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I derive unseemly amusement from the pronouncements I read that the Fourth of July, our most important national holiday and ritual, requires hearty doses of “that All-American wine, zinfandel.”

Friends (and colleagues), zinfandel is about as American as figgy pudding. Or, to keep on topic, as American as cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot noir, syrah and, um, alicante bouschet, all grapes that came to the New World from Europe. Years of research and, more recently, cogent DNA testing revealed that zinfandel didn’t, like Topsy, just magically grow in North America. It’s the same grape as primitivo, which grows in Italy’s Pulgia region (and where it has been revived because of the interest in zinfandel wines made in California). Zinfandel/primitivo are related to — but are not the same as — the plavac mali grape of Dalmatia and the islands of Croatia. How American is that?

It’s true that the zinfandel grape reaches its apotheosis of greatness in certain parts of California, but the Golden State also provides zinfandels that plumb the depths of the grape’s weaknesses and Bad Boy attributes.

Anyway, go ahead and drink zinfandel on July the Fourth if you want, I don’t care, I might crack open a bottle myself if I can find an example that doesn’t overpower my pizza with cloying over-ripeness and towering alcohol — July 4th coincides with Pizza and Movie Night at our house — but if you really want to drink American, go to a farm or local winery and buy some scuppernog or muscadine wine. Thomas Jefferson may have brought fine European wines to these shores, but the common folk of the new country were drinking wine made from native grapes. They may be floral, they may be musky and foxy, they may be weirdly spicy, they may taste like sweet gasoline, but they’re All-American in a sense that zinfandel can never be. Nobody ever said it was easy to be American.

(O.K., just a sip. And don’t spit it out, you Europe-centric merlot-lovers.)

Inspiring patriotic image (modified) from flagamerican.net.
Muscadine grape image from appellationamerica.com, courtesy of Irwin-House Winery.


Let’s pull the cheese toast thing back a notch. We’ve seen cheese toast with tasso, with sun-dried tomatoes, with roasted peppers, with black bean and corn salsa, with leafy greens, with olive tapenade. I mean, what’s next? Hungarian goulash cheese toast?

Let’s go classic, elegant. The cheese toast pictured here has nothing on it except for mustard and cheese and a dusting of dried basil and black pepper. The cheese, let it be said, is a combination of five cheeses: strips of Emmanthaler in one direction, strips of aged Gruyère in the other direction (making a pretty little lattice), shreds of Manchego, shreds of a Pecorino Stagionata con Vinaccia (soaked in the must of sangiovese and montepulciano grapes) and of course grated Parmesan. All of these melded (and melted) into a welter of great-tasting and piquant cheesy earthiness.

What wine did I choose to accompany this wonder of simple deliciousity? Why what else but a Blaufränkisch from the Finger Lakes!

This is the Heron Hill Reserve Blaufränkisch 2007. The winery, which specializes in riesling, the great grape of the somewhat neglected region in central New York state, also makes wines from chardonnay and other vinifera grapes. Heron Hill sits on the southwest shore of Keuka Lake, about three miles north of Hammondsport. Quick, what are the other Finger Lakes? Once, many years ago, when I was a lad in Rochester, I could have told you instantly, well, Seneca and Canandaigua, of course, but I’m leaving out a couple others, which are … Cayuga and then Owasco and Skaneateles and Hemlock, and more to make 11 together, all carved by glaciers eons ago. Only Keuka, Canadaigua, Seneca and Cayuga are part of the official wine-producing appellation.

Blaufränkisch — “blue grapes of the Franks” — has a long history in Central Europe. Grown primarily in Austria, it is also cultivated in Germany, where it’s called Lemberger. The grape takes various names in the eastern European countries (all local variations of Blaufränkisch) and can even be found in Italy’s northeastern Friuli region as Franconia. As Lemberger, it’s made into a typically robust wine in Washington state.

The Heron Hill Reserve Blaufränkisch 2007 is a first release, not only for the winery but for the Finger Lakes region. The color is deep black-ruby; aromas of red and black currants are permeated by dried baking spices and a slightly leafy, black olive aspect, as if the wine were a combination of pinot noir and cabernet franc. At first, the wine seems light and approachable, but give it a few minutes to marshal its forces, and it gains depth and dimension, adding earthiness and minerality, flavors of ripe and briery black currants, mulberries and plums, loading on the spice and burgeoning floral qualities. The structure is full-bodied and robust, and tannins are dense, grainy and chewy, yet the wine is not rustic or heavy-handed; its character is essentially balanced and integrated. An intriguing, contemplative wine for drinking with cheese toast or strong, aged cheeses or hearty grilled meats or autumnal fare through 2013 to ’15. Production was 250 cases. Very Good+. About $35.
Available beginning July 1 at heronhill.com.

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After work yesterday, LL said, “I need a Friday sort of wine. A rosé would be nice.”

So, I opened a bottle of the Montes Cherub Rosé of Syrah 2008, from Chile’s Colchagua Valley. We remarked on the bright cherry-ruby hue of the wine, noting that it seemed pretty dark to be considered a rosé color; rosé, after all, means pink in French. And while the wine tasted pleasant enough, it conveyed neither a rosé character nor anything particularly syrah-like. The wine seemed to have sacrificed everything that makes rosé wines important to our lives — the delicacy, the immediacy, the minerality, the refreshing and thirst-quenching qualities — for a robust, blockbusterish New World statement that we did not find compelling or even attractive.

It’s the Rosé on Steroids Syndrome.

The natural home of rosé wines is Provence, where the pale, fresh, dry wines are perfect for drinking during the hot, windy summers. The method involves crushing red grapes, such as grenache and cinsault, and letting the juice stay in contact with the skins long enough to derive a little color. (Remember that grape juice is clear or “white”; the color of red wine comes from the skins.) The maceration may last anywhere from a eight hours, for the darkest grapes, to two days, for the lightest. After the maceration, the juice is drained or bled off (saignee) and fermentation continues. The palest rosés of all, called vin gris, or “gray wine,” receives no skin contact. The vin gris color is sometimes described as “onion skin” or, more poetically, “eye of the partridge.”

It seems to me that so-called rosé wines so completely macerated or extracted that they defy the pleasures we normally associate with such wines — and we see “rosé” made in this fashion from Australia and South America and to some extent from the West Coast of the U.S. — should be called something else. “Rosé: The Miss California Version” or “Rosé: The Terminator Selection.”

As I’m writing this post, I’ll inform you, I am sipping from a glass of the pale copper/onion skin-colored Bonny Doon Vin Gris de Cigare 2008, which carries a California designation. This rosé wine offers all of the nervosity and verve, the delicacy and subtlety of a true rosé; its elements of dried strawberries and raspberries and apple blossom touched with melon, orange rind and a hint of dried thyme, its dry, almost chalky minerality and the austerity of its finish testify to a producer who is serious about the archetypal models of rosé wines. (Very Good+. About $15, a Great Value)

Vin Gris de Cigare 2008 is a blended wine. The components are 58 percent grenache, 18 percent cinsault, 10 percent roussanne, 7 percent mourvèdre, 4 percent syrah and 3 percent grenache blanc. Hold on a sec, you’re thinking, roussanne and grenache blanc are white grapes; what are they doing in a pink wine? Well, it’s O.K., in the United States of American there are no prohibitions against blending whatever the hell grapes you want. I mention this concept because it brings up another issue having to do with rosés.

The pragmatic New World attitude of blending red and white wines is not allowed in making rosés wines in France, however, except in the case of rosé Champagne. In Provence and elsewhere in the South of France, in the Loire Valley, where roses are increasingly important, and in other winemaking regions in the country, rosés must be made from all red grapes. (Please understand that I’m well aware that many “New World” producers of rosé wines employ the traditional method.)

That tradition may change, though, if the powers of the EU have their way. In January, the Brussels-based bureaucracy assayed the concept that producers of rosé wines in France should be allowed to blend red and white wines instead of adhering to the old ways. Wow, wouldn’t that be easy! Lots easier than the traditional method! And producers could get rid of their surplus red and white wines just by — yes! — blending them to make rosés! And French producers could compete with Australia and South America and California on their own terms! Watch out, white zinfandel!

This proposal raised such a storm of protest from producers in Provence and elsewhere in France, that the government, which was initially right in line with Brussels, back-tracked a bit and indulged in a lot of placating throat-clearing and harumphing. A final vote at the EU has been postponed until June.

You, my readers, will have no trouble estimating which side I take on this issue. Go ahead, I say, let every damned maker of rosé wines in the world make the stuff any way they want to, as long as they indicate the method on the back-label. (Well, that would be hard to enforce.) As for wine producers in Europe, please enforce the old traditions. Allow them the integrity and authenticity of their heritage, because with a few exceptions, the best rosé wines still come from France.

Top image by LL. The order of the wines (left to right, palest to darkest) is Bonny Doon Vin Gris de Cigare 2008; Maison Bouachon “La Rouvière” Tavel 2008; Montes Cherub Rose of Syrah 2008.
Second image by FK. The order of the wines is reversed, with the Vin Gris de Cigare on the right.


So, to accompany this version of cheese toast for lunch — sorry, no picture! but I really was having cheese toast for lunch. LL came home and said, “What! Are you having cheese toast again?” — I opened a bottle of the Casita Mami Old Garnacha Vines 2006, from Spain’s Navarra region. The label is cute and almost too-well designed, and there’s a typical back-label story — “Mami lives in her little house blah blah blah” — but the wine is terrific. The color is dark ruby-purple. Nose the nose, and you smell rich, spicy, earthy, plummy and funky scents of softly macerated red and black currants and mulberries. Red and black fruit flavors are cushioned by robust tannins and enlivened by an acid bite that keeps the wine engagingly vibrant. Give this a few minutes in the glass and it unfolds hints of violets and rose petals, while in the mouth, it gets deeper, juicier, spicier, smoothing out nicely but retaining the dark briery influence of grainy tannins and underbrushy oak. Very Good+, and just what the doctor ordered as a cheese toast wine, fruity and spicy, filled with character but not overwhelming. What would you expect to pay for such a paragon? How about $11? No lie.

I tried two other wines in the Casita Mami line-up. I wasn’t quite as impressed with the Casita Mami Garnacha Graciano 2004, a 60/40 blend that made me want to try a more recent vintage (Very Good, about $14), but I urge you not to miss the Casita Mami Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon 2004, a warm, rich, spicy, pungent and flavorful wine that calls in loving tones for a grilled veal chop with rosemary or leg of lamb. At a bit more than four-and-a-half years old, the color is still dark purple, and the aromas of black currants and plums permeated by bell pepper, black olive, cedar and dried thyme are fresh and clean and enticing. It’s a lively and resonant wine, deeply imbued with earthy and minerally elements and packed with dusty tannins and walnut shell-like oak, and in truth, the wine could have used a bit less time in barrel. Still, this is vastly attractive, almost entertaining in its resolute nature and downright deliciousness. Very Good+. About $17.

These wines are imported by Romero & Miller, Bel Air, Maryland.

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Chile’s Aconcagua Valley lies about an hour’s drive north of Santiago, the country’s capital. The region is divided by the Aconcagua River into one area that is quite hot and dry and another, closer to the coast, that is cooler. Aconcagua is not as heavily populated by wineries as several of Chile’s more southerly wine regions, like Maule, Maipo and Rapel, yet it is home to several producers of high quality wines.

One of these is Viña San Estaban, whose label In Situ was selected (by whom I don’t know) as the official wine of the Memphis in May International Festival that this year honors Chile. I tried the In Situ wines last week and found them to vary from decent to very well-made and to represent in most cases Good Value, though the reds are more impressive than the whites. The winemaker for Viña San Estaban is Horacio Vincente, following his father and grandfather at the estate. At 3,000 feet above sea level, the San Estaban vineyards are some of the highest in the world.

There are three levels of In Situ wines: The Reservas, priced at about $11; the Winemaker’s Selection, about $15; and the Gran Reservas, about $20. In addition there’s a proprietary wine, Laguna del Inca (“Lake of the Incas”) that sells for $32 or $33.

Here are brief reviews.
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>In Situ Reserva Chardonnay 2007, Aconcagua Valley. More dimension and character than the price would imply, with tasty pineapple-grapefruit flavors tinged with mango, a keen edge of acid and sleek oak influence, nicely balanced and integrated. Restrained but not quite elegant. Very Good. About $11.

> In Situ Reserva Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Aconcagua Valley. Very attractive, with enticing aromas of lime and grapefruit. dried thyme and tarragon, hints of grass and lime peel; crisp and lively in the mouth, loads of chalk and limestone to bolster citrus flavors with touches of fig and smoke. Great Value. About $11.

>In Situ Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2003, Aconcagua Valley. I tasted this wine before finding out what the prices for the In Situ wines are, and I would have tagged it at $25 or $30. Medium ruby hue with a slight tint of garnet at the rim; macerated and slightly stewed black cherry and plum with plenty of well-integrated oak and tannin; smooth and mellow, pulls up mulberry and a hint of exotic spice; very dry, a little austere on the finish. Cries out for roasted game birds. The ’03 is not the current release of this wine, but track it down if you can. Excellent and a Phenomenal Bargain at about $11.

>In Situ Reserva Merlot 2004, Aconcagua Valley. The In Situ line no longer includes a merlot, which is a shame if this example is an indication of the quality. Bordeaux-like in its vibrant acidity, its dusty, spicy black currant and black cherry scents and flavors, its emphasis on a full-fledged tannic and oaken structure that does not detract from fruit etched with touches of cedar, tobacco, green pepper and black olive. Really lovely, mellow, seductive, sleek, and stylish. Excellent and Amazing for the Price, about $11. Worth a Search.

>In Situ Reserva Carmenère 2005, Aconcagua. Dark ruby color with a moderate brick-red rim; robust and rustic, dusty and chewy; intense and concentrated black fruit woven with cedar, bell pepper and black olive; unfolds elements of dried orange rind, bitter chocolate, leather and a mossy black tea. Much pleasing detail but not quite the dimension of the cabernet sauvignon and the merlot, but still Good Value. Very Good+. About $11.
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>In Situ Winemaker’s Selection Chardonnay 2008, Aconcagua. An attractive chardonnay, clean, fresh and bright, with a whisper of oak; spicy pineapple-grapefruit flavors, crisp acid, a vibrant supporting mineral quality. Very Good+. About $15.

>In Situ Winemaker’s Selection Carmenère 2007, Aconcagua. Full-bodied and robust; dense and chewy; black olive, black pepper, black currant and plum; spicy oak, dusty, grainy tannins. Needs a steak. Very Good. About $15.

>In Situ Winemaker’s Selection Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Aconcagua. Macerated currants and cherries, bell pepper, black olive and cedar; plenty of polished oak and gritty tannins. Fairly rustic. Very Good. About $15.
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>In Situ Gran Reserva Carmenère 2007, Aconcagua. Warm and spicy, exotic, sandalwood and cloves; macerated and roasted black currants and cherries with a touch of wild berry; large-framed, full-bodied, boldly structured; dusty oak girt with dusty tannins, yet a finely honed, very palatable wine. Really requires grilled or roasted red meat. Now through 2011 or ’12. Very Good+. About $20.

>In Situ Gran Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Aconcagua. Beguiling aromas of smoke, cedar and tobacco,, violets, macerated black currants and plums; quite earthy and minerally; dried herbs, hints of bell pepper; nicely integrated oak and tannin lend a texture that’s almost velvety, though the finish gets pretty rigorous. A blend of 90 percent cabernet sauvignon and five percent each cabernet franc and carmenère. Best from 2010 to 2012 or ’14. Very Good+. About $20.
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>In Situ Laguna del Inca 2006, Aconcagua. However unusual this blend of 40 percent cabernet sauvignon, 30 percent syrah, 26 percent carmenère and (surprisingly) 4 percent sangiovese may be, it feels classic yet with a wild berry and exotically herbed and spiced edge, roasted and smoky. Real depth, dimension and individuality here in a wine that offers plenty of firm oak and grainy tannins for structure but remains not only eminently drinkable but close to elegant in its proportions, balance and integration, all of these elements supporting Bordeaux-like flavors of black currant and black cherry permeated by dried thyme, bell pepper and black olive. Drink through 2014 to ’16. Excellent. About $32.
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Sbragia Family Vineyards is the winery that Ed Sbragia, now the master winemaker for Beringer, owns apart from the producer for which he has successfully labored for so many years. The grapes for the Sbragia wines come from vineyards in Dry Creek Valley, Alexander Valley and Sonoma Valley, all in Sonoma County, and from sites in Napa Valley.

The Sbragia Family Home Ranch Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Dry Creek Valley, derives from vineyards that Sbragia and his family own. Fermented in stainless steel and aged a few months in three-year-old barrels, this is a lovely sauvignon blanc that deftly weaves fruit and spice with bright acid and an elegant suggestion of smoky oak. Aromas of apple and pear, roasted lemon and tangerine with a hint of grass draw you into the wine. The wine is crisp and lively and quite dry, with a texture slightly softened by a blur of wood; fruit is generous and luscious, revolving around lemon, melon, tangerine, orange peel and touches of baking spice. A few minutes in the glass bring up notes of jasmine and orange blossom and refreshing steely minerality. Great with grilled shrimp or seared scallops. Excellent and a Great Price at about $20.

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>I am sick and tired of bland wines with manufactured flavors and engineered mellowness.

>I am sick and tired of organically- and biodynamically-produced wines whose sole justification is the smugness of their back-label texts.

>I am sick and tired of gimmicks and devices and diversions, of PR ploys and marketing skirmishes and industry trends, of cuteness and wackiness and self-satisfied back-stories, anything that detracts from the wine and does not let the wine speak for itself.

> I am sick and tired of producers that apply oak to their wines as if on automatic pilot, whose attitude is “If this is wine, there must be oak; if this is a reserve wine, there must be more oak.”

>I am sick and tired of cheap wines that all taste the same and expensive wines that all taste the same.

>I am sick and tired of the lip-service paid to varietal and regional qualities in wines that display no varietal or regional character.

>I am sick and tired of the lack of individuality in winemaking, of the tendency toward the lowest common denominator, of the implication that wine consumers don’t give a damn what they drink, that all producers have to do is get together a whole bunch of grapes from “California” or “North Coast” or “South Eastern Australia” or “Navarra,” make the wine, slap a critter label on the bottle and send it out there.

And, hey, have a great weekend!


We’ll get back to pizza-making later today, but first, here’s the “Wine of the Week.”

Jim Barry Wines is best known for its flagship product “The Armagh” Shiraz, consistently one of the best shiraz (syrah) wines produced in Australia. In the United States, the price for “The Armagh” runs from $145 to $175 a bottle. The winery offers less expensive wines, fortunately, and one of the most seductive of these is “The Cover Drive” Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, South Australia. Made completely from cabernet sauvignon grapes, the wine ages 12 months in half-and-half French and American oak barrels. It delivers gangbusters aromas of mint and bell pepper, softly spiced and macerated black currants and plums, cedar and tobacco, with a back-note of mulberry. The dark ruby-purple wine is robust without being rustic and full-bodied without being cushiony; it’s powered by sleek and chewy tannins and oak that feels polished with dry, slightly woody spices, while a few minutes in the glass allow the wine to unfurl smoke and potpourri wreathed with scintillating minerals. The alcohol measures a heady 15 percent, but this factor is deftly balanced by lively acid and succulent, but not opulent, fruit. Drink through 2011 or ’12 with grilled steaks or leg of lamb. Excellent. About $17.50 to $20.

Imported by Negociants USA, Napa, Cal.

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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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In the past few years, chocolate has gotten pretty complicated and high-minded. This is a fad, of course, but since I like — i.e., adore — dark chocolate, it’s a boon to go into a grocery store like Fresh Market or Whole Foods and see the array of producers and the almost infinite variety of products. Of course everyone offers plain dark chocolate in a range of “darkness,” usually listed as a cacao percentage, but they also seemingly compete to deliver combinations that range from delicious but mundane, like dark chocolate with roasted coffee nibs — I never noticed coffee having nibs — to infusions that are daring and sexy, like the famous and decadent “Mo’ Bacon” chocolate bar from Vosges, which indeed incorporates bacon in its make-up.

Many of these companies espouse worthy causes, utilize organic methods and and support fair trade. You’re not merely buying a chocolate bar; you’re buying (or buying into) a philosophy. Not surprisingly, quite a few of these chocolatiers are on the West Coast.

O.K., so I stand in Fresh Market and read all the text on the back of these various chocolate products, all about where the chocolate came from and the name of the estate and so on, and that’s all become standard stuff, but on the back of a bar of Chuao Chinita Nibs (“Dark Chocolate Bar with Caramelized Cacao Nibs and Nutmeg”) was a term I had never seen on the package of a chocolate bar:

“Slave-free cacao.”

Now I know that slavery is a grave problem in many parts of the world. Sexual slavery is rampant in Southeast Asia, labor slavery is found in many parts of Africa, women from former Soviet republics are sent to America to be nannies and maids in an indentured servant situation. Slavery is real, and it’s serious.

Considered from a marketing standpoint however — and what between the shining seas cannot be considered from a marketing standpoint? — Chuao, based in San Diego and run by two Venezuelan brothers, has scored a coup. If no slaves were employed in the farming and harvesting of the cacao that goes into the Chuao Chinita Nibs, what about all the other gourmet chocolate bars whose cacao originates in South and Central America? I mean, I might have to buy no chocolate other than Chuao Chinita Nibs just so I know there’s no chance that I might be supporting slavery.

Look at it this way. When a box of crackers or chips states “No Gluten” on the package, we know that assertion establishes a contrast with all the other cracker and chip products that do contain gluten because they’re made either completely or partially from wheat. I mean, when was the last time you saw a box of Ritz crackers or a package of Chips Ahoy — both names being hallowed trademarks and I mean no disrespect — that said “Gobs o’ Gluten!” Well, no. There’s a thin but discernible line between promoting and warning.

My point is that Chuao Chocolatier has, with this tiny gesture, cast doubt on all the other chocolate producers that do not tell us that no slaves were involved in the production of their cacao.

Think of that the next time you stop at the Pac’N'Snac to pick up a Snickers.

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