system beat simply recorking the bottle and sticking it in the fridge.” – Wine Spectator.

and:

Getting the air out: The Vacu-Vin Vacuum Wine Saver, $10, uses rubber stoppers (two are provided) with a pump that sucks out air.

We tested three varietals with the systems on three different occasions for three different periods of time. For comparison, we also stoppered one bottle with its own cork. After all the bottles spent time in our wine cellar, expert wine consultants compared their contents in blind taste tests with freshly opened bottles. If our trained experts, with nearly 60 years in the business, couldn’t discern among wine storage systems, most consumers probably can’t, either. So just go ahead and cork it (you can turn the cork over if it’s easier to get in). But try not to wait more than a week or so to drink the wine, and sooner is better.” – Consumer Reports, December 2006

 

 

 

I would tell the buyers for the winery tasting rooms, the wine shops, and the kitchen stores that the Vacu-Vin doesn’t work ­ but it didn’t stop most of them, because you, the home customer, wanted to buy and use these things.

When I see a wine bar using a Vacu-Vin, I won’t drink any but the first glass from a bottle.

Here’s the deal: when you open wine and let it breathe, you are letting tannins dissipate, alcohol flush burn off, and fruit come forward. You’ll find that the hot, harsh, and closed Cabernet at opening becomes a smooth delicious beverage with blackberry and currant notes with a little time. Oxygen is wine’s friend initially.

While I am prepping food for dinner, I usually open a bottle, or more than one bottle if cooking for friends, pour a little of each in a separate wine glass, so I can repeatedly swirl and sniff each. I am looking for the wine to open and become perfect. At that point, I recork the bottle so I can just open, pour, and seal all the way through the meal. I know the last glass will be as good as the first. If not perfect, every glass is pretty darn good.

If I opened the wine, let it breathe, and then ignored it, the fruit would follow the tannins, and perfect would become sad. Oxygen, so important to a wine at opening, becomes wine’s enemy afterward. Leaving a wine open ruins wine over time.

Pumping the air out of a bottle of wine with a Vacu-Vin strips the wine of some aroma and bouquet. Each time it is used it can harm the wine. To me, a couple of seconds is like hours of damage. Kramer described the loss of delicate notes in his piece for spectator.

The Vacu-Vin doesn’t even create a complete vacuum. As tested, fully 25-30 percent of the air, and oxygen, remains inside the bottle ­ before the Vacu-Vin fails and all of the air, and oxygen returns. To me, the worst think about the Vacu-Vin is that consumers are fooled into a false sense of preservation security and don’t seek another, effective, method to save the aroma, bouquet, and flavors of a bottle of wine in between glasses.

Matt Kramer and the Wall Street Journal engaged a University science department professor who measured the Vacu-Vin’s fail using drills and tubes and meters, all very high tech. Similar high tech methods were used by Gordon Burns of ETS Laboratories and the testers at Consumer Reports.

At work, in the tasting room, I use 100 percent pure Argon, an inert gas that is heavier than oxygen, from a large tank. Shooting a little into a bottle, then recorking it, allows the Argon to settle and provide a protective blanket between wine and oxygen. Smaller home versions are available, with Private Preserve, a nitrogen/argon mix, the most easily found. More expensive, but also more efficacious, WineSave is 100 percent pure food grade Argon in a can available at WineSave.com

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John Cesano does not get a kickback from private preserve or winesave, but wishes he did.
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John On Wine blog bonus –

I polished a popular piece posted previously here, and it was published in the printed paper, perhaps a partial week ago.  (Note: sorry for the alliteration, once started, that last sentence wrote itself).

I also visited Matheson Tri-Gas, a commercial supplier and asked about the cost of an Argon tank for the serious hedonist, the folks who care about preserving quality of wine glass to glass, and those foodies who want to prevent cooking oil from becoming rancid and vinegars from becoming musty.

A small tank (it isn’t really small, but it is smaller than a commercial tank) runs about $100. The regulator runs another $100. The hose, nozzle, and other fittings runs a third $100. Initial cost: $300. from that point on, tank can be filled or refilled with Argon for about $30 and a small (big really) tank would last practically forever used at home.

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