A Zest for Zinfandel

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Grgich Hills Estate Grown Zinfandel 2010
robert biale 2012 black chicken zinfandel napa valley

A Zest for Zinfandel

By Greg Horton

Perhaps you saw the movie “Bottle Shock.” If so, you might think that Bo Barrett was the winemaker who produced the Chardonnay that won the Judgment of Paris in 1976, the wine competition that finally earned California wines respect worldwide. The movie never really cleared up the issue of who made the wine for Chateau Montelena for that 1973 vintage, but it wasn’t Bo Barrett.

The winemaker was Croatian-born Milijenko “Mike” Grgich (pronounced ger-gitch). Grgich arrived in Napa Valley, Calif., in 1958. After working for notable California wineries, including Robert Mondavi, he became a partner in Chateau Montelena. The winery is still producing wines, as is Grgich’s own Grgich Hills, which he founded in 1977.

Judgment of Paris and movies aside, Grgich is one of the best winemakers in the world because he makes wines with extraordinary balance and age ability. While his Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet are stellar, Grgich is well-known for making another varietal with equal Old World sensibility: Zinfandel.

The stepchild of red grapes, Zinfandel’s reputation has suffered among wine lovers due to winemaking practices that lead to over-ripe fruit flavors, high alcohol, and a flavor profile that works better with ice cream than serious food. That is unfortunate, because there are still winemakers like Grgich who understand the true character of Zinfandel as a serious red wine that goes wonderfully with food.

Chateau Montelena still makes outstanding Zinfandel, along with all the other amazing wines they produce. Occasionally, a winery is worthy of its reputation, and Chateau Montelena qualifies. Their Zinfandel is beautifully balanced, with acid that works for accompanying food and for shelf aging. The Montelena Zins will be good for many years, and because of the benefits of bottle aging, the roundness and fruit profile will improve with time.

Grgich Hills still makes world class Zinfandel, too. Every year, the style that Mike Grgich introduced to Californian winemaking, a tribute to the sensible and food-friendly Primitivo and Zinfandel of Europe, is showcased in Grgich Hills Zinfandel. The brambles and berries are still there, but so too are earth, minerality, spices, and the signature acid that makes well-made Zinfandel so good with food.

One of the great stories in California Zinfandel is Aldo Biale, the son of Italian immigrants who farmed and sold grapes in Napa until his death in 2009. The original Zinfandel grapes that Biale farmed were planted in 1937, so the Napa Zinfandel winemaker had more experience with the varietal. In 1991, Aldo partnered with his son Robert to create Robert Biale Vineyards. His popular Black Chicken Zinfandel is a tribute to the days when Aldo had to sell jugs of Zinfandel illegally. The code words for purchase of his homemade wine were “Black Chicken.”

The Black Chicken is still being produced, and like the Grgich legacy wines, Aldo Biale’s Italian heritage influences the Old World style Zinfandel that comes from Robert Biale Vineyards. The Zin is a bit fruitier than the previous two, but the structure and the acid are still solid. Great Old World Zins are made by winemakers with a commitment to making dry Zin, and Biale delivers.

Frank Family Vineyards is one of the most popular destinations for Oklahomans heading to Napa, and rightly so. The family-owned winery produces a wide variety of outstanding wines, and their Zinfandel is an underappreciated Napa gem. The Frank Family Zinfandel shows more baking spices and “fall scents” (think sandalwood or cedar) than some of the other wines here, but again, the balance and age ability are present. As is characteristic of Zinfandel, the red and black fruit show depending upon the pairing or the amount of time the bottle is open.

Napa is not the only region to produce great California Zinfandel. Dashe Cellars in Sonoma specializes in Zinfandel, as well as other wines, but the husband and wife team focus on terroir-driven wines. They bring more than fifty years of winemaking experience to bear on their wines, and their training in Old World winemaking in France only adds to the Old World commitment to place and balance. The wines are single vineyard, so that the place shines through in the wine.

The Dashe Cellars Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel is an excellent and affordable introduction to Dashe wines. The cooler Sonoma climate means that the grapes take longer to ripen, so Dashe wines don’t have the flabby, over-ripe fruit common to many American Zinfandels.

The Zinfandels here are not necessarily widely available in the state, but a wine shop can order them and have them on hand within 24-48 hours. Edmond Wine Shop, Freeman’s Liquor, Broadway Wine Merchants, and Spirit Shop in Norman all keep a good selection on hand.

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