The most beautiful women I have known during my 43 years on Earth have all had one thing in common: at any given time, they showed their vintage. Race, background, nationality, social and economic standing, education, sense of style were all different, and nothing else was a commonality except that during the time I knew them they were completely transparent when it came to where they were in their life. The idea of avoiding humiliation or seeking outside approval did not stop them from leading with an open heart… they talk openly about their faults, let every wrinkle and blemish shine to the sky, proudly walk in a body that had more problems some years than others yet it was all part of their vintage story, and they knew that if they spent their time trying to hide every little flaw then they couldn’t give joy and love to the world. A person in their presence would feel what they had survived, what they had sacrificed to take care of others; it was a beauty so deep that no photo or description could do it justice.
Zinfandel Advocates & Producers (ZAP)
In the beginning of June, I attended a Zinfandel Advocates & Producers (ZAP) seminar where five legendary Zin producers poured wines from single vineyards coming from 4 different areas, aka American Viticultural Areas (AVAs): Paso Robles, Napa Valley, Russian River Valley, and Dry Creek Valley.
It was one of those riveting conversations where I knew that this was a living history of one of the most misunderstood grape varieties which the US made their own. Joel Peterson, founder of Ravenswood, and Doug Beckett, owner of Peachy Canyon Winery, kicked it off with the colorful history of the Zinfandel clone and the many decades of research that it took to match it to an ancient variety called Tribidrag, as well as other names, that records suggest was a wine enjoyed by Venetian nobility as early as the 1400s. Evidence pointed to its origins in Kaštela, Croatia – although those from the Balkan country Montenegro make a good case as its homeland; but geneticist Dr. Carole Meredith, the American who helped connect Tribidrag to Zinfandel with two Croatian colleagues, said that despite not knowing the grape’s exact origins, it seems most probable to come from somewhere along the Adriatic coast, and that some top grape geneticists believe it may be one of the 13 founder grapes from which all other grapes can be traced back.
As if that wouldn’t already have been a thrilling enough piece of information to learn, Randle Johnson, winemaker for Artezin Wines, who produced top Cabernet Sauvignon with The Hess Collection for 20 years and now mainly focuses on Zinfandel with their Artezin winery, said that one of the biggest misconceptions is that Zinfandel lacks versatility – if anything, it is one of the most versatile red grapes out there. Randle thought its multifaceted nature was one of its greatest strengths as well as one of its greatest weaknesses… he exclaimed, “it can be so many different things, and it has done such, and many people will still say they are not sure what it is supposed to be.”
Every Zinfandel Tells the Vintage Story
Then, despite having 20 inspirational points I thought I could walk away with as a writer, Julie Pedroncelli St. John, owner of Pedroncelli Winery, closed out the seminar – literally and figuratively. Julie spoke about her family’s long history of growing Zinfandel in Dry Creek Valley that went back as far as 90 years and Pedroncelli has only had 3 winemakers: Julie’s grandfather, her uncle (from 1948 until 2013), and a woman from Catalonia, Spain, Montse Reece, who had worked with Julie’s uncle, John Pedroncelli, from 2007 until he passed in 2015. As the seminar was wrapping up, Julie said there was something very important she needed to share with us before they ended; when Julie asked Montse Reece recently what Zinfandel meant to her, Montse replied, “Every Zinfandel tells the vintage story” and Julie further explained that Zinfandel has the capacity to show everything it went through in a given year… drought, cooler or warmer weather, etc… Julie said, “Every time you have a bottle of our Zinfandel, it is telling a story.”
Taking In the Stages of Life
Many of us are told that if we live a certain life and go about it in a particular way we will be happy, fulfilled, without serious bumps in the road… that is not true for many of us… there are things others never tell us (as they are hiding their own humiliation or pain) as the rug can be pulled out from under us in a multitude of ways. Life doesn’t go the way we plan, no matter if we were given a good start in life or not. Our first reaction is to cling to our youth for a chance to restart again – I think that is why there are so many products sold to make us look or feel young, so we can feel like we are reliving our life; but at the end of the day, it just creates more of an empty void of chasing an impossible goal that gets farther and farther with each year.
I think the secret to life is not making sure to check off certain boxes, because it will never turn out exactly the way we wanted it to… but it is the surrender to where we are right here and now. We do not shy away from our wrinkles, our bodies that have racked up miles, an overwhelmed mind that has witnessed lots of pain, anger, sadness as well as joy… we don’t try to be the outstanding vintage year after year, as that just gets too exhausting – life is really thrilling on its own, we just need to surrender to it.
This really hit home when Joel Peterson talked about the vineyard history of the wine he was pouring… it was called Dickerson because, for many years, it was owned by Bill Dickerson, a man Joel had known since he was 13 years old, who was regular at his father’s wine tasting group, who unexpectedly died in the tsunami caused by the Indian Ocean earthquake in 2004 while Bill and his wife were vacationing in Phuket, an island in Thailand. In that moment I flashed back to 2006 on my honeymoon in Thailand, two years after the tsunami, walking on the beach in Phuket with a local talking to us about how quickly the huge tidal wave came without warning and how it destroyed many lives… and then it went back into the ocean just as quickly as it had appeared. The devastation was still obvious and the sense of shock among those who still lived in the area was evident.
Life is precious and when it will come to be our turn to pass, it will not be the polished moments that people who are close to us will remember… it will be the messy, complicated, vulnerable moments that were not about making ourselves look good, but were about connecting with those around us.
***The first photo was taken by my husband during our Honeymoon of the south west of Thailand near Phuket.
ZAP Tasting on June 6th, 2018
“ZAP exists to preserve and celebrate an important part of our heritage. We highlight the unique and wonderful characteristics of the grape—Zinfandel —that helped settle the West. Today, Zinfandel is recognized as a world class wine, grown in virtually every winegrape growing region of California. ZAP’s programs and outreach activities showcase the legacy and potential of Zinfandel’s unique contributions to the world of wine.”
–2016 Peachy Canyon Winery, Willow Creek District, Paso Robles AVA, California: 100% Zinfandel. Owner Doug Beckett briefly talked about the 3 districts in Paso Robles that has significance in his mind: Adelaida, Templeton Gap, and Willow Creek – although the grapes for this wine are bought from another long standing vineyard, he is in the process of buying a vineyard in Willow Creek so Peachy Canyon Winery will have vineyards in each of these AVAs and they can expand their single vineyard program. Doug said that Willow Creek (with more mountains, higher rainfall) gives a more restrained, fresher wine that he prefers in their youth and in general he said he liked drinking Zinfandel young – but Ravenswood’s Joel Peterson jumped in and said he was drinking various Zinfandels from 1990-1997 and that they were delicious. Doug is a big believer in dry-farming (non-irrigated vineyards) and many of his vineyards follow that practice.
This wine had juicy black cherry and spice with hints of scorched earth and a touch of white pepper with round tannins and plenty of acidity to make it a good pairing with a diverse array of foods. Only 400 cases made.
–2015 Ravenswood Winery, Dickerson Vineyard, Napa Valley AVA, California: 100% Zinfandel. Founder Joel Peterson passionately spoke about his strong belief in the ageability of Zinfandel, and again, he was currently drinking many from the 1990s and finding them in fantastic shape. He said that if Zinfandel is made to age, not too ripe or watered back and it gets to the point where you can ferment it dry, it will have energy and vibrancy left, but if the energy has been taken out, it will have problems aging. This vineyard, once owned by his late friend Bill Dickerson, was passed on to Bill’s daughters but eventually sold to owners of Pinterest, which was fine with him as it would take someone with major resources to keep a vineyard in Napa with old vine Zinfandel (originally planted in 1920) as Cabernet Sauvignon growers are getting 3x, up to 4x, more for their grapes grown just up the street.
The vitality jumped out of this wine with high-toned red raspberries and vibrant floral notes, very aromatic, with some dried herbs and good structure with drive that gave it a long finish and indicates that this beauty will age with grace in the long term. Only 800 cases made.
Also, a couple of fun side notes… this vineyard is head-pruned (as well as dry-farmed), as the previous Willow Creek, because Zinfandel has larger clusters that sit on each other so trellising takes a lot of work and that is why many high-quality Zinfandel producers in California prefer head-pruned. The Dickerson vineyard was planted on leafroll affected rootstocks – and so the leafroll rootstock affects the metabolic character of the vine so it gets less photosynthetic capacity (processes light less efficiently) and so takes a lot longer to ripen – the acid stays up and the fruit stays within the red raspberry spectrum as opposed to many of the other Napa Zinfandel vineyards having more of a plummy note. And finally, in 1960, the most grown grape in Napa was Petite Sirah but Zinfandel was a close second so it was well-liked in Napa – but today Zinfandel only makes up 2% of the vineyards in Napa Valley.
–2015 Artezin, Collins Vineyard, Russian River Valley AVA, California: 96% Zinfandel and 4% Carignane (Carignan). Winemaker Randle Johnson talked about the Collins family and their illustrious history with their Limerick Lane Winery and although the vineyards were sold off Michael Collins kept 8 acres (3.2 hectares), planted in 1934, and Artezin is fortunate enough to get half of those grapes to make this wine. Randle calls this a “tangent” wine as it does not have the “classic Zinfandel” characteristics such as the black pepper but it does have the red fruit, boysenberry deliciousness going on. He makes another Zin from Dry Creek which he said is classic. His Collins Vineyard in RRV and his Dry Creek just showed the sliver of the broad breadth of versatility that Zinfandel is capable of.
Crunchy red fruit with lilacs and bay leaf with fine tannins and an overall lightness of being while being concentrated at the same time. Only 400 cases.
–2015 Pedroncelli, Bushnell Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley AVA, California: 97% Zinfandel and 3% Petite Sirah. Again, owner Julie Pedroncelli St. John’s family has been growing Zinfandel in Dry Creek for 90 years – going back 4 generations. Julie said the Pedroncelli wine style has always been Old World in style with a California twist. They grow hillside Zinfandel, both at their original 25 acres (10.1 hectares) of vineyards around their home ranch and this Bushnell vineyard is in the middle of Dry Creek Valley up on a hill, and it is considered an extension of the original vineyards; it was owned by her grandfather in the 1940s (they think it was planted around 1919 and re-planted in the 1990s), sold to his son-in-law and daughter in the 1950s, and they farmed it until 1990s and then Julie’s cousin Carol and her husband Jim Bushnell have tended the vineyard ever since.
Wild strawberries with baking spice and a hint of cocoa dust with deep concentration and textural complexity finishing with a note of black pepper. Only 1000 cases.
Also, interesting side notes… since Julie’s grandparents grew wine grapes 90 years ago they did have to suffer through Prohibition but found a way to survive by selling grapes to the head of households so they could make their own wine and it is still one of the few things not taxed in the US – up to 200 gallons. An the current winemaker, Montse Reece, likes to use yeast commonly used in Barolo because it is nice and slow and so pulls out a lot of nuances from the Zinfandel variety.