Where you will find ocassional clever rantings and lunatic ravings from the NHVino characters responsible for bringing you great wines, killer foods and some of the coolest events in Murphys. Check in often for both the musings and the pathos.
Our California editors share their favorite growing regions for the Golden State's iconic grape.
Published on Aug 7, 2013
BY STEVE HEIMOFF AND VIRGINIE BOONE
Periodically, Zinfandel comes into style and goes out of fashion. It’s currently “in” like never before, with hot new restaurants like Healdsburg’s Spoonbar and San Francisco’s Hakkasan giving it prominent play on their wine lists.
“It’s one of those wines that guests don’t typically ask for, but when we pour it for them, they absolutely love it,” says Cara Patricia, Hakkasan’s senior sommelier.
Part of the consumer hesitance lies in the multiple personalities Zin has shown over the years. It’s been made red, white, rosé, sweet, dry, late-harvest (“Port”) style, Beaujolais-style and even sparkling.
The variety grows well wherever the climate is warm enough to ripen it, which is pretty much everywhere in California that’s not on the immediate coast. Yet, Zinfandel thrives in some regions more than others.
In general, Zin shows two styles: one from warm, inland regions, the other from cool-to-warm regions where the vines experience some maritime influence.
The former tends to be higher in alcohol, the latter a little more elegant, but neither is “better.” It’s all a matter of taste.
Keep in mind, too, that vintners have several techniques for adjusting alcohol downward. So even warm-climate Zins that got very ripe can still have moderate alcohol levels.
Wine Enthusiast zeroes in on the Golden State’s top Zinfandel addresses, analyzing what makes each one so special.
With vines hearkening back to California’s Gold Rush more than a century ago, Zinfandel is the Sierra Foothills’ longest-standing and most widely planted variety.
Set among the jagged mountains between Lake Tahoe and Yosemite, Foothills vineyards range from 1,000–3,000 feet above sea level.
Divided among four counties—Amador, El Dorado, Nevada and Calaveras—vineyards and wineries are spread out. Growing characteristics can vary substantially from site to site, although most vineyards are planted on soils derived from decomposed granite.
The one thing these areas have most in common is Zinfandel.
The area’s 1970s grape boom kicked off when the old-vine Deaver Vineyard showed up on a Corti Brothers wine from 1968. Wineries from outside the region, like Sutter Home and Ridge, started sourcing grapes from the Sierras. Local wineries, like Boeger and Montevina, followed soon after.
The Amador County towns of Plymouth and Fiddletown serve as the northern center of the appellation. Pioneers like Boeger, Montevina, Renwood and Easton are still going strong, alongside new faces like Andis, Fiddletown Cellars and Helwig.
Fiddletown Cellars and Borjón winemaker Joe Shebl, who also serves as Helwig’s general manager, says there’s been a shift over the last decade toward more concentrated, structured and refined Zinfandels, “stemming from more precise farming and smarter, more calculated winemaking approaches in terms of fermentation and aging management, use of better barrels and a drive to show off what this area is capable of.”
Working with so many different vineyards, Shebl finds it difficult to peg an “Amador County” style of Zinfandel. Some create Zins with deeply concentrated black fruit flavors and silky, balanced tannins, he says, while others make wines that are lighter, with more fresh red fruit and finesse.
At the southern end of the appellation lies Calaveras County, where a few producers are honing in on specific vineyard sites that seem to capture Zinfandel’s playful nature.
Sierra Foothills Zinfandels often evolve great elegance upon aging. Tight and often intense when young, with pronounced cinnamon-tinged spice, creamy textures and layers of tar, licorice and cedar, these Zins increasingly offer a sense of freshness, making them very inviting to drink. —V.B.
Recent Top-Scoring Zins from Sierra Foothills
93 Easton 2010 Estate Bottled Zinfandel (Shenandoah Valley); $32.
92 Newsome-Harlow 2010 Big John Zinfandel (Calaveras County); $36.
91 Cedarville 2010 Estate Zinfandel (El Dorado); $22.
PUBLISHED WEDNESDAY, JUL. 31, 2013
Sooner or later, I will stop judging wine.
That isn't a day I look forward to. I will miss the camaraderie, the anticipation of finding new wines to write about, the drama that attends the final round of voting to select a sweepstakes winner.
I will miss the judges' dinners, whether a backyard barbecue in Cloverdale or a multicourse spread at a fancy restaurant in Dallas.
But curiously, I don't think I will miss anything more than the drive to the Calaveras County Fair wine competition just south of Angels Camp.
The pleasure I get from that 100-mile trek from Sacramento derives in part, no doubt, from having grown up in the Sierra foothills, in Sonora just to the south of the Stanislaus River, which separates Calaveras and Tuolumne counties.
It doesn't hurt, either, that the competition is in the spring, when the foothills still are green and the orchards and vineyards of the flatlands just east of Stockton are quickly unfolding. The grass is tall and thick, and rivulets from a spring shower are likely to be coursing down the folds of the hills. It's scenic, lonesome and historic country.
Morning is best for this drive, even though you head directly into the sun. When I turn off Highway 99 and start to mosey east on Highway 4, I instinctively turn off the radio. It isn't because the road is narrow, with several intersecting crossroads that compel attention, but that scenery and the memories it evokes are best savored without distraction.
I like to roll through Farmington. I might stop at Copperopolis for a cup of coffee. From there the road gets steeper, windier and narrower, with the climb varied by an occasional swinging dip. It's exhilarating, taking me back to high school, when four of us would climb into the first car any of us ever had for an afternoon of skylarking and cigarettes on a similarly scenic and rollicking ride.
In recent years, Murphys, not Angels Camp, has been the initial destination. This is where the fair puts us up for the night before the judging. You can spend the day strolling about the town, dropping in to several of the 20 or so winery tasting rooms on and about Main Street. It's important to note that this is likely a Thursday, when tasting-room personnel aren't as swamped with visitors as they are on weekends. The tasting rooms of Murphys, incidentally, are staffed with many of the more engaging people in the trade – knowing, lively, candid and helpful, at least when the counters aren't too congested, as they can get on weekends.
Lots of small towns in North State wine regions boast of having satellite tasting rooms, but Murphys saw the potential early on and capitalized on the trend ambitiously.
On top of that, Murphys has several attractions beyond tasting rooms. It has quite a few imaginative and industrious restaurants with menus that go hand in hand with wine. There are art galleries and fashion boutiques, a fine bakery and the sturdy old Murphys Hotel.
There's the E Clampus Vitus Wall of Comparative Ovations and a branch of Nelson's Columbia Candy Kitchen from the other side of the Stanislaus River, where a hand-dipped chocolate is just the morsel to have in hand while the other holds a glass of port-style dessert wine at the nearby tasting room of Frog's Tooth Winery. There's the funky plumbing house DEA Bathroom Machineries, and the well-stocked and aptly named Sustenance Books.
And there always seems to be a new winery to explore, though I also try to allow time to stop at tasting rooms where I've learned I can count on wines of individuality and authority – Lavender Ridge, Twisted Oak, Black Sheep, La Folia, Milliaire, Hatcher and Hovey, all of them bringing new purpose and affectionate aesthetics to historic structures.
And let's not overlook Newsome-Harlow Wines. Owner-vintner Scott Klann is a Calaveras County native and well-seasoned local winemaker, having worked and consulted for several Sierra foothill wineries over the past two decades.
In 2000, he and his wife, Melanie, with a couple of partners, founded New-some-Harlow Wines in Murphys, producing 150 cases that first harvest.
Today, Newsome-Harlow turns out 7,500 cases a year, and over the past decade Klann has gained a reputation not only for finding and celebrating choice foothill vineyards, but also for making wines that retain the powerful fruit for which the region is recognized while tempering it so his releases come off vivid, balanced and representative of the individual vineyards he exploits.
At Newsome-Harlow's tasting room on the eve of the Calaveras County fair wine competition last spring I found his 2012 sauvignon blanc to be dry, lean, spicy and zesty, with splashes of grapefruit; his 2010 syrah muscular and mouth-filling; and his 2010 petite sirah traditionally floral and juicy but more persistent in the finish than is common.
All that is well and good, but Klann's winemaking is perhaps most distinguished by his way with zinfandel. In that respect, he's something of a throwback and rebel. While many of his brethren on the foothill wine scene talk up the prospects of relative newcomers such as sangiovese, barbera and syrah, Klann is especially keen on zinfandel, the varietal that most established the region's standing for fine wine.
Klann makes six zinfandels each harvest, four of them from individual vineyards. He aims for the character of each vineyard and the nature of each vintage to be faithfully recorded in the final wine. He relishes that diversity, and it is represented in his current lineup by the briary claret-style 2011 Shake Ridge Ranch Zinfandel, the swaggering and minerally 2011 Big John Zinfandel, and the supple and spicy 2011 Herbert Vineyard Zinfandel.
My favorite, however, was the Newsome-Harlow Wines 2011 Calaveras County Dalton Ranch Donner Party Zinfandel. The name is as colorful and as intriguing as the wine, which amounts to a classic foothill zinfandel that is all about wild boysenberry fruit with a few twists of peppery spice. It boasts supportive but not overbearing tannins and a structure of equilibrium and endurance, its acidity invigorating, its oak well integrated. It is one seamless, mature and refreshing zinfandel.
I first wrote of Klann's Donner Party Zinfandel with the release of the 2007 vintage. He explained at the time that the significance of the name was twofold. For one, 2007 was a difficult vintage, full of obstacles that could have resulted in an overblown take on the varietal if he didn't get a quick and astute grip on the challenges. Secondly, he saw the name "Donner Party" as a tribute to survivors of that ill-fated trek, some members of which eventually paused in Murphys.
The 2011 growing season had its own complications – an unusually cool summer, rain in the fall – but Klann worked the wine to retain the fruit, structure and complexity that fans of the Donner Party wine have come to expect. For one, he added a bit more reinforcing petite sirah to the zinfandel than he had in 2007.
The 2007, incidentally, took two high honors at the Calaveras County Fair wine competition in 2009. It not only won the "zinfandel shootout," it subsequently was voted the best red wine.
The 2011, however, never had a chance to see if it could duplicate that coup. Klann overlooked the deadline to enter this year's competition, so none of his wines was under consideration.
If I'm still a judge there next year, I'll look forward once again to that splendid drive, my time in Murphys and a visit to the Newsome-Harlow tasting room, just in case Klann again forgets to enter the next day's competition.
Newsome-Harlow Wines 2011 Calaveras County Dalton Ranch Donner Party Zinfandel
By the numbers: 14.7 percent alcohol, 256 cases, $36
Context: Melanie Klann is an avid cook. The couple owned a restaurant in Murphys until about a year ago, when they closed it after realizing their work week was much longer than they'd like. She continues to develop and post wine-friendly dishes on the winery's website, www.nhvino.com. She recommends the Donner Party wine with the recipe for filet mignon in Gorgonzola cream sauce, but the wine also should work well with the seared duck breasts over creamy white saffron polenta, the agave-glazed flatiron steak with chimichurri, and the Moroccan lamb stew.
Availability: The Klanns are in the enviable wine-trade position of developing such an avid following through their wine club, online sales via their website, and their presence in Murphys that they sell three-quarters of their wine directly, without dealing with the traditional distribution network.
More information: The tasting room at Newsome- Harlow, 403 Main St., Murphys, is open noon-5 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 11 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Friday through Sunday.
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne's selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions and visits to wine regions. Read his blog at www.ayearinwine.com and reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Lately I've been thinking quite a bit about vineyards. I'm sure you think that sounds silly from a guy that's been making wine for two decades, but it's true. Obviously vineyards are important and no, I'm not suddenly realizing this for the first time. However I am starting to view them in a completely different way than I have ever before. See, a vineyard isn't just a source of fruit…it isn't even JUST a vineyard. What it is is an amalgamation of otherwise completely unrelated things. A vineyard is a piece of land. It is a slope or a flat. It is a deep narrow valley or a wide open and exposed gently rolling hill. It is water. It is heat or wind or cold nights. But it doesn't stop there. It is a soil profile. It is a farmer. It is a sum of many different decisions a farmer makes. It is a farming philosophy as much as it is a farming practicality.
I've always known this deep down I guess. I've always felt that long term relationships with vineyards (the amalgamation, not the land) were imperative. But that feeling has never before been so close to the surface. If I spend a few years with a vineyard that I like, the more of a desperation I feel to make sure I never lose that vineyard. The longer I am with it, the more important it becomes. Take Big John's vineyard for example. The reason that wine has become the flagship wine for us is not only because we've made it for 12 years now. It's not even because it is good, although that helps. It is because we have spent those years learning about that vineyard. Experimenting with different techniques. Finding out how the vineyard (as a whole) works best. Shake Ridge Ranch in Amador is another good example.
These are the same reasons The Dalton Ranch is such an important partner as well. It sits in a breathtakingly serene valley (If you are a spiritualist you understand how much 'better' you are in that type of environment). It has a consistent soil profile. It was established by a man of vision and high standards. He hired a very talented vineyard manager. He committed the resources to do the job right. The vineyard manager has employed organics and an extremely gentle and sustainable approach. It truly is in my opinion one of the most special vineyards in our area. But it is like that because of the amalgamation.
We receive several different lots from The Dalton Ranch. The Donner Party Zin comes from there. A sizable amount of Petite Sirah comes from there, as does Carignane (for The Deviant) and Sauvignon Blanc. It also is the source for this very special 2010 Dalton Ranch Syrah that is in the March 2013 wine club order. It pleases me to no end that this special vineyard is our partner and I hope that as the years go by we keep our greedy little hands on it (and develop a few more sources just like it).
Fast and furious! It is true that each and every Crush has its own unique personality. After the last few long drawn out harvest seasons we were certainly about due for a barnburner. And a barnburner it is. As I take a brief time out to sit here and write this, we have received almost 100 tons out an expected 130. In fact, we have almost nailed down the schedule for the remaining few picks (with a couple very small exceptions).
At this point last year we had barely scratched the surface of picking and here we are, approximately 75 - 80% through the whole thing. Blame it on the weather! We've had a fantastic growing season and the final stretch of it has been near perfect. Is it a good vintage? Normally I say things like, "it's a little early to tell just yet," or, "time will tell." However this year it is clear from the get-go that we are experiencing the best vintage we've had in several years. Everything from the SB and Muscat all the way through the Syrahs, Petites and Zins are all showing great promise. It is always said that the job is hardest in bad vintages and this is true. That being the case, this vintage is shaping up to be a walk in the park.
Pictured: Scott Klann(Newsome) with former partner and dear dear friend Mark Skenfield(Harlow) bringing in the 2012 Big John they planted many moons ago.
I’ve been eyeing this date on the calendar for the better part of the summer. It has finally arrived and I find myself in awe of life’s poignant cycles. In June of 1992 I left my beloved friends and second home in Long Beach, CA. These were/are people that I love dearly. They had helped me to see the world in new ways and to see that I was perfectly worthy of all that it had to offer. There was no plan, no grand scheme, other than a much needed inward look at what my life was going to be about. The only place to do that was under my father’s roof...the safest haven I had ever known.
My return there was at the same time both calming and foreboding. I was 23 years old and was seriously beginning to feel the need to find a calling. Music had always been a central focal point in my life but by this time I was aware that it was probably not going to be something that I would be successful at.
I picked up some work painting houses that summer...something I was DEFINITELY not interested in doing for very long. A friend had told me that a local winery was always looking for help this time of year for something called ‘Crush’. As I have often said, I knew nothing about wine at this point...I thought Chardonnay was the name of some guy who had his wine EVERYWHERE. So something called Crush was completely foreign to me.
The winemaker, Chuck Hovey (now a dear friend) and I hit it off well in my interview. He mentioned that I was welcome to come down and help out and he would call me when harvest was nearing. This was mid-July. Growing up in an rural area like Calaveras County, one would think I would be aware of the unknowns of farming. Nope. Weeks went by and I was beginning to think I had been blown off. No worries though...at this point I was not aware of what I would be missing. In mid August I finally got ahold of Chuck and asked if there was still a place for me.
Meanwhile a few days before that, our hot and dry foothill county began fighting a small but fierce fire right in its geographical center. It was dubbed the Old Gulch fire and within just a few days it had burned an astonishing 25,000 acres...right here in my home. However the hubris of youth combined with a total ignorance of my surroundings left me unaware that this fire was burning perilously close to the small winery that I was to be working at. Unbeknownst to me, several of my soon-to-be co-workers were on their feet 18 - 20 hours a day that week helping to save the winery and ultimately, the town of Murphys, from being consumed by the tasmanian devil-ish fire. In fact, the California Department of Forestry had decided that the winery and vineyards were the last line of defense before Murphys and that they would backfire from there into the main fire in order to burn the fuel behind the winery in order to save it.
One week later, CDF announced that they had a handle on the fire. I had reached Chuck a day earlier (himself having been up for days on end keeping the winery safe and as moist as possible). He mentioned that everyone had gone home to rest for a day before coming back in to work and that he could use some help getting set up for Crush.
And so it was, on this very day twenty years ago, August 22nd, 1992, I walked into Stevenot winery and into the wine business forever (to give you an idea of how much my life would be changed by this unique period of time, it would be only six more weeks before I met Melanie, my wife now of 18 and a half years).
I remember clearly my very first day in the winery. It was the day that my eyes had been opened. The idea that you could work under the hot sun, producing something that was grown in the ground(!) and turn it into this incredible and historical nectar that people freak out about...my goodness, sign me up! From my first moments in this business I found something that had been missing. I became a student of the industry, a wide-eyed neophyte and lifelong fanatic. And though some days are more challenging than others, I wake with that same enthusiasm every single day of my life. And I am grateful.
Those early days were incredibly formative times for me. And I hold the people that I worked with very dear. As my career has grown I have had the opportunity to work with many other people that have also had a profound effect on me. Finally, there is a vast amount of people in this industry that I have met along the journey. They are friends, mentors, counselors and confidants. And again, I am grateful.
Stockton Record TimeOut Dining Food Critic Robin Nichols loved her recent visit to The Kitchen.
"Newsome-Harlow Wines is one of the venues where this evolution [pairing local organic gourmet foods with wines] is playing out. Owners Scott and Melanie Klann could even be poster children for the trend."
Spent the last couple of days in the winery working on the 2010 Big John Zinfandel. Typical zesty zingy Big John flavors however the plummy character is a bit more muted in this one. Could be a phase. We'll watch it for a few weeks before we bottle it. Also curious is an atypical slightly nutty character on the finish of the mouthfeel...not quite sure what it is yet but again, we'll watch it closely. Hoping it's not an overdose of oak.
In other news, Big John (the guy, not the wine) took a spill the other day and had to have some work done on his hip. He'll definitely be spending a little less time on a tractor this year so our old friend Mark Skenfield will have to step in a bit more for the 2012 vintage. If John gets too much worse Nancy has given us permission to take him out back and just shoot him. Just kidding, John...see you soon!
That's the game. Period. We could wax-philosophic all day long about the cool events, the eclectic food pairings, our hip and contemporary Tasting Lounge and Courtyard on Main Street in Downtown Murphys, but for us it comes down to one unwavering mission... steward the greatest wines we possibly can into existence and bring you some of the most sought-after wines (Zinfandel or otherwise) in this great Sierra Foothills mountainous wine region. 'Nuff said? Great, so jump in and explore...