Napa’s Secret Zinfandel Treasures
Being a Zinfandel grape in the middle of the Napa Valley must be a pretty lonely feeling. Like rockers Bruce Springsteen or Trent Reznor at the Academy Awards, they’ve earned the respect of people in the motion picture industry. But clearly, this isn’t their crowd.
Zinfandel has a long history in Napa. That it often exists in somewhat protected, historic vineyards may be one of the reasons it’s held on, if just barely, against the surrounding waves of Cabernet Sauvignon, the valley’s most important grape.
The historic Zin vineyards of the Napa Valley, many of them dry-farmed, head-pruned field blends, continue to have their champions, namely producers willing to pay growers enough to keep them in the ground.
Consumers also connect to them, smitten that a patch of farmland could exist uninterrupted more than 100 years, even overcoming Prohibition, no less.
This is Zinfandel’s magic, a spell captured by regions like Sonoma, Mendocino, Lodi, the Sierra Foothills and Paso Robles, but also in Napa, where incredible old vineyards still exist and a band of producers continue to give the grape its due.
Within that band is Robert Biale Vineyards, which has long championed historic sites in its wines. It strives to make Zinfandel with a Burgundian soul, following winemaking techniques common to Pinot Noir to soften its rough-hewn nature.
In 2013, Biale brought in Tres Goetting as winemaker, a veteran of Krupp Brothers and Stagecoach Vineyard. Goetting, who grew up in Napa and trained early in his career to make Bordeaux varietal wines, works closely with co-founder and longtime Zin farmer Bob Biale, who tends to the vines.
“Not enough people know about Napa Zin, or they have a preconceived notion of what it will be,” Goetting says. “I see the light go off when they taste ours in the tasting room. The trick is to get people to try it.”
The 2013 wines, just being released, are Goetting’s first full vintage for Biale. He admits that he also had to taste Biale’s previous Zin vintages to realize they were different, made in a more elegant style.
“I was that guy that said, ‘Wow, Zinfandel can be like this?’ I wasn’t expecting what I tasted,” says Goetting. “They’ve been treating Zin like Pinot Noir, and that has really worked for these wines.”
He was equally lured by the romanticism of field blends, the backbone of many of the older vineyards so crucial to Biale.
Still, as he settles into making the Biale wines, his goal is to keep them on the lighter, brighter, fresher side, gradually pulling back on sugar and alcohol levels.
Goetting’s target is roughly 14.8% alcohol, which he thinks best balances the fruit with the oak. Too little alcohol, and he risks having them taste herbaceous. Too much, and they could be pruney.
“It’s much harder to find that balance in Zinfandel,” he says. “It’s all about the acid. I look at acid levels more than sugar levels at harvest. If you get that acid right, everything gets in line.”
Julie Johnson, winemaker at Tres Sabores, has been honing in on that balance since 1987 from an unlikely spot in the heart of the Rutherford Bench. Firmly entrenched in Cab country, everyone figured she’d rip out her 10 acres of Zin.
Not a chance.
“Zin has a life and a spirit,” Johnson says. “It doesn’t have to be so perfect. The clusters are irregular, it’s charming and it has a sensual texture. It has that in the berry and in the glass.”
She has kept eight acres in Zin, budding over the remaining two to Cabernet, and adding a touch more Cab and Petite Sirah.
“We love turning people on to Zin,” Johnson says. “It can be extraordinarily sophisticated and dynamic, too. It doesn’t have to be raisiny or sweet, an overly exaggerated wine. A lot of people were turned off by that.”
She attributes her more classic style of Zinfandel to the use of dry farming at her ranch, as well as employing organic practices. She thinks the grapes thrive in the same well-drained soils as Cabernet and on the western edge of Rutherford, where they get shade earlier in the day, tempering the risk of desiccation.
“They’re unctuous—they’ve got spice and all different flavors of pepper, white and black,” Johnson says. “The Zins I adore are lower in alcohol. They take up the terroir, if you allow them to. The natural acidity goes a long way, if you don’t force it.”
She sees the wine as versatile with food, offering a lot in terms of texture and acidity, and something to be enjoyed year-round.
Zin also benefits from its ability to stand alone in California, not having to match any particular European counterpart.
“I have succeeded in getting my wine on all-European wine lists by asking, ‘What other wine would you compare it to?’ ” Johnson says. “Zin can definitely hang on its own, but it’s both a blessing and a curse that we’re unique.
“Dreamers and individualists are attracted to Zin. There’s something very special about letting it be itself, and its greatness spans such a variation of stylistic diversity.”
Others maintaining that diversity include Brown Estate in Chiles Valley, on the warm, eastern flank of the Napa Valley. Run by a trio of siblings, they started out farming Zin grapes before realizing theirs were gold. Eventually, they decided to see what they could do in the cellar, too. The results are deep in elegance and terroir.
Turley is yet another longstanding producer devoted to preserving Zinfandel vines from the ever-present pressure to plant Cabernet. Tegan Passalacqua, the winemaker, playfully refers to Cab as “a weed,” for the way it has increasingly crowded out Petite Sirah, Zinfandel and other varieties.
That term is also a favorite of Ravenswood Winemaker Joel Peterson. His decades-long mission to save historic Zin sites has centered mostly in Sonoma County. However, with the Dickerson Vineyard designate he makes from St. Helena, he’s preserving both Zin’s legacy in the Napa Valley and a family legacy as well.
Aldo’s Vineyard, Oak Knoll
Robert Biale’s family vineyard, it was planted in 1937 by Robert’s father, Aldo, in the middle of Napa city limits, what is now part of the Oak Knoll District. He took care of it until he died in 2009. Today, it’s surrounded, precariously, by housing. Still, it manages to remain a sweet spot for 11 grape varieties, from Zinfandel to Peloursin and Mondeuse.
Hayne Vineyard, St. Helena
On the west side of Highway 29 in the shadows of Spring Mountain, gravelly Hayne was planted in 1902–03 to Zinfandel, which remains dry-farmed. In 1953, Petite Sirah vines were added, though many were within a 10-acre parcel sold in 2010 to Andy Beckstoffer, who re-planted the land to Cabernet Sauvignon. Carlisle and Turley are among those who source grapes from here.
Library Vineyard, St. Helena
Among the most varied vineyards in California, the Library Vineyard is next to the St. Helena Public Library and owned by the city. It issues one-year leases to Turley, which makes a Library Vineyard Petite Sirah. Planted between 1880–1920, the diversity here is remarkable, with 22 varieties identified so far, both red and white, from thick-trunked Alicante Bouschet to Peloursin, Cinsault, Burger, Green Hungarian and, of course, Zinfandel.
Morisoli Vineyard, Rutherford
Located in the middle of the Rutherford Bench at the base of Mount Saint John, Morisoli Zinfandel goes exclusively to Elyse Winery. A field blend planted in light, dusty, gravely soils, the Zin is complemented by Petite Sirah, Alicante Bouschet, Carignan, Durif, Grand Noir and others.
Old Kraft Vineyard, St. Helena
Originally established in the 1860s and largely replanted in the 1890s by Frank Kraft, it was part of the original Spottswoode estate. The site was largely abandoned until brought back to life by the Hart and Pease families, who have interplanted where necessary to younger Zinfandel vines. Biale is its main grape buyer.
R.W. Moore Vineyard, Coombsville
East of Napa and first planted in 1905, R.W. Moore is meticulously farmed by Bill Moore, who has guarded these old Zin vines for close to three decades, the only ones within the appellation. One of Biale’s vineyard designates, Goetting singles out the 2013 vintage Moore as a favorite.
Robert Biale 2013 R.W. Moore Vineyard Zinfandel (Coombsville); 95 points, $50. From a vineyard east of Napa first planted in 1905, Moore is densely structured and deceptively elegant, all while maintaining an intensity of tart cherry and wild blackberry. Spicy in black pepper and a dusting of cinnamon, it remains vibrant on the palate from start to lengthy finish, a knockout among the producer’s consistently high-achieving Zinfandels that should stand the test of time. Cellar through 2023. Editors’ Choice.
Elyse 2012 Korte Ranch Vineyard Zinfandel (St. Helena); 92 points, $37. The third release from this vineyard, this wine is juicy in fruit, tar and leathery tannins, a mix of raspberry, cassis and dark chocolate. From a dry-farmed site and with a small percentage of Petite Sirah, it was given less than a year in American oak and offers a taste of sweet tobacco on the finish. Drink now through 2020. Cellar Selection.
Frank Family 2012 Zinfandel (Napa Valley); 91 points, $55. A nicely structured wine, with a sizable component of Petite Sirah and 3% Cabernet Sauvignon, there’s a density of oak and tannin on the entry, offset by a juicy backbone of blackberry and cherry. Full bodied, it has the elements to last, being completely drinkable now through 2020. Cellar Selection.
Brown is run by a trio of siblings, Deneen, Coral and David, with David serving as winegrower. From high atop Sage Canyon Road on the eastern side of Rutherford, in the Chiles Valley, they craft a selection of highly regarded, ageworthy Zins from their 50-acre estate, becoming producers well after finding a following for their fruit. In 2016, they’ll release their 20th vintage of Brown Estate Zinfandel.
The Hendry family has farmed just west of the town of Napa since the 1930s, but sits on land that included some of the first vineyards ever planted in the valley, dating back to 1859. The family has survived phylloxera and the era when prune crops were valued over grape crops, replanting much of its farm to grapevines during the 1970s. They sold grapes to Robert Mondavi, among others, with Zin eventually going to Kent Rosenblum for his George Hendry Reserve. In the early 1990s, the Hendrys began making some wine of their own and planting more land to vines.
Robert Biale Vineyards
Bob Biale is a second-generation Napa Valley farmer who learned grape growing alongside his father, Aldo. The focus is on making Zinfandel and Petite Sirah from rare and special sites, usually planted to old vines and field blends. From Day One, the winery tapped into Burgundian winemaking techniques, with an emphasis on gentle handling and aging in French oak. Their lineup of single-vineyard designated Zins provides a peek into Napa Valley history.
The tiny brand of Dr. Paul Skinner, one of the world’s foremost soil and viticulture experts. On his 40-year-old Zinfandel vineyard, called Kidd Ranch, he also grows Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. The two-acre plot is littered with weather stations and data recorders.
Julie Johnson, one of the original co-founders of Frog’s Leap Winery, set her sights on a special ranch at the top of the Rutherford Bench in 1987, with the intention of keeping it in Zinfandel. She’s usually the only one pouring Zin at the annual Rutherford Dust tastings, alone in a sea of Cab. She makes a Rutherford Zin as well as a popular blend called Por Qué No? It includes Zin, Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon from her property as well as those varieties and Petit Verdot from other local growers.
Hendry 2012 Block 24 Primitivo (Napa Valley); 91 points, $35. The producer does nice things with this 100% Primitivo, coaxing attractive, chewy liqueur-like red fruit from the grapes before aging them in French oak, just a third of the barrels new. The woody tones are well integrated, and the wine boasts a smooth texture and subtle power.
Hunnicutt 2012 Zinfandel (Napa Valley); 91 points, $45. Gamy and somewhat sanguine, this fleshy, soft and evolving Zinfandel shows off Napa’s worthiness as a place for Zin, both in terms of grape growing and winemaking. Plum jam and cinnamon play off one another with ease, combining in full force on the finish.
Ravenswood 2012 Dickerson Single Vineyard Zinfandel (Napa Valley); 90 points, $37. There’s a feral element to this vineyard designate (the vineyard was planted in 1930), the producer’s only one from Napa Valley. Extracted and thick, it offers plum, blackberry and raspberry around big, broad shoulders of mocha and oak. And, as always, there’s a hint of mint. Cellar Selection.
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