Silvia Puig’s Priorat

If you’ve not yet gotten to know the En Numeros Vermells wines – well, are you ever in for a treat! Priorat is an unbelievably rugged wine region in Catalonia, a couple of hours inland an up-country from Barcelona.

The climate is Mediterranean, with hot sunshine partially moderated by altitude and wind. The vines grow on steeply sloped hillsides of fractured slate – often you have to dig through a foot or more of broken rock to get to the shallow soils where young vines are planted.  

Priorat “Soils”

An Overlap with Chateauneuf
If the notion of soil hidden by stones brings to mind Chateauneuf du Pape, you’re on the right track. Except the rock if splintered granite instead of rounded off river stones. The main grapes overlap with Chateauneufs – Grenache, Syrah, and Carignan predominate – and ripen to the same big, bold, levels you find in the Southern Rhone.  But Carignan – or Carinyena as it’s called here – plays a much bigger role (about 17% of AiAiAi’s blend). So you can think of Priorat as CdP but with more blue/black fruit character. And a more firm and powerful spine. And with an utterly unique and captivating sense of dusty slate on the nose, palate and finish.  

Silvia Puig has been planting vineyards, growing grapes and making wine in Priorat for her whole adult life, and for the past 10 years or so she’s been creating some of the region’s most exciting, handcrafted, wines under the En Numeros Vermells label. Until recently, she’s made her tiny lots of bold, rich, reds and whites (from a few hundred to 3,000 or so bottles of each wine) in the cellar of her home in the heart of Priorat (as of this vintage, he old co-operative winery in Gratallops).  

Tiny Production (and a Home at Chain Bridge Cellars)
With such tiny production levels and a loyal customer base (like us – we sell more of Silvia’s wines than anyone!), she doesn’t have to present her wines to critics for review. But somehow Josh Raynolds of Vinous got his hands on a bottle of the 2014 AiAiAi.

From that much more difficult vintage, he wrote:  

“A heady, exotically perfumed bouquet evokes ripe red and dark berries, potpourri and Indian spices, along with suggestions of cola and smoky minerals. Concentrated yet lithe, showing strong energy and focus to its juicy black raspberry, lavender pastille and spicecake flavors. The floral quality gains strength with air, carrying through a very long, sweet and gently tannic finish that leaves sappy berry and mineral notes behind.” Vinous (Raynolds) 92 points  

Sound good? Well 2019 is a much better year and this is an even more exciting wine. In fact, even though this is Silvia’s “entry-level” red, it easily outshines most Priorat wineries’ top reds.  

And the name? It comes from Silvia’s experience making wine in the basement of her house while tending young children playing in the cellar. “AiAiAi, get off those barrels.” “AiAiAi, don’t fall in the vat!” But the name is just as apt as a description of your reaction when you taste this stunning 2019: “AiAiAi! That’s delicious!”

ENV AiAiAi Priorat 2017

The ENV Adventure: Limited, Under-the-Radar Wines from Priorat

It’s a story many of you already know well. For those new to the ENV adventure:

silvia puig in store

Silvia Puig visiting the store

Silvia Puig was pretty much born into the wine business – her father, Joseph Puig, is a longtime restaurateur, export manager for Spain’s Miguel Torres and founder of Torres’s operation in Chile. Silvia followed Joseph into the trade, learning winemaking at school and while working at properties in Bordeaux and Spain (including Vega Sicilia’s Alion winery). Eventually, she and Joseph founded their own estate in the Gratallops region of Priorat, in the province of Tarragona southwest of Barcelona.

Silvia and Joseph named their new venture Vinedos de Ithaca, a nod to the Greek settlers who first planted vines in this rugged corner of Spain, and carved an estate vineyard out of the steep hills around the winery. Fairly early on, Jonas met Silvia on a Spanish wine buying trip with importer Olivier Daubresse and began offering her wines here around 2005. Working with their own vines and grapes Silvia purchased from old-time farmers and families across the region, the wines quickly found success in both Spain and in the international wine press both for the traditional reds and, unusually, for Silvia’s striking whites (a rarity in Priorate).

Like so many successful winemakers, Silvia wanted to do something completely on her own, and in 2008 she began the project now called En Numeros Vermells. The name, “Numbers in the Red” and clever label design by local graffiti artist Adria Batet, evoked the rain of bad news showing down on Spain and the world during the late 2000’s financial meltdown.

True “Garage Wines”
ENV 2016s (1)In contrast to the larger production volumes of Vinedos de Ithaca, Silvia designed this project to let her intimately nurture small amounts of wine from grape to bottle on a barrel by barrel basis. The small scale let her largely ignore the normal time and financial pressures of winemaking – with a total production of just a few hundred cases, she was free to let each wine find its own way to maturity and use only the barrels that actually fit in her final blends.

We throw around the terms “garage wine” and “handcrafted” quite a bit, but that’s truly the best way to describe everything about these wines. The En Numerous Vermells “cellar” is the garage of Silvia’s house in the Priorat village of Poboleda, a building that also serves as Silvia’s home and her husband – Belgian chef Pieter Truyts – Brots Restaurant.

Everything By Hand
For this vintage, Silvia has taken over and renovated the abandoned local co-operative winery space. But she still does virtually everything by hand. She tends the 30 or so barrels carefully, tasting and re-tasting to learn how each is developing and gaining a deep understanding of each cask’s unique character, strengths, and weaknesses. Multiple blending trials allow Silvia to explore how her charges work together (or don’t), and create an ideal marriage that lets each site and varietal shine without fighting or overwhelming each other.

Even the packaging is by hand! Silvia dips each bottle in wax by hand and decorates each cardboard six-pack with a unique, often whimsical, drawing in pencil, pen, and marker. You won’t often hear us get all enthusiastic about the box a wine comes in, but this year’s artwork – each box unique – is the most charming yet, echoing some of the exuberance and down to earth elegance you’ll find in the wines.

What’s New in This Release
From the beginning, Silvia has worked with some of the finest old-vine vineyards in all of Priorat, the rugged, dry, slate-covered hills inland from Barcelona. For the past few vintages, she’s refined her winemaking. The whites ferment in tank and then age in new and used French oak. For the reds, Silvia has assembled a set of clay amphora and various sizes of French oak barrels. She takes the ends off the barrels and then puts the grapes in the barrels and amphora, stomps around on them a bit, and lets the winery’s yeast do its thing. After fermentation is done, the grapey wine is pressed off and the young wine returned to the oak barrels (with the ends put back on of course!).

What’s new for these releases is a serous step up in the quality of French oak. After several years urging from Jonas, for this vintage, Silvia invested in very high-end French oak barrels for the new wood portion of each cuvee (about 25-30%). The results are immediately breathtaking and apparent, especially on the Garnatxa Blanca, Garnatxa Carinyena Black Label and Classic White Label. The finer wood has made each wine finer, too, with new levels of textural finesse and purity. The wines feel better in your mouth and offer more detail and precision than ever before.

We really cannot recommend Silvia’s ENV whites and reds highly enough. Please do give them a try!

Images of Silvia’s vineyards from importer Jonas Gustafsson’s 2020 visit just before the pandemic.

Loess Is More for Josef Bauer’s Grüner

“Doug! Doug!” I didn’t expect to hear my name called as I walked down the street of a small Austrian village, trying to keep up with importer Klaus Wittauer. But I turned around, and there was Joe Bauer, who’d spotted me with the group and wanted to make sure to say hello.

This was an unplanned, just couldn’t let the chance go by moment on Joe’s part. Indeed, spend a few minutes with him, and you’ll realize that Josef Bauer isn’t a pretentious guy. But the casual manner and friendly, welcoming, smile don’t mean that Joe is casual about his winemaking! Especially in the outstanding 2019 harvest, Joe turned out some truly outstanding wines.

The Soils of Wachau
Joe is part of the 4th generation of Bauer family members to grow grapes and make wine from the steeply sloped hills of Austria’s Wachau region in Danube valley between the towns of Melk and Krems.
 
The river Danube created the valley beneath Wachau’s hills, but the soils are something unique. During the Ice Age, strong winds blew westward from Eastern Europe, bringing with them clay and chalk ground fine by ancient glaciers. This fine light gray sand stuck to the Danube Valley’s hills, gradually building up layers of “loess” anywhere from a few inches to a 10+ meters deep.
 
And, for Wagram Grüner Veltliner, “Loess is More”! Loess holds more water and has a higher mineral content than most other soil types, and Grüner needs both to ripen to perfection. Where the soils are almost all Loess, the wines are richer, riper, and show more fat texture on the palate. Where ancient Danube river pebbles are mixed in, Grüner develops a more intense minerality and keeps a leaner, more vibrant, texture. Where loess is least and deeper alluvial soils prevail, red varietals thrive.
 
Knowing the Land
Joe and his family have had plenty of time to get to know the character of their steeply sloped hillside vineyards and to learn to make wines that let each site shine through beautifully. Farming is practical and reflects the site and vintage characteristics. In damp years, cover crop grows between rows to limit the vines’ water uptake – in dry years, the rows are plowed to get more water into the soil. Chemical use is kept to a bare minimum, and grapes are pruned, thinned, and harvested by hand.
 
Many of you had the chance to taste the quality Joe pulls out of his hillside Grüner Veltliner vines when we showcased the Katharina in previous years. With his 2019, Joe has both made a better wine and is getting the critical attention he so richly deserves. Enjoy it while the great pricing lasts!

Josef Bauer Grüner Veltliner Katharina 2019 from $16.98/ea

The Wine of Spain’s Rias Baixas – Albariño

Rias BaixasIt’s hard to believe that until the 1990s, almost no one outside of the remote, northwestern corner of Spain called Galicia knew about Albariño.

Today, following a resurgence of quality (and much better roads!) Albariño from the seaside region of Rias Baixas is the quintessential summer thirst-quencher and essential table companion for all kinds of seafood.

Walk the vineyards and towns of Rias Baixas, and you’ll smell the seaside scents that appear in the wines. You’ll also notice a touch of humidity in summer and rain – lots of rain! – in spring and fall. To combat the humidity and avoid mold and rot, growers take big blocks of granite – the same granite that, in powdery form, laces the soil – and hew them into 4 to 6 foot high posts. The grape vines are planted at the base of each post and trained to grow up it and then spread their canopy out over wood or metal beams running across.

Rias Baixas VineyardsThis “pergola” system allows the grape bunches to hang down under the canopy and stay healthy due to frequent, drying, sea breezes. As a bonus, traditional farmers can also double up on use of their limited land by raising chickens, pigs, or other foraging animals under the vines!

We’ve featured several Albariños over the years. This week, we have a special offer on Bouza Do Rei Albariño Rias Biaxas 2019 – 100% Albariño from the seaside region of Ribadumía in the heart of the Salnés valley, bounded on two sides by cold Atlantic Ocean water flowing inland through the estuaries – or “Rias” – of Arousa and Pontevedra.

The five families that created the winery all farm their fruit on sandy, granite-laced soils in the traditional way, on those granite “pergolas.”

After the harvest, the team at the winery does as little as possible to turn grapes into wine. The grapes are pressed slowly and then allowed to ferment naturally in cool stainless steel. After a few months resting on the fine lees (spent yeast cells) – adding creaminess and emphasizing minerality – the wine is gently moved to bottling tank and bottle. The slow, easy, movement of the young wine means there’s a tiny bid of dissolved CO2 from fermentation left in the wine, creating a very pleasant prickle on your tongue for the first few sips.

The wine’s delicious and classic Albariño. It opens with more assertive aromatics than are often found here, with big scents of ripe stone fruit, key lime, tangerine and a hint of passionfruit. On the palate there’s fine amplitude and volume to the generous green and orange citrus, stone fruit and passionfruit flavors with plenty of energy and a good dollop of Rias Baixas saltiness from the soils, lees contact, and nearby sea. Really pops nicely on the crisp, dry finish where tangy fruit and lime zest flavors are propelled by more sea breeze saltiness.

A delicious and refreshing solo sipper, you’ll also love how this complements fresh shellfish and seafood served simply or with a pop of salsa or lime.

A Labor of Love: Oregon’s Walter Scott Wines

Erica and Ken Walter ScottWalter Scott is a labor of love from the husband/wife team of Ken Pahlow and Erica Landon.

Ken caught the Oregon wine bug in the early 1990s and soon began showing up at Mark Vlossak’s St Innocent winery in the Eola Hills offering to do anything that needed doing. Eventually, in 1995, he wore Mark down and started helping out at harvest and in the winery on a regular basis, ultimately taking on sales responsibilities there too. During his 14 years working at St. Innocent, Ken took a second job handling sales for a leading Oregon-based importer.

In 2002, he first met Sommelier Erica Landon. Erica had started in the wine business in Portland and at a Mount Hood resort before becoming the sommelier and GM for the Ponzi family’s Dundee Bistro (that’s where Ken first met her in 2002). She went on to earn a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence at Ten 01 back in Portland (while beginning to date Ken in 2007) before becoming Wine Director for a Portland restaurant group and becoming a wine instructor for the trade.

Marrying Experience
Ken and Erica married and decided to give winemaking a try, emptying their retirement accounts to make 165 cases of wine in the great 2008 harvest. In 2009, Ken traded labor for enough space at Patricia Green Cellars to make 650 cases. In 2010, Ken took a new job heading up sales at Evening Land Vineyards in the Eola Hills that allowed him to make his next two vintages there.

Evening Land was a great place for Ken and Erica to take the next step. The Evening Land story is complex, but the key points are that an investor group acquired one of Oregon’s greatest vineyards, Seven Springs, in 2007 and brought in Burgundy’s Dominique Lafon to consult. Ken was able to soak up Lafon’s expertise and also get to know current owner/managers Rajat Parr and Sashi Moorman.

In 2012, Ken and Erica signed up long-time fans Andy and Sue Steinman as partners and, with their help, leased and converted a cider house on the edge of Justice Vineyard in the Eola Hills. Then, in 2014, the biggest step yet – they welcomed a new partner (daughter Lucy) to the venture and left their day jobs to focus on Walter Scott full time.

As Neal Martin reported in The Wine Advocate, “their story is one of essentially risking everything to pursue their dream. If their wines are of this quality, then their sacrifices have been worthwhile.” With influences ranging from Mark Vlossak, Dominique Lafon, the Ponzi family, Sashi Moorman and more, it’s hardly surprising that their Walter Scott wines are good. It’s the way they’re good that’s so delightful.

Great Vineyards, Old-Fashioned Harvest
First, there’s a strong focus on great vineyards here, mainly in the southerly Willamette Valley appellation of the Eola Amity Hills and including one of America’s greatest Pinot Noir sites, Seven Springs. Their vineyards are all dry-farmed and feature predominantly marine sedimentary soils. This kind of dirt brings out the minerality and elegance of Pinot Noir paired with ripe cherry/raspberry/strawberry fruit – what I’d argue is the essence of great Oregon Pinot Noir.

Ken and Erica work with their farming partners to ensure that yields are appropriate to the vintage – lower in cool harvests like 2010 and 2011, higher as needed in warmer years like 2014-2018- and that the fruit is allowed to ripen slowly, without excess sugar and with vibrant acids.

Fostering Complexity
Second, in these climate change days, ripeness is pretty easy to achieve – but complexity can be harder. So Ken monitors all of his vineyards as a single unit, tasting and testing the grapes until he’s confident that all his blocks and clones are about 95% “there.” And then he picks. The mixture of some under ripe, some over ripe, and mostly perfectly ripe grapes of all different clones gives Walter Scott wines an extra layer of complexity and integration and phenomenal depth and freshness.

The strategy worked beautifully in the fairly easygoing 2017 harvest and even better in the more powerful 2018 season. As Josh Raynolds explained after tasting the Walter Scott 2018s, “In 2018, a vintage that generally yielded Pinots of power and structure, the Walter Scott bottlings show admirable freshness and elegance, albeit with depth. I’d hold off on opening them for a few more years but they do drink well after decanting, as I experienced with all of these wines during my tastings.”

Walter Scott Trio

Cooperative Excellence: The Produttori del Barbaresco 2015s

Produttori BarbarescoThe mission of the Produttori del Barbaresco is simple: “Excellence in Barbaresco.” The 54 families who grow the fruit and own the Produttori farm just one grape: Nebbiolo. And there are few winemakers more skilled than Aldo Vacca, managing director and head winemaker, and his team at Produttori del Barbaresco.

Co-op, Reborn
Unlike most well-known Barbaresco estates, Produttori is a co-operative winery, one owned by its growers. The co-op idea came early in Barbaresco, in 1894 when Domizio Cavazza, headmaster of the Royal Enological School of Alba and a Barbaresco resident, brought together 9 vineyard owners to make and market wine collectively.

Produttori vineyardAfter being abolished in the 1920s, Produttori del Barbaresco was reborn in 1958 when the head priest of Barbaresco’s church realized that local vineyard owners were unable to afford to make and profitably market their own wine. Today, the co-op includes 54 members and 250 acres of vineyard.

While the Produttori is a co-op, it’s not “just” a co-op – this is quite likely the single best co-operatively owned winery in the world. Just consider a few of the comments top wine critics have made about their wines over the past 20 years:

“The Produttori del Barbaresco is unquestionably a terrific source for Barbarescos that rival the best made in Piedmont. Although there is a tendency to scoff at wines made by cooperatives, the quality of the wines from this superbly run operation is as high as that from any highly committed, passionate estate-bottler… The Produttori del Barbaresco gets my vote as the best run and most committed cooperative regarding quality, and, most importantly for prospective purchasers, a source for exceptional Barbaresco wine values!” – Robert Parker, Wine Advocate, April 1994
 
“Piedmont’s cooperative winery makes top-notch values. Vacca’s cooperative has always paid its members according to the quality of their crop rather than the quantity. And that’s why it consistently makes outstanding Barbarescos.” – Jo Cooke, Wine Spectator, December 2006
 
“The quiet transformation that has taken place at Produttori del Barbaresco in recent years is nothing short of remarkable. Far from a sleepy, old-fashioned cooperative winery, the Produttori have stepped up their game big time over the last decade or so. The wines remain reference-points, though, especially in years in which the Produttori make their flagship Riservas. The Produttori’s Riservas remain some of the greatest values in the realm of fine, cellar worthy reds.” Antonio Galloni, 2015

Grand Riservas
About those Riservas: The Produttori’s “main” wine is its Barbaresco Normale, a wine made by blending fruit from across its members Barbaresco vineyards. Every vintage, the first question the winemaking team asks itself is, “What is needed to make the Normale a great wine?”

In exceptional harvests, the Normale shines brightly enough that the winery can carve out grapes from its nine great “Crus” or single vineyards and bottle them separately. The best fruit from each of these sites is fermented, aged and bottled separately. Winemaking and aging for each of the Crus is exactly identical, so the remarkable differences you taste between the wines is due entirely to the unique characteristics of each of these great sites.

The “Ultimate Lockdown Wines”
Like all Barbaresco, the Produttori’s Riservas are meant to age and develop gracefully in cellar. We’ll leave you with Monica Larner’s words from her most recent report on Barbaresco and Barolo in Wine Advocate (including these wines):

“The wines presented in this report are hitting the market as the world struggles to cope with COVID-19. Lockdowns, restaurant and retail closures and disruptions to distribution channels have severely shaken vintners’ confidence. For those looking to sell and promote new releases, the unease and uncertainty is paralyzing.

“This is indeed a bleak moment. However, as I worked to better understand these wines, I became profoundly moved by their grace, power and persistence. I am touched by their majesty and beauty, so carefully crafted by the thousands of families, winemakers, vineyard workers, cellar hands, marketers and sales agents collectively responsible for their creation. What I discovered while writing this report are wines that magically gravitate toward the metaphoric, as symbols of culture, territory, humanity and resilience. They are spirited and soulful wines that remind us what optimism takes like.

“Delivered to me during lockdown, these are the ultimate lockdown wines. They are profound expressions built for safekeeping. You should lock them down in your cellar for many years to come.” Wine Advocate July 2020 Week Three

Our 2015 Produttori del Barbaresco Offer
We’re offering eight of the Produttori’s nine Riserva 2015s. We have unusually good supplies of what are often considered the Produttori’s top wines: Asili, Rabaja, Ovello and Montestefano. But, really, you cannot go wrong with any of this year’s releases.

You can see the entire offering on the website at this link. If you’re having trouble deciding, shoot us an email or give us a call – we’ll be delighted to help you assemble the perfect set of 2015 Riservas for you!

Note that six- and 12-bottle savings are mix/match across the offer. Mix/match savings will not display on your online order form or confirmation email, but will be applied before your card is charged. If you have any questions at all, please let us know!

Respect for History; Irreverence for the Status Quo (and a little yeasty fluff)

Adrianna Catena – daughter of Catena Zapata founder Dr. Nicolas Catena – is a historian by trade. Alejandro Vigil knew Adrianna through his work for her family as senior winemaker at Argentina’s finest estate since 2002.

In 2009, they decided to create a new winery for themselves, one they describe as representing “their deep respect for history and tradition, and their complete irreverence towards the status quo.” Their El Enemigo Chardonnay certainly embodies both.

The Traditional … Much of the growing and making of this wine is pretty traditional stuff for Chardonnay in Mendoza and elsewhere.

Fruit grown at high altitudes, allowed to ripen to full flavor while retaining fine acidity, picked by hand, pressed gently, and fermented in barrels and then racked into 500 liter oak casks (about 30% new) to age.

And the “Irreverent” … Then things get a bit “irreverent” and very not “status quo.” Alejandro adds about 20% of last year’s wine to each barrel before the new vintage is poured in.

Flor SherryAnd, instead of fill each barrel full, he leaves a little headroom on most. On that exposed surface the special yeast called “flor” begins to grow, eventually forming a pillowy fluff that covers the wine’s surface and protects it from oxidizing air.

It’s a technique Chardonnay makers in the French region of Jura have been using for years and when done well – and it’s done very well here! – it adds a light nuttiness and sense of salinity to Chardonnay’s ripe, fleshy, fruit. Here, that sense of almost saltiness – almost! – marries with fresh acids that are coming out more and more as the wine ages to create a pretty much perfect Summer Chardonnay.

El Enemigo and Glass

How a “Legit” Cab Steps Out of Chianti

Lia Tolaini BanvilleThe story of Tolaini Cabernet Sauvignon Legit Toscana 2013 starts in the cellars of Tuscany’s Tolaini as estate owner and US Importer Lia Tolaini Banville (founder Perluigi Tolaini’s daughter) and her colleague Jeremy Hart were tasting barrels of vintage 2013 before blending.

It was a great vintage in Tuscany, so the tasting of the Sangiovese for both Chianti Classico and super-Tuscan blends shone brightly. The Merlot and Cabernet Franc used in the super-Tuscans? Superb.

And the Cabernet Sauvignon? Well, “pianissimo” it was not!

Wait! This Is World-Class Cab
Both Lia and Jeremy were stunned by how distinctively delicious the estate’s 2013 Cabernet was all by itself – not just a good blending wine but a “legit” world-class Cab. So they improvised and decided for the first – and perhaps only – time in the history of the estate, they’d bottle a 100% varietal Cabernet Sauvignon as legit as anything you’d fine in Napa.

The decision to bottle the Cab without adding any Merlot or Sangiovese reminded Jeremy of a quote from jazz icon Thelonious Monk:

“Don’t play everything, let some things go by. What you don’t play can be more important than what you do.”

Thelonious_Monk_in_ItalyA Tribute to Theolonious Monk
So they decided to make the wine a tribute to Monk. Lia’s son, Alex, began looking for images and discovered the stunning photograph from the cover of one of Monk’s greatest live albums, Thelonious Monk in Italy recorded live on April 21, 1961, in Milan. So Lia set out to procure the rights to use that image.

In the years since these amazing Cabernet grapes were harvested, Lia’s family and Monk’s children and descendants have become close and are now able to jointly celebrate the brilliance of great making of music and wine together. Now it’s time for you to join in the song.

 

 

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