Monday, July 23, 2012

Get Right Back Where We Started From

I have the good fortune to do a fair number of sample reviews in this space. After I finished my recent review of the wines from Biltmore Estates, Lisa at Folsom & Associates and I got into a discussion about grilling. She offered me the opportunity to sample a couple of Zinfandels from Ravenswood and I accepted. (Shocking, I know. I also received some Big House wines from them, but that’s for another column.)

Cracking these wines brought us a little reminiscence. Zinfandel was the grape that started us down the road towards the household’s oenological addiction. About seven years ago, the Sweet Partner in Crime and I took our first vacation to wine country -- Sonoma, specifically. We’d become wine drinkers at this point, but our house wines were generally Meridian Chardonnay and whatever Rosemount Garden Shiraz blend was on sale at the time.

This way lies madness...and tastiness!
We made our way towards our B&B in Healdsburg – a pretty cushy place called the Grape Leaf Inn. We got there in time for their “evening wine tasting” in the building’s cellar. The cellar was designed as a “speakeasy.” Seriously – the stairs down were hidden by a bookcase. (An architectural feature that I’ve always wanted for The Cave, but it just isn’t practical.) Anyway, we headed downstairs, bellied up to the bar, and our tastress Amy poured us a couple of glasses of Dark Horse Zinfandel. I was skeptical. All I knew about Zin at the time was the cotton-candy-in-a-glass. A little swirl, a little sip…Boom.

This huge, fruity monster of deliciousness changed me forever. I hadn’t encountered anything like it. Our normal Shiraz was a big, fruity creation – but there wasn’t a lot of structure. This was alcoholic, muscular, and in-your-face with dark fruit flavors, tannins, chocolate, and all sorts of other yummies. It practically screamed, “THIS is why you have a palate.”

The descent into oenological addiction.
Over the next couple of years, Zinfandel became a mild obsession for the SPinC and I. We loved the stuff. It went so well with anything grilled and was just dynamite with our evening chocolate. When we got back from California, we cast about for some Zins we could keep around as everyday wines. The one we settled on? Ravenswood.

As Zinfandel’s popularity rose across the country, the flavor profile of everyday Zins began to change, much as California Chardonnays did with “oaky & buttery” at the turn of the millennium. Zinfandels were big wines as it was – but it seemed like there was a race on between many of the major producers to make the biggest, baddest, highest-alcohol juice possible. I remember seeing Zins that were upwards of 17% alcohol. This change, coupled with our exploration of wines with a little more subtlety, caused us to drift away from Zin for a while. I was looking forward to sampling our old friend Ravenswood to see if things might have mellowed out a bit. Besides, everyone needs a big-ass wine from time to time, especially if that wine brings back happy memories.

Ravenswood makes several levels of Zin. Their “Vintner’s Blend” series comes from grapes from across California. They make “County” wines from some of the major Zin-growing regions of the state, as well as some single vineyard and limited release wines. We received two bottles – the Ravenswood 2010 Vintner’s Blend Old Vine Zinfandel and the Ravenswood 2009 Lodi Zinfandel. The Vintner’s blend retails for around $10. The Lodi around $13.

(One quick note about the term “Old Vine.” There's no real guideline for what constitutes an actual "old" grapevine. The general rule of thumb is "older than 45 years." Winemakers usually turn to Potter Stewart for direction -- they know it when they taste it. Since there's nothing cast in stone, the term can be applied somewhat loosely for marketing reasons.)

On tasting, I was relieved to discover the fruit bomb-iness that I’d come to associate with most California Zins had been dialed back a little bit, apparently. Don’t get me wrong, these are both pretty beefy wines, but the alcohol content is a much more manageable 13-15%. There’s a nice flavor contrast between those two. The Vintner’s Blend seems designed more of a crowd-pleaser. There are big cherry and blueberry scents and flavors, but the tannins are relatively mild and the finish is lingering and somewhat soft initially.

The Lodi had a little more character.” It needed some vigorous swirling, because straight from the bottle, it was very tannic and tight. Once it opened, there’s distinct vanilla on the nose. The flavor has the same backbone of dark fruit, but it’s spicier and adds plums. The tannins gripped firmly and lingered much longer than the Vintner’s. We split on these. I preferred the Lodi. The SPinC, the Vintner’s. In short, if more tannin is your thing, go with the “County” wines.

With food, Zinfandel cries out for MEAT, and the classic pairing is a slab of messy barbecue ribs. Alas, the SPinC and I are on a bit of a diet, so ribs weren’t an option. We settled for a couple of nice spice-rubbed steaks, some foil-pack beets from our garden, and some garlic-sauteed red potatoes. Alongside the meal, the Vintner’s was better as general all-around table wine. However, the Lodi was simply exceptional next to the beets and the potatoes. It seemed like it played along in a more friendly fashion with the beets’ sweetness. With chicken or ribs slathered in barbecue sauce or a sweet rub, the Lodi would probably be a solid bet.

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