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Recently, The Wine Trust, an East-coast based wine importer and distributor, offered me the chance to taste a selection of bottles from its portfolio. This is an offer that would under normal circumstances be hard to resist, made doubly so by Covid 19’s deletion of the usual wine new-release events. I replied with an instant and enthusiastic yes when I spotted in the lineup a Charbono from Kivelstadt Vineyards in Mendocino.

Take my word for it: This is a rarity.

Now almost disappeared, Charbono was once a staple grape in California vineyards, usually used in blends but occasionally showing up in distinguished monovarietal bottlings. Inglenook, I recall, and Louis Martini, made nice ones. In the dim recesses of my mind, I think I remember a Wine Writers Circle lunch at the old Four Seasons at which Louis Martini was the guest speaker. He had brought with him from California some library bottles, including an old Charbono. How old I can’t honestly recall. It had lost a lot of color, but no flavor or aroma, and still imparted an impression of restrained power. Details have now faded from my mind as much as the initial deep garnet color had faded from the wine, but I remember it as classically lovely – balanced, complex, and supple, hinting at reserves of strength.

It’s been years now since I’ve seen a Charbono on retail shelves – hence my excitement to try this rare example: Kivelstadt Native Son Charbono 2017. It did not disappoint.

The wine opened with a rush of intense, sweet cherry fruit in a fresh, lightly acid package with no obvious tannins. Our dinner meat and potatoes tamed the fruit somewhat, broadening the wine, bringing up its balance and elegance, along with hints of greater depths and force lurking behind. A small cheese course to follow brought the fruit back to the fore and also made it clear that this Charbono had excellent structure. To my mind, this is a wine that while totally enjoyable now, could really be something special in ten years.

Kivelstadt’s home vineyard is in Sonoma, but this wine is sourced from a two-acre block of 70-year-old vines in the Venturi vineyard in Mendocino. That yielded only 225 cases of Charbono – rare enough in these days of mass production. The grapes are hand-harvested and processed very gently – the fermentation is semi-carbonic, with naturally occurring yeasts – to produce a wine with a wonderfully old-fashioned, gentle alcohol level of 12.2%. Which, for California, makes this a double rarity. The winery describes it as combining “brooding strength” with “a light and fun style.”  I’d change “brooding” to “imposing, latent” strength, but the gist of that description is right on target.

Except for my let-us-say “mature” readers, most of you are probably wondering what Charbono is, so thoroughly has it disappeared from the American wine landscape. There may now be fewer than 80 acres planted anywhere on the West coast. Like many grape varieties that were planted both in devoted plots and as part of field mixes, it has been rooted out or grafted over to more popular varieties. Old-timers will remember what wonderful wines some of those old field mixes gave, with varieties like Grenache and Zinfandel and Barbera and Petite Syrah and Charbono all contributing to a composite that, to my mind, resembled Rhone wines and Châteauneuf du Pape blends more than anything New Worldly.

Even back then, Charbono’s identity was a puzzler. At various times it was thought to be a kind of Barbera, or maybe related to Dolcetto. To add to the confusion, there was a Piedmontese variety called Charbono, which now has seemingly gone extinct. And there is yet another grape in the French Savoie (contiguous, of course, with the Italian Savoia, the home base of the former kings of Italy) called Charbonneau.

Just about 15 years ago, this was all clarified when thorough ampelographic studies established that the grape we know as Charbono is in fact Douce Noire. According to Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes, “until the end of the nineteenth century, Douce Noire was one of the most widespread red varieties of Savoie.” On its home ground, Douce Noire has suffered the same fate as Charbono in California: There are now very few acres of it under cultivation in France.

We’re not out of the nomenclatorial woods yet: In France the grape is officially called Corbeau, except – again according to Robinson – by its few growers, who still stubbornly call it Douce Noire. I believe that I will just as stubbornly stick with Charbono, whenever I can get it.

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An unpromising sounding title for a post, isn’t it? You wouldn’t think there would be much to say about bottles’ back labels, would you? After all, the vast majority of back labels lack both style and substance. The surgeon general’s warning about alcohol, the importer’s name, sometimes a promotional blurb about the estate, sometimes the vintage, sometimes the alcohol level – the latter a number I think is often pure whimsy – but that’s about it, all laid out with about as much flair as a lamppost “Have you seen this dog?” bulletin.

Then again, there’s Ridge. As the winery is in so many other ways, Ridge’s labels are exceptional. They are clean. They are uncluttered. And above all, they are informative. Wow, are they informative! Here’s an example:
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This is from a bottle that I opened to accompany one of my better pots of chili and subsequently wished I had saved for something like Tournedos Rossini. Not because the wine was unhappy with the chili: far from it. This Zinfandel grooved on that meaty, spicy, beany, brothy concoction. But because it was so good in itself, so complex, so totally sapid that I wanted to give it something that would tease out even more of its seemingly endless range of flavors.

It was the complexity and sheer goodness of the wine that led me to a careful reading of its label. Ridge has always given a lot of information about its wines on their back labels. Under Paul Draper’s hands, those labels turned into brief but comprehensive essays about the wine’s origin and probable development, and I’m very happy to see that under Draper’s successors that tradition is being healthily perpetuated.

So what did this label tell me? Plenty, and all of it relevant to understanding the wine I was enjoying. First, it was a near-drought growing season, with apparently no rain all summer long. That means it took some tough old vines with deep roots to set a crop in the first place, much less bring it to ripeness. And ripeness it certainly achieved: I could tell that from the persistence in this now eleven-year-old Zin of an extraordinary strain of dark, fresh fruit flavors alongside a battery of even darker, deeper mature flavors of mineral and forest floor and wild mushrooms.

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The front label tells me this is 95% Zin and 5% Petite Syrah. My palate tells me that it is a seamless stream of flavors from fresh berry through dried plum and pear. The front label tells me it has 14.8° alcohol. My palate tells me that could be anything from 12°, so smooth is it, to 15°, so big and robust it is. That heft-with-elegance was probably achieved by, as the back label notes, a five-week-long spontaneous malolactic fermentation that occurred, apparently, right along with a slow, ongoing alcoholic fermentation. The latter seems to have been long enough and active enough to persist right through and after the wine’s transfer, still on its lees, from tank to barrels. My thought at this point was “Wow! Those grapes were loaded!” (Please forgive the technical winespeak.)

So there I was, gobbling good chili and reverently sipping a fine wine, reading the winemaker’s final appraisal of this Zin. That was written in July 2010, just a few months before the wine was bottled in September, which we know because the back label tells us that too. It will be, the label says, most enjoyable over the next five years – which would have meant, up to 2015.

I find it very hard to imagine that this wine was better earlier: it is so nearly over-the-top great right now, with no sign anywhere that it is even thinking about declining. I’ve found that Ridge is almost always very modest about estimating the longevity of its wines, especially – it seems to me – of its Zinfandels. Consequently, I usually drink my Zins a few years after Ridge’s back labels suggest they will peak, and I’ve never yet hit a bottle that was past its prime. But this ‘09 Paso Robles set a new record: not only was I drinking it five years past its recommended limit, but the wine itself had evolved into something extraordinary, something that showed no sign it would give up the ghost anytime soon.

For all its explicitness and straightforwardness, this particular Ridge back label is a masterpiece of the art of understatement.

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Readers of Diane’s blog will already know that we recently had two important-to-us occasions to celebrate under Covid-19 restrictions. Indomitably, we rose to the occasions and celebrated quite satisfactorily, with both foods and wines.

1990 Faiveley Gevrey Chambertin

Since Diane had originally planned to cook French for her birthday dinner – she had to cook, since dining out was impossible under Covid 19 conditions – I opted for an old Burgundy to celebrate the feast and the cook, and I stuck with that choice even as her dinner plans evolved.

My 1990 Faiveley Gevrey Chambertin wasn’t a really antique wine, alas, just 30 years, but then this also wasn’t one of those landmark birthdays. Nevertheless, at our ages no birthday is insignificant, and I had high hopes for this relatively humble village wine. Not a premier or grand cru, but from an esteemed commune – some people think Gevrey Chambertin the best of the Côte d’Or – of a fine vintage, from a négociant-éleveur who at that time was at the top of his game. Some people considered Faiveley the best large producer in the Côte d’Or.

Well, Monsieur Faiveley delivered beautifully with this wine: It was velvet, it was harmonious, it was deep and delicate simultaneously. Mature Pinot noir – great mature Pinot noir – has the ability to be many things at once, as this one was, and which is why we cellar it in the first place.

Young wines, no matter how great, just can’t bring the battery of complex flavor elements that make a wine like the 1990 Chambertin so memorable. With a light, savory cheese custard it was all restraint, with the assertive flavors of a well-spiced casserole-roasted chicken, it showed that it could play that game too, throwing up a shower of notes that picked up on all the nuances of the bird and its sauce. Chef and sommelier traded compliments all evening.

2006 Ridge Montebello

While the birthday dinner was elegant, as befitted its celebrant, our anniversary dinner was earthy, as suited our years together, and the 2006 Ridge Montebello wine on which Diane had long had an eye for it proved a perfect match for both the literal earthiness of morels à la crème in puff pastry cases and the heartiness of a rib of beef.

Ridge Montebello is one of California’s greatest wines, if not flat-out its greatest. It combines the complexity of Bordeaux, which is its great model, with the incredible lushness of California fruit, which the terroir of the Montebello Ridge provides in abundance.

Together, the two create a wine bigger, richer, and more balanced than most of its models. It is based on the classic Bordeaux blend of about 60-65% Cabernet sauvignon, with the remainder made of Merlot, Cabernet franc, and Petit verdot. For my palate, Montebello stands right up there in heft and beauty with the biggest Pauillacs, and perhaps can exceed them in longevity.

In style, this Ridge was the complete opposite of our twice-as-old Chambertin. This bottle of ’06 was only slightly evolved. Its flavors – the whole great wonderful rush of them – were still primarily youthful flavors, a congeries of lightly dried cherries and peaches, pears and figs and plums – plums, not prunes – all sustained by abundant, softening tannins, brisk acidity, and that characteristic Montebello underlying minerality.

This wine clearly had years of life before it, but it was so thoroughly enjoyable that any regrets we had about the infanticide we were committing were shallowly felt at best.

These two dinners were not at all bad for sheltering-in-place celebrations. In fact, their only downside was that, after all the fun was over, we still had to do the clean-up!

 

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Anyone who follows this blog probably knows that I’m a great admirer of Ridge Zinfandels. What I love best are the Ridge Zins that blend in goodly proportions of other grape varieties – sometimes so much that Ridge can’t label them Zinfandel. California law requires a minimum of 75% of a single variety for a wine to be so designated, so Ridge’s Geyserville, for instance, which is one of my favorites, is simply called Geyserville for the vineyards’ location, because it always has less Zinfandel than that.

In my experience, young monovarietal Zinfandel wines are big, often highly alcoholic, and frequently (to my taste) over-fruited and jammy, whatever part of California they come from. I know for many winelovers those qualities are pluses. Not so for me, for whom they constitute the essence of obvious or coarse or even vulgar wines. Color me, in this respect at least, a wine snob.

So imagine my surprise – not to say distress – when, browsing through my I-thought-carefully-selected trove of Ridge Zinfandels a few weeks ago, I came across a bottle of 2008 Jimsomare Zin that I hadn’t realized I had. How did that get in there?  It’s 100% Zinfandel, and I normally don’t buy those, much less store them beyond what I consider their optimum drinking time.

I usually like my Zins 8 or at most 9 years old, which I have found over the years is their sweet spot: They still have freshness and vitality, coupled with the complex, developed flavors of maturity. So now I found myself confronted with a wine of a type I usually avoid, and one perhaps too old as well: the back label and my own experience suggested drinking this bottle 3, 4, or 5 years ago.

For all my surprise, this was hardly a catastrophe. After all, the wine was from Ridge, which always produces well-structured, long-lived wines. At its worst, it wasn’t my favorite style, but neither was it likely to be dead: Fading maybe, but probably still drinkable. Which I decided to do right away, before it the inevitable befell it.

Which led to my second surprise: My fears were totally off the mark. This ’08 Jimsomare was wonderful, with no sign whatever that it was beginning to decline. It had mature flavors – mushroomy and earthy – to be sure, but also plenty of freshness and brambly fruitiness. It had a lively, up-front acidity that isn’t typical of Zinfandel, as well as a pervasive minerality of a sort my palate associates more often with white wines than reds – though it worked beautifully in this irrefutably red wine.

I was intrigued: How could this wine be so different from my previous experience of monovarietal Zinfandels?  One answer was obvious: This was no new release, no stripling of a wine, but a bottle that had had a good while to pull itself together. But even with that, there were elements I couldn’t account for – that very unusual acidity, the undertone of minerality. Where did those not normally Zinfandelish characteristics come from?   The Jimsomare vineyard, evidently, but just what and where was that?

It took very little research to answer those questions. The Jimsomare Ranch is the lowest-lying – and that’s still high – of four properties that Ridge works on the Monte Bello ridge of the Santa Cruz mountains. It contains some of the oldest Zinfandel vineyards in the region. They were started in the 1890s, and along with younger vines (30-40 years old) on the same property, they make Ridge’s Jimsomare Zin. So really mature vines from a high-altitude, cool climate vineyard are one part of this wine’s distinction.

Ridge’s Jimsomare ranch was formerly known as the Klein ranch

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The other key part is the ridge itself. Here is Ridge’s own description of Monte Bello’s terroir:

Composed of unique green stone and clay soils layered over decomposing limestone. Limestone is not found in the well-known Cabernet producing areas of Napa and Sonoma Valleys, making the soil composition at Monte Bello a unique and important contributor to the wine’s distinctive character. The combination of elevation, cool climate, and soil produces a wine that is impeccably balanced and destined for long-term aging, with firm acidity and a consistent streak of minerality.

That is meant to explain the distinction of Ridge’s famous Monte Bello Cabernet, but it also describes exactly what so surprised me in my ‘08 Jimsomare Zinfandel.

I confess that I had not thought Zinfandel, as a variety, was so sensitive to its terroir, so this was a real learning experience for me. Who knows what Zinfandel might be capable of, if more thought was given to its siting? California could have some more pleasant surprises in store for us yet.

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Earlier this month, Lucio Caputo died at the age of 84. His passing didn’t attract a lot of attention outside the wine world, but within that micro-universe it reverberated enormously.

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From 1974 to 1982, Caputo was the Italian Trade Commissioner in New York, at that time a position of incredible importance for Italian products in the United States, and most especially for Italian wine. He left the Italian civil service in 1983 (declining a fat government pension) to stay on in New York to found the Italian Wine and Food Institute, an agency he successfully headed for the next 30 years. The IWFI did a tremendous job over that period of promoting the best of Italian wines and food products. Its annual tastings and awards dinners were always highlights of the season for wine professionals.

But for those of us who remember what the situation of Italian wine was in this country before Lucio Caputo, his greatest accomplishments came in his years as Italian Trade Commissioner.  Before then, Italian wine in America was largely “Soavebolla” – the popular portmanteau term for what was often pale, watery, nearly flavorless, overcropped, and overproduced plonk. After Caputo’s stint as trade commissioner, Italian wine in America had become a broad spectrum of many kinds of wine from many sorts of grapes from all over Italy. Caputo didn’t simply promote Italian wine – though he did, actively and passionately: But in terms of the American market, he could be said to have invented it.

Big claim, eh? But here are the stats: Before his campaign, Italy was exporting 362,000 hectoliters of wine a year to the United States. In 1983, the annual export reached 2,400,000 hectoliters, an almost sextupling in volume. Initially, as I recall, the big increase was in inexpensive wines, but as the ‘70s gave way to the ‘80s, higher-quality wines increasingly made their mark.

By the end of Caputo’s term as trade commissioner,  Italian wine imports to the US had surpassed French wines – the market leader for decades before – first in quantity and then in value.  These were the years when many now-famous Italian wines, then small-market cult wines even in Italy, began appearing on shelves in New York, Boston, and Washington; then in Chicago, Miami, and Los Angeles. The great wines you now can get easily and regularly first showed up then.

This all came about because of Caputo’s tireless efforts. Wine journalist old-timers will remember as fondly as I do the regular tastings at Italian Trade Commission headquarters on Park Avenue. This was a spacious, stylish venue, sporting an extensive wine library and a museum-quality Di Chirico oil painting.
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The tastings, which occurred every week (and sometimes twice a week), were every bit as stylish and extensive. They were also thorough, informative, and often quite intensive. You could always sit and taste comfortably, often at your own pace, and you had ample space to take notes – luxuries not always available today to the assiduous taster.

The Trade Commission tastings might be of a wine type, or a region, or a grape variety. Whichever they were, you were sure to taste and learn about some grape varieties and wines that were new to the American market or still hoping to get there, because not just journalists attended these tastings: retailers, sommeliers, restaurateurs, distributors, and importers also came. Those sessions opened the door to this country for many of the wines we can now take for granted, and they were Lucio Caputo’s finest achievement.

In the past few years, we have lost a lot of the pioneers and masters of Italian wine. Lucio Caputo was not a great winemaker like Bruno Giacosa or Beppe Colla or Antonio Mastroberardino, but his contributions to Italian wine stand in the same range of importance. One more giant is no longer with us.

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This year’s Fourth of July frolic made a bit of a challenge for me. I’m happy to say that I – and the wine resources of the USA – rose to it.

Diane’s blog has already recounted the saga of the all-American dinner that we put together for the good friends who guided us around Venice. My role in the festivities was to arrange wines to match with those dishes: not a simple task, especially for one whose palate and whose cellar (I use the word loosely) run more in the direction of Europe than toward the great continent that lies just across the Hudson. That’s right: I don’t even live in continental United States, so you can see the depth of the challenge.

What solved the problem for me and made our Fourth of July drinking great was, once I realized it, quite simple: immigration. Just about every single wine grape in the United States is an immigrant, naturalized against the native plagues of this continent by being grafted onto the roots of indigenous American varieties. And many of the people who convert those once-foreign grapes into American wine are immigrants too, first- and second-generation citizens adapting an Old World skill set to American circumstances, producing wines with discernible European ancestries and unmistakable American accents. Is that a fable for our times?  You tell me.
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We started with a wine that is a Champagne in everything but name: Gruet Brut, a lovely sparkler made in New Mexico (yes!) from the traditional Champagne varieties – Chardonnay, Pinot noir, Pinot meunier – by the traditional méthode champenoise. Gruet is a family-owned and -operated winery, founded in 1983 by the late Gilbert Gruet, whose family made Champagne in his native France. The original vineyard (it has since been joined by two others, all now run by Gilbert’s son and daughter) lay over 4,000 feet up in the windy hills near Elephant Butte Reservoir.

All the Gruet wines show the classic Champagne characteristics, so this is the wine to use if you want to have some fun with a know-it-all friend. The one we drank with hors d’oeuvres launched our evening perfectly – cool, brisk, elegant, and refreshing on a warm and humid July Fourth evening. The thing that will really astound your know-it-all friend is that all the Gruet sparklers, even their brilliant Blanc de Noirs, retail for about $20.
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With a delicious and almost stultifyingly rich Crabmeat Maison, we drank a wine a bit more local (and not from mainland America either), the 2016 Minimalist Chenin blanc from Paumanok Vineyards, on Long Island’s North Fork. Also founded in 1983, and family-owned by Ursula and Charles Massoud, Paumanok specializes in several French varieties. Long Island has no hills to speak of, but it does have breezes from both ocean and sound, and those, combined with dense plantings of 1,100 to 1,400 vines per acre, give Paumanok’s wines all the concentration and character they need.

For my palate, its greatest successes are two Loire valley varieties, the red Cabernet franc and the white Chenin blanc. In France, the latter grape makes Vouvray and the great Savennières, which the chalky minerality of Paumanok’s Minimalist Chenin suggests to me. This is a lovely wine – made, alas, in limited quantities – that worked wonderfully with the crabmeat, its complex leanness playing beautifully against the sweetness of the crab.
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With our lordly rib roast and profusion of farm-fresh salads, we turned to the west coast and Ridge Vineyards, perched 2,300 feet up in the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Francisco. By American winemaking standards, Ridge is practically an old-timer:  It got started in the 1960s, and from 1969 onwards, for more than 40 years, its winemaker was the masterly Paul Draper, a genius of what Ridge now proudly calls “pre-industrial winemaking.”

Ridge is famous for its great Monte Bello Cabernet, but what it does with Zinfandel and other less regarded varieties is equally remarkable. Our 2010 Petite sirah (actually probably Durif, a variety now not much grown in California and almost entirely neglected in its native France) showed amazing complexity and subtlety, with many different elements emerging from its basso profundo of bitter chocolate to mesh with the varying flavors of our main course.
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With four very distinctive cheeses, we drank a 2010 Ridge Geyserville – a blended wine named for its vineyard because no one of its several varieties is present in sufficient quantity to justify a varietal name under California law. This lovely bottle contained 64% Zinfandel, 20% Carignane, 12% Petite sirah, 2% Alicante Bouschet, and 2% Mataro (as Mourvèdre is commonly called in California).

This was a big wine – 14.3% alcohol – but nevertheless supple and elegant. It played wonderfully with the cheeses, which differed widely in texture, flavor, and intensity, adapting itself quite comfortably to each. I’ve always loved Ridge’s Zinfandels, and I prefer to drink them at around ten years of age. This gorgeous example was a perfect illustration of why.

Zinfandel has become so established in California that many people think of it as a native American grape. This capstone wine of our Fourth of July feast is a perfect example of an Old World variety (it’s closely related to Italian Primitivo and allied Croatian and Slovenian grapes) transformed into a classic New World wine. Happy Fourth of July indeed! Thomas Jefferson would have enthusiastically approved.

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I try to like California wines, I really do. On the face of it, they have so much going for them – multiple microclimates and terroirs, amazing variations of elevation and exposure, some of most advanced wine science and technology in the world, and access to just about any grape variety from anywhere in the world to work with. The Golden State’s winemakers should be able to produce at-very-least-drinkable wines in every conceivable style and price range. But no, it isn’t so. With a few very honorable exceptions, almost every new California wine I try is the same disappointing, brashly fruited, over-alcoholic monster.

Once upon a time I loved California field mixes – old-fashioned, everyday wines from before the monovarietal-Cabernet and -Chardonnay craze. Most of these came from old vineyards that had been planted in the European farmer tradition of several varieties together – a precaution so that if one failed, you could still make wine. The grapes came from all over: a field might grow Zinfandel and Barbera and Syrah or Petite Sirah (what California called Durif) or any number of other Rhone or Italian or Spanish varieties. From any given vineyard, the proportions of each variety might change from year to year, but the character and style of the wine remained reasonably consistent – easy, pleasurable drinkability being its most prominent quality.

I remember I used particularly to enjoy Trentadue’s Old Patch Red, which was exactly the unpretentious drink the name described. For some years, I haven’t seen any on the shelves here in New York, but recently I received an offer for it over the internet. My initial excitement faded quickly as I read the wine’s description: Now it’s predominantly Zin, with a mix of two other grapes, neither of which is the Barbera I remember as being a large portion of the wine I loved. It’s not the dry wine I remember either: It’s now described as semi-sweet. (Ugh!) And it’s up to 14.5 degrees of alcohol. That’s no longer a quaffing wine – it’s a getting-high wine, and no longer my tipple.
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This is not to say that there are no field-mix wines coming out of California. There are still some – probably more than I’m aware of – but the ones I know best have moved up several notches in elegance and price, so that they no longer qualify on my budget as everyday wines. Many of Ridge’s collection of Zinfandels, most of which I love, would qualify as field mixes. In fact, several of them contain too little Zinfandel in their blend (California law mandates minimally 75%) to bear the name Zinfandel on their labels.

Hence wines like the place-named Geyserville, my favorite, which is always a blend, from Ridge’s Geyserville vineyard, of a major proportion of Zinfandel with reciprocally varying percentages of Carignane, Petite Sirah, Alicante Bouschet, and Mataro (aka Mourvedre). This is an elegant wine, claret-like in its attack and aging ability as well as price, but I’m not aware of any California field-blend wines at an everyday-drinking price point that the word elegant could even remotely be attached to. Rather, their emphasis now seems to be big fruit and big alcohol and that’s all. It’s a great loss.

This whole fulmination came about because I recently ate lunch at a local Mexican restaurant, where I was offered a list of about 30 Mexican wines, mostly from Baja and all unknown to me. (I clearly have a big research project in front of me.) The one I chose, in consultation with the barman, turned out to be exactly the kind of genial, food-friendly, inexpensive field blend that California used to produce abundantly, but now seemingly can’t.

I have only one question: Why?  Of course I know the answer: The big monster wine sells. But wouldn’t a better balanced wine at the same price point sell too?  Has anyone tried?  I guess I had three questions.

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This is a post that will hardly be of interest to anyone but me. No pictures, just words. No tasting comments, just thoughts. Anyone not interested can leave now: No offense will be taken.

I’ve been wondering lately about whether it would be possible to put together a case of wines that would enable wannabe winos to learn the world of wine on their own, at their own pace. I myself got hooked on wine long ago by just such a mixed case that a retailer in Baltimore put together for me so I could explore wine.

Of course, the wine world was a lot smaller back then, and very different from what it is now. That case cost about $100, which then was a substantial fraction of my monthly wage, and it consisted, if memory serves, entirely of French wines – because way back then if you wanted to understand wine, wine spoke French. Germany, Spain, and Portugal came up in wine conversation only peripherally, Italy and Austria very rarely, and California was the smallest, remotest blip on the radar. For most American wine lovers, South Africa, Argentina, Chile, Australia, and New Zealand did not exist as wine-producing countries, only as exotic vacation destinations.

I don’t have to tell you that much has changed since then, and genuinely for the better. The wine world is broader and far more diverse now, and field and cellar techniques have improved to such an extent that I can honestly say we’re living in a golden age of wine. We now get good, better-than-drinkable wine from almost every harvest, whereas “back then” one or two of every ten vintages were superior, three or four were OK, and five or six were not worth the drinking.

With all the changes that have occurred, I wondered what would happen today if a naif, as I then was, should walk into a good wine shop and ask a knowledgeable retailer to put together a case of wines to introduce him or her to the world of wine. Phew!  Talk about the labors of Hercules: It would be an impossible task. One bottle from each of the principal wine regions of the world would overflow the case. One bottle from each of the principal wine-producing nations would easily fill it – and what kind of introduction to wine would that be, with something like a single Napa Cabernet representing all the wine of the US, or one red Burgundy all of France?  No, the task couldn’t be approached that way: The whole question has to be rethought.

Perhaps it could be done by using benchmark wines, great ones that show the heights wine can reach. That, of course, is where cost comes into play. Wine prices, like medical costs and the cost of a college education, have increased at many times the rise in incomes, and many times the rate of inflation, especially in recent years. The present-day equivalent of my 1968 $100 would be approximately $725 now: $725 would merely be a down payment on a single bottle of young Château Margaux. Back then, Margaux and Lafite and such wines – the great Bordeaux first growths – were little more than twice the price of wines like Château Gloria and Château Brane Cantenac, which were included in my introductory case. If memory serves, I’m pretty sure those two then cost under $4 a bottle. So the option of structuring our hypothetical case around benchmark great wines can only be a pipe dream: The cost would be prohibitive for all but hedge fund multimillionaires.

So what about organizing by grape variety?  That is, for American wine lovers at least, a very popular approach to wine, so let’s consider it. If we start with white wines, Chardonnay demands inclusion – but its very popularity makes it a difficult choice. Which Chardonnay fairly represents the variety?  Burgundy?  Chablis?  Napa? Sonoma? Long Island? The Finger Lakes? Sicily? Friuli?  Oaked, or fermented in stainless steel?

That would be only Wine #1. Suppose we go on to #2: say Sauvignon blanc. From Sancerre or some other spot on the upper Loire? Or somewhere in California or New York? Or Friuli or Alto Adige? And where do we go for Wine #3?  Riesling, to be sure – but from the Rhine or Moselle, or from Alsace, or the Pacific Northwest, or Australia, or Austria, or Italy?

Only three grapes considered so far, and you see the dimensions of the problems. And the three varieties I’ve so far mentioned show the still built-in Francophilia of the wine world. We haven’t even considered any of the great white grape varieties of Spain and Portugal, Italy, and Greece. And beyond them, there is the plethora of “lesser varieties” from all these countries and from France, any one of which makes perfectly enjoyable wine. Once we say basta to white wines and move to reds, the problem becomes greater still: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot noir, Syrah, Cabernet franc, Mourvèdre – or, to break the Francophilia, Aglianico, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Touriga nacional, Tempranillo, Nerello mascalese, and maybe even Zinfandel.

It’s an endless task. For that reason, for the past 20 years I’ve resisted all suggestions that I update Mastering Wine. It’s impossible: That book’s format can never be used again, not for anything that pretends to be a thorough introduction to wine. No: There’s only one way that our hypothetical instructive case of wines could be assembled, and it’s by pure subjectivity. An individual could do it, drawing entirely on his or her own knowledge and preferences – making them clear, of course, every step of the way. That could produce a coherent collection, with both scope and focus and even some serious attention to cost control. I’m considering trying it, but it will be a time-consuming job, so stay tuned for developments – but not right away.

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When it comes to scenery, Long Island is no match for the Loire Valley. The flat former potato fields of the North Fork bear no resemblance to the steep vineyards and castellated towns that punctuate the shores of the Loire and its tributaries. Moreover, the soils of Long Island’s vineyards differ greatly from those of the middle Loire, home territory of Chenin blanc and Cabernet franc: If anything, the North Fork soils come closest to the low-lying, sandy gravels and clays of Bordeaux, where Cabernet sauvignon is king..

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Loire Vineyard

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Paumanok Vineyard

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But despite all those differences, Loire grapes do very well on the North Fork. White varieties particularly thrive: Almost every grower on Long Island cultivates Sauvignon blanc, the star of the upper Loire, and Paumanok Vineyards particularly has had startling success with Chenin blanc, the prized white grape of the middle Loire.

Given that, I wondered how well Cabernet franc, the chief red grape of the middle Loire, which makes such charming dinner wines as Chinon and Bourgueil, would fare on the North Fork. To find out, I decided to taste a representative Loire Cab franc from a classic appellation against Paumanok’s Cab franc – Paumanok because of its achievement with the middle Loire’s Chenin – and check out the similarities and differences. Easy and fun: my ideal combination for all chores. And made all the more fun when Beloved Spouse opted to make a classic Loire dish for us to taste the wines with: the perfect way to spend a rainy Sunday, eating and drinking our own personal sunshine.

For this experiment I had on hand a 2016 Domaine de la Haute Olive Chinon and a 2014 Paumanok. It turned out to be just as interesting and enjoyable as I had hoped. Both wines smelled and tasted authentically of the variety – light fruit aromas, perhaps a little raspberry, with earthy, herbaceous notes and even a hint of smoke, soft on the palate, with moderate acidity and subdued black fruit: not powerhouses but charmers. Those are classic Cabernet franc characteristics.

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Tasted by themselves, in the sort of isolation that so often marks professional tastings and judgings, they seemed unexciting, but sound and well made. A hint of what they were capable of as dinner wines showed in the way both got the digestive juices flowing. They wanted food, and made the tasters want it too.

As a textbook illustration of everything that’s wrong with formal wine tastings and their resulting scores, these wines changed dramatically when dinner appeared: Both just blossomed, opening complex, soft flavors that interplayed differently and beautifully with each dish. Their differences from each other, almost invisible in the formal tasting, showed more clearly with food, the Chinon slightly lighter bodied and more elegant, the Paumanok fuller, earthier – but both interacted splendidly with the dinner. (You can read about our dinner dishes on Diane’s blog, here.) It’s no wonder Rabelais loved the wines of Chinon: They played his game.
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It was abundantly clear from this little experiment that Paumanok Vineyards has gotten Cabernet franc right, verifying in my mind that it has a vocation for Loire grapes. The question it raises for me is, how much of the North Fork shares that vocation? The predominant red grapes planted there are, unsurprisingly, Cabernet sauvignon and Merlot, just as in California. The prestige of Bordeaux wines has largely straightjacketed American winemaking since the 1960s, and the small amount of Cabernet franc grown here is almost always used only in Meritage wines and other replications of the orthodox Médoc blend – so Paumanok deserves praise for having the courage to bottle a monovarietal Cab franc, and even more praise for getting it so right.

The Cabernet franc red wines of the middle Loire make wonderful drinking, without being overly expensive: Sunday dinner wines you could call them, if families still made Sunday dinner a weekly special occasion. They don’t demand long aging, though they can take it, and they don’t require reverence or ceremony in their consumption. Though, come to think of it, they can probably take that too: I am just remembering that humble Cabernet franc constitutes about two-thirds of the blend of the fabled Cheval Blanc, one of Bordeaux’s greatest red wines. I do hope some Long Island grape growers will also remember that.

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People who really love wine enjoy sharing their best bottles with others who understand and appreciate them. I’m certainly one of those: I hate opening a good bottle for people who would prefer a white Zinfandel or a cola, but I relish the chance to pour some of my best stuff for knowledgeable friends. So when I had the chance recently to introduce some fellow winos to the Caparone family’s Italian varietal wines, I jumped at it...

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Ed McCarthy, Mary Mulligan, Charles Scicolone, and Michele Scicolone are in my opinion among the small handful of “experts” in this country who truly understand Italian wine, both in what it does well and why, and what it doesn’t succeed at and why. I thought a Caparone tasting would be as interesting and enjoyable for them as it would be for me.

Mary is an MW and head of a wine school here in New York, and she and Ed are co-authors of the Wines for Dummies series of books. Michele and Charles are experts on Italian wines and foods. A few years back Ed had tasted and liked Caparone’s Sangiovese, which impressed him at the time as the only moderately successful California version of an Italian variety, but that was all he knew of the wines. Charles and Michele had never had the opportunity to taste the Caparone wines at all, and Charles was deeply skeptical about what California does to Italian grapes – as indeed I had been until I tasted Caparone’s.
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We all convened at the restaurant La Pizza Fresca, which provides a very welcoming space for such an event, with excellent service, fine and appropriate glassware, and good food to sustain the hungry winebibber. Ed brought a lovely bottle of Clouet’s Pinot noir-heavy NV Champagne and a bottle of Benanti’s 2010 Pietra Marina, probably Sicily’s finest white wine, to start us off.

The we got down to the business of the day: Caparone Italian varietal wines.

2014 Sangiovese
2014 Nebbiolo
2014 Aglianico
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1996 Sangiovese
1996 Aglianico

That was the service order, the Sangiovese being the lightest-bodied and the Aglianico the fullest. We talked a lot about freshness and varietal character, and we agreed that all the wines showed the unique qualities of each variety very well. There was also universal agreement that these were the most successful California versions of Italian grapes that any of us was aware of. The disagreements concerned nuances and precise comparisons: Charles, for instance, thought the young Sangiovese slightly over-oaked, like a Super Tuscan, while I wasn’t bothered by oak flavors at all.
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I’ve written about my admiration of these three 2014s before, and both Charles and Ed have published admiring accounts of the whole tasting, so I’ll spare you most of the details – except to emphasize that both 96s, at 22 years old, still tasted fresh, with mature and developed flavors playing side by side with still-young fruit flavors. Both seemingly have years of life ahead of them – and that would be no mean accomplishment for any of those grapes in their home territory.
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An informal vote for the wine of the day ended in a toss-up between the young Nebbiolo and the old Aglianico. I could see the reasons for both, but when push comes to shove I am a person of mature years, and I like my wines the same way.


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Postscript:

A few days after this tasting, I opened at home a bottle of Caparone’s 2012 Zinfandel, the first of Caparone’s non-Italian varietal wines I’ve tried. It was lovely, full of classic Zinfandel brambly, berry-ish flavors, but restrained and polished rather than exuberant and in-your-face. The bottle’s back label describes it accurately as a “rich, complex Zinfandel,” “aged for 24 months in small oak barrels” and “racked rather than fined or filtered.”  It further claims that the wine “will continue to develop in the bottle for 25 years or more” – and I believe every word of that.

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The Caparones, father and son, are clearly New World producers with a wonderfully Old World technique and style. The comparisons that spring to my mind are masterful family producers like the Chave family in Hermitage, or the Clape family of Cornas. If Paso Robles had the prestige of the northern Rhone, a lot more attention would be being paid to what’s happening at Caparone.

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