Archive for November, 2010

Three Faces of Zinfandel

November 18, 2010

Zinfandel grows all over California where it adapts to all kinds of weather conditions, soil types and cultivation practices. There are regional differences, of course, and some parts of the state are more closely identified with good zinfandel than others.

Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley is zinfandel heaven for a lot of wine lovers. Others are convinced Lodi or Napa or maybe even the Sierra Foothills are the motherlode of this uniquely American wine.

The grape’s history can be traced back to Europe, but it is only in America that zin has emerged as an important standalone varietal

Taste the Difference

I lined up three bottles of zinfandel, one each from Sonoma, Napa and Lodi, for a blind tasting. The great thing about all three wines I tried was the price. I saw them on sale at Lucky’s for $9.98, that’s about 25% off the suggested retail price for one of the wines and 40% off the other two!

Each wine comes from “old vine” sources of fruit. In this case “old vine” means vineyards that range in age from 50 to more than 100 years old. Regional differences were apparent in each sip, as detailed below.

Zinfandel No. 1

This wine revealed the least perfume, and the deepst color (dark purple), of all the wines. It’s bashful nose of dark cherries developed after a few minutes in the glass. This wine came up a bit short on approach with noticeable tannins.  When I added dab of sharp cheddar cheese and a hunk of sourdough baguette, the wine came alive in my mouth.

This was the 2007 Sonoma County bottling ($16) from Ravenswood Winery in Sonoma. It’s 76 percent zin with equal portions of petite sirah, carignane and “assorted” black grapes in the blend.

Zinfandel No. 2

On initial approach, there was a strong, sweet blueberry nose. The color rivaled the purple darkness of No. 1. The blueberries followed through in the taste, but the finish landed a bit roughly and abruptly in the mouth. I got a bit more pleasure out of the next sip when I took a bite of tonight’s dinner — grilled lamb kebabs and zucchini over rice. A bit of hot sauce pushed the combination of the wine and lamb up a notch in taste.

This was the 2008 Napa Valley from Ravenswood. The blend is 75 percent zin and 25 percent petite sirah. Retail price is $16.

Zinfandel No. 3

A bit less dark than 1 and 2 with some red highlights. Nose of blackberry compote. Mouth-watering and lick-smacking before the first sip. The flavor practically leaped from the glass. To say this wine is fruit forward is an understatement, but there’s enough structure underneath to balance things out. This was the Lodi bottling ($13), also from Ravenswood. It includes 23 percent petite sirah.

Zinfandel No. 4

Out of curiosity, I decided to try my own blend of the three wines, mixing equal parts of each one to produce a hybrid glass that, hopefully, would highlight the top features of each separate wine.

I liked the result, which toned down the fruitiness of No. 3 with the tannins of No. 2 and No. 1 while retaining the blueberry highlights of the nose that I personally enjoy. Given more time, I’d probably fine-tune the blend and experiment with percetages to see the impact on taste.

Thanksgiving Surprise

What wine do you serve with traditional Thanksgiving fare like roast turkey?

My best advice is to drink anything you like — from sparkling wine and chardonnay to middleweight reds like syrah and heavyweight reds like cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel. There is no one “perfect” choice, but I do have something different to suggest for 2010’s most thankful of holidays.

I recently received a sample bottle of Darcie Kent Vineyard’s 2009 gruner veltliner ($18, 2500 cases) from the Rava Jack vineyard in Monterey County. Gruner veltliner is a white European grape that grows well in cooler climates and it’s especially popular in Austria. Not much gruner is planted in California. I’ve tried a few unimpressive Austrian bottles, and didn’t expect much from the one domestic bottling I’d encountered.

It was terrific. The gruner offered a nice citrus nose and a great touch of lime and light peach fruit in the mouth. This was a refreshing glass of wine that I would be happy to offer on my Thanksgiving table. Right next to the zinfandel.

Operating in the same price range, and always a great deal for zinfandel fans, is the “Vintner’s Cuvee XXXII” from Rosenblum Cellars. The current release ($12) is another winner in a long string of successful bottlings for this zinfandel and Rhone-style specialist. It’s “berry” good with a mix of blackberry, raspberry and cherry flavors. My own blended “hybrid” reminded me of the Rosenblum offering, which is made from vineyard sources all across the state.

Sipping Syrah, Saving Lives

November 12, 2010

Charity fund-raising and wine-selling often go hand-in-hand. Nothing like a few glasses of donated wine to loosen up the credit card donation crowd.

I’ve attended an untold number of charity events involving wine, for personal and professional reasons, but I have no affiliation with the groups mentioned below. I was taken in by the effort and the wines so I wanted to share more about both.

Case of Pneumonia

Pneumonia is a disease we’ve beaten back, but it still kills, mostly children. Too many youngsters succumb to this too often tragic lung infection.

Despite availability of  an effective vaccine, the disease claims more than 1.5 million kids worldwide each year.  That’s an incalculable loss, but it’s not the only casualty. There’s also the cost of treating the estimated 150 million cases of childhood pneumonia that aren’t fatal.

When a wine industry joke deriding syrah wine (Question: What’s the difference between a case of syrah and a case of pneumonia? Answer: You can get rid of the pneumonia.) made the rounds on the Internet, it sparked an online rebuttal from Dr. Orin Levine, Executive Director of the International Vaccine Access Center at Johns Hopkins University.

Levine’s post quickly caught the attention of the Rhone Rangers, an organization of wineries that make wines from 22 special varieties of grapes, all from France’s Rhone Valley region.

Syrah is a big player in those Rhone blends, so the organization found itself an ally, of sorts, in pneumonia and reached out to help Levine and the Gavi Campaign raise some money.

Early in the Game

California is relatively new to the syrah game. While there are now more than 19,226 acres of syrah in the state, hardly any of it was grown here until the early 1980s. That’s when the first pioneering efforts of figuring out how to work with the grape really began and it was in the same period that the Rhone Rangers group started to gel.

Taste and Tithe

The Rhone Rangers sponsored a syrah-only tasting with 20 wineries in San Francisco earlier this week to help raise money for pneumonia vaccinations and to showcase member wines.

Three wines stood out.


Novy Family Wines from Santa Rosa poured three different syrahs, all from the 2007 vintage. Their Santa Lucia Highlands and Russian River Valley bottlings were good, but the best of the lot, to my taste, was the wine made from the Page Nord Vineyard in Napa’s Oak Knoll district. The wine opened up nicely in the glass, revealing lovely ripe fruit and a nose that suggested hints of pepper and bacon. This $30 wine would make any pork chop dish better.

Tablas Creek

The most classic syrah of the tasting came from a Cal-Rhone icon, Tablas Creek Vineyard on the Central Coast. The 2007 syrah ($25-$30) needs time to develop, but it’s got good structure, elegant fruit and a lovely deep color. I strong suspect it will only get better with a year or two in the bottle. Only 500 cases were produced. It’s the first single varietal bottling of syrah from Tablas Creek, whose family also owns the legendary Chateau de Beaucastel in France.


The syrah I enjoyed the most came from Ridge Vineyards, whose cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay were covered in an earlier blog. The 2006 Lytton Estate is co-fermented with about 8 percent viognier  — a white wine grape that punches up the floral aromatics and also augments the pigmentation. This was the most complete offering I encountered. It’s $32-$35 retail. About 900 cases produced.

Deal of the Day

The best deal at the event happened to be one of the youngest wines of the day — the 2008 6th Sense syrah from Michael-David Winery in Lodi. For $16, you get an easy-to-drink wine with a core of rich, red fruit plus just enough kick from 8% petite sirah to provide an edge to the taste.

Drink Your Donation

Friday, Nov. 12, is Pneumonia Day with a parade in Washington and other events planned around the world to draw attention to the cause. The Rhone Rangers wineries that poured at this week’s San Francisco tasting event are donating $10 per case of syrah sold to the fight against childhood pneumonia. That ten bucks pays for one kid’s vaccine. The deal is good through the end of November. To find a participating winery, click this link

Sparkling Finish to Giants Season

November 3, 2010

Births, weddings and the World Series get similar treatment when it comes to wine. Make it sparkling, and bring plenty to share in celebration of the momentous event.

After a long uphill campaign, San Francisco Giants were well-prepared to celebrate with a bang. But, what were Tim Lincecum, Edgar Renteria, Buster Posey, Brian Wilson and company spraying, pouring over each other and chugging after they beat the Texas Rangers Monday night to win the World Series?

It was Mumm Napa Brut Prestige, a $20 California sparkling wine with a French pedigree.

The Napa Valley wine is a blend of mostly pinot noir and chardonnay. There’s a great citrus nose and a smooth, nearly creamy finish on the tongue. In between, I tasted Golden Delicious apple, lemon zest and a pleasant dash of yeastiness.

Although it’s not vintage-dated, most of the grapes came from the 2007 harvest. More than 50 different vineyards contributed fruit for this effort, which garnered a 90 score in Wine Enthusiast.

How did all those bottles of Mumm Napa — which, appropriately enough, carry a black label to go with San Francisco’s orange-and-black color scheme — wind up on ice in the Giants locker room?

This was actually the third clubhouse celebration in 2010 fueled by Mumm Napa, which had sent supplies on the road with the Giants for the division and league championship games in Atlanta and Philadelphia before repeating the order for the World Series clincher in Texas.

Rob McNeill, vice president of winemaking and operations at Mumm Napa in Rutherford, had a friend who had organized some wine tastings for the team. When it looked like the Giants were headed for post-season play, McNeil got a call for help.

“We’ve got a lot of Giants fans here at Mumm Napa,” said McNeil, a native San Franciscan who wears his allegiance on his sleeve. “I’ve been a Giants fan all my life. I remember watching Willie Mays in 1965 and Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal and both Bonds.”

The man who actually made the wine, Mumm Napa head winemaker Ludovic Dervin, is French and a newly christened fan who got to see his first post-season baseball during the playoffs in Atlanta.

How do the folks at the winery feel when they see those bubbles — 12 cases of regular 750-ml bottles plus two dozen magnums — being used primarily for drenching, not drinking?

“If the Giants are having fun, that’s awesome,” McNeill said.