Zinfandel



We’ve been tasting and drinking quite a few vigorous and rigorous cabernet sauvignon wines from California, even if they didn’t necessarily make a good match with what we were eating, so for Saturday night’s pizza — pepper-cured bacon, roasted tomatoes, shiitake mushrooms. goat cheese — I went in the direction of something more simple, more direct and more appropriate. That turned out to be The Climber Red Wine 2009, a blend of zinfandel (63%), cabernet sauvignon (21%), syrah (12%), petite sirah (2%) and merlot (2%), the sort of fruitful melange you’re likely to see nowhere but in California. The Climber label comes from the people that started the Clif Bar company in 1992. While the winery and farm are in Napa Valley, the grapes for the Climber 2009 came from Mendocino and Lodi; the wine carries a California designation. So, what’s here? A robust, ripe and vibrant red wine that’s packed with fleshy, meaty blackberry, black currant and plum flavors deeply permeated by spice, black pepper, briers and brambles and soft, cushiony tannins that float over the palate like a dusty cloud. This is a terrific pizza wine, though it would serve equally well with burgers, fajitas, pulled pork and other such hearty carnivore-targeted items. Winemakers are Sarah Gott and Bruce Regalia. 14.1 percent alcohol. Production was 3,500 cases. Closed with a screw-cap. Very Good+. About $12, a Great Bargain.

A sample for review.

Naturally we made — rather LL made — a deep rich broth from the turkey carcass and then used that for a splendid, hearty Turkey, Barley and Mushroom Soup from The Williams Sonoma Cookbook (Free Press, 2008, $35.95). I had to take a cleaver to those thick bones, but talk about rib-stickin’ earthy flavors!

We slurped up bowls of this concoction last night, perfect for the chilly weather, with glasses of the Artezin Zinfandel 2009, Mendocino County, a label from The Hess Collection. The wine sees no new oak and contains 8 percent petite sirah grapes and 1 percent carignan. Bright and appealing aromas of blueberry, black currant and black raspberry are woven with a touch of wildness, something like mulberry, red plum and dusty herbs with undertones of briers, brambles and black pepper. Unlike many zinfandels, the Artezin 2009 displays no annoying hotness, no cloying over-ripeness; instead, the wine is balanced, integrated and thoroughly drinkable, and I mean that assessment in the best sense. Black fruit flavors are permeated by baking spice and a bit of dusty shale-like minerality and nestled in a texture of moderately dense and finely-milled tannins. Give the wine a few minutes in the glass, and it brings up lovely notes of potpourri and thyme, sandalwood and smoke. Drink now through 2012. Alcohol content is 14.5 percent. Very Good+. About $18.


And being Thanksgiving, these are the wines I’ll be serving at the festive groaning board on Thursday. These are the same wines I have been offering, but at different vintages and prices, since our first Thanksgiving in this house in 2005. These are American wines, two from California, one from Oregon. I wish I could have some wines from Virginia, Michigan and New York too, but those are hard to come by in what’s called the Mid-South, this corner where West Tennessee, North Mississippi and Eastern Arkansas meet at the banks of Ol’ Man River. (You understand — Geography Alert! — that Tennessee and Mississippi are east of the river, and Arkansas is on the other side.) Anyway. I bought these wines a couple of weeks ago in anticipation of the annual feast.

Trefethen Dry Riesling 2008 & 2007, Oak Knoll District, Napa Valley. Trefethen’s Dry Riesling is consistently one of the best rieslings produced in the Golden State. It’s quite a versatile wine, matching with a variety of foods, from the Thanksgiving turkey and all the trimmings to a dish we made recently, a Catalan cannellini bean and radicchio soup that was supposed to be vegan, but I cheated and unapologetically used bacon. Boy, it was great! When I said to LL that I was going to look for an appropriate wine, she said, “The Thanksgiving riesling,” and she was absolutely right. About $24. I bought one each of the 2008 and the 07, just to see how the latter is doing since I last tasted it. Here’s a link to the New York Times website with the recipe.

The Ridge Three Vineyards 2008, Sonoma County, is a blend of 74 percent zinfandel, 11 percent petite sirah, 5 percent carignan, 4 percent of mataro (more often called mourvedre or, in Spain, monastrell), and 3 percent each syrah and grenache. I like drinking zinfandel with Thanksgiving dinner, especially in a rendition that brings in a few other grapes like the 15 percent Rhone Valley varieties in this wine. Ridge’s Three Valley, while supple and spicy and flavorful is never over-ripe or over-alcoholic, making it a terrific pairing with the myriad and sometimes contradictory sensations that the Thanksgiving dinner affords. About $25. I bought two bottles of this wine.

Finally, I like to have a bottle of the Domaine Serene Yamhill Cuvee Pinot Noir, from Oregon’s Willamette Valley, on hand. The vintage available in my town is the 2007. The pinot noirs from Domaine Serene to me comprise the perfect balance of power and elegance that’s the hallmark of great pinot. You may ask, “Does pinot noir belong on the Thanksgiving table?” To which I reply, “Hey, it’s my table.” About $47 in my neck of the woods, $42 on the winery’s website. I bought a single bottle of this one.

My plan is to drink one glass of each of these wines, in the order in which I mentioned them here. I like to see how each reacts with the turkey and gravy, the potatoes, the sweet potatoes and so forth.

Whatever wines you choose to serve at Thanksgiving don’t really matter because the meal, being what it is, draws almost any wine close to its heart. That’s why people who write about wine seem to provide such contradictory advice at this time of year; mainly we fall back on our favorites. So go for it, do your thing, be happy, and have a safe and enjoyable Thanksgiving.

Though it clocks in at a heady 15.1 percent alcohol, the Rodney Strong Estate Vineyards “Knotty Vines” Zinfandel 2008, carrying a Northern Sonoma designation, does not come across as a blockbuster. In fact, it not only feels fairly mild-mannered but impresses with its balance and subtlety. True to its nickname, the wine is rather “knotty” in the dusty, slightly woody briery and brambly sense. Some of the grapes here derive from 15 acres of vines planted in 1904 on the west side of the Russian River that Rodney Strong (1928-2006) acquired when he was first buying vineyards in the 1960s. The “Knotty Vines” Zinfandel 2008 includes 1 percent each of syrah and merlot — merlot? — and aged 17 months in American oak barrels (62%) and French oak (38%). The color is medium ruby with a magenta sheen. Aromas of spiced and macerated black and red currants, black pepper, leather and a hint of bitter chocolate waft from the glass; in the mouth, the wine offers black and red fruit flavors with a tincture of mulberry threaded with touches of cloves and tobacco, all ensconced in moderately dense, chewy tannins, acidity so pert that it practically glistens, and an oak influence that turns slightly austere on the finish, an appropriately grown-up rounding-off. What this wine is blessedly NOT is over-ripe, stridently spicy or sweet/hot with alcohol. The winemaker is veteran Rick Sayre. Drink now to 2012 or ’13. This would be very nice with the Thanksgiving feast. Excellent. About $20.

A sample for review.


The pizza was great, one of my best efforts, and the wine was great too.

Sometimes these matters are ineffable, unexplainable. Whatever the case, I made the pizza dough exactly right, with the correct balance of flours, yeast, water, salt and olive oil; kneaded the dough just as long as it, um, needed; the heat on the back porch was perfect for the first and second rising; I mean it all worked so that the crust, when it emerged from the 500-degree oven after 11 minutes, was thin yet with a slightly dense and chewy texture and a bit crisp at the moderately puffy circumference.

(BTW, I read somewhere that an oven heated at 500 degrees for an hour will reach a temperature of 550, the upper limit for a domestic range. That’s adequate, but I yearn for a wood-fired brick oven and the ideal 800 degrees that cooks a pizza in four minutes and chars the bottom of the crust. Sob. Weep.)

As you can see in the photograph, the pizza was topped with slices of tomatoes and bell pepper — very thin slices — with splotches of ricotta and mozzarella cheeses and Italian sausage. Underneath was a foundation of chopped fresh basil. Also: some diced white onion and two stalks of chopped green onion and, finally, gratings of Parmesan and pecorino cheeses. A dribble of olive oil across the surface as the last touch. Have mercy, everything worked together beautifully.

So did the wine. I opened a bottle of the V. Sattui Black Sears Vineyard Zinfandel 2007, from Napa Valley’s Howell Mountain appellation. At an elevation of 2,400 feet, Black Sears in one of the highest vineyards in California. The wine ages 16 months in French oak, 50 percent new, 50 percent used or “seasoned.” The color is ruby-black, nigh unto opacity, and while that dark hue indicates quite a bit of extraction, the wine is compellingly clean and fresh. The bouquet teems with hints of blackberry, black currant and mulberry is a cloud of cloves, black pepper, lavender, licorice and slate-like minerality. The most important aspect of the wine, other than that it’s downright delicious, is its precise balance and its impeccable integration of elements married to the power of dusty, rock-ribbed mountain-grown tannins and scintillating acidity. It’s the sort of warm, spicy, lively wine that makes you want to keep sipping. Truly a fine example of the zinfandel grape, with no exaggeration, no flamboyance of over-ripeness or high alcohol; by high, nowadays, I mean 15 percent and over. Alcohol in here is 14.5 percent. Production was 400 cases; winemaker was Brooks Painter. Excellent. About $40, at the winery or mail order.

A sample for review.

I don’t mean that the Ridge Vineyards Three Valleys 2008, Sonoma County, is the kind of wine that brings you to your knees, makes you want to kiss the earth and thank your lucky stars that you’re alive. Those wines are rare. What I do mean is that this is a reasonably priced, thoughtfully crafted, quietly confident wine that dictates no extremes and tolerates no exaggeration. Its balance and integration are lovely to behold, and it happens to be delicious. It’s not an Exceptional wine in my rating scheme, but in its own way, it’s perfect.

Last night, I made Jamie Oliver’s Pasta alla Norma, about which I have written before, and opened to drink with the dish this Ridge Three Valleys 2008. The wine is a blend of 74 percent zinfandel, 11 percent petite sirah, 5 percent carignane, 4 percent mataro and 3 percent each syrah and grenache. Mataro is a little-used synonym for the mourvèdre grape. Notice the oak regimen: American oak barrels, 33 percent new and 1-year-old; 20 percent 2-years-old; 47 percent 5- or 6-years old. No taint of toasty new oak or woodiness mars the integrity of the wine’s fruit and finely-meshed tannic structure. Bouquet and flavor profile meld seamlessly in a welter of dusty plums, black and red currants and a touch of pert mulberry bolstered by hints of potpourri, sandalwood and granite-flecked minerals. Vibrant acidity whets the palate, leaving your taste buds eager for another sip, while the smooth, supple texture fills the mouth with impressive but not imposing weight. To remind us that the majority of grapes in the blend are zinfandel, the finish brings in notes of briers, brambles and black pepper. While head winemaker at Ridge is still the venerable, if not saintly, Paul Draper, the artisans of this wine were Eric Baugher, winemaker at the company’s Monte Bello facility, and John Olney, winemaker at Ridge’s Lytton Springs winery. 14.2 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2013 or ’14. Excellent. Suggested retail price is $22; I paid $25 here in Memphis.

Reading over what I wrote in this post, it occurs to me that in its wholesome clarity of purpose, its authenticity and integrity, its complete level of sensual and intellectual satisfaction, its general unfussiness and lack of ego, the Ridge Three Valleys 2008 is precisely the sort of wine that should make us thank our lucky stars.

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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July 4 is our country’s Independence Day. How about on July 5, we declare independence from oak.

Yesterday, as befits a patriotic mood, I made a tomato salsa and then fired up the old Weber and grilled some split-open bratwurst and wedges of baguette; LL made potato salad. Voila! A very nice Fourth of July supper, which we ate on the back porch with the increasing sounds of firecrackers and the distant dull boom of pyrotechnics burgeoning round about; and the dogs exhibiting nervous jitters by twitching ears and soulful restlessness.

In sly-boots mode, I opened a bottle of The Federalist Zinfandel 2007, Dry Creek Valley, which bears, as you can see, the familiar visage of Alexander Hamilton from the U.S. $10-bill, based on the portrait executed by John Trumbull in 1805, except that on this label the figure faces to the right instead of to the left, as it does on the good old sawbuck.

Someone writes on the back label: “As leader of he Federalist party in the late 1700s, Alexander Hamilton was also a founding father and ally of the Declaration of Independence,” which is rather like saying that Benjamin Franklin was an ally of electricity, but what one must vehemently take issue with is this statement: “Around the same time, the roots of Zinfandel were beginning to grow and expand out of Europe and into the U.S.” Similarly, the wine’s website says: “The History of Zinfandel dates back to the 1700s, when farmers in the northeastern United States attempted to cultivate this as yet unknown varietal.”

Bad history, class, produces bad karma, just as lazy logic proceeds to ignorance.

In the excellent and highly readable Zinfandel: A History of a Grape and Its Wine (University of California Press, 2003), Charles L. Sullivan documented with meticulous research the zinfandel grape’s entrance into the New World in a batch of cuttings sent in the late 1820s or early 1830s from Vienna to George Gibbs of Long island, an amateur and fairly obsessive horticulturist, and from his care to Boston. These grapes, under the name “zinfindal,” became popular in Boston in the 1830s and ’40s for hot-house growing as table grapes. They were not intended as wine grapes because two centuries of experience had taught the colonists and recent Americans that the climate of New England was not amenable for European (vinifera) grapes in a vineyard setting. All of this took place some 20 or 30 years after Hamilton died on July 12, 1804, from wounds inflicted by Aaron Burr in their famous duel, not in “the 1700s.”

Another misleading statement on the back label is this: “Our Dry Creek estate-grown Federalist Zinfandel is hand crafted to bring out the true individuality of the Zinfandel grape.” If only that were true, or, at least, if only it had worked out that way, because in fashioning this wine, its makers succeeded primarily in bringing out the toasty, spicy, deeply vanilla-tinged aspects of oak barrels. I kept looking for, hoping for, some element, some feature that would relate the Federalist Zinfandel 2007 to the character of its grape, to zinfandel’s innate briery currant and brambly plum scents and flavors, to its peppery flair, but no, the wine continued to express its oak-infused personality, making it just like scores, if not hundreds, of other indistinguishable red wines from California, enjoyable perhaps, if you don’t mind that spicy vanilla, but inauthentic. 14.2 percent alcohol. 2,570 cases. Very Good. About $25.

A sample for review.

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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You’ll have to do a bit of searching for the Purple Hands Oregon Red Wine 2007, because the ’08 version is on the market. The ’07, however, is a wine of such marked individuality that I urge you to track it down.

This is a product associated with Ken Wright Cellars. If you cast your minds back, you’ll remember when Wright was the winemaker for Domaine Serene and Panther Creek before setting out on his own to make small lots of vineyard designated pinot noir (and a little chardonnay and pinot blanc).

Purple Hands 2007 is a blend of 85 percent merlot, 10 percent pinot noir and 5 percent cabernet franc. Now to many people, myself included, using pinot noir as a blending grape is anathema; pinot noir, the great Holy Grail Grape, stands on its own merits! Yet in Purple Hands ’07, pinot noir lends some fleshiness and spice to a pretty damned seductive wine. It’s warm and funky and meaty, wild and exotic, bursting with black currant, black plum and blueberry scents and flavors that contain hints of cedar and mulberry, lavender, rose petal and gravel. The wine ages 11 months in French oak, only 10 percent of which are new barrels, so wood remains in the background as subtle, supple support. Nothing subtle, though, about the wine’s briery, brambly elements, its touches of damp earth and moss-like tea. A few minutes in the glass bring up layers of fine-meshed, slightly grainy tannins. It’s gratifying to come across a wine that expresses a personality unlike all the other wines out there. Very Good+. About $18-$20.
Purple Hands ’08 should be different; it’s a blend of 50 percent merlot, 35 percent syrah and 15 percent pinot noir.

A sample for review.

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