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Zinfandel--does size matter?


Yes, say influential winemakers and critics. No, say a diminishing, tradition-obsessed few. A panel discussion and all-encompassing barrel tasting called "Insiders Exploration of Dry Creek Valley" is a daylong event held every August. It focuses attention on the Dry Creek appellation of Sonoma County, an area no bigger than Manhattan Island. The theme this year was "What's in Style in Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel: Is Bigger Better?"

Not only is zinfandel God's gift to American viticulture, but Dry Creek, a long and narrow strip of land, stands at the summit of the various microclimates throughout California that favor this lovable grape. A wine of snappy, delectable fruit, with a vibrant sweep of personality, this "size" question has morphed into a somewhat obsessive concern. Highly (some would say overly) extracted, fat, chewy winemaking styles have resonated positively with many all-powerful critics, goading the locals to reassess their winemaking goals and ideals.

Helen Turley, owner of the small, wildly successful MARCASSIN property in Napa Valley, has made high powered, on-a-pedestal wines for years. Among her prized pinots noirs and chardonnays, she has also crafted numerous, shockingly oversized zinfandels, with some attaining what was once considered an unspeakable (and barely reachable) 17-plus percent alcohol level. If the fermentation doesn't get stuck as the alcohol rises, the results are gargantuan, overflowing styles, certain to knock the block off of most other wines in a lengthy blind tasting. Solitary wine guru Robert Parker and many on the staff of the Wine Spectator magazine, America's most influential glossy publication, have raved about these wines and, therefore, the industry (and consumers) takes notice. Review scores that regularly achieve 95 points give pause to any winemaker who knows that she is capable of making a similar, high-alcohol behemoth.

Thus the quandary of Dry Creek, a blessed area that is also making some of the best syrah and petite syrah in the state. Why shouldn't Dry Creek winemakers want to get those 95-plus scores when they feel that producing such goods is very doable? With each year a few more of the 53 wineries are traveling this route. The victim: a more restrained zinfandel style, a wine at or below 14 percent alcohol, a wine that exudes elegance and the opportunity to develop and improve in the bottle. Like the ivory-billed woodpecker, almost extinct.

One of the endangered mammals is Doug Nalle, for over 20 years a superb crafter of Dry Creek zinfandels and always a non-trendy, artisan winemaker. He cut his teeth at the old, now defunct, Balverne Winery in Sonoma. Later, he was winemaker at Quivira, still one of Dry Creek's dramatic wineries. I remember the splash that his wine, under his own Nalle label, made upon its first vintage release of 1984. Critics were seemingly unanimous in their praise and Nalle became a spotlight winemaker whether seeking notoriety or not. But "favorites" have a way of losing favor as others eventually challenge this pre-eminency, and, as here observed, the trend toward bigger, high-alcohol zins have left Nalle a dinosaur of the old "claret-like" school. He wants no part of ultra ripe, raisiny styling, stating, "Huge, sweet, ultra ripe wines are sexy for one glass only. Or for competitions--get it?"

Yes, I do, and Nalle, along with men like Fred Peterson of Peterson Winery, whose winemaking is his "reason for being," and women like Phyllis Zouzounis of Deux Amis Wines, whose mantra is "balance, style and consistency," continue their quest for judicious alcohol styling. It's not an easy thing to do. Zinfandel is notorious for producing bunches that ripen extremely unevenly. Take a look at a bunch close to harvest and you might find 15 percent of the grapes shriveled to the point of total desiccation, 10 percent still hard and green, and, with any luck, about 75 percent at the correct ripeness levels. Nalle does a thorough selection process in the field and then once again at the winery to keep only the perfectly ripened berries headed for the crusher.

Having tasted his direct, solid, chunky and delicious 2003 Zinfandel at a dinner in Healdsburg (pronounced Heelds-berg) that preceded the "Exploration" event, we were fortuitously seated together at the event's second dinner where he supplied a 1994 version of his wine for our delectation. This wine had lost the intense fruitiness that the 2003 strutted, and in its place was a layered complexity, nuanced with pepper, spiciness and perfectly melded fruit of impeccable balance. I was so impressed that I pressed upon him the proverbial desert island question: If you had one style to drink for the rest of your days, would it be the boisterous 2003, or the evolved 1994?

After considerable hedging, he went on record with the older wine, and so did I. The older wine would, I think, keep revealing its nuances day after day, month after month. Each time you'd be able to marvel at its long, lingering flavors and development. Another remarkable aspect of the older wine was how it expanded in the glass over a period of two hours. It had plenty of "stuff" to show intertwined with a certain elegance. Each evening, at the ocean's edge, you might ask yourself, "What secrets will tonight's bottle unlock?" The younger wine, although fundamentally sound, would soon lose the novelty of its direct fruit powered essence and single dimension. "Oh, this again? But remember that '94...?"

Nalle respects the zinfandel grape and treats it with a reverence more commonly applied to cabernet and pinot noir. "If you treat zin like a great grape, then you can see how it develops into a great wine." Point of fact: I have a recent, extraordinary recollection of how bottle age creates a stunning zinfandel. At our yearly "Oscar" party last February, some of us, not absorbed by the theatrics, got onto the subject of quality in Lytton Springs zinfandels. "Wait!" I said, and went down in the cellar to retrieve a bottle of 1981 Lytton Springs, a bottling that precedes Paul Draper's (he of Ridge Winery) ownership of the property. The wine was a revelation. Not only was it healthy and alive, but it had become a wine of universal origin, a wine so supple, so layered and softly delicious as to charm everyone in the room. We had drunk Barolos, California cabs and Bordeaux earlier that evening, but this 25-year-old wowed the crowd. What a thrill to taste this well preserved creation. The alcohol level? It was 13.6 percent. I wonder how a 16.6 percent zin would taste or hold up 25 years from now?

Nalle's highest alcohol level for a zinfandel stands at 14 percent, and the aim each year is to shoot for around 13.5. Very ripe zinfandel grapes have plenty of sugar in them to ferment down. At the morning panel discussion, winemaker Dave Rafanelli of A. Rafanelli Winery said that "the sugar level can go from 24 degrees brix [a sugar to alcohol measurement] to 28 degrees in a mere 24-hour period." (!) No wonder today's tendency is to push for ripeness and then, on purpose or mistake, find your alcohol levels off the charts. Nalle aims for 23-24 brix for his composite sugar levels at harvest. He uses open top fermenters exclusively, which help to "blow off" some alcohol as you punch down the grape must. Most important of all is the art of blending. Nalle uses petite syrah, carignane, mourvedre, alicante bouschet and gamay, in an effort to provide a smoother, more complex wine. Concurrently, these being grapes with lower sugar levels, they assist in lowering the wine's overall alcoholic strength. Quite a balancing act, no? One could argue that it's far more difficult to make a 13.5 percent alcohol zin than the 17 percent giants that win the awards.

A tutored zinfandel tasting for members of the press concluded the Dry Creek "Experience." Two of Nalle's wines were shown. The 2002 Nalle Zinfandel was fruity, grapey and rounded with spicy berry intensity. Tight and concentrated, it needs bottle aging and possesses a long, soft tannic finish to accomplish it. In the final grouping of wines, we tasted six zinfandels blindly and were asked to identify which were younger and which were older bottlings. This was relatively easy and demonstrates just how zinfandel evolves into a more interesting wine as it ages. An enticing 1995 Ridge Wine, Lytton Springs (another producer that blends up to 24 percent of other grapes into its wine) and an intense, austere 1994 Peterson, Bradford Mountain bottling were fascinating. A younger 2001 Preston Wines was a sumptuous, stick to your gums effort with vivid fruit. A stuck fermentation prevented this from reaching 16 percent alcohol, but it tasted great, and their "mistake" actually produced a fortuitous result. The best wine of the flight was 1999 Nalle Winery, which included a dark, almost tallowy quality, full attractive mouth feel with liveliness and a long finish.

Nalle says: "We can make just as heady and high-alcohol zins in Dry Creek as Helen [Turley] makes in Napa and elsewhere." The key is, how many Dry Creek producers will be doing just that in the years to come? I ask myself, Will there only be wines that are so strong that, as one critic has said, "I had to rinse my mouth twice and nibble on some crackers before going on"? Do we really want the tooth staining, no room for anything else in your mouth, style of wines? I don't. I'd like my mouth to be like a three-bedroom apartment--with the wine in one room, the food in another, and the third still available to contain anything else I'd like to enjoy!

N.B. Any wine reviewed here that is not available locally can be purchased by using the vineyard name I have given plus ".com". For example: prestonwines.com.

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