“Zinfandel is California’s unique contribution to the world of wine…We decided to treat zinfandel with the same expense and care as cabernet…Dry Creek Valley – vineyard for vineyard – produces more consistently high quality zinfandel than any other single viticultural region.”
–Paul Draper, owner and winemaker of Ridge Vineyards

It doesn’t matter that zinfandel has its origins in the misty history of Croatia; California is the place where this grape found its ideal growing conditions. Thin-skinned and easily affected by rot (because of the grape’s tight bunches), zinfandel flourishes in places where rainfall is all but absent during the last three months of its maturation. Enter California, and perhaps, ultimately, the Dry Creek region of Sonoma County.

I recently attended a day long “Insider’s Exploration of Zinfandel,” sponsored by The Winegrowers of Dry Creek Valley and featuring 36 estates located around this tiny river bed and micro-climate. Its growing area is the size of New York’s Central Park! Many wineries are only five to 10 acres, rather reminiscent of France’s patchwork Burgundy region. Small production often means limited distribution, but many of these wines are worth that special search. (If our interstate shipping rules change, you may be able to buy directly from these small, remarkable properties.)

Certainly Ridge, Dry Creek Vineyards, Gallo, Pedroncelli, Preston and Seghesio already have a loyal following in our market. Even Quivira (where this festival took place), Alderbrook, Lambert Bridge, Mazzocco, and small Everett Ridge and Forchini are known to rigorous zinfandel fans. But consider Rued Wines, where I tasted a sweet, fruit laden, delicious powerhouse of a 2002-barrel sample zinfandel. Their total production? 450 cases!

What struck me forcefully was the tremendous support shared among the farmers within this tiny community. It’s as if the slogan “we’re all in this together” is chapter and verse. They are stewards over an array of bench lands, terraces and hillsides of gravelly clay loam. This well-drained, low-fertility soil forces vines to struggle in creating their intense fruit. Daily stewardship is necessary, as each grower assesses and keeps abreast of minute vineyard changes. Temperatures soar by midday into the dry, breezy 90-degree range, only to slip precipitously at sundown into the 50s. It’s a great climate for humans and for grapes. With slow, gradual vineyard development, most farmers harvest by taste, sometimes sampling 100 grapes each day to see how the ripeness, tannin and flavors are progressing.

Growers often gather in the morning on the little public square in nearby Healdsburg to discuss current events. From our vantagepoint in the East, it seems inconceivable that some of these very famous, cult wines are produced with such modesty and at a leisurely, “nature must take its course” progression. These folks know how to relax and enjoy life in the midst of their travail. And why not? It’s hard to grow bad zin in this ideally situated valley. These growers have a feel for it, and concurrently know that, unlike the recent overproduction of chardonnay, cabernet and merlot, there is no excess of good zinfandel. They know they can sell it all and, like the cat that swallowed the canary, are quietly confident about the product.

It was not always so. Not only was the planting and propagating of vines almost nonexistent from prohibition up until the early ’60s, but zinfandel itself became unfashionable when serious replanting of vines recommenced. Many old vine zin, petite syrah and carignane vines were pulled out to make way for more “fashionable” varieties. By the indefatigable energy, instincts and stubbornness of a few diehards, old stretches of these grapes were saved, and soon thereafter, the single-vineyard designated, old-vine wine bottlings were born. Ever since that volatile time, the interest in these wines that can’t be duplicated has grown ever stronger.

Many producers use small amounts of petite syrah (for tannin) and carignane (for acidity) to add to the structure and aging potential of their wines. While I generally like my zins at five years of age, a good many bottlings from strong vintages can laugh and improve over decades. Limited intervention techniques are the rule. Many wines are organically grown, no irrigation is used, little if any filtering is done before bottling, and the use of naturally occurring yeasts from the vineyards is the norm. When some of us were bussed to visit Talty vineyards, Bill Talty commented, “My wines are a simple, natural process, not a manufactured one.” Standing in his driveway, it was educational to see his “head pruned” vines flourishing, growing up and out, while right across the dirt road, another winery, using the older system of trellising, looked far more modest and made a stark contrast. Talty’s pride of place was quite moving.

Lest we forget, Dry Creek makes more than just zinfandel. Quivira winery makes a fine sauvignon blanc, as does Dry Creek, Alderbrook and the tiny Forth Winery. Unti makes the best California Sangiovese I have yet tasted. A 2002 Frick Cinsault rose was simply delicious. Little Gopfrich Estate markets an intense, flavorful 2000 reserve cabernet; McCray, a luscious, mountain fruit merlot. But Zinfandels rule the day, and I found that Alderbrook, Deus Amix, Dry Creek, Forth, Martin, De La Montanya, Rued, Ridge and Yoakim Bridge all made terrific examples. Not all were the expected dark, tooth-staining blockbusters, either. Many elegant, middleweight styles emerged to tantalize a discriminating palate.

I could not taste all the wines being poured and for that I’m sorry. Who would have purposely missed Pezzi King or Raymond Burr Vineyards! It was the luck of the tasting table, and some had to be missed as the clock struck four and the libations were packed up.

The good humor and happiness that surrounded this event on the shores of the not-so-dry Dry Creek was the most agreeable I have ever encountered–an experience that changed my perceptions in a single day. After a fine dinner that evening in Geyserville, I went out to where I had parked my rental car. In the cool, clear evening light, I gazed across the street to see the Geyserville post office. Handwritten, in none too perfect block letters, was its name plus the zip code. This writing may well date from the ’30’s and nobody has seen fit to modernize it. I don’t think this is reverse public relations. Geyserville, a name that rings like Margaux, Gevrey-Chambertin and Barolo in a wine-lover’s ear, is just a small, one-street town that simply doesn’t take itself too seriously. So it also is with the farmers of Dry Creek. Their product is exclusive, but their attitude is not.

A Smattering of Chardonnay
September bodes thoughts of fall and any excuse to put chardonnay back on the front burner. Here are notes on the top wines, from a group of 40 chardonnays that I recently tasted–single-blind, and unchilled. Prices ranged from $7-$35. Comments I made on some “losing’” wines include: “Butter and boredom; detergent, dishwater, old fashioned ‘Octagon’ bar soap; vegetal with green bean, asparagus and overly herbal bouquet; candied, commercial, seems made from a step-by-step manual; subtle as a traffic cop; colorless as a Hallmark card; like a trucker wearing his first tuxedo.” Comments like these make the winners seem all the better.

2002 McManis Family Vineyard , $11
Ripe, pears, lemony, outgoing, lilting. Very direct, mouth-cleansing flavors. Well assembled but lacks complexity. A “chablis” style. Grade: B-

2001 Cheviot Bridge, South Eastern Australia, $12
Vital, tropical, honeysuckle, (coffee?). Brisk, yet equally smooth mouth feel. Light, refreshing with a somewhat off stride aftertaste. Grade: B-

2002 Francis Coppola Diamond Series , Gold Label, $15
Balanced, airy, warm–slightly grassy bouquet. Pleasing. Crisp, yet rounded, satisfying mouth feel. Life-giving acidity and a touch of class. Needs food. Grade: B- (possible B future)

2001 Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve, $12
Soft, coconut, shy without much character. Very warm, stick-to-your-palate flavors. Not totally dry, but good substance and a long aftertaste. Tasted blindly, it’s easy to see how this wine is so popular. Surprisingly good for a large production bottling. Curiously, better than K.J.’s overdone, 2001 Grand Reserve. Grade: B-

2001 William Hill, Napa Valley, $15
Lean, green, vibrant. Fruit shines through. Deftly handled with a real sense of place. Alive and lean in a good way. Touch of steeliness, flint and “cut”. Perfect seafood accompaniment. Grade: B-/ B

2001 Beaujolais-Villages Blanc, Louis Jadot, $15
Good fruit, balanced oak, apples, attractive and juicy. Excellent entry mouth feel, very clean flavors with lemony aftertaste and beautiful refreshment. Beaujolais blanc is rare and often not so hot. This is from the famous Chateau Des Jacques in Moulin-a-Vent country. Grade: B

2001 Beringer Founder’s Estate, California $12
Mysterious, seductive, woodsy with caramel overtones. Bright, sassy with a seamless warmth on the finish. Intriguing. A big surprise. Sometimes these large production, second tier wines from Beringer can be terrific. A great vintage helps make this a winner. Grade: B

2001 Gallo of Sonoma, $13
Golden wheat color. Oak, butterscotch, fat California-styled bouquet. Luscious fruit on the palate. Well balanced with an excellent finish. The kind of wine that wins competitions. If you like a heady, full blown style, this is for you. Tastes like a $30+ example. Grade: B+

Best of Tasting
2001 St. Francis, Behler’s Reserve, Sonoma County, $26.50
Attractive pear and lemon scents cloaked in a warm jacket of unobtrusive oak. Alive, vibrant with enticing, ripe flavors and a smooth caressing finish. Clearly a thoroughbred. Grade: B+/ A- EndBlock