California is a diverse and sprawling wine region, defined by a near infinite range of grape varieties and countless producers. With regions stretching from the rustic Sierra Foothills to the esteemed Napa Valley, the cool Mendocino Coast to the sun-bathed hills of Paso Robles; there’s a bit of everything when it comes to California wine. The Golden State also acts as a center of the American wine industry - with the most production by a landslide (~80%) and the nation’s leading wine production and sales programs at UC Davis, Sonoma State, and Fresno State. Given the vast scope, it can be a challenging subject to even broach.
For this month’s Club we chose a California heritage grape - Zinfandel - as well as sort of an outlier - Sparkling Rosé of Pinot Noir. Both of these wines are ‘second labels’ from esteemed, independent California wineries. This, in my opinion, is where a lot of value in the wine world can be found. You get the same quality and craftsmanship that goes into more expensive wines, however since they are doing something slightly different - like purchasing fruit, using less oak, or releasing the wines younger - you generally pay a lot less. These two wines with different labels could easily be marked up 50% beyond their retail price. They’re absolute values in that way. And in January, when everyone’s still a bit hungover and staring at their post-Holiday credit card bill, a little value is just what the doctor ordered.
(Note - Since California is so vast and these wines come from two different sub-regions, we chose not to do an overview of the state as a whole this month. Instead, check out the *Geek Tangents* in each wine section.)
Ultraviolet, Sparkling Rosé, Mendocino Ridge NV
Samantha Sheehan founded POE Wines in 2009 in an effort to explore the potential of cool climate wines in California. Inspired by Burgundy and Champagne, POE focuses on traditional method sparkling, rosé, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir. The wines are often organically farmed, made without additives other than a judicious amount of sulfur, and are examples of restraint rather than opulence. Moreover, the production is small and the wines are sold direct-to-consumer or to choice restaurants and small retailers around the country.
Several years after founding POE, Samantha launched Ultraviolet as a ‘second label’. With a winery already established, vineyard contracts solidified, and capacity to take on more, she decided not to saturate her original brand, but to create another brand with a different identity. The goal of this new brand was to explore the vibrancy of the California sunshine. The difference is noticeable in some ways, but the wines follow all of the same strict principles in the vineyard and winery. Most of the difference lies in marketing and price. Where the POE wines are appellation, vintage, and variety labeled, the Ultraviolet wines are (for the most part) not.
Point in case - this ‘California Sparkling Rosé’ is actually 100% Pinot Noir from a single organic vineyard (Manchester Ridge Vineyard) in the Mendocino Ridge AVA. Located just 4 miles from the Pacific Ocean, this vineyard is above the fog line, allowing blazing afternoon sun to ripen the grapes but chilly Pacific air to cool the grapes at night. This allows the grapes to retain an incredible amount of acidity and hang on the vines longer than if they were further inland. This sparkling wine is produced using the Charmat Method*. After a several week fermentation, it spends about 5 months in a tank before bottling with a very small amount of sulfur.
The wine is floral and mineral-driven with small, fine bubbles. Notes of white flowers, rose petals, strawberry, raspberry, and grapefruit zest. It is light to medium bodied on the palate with bright acid and a clean finish. While it may already be the New Year, there’s no reason to curtail your sparkling consumption now, or anytime this year. Cheers!
Manchester Ridge Vineyard with the Pacific Ocean in the background.
Sparkling wine obtains carbonation in a variety of ways. The most well known is called Traditional Method or Méthode champenoise. This is when Liqueur de Tirage (grape must or sugar, plus yeast) is added to the finished base wine and a secondary fermentation takes place within the bottle. Afterwards it is riddled and disgorged to remove the spent yeast from fermentation. This allows for finer bubbles, prevents the need for filtering the wine, and allows for more autolytic (yeasty) flavors to develop. This is the method Champagne, Crémant, Cava, and other higher-end Sparkling use.
Charmat Method or Martinotti Method follows the same principles but takes place on a larger scale secondary fermentation in a pressurized tank. This is cheaper and easier at scale, but generally seen as less elegant and more mechanical. The wines often need filtering to remove the yeast, and the bubbles tend to be a bit coarser and shorter lasting. This is what Prosecco, Lambrusco, and many mid-range wines use.
Finally, Force Carbonation is when there is no secondary fermentation at all, but rather mechanical carbonation. Think a home Soda Stream but on a commercial level. With this method, the bubbles don’t last long and the flavors tend to be more disjointed and vinous without the added integration from a second fermentation. We don’t really want to see this… The method is largely used for cans, cheap Sparkling, Vinho Verde-like wines, and, well, Soda.
Foxglove, Zinfandel, Paso Robles 2020
Brothers Bob and Jim Varner have spent nearly 40 years as winemakers in the Central Coast. They first rose to prominence with their namesake label, Varner Wines, based on wines from the Spring Ridge Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains. In 1991, they added the Foxglove label to their lineup, showcasing younger fruit, less oak influence, and more value than their (already well-priced) Varner wines. Since then, both labels have continued to gain acclaim from wine writers throughout the nation.
Foxglove today is focused on producing Chardonnay, Cabernet, and Zinfandel. The Chardonnay remains the most popular but we like the reds for their restrained style, while having a California-signature ripeness of fruit.
This wine, the Zinfandel*, is produced entirely from the San Miguel District in Paso Robles. It is blended with a splash of Petite Sirah - sometimes as much as 25% but this vintage sees a mere 2% in the blend. The wine undergoes regular red winemaking methods - crushing and destemming, pump overs, and full malolactic. After, it is aged in stainless steel for several months before bottling.
Overall, this is a wine showcasing the Zinfandel grape very nicely. You have the ripe, brambly, juicy fruit classic to the grape without the oak flavors or overripeness. Notes of spice, black fruit, and meaty aromatics make this the perfect wine for a cool night with richer fare like vegetable stew or a roast. If you keep it around until summer, it would be great with a nice chill and the grill fired up!
Zinfandel has one of the more interesting origin stories of all the grapes we know and love today. For a long time, no one knew where the grape was from, but just that it seemed to excel in California’s climate. Decades of research led to the story below. (Credit to Zinfandel.org and Joel Peterson.)
It is said that Zinfandel first came to the Americas in 1820, by way of George Gibbs visiting the Schonbrunn Imperial Horticultural Collection in Vienna, Austria. Unnamed cuttings were brought to New York and propagated. Several years later, a nursery in Boston is recorded to have sold ‘Zinfandal’ grape vines. These became popular table grapes grown in greenhouses throughout the Northeast in the 1830’s and beyond. Around the middle of the century, ship captain Frederick Macondray sailed from New England to California, around Cape Horn. An avid botanist, Macondray brought grape vines with him, among them Zinfandel.
1850’s California was in the middle of the historic Gold Rush, and both timber and metal wire (for building trellises) were scarce. Farmers learned that the Zinfandel vines took nicely to head training - the practice of growing and training grape vines without trellis, in sort of a bush. They also found that Zinfandel grew incredibly well in California’s warm climate, leading to robust wines with high alcohol good for strong table wines or distilling into brandy. Zinfandel spread like wildfire throughout California. While grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, or even the Mission grape were easy to pinpoint an origin, Zinfandel seemed to just appear one day (since no one at the time knew of Macondray and Gibbs’ efforts).
It wasn’t until 1967 - after a grape glut and industry collapse, prohibition, the Great Depression, and two world wars - that researchers at UC Davis made a chance correlation to the Primitivo grape coming from Puglia in Southern Italy. Subsequent tests discovered that the two grapes were identical to one another, possibly suggesting that Puglia was the original home of Zinfandel. However, Italians had long considered Primitivo to be an imported grape rather than a native variety.
Our story turns to a California wine legend, the late Mike Grgich (passed 12/13/23, age 100). Mike was at the time a recent Croatian immigrant and winemaker at the historic Chateau Montelena. He stated that he believed Zinfandel looked like Plavac Mali, from the Dalmatian coast of Croatia. UC Davis researchers both cultivated and examined the two grape varieties and concluded that while similar, they were not genetically identical.
Fast forward to 2000, when DNA testing became available for grapes. Researchers quickly confirmed that a) Zinfandel and Primitivo were the same grape, and b) Plavac Mali was not identical. UC Davis partnered with the University of Zagreb to discover that Plavac Mali was a cross between their ‘Zinfandel’ and a local grape named ‘Dobricic’. They began to look in the same areas of Dalmatia that Dobricic was growing to see if they could find a DNA match for Zinfandel. In 2001, Dr. Carol Meredith and two Croatian researchers discovered that Zinfandel was identical to the rare Crljenak Kaštelanski grape, also known in ancient times as Tribidrag, long grown on the Dalmatia Coast.
This grape had traveled halfway across the world and become a mysterious sensation in far-off California. Yet all along, it was the same grape being humbly cultivated, with absolutely zero fanfare, by a dozen or so families on the Croatian coast for centuries. Funny how these things go.