The Zinfandel History-Mystery

Zinfandel is often called “America’s Grape” because it formed the basis for our first true commercial wine industry and isn’t found (at least under this name) as an important wine grape anywhere else in the world. It’s of the family vitis vinifera (which all wine grapes belong to), so it had to have originated somewhere in Europe. But where?

bedrock zin old vines

It’s taken years of research and some trips down blind alleys, but over the past three decades, Zinfandel’s story has finally been definitively unraveled.

The grape arrived in the US in the late 1820s from the Imperial Nursery of Austria. By the 1830s, it was widely grown in greenhouses around Boston and New England as a popular table grape. When unsuccessful prospectors in California’s 1849 gold rush turned to farming instead, they quickly realized that wine would make a fine cash crop. And so they ordered a wide range of grapes from nurseries back East – and got Zinfandel in the mix.

Pushed Out, but Now Back Again
The vine’s hearty constitution, high yields, and quality wine – a visiting French winemaker compared it to “good French claret” – quickly established Zin as a favorite varietal. As more prestigious French varietals – we’re looking at you, Cabernet Sauvignon – arrived in the later 1800s, Zinfandel was increasingly seen as a “common” grape and was pushed out of prime vineyard sites in Napa and Sonoma.

But Zin’s hearty constitution and relegation to stony and sandy soiled sites where Cabernet doesn’t thrive saved it. The phylloxera mite doesn’t like these impoverished soils, so Zin avoided the plague that struck California in the 1890s and early 1900s. And when Prohibition devastated California’s grape growing and wine making industry, abandoned Zin vines just kept on growing even while left untended. Leaving them ready to be rediscovered and rehabilitated as attention returned to premium red Zinfandel in the 1990s.

’23 and Me’ – for Grapes!
But if the grape got to California from New England and to New England from Austria, where did it come from originally? UC Davis researcher Carole Meredith used DNA profiling to prove that an obscure southern Italian grape called Primitivo was genetically identical to Zinfandel, but that just raised the question: If Zinfandel originated in Puglia, how did it get to Austria?

A clue emerged when researchers discovered that Zinfandel was one of two parents of a Croatian vine called Plavac Mali. The other parent turned out to be an even more obscure Croatian grape, suggesting that Zin had been growing in Croatia long enough for a crossing to occur. Finally, Dr. Meredith discovered a very old, nearly extinct vine on the island of Kastela called Crljenak Kaštelanski that looked promising. DNA testing proved that this vine was identical to Zin and that this slice of what had been the Austro-Hungarian empire was the original birthplace of Zin.

So an unsophisticated immigrant from an obscure Balkan backwater made its way to the USA, struggled in harsh conditions with limited attention and support, and emerged as an American classic. Inspiring, I think.

How Beaujolais Introduced me to Turley Zin

Try this Old Vines Zinfandel from Bedrock Wine Co.

How Beaujolais Reintroduced Me to Turley Zin

Wine lovers of a certain age will recall when red Zinfandel was the big thing in the American wine world, when we talked about the “Rs” (Ravenswood, Ridge, Rosenbloom) and felt a little smug that we knew Zinfandel wasn’t always pink. From the late 1980s through mid-1990s, Zinfandel popularity and prestige exploded, leading Wine Spectator to pronounce in 1995:

“Zinfandel is back in a groove again. Never before has it been this popular or well made. Buoyed by its recent successes, Zinfandel has quietly caught up with and in some cases inched ahead of Merlot and Pinot Noir in the California red wine sweepstakes. Today you can make a strong case that Zinfandel, with all its spice and exotic wild berry flavors, has positioned itself behind Cabernet Sauvignon as the Golden State’s second-best red table wine.” – Wine Spectator 1995.

Larry Turley Enters the Zinfandel Boom

larry turley

Larry Turley

Into the middle of the Zinny boom came Larry Turley. An ER doctor in the Bay Area, Larry had gotten into the wine business with John Williams by creating Frog’s Leap winery on what is now the Turley Estate property. The winery was a success, but by the early 1990s Larry was looking to start something new and embrace his growing love of Zin. So he and Williams split, with John taking the name and moving south to Rutherford and Larry hiring his sister, Helen Turley, to make four wines with purchased Zinfandel fruit from the 1993 vintage.

The rest, as they say, is history. Robert Parker tasted the 1993s and wrote, “This new winery, with its bevy of spectacular releases due to hit the marketplace in April 1995, is sure to create rabid consumer reaction. These are boldly-styled, dramatic Zinfandels. Quantities are limited, but the quality is spectacular.” And Wine Spectator made Turley’s 1993 Hayne Zinfandel number 11 on the 1995 Top 100 list.

The 90s: The Hard-to-Find, Big Zin
By the time I was getting seriously interested in wine in the late 1990s, Turley’s Zins were legendary and something you “had” to try. The problem was finding them, as they were almost all gobbled up by mailing list customers. Bell’s on M Street, NW, would occasionally sneak some Turley onto their shelves (the owners were close to Ehren Jordan, then Turley’s winemaker), and between grabbing a bottle or two there and wines shared by members of my tasting group, I got to try a few.

My verdict? Really. Really. Big. Like 16-17% alcohol big. Impressive, but too much for my then tender palate (which had not yet fallen in love with Chateauneuf du Pape).

Small World: From Beaujolias to Turley
Flash forward to 2013, when after a few years of searching, I’d managed to secure an allocation of Cru Beaujolais from Jules Desjourneys (a long story there, too). We’d listed the wines on our website for a class, but were not yet offering them for sale.

Mike Schieffer Turley

Assistant Winemaker Mike Schieffer asked me “When was the last time you tasted a Turley Zin?”

One day, I came into the store to find an email from a guy named Mike Schieffer asking if we’d be willing to sell him a few bottles before the class. It took me a moment to notice his email address ended “@turleywinecellars.com.” So I wrote him back something a little snarky about the incongruity of someone at Turley hunting out obscure Beaujolais – low-alcohol, low/no oak Gamay from France.

“When was the last time you tasted a Turley Zin?” Mike wrote back. “Next time you’re in Napa we should get together so you can try what we’re making now. I think you’ll be impressed.”

So the next summer I met Mike on the crush pad of the Napa winery in St. Helena and we tasted some 2011s and 2012s.

Which is when I learned that Turley Zinfandels are pretty damn good wines. Mike explained the farming changes Larry had been making and the softening of winemaking approach. I mostly listened, but mainly – wine after wine – kept exclaiming, “That’s delicious” and then consistently guessed alcohol levels that were 1-2 points too low.

As we were winding down, all 6 feet, 5 inches of Larry Turley galumphed onto the crush pad after a day in the vineyards. After a friendly “Hello” and hearing Mike’s explanation of what we were doing, he noticed the open bottles, grabbed the 2012 Estate, poured himself a glass, and took a gulp. “Hey,” he said, “That’s pretty good. I was thirsty.” And then off he went.

Since then – courtesy of some good customers and friends who are long-time Turley buyers – I’ve had the chance to taste more Turley wines, including some shockingly good (to me) 2008s over the past year or two. And I’ve come to appreciate Larry’s summing up: “Hey, that’s pretty good. I was thirsty.”

We have four 2018 Turley Zinfandels on offer at special discounted prices right now – Much of our allocation of 2018 Turley Zinfandel was destined for restaurants, now closed because of covid0-19, so they could well be restricted to on-premise sales in future vintages.

Turley wines four bottles

 

The Insider Family Champagne House: AR Lenoble

Ar Lenoble and glassChampagne is big business, and today most Champagne houses – producers who make their own sparkling wine from fruit they grow and purchase from neighbors – are either very large or owned by bigger houses, insurance companies or global luxury goods firms.

AR Lenoble is different. Although they are one of the smallest houses remaining in Champagne, they have remained independent and family owned and run for more than 100 years. The brother and sister team of Antoine and Anne Malssagne (grandchildren of the founder) head a team of just 11 employees that’s building, as JancisRobinson.com wrote, “probably the most admired boutique family house right now.”

A Clear Focus
Anne and Antoine of LenobleSince taking over the house in 2001, Antoine and Anne have focused not on making “consistent” Champagnes in a static “house style,” but instead on making better and better Champagne every year. They started with a clear focus on their most important vineyard holding, 10 hectares of pure, chalky soils planted to Chardonnay in the Grand Cru village of Chouilly. As they’ve written:

“The expression of Chouilly defines who we are and what we do at AR Lenoble. Chouilly is one of only 17 Grand Cru villages in Champagne and one of only 6 known for Chardonnay. AR Lenoble is one of few producers to use 100% Grand Cru Chardonnay from Chouilly in every single one of our wines.”

To strengthen the quality of their fruit in Chouilly and also in the 1er Cru village of Bisseuil (Pinot Noir) and their Marne holdings in Damery (Pinot Meunier), the Malssagne’s launched an intensive farming improvement program. Using strict pruning, green harvests (cutting off bunches before ripening begins), and allowing cover crops to grow in competition with the vines, AR Lenoble boasts some of the lowest yields in Champagne.

The quality commitment continues in the winery. AR Lenoble uses only juice from the first pressing of the grapes – the “Cuvee” – and never uses any of the permitted second pressing – the Taille. After fermentation, about 30% of each vintage’s wine is held back and added to a “perpetual reserve” that mixes wines from 2001/2002 onward. Some of the reserve ages in tank, but most spends time in either small (225 liter) or large (5,000 liter) neutral French oak for more complexity still.

Retaining Champagne Character in the Face of Global Warming
Over the past 10 years, Antoine and Anne have faced a new challenge – how to retain Champagne’s classic balance, purity and freshness in the face of a warming climate, higher grape ripeness levels, and earlier and earlier harvests.

In the vineyards, AR Lenoble became one of the early adopters of HVE (Haute Valeur Environnementale) farming standards. HVE farming was pioneered by Ambonnay’s Eric Rodez and moves growing as close to organic standards as possible in Champagne’s difficult growing conditions. Using extensive cover crops, reducing sprays, and promoting greater biodiversity in the soil and vineyard forces the vines to work harder and dig deeper to ripen grapes. This lengthens the growing season (more flavor!) and brings grapes to harvest readiness at lower sugar levels and higher acidity (more freshness!).

More Radical Still
And, in the winery, Antoine and Anne did something more radical still. In 2010, they withdrew a portion of their perpetual reserve, bottled it in magnum bottles, added enough sugar and yeast to develop about 1.5 bars of pressure (vs 4 bars for finished Champagne) and then closed the magnums with natural cork.

By holding in magnum under light pressure, AR Lenoble has been able to add even more complexity (from aging on the light lees) while locking in even more vibrancy and freshness in their reserves. As Anne has explained,

“Climate change is a reality. The challenge for the future is to be able to bring as much freshness as possible to our reserve wines. At the end of each harvest, we observe that acidity levels are much lower than they used to be. Reserve wines now need to add complexity and richness but also freshness.”

Following the 2014 harvest, Antoine decided the reserves in magnum were ready to use. He began by blending 40% reserve wines into the 2014 vintage base wines destined for the Brut Intense and Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs NV bottlings. That blend then went into bottle for secondary fermentation and spent three full years resting on the lees to integrate and develop even more complexity.

When ready to ship, the wines were given their usual cuvee names plus a new, special, designation. “Mag 14” on the bottle tells you that the wines are based on vintage 2014 and include reserve wines aged in magnum. And one taste will tell you that all the extra work and time was worth it!

 

What’s Ramato? A Short Primer on … Pinot Grigio!

Palazzone Ramato labelIf it looks like rosé, why is the wine we’re featuring this week called “Ramato?” The Italian means “copper,” and that’s a great description for the slightly orange, onion-skin coppery color you’ll find here.

Most modern rosé wine is made from black grapes – Grenache, Pinot Noir, Tempranillo, etc. – that are allowed to bleed some of their purple color into fermenting juice. Those purple-skinned grapes would turn the wine what we call “red” if left in the juice, but leave behind the various shades of pure pink we’ve come to love in rosé when removed after a few hours.

Not Black or White
Ramato is made from a grape that’s not really “black,” but isn’t really “white” either. It’s “Gris” in French or “Grigio” in Italian – a grape showing a dusky light purple color when ripe on the vine but that has much less pigment trapped in its skin than most black grapes.

Pinot Grigio Grapes
Pinot Gris (in France) or Grigio (in Italy) is the most famous of these gray grapes, and for centuries wineries in northeastern Italy made an orangey/pink wine from them – but not because that’s what winemakers were after! Until modern white wine production methods, including artificial chilling and use of stainless steel, were introduced in the 1950s, there was no way to keep the color out of wine made from Pinot Grigio.
It wasn’t until the 1960s when Santa Margherita began shipping pure white Pinot Grigio to the US and started doing a land-office business that most Italian wineries ditched Ramato and began making the white Pinot Grigio we know today.
And then it wasn’t until about 5-10 years ago that they realized pink wine could sell and returned to the old Ramato style.
While most Pinot Grigio Ramato comes from the low hills of Italy’s Friuli, this is from a touch further south and the cellars of the outstanding Orvieto producer Palazzone. We’ve been enjoying their Umbrian white Vignarco Orvieto for years and featuring their great value Sangiovese/Cabernet/Merlot Umbria Rosso Ross for a few months now. But we’re especially excited by this new addition to the line and – especially given the great introductory price – we think you will be, too!
Palazzone Ramato bottle

Update on Chain Bridge Cellars and “Reopening”

store is open but you can't come inLike you, we’re eager to get back to our pre-pandemic way of life and routines. I have photographs to prove that I looked pretty stupid with long hair when I was 14. Nearly 45 years later, it’s still not a good look on me. A haircut would be very welcome!

As Governor Northam has begun moving the Commonwealth towards more relaxed personal and business restrictions, we’ve been getting lots of questions about when we’ll return to more normal operations and allow customers to enter the store. While the calculus is complex, our current answer is simple: Chain Bridge Cellars will remain closed to in-store shopping for at least another 30 days and, quite likely, longer.

The Risk-Reward Tradeoff
Every family and business owner has to make their own decisions about direct customer contact while the novel coronavirus remains active. We sympathize with our neighbors in Northern Virginia and the wine industry who’ve been unable to earn the money they need to provide for families and staff during the crisis. We support those who feel the need to trade off increased risk of infection against the threat of financial ruin.

Our situation is different: We sell a product that people can buy without trying on for fit or receiving any personal contact from a service provider. Our product is one that people continue to want to have during the crisis, and one we’re able to sell effectively online, via email and over the phone and get to you through curbside pick-up and local delivery. And it’s one that people can no longer purchase and enjoy in the comfort of a sit-down restaurant.

Most of all, we have been incredibly fortunate in the amazing support we’ve received from you, our customers. In the early days of the crisis, more than a few of you essentially manufactured reasons to buy wine from us to help us out. But since then, you’ve continued to support us by putting up with the awkwardness of online/phone shopping, contactless pick-ups, and local delivery.

And, even more importantly, you’ve been sending us your friends and neighbors by the boatload. We are humbled – and sometimes staggered – by the number of new customers we’ve met over the past weeks who have told us, “My neighbor/friend/cousin/work colleague told me Chain Bridge Cellars would help me find wines I’d like and make it easy to get them.” We are now serving around ten times the number of new customers each week we’d see during normal times, and you are the reason why.

Staff Pictures-1

Continuing to Thrive
As a result, while so many good businesses and great people are struggling during the crisis, we are thriving. But we’re only able to continue to thrive if our staff stay well. We are five people who work in close contact with each other all day long and then head our separate ways to families who are doing their best to stay safe and well, too. If any of our team contracts the coronavirus, it seems a dead lock certainty that it will spread across the staff and to our families in very short order.

And, if that happens, the best case we can hope for is that we’ll have to shut down – and earn no revenue at all – for two to three weeks. The worst case doesn’t bear discussion.

So, as long as we’re able to continue earning enough to pay the staff and our bills, we’re going to take the maximum steps we can to prevent infection of our staff through customer contact. The shop is too small to maintain six feet of separation between customers and staff at all times, and it would be all but impossible for us to disinfect every surface you touch that we might, or every surface we’ve touched that you might.

We know this is frustrating to many customers and would-be customers. Every day, we watch people approach our door, read the signs, and then walk-away. And this frustration can be extreme: We read with horror the stories last week of shootings in fast food restaurants and dollar stores by customers angered at being asked to honor safety requirements.

The Best Balance
But, despite all that, we feel the best balance for us, our staff, and our business is to continue to keep the sales floor closed to customer traffic for the immediate future. We’ll keep re-evaluating this position based on the status of the virus in our community and how our business is doing. Hopefully, we’ll see positive changes in transmission rates and/or improved treatments soon and will be able to move back to “normal” more quickly than we currently expect.

Thanks so much for your ongoing support and understanding. If you have any questions, concerns, suggestions, whatever, please let us know. You can email me directly or call us at 703.356.6500. We welcome hearing from you.

Doug in Mask

Patricia Green Cellars 2018 Pinots

Jim Anderson2Jim and winery co-founder, the late Patricia Green, have always had a knack for connecting with great grapes and identifying vineyard blocks, bunches of clones, and individual barrels of bubbling juice that have something special to say.

Jim – with partner Patty Green and on his own since her untimely death – has been exploring the nuances of Oregon’s Pinot Noir Vineyards, the impact on those grapes of destemming vs whole cluster fermentation, new versus used wood, different coopers, even some kooky sounding stuff like adding lees back into barrels (don’t knock it – it’s how he make Notorious!).

For the past four to five vintages, it’s become abundantly clear to me that Jim is now 100% dialed in to what Willamette Valley Pinot Noir wants to be, and especially what it wants to be in each of the 30+ bottlings he makes. As Jim will freely admit, it’s probably not smart to make 30+ bottlings of Pinot Noir in one winery. But when each has something deliciously wonderful to say, what are you going to do?

Patricia Green 2018sThe 2018 Pinots from Jim and the team at PGC are pretty breathtaking. They show the character of the vintage, the unique elements of each plot of dirt where the grapes grow we call terroir, and the light imprint of impeccable, precise, and low-intervention winemaking.

But here’s the thing you really need to know: Jim Anderson’s 2018 Pinot Noirs are stupid delicious, vividly exciting, and deeply satisfying to drink right this very minute and will (hard as it is to believe) get better over the next 10-15 years (even the Reserve!).

For this, which we hope is only our first offering of Patricia Green Cellars Pinots, we’ve selected four wines that highlight something unique about Jim’s work in the winery and vineyards.

You can mix/match your way to best prices on all:

  • Patricia Green Pinot Noir Reserve 2018 (from $24.98)– The most ridiculous Pinot Noir value in the world? Perhaps. From fruit grown on the Estate, in Durant, Freedom Hill, and other vineyards (including one too famous to name). Raspberry, pomegranate, citrus blossoms, spice and smoke and a stellar finish. 92 points Wine Spectator; 91 points Wine Enthusiast
  • Patricia Green Pinot Noir Estate 2018 (from $29.98)– Ribbon Ridge Pinot is all about full-throttle fruit, bold tannins, and the salty minerality given by marine sedimentary soils. Expressive, full of tart and sweet fruits, and lovely cinnamon and orange peel complexity. 93 points Wine Spectator; 91 points Wine Enthusiast
  • Patricia Green Pinot Noir Balcombe Vyd 2018 (from $36.98)– A classic volcanic soil, Dundee Hills, Pinot Noir with blueberry and black raspberry fruit, deep concentration, and a firm, smoke-and-spice inflected, finish. 92 points Wine Spectator; 94 points Wine Enthusiast.
  • Patricia Green Pinot Noir Lia’s Vyd 2018 (from $31.98)– From a unique site that blends both volcanic and marine sedimentary soils and a range of clones, this is one of the prettiest, most floral, and delightful wines in the PGC portfolio. Consistently one of my personal three favorite wines here and both approachable and hauntingly beautiful in 2018.

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