So there I was, at 6:30 yesterday morning, trimming the fat from four pounds of ox-tails. Why? Because Benito, of the blog Benito’s Wine Reviews, was coming over for lunch and to taste six vintages of Ridge Geyserville Zinfandel from 1989 back to 1984. What was I going to serve him? I mean, this is the guy who made osso buco in a hotel room and wrote about it on his blog and who once ingested — on purpose! — a whole thermonuclear Naga Jolokia pepper just to see what it would do to him; read his amazing account here; it’s not for the faint-hearted.

So you can see my dilemma. This boy is a food adventurer, used to charting effortlessly over culinary whitewater rapids. So naturally, I thought of ox-tails, and I pulled out a great resource, The Lutèce Cookbook, by André Soltner with Seymour Britchky (Alfred A. Knopf, 1995). (And what ever happened to Britchky? He used to write restaurant reviews in New York that were so knowledgeable and witty that they were criminally accurate and hilarious.) Anyway, I thought, here’s a dish that should meet Benito’s love of unusual food as well as being appropriate with the old zinfandels.

I obtained the wines, nestled in their original wooden crate, each bottle still tightly wrapped in tissue paper, at a benefit auction in Memphis in the early 1990s; I paid $150 for the lot. They have not, I’ll admit, been stored in the exacting conditions that a collector with a real “cellar” would advocate, but I have always keep them in the coolest part of whatever apartment or house we lived in. For a couple of years, they rested in a warehouse where a friend of mine who owned a chain of local diners had a storage room kept at 48 degrees. Benito has recently visited Ridge’s outpost in Dry Creek Valley, and wrote, in his post, that “from my experience, Ridge wines tend to age fairly well under less-than-ideal circumstances.” Well, I thought, here’s the perfect opportunity to try the old Geyservilles.

Ridge has been making a zinfandel from the Geyserville vineyard in the Alexander Valley, part of the old Trentadue family farm, since 1966. Some of the vines go back to the 1880s and 1890s.

The winery was founded in 1959 by a group of colleagues from the Stanford Research Institute who purchased the old Monte Bello vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The friends began making wine, not only from Monte Bello but from vineyards they sought in Amador, Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties and in Paso Robles, looking for old-vine zinfandel and petite sirah in particular. In 1969, Paul Draper was hired as winemaker, a fortunate choice, since he is one of California’s great winemakers; under his direction, what was a winery that produced fine but often eccentric wines became one of the state’s finest and most consistent producers. While the Ridge Zinfandels have elevated the names of individual vineyards like Lytton Springs, Geyserville and Dusi Ranch to star status, the Monte Bello cabrnet sauvignon has over 40 years become the stuff of legends; if California had First Growths, as Bordeaux does, Monte Bello would be first among them.

So, our lunch consisted of a salad of escarole, red leaf lettuce, parsley and chopped green onions dressed with a thyme-mustard vinaigrette, followed by the ox-tail stew or soup, basically a bowl of rich, dark broth holding a couple of pieces of the succulent ox-tail. You would be pretty succulent too, if you had braised in a 225-degree oven for four hours with carrots, shallots, onion and garlic in red wine. Benito declined a cheese course to finish because he was leading a tasting that night. We wine-writers are famous for modesty and moderation in all things. I didn’t take a picture of the ox-tails because brown meat in brown gravy isn’t all that photogenic.

I’ll come right out and say that the best wine of this little event was the bottle I served with the salad, you know, something to whet the palate and clear our heads. This was the August Kesseler Lorcher Schlossberg Kabinett Riesling 2004, from Germany’s Rheingau region. The word that came to our jaded lips was “Glorious.” LL and I drank a bottle of this wine in April 2008 — click here
– when I rated the wine Very Good+. A year’s aging has given the wine more polish and heft and a sense of deeper spice and soft, ripe stone-fruit flavors. I would go with Excellent now. About $25 to $30.

Here, then, are brief summaries of the Ridge Geyserville Zinfandels from 1989 back to 1984 and the percentages of the blends. The alcohol levels, by the way, are consistently between 13.3 and 13.6 percent.

>1989. Dark, sweet berries; woody, spicy undertones; touch of mint; quite mellow and drinkable, very attractive, though it gets a little shellac-y after 30 minutes or so. (75% zinfandel, 22% petite sirah, 3% carignane)

>1988. Spiced and macerated red and black fruit; solid, tasty, a little port-like, delicious, though trailing off into briers and brambles that take on dusty austerity. My second favorite of the flight. (82% zinfandel, 13% carignane, 5% petite sirah)

>1987. Dark, rich, spicy, sweet black fruit; great structure and balance, almost Bordeaux-like; cedar, tobacco, gets drier and more austere as minutes pass. (88% zinfandel, 8% carignane, 4% petite sirah)

>1986. A little off-putting at first, a little mossy and undefined; but gets better, pulls together, though acid dominates; pulls up lavender and violets, a little meaty, bacon-fat element. (84% zinfandel, 10% petite sirah, 6% carignane)

>1985. The best of this group for me; ripe, beefy, chocolate-y; gains power and strength in the glass; plummy, jammy, port-like. (85% zinfandel, 19% petite sirah, 5% carignane)

>1984. Attenuated, gritty at first; a few minutes lend it more structure, hints of smoke and tobacco; very dry, increasingly woody and austere. (90% zinfandel, 10% petite sirah)

Ridge Geyserville is now called Geyserville Red Wine instead of Geyserville Zinfandel, a label device that allows Draper and his staff to vary the amount of zinfandel grapes in the blend according to the dictates of the vintage. Geyserville 2006, for example, contains only 70 percent zinfandel.

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