Zinfandel

Putting Napa On The Map

16 May 2019

Napa doesn’t get a lot of coverage on Odd Bacchus. Its Chardonnays and Cabernets are the antithesis of “the unusual and obscure.” Napa is the wine powerhouse of the United States, and it’s as famous as any other wine region. I wonder if there’s a single steakhouse any place on the planet that doesn’t have at least one Napa Cabernet on its wine list (steakhouses in countries that ban alcohol excepted)? No, Napa’s wines are world-famous and very popular.

But it wasn’t always so. Indeed, very much within living memory, Napa was a vinous backwater. The name “Napa,” which nowadays connotes serious wines and serious luxury — there is no shortage of hotels in the valley that charge upwards of $1,000 a night — connoted little of anything to most people as recently as the early 1970s. France produced the world’s greatest wines, and that was that. Napa was small potatoes.

Then, in 1976, Steven Spurrier organized the famous (or infamous, if you’re French) “Judgment of Paris” tasting, as it’s now known. He gathered six Napa Chardonnays and four Premier Cru and Grand Cru Burgundies (also Chardonnay, of course), and had nine French wine critics and sommeliers blind-taste them. He did the same with several Napa Cabernets and top Bordeaux wines. The tasters were shocked, even outraged, to learn that their first choices of wines, both red and white, came from California.

The 2008 film dramatizing the event, “Bottle Shock,” ranks as one of my favorite wine-themed movies. Far better than “Sideways,” the popularity of which continues to mystify me.

In any case, although the French press refused to report on the event for quite some time, the tasting sent shock waves around the wine world and put Napa on the map. The winner of the Chardonnay tasting, Chateau Montelena, had Mike Grgich as its winemaker. His 1973 Chardonnay beat out some of the very best white Burgundies, a feat which still impresses me, considering how much I love white Burgundy.

Although many disputed the statistical validity of the tasting, it left no doubt that Napa could produce world-class wines, and Grgich bore no small amount of responsibility for that. He went on to found Grgich Hills Estate, in partnership with the Hills Brothers Coffee family, and he still has a hand in making its wines.

But most of the winemaking responsibility now belongs to his nephew, Ivo Jeremaz, who, like Grgich, was originally born in Croatia (the Grgich family has a second winery there, which makes excellent Pošip and Plavac Mali). Liz Barrett and I recently had the chance to interview Jeremaz on our web series, Name That Wine, and taste three of his bottlings. He farms his vineyards organically and strives for elegance in the bottle, not just power.

I sometimes poo-poo Napa Cabs and Chards, but I can’t deny that I loved these wines. I was also impressed by Jeremaz’s Zinfandel. Zins can often be ponderous jam bombs, but the Grgich Hills version managed to be ripe as well as light on its feet. I suppose it makes sense that Jeremaz produces a great Zinfandel; the grape originated in his home country. Making a graceful Zinfandel happens in the vineyard, I learned, and it’s fascinating to hear how he does it:

What a joy to taste these wines, and considering the balance and richness they deliver, they’re awfully good values for the money. Good value Cabernet and Chardonnay from Napa? Who would have guessed?

And as for the statistical validity of the tasting… Well, Francophiles kept trying to redo the tasting in the hopes of getting different results. Arguing that French wines age better than American wines, some wine critics repeated the tasting two years later, in 1978, holding the tasting in San Francisco. The three top Chardonnays and the three top Cabernets in this tasting were all American (the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay placed second this time, after a 1974 Chalone).

Lest you think that not enough time had elapsed for the French wines to show their age-worthiness, the French Culinary Institute held an anniversary tasting in 1986. They blind-tasted the same vintages of Cabernets and Bordeaux from the same wineries as in the original 1976 tasting. Napa Cabernets from Clos Du Val and Ridge earned the top two places.

But is 10 years really enough time? Perhaps, given a little longer, the results would be different? Spurrier organized a 30-year-anniversary tasting in 2006, opening up those same Cabernet and Bordeaux bottlings from the same 1970s vintages as before. This time, all five of the top ten slots were awarded to Napa Cabernets. Haut-Brion, for example, came in eighth!

That’s four separate tastings, and in all of them, Napa wines came in first. I’m no statistician, but I’m sensing a trend.

You can read about the tastings in more detail here.

I’ve written about Bordeaux and Burgundy on this site with some frequency. Perhaps it’s time I give Napa a little more of a shot. It certainly was a great pleasure to meet Ivo Jeremaz and taste his Grgich Hill wines, especially since they come with such a memorable story.

Now if only someone would offer to help with those $1,000-a-night hotels…

Note: The wines tasted in this episode of Name That Wine were provided free of charge.

Top Undiscovered Wines of Croatia

25 May 2018

A flute of Tomac Brut overlooking Dubrovnik

What a difference two decades can make. The first time I visited Croatia, I found drinkable but boring wines. The years of socialism — when quantity was emphasized over quality — had taken their toll. The violent break-up of Yugoslavia also delayed progress. Italy-bordering Slovenia emerged first, and wines from that gorgeous little country became fashionable years ago. But the name “Croatia” still lacks caché, even today. I suspect that’s going to change, and soon.

On my recent driving tour from Šibenik down to Dubrovnik along the Adriatic coast, I discovered dozens of delicious wines, and a handful that absolutely dazzled. It makes perfect sense that Croatia can achieve vinous greatness. Look at a map of the country, and you’ll see that its coast has an ideal southwest aspect, and a latitude that’s well-nigh perfect, ranging between Bordeaux and Tuscany. Look closer at the coast, and you’ll find steep, ancient terraces that must be worked by hand, where vines grow in the sort of stony soil high-quality wines love. The terroir is hard to beat.

Plus, my heavens, it’s gorgeous to look at. My jaw kept dropping to the floor of my tiny rental car as I drove along sensationally scenic narrow roads lined with weathered limestone mountains, hill towns, olive groves and sea-side vineyards. How many times did I almost drive right off a cliff while gaping at the view?

Some Croatian wineries work with international grape varieties like Syrah and Chardonnay and so forth, but most work with the country’s numerous unique indigenous varieties. Like Portugal, Greece, Georgia and Turkey, Croatia grows all sorts of wonderful vinifera grapes that grow nowhere else. Although one Croatian grape, at least, does indeed grow elsewhere: Crljenak. You might know it by its more familiar name, Zinfandel.

Krajančić Rosé

In spite of these unique grapes grown in gorgeously ideal terroirs, few Croatian wines make it to American store shelves or wine lists, and few American tourists book wine-themed tours to Croatia the way they do to Napa, Bordeaux, Mendoza, Tuscany and the Douro Valley. Why?

Croatia has a number of problems. First and foremost, Croatia’s language has a distinct lack of vowels and an overabundance of unusual diacritical marks. What are you more likely to pick from a wine list? A Rebula from Slovenia, or a Grk from Croatia? Or perhaps I could interest you in a Krajančić Pošip from the island of Korčula? A little refreshing Kujundžuša, perhaps? No. No one is ordering any of that. Mostly because no one can pronounce any of that.

(It’s easier than it seems — if you see a diacritical mark on a consonant, just add an “h” to it: š becomes sh, ć or č becomes ch, and ž becomes like the s in pleasure.)

Next is the issue of quantity that I mentioned earlier. There simply isn’t all that much Croatian wine to go around, and much of what is produced is consumed locally. Those astonishingly beautiful terraced vineyards plunging towards the sea can’t be worked with machinery; everything must be done by hand. The inhospitably stony soil on the coast makes life difficult for the vines, resulting in less, more-concentrated fruit. And Croatia, as countries go, just isn’t very large.

More and more American tourists do go to Croatia, but for ages, all the ads, guidebooks and travel magazines marketing the country have trumpeted its scenic beauty — archipelagoes filled with pristine beaches! — and the historical riches of cities like Split and Dubrovnik. When Americans go, it’s likely as a shore excursion off a cruise ship or, if they’re lucky, they’ve chartered a yacht for a week to sail down the coast. Few travelers, my friends at Exotic Wine Travel excepted, go for the wine.

Every now and then it pays to be a wine blogger.

Also, many Americans don’t seem to know where Croatia actually is. When I told people I was headed there, I got all sorts of interesting questions about its location. One of my acquaintances asked if it was once part of the Soviet Union, and another asked if it would be cold, because isn’t it near Ukraine? It is neither of those things. Coastal Croatia feels far more like Greece than it does Central or Eastern Europe.

I’ll be writing more about a few particular kinds of Croatian wines that delighted me time and time again, but in the meantime, here are a few of the all-around stars I discovered on my trip down the Dalmatian Coast:

NV Degarra Vinarija “Perla”

Kristina, the sommelier of Diocletian’s Wine House in Split, introduced me to this sparkling rosé of Plavina. It was just the beginning of a three-hour tasting extravaganza she organized. The wines ranged from delicious to unforgettable, and the setting was just as memorable: The wine bar incorporates three ancient Roman arches. If you’re in Split, don’t miss the chance to taste wine at Diocletian’s Wine House. But to the Degarra. This wine comes from near Zadar on the coast, as opposed to the inland Plešivica region, Croatia’s sparkling wine capital. I loved its aroma of fresh berries, elegantly small bubbles, sharply focused acids and minerally finish.

Tasting wine at Diocletian’s Wine House (sommelier Kristina at right)

2016 Bire Grk

The rare white Grk grape grows almost exclusively in one corner of the picturesque island of Korčula, one of the loveliest islands in all of Europe. I learned that Grk has only female flowers, so growers of the variety often plant Plavac Mali as well, to ensure that the Grk gets pollinated. Bire receives lots of praise for its Grk, and I can see why. When I took a sip, the wine felt as if it should be heavy in the mouth, what with its rich white fruit and creamy, buttery goodness. But any weightiness evaporated almost immediately — the wine felt like a cloud on my tongue. Quiet acids kept everything in balance and worked well with food, and I also enjoyed the note of bitter orange in the back of my throat at the end. Fascinating!

2016 Rak Maraština

Maraština, also known as Rukatac, doesn’t seem to rank among the most sought-after white grapes in Croatia, but Rak makes a superlative version. Winemaker Ante Rak explained that the highest-quality Maraština comes from around Šibenik and Primošten, because “the land is deeper here, and Maraština works best in deep land.” It had a complex aroma, with melon, cream, spice and something savory underneath. The wine tasted full bodied and rich with stone fruit, balanced by refined, driving acids and focused white-pepper spice.

Winemaker Ante Rak

2012 Rak Babić Barrique

“Babić can be a standard wine or something very special,” Ante told me, and this Babić, aged three years in new oak, is something very special indeed. It smelled wonderfully expensive, with lush raspberry jam and oak notes. “Girl, bring it to me!” was what I wrote in my notebook after giving the wine a sniff. The rich flavor was full of currants and oak, leavened with bright sour-cherry acids and a finish of fine-grained tannins. This is the kind of wine I expect to have in a high-end steakhouse. Big and beautiful.

2015 Rizman Tribidrag

Tribidrag is the original name of Crljenak, or Zinfandel. I tried a number of Zinfandels in Croatia, many of which had jammy fruit and punchy oak, similar to what one might find in Zinfandel from California. The Rizman Tribidrag, however, “is more of a gentleman of a wine,” as Kristina of Diocletian’s Wine House noted. The aroma was of ripe — but not jammy — cherry fruit, with a lift of herbaceous freshness underneath. The wine tasted full and powerful but carefully controlled, as opposed to brash and bold. This was one classy Zin.

Those familiar with Croatian wine might be wondering about two glaring omissions from the list above: Pošip and Plavac Mali. I did taste some stupendous versions of each. Indeed, I tasted so many wonderful Pošips and Plavac Malis, I decided that each grape deserved its own blog post. Stay tuned to learn about two of the most exciting wine grapes in Croatia, or for that matter, anywhere in the world.

The Federalist At “Hamilton”: Wines Fit For A Founding Father

29 October 2016
Lin-Manuel Miranda

Lin-Manuel Miranda at the party celebrating the Chicago premiere of Hamilton

A cast party seemed like an odd venue in which to taste wine, but as a recovering theater major, I have a soft spot for musicals. Getting a new one off the ground can be tough, especially if it’s a wordy period piece, and I decided that if my blog post about the partner wine of the musical can also help promote a good show, then so much the better. So I accepted the invitation to the party celebrating the Chicago premiere of Hamilton.

Serving glasses of a wine named The Federalist during the intermission of a musical about Alexander Hamilton would seem gimmicky if the quality were less than excellent. After all, who cares if the wine’s name ties in to the theme of the show if it doesn’t taste any good?

Federalist Sonoma County ChardonnayAs we entered the party, I wasted no time in scooping up a glass of the 2015 Federalist Sonoma County Chardonnay. In general, Sonoma has a cooler climate than Napa, because the county is closer to the cool ocean currents off the coast. Cooler temperatures often result in higher acidity, which means that Sonoma Chardonnays are less likely to be blowsy and overripe than Napa Chardonnays.

And indeed, this Federalist Chardonnay was a well-balanced beauty. It suckered me right in with its aroma of buttered popcorn and a bit of tropical fruit. The fruit tasted rich and ripe, and there was an overlay of oak. Some people despise butter and oak, I know, but in the right proportions, they can be gorgeous flavors. Especially when they’re balanced, as they were here, by ample acids and a shaft of white pepper spice. This wine sells for about $14-$16 a bottle, which is a fantastic value for the money. Comparable white Burgundies cost twice as much.

I also tried the 2014 Federalist Lodi Cabernet Sauvignon, which I approached with no small measure of skepticism. At this summer’s Wine Bloggers Conference in Lodi, I tried a handful of Cabernet Sauvignons, and I found only one I could actually recommend. Now, I’m pleased to report, I have two. I enjoyed the cool, clean, rich fruit, the lively and rustic acids, the perk of white pepper spice and the supple tannins. It had some finesse, this Cabernet, and again, it’s surprisingly affordable at around $17 a bottle. Another fine value.

Federalist Dueling PistolsI noticed Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of Hamilton and the star of the production on Broadway, standing not far away, and I took the opportunity to ask him about Federalist wines and their partnership with his show. I had just started my question when Mr. Miranda took the opportunity to give me a pithy quote: “I have to go over there now,” he said.

Well, he’s more of a whiskey drinker in any case.

His speedy departure gave me a moment to try the third wine offered at the cast party, the 2012 Federalist Dry Creek Valley “Dueling Pistols” blend of 50% Zinfandel and 50% Syrah. I was especially excited to try this wine, because I can’t recall ever trying such a blend. According to The World Atlas of Wine, Sonoma’s “Dry Creek Valley still has a reputation for some of the finest examples of [Zinfandel],” and certainly this wine gave me no cause to dispute that assertion.

The “Dueling Pistols” smelled of rich, ripe fruit and tobacco — one of my favorite combinations. I absolutely loved its opulent fruit leavened with zesty spice, ample tannins and more of that wonderful tobacco on the finish. This wine is rich, dark and very sexy. It costs more than the others, around $35-$40 a bottle, but every penny you spend is repaid on your tongue.

Miguel Cervantes and Mario Cantone

Miguel Cervantes and Mario Cantone with a bottle of “Dueling Pistols”

Heading back to the bar for more, I turned around to discover Mario Cantone, of Sex and the City fame. He knew the Federalist wines well, since he spends quite a bit of time in Sonoma, and he agreed that the Chardonnay in particular is “delicious.”

The lead of the Chicago Hamilton production, Miguel Cervantes, approached us as we were chatting, and it turned out that he had never tried any of the Federalist wines. My quick-thinking friend Liz Barrett of Terlato (The Federalist’s distributor) offered to get him a glass so that he could give one a try, and she returned with a sample of the “Dueling Pistols.”

Mr. Cervantes proved quite adept at describing his experience with the wine. He gave it a smell, and said, “Oh yes, I like bigger, spicier wines.” After giving the “Dueling Pistols” a sip, he said, “I like the dry start — it’s not a Kool-Aid start like some Syrahs.” He took another taste and continued, “It gets in there dry, and then it’s a big old kick-you-in-the-face finish. I like it a lot.”

Me too. After trying this superb Zinfandel/Syrah blend, I have to wonder why we don’t see that combination more often. It really works. And even at $35 or $40 a bottle, the “Dueling Pistols” goes down a lot more easily than the price of a Hamilton ticket.

Note: The samples of these wines and the tickets to the cast party were provided free of charge.

Red Wines Of Lodi: Speed Blogging Part 2

14 August 2016
Wine photographed not during speed blogging.

Wine photographed not during speed blogging

In one of the Wine Bloggers Conference seminars, a presenter admonished the audience about the previous day’s speed blogging performance. “I saw a lot of you taking random photos during speed blogging,” she observed, during her talk about Instagram. “Make sure you have a nice background.”

I took an instant dislike to this woman, who, though she had attended the speed blogging session, had clearly not experienced it. Speed blogging is always one of my favorite parts of the Wine Bloggers Conference, because it’s such a challenge. The seven or eight bloggers at each table are trying to get as much information out of the wine presenters as possible, while simultaneously assessing each wine and writing something intelligent about it, all within each five-minute wine speed date. Composing fluffy bottle shots with flowers and candles and such is not within the remotest realm of possibility.

And it’s no picnic for the presenters, either. They’re faced with a table of stressed bloggers who don’t make eye contact (we’re buried in our laptops and phones). We shout a barrage of questions ranging from the simple (Vintage?!) to the irritating (What’s your Twitter handle? Wait — what’s your Twitter handle?) to the borderline rude (Who are you? Who? Oh, the owner?). Meanwhile they’re trying to pour the wine, explain the wine, pass out information sheets about the wine, and give us each a chance to photograph the wine, ideally with a nice background, of course.

Century-old Zinfandel vine in Lodi's Rous Vineyard

Century-old Zinfandel vine in Lodi’s Rous Vineyard

In short, it’s barely controlled chaos, and I absolutely love it. In order to successfully speed blog, I have to find a place of serious focus, shutting out all the noise and confusion around me in order to give each wine the attention it deserves. Learning to focus that way has helped me in all sorts of loud, overcrowded tastings (one of the most common kinds).

After having been in Lodi since Wednesday evening and trying dozens of local reds, this speed blogging event was not particularly surprising. But it was particularly delightful. The reds here tend to be richly fruity and concentrated, with enough spice, acids and tannins to balance. It can be a truly gorgeous combination.

2013 Harney Lane Old Vine Zinfandel Lizzy James Vineyard: Lizzy James really is an old-vine vineyard — it was planted in 1904, sixth-generation winery owner Kyle explained. Aged in 100% French oak, this Zin has a gorgeously rich raspberry and vanilla aroma, cool and clear fruit, with forceful white pepper and plenty of heady alcohol. Ah yes — it’s 15.5% alcohol! And yet it’s balanced. It’s a bit of a monster, this wine, and I love it. At $36 it’s not inexpensive, but now I regret not buying a bottle at the winery when I had the chance.

Lange Twins Nero d'Avola2014 LangeTwins Nero d’Avola: Joe Lange himself poured this Italian varietal, and it’s unfortunately the second-to-last vintage. The Lange family had to rip up the vines after the 2015 harvest because of a couple of serious vineyard diseases. What a lovely dark cherry aroma, enhanced with some purple flowers. There’s a nice calm characteristic to the fruit, and classy, restrained spice with enough oomph to balance. It’s a steal at $20, and based on what I’ve tasted at the conference this week, I wouldn’t hesitate to purchase any LangeTwins bottling of any of the 23 or 24 varieties they make.

2013 Prie Winery Cabernet Sauvignon: This Cab comes from the east side of Lodi (they talk a lot about east side and west side here, which have sandy loam and loamy sand, respectively). The aroma smells of pure, clean fruit, and indeed the fruit comes through loud and clear on the palate, but it loses some power after that, fading slowly into spice and surprisingly soft tannins. I haven’t found the Cabs of Lodi especially compelling, I must admit, and this one hasn’t convinced me otherwise. $29

Paul pouring Inkblot

Paul pouring Michael David’s Inkblot

2013 Michael David “Inkblot” Cabernet Franc: The first Cabernet Franc of the conference! Each vintage of Inkblot showcases a different variety that wine drinkers might not expect, such as Petit Verdot or Tannat, or in this case, Cab Franc, as the marketing manager Paul explained. It contains 10% Petit Sirah to round things out, and my goodness, it works. The aroma is heady and dark, the fruit is big and lush on the palate, and it moves to a blast of tannins followed by an elegant shaft of spice on the finish. It’s certainly drinkable now, but I would love to lay a bottle down for five years to see what happens. The $35 price seems perfectly reasonable.

2013 Peirano Estate “The Other” Red Blend: A blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot and 10% Syrah, this wine has an unexpected aroma, with almost jammy dark fruit combined with an underripe green-pepper quality. Though now that it’s been in my glass a few moments, the fruit has started to overpower the vegetable. There’s plenty of rich fruit — even in a $12 wine from Lodi, there better be, followed by black pepper spice and soft tannins. It’s perfectly drinkable, and not at all a bad value for $12.

2014 Klinker Brick Cabernet Sauvignon: Steve Feldman, the winery owner, shared with us Klinker Brick’s first Cabernet Sauvignon vintage, which retails for $19. It has a deliciously rich aroma of dark fruit, a midsection of classy spice and firm but not aggressive tannins on the finish. This is a Cabernet I can really get behind — the first Lodi Cabernet I’ve really loved. It coats the mouth with ripe, chewy fruit, and it’s a superlative value.

Now that's what I call a background. The OZV red blend and the inimitable Glynis of Vino Noire

Now that’s what I call a background: the inimitable Glynis of Vino Noire

2013 Cultivar Cabernet Sauvignon: I don’t usually write about Napa Cabernets, because they are exactly the opposite of unusual and obscure, so it’s a nice change of pace. I like its heady dark fruit aroma and up-front fruit on the palate. It makes a quick pass through some spice in the midsection before giving me a slap of tannins, followed by some slow-developing black pepper spice. I suspect it needs another year or two to round and soften. I quite like it, but I would much rather spend $19 on the Klinker Brick than $29 on this one.

2013 Oak Ridge Winery “Moss Roxx” Ancient Vine Zinfandel: Steve, the international marketing manager, poured some the OZV red blend before this, which I unfortunately didn’t have time to taste. I can barely handle one wine per speed taste in this event. Two, for me, is an impossibility. I skipped the OZV in order to move right to this Zin from vines which average 105 years in age. I love the rich red-fruit jam aroma, cool ripe fruit on the palate, classy white pepper spice and notable tannins on the finish. A delight for $22.

2013 Ehlers Estate “1886” Cabernet Sauvignon: This is the flagship Cabernet of this Napa winery, with fruit from St. Helena. It’s actually 85% Cabernet with 5% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Franc and 2% Petit Verdot. I loved the perfumed dark red fruit aroma, ample but classy white pepper spice in the middle and clear but supple tannins on the finish. It’s beautifully made, and if I were rich, I might even consider buying it for $110.

2014 Troon Vineyard Blue Label Malbec, Rogue Valley: Troon Vineyard is not located in Argentina, as you might have guessed, but in southern Oregon’s Applegate Valley. Oregon gained fame for its Pinot Noir, but those grow mostly in the Willamette Valley — the Rogue and Applegate valleys are near the California border in a relatively dry area at 1,600 feet of altitude. The wine certainly smells ripe, with ample dark fruit and a touch of vanilla, and it tastes rather delicious,with ripe dark fruit, plenty of spice, notable tannins and some underlying freshness. I would never have guessed that a Malbec could work in Oregon, but Troon Vineyard has proved, without a doubt, that it can. $29

Read about Speed Blogging session #1 — Lodi whites, rosés and bubblies — here, or for more red wine Speed Blogging action, read last year’s red report here.

These wine tastes were provided free of charge.

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