Chapter One: "You Said Turn Left!"
The wrong left turn in 2005 happened in El Dorado County, a former gold rush era, backwoods, Nirvana, in the lower Sierra Foothills, known for growing hearty red varietals. Perched atop a bucolic backdrop of oak trees and rolling hills, I was familiar with the area during daylight hours, but due to a lack of diversity in the local population and the ever present psychological assumption that bad things happen in the woods...especially at night, I and my ever so loyal, "I will leave you in a heartbeat if s$*t goes down," cousin, wasted no time in leaving a just photographed wedding so that we could find our way out of the woods. We drove aimlessly through what I now know were grapevine dotted roads, towards anything that resembled civilization. However, with nothing but the headlights on my car leading the way, and as luck would have it, we got lost. The ill - fated left turn on this scary night, instantly changed the direction of my life.
|Leaves on my Zin vine|
Driving along the dark, winding roads of what I would discover was Zinfandel country, my mind began to play tricks on me. There was nothing on the radio except a lean selection of tunes that all reminded me of the movie, "Deliverance," and those tall, looming, scary grapevines seemed to be everywhere. Fearing the worse, we stopped at a palatial estate to ask for directions. Seeing someone exiting the property as we pulled up, the baffled, but kind manager invited us in and poured us a glass of something red before providing directions to the main highway. As we left, she offered us a selection of half poured bottles and invited us to return.
Chapter Three: Zinfandel is Red?
A few weeks later, an invite to participate in a free bridal show from our "Lost in the middle of nowhere" savior, arrived. It was happily accepted, but I questioned why the show was free to wedding vendors. The reply was simple, "Do you want to participate?" Not one to look an opportunity sideways, we loaded up a selection of wedding albums, and headed back to this still unknown location to participate in the bridal show. In hindsight, I cannot help but think that this was a set-up for a new career path. On the drive up to Amador County from Sacramento, one couldn't help but notice that the nighttime scary vineyards of days past, were actually beautiful, abundantly loaded grapevines that rolled endlessly across the hilly terrain. We became mesmerized by the smell of the air, and the dense forrest of all things grape. Nearing our destination, we stopped to read a tag on one of the trellises. "Zinfandel?" Wait, how could this be? Zinfandel...at least the wine that I was familiar with, was, "pink?" The grapes that rolled endlessly up one side of a hill, down another, were all, dark red! Something was wrong.
Chapter Four: Zinfandel is "KING" in Them There Hills!
The winery owner liked my photography work, but really admired how well I engaged with the public. Somehow, my limited knowledge of all things grape didn't keep me from talking up wine, especially familiar varietals. (At this time, Chardonnay was a favorite...besides, it doesn't stain white wedding dresses.) Like a stealth bomber, the winery owner wasted no time in asking me how I knew so much about wine and would I be interested in pouring wine a couple of days a week. NOT! I had no desire to pour wine, much less, the vile red liquid served a few days earlier, that was supposed to be pink! As a polite gesture, the aforementioned bottles given to us, were dispatched with my cousin who, never said anything more about them. With certainty and a bit of hostility, I expressed pure disdain for red Zinfandel...okay, for the Zin that was poured previously, and never expected to hear from the owner again.
Chapter Five: Resistance is Futile!
I took the job as a pouring wench, and quickly discovered that I knew NOTHING about wine from the academic point of view. Customers, especially those who were a bit uncomfortable with a sistah girl being up in them there hills, pounded me relentlessly with questions. Fortunately, the winemaker, Gordon Bentz, showed me the ropes around the vineyard and would be the biggest influence, not only in grapes such as Montepulciano, Sangiovese, Merlot, Syrah, Viogner, but in shaping my Zinfandel education. Between the two wineries that we worked for,www.bellapiazzawinery.com, he made nine different Zins. Ranging from high octane fruit bombs that teetered on being Ports to a few that were salad bar vegetal, Zins did not appeal to my palate on any level. Perhaps it was the daily onslaught of customers who argued incessantly that Zinfandel was supposed to be pink. (By this time, I knew better, but learned to be diplomatic.) Or, maybe because after a year of selling wine futures, and un ashamedly convincing folks that their purchases were more important than food, electricity or mortgage payments, burnout was beginning to happen. Most of the wine sold, primarily consisted of Zinfandel, and honestly, they were beginning to taste the same...high alcohol, extremely jammy, green peppered, vegetal, atomic fruit bombs! Ugh! The final blow came with a generous gifting of a case of Zin (which I begged to trade for anything else,) from the winery owner at Christmas. This pushed me over the top. In short, I silently vowed through tightly clenched teeth, that I would never like Zinfandel!
Chapter Six: There's Even More Zinfandel in Lodi?
A year of difficult, but dedicated work, at the winery came to an end when it became obvious that the direction my life was taking, needed improvement. I was a photographer, a writer, not a pouring wench! I wanted more from myself and for myself. Enrolling in college to fine tune my photography skill with hopes of becoming a teacher or a photojournalist, the wine industry had become more than a new career path, to be explored it had become a passion. Mr. Bentz had created a new monster in those vineyards of Amador county, and the best was yet to come. After falling in love with Petit Syrah, Alacante Bouchet and other rogue grapes, Zinfandel would still not hold a place near and dear to my heart until I accepted a part-time job in Lodi...where Zinfandel reigns supreme.
The unnamed winery that I would give four years of my life to did not tout Zins as the be all, do all grape of choice. Instead, the short statured Italian founder, preferred wines from the Bordeaux region of France. As a result of this, I became an expert in all things non Zinfandel...until visiting several wineries nearby who did tout its' virtues.
Chapter Seven: High Octane Fruit Bomb, No More!
Lodi Zinfandel, www.lodiwine.com did not possess the high sugar, high alcohol, over the top fruitiness reminiscent of wine produced in Amador County. Instead, the Zinfandel of the San Jaoquin Valley, had structure, complexity, and depth.(Okay, they were a bit fruity.) Maybe, just maybe, I needed to give Zins produced at a lower elevation a chance. The unnamed, short statured Italian founder winery did make a few classic Zinfandels, and heeding the demands of their customer base began to produce some memorable wines. But Zinfandel remained a name at the bottom of their tasting me. I had experienced enough of this difficult grape, and truthfully enjoyed its' cousin, Primitivo...which seemed to have what Zinfandel lacked to my palate, more. The Zinfandel that could hold my attention had yet to be discovered.
Chapter Eight: Paso Robles; You're Doing it Right!
Venturing beyond the high heat of the valley one day, and being forced to go on a research trip to study micro climates, Paso Robles beckoned. The opportunity explore Zinfandel from a different perspective was not on the radar for this visit as being a Rhone lover, the area would provide an abundance of wine that I had come to crave such as Syrah, Petit Syrah and Viogner. Grudgingly, the opportunity to explore a different take on Zinfandel that did not proliferate in the high heat of the central valley would soon take precedence.
Entering one of several tasting rooms on this research jaunt, Sextant, www.sextantwines.com being the most notable, I was taken aback at the friendliness and low key atmosphere. I could also appreciate the passion that the tasting room folks had for a non Rhone varietals such as Pinot Noir, but what I enjoyed more than anything was the love they had for this Zinfandel, and the near unapologetic way they expressed their desire to create wines that defied anything short of perfection. I became hooked like a catfish on a chicken liver as each wineries that I visited in Paso Robles expounded on all things Zinfandel.
Chapter Nine: Petit Syrah Folks, I still Love You, but...
After graduating with a combined degree in photography/journalism, I decided to further my education. (Okay, job offers have not been exactly forthcoming, but I'm hopeful) Because of a passion for all things wine and the agri-tourism related industry, I began working towards a masters degree in Recreation, Parks and Tourism Administration. (California State University, Sacramento has a special discipline in this field www.csus.edu/gradstudies) With a vast knowledge wine obtained through years of working in tasting rooms, it was only natural to immerse myself into this discipline. It also gave me a reason, albeit a research related one, to explore Zinfandel further. Why? As I mentioned previously, Zinfandel is often assumed...especially among certain demographics and populations of people, to be pink! We will talk about this in a later blog post...I digress.
Anyways, I will always be a Rhone lover, http://www.rhonerangers.org, and possessing nearly 600 bottles of wine, mainly reds and a few white varietals, Zinfandel, has not, yet, become a favorite. However, after the Paso Robles excursion, they have begun to appear more often within the collection, as the willingness to give them a chance has increased. It also didn't help that I was invited to play with some of the most passionate Zinfandel producers in the world. The good folks at...
|I've been, Zapped!|
Chapter Ten: All Things, Zin!
Having tasted Zinfandel throughout California, it is understandable that I may have been a bit harsh on this misunderstood grape. Tapping into my artistic nature, I began to see that Zinfandel is not just a high alcohol, problem child, but a versatile, classy, grape that when tamed by those who appreciate its' unpredictable nature, can turn it into an amazingly sensual wine. Of course, further research would be needed, but things were looking up for the new relationship with this grape.
Chapter Eleven: ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates and Producers)
My graduate school advisor said that doors would soon open up for the direction of my study, and I am indebted to the good folks at ZAP for allowing me to conduct observational, (and gastronomical) research while attending one of their phenomenal events. Here, I was able to meet some of the most passionate Zinfandel producers and advocates for
|Joel Peterson of Ravenswood|
At a recent session held in San Francisco, at the Presidio, I was introduced to a small band of Zin-fanatics who generously shared their knowledge. One gentleman in particular, Joel Peterson of Ravenswood, reminded me of author Louis L'amore. His broad rimmed Stetson, resting comfortably atop his head, revealed a genuine person; true to his craft. As he spoke, I was captivated by his genial manner and could find myself sitting at his feet as a student of all things Zin. I learned among other wine tidbits, the difference between Zinfandel and it's European first cousin, Primitivo. Though I had researched this info many times before, there was just something about the way Mr. Peterson explained the difference. His passion, honesty and humor were infectious. I mean seriously, this gentleman could convert a Bordeaux snob into a Zin-fanatic! Additionally, he did not dismiss the pink version of Zinfandel stating emphatically that, "It's still a Zin, no less!"
I could not wait to tell my advisor about him, and look forward to speaking to him in the future. I also had the opportunity to meet the good folks from Seghesio Family Vineyards and Biale Vineyards, who not only graciously shared their knowledge, but were warm and generous in sharing their wine.
The Heritage Zinfandel, a wine produced through a collaboration of grapes grown among the produces, ROCKS. Those in attendance were treated to several vintages that allowed for a unique Zinfandel experience. What amazed me most was that several of these wines are produced from Zins grown in areas where varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay dominate. This not only added to the desire to explore Zinfandel more, but provided a new avenue of research into my study. More to come on this topic.
Chapter Twelve: Zinfandel, Further Research Needed
As one can see, my opinion and attitude about Zinfandel has changed, and the good folks at ZAP sponsored events have raised the bar in my quest to explore all that this California prolific grape can offer. I look forward to furthering research and seriously hope that I do not find THE Zin, but continue to be amazed by this wonderful red grape, and the generous Zin-fanatical producers who artistically turn it into a libation masterpiece.
Sending warm love to Mr. Stephen, who without his support and incessant ability to keep me motivated to believe in my place within the wine industry, and the folks at ZAP I say thank you!
Until next time,