Sunday, June 05, 2005

What Is So Rare as a Red in June? Sonoma County Wine-Tasting

CAVEAT: I have a YES/NO response to most wines, with a palate decidedly on the sweet side of the gauge. I buy ports and late harvest wines for me to drink, and an occasional bottle of red wine to take along to a family dinner. I love to taste good wines, though, for their own sake, so I'm very lucky to live in Sonoma County, California, where wine-tasting can be a regular pastime.

Tempted by the warm sun and my spouse, I left my keyboard this afternoon for an exploration of Sonoma County's great red wines. As with any wine-tasting, this one could not be exhaustive. This is especially true for tasting bold reds—eventually all those Zins, Cabs and Carignanes melt into one big red blur.

We started with the alternate tasting room for the Hanna Winery, on Occidental Road right outside Santa Rosa. Trudy was pouring a 1999 2002 Bismark Ranch Sangiovese with a lovely deep-ruby color—the draw for this wine is all in the nose, with its delicate scents of cherry and lavender, and undertones of fresh-cut grass. The 2001 Bismark Ranch Zinfandel was over-oaked for my palate, but the strong fruit savor almost made up for it. This Zin was 27-30 Brix at harvest, and was unfiltered, making a bang-Zin that would be great with spicy Mexican food or strong curries.

My favorite at Hanna was the 2001 Two Ranch Red, a blended wine with a lovely plum and berry nose, buttery-smooth on the palate at front, with a slight pepper bite at the back. A close runner-up was the 2001 Pourroy Vineyard Reserve Zinfandel. This 2001 wine is the last Hanna will make of this vineyard—a pity, since this Zin starts with a gorgeous, full blackberry nose, dark cherry and plum jam on the tongue, and a balanced tannic bite with a hint of pepper at the finish. Classic Zin!

Next, we went north to the brand-new tasting room at Dutcher Crossing Winery. Katrina in her red lace cami top was the most delicious thing in the tasting room, just edging out the great reds she was pouring. We started with a cult favorite, the 2003 Maple Vineyard Zinfandel. (Maple Vineyard Zinfandels are "known for their lush berry flavors and for staying true to the classic character of Zins from the Dry Creek Valley.") This wine was a bit raw for my taste, possibly needing a year or two more to lose its snarling bite—the oak overwhelms nose and palate both, with little Zin fruit evident in either. Far better was the 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon, lovely plum and cherry in the nose, plum and pepper on the palate, and a hint of oak at the finish. Cashew nibbles on the tasting room counter did not quite supply the palate refreshment needed by such oaky reds—but that's the opinion of an inveterate chocoholic!

Best at this winery was the 2002 Taylor's Reserve, a blended wine, 85% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Syrah, which starts with a typical Syrah nose, plus a difficult-to-identify scent that I eventually recognized as cedar. In the mouth, this wine develops a Cab-rich plummy fruitiness at the front, with pepper and oak at the back of the palate. This is backwards from the description on the web site, but I stand by my tasting notes—after all, it's all subjective!

Yoakim Bridge has long been a favorite of ours, from the first tasting trip when we were served the 1998 Zinfandel across a plank laid over two wine barrels. This wine (which my spouse noted as the "best Zin that isn't late-harvest") recently took the Grand National Sweepstakes in Europe, David and Virginia informed us proudly. Today, we started with a 2000 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel that has the brightest fruit nose I've ever encountered in a Zin, citrus and cherry with strong pepper. On the palate, this smooths into cherry, blackberry and vanilla, with a solid oaky finish. Next, we tasted the 2001 DCV Zinfandel. I lifted the glass to my nose, and thought, this is what a Zin should smell like! Bold fruit continues on the palate, and finishes with a perfectly balanced oak and pepper. I almost turned down the 2000 Three-Valley Cuveé, a wine blended from Cabernet Franc, Cab. Sauvignon and Merlot grapes. This was a marvelous wine, raspberry and vanilla to the nose, with a smooth plum and berry at the front of the mouth, and pepper at the back. Afternotes of blackberry appeared after I swallowed—really lovely.

Virginia had the best red-wine story, too. It seems, years ago, she and David bought a jug of Pastori Winery's red wine (probably a blended Burgundy-style red), and took it to the beach on a sunny day, where they drank the entire jug between the two of them. "We crawled back from Goat Rock," she said. Then she offered meatballs glazed with her own signature Zinfandel Sauce, a finishing glaze that was so delicious, we bought a bottle.

One from the vaults: Meeker Vineyard wines are sold from their unique tasting room in Geyserville. They converted the old bank, selling wines through the old teller windows, offering tastes across a short bar in the lobby, and storing the cases of wine in the old bank vault. Molly Meeker started by talking me into trying the 2003 Lobster Cove Chardonney from Mendocino, a non-malolactic crisp white, delicate and delicious. (I know, it's neither red nor Sonoma County—so sue me!)

Then we got serious, with four different Zins. The best was the 2001 Zinfandel Reserve, with its beautifully full Zin nose, plum and vanilla on the palate, and balanced oaky finish. A close second was the 2002 Idle Home Ranch Old Vine Zinfandel. Old-vine Zins tend to have more pronounced pepper and spice notes, and this wine is no exception. Also notable at this tasting room was the 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon, great raspberry and clove nose, plum and berry palate with a slight oak bite on the edges of the tongue, and a great buttery finish, trailing off into pepper and oak.

Just as I was ready to call it quits, Jene Chapanar suggested I taste their Zinfandel eiswine, Fro|Zin. (Don't throw me in that briar patch, man!) This is not a late-harvest pick, but is made by freezing the juice of a standard Zinfandel harvest. The result is everything Zinfandel grapes are noted for: incredibly rich fruity savor, with subtle clove, vanilla and pepper supported by the grape sugars left in the wine. Yum! In fact, Jene also poured me a taste of the 2001 TuTu Luna, an eis-wine blend of Muscat, Chenin Blanc and Guwürztramer grapes. This dessert wine is an almost-unbearably fruity explosion, with honest-to-Pete-lychee and pear up front, apricot and peach notes underneath, and a solid sugar kick. We bought a bottle of each.

Downtown connection: The Locals Tasting Room is located across from the turnoff for the River Rock Casino in downtown Geyserville, next door to the Smokehouse Restaurant. Why travel on to gamble at the casino, when you can have a sure thing at Locals? On Sunday, Amanda and Diane were pouring wines from seven different award-winning wineries, sampling the best from Russian River, Alexander and Dry Creek Valley appelations—over 50 different wines. We opted to taste the unusual, starting with a lovely Carignane Rosé from Peterson Winery. This "immoral blush" wine has a nutmeg and cherry nose, a crisp acidic edge on the tongue, with a slight note of vanilla. We stayed with the Carignane varietal for our next pour, a richly-ruby Old Vine Carignane from Eric Ross Winery, which delivered the full Carignane experience: plum-jam and nutmeg in the nose, berry (and oak, unfortunately) at the front, with blackberry on the back of the tongue, and a strong pepper finish. I would pick this wine to accompany a paprika-laden goulash, or a pepper-steak. Next we tried a new varietal to us, the 2000 Mourvedré from Crane Canyon Cellars. Not being sure what to expect from this grape, we were disappointed by the oaky nose and palate—there may be a wine flavor here, but it is almost buried in the oak. A hint of spice, unidentifiable, was present on the tongue.

At this point, I began to suspect my palate was simply overwhelmed by reds. So we finished with a taste of the three dessert wines featured at Locals. The 2000 Old Vine Zinfandel Port from Eric Ross Winery is an old favorite, but we happily savored it here. We consented to try the 2002 Merlot Old Vine Port made by Martin Family Vineyards. I don't generally like Merlots, but this wine has a complex nose, with fruit, chocolate, vanilla and other spices, and a sweet and oaky palate, with a slight bite at the back of the mouth. If you like Merlot, this is a wonderful wine to begin your port exploration with.

We closed with a wonderful 2003 Muscat Blanc out of the Peterson Winery, a great palate-cleansing choice. This wine has a strong apricot and peach nose, with a superbly fruity palate front and back, and a marvellous creamy finish. This is English trifle in a bottle, friends! Then, having had our dessert, we went next door to the Smokehouse Restaurant for a bowl of their excellent chili with sweet cornbread on the side.

Now that's the way to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon!

Crane Canyon Cellars (at Locals)
4779 Hillsboro Circle
Santa Rosa, CA 95405

Dutcher Crossing Winery
8533 Dry Creek Road
Healdsburg, CA 95448

Eric Ross Winery (at Locals)
14301 Arnold Drive
Glen Ellen, CA 95442

Hanna Winery
5353 Occidental Rd
Santa Rosa, CA 95401-5528

Hawley Wine (at Locals)
6387 West Dry Creek Road
Healdsburg, CA 95448

Laurel Glen Winery (at Locals)
Box 1419
Glen Ellen, CA 95442

Corner of Geyserville Ave & Hwy 128
Geyserville, CA 95441

Martin Family Vineyards (at Locals)
2347 Sweetwater Springs Road
Healdsburg, CA 95448

Meeker Vineyard
21035 Geyserville Avenue
Geyserville, CA

Peterson Winery (at Locals)
Dry Creek Valley
PO Box 1374
Healdsburg, CA 95448

Yoakim Bridge
7209 Dry Creek Road
Healdsburg, CA 95448


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