Mon 10 May 2010
It’s July 23, 1985. The wine is the Mirassou “Third Harvest” Zinfandel 1968, Monterey County, one from a case of wines that John Grisanti gave me from the warehouse next to his restaurant. (Big John died in 1995; his family sold the property to Walgreens.)
Mirassou was once a distinguished, if not a great, name in the history of California wine. The family’s beginnings in Monterey County go back to 1854, and while for the better part of a century the product of their vineyards was bulk wine, in the 1950s efforts were made to increase quality. In 1966, Mirassou first bottled its own wines; the “Third Harvest” designation on the label of the wine featured today refers to that momentous year. Whatever the intentions, Mirassou’s wines generally seemed more competent than competitive, though the family worked hard to improve quality. Particularly notable was a series of chardonnays, especially those bottled under the “Harvest Reserve” and “Showcase Selection” labels. Also consistently well-made and enjoyable were the “White Burgundy,” made primarily from pinot blanc grapes, and the Early Harvest Gewurztraminer, of which I drank many bottles in the 1980s.
Gallo bought the Mirassou brand and inventory late in 2002; the family retained the winery and vineyards. The wines that bear this pioneering name are made in Modesto and unfortunately reflect the blandest common denominator of the California wine industry.
Here are my notes on the Mirassou “Third Harvest” Zinfandel 1968:
“This one made a valiant effort, but it was just too old. Brick red-mahogany color; autumnal; bottle-stink, musty, smell of decay; musty, earthy, dead leaves, but after an hour it pulled itself together and became, for about 15-20 minutes, a fine wine in glorious decline, then began to fall apart and slumped back into decay. Must have peaked 5-7 years ago.”
Monterey County is not known as a great region for zinfandel, and in the 1980s Mirassou shifted its source for the grape to its Santa Clara vineyard. More to the point, however, is this lesson: Give a bottle of wine a chance to perform. Older wines sometimes need time and gentle persuasion to sift through the fog of age and bear, as it were, fruit again. Young wines often require the same consideration. One of the hazards of the wine tasting trade is the haste with which we are forced to make decisions about wines that would behave considerably differently if given the opportunity. That’s why one of my favorite methods of tasting is to stand in the kitchen with four or five wines, tasting gradually, going back to each over and again, spending time to let them unfold. It can take an hour, but good wines deserve the attention. Sometimes I do this blind, especially if I’m comparing wines of the same grape or genre, and sometimes not.
In any case, I hope this selection of “100 Wines: A Chronicle” illustrates the principle that we can learn as much from “bad” wines as from “good” ones.