(Andre Tchelistcheff 1901-1994)
I've never much liked zinfandel. Most of the time it's jammy and overly alcoholic, and though it can have a long finish the over-all effect is often dankly vegetal. Not green peppers, not green beans, but a kind of sweet, earthy pungency ill-suited to food not laden with spices and hot sauce.
I'll be accused of prejudice against what's often cited as the "American" wine (the grape's related to Italy's primitivo) , but I associate zinfandel with other grapes with great color and fruitiness like petite syrah and Virginia's Norton that fall off precipitously. In my defense I cite the legendary Andre Tchelistcheff, wine making guru to old George de Latour, founder of Beaulieu and in the 1970s and 1980s to most everybody else of note in the Napa Valley. Andre didn't like zinfandel either.
He used to travel from winery to winery with a black enologist's case whose broken handle was mended with cord. It contained the tools of the itinerant wine consultant: Bunson burner, glass slides, and a microscope wrapped in an old towel. The case had been built in 1910 and bought secondhand by Andre in 1940. Coppola was one of his clients, and I met Andre there one bright morning to watch him in action and later to write about it in Napa: The Story of an American Eden (pages 344-351). "He placed a drop of Cabernet Franc on the slide and slipped it under the microscope. What he saw when he peered through the lenses were little black dots, malolactic cells... Andre said, 'It's good.'"
He didn't care for the zinfandel at Conn Creek winery over on the Silverado Trail. There Andre tasted through all the wines and when he came to the zinfandel wrinkled up his nose and said in that inimitable Russian accent, "Oinyons [onions]."
Now as with most things vinous, there are exceptions. That includes zinfandel. Two noted examples are, of course, the zinfandels of Ridge Vineyards down on the peninsula south of San Francisco that are restrained, even austere, the kind of zinfandel a Bordelaise might make (but doesn't). And Sonoma County's Ravenswood, long a bastion of well-wrought zinfandels at the high end. A couple of recent Ravenwood single-vineyard releases came my way recently, and they were each in its own way a revelation.
The 2012 Ravenswood Teldeschi is mostly zinfandel, blended with 22% petite sirah and 2% carignan to - presumably - give it the edge. Some of the grapes come from 90-year-old vines in Dry Creek Valley. A berryish, peppery nose that continues on the palate, silky, mouth-filling, with a lingering but clean finish. The wine's well-balanced at 15 per cent alcohol.
The other big Ravenswood single vineyard bottling has nothing to do with zinfandel. It's a 2011 blend of mostly merlot with a substantial hit of cabernet sauvignon. Pickberry is the somewhat prosaic handle for a wonderful Sonoma Mountain wine with only 13.8 octane. Cherries on the nose, full red fruit on the palate, good balance, and a quality finish.
A caveat: the Teldeshchi tasting has forced me to pursue a zinful relationship with the many new versions, including those in the rest of Sonoma and across the Mayacamas Mountains in Napa.
(Coming: What Thomas Jefferson would think of the Napa Valley today.)
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