Old vines


When Constellation purchased Ravenswood for $148 million in 2001, the consensus was: “Uh-oh.” No way, we thought, will the giant alcoholic beverage company allow Joel Peterson to make those single-vineyard old vine zinfandels with the same individuality, if at all. These fears proved groundless, as a decade shows. Peterson founded the winery in 1976, and it’s a measure of his dedication — and the slim profits that the winery generated — that he kept his day-job as head of a medical laboratory at Sonoma Valley Hospital until 1992, when the success of the Ravenswood Vintner’s Blend wines enabled him to devote what must be his every waking moment to making wine and running the facility. Under review today are three samples of Peterson’s genuinely old vine products, as in each vineyard — Old Hill Ranch, Barricia, Belloni — contains at least part of the original vines planted more than a century ago. What I like about these zinfandels is that they deliberately eschew the blockbuster qualities of high alcohol, deep extraction and super-ripe fruit; don’t look for anything plummy and jammy in these wines, no cloying boysenberry flavors or alcoholic heat. Peterson’s hallmarks are purity and balance in terms of structure and fruit. He succeeds admirably.
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When one steps into Old Hill Ranch, in what is now the Sonoma Valley AVA, there’s a feeling of being on sacred ground. The vineyard was planted around 1880 by William McPherson Hill, who established his farm in 1851. The property passed through his descendents until Otto and Anne Teller acquired it in 1981 and decided not to uproot the historic but abandoned overgrown vines but to restore the vineyard to productivity, working with Joel Peterson, who released Ravenswood’s first Old Hill zinfandel in 1983. The vineyard contains more than 30 varieties of red grapes, the majority zinfandel but also a remarkable array of the well-known and the obscure. It is now farmed by Otto Teller’s stepson, Will Bucklin, who has his own label.

The Ravenswood Old Hill Zinfandel 2011, Sonoma Valley — 75 percent zinfandel, 25 percent mixed black grapes — offers a medium ruby-magenta color and pungent aromas of fresh raspberries and blueberries infused with lavender and graphite, with hints of dried thyme and cedar, all highlighted by some clear wild berry notes. The wine is quite dry but balanced and integrated, its moderately dense but supple tannins and lithe acidity providing support for black and blue fruit flavors inflected by pepper, cloves and a touch of mint. The wine aged 19 months in French oak, 30 percent new barrels, but the influence stays firmly in the background. The finish is clean and well-knit, packed with spice and graphite minerality. 14.9 percent alcohol. Production was 1,200 cases. Drink now through 2018 to ’21. Excellent. About $60.
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Barricia looks Italian or Spanish, but it’s a combination of the first names of Barbara Oleson and Patricia Herron, who bought the historic property in 1978. How historic is it? In the 1840s, the land belonged to Sonoma pioneer General Mariano Vallejo, who traded it to his children’s music teacher for piano lessons. Of the 10 acres of zinfandel vines on the estate, six were planted before 1892, the rest in 1995; two acres of petite sirah were planted in 1998. The vineyard now belongs to Mel and Angela Dagovitz.

The Ravenswood Barricia Zinfandel 2011, Sonoma Valley, is a blend of 75 percent zinfandel and 25 percent petite sirah grapes. Fermentation is by indigenous yeasts; the wine aged 19 months in French oak, 40 percent new barrels. The color is intense medium ruby; the wine is bright, clean, fresh and spicy, roiling with notes of macerated raspberries, plums and mulberries wreathed with hints of white pepper, leather and loam. In the mouth, this is, characteristically, muscular and sinewy but light on its feet and enlivened by brisk acidity; still, the tannins build incrementally, chiseled and faceted, along with granitic minerality, leading to a very dry, almost austere finish. 14.8 percent alcohol. Production was 1,250 cases. Try from 2015 through 2020 to ’22. Excellent. About $35.
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The property that became Belloni Vineyard was planted around 1900 and acquired by Italian immigrant Ricardo Belloni in 1971. Joel Peterson started making zinfandel from the vineyard after meeting Belloni in 1991. The owner died in 1997, but his widow, his children and grandchildren keep the legacy going. This is a flat, sea-level site in a cool foggy Russian River Valley climate.

The Ravenswood Belloni Vineyard Zinfandel 2011, Russian River Valley, is a blend of 75 percent zinfandel and 25 percent mixed black grapes — Peterson’s magic numbers; the wine is fermented on native yeasts and aged 19 months in French oak, 25 percent new barrels. The color is glowing medium ruby; the vivid bouquet offers spiced and macerated black and red cherries and raspberries with notes of sandalwood and fruitcake, licorice and lavender, staying just on this side of the exotic. As with its sister wine from Barricia, the Belloni ’11 gradually layers its sleek tannins, its granitic core and its seething acidity in seamless balance, while the oak component provides supple framework and foundation. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 800 cases. From 2015 through 2019 or ’20. Excellent. About $35.
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Bring in the roller of big cigars, the pigs in blankets, the barbecue brisket nachos with black beans and jalapenos; bring in the slow-cooked ribs slathered with tangy sauce, the cheeseburger sliders and short-rib quesadillas, the fried chicken and the firehouse chili. For, lo, tomorrow is Super Bowl Sunday, and who gives a flip who’s playing and where, because the party and the food are the name of the game. And while I know that many of you out there will be downing your favorite beer with the rich, bountiful, caloric Super Bowl-type party food, allow me to recommend some Kick-Ass Bad Boy red wines that will serve you equally well. We draw on Argentina and Chile, Australia and France’s Loire Valley and several points through California. Not much in the way of technical, historical and geographical data here; just incisive reviews meant to whet your palates and perhaps your football-addled imaginations. Snap that ball, Froggie, and plow for the uprights! Or whatever.

These wines were samples for review.
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MontGras Quatro 2011, Colchagua Valley, Chile. 14.5% alc. 40% cabernet sauvignon, 35% carmenere, 15% malbec, 10% syrah. Dark ruby, almost opaque; piercing shale and graphite minerality; ashes and currants say the bells of St. Lawrence, with dried thyme, cedar and tobacco; jubilant acidity and rollicking tannins with deep roots; not forgetting intense and concentrated black and blue fruit scents and flavors; multitude of layers and unfoldings though keeps something hidden that feels slightly perverse, definitely a Dark Knight of a wine. Excellent. About $14, an Incredible Value; Buy a Case.
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Gascon Malbec 2011, Mendoza, Argentina. 13.9% alc. Dark ruby color; deeply saturated black currants and plums, very spicy and earthy, yet clean and fresh; a tense core of lavender and potpourri, bitter chocolate and cocoa powder; dusty, chewy tannins; a surprising touch of blueberry tart and fruitcake. Very Good+ and Very Good Value. About $15.
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Liberty School Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo County. 13.5% alc. Dark ruby color; clean, sleek but robust; deeply spicy and flavorful; black fruit galore borne by a tide of blueberry with hints of rosemary, cedar and tobacco; stalwart tannins fit the mix with burly yet beneficent insistence. Always a solid performer. Very Good+. About $16, representing Great Value.
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Nuna Bonarda Reserva 2010, Lujan de Cuyo, Mendoza, Argentina. 14% alc. Dark ruby color; tar, lavender and licorice, intensely ripe and spicy black currants, plums and mulberries; touches of fruitcake and plum pudding; polished and seductive yet very dry, densely tannic, resonant, a little brooding even, full-bodied, rustic. Very Good+. About $17.
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Chateau Tanunda Grand Barossa Shiraz 2010, Barossa Valley, Australia. 14.5% alc. Dark ruby color shading to medium ruby at the rim; pure and intense, a furnace of shiraz, huge presence of smoke and ash and the symmetry of a chiseled monument; very concentrated but deeply spicy blackberry and black currant scents and flavors; chewy, dusty, muscular yet with an element of fleetness and light. Through 2017 to ’20. Excellent. About $18, a Fantastic Bargain.
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Tower 15 Petite Sirah 2010, Paso Robles. 14.9% alc. Deep ruby-purple color; robust, rough-hewn, vibrant acidity and chock-a-block tannins, wild berries, black plums, blackberries and blueberries; backnotes of cloves and licorice, coiled potpourri; a little exotic but with characteristic earth-bound, graphite elements. Sadly only 167 cases, so Worth a Search. Very Good+. About $18.50.
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Morgan Winery Syrah 2010, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. 13.6% alc. Deep purple-mulberry color; smacky tannins, whiplash acidity; smoke, ash, leather, edgy graphite; oh, yes, juicy and spicy red and black cherries and plums with hints of blueberries and mulberries; earth, briers, wet dog, the whole syrah kit ‘n’ kaboodle. Lots of personality. Excellent. About $20.
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Catherine et Pierre Breton La Dilettante 2010, Bourgueil, Loire Valley, France. 12% alc. 100% cabernet franc. Light ruby-cranberry color; lithe and wiry, scintillating acidity and flint-like minerality; briers and brambles, thyme and black olives, hints of coffee and tobacco; black currants and blueberries; slightly shaggy tannins. A scrappy little wine despite its deceptive lightness. Through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $25.
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The Federalist Dueling Pistols 2009, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County. 15% alc. 50% syrah, 50% zinfandel. No, this wine is not dedicated to the NRA; the name is based on the fatal duel fought by Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. Dark ruby-purple color; inky, ashy, slinky; deep. rich with very ripe spicy black fruit scents and flavors yet taking the cool course of dominant flint and shale-like minerality; cigar box, tobacco, thyme; the zinfandel and syrah don’t so much duel here as kiss and make up. A real mouthful of wine. Excellent. About $36.
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Sausal Century Vines Zinfandel 2009, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County. 14.5% alc. How old are those “Century Vines”? The vineyard was planted before 1877, so we’re talking at least 136 years old. Dark ruby shading to magenta; deep, spicy, ripe and roasted, a little earthy/funky; blackberry and blueberry with a touch of mulberry but none of that sissy, jammy boysenberry stuff; leather, briers and brambles, burgeoning tannins yet a serene air that’s appropriate for the venerable age of the vineyard. Now through 2149; just kidding! Make that 2019. Excellent. About $40.
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Rosemount Balmoral Syrah 2010, McLaren Vale, Australia. 14.5% alc. Deep ruby-purple; stalwart and vigorous; smoke, ash and graphite with a charcoal edge; defines dense and chewy and full-bodied, but not ponderous or weighty; very intense and concentrated black currant, black cherry and plum scents and flavors (touch of mocha); dry but ripe and juicy; heaps of depth and dimension; a big but well-modulated wine. Excellent. About $45.
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Two Hands Sexy Beast Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, McLaren Vale. 14.5% alc. Sorta sexy, sorta beastly, but you won’t hate yourself in the morning for hooking up. Dark ruby-mulberry color, close to black; smooth and mellow yet somehow voluminous, with a tang of acidity and a distinct faceted charcoal/granitic character; very spicy, slightly macerated and roasted black currants and plums; clenched tannins give you a soft wallop in the finish. Excellent. About $45.
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We are so damned eclectic here where our heads are bigger. Today, on this Saturday of the “Friday Wine Sips,” we gotcher rosé (er, not a great one, sorry), we gotcher sparkling wines, we gotcher white wines and we gotcher red wines. Your life will be complete. The countries represented are Germany, Spain, Portugal, France and Italy. (Remember, by the way, that all reports in the “Friday Wine Sips” are not favorable; we applaud for, and we warn against.) As for grapes, well, we offer verdejo, vermentino, pinot blanc, pinot auxerrois, chardonnay and riesling; we offer tempranillo, syrah, mourvèdre, cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and a host of grapes that typically grow in the Douro Valley. What we don’t offer is much in the way of technical, historical, personal and geographical material; instead, these are quick reviews, some transcribed directly from my notes, others expanded a bit, and designed to be a rapid infusion of knowledge and direction. So, seek out, try, taste and enjoy, where I have recommended that you do so; for a few others, um, just avoid. These wines were samples for review. The order is rosé, white, sparkling and red.
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Valdelosfrailes Rosé 2011, Cubillas de Santa Marta, Cigales, Spain. 13.5% alc. Tempranillo 80%, verdejo 20%. Bright cherry-crimson color; pungent, pert, perky, strawberry and dried currants, hint of pomegranate, dried herbs and limestone; very dry, lip-smacking acidity and viscosity, austere finish. Doesn’t quite hold together. Good+. About $10.
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Emina Verdejo 2010, Medina del Campo, Rueda, Spain. 13% alc. 100% verdejo grapes. A confirmation of the theory that delicate, fruity white wines should be consumed before they lose their freshness. Not recommended. About $10.
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Prelius Vermentino 2010, Maremma, Toscana, Italy. 12.5% alc. Probably delightful last year but overstayed its welcome. Only in a pinch. About $15.
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Domaine Roland Schmitt Pinot Blanc 2010, Alsace, France 12.5% alc. Pale straw-gold color; lovely, soft but lithe, very clean and fresh, quite spicy; apples, lemons, pears, touch of yellow plum; vibrant acidity keeps it lively and appealing, while a few minutes in the glass pull up notes of jasmine and limestone. Now through 2014. Very Good+. About $16.
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Domaine Mittnacht Freres Terre d’Etoiles Pinot Blanc 2011, Alsace, France. 12% alc. Pinot auxerrois 60%, pinot blanc 40% (can that be right and still be labeled pinot blanc?) Pale straw-yellow, like Rapunzel’s hair; entrancing aromas of camellia and jasmine, spiced pear and roasted lemon, quince and ginger; very dry, resolutely crisp, yet with such an attractive texture and balance, a sense of soft ripeness and sinewy limestone elements. Very stylish. Now through 2014 or ’15, well-stored. Excellent. About $19, Fine Quality for the Price.
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Dr. Hermann Erdener Treppchen Riesling Kabinett 2009, Mosel, Germany. 8.5% alc. Pale, pale gold; lychee and petrol, pear and pear nectar, lime peel and quince preserves, hint of jasmine, just deliriously attractive; but very dry, formidably crisp and steely; then a dramatic shift to apples, apples and more apples; the entry is quite ripely, kssingly sweet but resonant acidity and scintillating limestone-like minerality turn the wine dry yet still delicate from mid-palate through the finish. Now through 2015 to ’18. Excellent. About $23, Get It! .
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Antech Émotion 2009, Crémant de Limoux, France. 12% alc. Chardonnay 70%, chenin blanc 18%, mauzac 10%, pinot noir 2%. Pale copper-onion skin color; a fetching froth of tiny bubbles; apples, strawberries, lime peel, steel and limestone; touches of smoke and red and black currants, almost subliminal; orange zest; so damned pretty and charming; very dry finish. Very Good+. About $18, a True Bargain.
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Sekthaus Raumland Cuvée Marie-Luise Blanc de Noirs Brut 2008, Germany. 12% alc. 100% pinot noir. Pale gold; a constant stream of glinting silver bubbles; stimulating bouquet of roasted lemons and lemon curd, toasted hazelnuts, tropical back-notes, sea-breeze and salt-marsh, both generous and chastening; very dry, high-toned and elegant, lots of steel and limestone; yet that intriguing tropical element and a muted hint of leafy currant at the core. Really lovely. Excellent. About $45.
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Dow Vale do Bomfim 2009, Douro, Portugal. 14% alc. Tinta barroca 30%, touriga franca 25%, touriga nacional 25%, tinto roriz 15%, tinto cao 5%. Color is dark ruby; ripe and fleshy, warm and spicy; intense and concentrated black and red currants, plums and blueberries; heaps of briers and brambles and underbrush, coats the mouth with fine-grained tannins; lots of personality brought up short by a dusty, leathery finish. Drink through the end of 2012 with burgers. Very Good+. About $12.
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Prelius Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Maremma, Tuscany, Italy. 14% alc. Dark ruby-mulberry color; spicy, tightly wound, chewy, mouth-coating tannins; black currants and plums, very spicy; decent basic cabernet with an earthy, astringent finish. Very Good. About $15.
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Chateau La Roque “Cuvée les Vielles Vignes de Mourvèdre” 2006, Pic Saint Loup, Coteaux du Languedoc, France. 13.5% alc. With 10% grenache. Deep purple with a tinge of magenta; lovely, lively, lots of tone and personality; dense and chewy, intensely spicy, exotic, ripe and fleshy but a slightly hard edge of graphite and walnut shell; plums, plums and more plums, hint of fruitcake (the spices, the nuts, the brandied fruit); a dry finish with earth, leather and wood. Now through 2014 to ’16. Excellent. About $20, and definitely Worth a Search.
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Pierre Gaillard Domaine Cottebrune Transhumance 2007, Faugeres, Languedoc-Roussillon, France. 14.5% alc. Syrah 50%, grenache 40%, mourvèdre 10%. Dark ruby color; ripe, fleshy and meaty black and blue fruit scents and flavors, spiced and macerated; nothing shy here, huge presence, plenty of oak and lipsmacking tannins that pack the mouth, but succulent too, deep and flavorful; sea salt, iron and iodine, a whiff of the decadent but a decent heart. Put yourself in its hands. Now through 2015 to ’17. Excellent. About $22.
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Pizza and barbecue ribs don’t have much in common; the first is a form of savory flatbread, while the second is pure meat and bones; the first cooks quickly, the second luxuriates in long, slow heat. Of course pizza often has some form of meat as a topping (certainly the case at my house; I asked LL once if she would like a vegetarian pizza and she replied, “What’s the point?”) and frequently incorporates tomatoes, while ribs are, you know, meat and the basting sauce sometimes has a tomato base, so while we may not be talking about blood-brothers, there may be more going on here than I thought initially.

Anyway, here’s a roster of full-flavored, full-bodied wines that we have tried recently on Pizza-and-Movie Night, as well as a syrah and grenache blend that we drank with barbecue ribs. Not that these labels and recommendations are fused in iron; most of these wines, with their rich ripe fruit and stalwart tannins, could match with a variety of hearty grilled or roasted fare.

These wines were samples for review.
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Las Rocas Garnacha 2009, Calatayud, Spain. Gallo bought Las Rocas, which was launched in 2003, from its American importer and his Spanish partner in 2009; a smart move, since Las Rocas Garnacha is an incredibly popular, inexpensive red wine. Made completely from garnacha or grenache grapes, the version for 2009 is as we would expect: very ripe, floral and spicy, with teeming amounts of black currant, plum and mulberry scents and flavors bolstered by earthy and dusty graphite elements, moderately grainy tannins and bright acidity. The fruit qualities taste a little fleshy and roasted, and there’s a bit of heat on the finish, testimony to the exceptionally dry, hot weather in 2009 along that plateau in northeastern Spain. Quite enjoyable, though, for its frank flavors and rustic directness; try with pizza (of course), burgers and grilled sausages. 15.2 percent alcohol. Very Good. About $14.

With this wine came Las Rocas Red Blend 2009 ($14) and Las Rocas Viñas Viejas 2009 ($20) which I did not find appreciably better or much different.

Imported by Las Rocas USA, Hayward, Ca.
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Feudi di San Gregorio Rubrato 2008, Irpinia Aglianico, Campania, Italy. Campania is the province that surrounds the city of Naples and extends east from it. This area is almost the exclusive arena of the unique, rangy and rustic aglianico grape, though it also makes the DOC Aglianico del Vulture in Basilicata, to the southeast. The grape originated in Greece and was brought to central Italy by the Phoenicians, so it is of ancient provenance, as so much in Italy is. Feudi di San Gregorio’s Rubrato ’08 displays all the character of the grape in full. The color is deep, dark ruby; the heady bouquet is spicy and meaty, an amalgam of black and blue fruit, cloves, fruitcake, black olives, oolong tea, tar and blackberry jam. In the mouth, the wine, which aged eight months in French oak barriques, is rich and savory but firm, dense and chewy, fathomlessly imbued with grainy tannins, brooding mineral elements and teeming acidity. On the other hand, the alcohol content is a relatively winsome 13.5 percent. We drank this blood-and-guts (yet pleasing and user-friendly) red with pizza, but it’s really suited to barbecue ribs or brisket or a grilled rib-eye steak. Now through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $18, representing Good Value.

Imported by Palm Bay International, Boca Raton, Fla.
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Sausal Family Zinfandel 2009, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County. Sporting a dark ruby slightly unto purple color, this zinfandel, made from vines averaging 50 years old, is robust and full-bodied, offering spiced and macerated red currants and blueberry with a bare hint of boysenberry; the wine is dense and chewy, permeated by elements of graphite and lavender, fruitcake and potpourri, with a bit of bittersweet chocolate. The wine aged 20 months in a combination of French and American oak, a process that lends firmness to the structure, suppleness to the texture and touches of cloves and mocha. Tannins are fine-grained and generously proportioned, while taut acidity provides vim and zip (sounding like characters in a play by Samuel Beckett). The long finish is packed with black and red fruit and earthy graphite-like minerality. 14.5 percent alcohol. Now through 2014 to ’15. Excellent. About $19, another Good Value.
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Benessere Black Glass Vineyard Zinfandel 2008, Napa Valley. Not a zinfandel that attempts the extracted uber-darkness/super-ripe effect, here the color is medium ruby with a dark cherry center and the bouquet focuses on red and black cherries with hints of sour cherry, plum skin, cloves, fruitcake and hints of earthy leather and brambles. Not that the wine isn’t ripe and rich or packed with juicy wild berry flavors; in fact, this is a remarkably sleek and stylish zinfandel that only shows its more rigorous side when the closely-knit tannins and dense oak — 18 months in new and used French and American barrels — make themselves known through the finish. The spice elements, a backnote of cocoa powder and more brambles and briers also build from mid-palate back, adding verve and depth, aided by lively acidity. 14.7 percent alcohol. A great match for pizzas with hearty topping like sausage, guanciale or spicy salami. Production was 390 cases. Excellent. About $28.
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Amapola Creek Cuvée Alis 2009, Sonoma Valley. Here’s a blend of syrah (55 percent) and grenache (45 percent) fully worthy of its Rhone Valley heritage, but I have to apologize for its lack of wide distribution. In any case, this wine went head to head and toe to toe with a rack of barbecue ribs and did them both proud. The grapes were grown organically at about 900 feet above Sonoma Valley, in a vineyard that lies next to the legendary Monte Rosso vineyard, once the mainstay of the Louis M Martini cabernet sauvignon wines and now owned by Gallo. Cuvée Alis 09, named for Richard Arrowood’s wife and co-proprietor of Amapola Creek, aged 18 months in new and used French oak. The color is an almost opaque ruby-purple with a magenta rim; the bouquet is first earth, leather, smoke, ash, black pepper; then intoxicating aromas of pure blackberry, black raspberry and plum, permeated, after a few moments in the glass, with beguiling notes of sandalwood, cumin and cardamom, ancho chili and bittersweet chocolate. The wine is characterized by huge presence and tone; it’s dense and chewy and powerfully imbued with smooth packed-in tannins and an iron and iodine-like mineral nature, yet it remains vital and vibrant, even a bit poised, while black fruit flavors are spicy, fleshy and meaty. The finish, though, is daunting and rather austere, a quality that deepens as the minutes pass. 14.9 percent alcohol. Production was 95 cases, so mark this Worth a Search. Try from 2014 to 2018 to ’22. I wrote about Richard Arrowood’s Amapola Creek Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 and his history as a winemaker in Sonoma County here, and I rated that wine Exceptional; this Cuvée Alis 09 is no exception, it’s also Exceptional. About $48.
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The Shaw Vineyard was planted in 1882, so the Kunde Reserve Century Vines Shaw Vineyard Zinfandel 2005, Sonoma Valley, is made from vines that are actually 29 years more than a century old. The wine, at a bit more than five years old, is wonderfully smooth and mellow, as well as being surprisingly clean and fresh and more than a little exotic with notes of cloves and sandalwood, violets and potpourri seeping through the scents and flavors of spiced and macerated red and black currants and plums. It aged 17 months in a combination of French, American and Hungarian oak, with 20 percent of the barrels being new; the result is a structure of appealing suppleness and firmness layered with moderately dense and chewy tannins in the sleek, fine-grained mode. Lovely balance and integration all around and an irresistible drink for those who weary of over-blown, over-ripe, high-alcohol zinfandels. Production was 1,900 cases. Winemaker was Tim Bell. Excellent. About $30 to $35 and definitely Worth a Search.

Tasted at a trade event.

As faithful readers of this blog know — bless yer little pointy heads! — every feasible Saturday night it’s Pizza-and-Movie Night in the FK/LL household. This has been a steady occurrence for 15 years or so, and for most of that time I adhered to pretty much the same routine in making the pizza. Recently, though, I radically changed the way I make pizza, in terms of basic ingredients and technique.

The first inspiration was an article that ran in the food section of The New York Times on May 18 (and available online), called “The Slow Route to Homemade Pizza,” by Oliver Strand. Following the advice of a number of professional pizza-makers, the story advocates making the pizza dough and letting it rise at room temperature for 24 hours or at least overnight. Now I’ve always indulged in what I thought of as a slow rising of the dough at about eight hours, but overnight was new to me. I tried the technique soon after I read the article, making the dough on Friday night and leaving the bowl on the counter until the next morning. About 11 o’clock, I punched the dough down, kneaded it a few times, put it back in the bowl and set it out on the back porch. By the time I was ready to make the pizza at 6 p.m., the dough has been working for about 20 hours.

What happened next was remarkable. Usually, when you roll out the dough, you have to have do it a couple of times because the gluten is still elastic, so it has to rest for a couple of minutes and then be rolled again. With the new technique, I rolled the dough out and it immediately spread across the edges of the wooden paddle and onto the counter. Whoa! I actually had to trim the circumference because the pizza would have been too big for the stone. (Sorry I don’t have images of the process.) When we ate the finished pizza, the crust was thinner than I have ever achieved before, yet still chewy, not cracker-like, with a texture that had a little give and a rim that was slightly puffy. Fabulous, yes, but for me anyway, this technique is a little tricky, and over the past two months or so, I have had — it seems to me; LL is more generous –about a 25 percent failure rate, by which I mean that the crust was not up to a fine standard. I think I just have to keep trying to tune the method until I get it right.

The other change is that I began buying, at the Memphis Farmers Market, the hard white whole grain wheat flour from Funderfarm, a milling operation run by a young couple in Coldwater, Miss. The flour is not cheap — $8.50 for four pounds — but it’s ground the day before I purchase it, and it contributes wonderful texture and flavor to pizza. Now I can’t make a pizza with only the Funderfarm flour (the result is rather heavy), so I worked out a formula of about 40 percent Funderfarm hard white whole grain flour, about 50 percent King Arthur Bread Flour and about 10 percent rye flour from Whole Foods. All of these flours are organic.

We have also benefited from a bumper crop of local aubergines, including little globular eggplant; slim, tender baby eggplant; and pale lavender eggplant with faint white stripes. I slice these thin, marinate the slices in olive oil, balsamic vinegar, thyme and oregano, salt and pepper and then grill them briefly over hardwood charcoal. This is great on pizzas, especially in conjunction with pepper-cured bacon (as in the image above), and what’s interesting is that usually I can’t stand eggplant, it sort of
hurts my stomach. Ratatouille, yuck! I also like combining fresh tomatoes and marinated dried tomatoes on the same pizza, dribbling on a bit of the marinade as the final touch. (This image is of a small vegetarian pizza I made one Saturday when LL was traveling.) And recently I’ve been using four cheeses: mozzarella, feta, parmesan and pecorino.

Anyway, that’s what’s happening in My Pizzaworld. As far as wine is concerned, here are notes on the variety of wines we’ve had with pizza over the past few months. These were all samples for review.

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When Easton says “old vine,” they’re not kidding. The grapes for the Easton Old Vine Zinfandel 2006, Fiddletown, derive from the Rinaldi-Eschen Vineyard, some of whose vines date to the original planting of 1865, up there in Amador County’s Shenandoah Valley. Can there be an older vineyard still producing grapes in California? This is a beautifully balanced and integrated zinfandel, with loads of poise and character. The color is rich dark ruby with an opaque center and just a nod to cherry-garnet at the rim. Scents of macerated and meaty plums and red and black currants are permeated with smoke and cloves with a touch of leather and briers. In the mouth, the wine is rich and warm, displaying an intriguing combination of the savoriness of ripe, fleshy black fruit flavors with a sweet core of spicy oak and a touch of the grape’s brambly, black pepper nature. It’s quite dry, though, gaining a bit of dignified austerity and mineral presence on the finish. Nothing jammy, nothing overdone, and surprisingly elegant for an “old vine” zinfandel. Drink now through 2014 or ’15. Winemaker was Bill Easton, who also makes Rhone-style wines under the Terre Rouge label. Alcohol is 14.5. percent. Excellent. About $28 and definitely Worth a Search.
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The Grgich Hills Estate Merlot 2006, Napa Valley, asserts an individual character, unlike so many merlot-based wines that just taste “red” or like an imitation cabernet. From the winery’s Demeter-certified biodynamic vineyards, this intense and concentrated merlot delivers a bouquet of ripe black currants and black cherries etched with smoke and bitter chocolate and hints of lavender and Damson plum. A few minutes in the glass bring on a slightly roasted element, with flavors of black currants and blackberries permeated by cedar and dried thyme, all of these sensations cushioned by gritty, velvety tannins and fairly militant dusty, gravel-like minerality. The wine aged 18 months in a combination of French barriques and casks (that is, small and large barrels), some 30 percent of which were new. Such a regimen lends the wine shape, tone and seriousness without the frippery of toast or overt spiciness. Try from 2011 or ’12 through 2016 to ’18. Winemaker is Ivo Jeramaz, nephew of the winery’s co-founder and winemaker emeritus, Miljenko “Mike” Grgich. Alcohol is 14.5 percent. Excellent. About $42.
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The winery was founded in Australia’s Barossa Valley as Karlsburg Wines in 1973 by Czech winemaker Karl Cimicky; his son Charles changed the winery’s name to Charles Cimicky Wines when he took the reins. The blend in the Cimicky Trumps Grenache Shiraz 2007 is 55 percent of the first, 45 percent of the second. The wine spends 15 months in two-year-old French oak barrels that lend subtle spice and suppleness. This is a big, dark, rich and, yes, jammy red wine that bursts with aromas of ripe black currants, blackberries and plums swathed with licorice and lavender and crushed gravel. Despite the intense black fruit nectar-like ripeness, the wine is completely dry, even austere toward the finish, but it also just rolls across the taste-buds like liquid velvet couched in furry, chewy tannins. A little swirling unfurls notes of clean earth, new leather and smoke. This was terrific with the night’s pizza, but Lord have mercy, would it ever be great with a medium-rare, pepper-crusted rib-eye steak. Alcohol content is 14 percent. Drink through 2012 or ’13. Very Good+. About $15 to $18.
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La Mozza is jointed owned by Lidia Bastianich, her son Joe Bastianich and his partner is the restaurant business, Mario Batali. None of these celebrities — especially Batali — needs an introduction. (Mother and son also own a winery, launched in 1997, in Friuli Venezia Giulia, in the Colli Orientali Giulia D.O.C. region.) La Mozza was founded in 2000 and is located in Tuscany’s southwestern Maremma area. La Mozza Aragone 2006, Maremma Toscana I.G.T., could be called a combination of Italy and France; on the Italian side we have 40 percent sangiovese and 25 percent alicante grapes, and on the French side, specifically the southern Rhone Valley, we have 25 percent syrah and 10 percent carignane. The wine aged 22 months in 500-liter French casks; the standard French barrel is 225 liters, so theoretically, because of the greater mass of wine in proportion to wood, the oak influence with a cask is less, or at least more subtle. Not that the point matters tremendously for this dark, robust and vigorous red wine. Scents of red and black currants (and a touch of mulberry) are permeated by elements of graphite and potpourri, moss, briers and brambles and a bass note of mushroomy earthiness. Yes, there are intriguing, seductive layers in the bouquet, and if the wine is a bit more brooding in the mouth, that’s nothing that a little bottle aging won’t ease. The wine is well-balanced, but the emphasis is on dense but smooth, almost sleek tannins and rich, smoky black fruit flavors that need a year or two to develop. Try from 2011 or ’12 through 2016 to ’18. Alcohol content is a comfortable 13 percent. Excellent. A few months ago, the price range for this wine was about $38 to $42; today it’s about $28 to $35.

Dark Star Imports, New York.
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Yangarra Estate Vineyard, located in Australia’s McLaren Vale appellation, is part of the Jackson Family Wines empire. While the Yangarra wines are promoted as “100% estate grown,” the federally required designation on the back label mysteriously does not say “Produced and Bottled by …” but “Vinted and Bottled by …”; the implication is that the Yangarra wines (at least the ones shipped to the U.S.) are not made at the estate. Whatever the case, the Yangarra Mourvèdre 2008, McLaren Vale, is a wonderful, I’ll say it again, a wonderful expression of the mourvèdre grape. While a traditional component of the blended red wines of the Rhone Valley, Provence and Languedoc in southern France, mourvèdre is seldom bottled on its own except for a few instances in California and Australia. At first, this is all black: Blackberry, black currant, black plum, black pepper, black olive. Then a touch of dried red current enters the picture, along with sweet cherry and sour cherry, red plum, new leather. Give the wine a few more minutes and it turns into a glassful of smoldering violets and lavender, with overtones of bitter chocolate, espresso and dried thyme. The mineral element expands into layers of dusty granite and graphite that permeate the bastions of polished, chewy tannins. The wine aged 18 months in French oak barrels, only 15 percent of which were new, so the wood influence is sustained yet mild and supple and slightly spicy. This could mature for a year or two, so drink from 2011 or ’12 through 2016 to ’18. Production was 500 six-bottle cases; winemaker was Peter Fraser. Alcohol content is the now standard 14.5 percent. Excellent. About $29.

Sovereign Wine Imports, Santa Rosa, Cal.
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Just as the Yangarra Estate Mourvedre 2008 mentioned above represents a Platonic embodiment of the mourvedre grape, the Nickel & Nickel Darien Vineyard Syrah 2007, Russian River Valley, performs a similar service for syrah. Syrah was planted in Darien in 2000 and 2001, so the vines have reached a point of development that should lend rich character to the wine and continue on a plateau of quality for 50 or 60 years. There’s a whole truckload of crushed thyme, marjoram and Oolong tea in this wine, as well as baskets of blackberries and blueberries imbued with hints of prunes, plums, lanolin and leather and an all-over sense of ripe fleshiness. The color is inky with a faint violet/purple rim; the granite and shale-like mineral element feels/seems inky too. So add the caprice of lavender, licorice, bitter chocolate and potpourri crushed by mortar and pestle and scattered on a smoldering field of wild flowers and herbs. Yes, I’m saying that this is a syrah that reaches a level of delirious detail, depth and dimension, and the deeper it goes, the darker and denser it gets, until you reach the Circle of Austerity and the Chamber of Tannins and the Rotunda of Oak. (The wine aged 14 months in French barrels, 42 percent new.) Despite those fathoms, the wine is surprisingly smooth and drinkable, huge in scope yet polished and inviting. Production was 974 cases. Alcohol content is 14.9 percent. Drink from 2011 or ’12 through 2018 to ’20 (well-stored). Winemaker was Darice Spinelli. Exceptional. About $48.
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Desiring something probably less complicated and certainly cheaper on a subsequent Pizza-and-Movie Night, I opened the Estancia Zinfandel 2007, Keyes Canyon Ranches, Paso Robles. Estancia was founded in 1986 on the old Paul Masson vineyards in Soledad, in Monterey County. The winery is now owned by Constellation. Keyes Canyon is in Paso Robles, down south in San Luis Obispo. The wine is touted on its label as “Handcrafted” and “Artisan-Grown,” whatever those nebulous terms mean. As is the case with many of the products from wineries purchased by Constellation, this wine says on the label “Vinted and Bottled … “; check your bottles of Mt. Veeder and Franciscan, also owned by Constellation. Actually what the complete line on this label says is “Vinted and Bottled by Estancia Estates, Sonoma Co.” So the question is: Where the hell was the wine made?

Anyway, I didn’t like it. I tried manfully for 15 or 20 minutes to coax something out of the glass that might resemble anything to do with the zinfandel grape, but all I got was a generic sense of smoky, toasty red wine that could have been cabernet or merlot. Alcohol content is 13.5 percent. Winemaker was Scott Kelley. Avoid. About $15.

Finally, LL said, “Oh, just open something else. Something better.” So I went looking and found the next wine.
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Yes, as you know, I’m the kind of guy who will open a Jordan Cabernet to go with pizza, but, damnit, the movie was going and we were chowing down and I had to grab something. And of course I’m not implying that a wine that costs $52 is necessarily better than a wine that costs $15; the case is simply that every wine should perform up to or better than its price range, and the Estancia certainly didn’t do that.

Anyway, the Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Alexander Valley, offers lovely balance, integration and harmony. The blend is 75 percent cabernet sauvigon, 19.5 percent merlot, 4.5 percent petit verdot and 1 percent malbec. Aging was 12 months in French (67%) and American (33%) oak barrels, of which 33 percent were new. The bouquet is first a tangle of briers and brambles, cedar, thyme and black olive with a background of iron and dusty walnut shell; a few minutes bring in the notes of black currants, black cherries and cassis. The wine is intense and concentrated, dense and chewy, with finely-milled tannins and polished oak enfolding flavors of spicy black currants and plums and a streak of vibrant acidity contributing a sense of purpose. A model of the marriage of power and elegance and a delight to drink. Try now through 2015 or ’16. The alcohol content is 13.5 percent. Winemaker was Rob Davis. Excellent. About $52.

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It’s ironic that the logo for August Briggs Winery features a delicate dandelion puff-ball with a few of its gossamer filaments a-drift on a gentle zephyr, because these six red wines are anything but gossamer-like. They are, instead, in a few words, solid, substantial, robust. The winery is on the Silverado Trail in Calistoga, in the north part of Napa Valley, but August Briggs draws on vineyards not only in Napa but in Sonoma and Lake counties, making small quantities of 16 wines. Under review here are two cabernet sauvignons, two pinot noirs, a petite sirah and an old vine zinfandel.

Samples for review.
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The August Briggs Pinot Noir 2008 derives from three vineyards in Russian River Valley. The color is medium ruby with a radiant darker shade within. Aromas of black cherry, plums, cloves and cola unfold to hints of moss, autumn leaves and smoke. The oak regimen was eight months in 30 percent new French barrels, 70 percent two- and three-year-old barrels. There’s nice balance here initially between delicacy and something more dynamic, but the wine is also quite dry, and it reveals more spice and wood, in the form of brown sugar and allspice, that turns a little astringent on the finish. More time in the glass intensifies the cherry fruit. Production was 503 cases. Alcohol content is 14.2 percent. Very Good+. About $38.
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More detail and dimension surface in the August Briggs “Dijon Clones” Pinot Noir 2008, Napa Valley. This is slightly darker than the Russian River Valley pinot noir, and its bouquet is more pure, intense and entrancing. Subtly expansive black cherry, cranberry and mulberry aromas are gently infused with sweet baking spices and a touch of the exotic, a hint of smoke and sandalwood. The oak treatment is the same for this wine as for its Russian River Valley stablemate, but you feel its slightly woody presence a bit more on the finish, but before that moment, your palate is engulfed in a lush swathing of satiny succulence and earthy, rooty black and red fruit flavors. Still, 20 or 30 minutes bring in the same austerity that defines the August Briggs’ Russian River Valley pinot noir, so what we see here is a stylistic choice. Perhaps a year or two of aging will soften the wine. Production was 805 cases. Alcohol is 14.5 percent. Very Good+. About $40.
____________________________________________________________________________________________________ Let’s do these two 100 percent cabernet sauvignon wines, one from Napa Valley, one from Sonoma Valley, together.

The August Briggs Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Napa Valley, is all about structure. You smell it in the aromas of dust, briers and brambles, granite and lead pencil, cedar and walnut shell; you taste it in a mouthful of dusty minerals, dusty tannins and dusty oak from 20 months in half-and-half French and American barrels. Yet you also feel a richness, a smoothness and sense of dimension that speak of this wine’s potential for development over the next six to eight years; try from 2012 or ’13 through 2016 or ’18. Two vineyards were involved, the Stagecoach Vineyard in Atlas Peak and the Corbett Vineyard on Spring Mountain. 498 cases. 14.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+ now with the possibility of Excellent. About $52.

Let’s remember that the Napa Valley designation on the previous wine implies a large growing region with smaller appellations, like Atlas Peak and Spring Mountain, within it. Sonoma Valley, on the other hand, is a vineyard appellation (or American Viticultural Area) within the larger Sonoma County region. In the case of the August Briggs Monte Rosso Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Sonoma Valley, it’s also vineyard-specific, and a venerable vineyard it is, first planted in 1880, purchased in 1938 by Louis M. Martini and replanted, and owned since 2002 by Gallo.

The color of the August Briggs Monte Rosso Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 is dark ruby/purple; the bouquet is rich and warm, fleshy, floral and spicy, and dense, if aromas can be dense, with macerated black and red currants, plums and cherries; a few minutes in the glass bring in elements of iodine, sea-salt, cedar and graphite. As you can tell, the wine, in its bouquet, is a testimony to defining (indeed, provocative) detail. In the mouth, the wine takes a harder edge, with sumptuous, chewy tannins and lavish oak — 20 months French and American, 50/50 — leavened by a feast of granite-like minerality and foresty qualities. Fine now with a piping hot rib-eye steak, but otherwise try from 2012 or ’13 through 2017 to ’20. Production was 598 cases. 14.9 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $55.
____________________________________________________________________________________________________ I’ll admit that the one of these six wines that I liked unabashedly was the exuberant August Briggs Old Vines Zinfandel 2008, Napa Valley, a clean, bright, pure and authoritative zinfandel whose grapes derived from two vineyards, one planted in 1908, the other in the 1940s and ’50s. Black cherry, black currant and blackberry scents and flavors are infused with smoky lavender and licorice and interesting hints of caraway and wheatmeal, the flavors ensconced in rip-roaring, lip-smacking tannins that are gritty and chewy yet plush, too, almost velvety. Tons of fruit here and tons of structure in great balance. You can’t get away from the fact that the alcohol level is 15.2 percent, but, hell, we get top-flight iconic cabernets now with that factor, so, you can live with it. Wrap this around game meats like venison and boar. 420 cases. Excellent. About $35.
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And, the one of these wines that I disliked absolutely was the August Briggs Petite Sirah 2007, Napa Valley, which in its very evident 15.5 percent alcohol, its massive oaken influence and its overwhelming tannins makes a detrimental fetish of muscle-bound bigness. 296 cases. Not for this boy. About $38.
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Overlooking for the moment the issue, which seems important to me, that there are no rules about using the term “old vines” on wine labels in America, I’ll propose as a model of what an old vines zinfandel should be the Sausal Century Vines Zinfandel 2007, Alexander Valley. The dry-farmed vineyard from which Sausal draws the grapes for this wine was planted before 1877, according to available records. That makes these zinfandel vines at least 132 years old; by any definition, these are old vines indeed, and they make a wine of profound depth and dimension as well as balance and integration.

First, what the Sausal Century Vines Zinfandel 2007 is not. It’s not over-ripe or jammy; it’s not “hot” with alcohol; it delivers no cloying boysenberry scents or flavors; it’s not massively tannic. The alcohol level is 14.7 percent; yes, legally that’s give or take a point on either the up or down side. Still, the wine does not fall into the category of almost port-like zinfandels that soar over 16 percent alcohol. I mean last week I drank a lovely, delicate pinot noir from the Willamette Valley that carried its 14.5 percent alcohol like a zephyr, so 14.7 for a zinfandel is child’s-play.

The Sausal Century Vines Zinfandel 2007, Alexander Valley, offers a beguiling bouquet of clove-and-black pepper-infused black currants and blueberries that unfolds to reveal ground violets and lavender, crushed gravel and a hint of mocha. The wine is notably clean and fresh and pure, a graceful amalgam of power and elegance that never loses its sense of being rooted in the earth. Black fruit flavors are rich and spicy but subdued by vibrant acidity and supple tannins; a year in French oak lends a touch of suavity to the wine’s texture and firmness to the structure. Altogether, a pleasure to drink, indeed an exemplar of presence and resonance, now through 2012 or ’13. Excellent. About $40.

We drank the Sausal Century Vines Zinfandel 2007 with chuck roast braised in wine and onions, with root vegetables, the second time I made this dish in a month.

Sausal Winery is owned by the Demostene family, whose ancestors came to Sonoma County’s Alexander Valley in 1901. The winery makes all red wines, chiefly several zinfandels, cabernet sauvignon and a Chianti-like sangiovese.

This wine was a sample for review.

The Lodi Winegrape Commission was kind enough to send me 12 zinfandels selected by a “panel of experts” that chose these “outstanding” representatives from a field of 48; I applaud the panel for eliminating 75 percent of the candidates.

Still, I have to say that the palates of these experts must have been made of sterner stuff than mine; some of these zinfandels were so high in alcohol, so rife with jammy over-ripeness as to be untenable. It continues to boggle my little pointy head that bigness in zinfandel is equated with quality. People make these 15.9 and 16 percent alcohol wines, pack them with blackberry marmalade, thwack them with American oak and send them out into the world with macho names like Gargantua or Roadkill or Jackboot in Your Face and assume that we’ll all settle down like sweet woolly lambs and say, “Thank you very much, sir. Please, may I have some more.”

Having gotten that issue off my chest, I will say that I did enjoy several of these zinfandel wines from Lodi and bestowed Excellent ratings on four of them; two I found so unbalanced, unwieldy and overbearing that I rated them Avoid, which I don’t do often. Some real bargains are included here too. The sequence is from cheapest to most expensive.
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Here’s some good news. The Talus Collection Zinfandel 2007, Lodi, is a terrific wine at an incredibly reasonable cost. Zinfandel grapes make up 80 percent of the wine; the rest consists of petite sirah (11%), merlot (7%) and 2 percent “blending grapes.” This zinfandel is remarkably intense and concentrated for the price. Scents of blackberry, black currant and plum are wreathed with brambles and black pepper. It’s a satisfying mouthful of wine, with good heft and vibrant acidity to buoy dark, spicy — mocha and cloves — black fruit flavors wrapped around a potent core of lavender, potpourri and minerals. Tannins are robust and slightly shaggy. The alcohol content is a comfortable 13.4 percent. Very Good and a Great Bargain at about $7.
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Eola Hills Winery is a well-known producer of pinot noir in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. For the Eola Hills Zinfandel 2007, the company reaches down to Lodi for grapes picked, for a change, from young vines and aged 10 months in older American oak. The result is a zinfandel whose color is more a ruddy-magenta hue than the deeply extracted inky zinfandels we see so much. Interesting, too, is the bouquet, an amalgam of spiced apple, plums and blueberry with a slight mineral edge. As captivating as all this sounds, however, 15.1 percent alcohol gives this zinfandel a size that belies its initial impression. This is a mouth-filling wine, packed with big, dry, dusty tannins that dominate the ripe, moderately spicy black and red fruit flavors. I found this zinfandel to be oddly attractive and appealing, and at the price, one could hardly help experimenting. Production was 529 cases. Very Good. About $13.
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The Oak Ridge Winery OZV Zinfandel 2005, Lodi, made from 50- to 100-year-old vineyards, comes in a hair under 14 percent alcohol, which feels like a blessing in the wine. This is classic, a bountiful basket of black currants and plums with one or two ripe boysenberries and an overlay of blueberry tart. In the mouth, we get raspberry and damson plum marmalade infused with port stuffed into a fruit cake with all that confection implies of dried cherries and citron and dates, chopped walnuts and baking spice. Lordy, you’re thinking, this sounds over the top, and it would be except that the strict contours of wood, from French and American oak, a sinew of vibrant acidity and the weight of dense, chewy tannins keep it honest. The making is interesting; the French and American oak comprises 60 percent of the aging, while the rest of the wine was kept cold in stainless steel tanks to ensure bright, crisp fruitiness. Excellent, and a Great Bargain at about $15.
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The Van Ruiten Vineyards Old Vine Zinfandel 2007, Lodi, made from vines “over 50 years” old and clocking in at 15.5 percent alcohol, is an earthy, funky wine that features aromas of cinnamon and Moroccan spices, roasted meat and wet fur, coffee and mocha, and dried currants and blueberries. One feels the imbalance in the mouth; velvety, iron-inflected tannins provide a texture so dense that it’s almost viscous, while black fruit flavors are stridently spicy and too roasted. A hot finish provides further evidence that this incoherent wine carries individualism to extremes. This is a blend of 84 percent zinfandel, 8 percent petite sirah, 5 percent cabernet sauvignon and 3 percent syrah. Avoid. About $16.
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Now, here is what we want in a Lodi zinfandel and at a great price. !ZaZin Old Vine Zinfandel 2007 takes grapes from a 108-year-old vineyard, adds 15 percent petite sirah and ages the wine 15 months in French and American oak barrels (75 percent new). The result is a dark, intense and concentrated zinfandel packed with dusty tannins, earthy minerals and ripe blackberry, black currant and plum scents and flavors. Those flavors are smoked and roasted, a little meaty and fleshy, wrapped around a core of lavender, licorice and granite; there’s a touch of blueberry tart, but no boysenberry, no over-ripeness. The wine is sizable, robust, dense and chewy, permeated by briers and brambles, deep and long in extension and finish, which brings in more of a loamy, mineral edge. !ZaZin is made by Laurel Glen, well-known for Sonoma cabernets. Excellent, and a Great Bargain at about $17.
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The Bargetto Old Vine Zinfandel 2007, Lodi, bottled with this nice “retro” label, is first characterized by what it is not: Not too big, not over-ripe, not raisiny. So, what is it then? A well-balanced combination of black and red currants and dusty plums, married to a touch of fruit cake, a whiff of black pepper, and a dense, chewy texture. The evidence of aging 18 months in American oak is mainly revealed in a firm structure and a mildly spicy nature. Well-suited to hearty pizzas and pasta dishes and burgers. The wine is made of 100 percent zinfandel grapes picked from two adjacent 100-year-old vineyards. Very Good+. About $18.
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Aged 18 months in new American oak and measuring 15.5 percent alcohol, the Mettler “Epicenter” Old Vine Zinfandel 2006, Lodi, is partly an expressive and classic Lodi zinfandel and partly an over-wrought blockbuster. Florid, penetrating black currant and plum flavors with a hint of boysenberry deliver a spice and mineral afterburn; these flavors take on more size, turning more macerated and roasted in the glass and offering notes of mocha and licorice. All of these aspects would be fine — there’s a pass at elegance — except that a pretty damned hot finish deprives the wine of final balance and integration. This is a blend of 91 percent zinfandel, 7 percent petite sirah and 2 percent cabernet franc. Very Good. About $20.
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Here’s an amazement: An old-vine, dry-farmed, 16.1% alcohol-zinfandel that manages to be as fresh and clean and bright as some winsome young thing and yet retain proper gravitas for impressive power, purity and intensity. The Macchia “Oblivious” Old Vine Zinfandel 2007, Lodi, offers a purple/black hue; the nose displays remarkable minerals depths under generously proportioned, macerated and roasted black and blue fruit scents permeated by briers and brambles, forest and moss. This confluence of fruit, earth and minerals finds even more dimension in the mouth, adding rollicking spice, potpourri and an edge of smoke and charcoal. For all that, the wine is buoyant, lively and appealing. Production was 200 cases. Excellent. About $24.
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Thank god for acidity, for without its keen and lithe electricity the Harney Lane Old Vine Zinfandel 2006, Lodi, from the 105-year-old Lizzie James Vineyard, would be unmanageable. At 15.6 percent alcohol, this zinfandel is very spicy, very brambly, bursting with scents of ripe blackberries, black currants and polums with a hint of boysenberry. The wine is deep and dense, rich and succulent, and its black fruit flavors, infused with lavender, violets, minerals and plum dust, stop just before the point of being jammy. A few minutes in the glass bring in notes of new leather, and the aromas shift to black fruit compote, black cherry and black pepper, all heightened by a wild, untamed, even risky quality. In the finish, oaky, minerally austerity takes over. We drank this wine with flank steak tacos, exactly the kind of fare it needs to accompany. You wouldn’t mistake this wine for anything made anywhere else in the world, and of course that’s the way it should be. Production was 221 cases. Excellent. About $28.
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The m2 Soucie Vineyard Old Vine Zinfandel 2007, Lodi, is an ambitious wine that doesn’t quite hold together. This is quite rich. dark, dense and chewy, a velvet-and-iron-filings wine, emitting layers upon layers of dark, wild, spicy exotic blueberry, cranberry and plum fruit. The wine is very dry but luscious, almost viscous, and with its 15.3 percent alcohol level, it bears an overlay of ripe, alcoholic sweetness and heat on the finish, as well as touches of pomander, dark and licorice. It ages 17 months in new and used American oak barrels. The Soucie Vineyard was planted in 1916. Production of this wine was 430 cases. Very Good+. About $28.
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The m2 Artist Series Zinfandel 2007, Lodi, also taps in at 15.3 percent alcohol. The grapes derive from the Soucie Vineyard, mentioned above, and the Maley Vineyard, planted in the 1960s. The wine is a deep purple color; wild aromas of black currant and plum, mulberry and rhubarb burst from the glass in a welter of fruitcake and fresh-roasted coffee. The wine is dense and plush, packed with spicy black fruit flavors ensconced in supple, edgeless tannins. Still, there’s some heat on the finish that detracts from the wine’s purity and balance. The barrel regimen was 18 months in American oak, 60 percent new. 125 cases were produced. Very Good+. About $35.
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At 16.5 percent alcohol, the Michael & David “Gluttony” Old Vine Zinfandel 2006, Lodi — they also make a zin called “Lust”; I’m waiting for “Sloth” and “Anger” — smells, feels and tastes like port, which would be fine if you wanted port, but not if you’re drinking this with, say, a steak. I mean, this is a scorched earth wine in its intensely roasted, smoky earthy nature and overwrought in its sheen of alcoholic sweetness, though dauntlessly dry from mid-palate back. It’s difficult to believe that this blowsy, boozy monster made the cut to join this roster of “The Best of Lodi,’ as well as winning gold medals at several wine competitions. I guess poise and balance are distinctly out of fashion. 950 cases produced. Avoid. About — and this is ludicrous — $59.
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The term “old vines” on a wine label conjures an image of a hillside in Sonoma County that supports thick, gnarled, somewhat oldvines2_01.jpg stunted grapevines, usually zinfandel, planted in the 1880s or 1890s or early 1900s by Italian immigrants. The vines are so old that they must be carefully tended, and they manage to bring forth only a handful of grapes in each vintage. Yet how deep, rich and flavorful are the wines that these venerable vines produce, like the essence of the grapes, the vine and the vineyard itself. Drinking an “old vine” zinfandel, we feel as if we are imbibing not merely wine but the history of California itself, the struggle of the immigrants, the tales of failure and success, the origins of the Golden State’s wine industry.

But how old is an old vine? Sometimes a wine label that uses the term “old vines” will state that the wine was made from 50-year-old vines. Is that really old compared to a vineyard planted in the 1890s? If one producer can call the wine made from 100-year-old vines “Old Vines,” does the producer of a wine made from 30-year-old vines have the right to use the same term?

Before we tackle the issue itself — because the term “old vines,” like the designation “reserve” and its many variations, is completely unregulated by state or federal laws — let’s talk about the concept itself.

It is an article of faith, in Europe (especially France) as well as in California, that wine made from old vines is inherently better than wine made from young (or younger) vines. A vineyard, after being planted, usually takes seven to 10 years to produce sineann-old-vine-zinfandel-250p-flat.jpg grapes that might be made into superior wine, while vines at the ages of, say, 25 to 50 years may potentially produce wines of great character. Wines made from those 100-to-120-year-old zinfandel or “field blend” vineyards in Sonoma County can be a models of purity, intensity and integrity.

However, the term “Old Vines” on a wine label does not guarantee, as some writers assert, that a wine will display the highest quality; our notions of “old vine” virtues are enmeshed in romantic ideas about the history of the vineyards and the wines they produce. As Tom Pellechia wrote about the “old vines” concept on VinoFictions in August: “Of course, this whole subject is mere sentimentality. Whether they are old vines or new vines, it still takes good grapegrowing and winemaking to produce the best wine.” Yep, it’s possible to take great grapes from a venerable vineyard and fuck up the whole process; I’ve had “old vine” zinfandels that tasted like stewed raisins on steroids.

Conceding, though, that it’s possible to make fabulous and unique wines from old vine vineyards, what should the consumer who plucks such a wine from a shelf in a neighborhood wine and liquor store think? Since the term “old vines” is officially unsupervised, producers can put anything on labels they want to, even if the vineyards are 25 or 30 or 35 years old. What, then, is the proprietor of truly old vineyards, over which a great deal of pride and work are exercised, supposed to do? Can’t we help out the innocent wine buyer?

I would favor regulation from the TTB that at least required producers who used the term “old vines” to state, on the back label, the age of the vines or vineyard, and if possible the name of the vineyard, from which the grapes derived, as in, 1998-z4.jpg “Made from vines planted in 1920 in the Big Heart Vineyard” or, also acceptable, “Produced from grapes planted circa 1895 in Sonoma Valley,” since sometimes exact dates and deeds are obscure.

Joel Peterson, founder of and former winemaker for Ravenswood, recommends that vines be classified in this way: 0 to 10 years, young vines; 10 to 50 years, middle age; 50 to 80 years, old vines; over 80 years, ancient vines — see the discussion about old vine zinfandel at the website of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission — though I wonder if we need an official classification for young and middle aged vines. Meanwhile, Tom Wark, writing on Dec. 14, on Fermentation in his guise as “Wine Czar,” recommended that all “old vines” be required to be 50 years old or older, a scheme that has the advantage of simplicity.

In any case, consumers need to know with confidence that when they pick up a bottle of wine designated “Old Vines” or “Century Vines” or “Grandfather Vines” that they’re getting something real, not a phrase tricked out by a producer’s marketing department.

FK took the photograph of a zinfandel vine in the Barricia Vineyard in Sonoma Valley, originally planted in 1858 and replanted between 1885 and 1940.