Late one afternoon on a seasonally warm February Healdsburg day we walked into the boardroom at Seghesio vineyards for a Zinfandel tasting appropriated off of some of California’s oldest and dearest vines. On hand were Seghesio’s winemaking brain trust, Andy Robinson and Ted Seghesio. It was Seghesio who explained pretty much everything you need to know about Zinfandel and field blends in one sweet sentence. “These old vines are California’s treasures. We haven’t pulled one out yet.”
“Are the wines good because their vineyards are old
or are the vineyards old because the wines are good?”
Cart before the horse. What came first, the chicken or the egg? Catch-22. If we follow the ideas of Aristotle and Plato then we simply say that zinfandel and old vineyards first had their beings in spirit. The dialectical answer can’t help but make use of formal, linear cause-and-effect logic and so results in a paradox because this caused that. Old vines and zinfandel, two things uniquely Californian entwined in a set of mutually dependent circumstances. The question is ultimately moot.
Joel Peterson’s hat was the centre of first attention, that is until the Godfather of zin himself began to explain why the varietal tenets of experienced and gnarly are so important to understanding why zinfandel is the untouchable one. Peterson makes the case for zinfandel Grand Cru vineyards by referring to them as “historical treasures, extremely valuable and they are California.”
Carol Shelton is herself no stranger to the royal and ancient vines. She imagines them as both children and grandparents or rather that they are one in the same, innocent and experienced, but needing coddling and care just the same. Shelton has a soft spot for vineyards that are organically grown, dry farmed and many decades old. On her website Carol quotes Antoine de Saint-Exupery in reference to the Rockpile Vineyard. “A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral.” Pretty apropos. It seems Carol Shelton sees the old vineyard before the zinfandel. I think they all do.
The next day we explored Dry Creek Valley’s AVA’s with John Doxon of Dry Creek Vineyards and in the afternoon walked up the ridge between the two arms of lake Sonoma with Clay Mauritson to stand at the top of the Rockville AVA. The vineyards are planted between 800′ and 2000′, with strong winds, soils that range from granite to volcanic and the ever-dangerous Healdsburg-Rogers Creek earthquake fault running through. Three things popped into my head. One, difficult growing conditions make for low yields. Two, above the fog and in the breeze means major league diurnal temperature swings and zero pressure from pests and diseases. Three, this is one of the most strikingly beautiful places on earth.
Rockpile Ridge Vineyard’s Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 is a Sonoma County tour de force and a steal for the money ($50 at the winery). But I’m here to discuss zinfandel and so we’ll look down left and down right to the Cemetery and Jack’s Cabin Vineyards. These two stunners from Clay Mauritson may be the most unheralded zinfandels you’ve never heard of. The first family vineyards were planted in 1884. It is here in the northern-most reaches of Dry Creek Valley where zinfandel may just find its highest California calling. “Pure geo-political drama.” What is Rockpile? Time in AND time out. James Woodsian fun stuff. Keith Moon of zinfandel. That is Rockpile.
We tasted nine zinfandel with Ted, Joel and Carol, one with John plus two more with Clay. Here are the notes:
Seghesio Family Vineyards
Rockpile is Sonoma’s newest AVA, straddling the ridge between the two arms of Lake Sonoma. The Mauritson farm is perhaps the most dramatic inland vineyard site in Sonoma. It is a relatively cool-ish appellation in part because it is based on ridge tops but notes Ted Seghesio, “I don’t think we can dry farm up in Rockpile, it’s just too warm.” No wonder the zinfandel here develops rich, dusty, of high impact intensity, pressed and controlled with addendum by remarkable palate spice. It’s chewy and intense, without heat, though expected, but there is not. Saw the insides of 25 per cent new French oak, the rest neutral for 12-14 months. Flavours well up with the liqueurs from a multitude of ripe red and purple berries, hematic, loamy and all in. Somewhat imbrued with the folly of youth so exercise some patience. Drink 2018-2024. Tasted February 2016 @ @
From a blend of vineyards planted on the Dry Creek bench and the cooler southwest Alexander Valley. Old vine is often loosely interpreted and the general Seghesio rule is 50 years plus, though the average age is approximately 70 years-old, planted here because they were the original cheap, peasant purchased sites. True old vine zinfandel is distinguished by head-trained vines with thick, gnarled trunks and is planted with ancient clones dating back to the turn of the century. I personally am finding more warmth and a slick of oleaginous matter, like white pepper liquid smoke. The temper and texture are pure zin wisdom, knows exactly its place and the time. The early picked Old Vines offers a reference point for the accumulation of varietal time. You sense this though the briary spice of layering in the blending of two vineyards from berries through to that spice. The treatment was 25 per cent new wood, 14 months maximum on fruit that it typically at the extreme end of high acid and sugary fruit. Drink 2017-2022. Tasted February 2016
Sourced from the Pagani family’s deep-rooted, storied Ranch in Sonoma Valley. The dry-farmed vineyard provides for a rich and nuanced, though not necessarily the most age-worthy structure to the fruit. Certainly a whole other, darker matter, pitchy, rock-blasted cimmerian mess of density and temper. The increased character is a drawn-out dramatic affair, feigning sweetness, with a high amount of Alicante Bouschet mixed in (perhaps as much as 50/50) for what is ostensibly the original California red. “The curtain” is an abiding history marker and maker and yet is low in tannin so drink this during the freshness of its youth. Drink 2016-2020. Tasted February 2016
Typically 20 per cent petite sirah field blended in, from five sites with a collection of zinfandel clones planted in Ravenswood’s heritage vineyard back in 1997. Now old enough to stand alone, these vines grew from budwood collected from several of Sonoma County’s finest old-vine zinfandel vineyards. Like the single-vineyard zins, all are made the same way, save for a few micro-decisions for each wine. Time is 18 months in 35 per cent new oak for a level playing field so that each will show typically of site. The quinate muddling is made moot by fruit picked early enough to ask the ripeness not to be the dominant character of the wine. So there is a cooling, not so much herbal but a methylated effect, with depth of cherry and leather and the fleshy underside of the animal. A texture comes across creamy and so different from Seghesio, with a dry-brush aroma and flavour led by dark chocolate. Drink 2016-2019. Tasted February 2016 @ @ @
Belloni carries a riper, naturally current cure, seemingly suspended in an evolutionary state of grace. The chocolate is tempered, smoothed into the reality of haute-ganache. It’s a bit of a teaser but there is length not yet found in rest of a nine-strong zinfandel the line-up. Will not yield to relinquishing length and still in such an amazing lingering state of berry flavour. “My middle-aged wine,” says Joel Peterson. From a site on Fulton Rd, of sandier soils above an ancient river bench. Riccardo Belloni planted it, around 1971, same time he purchased land on along Wood Road on the outskirts of Santa Rosa. Aye, there’s the saline and antediluvian rub. A very mixed vineyard, barely 75 per cent Zin, plus alicante, petite sirah, carignan and mourvedre. All tolled known as mixed blacks, the varietal melded, mixed and markedly RRV boysenberry is brighter and with great freshness. “It’s treated like pinot noir,” notes Peterson, “and we are conscious of how much oxygen it is gifted along the way.” A gracious Zin to be sure. Drink 2018-2024. Tasted February 2016.
Old Vine, Old Hill is rich, smooth and chocolatey, from “Mr. Hill’s vineyard, William McPherson Hill,” who founded Old Hill Ranch in 1851. Joel Peterson is wistful in just thinking about it. “An important and historic vineyard,” resurrected by Otto Teller housing forty different varieties, re-planted in 1985. The vineyard is 68 per cent zinfandel with grenache, mourvedre, syrah, petite sirah, alicante and heretofore referred to as the black panther grape, all together called the Mixed Blacks. It is organically farmed and is indeed of the oldest vines in the Valley of the Moon. In 1983, Ravenswood began this vineyard designate Old Hill Ranch zinfandel, just as the vineyard was turning 100 years old. So at 130 years what further wisdom can it pass on? Plenty, with the classic house treatment of 18 months in 35 per cent new oak. A capacious, fruit-teeming, chestnut-ochre-liquorice-plum pudding zinfandel blend with texture threaded through ages from samite to mantua. The gift of old vines. Drink 2019-2025. Tasted February 2016
Carol Shelton Wines
Carol Shelton Zinfandel Rocky Reserve Florence Vineyard 2013, Rockpile AVA, Sonoma County, California (394510, $48.00, WineAlign)
Insieme with Rockpile by Seghesio in dusty, high impact zin, here liquid saturated and steeping of a complex berry syrup, silky, stylish ands with a certain palate spice thanks to American wood. Vanilla and liquid lavender, ichorous, fusible elasticity. Quite pretty and some heat in the tannins. Defined by elevation at 1400 feet (800 is required) above Lake Sonoma. Basically dry-farmed, planted in 1998, terraced, a morning sun vineyard that receives hot sun into the evening. Thus spiking the fruit but breezes temper ripening (as compared to Dry Creek Valley) so the tannins are polished. Built with cabernet-like structure and blended with 14 per cent petite sirah, in 40 per cent French oak (20 new) plus (40) American (20 new) plus some older irrelevant barrel. Drink 2017-2022. Tasted February 2016 @ @
The “Friedland” is ambient and racked of floral certainly and also elevated of its varietal tones, with even more blueberry and peppery backbone than the Rockpile. Has increased its viscous and elastic chew with a dollop of melted milk chocolate and the earth’s granola; hemp, chia and all things fibrous and healthy. The jammiest and most texture on the table. Planted in 2001, a “young wine” out of a historical 1800’s place, a commune at 1100 feet of elevation. Represents three different clones of zinfandel (DuPratt, Costa Magnum and St. Peter’s Church). The united zin of red and black fruit, plus 7 per cent petite sirah. The new kid on the block. Needs to get more comfortable in its skin. Drink 2016-2019. Tasted February 2016
Mancini Vineyard is Carol Shelton’s tribute to old vines, planted in 1922 (one mile from Belloni) to mostly (78-80 per cent) zinfandel and a Northern California varietal who’s who; carignane, alicante bouschet, petite sirah, grand noir, mataro and some yet unidentified vines. This is a field blend of decided depth, very cherry and exponentially increasing of varietal to wood spice. There is much liquor emulsified into liqueur. Such a highly concentrated wine is ripped with red citrus acidity and strays far from bramble. A wine of high acid, pH and oak with never-ending gobs of dark fruit. A little monster. Drink 2016-2019. Tasted February 2016
Dry Creek Vineyard
Dry Creek Vineyard Zinfandel Old Vines 2013, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County, California (412288, $34.75, WineAlign)
As it should be this falls into the category of the mysterious and the enigmatic, a field-blend conjoining zinfandel (75 per cent) with petite sirah (23) and carignane. It takes nearly a month to bring in the multifarious and full-scope ripening varietal mix, between mid September and October. This elongation and elasticity mixes into the old vine magic and spits out strength and complexity. High pH and really pitchy acidity handle the bold and brooding fruit and then there is the presence of meaningful oak. Sixteen months in French, American and Hungarian oak, 29 per cent of it new. Dried fruit and spices rehydrate into a black fruit swirl of sweet leathery pods and perfumes. A blessed convocation is the result, part concoction, part confection and all in. Drink 2016-2020. Tasted February 2016 @ @ @
A haunted cabin settler’s story, of one Jack Ireland, of sheep, cattle, clearing the land, moonshine and nights spent in the county jail. A connection through three generations of Mauritsons. Such fresh red fruit is rare (these days) when alcohol (14.75 per cent) and oak (15 months in 90/10 French/American) work the room but welcome to the Rockpile elephant in the room. It’s called balance because of natural acidity, grapes that were not over-pressed and the magic-umami-impossibility of place. My mind digs for Sonoma equivalents in this scarlet, rubicund, ochre magnetic field but fails to draw a similar example. Except greatness from this AVA and winemaker Clay Mauritson in the years to come. Drink 2016-2023. Tasted February 2016 @ #RockpileAVA
Look towards the other arm of Lake Sonoma and let your mind’s eye rest 250 feet higher than Jack’s Cabin Vineyard. The Cemetery plantation is a jagged, craggy outcropping with “a face uneven as a river jag and asperous as the mullein’s flannel.” The Mauritsons are Los Campesinos of Cemetery Vineyard in Rockpile. The rocks below resemble giant headstones along the Rogers Creek fault and you just have to believe all this immensity of geology impacts the vines. It does but don’t ask how or why, just settle into the cimmerian depth of zinfandel touched by black fruit, spice and the akimbo savour of glutamate and amino acid. Three further months in barrel (85 French plus 15 American) accentuates the spice, smoulder and espresso con crema texture. Ripeness of fruit, tannin and acidity are simply stellar out of this dramatic place. “You know us by the way we crawl and you know us by our cemetery gaits.” Drink 2017-2025. Tasted February 2016
Good to go!