Nalle 2004 Zinfandel (Dry Creek Valley) – Coconut-spiced cherries with a gravelly texture and juicy acidity. This is still very young, but while it’s balanced enough to age, I can’t imagine anyone being able to keep from opening it. It’s just too much fun. (4/07)
Nalle 2003 Zinfandel (Dry Creek Valley) – Bright red fruit struggling to get out of a weirdly soupy, difficult set of restraints. There’s a hint of cooked fruit as well. This is very likely heat-damaged, because the performance of the wine certainly isn’t typical for Nalle. Source: New Hampshire state liquor store, Nashua. (3/07)
Carlisle 2001 Zinfandel (Sonoma County) – Served as a mystery wine. It’s thick blueberry syrup, dense and sticky, with a powdery finish that flattens quickly to nothingness. The alcoholic heat is searing and actively unpleasant. This is a monstrosity, a wine to get skid row bums loaded when Mad Dog 20/20 isn’t upscale enough. I guess Turley, then realize there’s not quite enough VA (though there is some), so switch my guess to Carlisle with about five years of age. Bingo! I’m also asked to guess the alcohol. “Just shy of 16%?” 15.9% it is. (3/07)
Sierra Vista 2003 Zinfandel (El Dorado) – Dried wild berries, thorns, brambles and briars, with a black-stone foundation. Simple, but speaking of both grape and place with clarity. (3/07)
Tasting notes from the Boston Wine Expo. These were difficult tasting conditions, where speed and distraction were the norm rather than the exception. Thus, notes are brief at best, somewhat superficial, and cannot in truth be otherwise.
De Lille 2005 “Chaleur Blanc” (Columbia Valley) – Thick with wood and ripe fig, with stone fruit and peach/apricot syrup. Good, if exceedingly heavy and even a bit ponderous, in a ripeness-above-all New World style. (2/07)
Sterling 1976 Cabernet Sauvignon “Reserve” (Napa Valley) – Black pepper, plum, blackberry and tobacco. Rich, complex and beautiful, with fantastic balance. Remember when Sterling actually made good wine? Anyone? (2/07)
Sterling 1978 Cabernet Sauvignon “Reserve” (Napa Valley) – Somewhat tired on the palate, though the nose retains its charm: tobacco and old flowers. It hardens on the finish. This wine is, unfortunately, past its drink-by date. (2/07)
Whitehall Lane 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley) – Rich spiced plum, blackberry and ripe tannin, with a warm softness predominating. A balanced structure provides some backbone. Not bad at all. (2/07)
Ravenswood 2004 Zinfandel (Sonoma County) – Simple and obvious, showing spiced nothing. (2/07)
Ravenswood 2004 Zinfandel Teldeschi (Dry Creek Valley) – Structure over fruit, with red cherry and strawberry asserting a friendlier aspect on the finish. Fair. (2/07)
Ravenswood 2004 Zinfandel Barricia (Sonoma Valley) – Structured, with dark plum, black cherry and a brooding, heavy palate. It’s long, but things turn a little sour by the end. I wonder about the future of this wine. (2/07)
Ravenswood 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon (Sonoma County) – Very powdery, with graphite-dusted black cherry and blackberry. Heavy but pleasant. (2/07)
Ravenswood 2004 Zinfandel “Old Vine” (Lodi) – Dark raisin and ripe, concentrated plum and black pepper. Slightly hot, but carrying good intensity. (2/07)
Ravenswood 2003 “Icon” (Sonoma County) – Chocolate-coated raspberry dessert (except, of course, it’s supposed to be a dry wine). Grossly overoaked, with a bitter, nasty finish. (2/07)
Ridge 2005 “Three Valleys” (Sonoma County) – Full-bodied, showing plum and burnt coconut, with a shortish finish. Good, with helpful acidity. This seems more approachable than in the past. (2/07)
Ridge 2004 Zinfandel York Creek (Napa Valley) – Strawberry and concentrated plum with good structure and balance. Fine work. (2/07)
Ridge 2003 Geyserville (Sonoma County) – Dark and dusty, showing black cherry, blackberry and boysenberry. There’s an undergrowth of brambles and thorns here, and the finish – while long – is not free of wood and tar. Still, it’s otherwise balanced, and it could just be struggling with its youth right now. (2/07)
Ridge 2003 Santa Cruz Mountains (Santa Cruz Mountains) – Quite structured, with leathery blueberry and tobacco-scented cedar. Long and balanced, with a little bit of chocolate on the finish. This would be a fine cabernet in any portfolio, though here at Ridge it pales in comparison to the Monte Bello. (2/07)
Ridge 1999 Monte Bello (Santa Cruz Mountains) – Leather, tobacco and blackberry with leather and a slathering of American oak. This is tightly-wound and almost pulses with energy, as exhibited on a finish that fights and claws against fading. It’s a little surprising that there’s anything to taste here, because I’d expect this to be closed tight, but it definitely shows the promise within. (2/07)
(The original version, with more photos, is here.)
29 April 2006 – Yosemite National Park, California
Mariposa Grove – The most accessible of Yosemite’s giant sequoia groves isn’t all that accessible at the moment, thanks to an inexplicably closed access road (the grove itself is still a slop of snow, water and mud, but the road is clear, and so is the parking lot). Nonetheless, the road is hikeable, and so after a morning spent admiring differently-lighted views of Yosemite Valley, and then a brief lunch near one of the park’s entrances, up (and up, and up) we trudge.
Edmunds St. John 2002 “blonk!” (Paso Robles) – Vivid wet stone fruit and white limestone dust, with faint dried meat notes, plus peach/pear skin adding a touch of pleasant bitterness to the finish. The finish is strikingly long.
In most other settings, the endless parade of majestic, ramrod-straight redwoods that litter this area would be a visual highlight. But not here, where the rich tans and incomprehensible girth of the giant sequoias dominates all else. We slog around the muddy grove, taking in most of the key sights, but in the process the sole of one of my hiking boots starts to separate, which makes walking difficult and lets water sneak into the interior of the shoe. It’s time to go.
Wawona Hotel – Tired and sole-sick (sorry), we plop down into comfortable veranda seats at this beautiful, historic hotel to have a few restorative drinks…for which we have to wait, as we’ve apparently arrived fifteen minutes before drink-serving time. What is this, France? Well, the setting makes up for it.
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (California) – Hoppy and astringent. Never a favorite of mine, but the only other options are mass-market inanities.
Back at Yosemite West, we sear one of the most amazing slabs of venison I’ve ever eaten (seasoned only with black pepper and fleur de sel), add a few fresh morels, and make surprisingly quick work of what must be nearly three-quarters of Bambi. Poor deer (again: sorry).
Edmunds St. John 2001 Zinfandel Peay (Sonoma Coast) – Heavy, dark and concentrated, with briary blackberries (in whole and juice form), good acidity and a spicy, spirituous finish. It’s excellent with food, but a bit heavy by itself.
Dönnhoff 1999 Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle Riesling Auslese 19 99 (Nahe) – From 375 ml, and now open for three days. It’s still flawless, now showing molten metals at the heart of the sun (if Pink Floyd will excuse the literary license). A truly stunning wine.
Ravenswood 2004 “Old Vine” Zinfandel (Lodi) – 14.5%. Butter (real and artificial), oak squeezings, and overroasted cherry cough syrup fruit…this wine bears the hallmarks of heat damage. In my opinion and based on long experience, the likely culprit is the store: Cambridge Wine & Spirits (formerly Mall Discount Liquors) in Cambridge, MA, which has an unfortunate history in this regard. (2/07)
Paul Draper and winemaker Eric Baugher were in town for the Boston Wine Expo, and delivered a pair of seminars. The first – an overview of Ridge’s products – wasn’t that interesting to me, but the second – a mini-vertical of their most famous wine in honor of its 40th anniversary – was.
Draper was in loquacious form, and remarkably vital for – it’s almost incomprehensible to write – a man just a few weeks shy of 71. Baugher barely spoke, except at Draper’s urging, and did so in a quiet, understated fashion. Draper appears to have deep respect for Baugher; the converse comes across as something a little closer to worship, yet it’s clear that they have a fine working relationship. Baugher has brought something new to the Ridge program: an enthusiasm for co-fermentation (a major change at a winery where many of the “zinfandels” are actually field blends), which Draper seems to fully endorse as another quality-enhancing step.
As befits a man of his experience and status, Draper has strong opinions on winemaking and the commercial world that wine inhabits. I could go on for many paragraphs on the Ridge/Geyserville/Draper philosophy and methodology as explained by the winemaking duo, but honestly that ground is so well-worn that it seems almost pointless. Instead, I’ll present a brief overview of some of Draper’s more interesting pronouncements.
Geyserville is, according to Draper, “the most elegant of our zinfandels” (an opinion supported by every tasting I’ve ever done; I sometimes prefer the more forceful Lytton, but think that Geyserville is a more complete, sophisticated wine), and while Baugher feels that one can identify Geyserville by its “minty, eucalyptus” character, Draper relies on its unique structure. While I don’t share their deep and broad experience, I can’t endorse either statement (certainly mint and eucalyptus are not Geyserville signatures for me), but I can suggest that while I can usually identify the Ridge aromatic signature (largely, but not exclusively, their barrels) I find a certain textural gentility that can set Geyserville apart from any other wine in its idiom. Draper does not himself endorse the popular notion that Geyserville becomes indistinguishable from old cabernet with age; he thinks that this is merely the normal asymptotic nature of old red wines, and that Geyserville is simply yet another member of the ageable red wine crowd.
As for the ageability of zin and zin-based blends, Draper tells an amusing Parker-related anecdote (slightly paraphrased herein, for clarity): “One year, Robert Parker quoted a young Baltimore writer, who said that ‘zinfandel doesn’t age.’ Parker merely added ‘I agree.’ So a while later, he asked if he could take me to dinner, and I suggested – of course, he doesn’t ever listen to you…he doesn’t want to hear anybody – that I bring the wine, to which he agreed.” A lunch with some legendary ‘73s from Ridge followed. Unprompted, Parker announced “well, I guess there are some exceptions,” though Draper had never mentioned the original opinion. Nonetheless, Draper doesn’t diverge all that much from Parker on this point, claiming that “he’s right in general” (and on this point, I fully agree; the majority of zins are more appealing in their fruity youth than they are in their desiccating maturity. Only the best terroirs and winemakers (and, sometimes, those who wisely utilize supporting grapes) can produce ageable zins that deliver true tertiary complexity.
Draper consistently misuses the word “varietal.” Given the quality of the wines he shepherds, I think we can forgive him.
The interaction of wine and food engenders strong opinions from Draper, who insists “wine –zinfandel or cabernet – has to complement food, not dominate it.” He attributes the dominating qualities of many California wines to wood, alcohol and ripeness, and bemoans their effects on any potential for terroir (“two things will destroy site character: over-oaking, and over-ripening”), while insisting that zinfandel is probably the best indicator of terroir in California (partially due to the ubiquity of plantings, and also partially due to its generally advanced vine age, for which the early Italian immigrants must be praised). Baugher says that years like 1999, 2003 and 2005 – cooler years with longer growing seasons – produce the finest Geyservilles.
As for the inevitable discussion about alcohol in zinfandel, Draper’s opinions have firmed in recent years. “Cabernet, which must be planted in a cooler region than is necessary for zinfandel, is ideal at 13% alcohol, perhaps occasionally 14%. Zinfandel must be in the 14-14.9% range. Anytime you see 12 or 13%, the wine has been dealcoholized.”
“Or really old vines,” adds Baugher.
This leads Draper into another mini-lecture on alcohol, and ripeness in general. “Very, very occasionally there’s an excuse for ultra-ripe cabernet with high alcohol, like in Australia, but they’re the exception, not the rule. Anytime you go over [14%], you’ve made a conscious choice to please Bob Parker or Jim Laube.” As for the frequently-heard opinion that California must make high-alcohol wines to achieve phenolic ripeness: “maybe one year in four or five does [the lag between the two] actually happen.” In other words, it’s an excuse for a stylistic choice.
Draper sees a dichotomy between what he calls “slow wine” and “fast wine” – a “need for really good wine at a reasonable price” served by industrial winemaking (though he decries the fact that many extremely expensive wines are made via industrial means) that are “put together, but not real,” and a parallel need for the sort of artisanal wine that defines greatness, which is what he hopes Ridge can accomplish. Meanwhile, he has damning words for reverse osmosis and spinning cone technology: “the terroir is gone…though I suppose some [critics] will give the result high marks.” He explains that they used it once, for an overripe and overly alcoholic York Creek, and “it unquestionably made the wine better,” but there was “no sense of ‘York Creek’ left in the wine.” He was bemused to see the negative reaction to the revelation of the technique on his label notes, because the techniques are so widely utilized in California…it’s just that almost everyone else is afraid to tell the truth. (He sent Parker both versions of the York Creek hoping for a response, but never received one.)
He thinks that, in general, winemaking in the U.S. used to be basically the same as in Europe, but that this is no longer true. However, he thinks Ridge makes wine “more like Bordeaux in the 19th century than Bordeaux today.” He also can’t understand people who use natural yeast, but then inoculate for their malo.
In the end, he remains passionate about what he calls a “miracle…that [grapes] turned into this” (indicating the wine in front of him) “and because of it, became sacred. It’s amazing to me, the transformation from simple fruit to something so remarkable.” And as for his role? “I consider myself a guide, not a creator…an éleveur, bringing up a child.”
Ridge 1992 Geyserville (Sonoma County) – A soft, fully mature Geyserville, showing milked coffee, spice, roasted/candied pecan, and crushed roses on the nose. The palate is no less mature, though it moves things in a slightly different direction: rich blackberry/chocolate jam, raw milk, black and red peppercorns, and a soft, powdery, graphite-textured tannin. This is a beautiful wine, completely ready to go, and shows all the best and most elegant qualities of well-aged Geyserville. (2/07)
Ridge 1993 Geyserville (Sonoma County) – Aromatically insufficient (my neighbor wonders if it might not be corked, but there’s no indication if so, and a comparative glass from a different bottle smells the same), with canned blueberry and licorice liqueur. Some air helps, bringing forth some redolent dust. The palate feels, though does not (retronasally) smell musty and stale. Frankly, this is disappointing…and it’s strange, as Paul Draper is highly enthusiastic about the current performance of this wine. The second glass is a bit better, with supple, elegant, Crozes-Hermitage mimicry somewhat masking the essential Geyserville character. Again, it bears repeating: Draper and many others are very positive about this vintage. I’m agnostic at best, and greatly prefer the 1992. (2/07)
Ridge 1994 Geyserville (Sonoma County) – Plum liqueur and mixed berries in a gorgeous, well-knit and fully complete package. The palate brings forth more mature, older fruit characteristics of baked berries and wheelbarrows full of rich organic earth, but there’s still plenty of fruit on display. A soft, wavy wine with yet more development in its future. (2/07)
Ridge 2002 Geyserville (Sonoma County) – Blackberry, blueberry, black cherry and licorice-infused plum in a thick, edging-towards-syrupy (but redeemed by fine acidity) style. There’s also thick, Valrhona Guanaja and dry stones aplenty. There is a flaw – an alcoholic tingle that, for some palates, will be a deal-breaker – but it’s really not out of place in this wine, which shows loads of potential. If it can survive that heat, it’ll be majestic in a few decades. If not…well, it’ll be Geyserville-flavored Scotch. (2/07)
Ridge 2003 Geyserville (Sonoma County) – Very aromatic, albeit full of primary American oak esters, blueberry, blackberry and boysenberry; a Big Fruit wine with papery tannin and a weirdly petulant disposition at the finish. I suspect this wine is struggling to close, and interested parties should probably let it do so. (2/07)
Ridge 2004 Geyserville (Sonoma County) – Not yet released, and picked extremely early (mid-August, several weeks before the usual start date), before almost anyone else in the entire region. Very, very concentrated licorice/anise, blueberry and chocolate with an ultra-dense, peanut butter texture that darts in and out of the syrup category, plus some obvious alcohol. There are also crashing waves of vanilla-infused oak butter, which is to be expected in a young Geyserville these days. It’s way too young to judge in any sensible way, though my sense is that this will never be a “great” Geyserville, but merely a good one. (2/07)
Ridge 1993 Zinfandel “Essence” (Paso Robles) – By far the best of the half-dozen bottles I’ve tasted. Sweet, ultra-concentrated blueberry, boysenberry, olallieberry and stripes of anise candy are given lift by the otherwise restrained, unobtrusive buoyancy of slight volatile acidity, while the tannin has completely melted away. Delicious. (2/07)
Sierra Vista 2000 Zinfandel Reeves (El Dorado) – Hard-edged wild berry fruit ripped and rent by thorny vines and the slashes of a razor, with shattered tannin and acid providing a fierce sort of structure. Zinfandel can mellow into something Bordeaux-like with age, but it can also go in this direction…one that’s more difficult to love, but in a strange way might be a little more appealing. In any case, this is a somewhat angry wine that may benefit from a little more age; on the other hand, at that point the tannin might dominate. It’s a judgment call that I’m not qualified to make. (12/06)