Breaking Down the Zin Mystery

Here’s a move I’m beginning to enjoy a lot: calling up a winemaker whose wine I like, pulling out the product sheet that says what went into the bottle, and asking the winemaker to talk me through it—help me put things in plain terms. My thinking is that if we all did this more often, we might actually be able to make sense of wine data on our own.

My interlocutor this time was Joel Gott, of Joel Gott Wines (and the owner of Taylor’s Automatic Refresher, the marquee burger joint of the Napa Valley), and the bottle in question was his California Zinfandel 2005. Gott has a particular business strategy, which he describes roughly like this: Instead of owning vineyards and doing the whole estate-bottling deal, he buys fruit from all over the place, uses small-batch, artisan techniques to make blends he likes, and tries to sell them at a low enough price that they’ll be a quality bargain. The winemaking data on his Zin goes like this:

Grapes: 96 percent Zinfandel, 4 percent Petite Sirah
Appellation: Napa Valley, Lodi, Sonoma, and Amador County
Harvest Dates: September 14-24, October 8-12
Harvest Brix: 25.5-26.8
Cooperage: 30 percent new American oak, 70 percent one- and two-year-old French oak barrels
Aging Time: 10 months in barrels
Alcohol: 13.9 percent
Release Date: September 1, 2006
Suggested Retail Price: $17

And here’s how he broke it down for me:

DD: Why add the Petite Sirah?

JG: It’s a good body-builder: Like a little butter in your soup, it makes the whole thing a little richer. And it’s funny, you know, when you taste a wine 15 different times with these tiny little percentages of different things … well, that’s half the fun, sitting around your bench having fun, and especially with my wife. [Sarah Gott is the winemaker, and she’s also a winemaker on other high-end projects, like Blackbird.] Every time we make a blend, mine sucks and hers is killer.

DD: OK, how about wine coming from all over the place?

JG: Well, the best growing region isn’t Napa, so why not shop the state—Santa Cruz, Sonoma, Lodi, Amador, Dry Creek—and make a blend? The Santa Cruz stuff is pretty green, but it has an amazing structure; the Amador is super over-the-top sort of bubblegum and banana flavor; Lodi stuff is a little thinner, but it has more aromatics than most Zinfandel, so we use that as a perfume; and the Dry Creek Russian River stuff is more mineral driven, has more of a base to it, but not much aromatics. By blending all those together we end up with a complete wine.

DD: Cooperage?

JG: On a Zin, I like new American oak because it’s kind of sweet and forward—it adds that little sweet oak vanilla thing. As for the older French oak, the first year of a barrel’s life is when you extract the majority of its wood flavor. In the second there’s less flavor there, and by the third year you’re down to trace amounts. But you can still get a lot of the soft aging qualities out of two-year-old French oak. So we use Cabernet barrels that are two years old to give it that little French oak softness.

DD: Aging time—10 months in barrel ain’t a real long time, right?

JG: The goal there is to keep the wine under 20 bucks, closer to 15, so we literally look at it from the winemaking standpoint like, “How can we have that wine out of those barrels so we can have the same barrels ready for the next harvest?” Sarah also believes that the younger the wine is, the more fruit flavor it has, the sexier softness.

And … we didn’t talk about the rest. But we did talk about his Sauvignon Blanc, which I’ll cover in my next post. In the meantime, I do think it’s a very good wine for the price—it has a nice combination of spice and rose-petal aromatics, and a densely concentrated mixture of blueberry, blackberry, and pepper flavors, with tannins that aren’t overbold. It’s not a huge wine, either. I’m a fan. Lastly, the pleasure of these conversations for me: It’s great to get a window into the practicalities of all this stuff, starting to break down the mystery.

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