After a previous weeks debacle regarding a chain of corked or bad bottles before eventually landing on the Aromo Carmenere, I went digging into my trove and came upon this bottle of Predator Old Vine Zinfandel. I honestly forgot about this wine, sitting tucked in a stack of cases in the corner of my room for over three months since my trip up to see my sister and her husband in Connecticut. Besides the impetus to make the trip to see them that weekend, part of it was all the talk about this place called Total Wine & More: a magical mecca packed like a Costco with wine. It sounded amazing, clearly I was interested if not a little skeptical about seeing this wonderland as I'm conditioned to places like Astor Wines and Warehouse Wines & Spirits where it seemed wine was already wall-to-wall with great finds. So call me a bit naive but humanity knows no bounds in the category of grandeur when we put our will to it: I was blown away by the sheer quantity and scope of varieties of wines that this place was stocked with and so overwhelmed was I that I had a hard time remembering what it was I wanted to drink. With my initial conception lost, so many labels, regions and types that everything seemed to mesh until I thought I was going to have to take a nap and return with an air bag.
Now that my melodramatic introduction is over, if I haven't already, I'll admit it again: New World wines haven't had my attention in a long time. I kind of fell off the boat somewhere around four or five years ago, call it a work hazard that dually swayed my palate and then converged onto this romantic conception for this blog causing me to rushing through my thoughts with inspiration peeked and then feeling strangely cheated that I hadn't researched further the wines I was peddling. Old World wines I feel still hold more pedigree than any other part of the world and I needed to catch up on those classics while dabbling here and there in the contemporary, which has become, more often than not for me, to mean non-West Coast wines. But lately - and by that I mean in the past nine months or so - I've felt the pull back into Californian and Oregonian wine, picking up a few in order to focus a new blog post around Chardonnay or Pinot Noir with the explicit purpose of contrasting them against their Old World counterparts, or as this entry is a testament to, found myself drawn to one of the three enchanting varietals that captured my attention long ago. You might find it strange but Gewurztraminer, Tannat and Zinfandel left an impression on me, partly from their storied pasts and partly of course from what I found in the glass.
Regarding Zinfandel, I recalled having tasted the Ferrari-Carano Zinfandel many moons ago. It was a gift to the family over Thanksgiving or Christmas from one of my sister's ex-boyfriends. It was beautifully spiced, structured, robust and dynamic but retained a kind of leanness about it - I think I'm the only one who touched that bottle the entire night, the palate too "sweet" for any others. So now in the present, having had a few expressions under the belt, as I ogled the New World section for its Zinfandels, I looked over them in the hopes of having something similarly inspiring or moving but always managed to pause because I knew deep down the risk (lets call it fear) I was running with what I might get, that or I was dissuaded by the rising prices that some of the wines go for nowadays.
What I feared, and not at all surprising, are the seriously oaky iterations of Zinfandels with high alcohol, it's practically the calling card, and often commingled with being robust, bold, spicy and sometimes jammy. With that kind of taste profile you might be thinking you were popping a bottle of Port or dessert wine, wines that often take determination or a celebration for most to even consider casually opening (for the record, I generally have no problem opening wines like this, they happen to be some of my favorites and I could easily sip all night on a dessert wine or Vin Jaune or Port ... just so long as it's Friday now that I'm in my thirties). It's not that there aren't Zinfandels with more delicacy - perhaps a stylistic difference but more often what you'll get are these traits to varying degrees. It's safe to remember here that Zinfandel is not Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot or Syrah from Australia. Zinfandel has louder characteristics than either the first two and I would argue is equal to the third, equal in many ways, one being it's required determination level to get through a bottle more times than not - the sort of mid-late 90's new world curse of big, bold and oaked.
And then I had a queer thought: it's a fine line to walk when you get used to a style of wine: you look for those taste profiles in your drink and food, everything that is not like it is weighed against this background and when you're hit with a dish or drink that comes off as brusque or bold or just unexpected, you might feel like you've been sideswiped and in need of a medic. From there your conceptions of what to expect are instantly solidified, biases created, aversions implanted and you might never get back around to those types of wines again unless they're in your company and the only available drink at hand. The sad part is - at least I feel this way when speaking with people who are FIGS-centric - is that, following this rather rigid progression that I've laid out, not that there aren't more ways to a conclusion than one, that these wines aren't given the same kind of consideration like their more widely accepted Old World counterparts even when they offer similarly enchanting taste profiles; or perhaps are overlooked and then excused aside and substituted for some Old World wine that would probably fall within the same estranged category but is perceived more acceptable; or simply aren't treated with the same kind of attention that is due when factoring in the history that lay behind them, that's been built upon and acknowledging that the wines have grown into something that commands respect. I realize much of this has to do with one's taste preferences and I don't mean to sound as if these wines aren't awarded or recognized or haven't become an economic force in the world, or are all good across the board but there seems to be a strange undercurrent that belies their due respect. I mean Zinfandel now has ZAP and small producers to thank for its growing influence, but in a broader sense, if wines that could be lumped together in this estranged grouping have been given this attention by said crowds or people in-the-know, I've never been in that company or can't afford to be in that company and so am completely out of the loop; I'm not really qualified to speak on behalf of the work by sommeliers and the food scene, I just can't afford to go out and patronize establishments and schmooze about their preferences, but what I glean is that there is a disparity, perhaps some of it is bias, some preference, some what the establishment requires, some of it may just have to do with what food is being served and what pairs best are not American wines. I'm not sure if this is based in bias or wine making styles - probably a little of both as bias will navigate us away from certain choices unless our taste preferences are peaked and satisfied at the onset. But it seems a certain level of appreciation should be an across the board kind of rule, hence my two-to-three day window for tasting wines because if a wine isn't meant to be open for that long, oh well, I'll find that out, or perhaps it is yet what it turns into isn't what I wanted or expected; it's all about the experience for me at least and then the framework of where the wine fits in (region, style, varietal, etc). It's an interesting thought, perhaps it'll go show up somewhere later in a more concise entry and work my way out of what is beginning to sound like a myopic starting point, one based in older experiences, dinner table chatter and aged familial influences and not one considering what's developing on the ground.
With that said, in this shopping spree I took a risk, albeit a small one as we had spent far too long in this endless wine mecca, and picked up this bottle from locations and winemakers unknown to me. I mean, Lodi isn't unknown to me but it's been a very long time since I've dabbled in California.
There's really no way around it, Zinfandel has had an interesting unfolding story over the last thirty years. Most people wouldn't associate such an intriguing background, what with all that White Zinfandel taking over its formative years back in the 1970's and hogging all the attention until perhaps the mid-90's when serious wine makers, who had been trumpeting its qualities, crafted wines with more restraint and balance. Places like Dry Creek, Sonoma, Lodi, Amador and Paso Robles are some of the AVAs known for their old vine Zinfandels, planted sometime around 1850's and quickly becoming "America's grape" in the following years. It was known to be a powerhouse varietal with little hint as to where its origins lay, just a romantic story of clippings that came from the East Coast with gossip that they came from the Imperial collection in Vienna. It wasn't until the 1970's that fancy scientific testing confirmed that it was very similar to Italy's Primitivo and related to Croatia's Plavac Mali. In the following decades, those researchers and growers championing this grape continued their hunt bringing them to the Dalmatian coast where, through more DNA testing, found only 9 vines going by the name of "Crljenak Kastelanski" intermixed in thousands that matched Zinfandel genetically. After extensive DNA testing on Zinfandel vineyards they managed to find a single 90-year-old grapevine in Split, Croatia solidifying the grape's historical name as Tribidrag and showing that it has been around since at least the 15th century. Fascinating!
So now that it's regained its ancestry, all of those old vine Zinfandels planted in the late 19th century in Lodi, Amador, Paso Robles and other parts, shine wonderfully with a new bit of pedigree in the center of California. Not that they weren't already being made into great wines by skilled craftsmen, but now a definitive link connections them back to the old world and to a slew of varietals with their own solid reputations stretching back centuries. All this information has reinvigorated my interest in this varietal, I mean the wine did that too but now I'm certainly going to start looking at a few on my next trip.
For some background on the area, the Lodi AVA sits just above middle in the Central Valley of California - a vast depression between the coastal mountains to the west before the Pacific Ocean is met and to the east by the Sierra Nevada Mountains, but more closely and for our purposes, it sits between the Sierra Foothills and the San Francisco Bay Delta. It's this delta and the connecting tributaries that have deposited over the centuries a rich sandy-clay loam soil and the proximity to the bay that give the area its Mediterranean climate. This means the grapes on hot days are cooled by the influx of air from the bay, retaining the acidity that might otherwise get beaten out the warmer temperatures.
But where does that leave me? Aside from having renewed interest, I'm still a little on the fence with this style of wine. It's slyly seductive and encouraging: on the first day the oak influence is hard to miss beside the intense captured radiant warmth, the burning parsley and oregano over dark berried fruits - namely blueberries - with that distinct undercurrent of spice. It was big and bold while only hinting at more delicate notes that it couldn't quite give up until the second day, when strangely it started out with a little brush of cooled tossed salad with black olives before perking up again as if reawakened by the fact that I was sipping it; the gradual movement into a forest whose air was tinged with equal parts moist soil and dryness still being maintained from the streaming sun's beams from above, through the canopy and instigating further change as the herbs bent into baking spices and blueberries sparking flecks of cinders into your nose causing you to twitch. Although this sounds of an intense scene, it was calmly balanced by the creep of a lakeside breeze trying to eek through and then this sort of chalky base that I would never have thought to associate with Zinfandel of all varietals. Suffice it to say I was surprised and drawn in: those cooler aromas began to take over - the lakeside breeze, the olives, the forest - continued to widen the view the longer it lay open while the heavier oaked and warmer herbal notes seemed to collect in a jumbled mass at the bottom as if ebbing wildly trying to find their equilibrium with the rest; the sensation of warmth pushed to the edges but never I would say vacant from the whole, always a persistent impression in the background. In hindsight, when considering the location and its impression onto the grapes, these characteristics that I'm hinting at become not at all strange and in fact draw a plain parallel to the bold flavors and the creeping expansive wet minerality! This is the best way I can describe the eventual sketch and painting, though I think the sketch was the more successful. The painting was done on linen, an old t-shirt from Banana Republic I had lying around and falling out of disuse. Once stretched, primed and the under painting begun I realized soon after that another coat or two of primer would have probably done better, the fabric absorbed just enough which is why the image has a faded and almost worn look to it; the paint was being applied to areas but not able to spread because of the uneven application of gesso, and so felt more like dry brush painting rather than smooth wet painting with oils. I guess in looking back, comparing the sketch to the painting it captures the intent and impression of the wine as it felt, not done out of conscious intent but by accident yet worked through enough to make it representative of the sketch and as the wine felt. The next painting in the works is being done on an old cotton sweater and with intent to enhance the depiction. (A side note, all the paintings are done on something other than canvas, usually a linen of some sort like bed sheets, cotton being the most agreeable fabric; I like the texture I can get from some and the smoothness of others).
Since I wrote this entry up about three months ago, in the months since I've had this wine I've gone on a hunt for more Zinfandels and found myself swept up in it's brewing nature. I've tried to avoid the usual suspects - St Francis, Ravenswood, Cline etc - and opted for things like The Witching Stick, Sextant and Peirano Estate Vineyards. It's not that I don't want to try their wines, I just want to try those outside the ones I already know, besides I can get them at any time and I've found that I like these wines as long as their not trying to replicate the essence of a tree within the bottle or are overly jammy (extracted?). I've also found, for all my hankerings as of late for bigger bolder wines, I won't lie, the sensation of that coating texture, the intense oak notes and barreling weight just isn't as pleasing as it was in my youth. I still have some hesitation in the idea of spontaneously purchasing a bottle of Zinfandel, just like any California red that comes to mind- it's not the grapes per se but the characteristics that come along with varietals - but my compass is shifting ever so slightly.
Regarding the alcohol, never at any moment did I feel the burn, I mean, I guess 14% alcohol isn't actually that bad by today's standards, not when some wines are pushing 16% in some categories. So go reach for a Zinfandel, become reacquainted with American history and cozy yourself up to a glass as the season turns to winter (eventually?).
Producer: Predator Wines, The Rutherford Wine Company
PoP: Total Wine & More (Connecticut) - $15.00