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Crave a zinfandel from an old Italian family? Sausal... Alexander Valley... Sonoma County... old, gnarly, sublime

ValleyoftheMoon | Jan 31, 201011:57 PM

I stumbled across one of your pages: http://www.chow.com/restaurants/21342... and thought about this below:

About 35 years ago, while I was living in The City and mainly partying on Fillmore, at Bill Graham's joint and The Fillmore itself and the jazz clubs up and down the street, I got a wakeup call about "domestic wine." That was the Mediterranean Summer of San Francisco, as my friend, the late Doug Martin, used to call it. I had tasted many of the finest California wines, from Robert Mondavi's Fume blancs — and David Stare's Fumes in Sonoma County's Dry Creek Valley — to Andre Tchelistcheff's sensational Bordeaux blends at Beaulieu to the fat Chardonnays crafted by brash young fellows like Mike Lee at little-known Kenwood in Sonoma's Valley of the Moon. Having learned about the truly noble grapes while living and traveling in Germany and France a decade earlier, I bought mainly table wines but I yearned to see dozens of wineries in all the unique valleys and micro-climates of California, to see them wipe that smirk off the Froggy faces. About a year before Steven Spurrier did exactly that with Mike Grgich's equally brash, beautiful baby Chardonnay from Chateau Montelena, I picked up the Bay Guardian one day and got that wake-up call.

I wanted a bold zinfandel from grapes planted before Prohibition. I had tasted a lot of wonderful red table wine — with zinfandel as a leader in the field mix, that was inexpensive and the ideal complement from dishes all the way from Juanita's Fetter Hot Springs Stew, to spicy pizza, cheeseburgers and prime rib, but I sought a zinfandel that would actually soar. I grew up watching Bald eagles winter practically in my backyard, after all. One that would continue to soar until the new millennium. And the reviewer, whose name escapes me, pointed me in the right direction. Due north, he pointed like Horace Greeley; follow the Northern Star to the vineyards of Sausal in Alexander Valley.

So I jumped in my Chevy Nova, conned my sales office into thinking that I was on my way to close an important computer sale and I drove up 101 to what has been my Mecca ever since, the twin to my later home, the Valley of the Moon in Sonoma. The reviewer was right. In those folding feminine hills that remind many of pocket valleys in the Rhone and Italy, the Demostene family showed me vines that had weathered many decades. Some of the zin vines were planted the year that the War to End All Wars broke out in Europe, and some were even older, planted while Teddy Roosevelt gained fame as a Rough Rider. They were gnarly, they were stingy in their yield of blue-black, beautiful berry fruit; they looked like miniature oak trees. I was at home. Through an unusual series of events, I later became a wine writer in Sonoma County and went on to direct the Washington Wine Institute when I returned home almost a decade later and published the first wine newspaper in Washington state. But I always knew where I had to return. No matter how much I love the Merlot and Syrah, and now the Sangiovese, grown in Washington, Alexander Valley always beckoned me.

After recuperating from cancer and surgery, I finally returned after 25 years, in 2009. My heart was leaping out of my chest as we drove up the road. My driver was my dear friend, Greg Martin. Back when I read that review and followed the directions nearly 35 years earlier, we popped many corks together, but neither he nor I could read back then the future. We certainly did not know that he was destined to marry Cindy Demostene, the cute little gal who was laughing and dancing in the vineyards the first day I visited. She and her siblings have lived out the dreams of their ancestors and parents, Manuel and Leo Demostene and Abele and Rose Ferrari. And then some, as those old Italian families used to say.

I can barely express my joy when I saw those old vines again, now 90 and 115 years old. And the wines they produced almost made me cry; I was that happy. The whole family has been full of hard workers for at least three generations since the elders emigrated from Genoa, Italy. They are no different today, except that they have defied the odds and maintained their quality to this day. The "Big R's" still dominate the headlines of the wine mags, led by their Sonoma neighbors Ridge and Ravenswood, and I reveled my time in those vineyards too, but my heart will always be close to those gnarly trunks in Alexander Valley.

The visit last summer was so invigorating that it inspired me to write my first wine review and travelogue in nearly 20 years, now that I write mainly about history of the Pacific Northwest. But this, my friends, is history in a glass. See a reprint of that review, included in the pages of the nearby Hanchett family's Cloverdale Reveille (northern Sonoma County), reprinted at this web site: (http://www.skagitriverjournal.com/Foo...)

P.S. I'm returning again in 2010, and I hope to return every year of my life, God willing and the creek don't rise.

Sausal Winery
7370 Highway 128, Healdsburg, CA

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