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Sonoma County Zinfandel Tour (was Recommendations in Russian River...)

Melanie Wong | Oct 23, 200002:12 AM

Hi Tida, I’ve been trying to plot a farm trails and winery itinerary for next week’s house guests myself. Maybe we’ll cross paths. You’ve laid out a great plan. I think your schedule is pretty full if you want to take things at a leisurely pace. Whenever I have more than 3 people in tow, I rarely try to see more than 5 wineries (2 in the morning, 3 afternoon) in one day unless they’re power tasters. By that I mean people who only want to taste wines and ignore everything else. When properly outfitted with our own tasting glasses (avoids the wait to be set up), bread to clear the palate between stops, bottles of water, and pocket tape recorders (faster than writing notes), we have managed to blast through as many as 12 wineries in a day with a 1.5 break to have lunch at a restaurant. And, I’ve done more on my own, on a few occasions, but why would you want to? I’ll make a few suggestions that you might be able to squeeze in between your planned stops.

I’ve not taken the tour but have spent some time in KJ’s culinary garden. Was fortunate to be there when the Alpine strawberries were ripe – yum! Trying several of the wines last month, my favorites were the 99 Vintner’s Res. Calif. Sauv. Blanc and the Zin and dry Gewurztraminer from Edmeades in Mendocino County. If you’re allowed to pick samples to compare with the wines, try tomato leaf and black currant leaf (some esoteric descriptors used by the Brits) for the Sauvignon Blanc; blackberry, blueberry and black currant for the Zin; and rose petal and mace for the Gewurz (lychee too, but don’t think they can grow this).

Hopefully, there’s still some fruit on the garden’s demonstration vineyard. You should definitely take advantage of the time of year to taste ripe wine grapes – one of the sweetest and most intensely flavored gifts of nature. Check with other wineries if they’re not available at KJ – there’s still quite a bit of Cab and Merlot on the vines. Look for the berries that are just starting to soften and dimple but aren’t raisined; the small ones are usually more delicious. Red wine grapes have thicker skins than the table grapes you’re used to – pay attention to the character of the tannins in the skin; do they seem greenish and sharp or full-bodied and just a little astringent like strong tea? Bite into the seeds to taste the seed tannins – green and bitter or brown with nutty mellow flavor? Besides sweetness, are the flavors balanced with a burst of acidity? Is the acidity ripe and fruity or sharp and grainy? What you’re tasting for is "physiological or phenolic maturity" which is all the rage these days. There are lots of fancy tests to measure these factors more accurately but the vintners who have years of experience with their vines can tell mostly by taste. Deciding when to harvest is about the most important decision they make all year --- if the quality and character aren’t in the fruit, they won’t be in the finished wine either. You can impress your husband after chewing a few grapes by cocking your head back and saying, "They need another 2 days hang time, if it doesn’t rain".

With your fondness for big reds, I’d suggest an appellation tour of Sonoma County’s finest Zinfandels: Sonoma Valley, Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley and Alexander Valley. The 1998 vintage is a bit weak but the best producers still did a good job. You can pick up a Russian River Wine Road wineries map (complimentary) at KJ or other member wineries in north county.

Joseph Swan Vineyards (2916 Laguna Rd. Forestville 95436, 707-573-3747, is my favorite California winery, period. The Pinot Noir from the Trenton Estate vineyard, memorialized in viticulture as the "Swan clone", continues to set the standard for Pinot in the New World. Joe’s widow, June Swan, and her daughter and son-in-law, Lynn and Rod Berglund keep his legacy alive. Rod became a winemaker with his own label, La Crema Viñera, in 1979 through Joe’s influence and encouragement, long before he’d met Lynn. Now in the midst of his 13th crush as winemaker at Swan, I dare to say that Rod is making better wines than Joe did. Those are awfully big boots to fill, as the 75 and 78 Pinot Noir and 68 and 75 Zinfandel that Joe made are the finest examples I’ve ever tasted. These wines are still very much alive today. But I know that the wines Rod has raised in the last 5 years will best those when they’re mature. The love of small lots, age-worthiness, and Burgundian sensibility and refinement that Joe valued so highly continue to mark the wines produced here under Rod’s watch. Production is still under 4,000 cases a year.

This is the place to start your Zin tour. Swan makes single vineyard designate Zinfandels from Russian River Valley and one from Stellwagen Vineyard in Glen Ellen (Sonoma Valley), both cooler climate areas that deliver complex character and good natural acidity for longevity. In October they’re pouring the new releases 98 Frati and 98 Zeigler which have the characteristic pure black raspberry fruit, minerality and bright acidity of RRV. The Frati is more concentrated with a tarry element that some compare to great Barolo. The Zeigler is more backward now with the essence of cracked black pepper and an interesting savoriness – thyme, sage and cranberry – that would be perfect for the Thanksgiving table. The 98 Stellwagen is the most approachable now brimming with black cherry and red plum fruit with fascinating notes of Asian spice (white pepper, sandalwood, anise and Thai basil) and silky round tannins. Do ask whether they’ve got a bottle open of the Mancini Ranch and Lone Redwood RRV Zins that were released in the spring. They’ve been bottling the different vineyards separately since Alice Waters made a fervent request in 1987.

A loyal customer, I’ve become close friends with Rod and Lynn. Tasting their wines and the wines from others that they’ve cellared has completely changed my frame of reference. I have far more appreciation today for character and expression of fruit, finesse, balance, complexity, appropriate use of oak, and a sense of place in the wines I drink. I was in the winery last weekend with my houseguests and was delighted to taste the not yet fermenting juice from the 2000 RRV Mourvedre. Another excellent vintage for this one, I think. The fruit was clean as can be with small berries and deeply colored thick skin and the juice was absolutely delicious.

You’ll taste here among the barrels where you can hear the "music of fermentation" bubbling up from the white wine lots. They won’t mind if you step around back to the crush pad to check out the action. Rod is the immediate past president of the Russian River Valley Winegrowers and was responsible for the redrawing of the appellation’s boundaries. I’m sure he’d be happy to answer your questions if he’s not up to his elbows in grape must. You’re welcome to put on the rubber boots and try your hand, or rather feet, at pigeage, the foot treading of the must cap. There’s a rickety picnic table behind the winery but the neighbor’s vineyard is newly planted and not that scenic yet.

You might want to e-mail to say you’re coming and ask them to snail-mail you the October newsletter. It describes the new releases they’ll be pouring to give you an idea of their personalities. It also writes about their staff – Jim the new asst. winemaker, Pappy the dog, and Regino the vineyard supervisor. Even though it describes Jim as a smart, young single guy who speaks French, the fan mail seems to be favoring the dog! I told Jim not to worry, the female customers in France were just getting their copies now . . .

Other great Zin producers in Russian River Valley you might try to fit in are Martinelli, DeLoach and Limerick Lane. DeLoach released their 99 Zins this weekend, didn’t make it over there. That’s usually the only time all the bottlings are open, but I bet they’ll have a couple available for tasting next week. The OFS and Gambogi are usually my favorites. The staff will stick to the party line and tell you that OFS stands for "Our Finest Selection". But remember that Cecil DeLoach is a former fireman, and you can bet that he tells his winemakers that his finest selection had better be out-f’ing-standing! Limerick Lane’s vineyard is on the other side of the freeway, just south of Healdsburg, and will give you an idea of what Zin tastes like from the warmer spot in the far corner of the new appellation boundary.

If you take the scenic route heading up Westside Road from Swan to Coffaro, make a stop at Rochioli Vineyards for the Pinot Noir that Steve mentioned. This wine is highly allocated, sells out in a skinny minute and this might be your only chance for a taste. My favorite wine is the Sauvignon Blanc full of melon and gooseberry (Joe Rochioli has some special clones). Alas, the Gewurztraminer vines succumbed to phylloxera. The Chardonnays can be very good if you like the style. Very creamy, almost crème brulee like, yet the RRV fruit still has plenty of natural acidity even after the malolactic fermentation. RRV Chardonnay tastes and smells like the local Gravenstein apples with a strong floral component, and Rochioli’s has a good slug of high toast François Freres new oak barrels if you want to calibrate on that barrel-maker. The RRV Zin from Sodini vineyard is one of my favorites, but made in teeny-tiny quantities and rarely seen.

As you head north on Westside Road, you’ll pass Armida that Vanessa described. Here’s where RRV ends and Dry Creek Valley begins. I might take my friends here for bocce ball and picnic next Sunday.

Then take the left fork (at Madrona Manor) to continue north on West Dry Creek Rd. and pass by Everett Ridge (435 W. Dry Creek Rd., Healdsburg, 797-433-1637, Try the wines here if you have time, owners Jack & Anne Air and the winemaker Alex MacGregor are committed to organic viticulture. They’re making good stuff (10,000 cases annually) and have held the line on pricing, staying under $25. I’ve got a bottle of the 98 Syrah in the tasting queue that Alex gave me, one of my wine pals swears it’s the best in the County.

The next stop on W. Dry Creek would be Rafanelli or you could come back this way after Coffaro. Further north is Amphora (5540 W. Dry Creek Rd., Healdsburg 95448, 707-431-7767,, highly, highly recommended. I think Rick Hutchinson will be the next star in the Valley --- get on his mailing list before he hits the big time. He’s making less than 1,000 cases under his own label, is consulting to other producers and may be scarce this time of year, but maybe using my name as a reference will help get an appointment. His 99 Dry Creek Zin is scheduled for release in November and I’m not sure whether he has any 98s for sale. Tremendous intensity and complexity of fruit expression with great aromatics and solid structure. I loved his 97s, missed the 98s, and was really impressed by his 99s (Zin, Syrah and Petite Sirah) in barrel. It was especially interesting to taste his Unti Vineyard Syrah side-by-side with Mick Unti’s own. The fruit was picked at the same time, fermented pretty much the same, but elevated differently in barrel. Rick used more oxidative methods in his racking and topping schedule and his wine is more open-knit and opulent. Rick’s got a lot of passion and his wines show his dedication. He also makes beautiful pottery that is a bonus if you visit him. If you don’t have time to stop, I think you can buy his wines at Oakville Grocery in Healdsburg.

If you go all the way up past Preston, you’ll reach Collier Falls Vineyard (9931 W. Dry Creek Rd., Healdsburg 95448, 707-433-7373, They’re lovely people but I’m not sure whether Barry and Susan accept visitors. Their first release, 97 Zin, was fantastic and the 98’s not far behind it. Alex MacGregor of Everett Ridge made both. Only one wine here, so maybe not worth the time and detour. They do have a waterfall on their parcel.

From W. Dry Creek, you’d then take Yoakim Bridge Road. Where it intersects Dry Creek Rd., the vineyard on the SW corner is Yoakim Bridge (7209 Dry Creek Rd., Healdsburg 95448, 707-433-8511), another microwinery. The first release, the 97 Estate Zinfandel, is awfully delicious with lots of spice and brambly fruit.

Just a bit north would be David Coffaro Vineyards (7485 Dry Creek Rd., Geyserville, 95441, 707-9715, You’ll need an appointment here, usually not a problem except when the Raiders are playing. Dave and Pat are dear friends. I’ve had the privilege of tasting nearly every barrel, and every blend they’ve made since the first commercial release of the 94s, plus several vintages before they were bonded. Juicy wines with explosive fruit that are full-bodied with great carriage and length. Dave is a master blender, and the wonder of it all is that he makes his decisions without blending trials. He has a mental image of the character that each of his plots/varieties lends and combines percentages of these in his head to create the style, flavor spectrum, balance and finish he wants each bottling to express. It’s truly a gift. He’s a very humble guy, and interested in customer feedback on the wines.

You can check out their website for Dave’s winemaker’s diary. I imagine that he’ll probably have finished harvesting everything by next week, except for the late harvest Sauvignon Blanc. Dave was a fan of aged Bordeaux but now he prefers and wants to make wines that are full of fruit and easy to drink young. He has grudgingly agreed with me that the 95 Zin and Estate Cuvée have improved with age and will continue to get better. He also objects to high wine prices and sells most of his production direct on a futures basis (you pay before the wine is bottled or before harvest for the deepest discount) at wholesale price. Normally a risky practice since you don’t have a chance to taste the wine and much can go wrong before it gets in the bottle, but there hasn’t been a miss yet (fingers-crossed). If you buy something next weekend, you’ll get an invitation to the 1999 release party to be held the following weekend. You should come back – Dave does all the cooking for his family and he makes a mean turkey on the Weber.

The Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Carignane, and Estate Cuvée are automatic purchases for me each year. I tasted the 99 Cabernet Franc recently and put in an order for that too. His clones of Petite Sirah lend a bright raspberry/strawberry note mingled with spice. I want him to have these DNA tested at UC Davis to check their lineage. Very unique wine. Overall, I think they may be making about 5,000 cases annually.

Since you’re this far north already, it’s not much further up the road to Ferrari-Carano (8761 Dry Creek Rd., Geyserville, 707-433-6700, I was a guest at a staff harvest lunch last month with my friend, Laura Petersen. She manages VIP customer relations and extended an invitation to Chowhounds to contact her for a special tour, The flower gardens are beautiful. I tasted through all the current wines and found them very consistent and correct. My favorites have usually been the Siena, a Cab/Sangiovese blend, and the regular (not reserve) Sauvignon Blanc, and these delivered again. Yet this time, I thought the 97 Tre Monte Sangiovese Alexander Valley was the star of the line-up, maybe the best in California and a deal at $28. The 98 Dry Creek Valley Zin was full of exuberant berries but was deadened by too much chocolatey wood.

As you head back down toward Rafanelli, stop at Unti Vineyards (4202 Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg 95448, 707-433-5590, I’ve been a supporter of Mick and Kimberly since their first release of 97 Zin and Syrah. The Zin is from younger vines but has a special sweetness and depth from blending in a bit of Syrah. Of the 99s in barrel, I think the Sangiovese has the most potential. This is the source of Amphora’s Syrah fruit, do try it if you’ve had a chance to taste Rick’s. Mick’s background is as a retail wine buyer so he does have pretty wide distribution in California even though they’re only making about 3,000 cases.

Turning on Lambert Bridge Rd. to get back to Rafanelli, you’ll pass by Pezzi-King and Dry Creek Valley Vineyards. DCV did a nice job with the 98 Reserve Zinfandel, a return to the quality of the early years. I’ve heard that the style of the Fumé Blanc is back to the grassy, non-malo style of the early years and I’m anxious to try it soon.

To get to Ch. Souverain, I’d suggest taking Lytton Springs Road which is just a little south of the Dry Creek Store at the corner of Lambert Bridge Rd. & Dry Creek Rd. instead of taking Canyon Road. This is more direct from where you are and also takes you past a couple other wineries I’d recommend.

Peterson Winery (1040 Lytton Springs Rd., Healdsburg 95448, 707-431-7568) makes wine the old-fashioned way. Fred Peterson is more of a winegrower than a winemaker, and not every wine can be saved. Some of them have been atrociously brett-infected, and I'm someone who enjoys a touch a brett. Yet the Bradford Mountain Zinfandel has been consistently terrific since I first started buying the 1993 vintage. The 99 is another winner - big tannins, you'll enjoy it more in a year or two. You’ll need to call for an appointment here, the winery’s way back from the road on a dirt driveway.

Ridge/Lytton Spring (650 Lytton Springs Rd., Healdsburg 95448) is the northern outpost of Ridge Vineyards on Montebello Ridge in Cupertino. The tasting room here has regular retail hours and pours the same wines as the home base. My favorite Alexander Valley Zin is Ridge Geyserville. I’ve tasted almost every vintage back to 1974. Even though the label says "California", most of the fruit is from Trentadue Vineyard in Alexander Valley. In fact the label doesn’t even say Zinfandel, since some of the old vines in the field previously identified as Zin turn out to be other varieties and the wine doesn’t meet the minimum75% variety for labeling. The 98 is usually released in September/October and should be available for tasting.

John Olney is the assistant winemaker responsible for this operation. He’s the late Richard Olney’s nephew. He has a non-interventionist philosophy that mirrors Paul Draper’s and will be interesting for you to talk with if he’s around. He’s equally serious about his food. He spent some time in the Rhone and I need to get over to the winery to taste his latest Syrah experiments.

Other great Alexander Valley Zins are Harris-Kratka made by Rosenblum which you can try at the winery in Alameda and Scherrer. I notice that Fred Scherrer doesn’t list an address in the phone book so I guess it’s a secret (it’s in Russian River Valley although the family vineyard is in AV). But you can contact him by phone at 707-824-1933 or e-mail, I suspect he doesn’t have any wine for sale but you can find out which retailers might have some and get on the waiting list for his open house in August. I’ve been buying his Zin since the second release, 1992, and they are consistently excellent. They are delicious young and are among the few that age well. Fred is a super-talented winemaker, in both the science and the art. When you look into his eyes you feel something very deep and grounded. He has a Zen-like oneness with his vines. He’s the one who taught me about chewing on lignified stems to determine ripeness. Fred’s the guy to talk to about physiological ripeness.

If you have more time after Chateau Souverain, you could end your tour at Seghesio which is in town (14730 Grove St., Healdsburg 95448, 707-433-3579). Their 98 Zins were very successful, especially since they ratcheted back the wood. The Seghesios own some stellar Zin Vineyards in Dry Creek and Alexander Valley and make several bottlings at different price points. The entry-level blend at about $15 is a great value, and the single vineyard and reserve bottlings are well worth the tariff.

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