Zinfandel


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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Surely it’s not too late to post a Wine of the Week, even though today is Thursday and I typically do this on Monday or even Sunday. Call it the Wine of Down-Trending Mid-Week, if you please, of the Wine of the Up-Coming Weekend. Anyway, here ’tis.

The word ‘classic” tends to come up when writers or reviewers mention the Artezin zinfandels, and yet it feels natural to use that term because this brand’s zinfandel offers classic, if you will, balance and proportion and spicy black fruit scents and flavors. It also tends to be downright delicious.

The Artezin Zinfandel 2010, Mendocino County, is fresh, bright and clean, delivering a snootful and palate-swathing of black currant and raspberry scents and flavors with hints of mulberries, blueberries and just a mite of boysenberry, none of this fruit character being jammy or over-ripe. There’s an infusion of cloves and slightly exotic sandalwood, a pointed touch of graphite. The wine sees no new oak but ages in second and third-use French oak barrels, a device that bolsters the spicy aspect and lends suppleness to the texture, all of this supported by fairly dense but mildly grainy tannins and vibrant acidity. The finish brings in a bit of black pepper, a lick of dried thyme and more of that mineral element. To 89 percent zinfandel, the blend adds 10 percent petite sirah and 1 percent carignan. No extremes here, no hard edges, just a tasty, authentic and reasonably-priced zinfandel appropriate with burgers, steaks, pizzas and hearty pasta dishes. 14.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $18.

A sample for review.


Today’s “Friday Wine Sips” offers four whites and four reds and that adds up to eight wines if what my high school math teacher Miss Bridger said still holds true. The geographical range includes California, Washington state, New Zealand, Sicily and Austria; the price range is $14 to $20, with a couple of products representing real value. No technical or historical data or philosophical ruminations; just snappy comments taken directly from my notes to give you the essence. These were all samples for review.
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Murphy-Goode Sauvignon Blanc “The Fume” 2010, North Coast, California. 13.5% alc. Clean, fresh, buoyant; roasted lemon, tangerine, lime peel; bright and leafy; dried thyme and tarragon; a crisp arrow of grapefruit through the limestone bullseye. Quite tasty. Very Good. About $14, a Bargain.
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Airfield Riesling 2010, Yakima Valley, Washington. 13.6% alc. Apple blossom and grapefruit skin; burgeoning and penetrating limestone and flint-like minerality; pungent, resonant, scintillating with crystalline acidity and high-toned touches of quince and ginger, ripe stone-fruit permeated by smoke and cloves; deftly balances a soft, almost talc-like effect with crisp bone and sinew and river rocks. Lovely and delicious. Excellent. About $16, Great Value.
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Craggy Range Te Muna Road Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Martinborough, New Zealand. 13.5% alc. Suave and savory, with an air of blitheness and frank appeal; lemon, lime peel and gooseberry with notes of cloves and ginger, fresh-mown hay and lemongrass; crisp, very dry, a long, sprightly limestone-flint-and-grapefruit laden finish. Excellent. About $20.
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Matanzas Creek Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Sonoma County. 14.1% alc. (Owned by Jackson Family Wines) Pale straw color; very fresh, clean, exhilarating; grapefruit, lime peel, lemongrass, touches of caraway, tarragon and thyme, hint of honeysuckle; the old hay-foot, straw-foot motif in its deft earthiness; sleek and polished; pear, melon and citrus flavors, slightly herbal, crisp acidity and a touch of flint in the background. Excellent. About $20.
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Zantho St. Laurent 2008, Burgenland, Austria. 13% alc. Inky ruby-purple color; smoke, cigar box and tobacco leaf; the slightly resinous quality of cedar and rosemary; spiced, macerated and roasted black and red currants and plums with touches of black olive and tar; but for all this “darkness,” a clean, fresh and lively red, suited to barbecue ribs and braised short ribs. Highly individual wine from an unusual grape. Very Good+. About $14, representing Great Value.
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Buena Vista Zinfandel 2010, Sonoma County. 13.5% alc. A fresh, tasty, agreeable zinfandel, quite spicy, bursting with bright black and red cherry flavors infused with hints of blueberry and boysenberry; mannerly elements of tannin and oak, clean brisk acidity. Sports the new “old-timey” Buena Vista Viticultural Society label. For burgers and pizzas. Very Good. About $15.
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Tasca d’Almerita Lamùri Nero d’Avola 2009, Sicily. 14% alc. Refreshing and vibrant, this wine avoids the rusticity displayed by many nero d’Avolas; delicious red and black currant flavors, very spicy, a little briery and brambly; grows darker, more intense as the moments pass, conjuring notes of bittersweet chocolate and lavender, tar and graphite. Direct and satisfying. Very Good+. About $20.
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Craggy Range Te Kahu Gimblett Gravels Vineyard 2010, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand. 13.5% alc. 80% merlot, 8% each cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon, 4% malbec. Very harmonious initially but with an edge of briers and brambles, forest floor and graphite and an undercurrent of bittersweet chocolate; black cherry and red and black currants with a touch of blueberry; gets quite dry, packs some tannic, minerally austerity into the finish. Try with a steak or barbecue brisket. Very Good+. About $20.
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Yes, I know that it’s Saturday, but I was severely under the weather yesterday — but aren’t we always under some kind of weather? — suffering from the insult of a sinus infection added to the injury of bronchitis; my chest is wheezing like a broken concertina. Duty calls, however, so, for this entry of Friday Wine Sips, eight varied red wines from various places (because it’s cold today), arranged in order of ascending price (as good as any other order) and eschewing the details of history, geography, personality and winemaking techniques for the sake of brevity and immediacy. These were all samples for review.
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Santa Carolina Reserva Pinot Noir 2010, Maule Valley, Chile. 14.5% alc. Weedy, briery, sinewy, tannic. Upon what evidence does this astringent wine claim to be pinot noir or anything drinkable? Not recommended. About $10.
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Roth Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County. 14.4% alc. 83% cabernet sauvignon, 16% cabernet franc, 1% merlot. Dense, intense, concentrated; grainy tannins and sleek oak; cedar, sandalwood, bay leaf and vanilla, black currants and cherries; briery, foresty finish; nothing offensive, but feels as if it were designed by a committee from a check-list. Very Good. About $28.
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Pombal do Vesuvio 2008, Douro, Portugal. 13% alc. A table wine made from the Port grapes. Dust, graphite, stewed blueberries and plums, cloves; roasted and fleshy but with a distinct mineral edge; bright, clean acidity; real backbone and structure; earthy, robust, a little wild and rustic. Quite a mouthful for hearty braised meat dishes. Very Good+. About $28.
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V. Sattui Henry Ranch Pinot Noir 2009, Los Carneros, Napa Valley. 14.3% alc. Lovely pinot but with grip and grit; black cherry, woody spice, rose petal and lavender, cloves and sassafras; mulberry, graphite; acidity that cuts a swath on the palate through black and blue fruit; beetroot, moss, briers, deep satiny texture. Lavish yet elegant. Excellent. About $39.
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V, Sattui Black Sears Vineyard Zinfandel 2009, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley. 14.5% alc. Deep and rich but fleet and light on its feet initially; black currants, mulberries, plums; macerated and slightly stewed black and blue fruit hedged by burgeoning tannins; earth, leather, brambles, Platonic dark cherries; dense and succulent but not plush or opulent; plenty of stuffing and grit. Excellent. About $42.
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V. Sattui Quaglia Vineyard Old Vine Zinfandel 2009, Napa Valley. 15% alc. Deep, spicy, very rich; plummy and jammy blackberry and black currant; radiantly floral; but very dry, very austere, ultimately unbalanced, tons of tannin; too dense, too thick, too cloying. Not recommended. About $39.
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Tenuta Sant’Antonio “Selezione Antonio Castagnedi” Amarone della Valpolicella 2007, Veneto, Italy. 15.5% alc. 70% corvina, 20% rondinella, 5% each croatina and oseleta. Generous, expansive, rich, warm and spicy; deeply imbued with roasted and slightly macerated black currant, blackberry and plum aromas and flavors permeated by cloves and sandalwood; deep-down earthy and tinged with graphite-like minerality; brooding yet manageable tannins; exotic, savory. A modern Amarone perfect for venison and game birds, for the trappings of black truffles and blood sausages. Excellent. About $42-$45.
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Antiyal 2009, Maipo Valley, Chile. 14.5% alc. 41% carmenère, 35% cabernet sauvignon, 24% syrah. Ambitious, a bit showy; smoky, syrah-carmenère wildness and funkiness; black olive, cedar, thyme, black currants and blueberries; lip-smacking acidity, dry gritty tannins; lots of power and sheen. Bring on the dry-aged ribeye steak, hot and crusty from the grill. Very Good+. About $65.
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There was a time when consumers who loved the zinfandel grape could follow the “R” rule, that is, they could buy zinfandel wines produced by Ravenswood, Renwood, Ridge or Rosenblum and have no qualms about quality or integrity. The truth, of course, is that many wineries in California make fine examples of zinfandel, and the labels are not confined to one letter of the alphabet, but Joel Peterson, the founder (with partner Reed Foster) of and still the winemaker for Ravenswood, was a leader in using French oak barrels to age zinfandel wines and in making zinfandels from single-designated vineyards.

Peterson, a clinical microbiologist, grew up in a household devoted to food and wine, though both of his parents were scientists. He made his first zinfandel wines — from single vineyards in Sonoma County — in 1976, and in the next five years the wandering winery moved five times. While making wine and trying to build a winery, Peterson worked nights and weekends in the laboratory at Sonoma Valley Hospital, a job he kept until 1992, when the success of the Ravenswood Vintners Reserve brand finally enabled him to become a full-time winemaker and winery owner. Industry giant Constellation Wines acquired Ravenswood for $148 million in 2001; Peterson remains as the winemaker and is a senior vice president at Constellation Wines US.

There are six single-vineyard zinfandels in the Ravenswood line-up. I recently tasted two of them from 2008, the Dickerson, from Napa Valley, and the Belloni, from Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley. One is high-toned, elegant, distinctly fueled by tannin and minerals; the other is more approachable, definitely more spicy and fruit-driven, though not decadent or over-done. You’ll see which is which. Ravenswood also makes a “County” line of zinfandels from Lodi, Sonoma and Napa, the expanded Vintners Reserve label, and several limited edition wines.

These wines were samples for review.

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The Ravenswood Dickerson Zinfandel 2008, Napa Valley, feels balanced and harmonious from start to finish, though after 30 or 40 minutes, you feel the well-knit oak and tannin begin to assert their spicy, slightly woody and grainy influence. The wine, 100 percent varietal, aged 20 months in French oak, 30 percent new barrels, 28 percent one-year-old, the rest older. This is a zinfandel that feels warm with ripe fruit and spice and cool with graphite-like minerality. Notes of lavender, licorice and cloves highlight black currant, black cherry and plum jam scents and flavors in a package that’s sleek, polished and elegant, though tugged by the persistent gravity of those earthy, briery-brambly tannins; a few minutes in the glass bring in hints of bittersweet chocolate and black tea. 14.8 percent alcohol. Production was 755 cases. Drink now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $35.
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The oak regimen for the Ravenswood Belloni Vineyard Zinfandel 2008, Russian River Valley, is close to the process for its cousin mentioned above; 20 months but with 32 percent new barrels and 32 percent one-year-old. The more important difference is in the make-up of the wine. While the Dickerson 08 is completely zinfandel, the Belloni 08 is a blend of 78 percent zinfandel with the balance of petite sirah, carignane and alicante bouschet grapes. For whatever reason — geography, climate, composition — the Ravenswood Belloni 08 make an immediate impression of size, ripeness and succulence, though it avoids anything sweet, jammy or over-ripe. Still, the tannins here, though certainly an influence on the wine’s dimension and structure, are softer, leaning a bit more toward the sanded graphite-in-velveteen camp. The wine is rich and warm and generously endowed with black currant, black plum and blueberry flavors dredged in cloves and allspice (with a touch of the latter’s faint astringency to lend complexity) and a strain of fruitcake that lingers provocatively through the finish. 15 percent alcohol. Production was 535 cases. Now through 2015 to ’16. Excellent. About $35.
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Both of these damned good wines are from Sonoma County, and both involve pizza, for good or ill, as you will see.

Made a pretty darned great pizza last night, definitely a candidate for the apparently infinitely-expandable Top 25 category. The toppings included a generous handful of fresh basil; an also generous amount of oven-dried tomatoes, previously marinated in olive oil, oregano and crushed Aleppo pepper; smoked and pepper-cured hog jowl, diced and fried; chopped green onion; a little thyme scattered over the top after the mozzarella, Parmesan and pecorino cheeses. The crust, as usual, was a blend of white bread flour and wholewheat flour with a couple tablespoons of rye flour. Everything worked together beautifully in this pizza, especially the crust, which was thin without being crackery, yet still slightly chewy, and puffy around the edges.

With the pizza, we drank the Quivira Zinfandel 2009, from Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley. Winemaker is Hugh Chappelle; the estate is run on biodynamic principles. The wine is a blend of 83 percent zinfandel, 9 percent cabernet sauvignon, three percent each petite sirah and syrah and two percent grenache; you could say, without too much of a stretch, that this is a zinfandel operating a bit under a southern Rhone or Languedoc influence, in its warm, open-knit expansiveness, even as it projects a California-style personality. Aromas of black and red currants and macerated plums are woven with notes of cloves and hints of blackberry preserves and fruitcake, with that confection’s primary character of dried fruit and baking spices. Quivira Zinfandel 2009 is full-bodied, fairly dense and chewy, yet neither rustic nor heavy; in fact, vibrant acidity keep the wine light on its feet and appealingly palatable. Flavors fall into the blackberry-blueberry range –the currant aspect more subdued — while well-handled oak, from 14 months in French, American and Hungarian barrels, fewer than 20 percent new, lend the wine pleasing shape and suppleness. The finish brings in some graphite-like minerality and more of the savory fruitcake element. 14.8 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2013 or ’14. Excellent. About $20.

A sample for review.
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Ah, but every pizza FK makes is not a success. Here’s a tale of pizza failure and a great wine.

I have never cared for pizzas that come bearing seafood. Pizzas with shrimp, for example, seem to me an abomination. I watched a video of Wolfgang Puck making a shrimp pizza on YouTube and the huge amount of Fontina, mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses he heaped on seemed sickening. Shrimp with gloppy cheese? Spare me. However, as a long-time maker of pizza, I felt it was incumbent upon me at least to try to produce a pizza with shrimp that I could actually eat. I waited until LL was out of town to indulge in this experiment. We have in the freezer a bag of deep-ocean shrimp that we buy from Paradise Seafood at the Memphis Farmers Market; these have to be the best shrimp I have ever eaten. I cleaned three of these shrimp, split them in half lengthwise, doused them with olive oil, salt and pepper and ran them under the broiler until they got slightly crusty. I made the pizza dough in the usual manner but about half the amount; perhaps cutting everything down threw off the balance. Anyway, once I pressed and rolled out the dough about nine inches across, I spooned dollops of pesto around it, a few sliced oven-dried tomatoes, a little scattering of diced onion, some thyme and the shrimp; finally just a touch of grated Parmesan. Actually, I think it would have been a fine effort if the crust had not turned out to be such a disaster; it was dense, heavy, chewy and very bready. Que pasa!?!? Well, the dogs liked it, and I assuaged my sorrow with a bowlful of Ben & Jerry’s Karamel Sutra.

Anyway, the wine that I sipped while trying to eat this miserable excuse for a shrimp pizza was the splendid Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Russian River Valley. Merry Edwards is one of a few winemakers in Sonoma County that qualify for legendary status. She began her career at Mount Eden Vineyards in Santa Cruz in 1974 and moved on to be the founding winemaker at Matanzas Creek from 1977 to 1984. She spent more than a decade consulting for a number of wineries and working with the Merry Vintners label before finally launching her own winery, dedicated primarily to pinot noir, in 1997.

Not quite half of the grapes in the Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc 2010 derive from 35-year-old vines. Oak treatment is gentle; the grapes are barrel-fermented, and then the wine stays in French oak, 18 percent new barrels, for six months. This regimen gives the wine lovely suppleness and a subdued spicy quality in a sort of transparent haze of slightly smoky oak, an element that suavely supports a bouquet of mildly grassy and herbal notes that revolve around lemongrass and celery seed, tarragon and thyme; a few minutes in the glass bring in hints (in aroma and flavors) of roasted lemon, quince and ginger. This is a sauvignon blanc of true class, presence and tone, beautifully balanced by resonant acidity that doesn’t slap your palate with blatant snap and sass (think: New Zealand); no, this is a sophisticated and elegant sauvignon blanc that flows through the mouth with aplomb and finishes with well-integrated touches of apple skin, lime peel and limestone-like minerality. 14.1 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2013 or ’14. Excellent. Suggested retail price is $30, but I paid $40 in Memphis; I mean, what the fuck … ?
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The first vintage of Steelhead was released in 2002. The label was founded by Quivira Vineyards to benefit Trout Unlimited and the restoration of Wine Creek, a tributary of Dry Creek, in a partnership with governmental, educational and non-profit organizations. Dan and Katy Leese and their partner Pete Kight, owner of Quivira, launched their company V2 Wine Group in 2010 with the acquisition of Steelhead, making it a stand-alone winery. Proceeds from the sale of Steelhead wines still help to fund the conservation work of Trout Unlimited. The winemaking staff at Quivira, which includes Hugh Chappelle and Greg La Follette, makes the wines. Production of each of this trio was 2,500 cases. These were samples for review.
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The Steelhead Sauvignon Blanc 2009, Sonoma County, is made completely in stainless steel and does not go through malolactic fermentation, the result being immediate freshness and appeal. While there’s some evidence of sassy gooseberry and tarragon in the bouquet, the primary aromas are roasted lemon, baked pear, celery seed, jasmine and an intriguing touch of smoke. The sense of clean, bracing freshness extends to the mouth, aiding by invigorating acidity and limestone-like minerality that bolster tasty lemon, pear and melon flavors permeated by hints of cloves, dried thyme and newly-mown grass; in fact, the wine gets spicier the longer it stays in the glass. It lacks only some intensity that would raise my rating. 13.5 percent alcohol. Drink up. Very Good. About $13, representing Good Value.
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A bit more impressive than the (still quite enjoyable) Steelhead Sauvignon Blanc 2009 is the Steelhead Red 2009, Sonoma County, a blend of 55 percent cabernet sauvignon and 45 percent zinfandel that sees no oak. This is a terrific little bistro-style wine, robust without being exactly rustic and nicely balanced between spicy, juicy fruit and carefully delineated acid and tannins. Black currant and blackberry scents and flavors offer a touch of something wild in the range of blueberry and rhubarb, underlain by hints of briers and brambles and nuances of earth and graphite-like minerality. The wine is lively and vibrant, a bit chewy in texture, moderately rich and velvety. It cries out to be in a restaurant’s wine-by-the-glass program at $8 a glass. 14.2 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2012. Very Good+. About $15.
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Here’s the prize and the real bargain. In fact, I don’t see how a wine of this character can sell for what it does. The Steelhead Pinot Noir 2009, Sonoma County, contains 5 percent syrah, a factor not that unusual in California now; the wine aged for 10 months in oak barrels. The color is an entrancing plum-mulberry hue, with a hint of violet at the rim; the darkly spicy and earthy bouquet delivers bushels of red and black cherries, plums and cranberries etched with touches of cloves, cinnamon and sassafras. The texture is lovely, even gorgeous, completely satiny in its drape and flow across the palate, and the wine offers remarkable intensity and structure for the price; all is not kissy-face, however, because under the richness and the plushness lie elements of spareness, of the slightly rigorous influence of wood and underbrush and forest floor, of slate-like minerality. Quite a performance. 14.3 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2013. Excellent. About $15, a Great Value.
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… and both are single-vineyard wines. And neither are huge, super-ripe, high-octane, hot, cloying, sweetish zinfandels, examples of which continue to be produced in California, though they clearly defy any rational sense of balance and drinkability. No, these models are exemplars of the grape’s deeply fruity, spicy and innate tannic character that doesn’t have to resort to exaggeration and baroque, not to mention bizarre manipulation. We drank the first, the Benessere Estate Black Glass Vineyard Zinfandel 2008, Napa Valley, with pork chops rubbed with cumin, chili powder, salt and pepper and seared and then roasted with lime juice, cilantro and garlic; the Jake-Ryan Cellars Bald Mountain Vineyard Zinfandel 2007, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley, we had with one of my heartier pizzas one Saturday for Pizza-and-Movie Night.

These were samples for review.
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Benessere Vineyards was founded in 1994 by John and Ellen Benish on a 42-acre property north of the town of St. Helena; they restored a former winery, vineyard and residence. The winery specializes in the Italian grape varieties of pinot grigio, sangiovese, muscat di canelli and — quite rare for California — sagrantino and aglianico, as well as zinfandel, which, to be nit-picky, could in a way be called Italian since it is the same as the primitivo grape grown in the Italian calf and boot-heel. (No primitivo wine I ever tasted, however, was anything like a California zinfandel.) From a first release of 135 cases in 1995, Benessere grew to annual production of between 4,500 and 5,000 cases. Winemaker is Jack Stuart. (At the end of May, I reviewed the excellent Benessere Rosato 2010.)

The Benessere Estate Black Glass Vineyard Zinfandel 2008, Napa Valley, spent 18 months in new and used French and American oak barrels. This is truly a lovely, dark-ruby-hued, old-fashioned sort of zinfandel that bursts with notes of plums, red and black currants and cloves with touches of rhubarb and fruitcake and beguiling hints of orange rind and violets, sandalwood and leather that require a few minutes in the glass to unfold. It’s a well-balanced and integrated zinfandel whose smooth, well-wrought tannins and burnished oak qualities contribute to a texture of moderate density that encloses delicious ripe black and red fruit flavors just touched with elements of dried fruit and spices; vibrant acidity keeps the wine lively and attractive, while a reasonable measure of granite-like minerality and slightly sandpapery tannins give the finish a bit of austerity. Drink now through 2013 or ’14. Alcohol content is 14.7 percent. 390 cases. Excellent. About $28.
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Jason Benge and Traci Seville launched Jake-Ryan cellars in 2004, naming the enterprise after Benge’s sons Austin Jake and Colby Ryan. Winemaker is Jeff Fontanella, about whose own label I will have something to say soon. I’m on a bit of a tear about Mount Veeder, and several producers were kind enough to send me samples, including Mayacamas, about whose wines I wrote recently.

The Jake-Ryan Cellars Bald Mountain Vineyard Zinfandel 2007, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley, practically shimmers in the glass with the purity and intensity of the zinfandel grape. At almost four years old, the wine is fresh and clean, immediately appealing. The emphasis lies in profound graphite-granite-like minerality and an extraordinary level of pungent, deeply flavorful spicy elements, akin to sandalwood and dried ancho chilies ground together and adorned with a crisply etched filigree of dusty sage and heather. The fruit component consists of intense and concentrated black and red currants bolstered with undertones of blueberries, mulberries and rhubarb, all slightly spiced and macerated, making for a complex and satisfying experience; great balance and integration and notable acidity lend the wine poise, while finely-milled and fairly dense tannins add momentum and purpose. Definitely Worth a Search for zinfandel lovers. Drink now through 2013 or ’14. Alcohol content is 14.5 percent. 400 cases. Excellent. About $28.
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A red and a white for your drinking this week, from Toad Hollow Vineyards. The winery was launched in 1993 by Todd Williams (1938-2007), retired from an illustrious career in bars and restaurants, and Rodney Strong (1927-2006), the former Broadway dancer and Sonoma County pioneer who had long had no hand in the winery that bears his name. Williams was the older brother of comedian and actor Robin Williams. Artist of the whimsical Toad Hollow labels is Maureen Erickson. Samples for review.
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The Toad Hollow Francine’s Selection Unoaked Chardonnay 2010, Mendocino County — Francine is the winery’s owner Frankie Williams — offers a radiant straw-gold color and fresh, beguiling aromas of green apple and pineapple with hints of mango and grapefruit. Though made entirely in stainless steel, the wine goes through complete malolactic “fermentation” (as a process that has nothing to do with fermentation is called), so it delivers quite a bit of spice, richness and full body; flavors of roasted lemon and pear tart are shot through — “sliced” might be appropriate — by a keen blade of acidity and bright layers of limestone minerality for an effect of Chablis-like austerity on the finish. A chardonnay of scintillating purity and intensity and remarkable character for the price; lay out, right now, a feast of grilled shrimp and mussels to be preceded by a whole raft of just-shucked oysters. 13.9 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $15.
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The Toad Hollow Erik’s the Red 2009 was released under the California rubric; the wine used to carry a Paso Robles designation. This is one of those smorgasbord-of-grapes wines that producers in California dream up and that actually often turn out to be delightful. To merlot and cabernet sauvignon from Sonoma County and zinfandel from Lodi are added dollops of varying amounts of souza, tannat, syrah and petite sirah; the result is a dark and vibrant wine that falls under the robust and rustic label, fitting it for pairing with robust and rustic food; I had a glass with leftover pasta Bolognese for lunch one day, and the dish and the wine definitely made friends. The wine is rooty and earthy, bursting with scents and flavors of black currants, spiced plums and cherries highlighted by some element of feral berries and underlying graphite-like minerality. Erik’s the Red 09 is briery and brambly, moderately dense and chewy with slightly velvety, grainy tannins, and lively with pert acidity; ripe and spicy black fruit flavors are bolstered by a modicum of oak from nine months in barrels. A great barbecue and grilling wine for consuming through 2012. Very Good+. About $15.
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I won’t make the Benessere Rosato 2010, Napa Valley, the Wine of the Week because there’s not enough available. If it’s sold in your neck o’ the woods, however, or if you can order it from the winery, please do; this is a terrific rosé in the New World sense, meaning that it’s darker in color than the often much paler, “gris”-type rosés we see from Europe, particularly the South of France; those wines, indeed, occupy a sacred place in my heart. The color of the Benessere Rosato 2010, on the other hand, is an entrancing true crimson, that is deep, vibrant red — not ruby! — with a tinge of maroon, which in this case includes a pale brick-red or garnet rim, like the world’s most beautiful rose. The wine, made in stainless steel, is a blend of 49 percent zinfandel, 41 percent sangiovese and 10 percent merlot, a unique marriage that results in a heady bouquet of black and red currants, dried cherry, cranberry and an intriguing earthy hint of pomegranate. Limestone fills the background, with black cherry and red raspberry flavors given a savory quality by touches of dried thyme, cloves and briers. You’re thinking, “Gosh, FK, this sounds like a red wine,” but I promise that it is a rosé, just one with an unusual amount of dimension and character; it’s still a congeries of delicacy and nuance, light-hearted and carefree. I had a glass at lunch recently with scrambled eggs, tomatoes, scallions and black olives, though it would be equally appropriate with fried chicken, potato salad, quiche and other picnic and brunch fare. Serve chilled, through summer of 2012. Winemaker was Jack Stuart. 13.6 percent alcohol. The tag on the bottle said 350 cases; the printed material that came with this sample for review says 284 cases. In either case, mark this rosé Worth a Search. Excellent. About $16.

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