Zinfandel: A California Original That’s Worth Championing

ZinfandelIt’s hard to believe that nearly a quarter-century has passed since ZAP was formed.

“ZAP” may sound like a sound effect from the campy “Batman” television series, but in this context those letters are an acronym that stands for Zinfandel Advocates and Producers.

ZAP was founded in 1991 at a time when what I like to call “real Zinfandel” was taking a backseat to the sweet blush wine known as White Zinfandel. I can’t tell you how many times I’d order a glass of Zinfandel, only to be served a glass of White Zin.

No offense to White Zin — a wine that continues to be enjoyed by millions of Americans — but it’s the polar opposite of red Zinfandel in aroma and flavor.

White Zin is sweet and fun. Red (real) Zin is dry (although its fruit flavors can give the impression of sweetness) and rugged. It’s sometimes hard to believe that two wines that are so different could be made from the same grape.

ZAP came along with the idea of regaining respect and appreciation for red (real) Zinfandel. Its founders rallied both producers and consumers, began staging tasting events, and through the years grew to become an important advocacy organization.

It’s also a go-to resource for all-things-Zinfandel, a true California variety in that it has been planted in virtually all the grape-growing areas of the state, in the widest possible variety of soils and topography, and in climates from cool to hot.

After more than a century of experimentation, nine regions have emerged as predominant sites for the varietal. Courtesy of ZAP, let’s take a look at those regions…

  • Bay Area — This is a radically diverse area, both in its geography and proximity to the ocean, creating a variety of microclimates. It includes the Livermore Valley and Contra Costa County to the east of San Francisco, and the Santa Cruz Mountains and Santa Clara Valley to the south.
  • Central Coast — The Central Coast Region includes the Zinfandel growing areas of Monterey County, San Luis Obispo County (including Paso Robles), Edna Valley and Santa Barbara. Each of these areas contains vineyards that share the effects of coastal breezes, which moderate the warmth of the summer and early fall. Most of the soil is rocky and gravelly. Zinfandel was planted in the Central Coast by the mid-1880s, and the region has a long history of winemaking, dating back to the advent of the missionaries in the 18th century.
  • Lodi — The Lodi appellation has a classic Mediterranean climate featuring warm days and cool evenings. It’s situated directly east of San Francisco Bay at the edge of the Sacramento River Delta, where cool “delta breezes” provide reliable natural “air conditioning” throughout the growing season. The climate allows Lodi growers to consistently produce delicious, full-flavored wines that contain a refreshing natural acidity. Historically, Lodi vineyards were developed in the fine sandy loam soils surrounding the community of Lodi. It’s there, along the banks of the Mokelumne River, where the majority of Lodi’s century-old, own-rooted Zinfandel vineyards lie.
  • Central Valley — This American Viticultural Area stretches from Colusa County in the north to Madera County in the south, and includes Clarksburg, Diablo Grande, Dunnigan Hills, Green Valley, Lodi, Madera, Meritt Island, River Junction, Salado Creek, Seiad Valley, Solano County and Suisun Valley.
  • Mendocino and Lake Counties — This is considered to be California’s wine growing frontier, filled with the homesteads of many family wineries. Mendocino County’s southern border is north of San Francisco, immediately north of Sonoma County. Lake County is located southeast of Mendocino County. Bordered by the Pacific Ocean on the west and covered in great part by the rugged Coastal Range, this is a warmer growing region than its northerly location would suggest. The warmth is due to the mountain ranges that shelter interior valleys from the cool ocean breezes.
  • Napa Valley — This 40-mile long valley, which stretches in a northwesterly direction from the city of Napa in the south to Calistoga in the north, is considered one of the most diverse growing regions in California. More than 30 different soils have been identified here, including soils of alluvial, volcanic and maritime origin, ranging from well-drained gravelly loams to moisture-retaining silty clay. This diverse group of soils and exposures, as well as three different climate zones, provide a variety of distinctive grape-growing environments. Zinfandel vineyards are spread from well-drained, rich, red clay loam hillsides to gravelly benchlands on the valley floor.
  • Sierra Foothills — Located east of Sacramento in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, this region includes Amador, Calaveras, El Dorado, Mariposa, Nevada, Placer, Tuolumne and Yuba Counties. Its colorful Gold Rush tales and long agricultural history make this a fascinating Zinfandel area to explore. Some of the earliest documented Zinfandel vineyards were planted here between 1852 and 1869, and some still survive today, protected by their remote locations. Vineyards in the Sierra Foothills possess unique decomposed granite soils that are found nowhere else in the world. Nearly all of the Zinfandel vineyards are at fairly high elevation (from 1,200 to 3,500 feet), which places them above the fog and gives access to sunshine.
  • Sonoma County — Sonoma County lies north of San Francisco and is bordered on the west by the Pacific Ocean. The county runs parallel to Napa Valley, and is separated from it by the Mayacamas range.
  • Southern California — This region is extremely important historically, as it was once the center of California winemaking, when missionaries planted their first vineyard at Mission San Diego in 1769. In the Cucamonga Valley, near Los Angeles, the warm climate and sandy soil is well suited to Zinfandel, but agricultural use of the land has given way in large part to profitable urban development. To the south, the unique microclimate of Temecula is aided by its 1,500-foot elevation. Temecula’s Zinfandel vineyards bask in the renowned Southern California sun during the day, while the elevation brings cool afternoon and evening breezes.

Like other varieties, Zinfandel exhibits a number of qualities (aromas and flavors) no matter where it’s grown. But specific climates also yield region-specific characteristics, and you can read about those on the ZAP website.

Three regions are represented in our latest Zinfandel Sampler: the Central Coast (specifically, Paso Robles), Lodi, and Sonoma County (specifically, the Dry Creek Valley). Together, they provide a tasty overview of California’s iconic red wine variety — a wine you may want to join ZAP in championing among your friends. Order while you can.

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Posted in Wine in the Glass

5 Ways to Pair Wine With Mushrooms

mushrooms-in-wine-sauceMany of us think of September primarily as “Back to School Month.”

But it’s also National Mushroom Month and California Wine Month.

And having the kids/grandkids back in school gives us the time to explore the wonderful pairing options that mushrooms and wine provide.

Mushrooms and wine? You bet. And in many more combinations than you might imagine.

Obviously, mushrooms — like so many other foods — taste differently depending upon how they’re prepared. As a result, they can be paired with an extremely wide spectrum of wines — everything from Champagne to Cabernet Sauvignon.

Here are five of our favorite combinations…

  • Cream of mushroom soup — A creamy, oak-aged Chardonnay.
  • Mushroom risotto — This combo is easy to remember because it comes in the form of a short poem: risotto with Barolo. A well-chilled sparkling rosé also works nicely, especially when dining alfresco.
  • Mushrooms in a tomato sauce — You’ll find these ingredients in many Italian dishes, so it’s wise to go with an Italian wine such as Chianti Classico. You may also opt for a “Cal-Ital” wine — Sangiovese.
  • Mushroom quiche — We love this pairing because it requires not one, but two wines: Pinot Grigio or Pinot Gris to go with the eggs and cheese, and Pinot Noir to go with the mushrooms.

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To learn more about National Mushroom Month, click here.

And for more on California Wine Month — including 10 reasons to love California wine and a comprehensive list of winery events — click here.

• Tomorrow: To help celebrate California Wine Month, we’ll focus on California’s unique red variety: Zinfandel.

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Posted in Food and Wine Pairings/Recipes

A Cure for the Summertime (Wine) Blues

Fotolia_274137_MThe snowstorm that hit parts of Wyoming, South Dakota, Montana and Colorado last week may have been rare for the month of September, but it served as a reminder that cooler temperatures are just around the corner… if they haven’t already arrived in your part of the world.

That said, here in the Western Hemisphere, there’s still the possibility of an Indian summer ahead. It’s not unusual, between late September and mid-November, for some regions to experience well-above-normal temperatures, just when we thought that summer was over.

I started thinking about the weather and its predictable unpredictability when the question that follows popped up on my computer screen…

QUESTION: It has been a pretty hot summer where we live, so we like to enjoy a glass of wine out on our porch. But I’ve noticed that red wines seem to taste bitter when we drink them outside. Why would this be?

ANSWER: There probably are a few factors involved in that perception.

First, red wines in general are higher in alcohol than white wines, and alcohol can cause a “hot” or “bitter” impression on the palate. The same goes for tannin, which also is more present in red wines. And hot weather can magnify the sensation.

Until the temperatures come back down, you may want to consider drinking white wine, or giving your red wine a quick chill.

Probably the best red wine choice during the summer months is Sangiovese, which is high in acid, providing a refreshing tartness.

And while wine snobs may scoff at the idea, there’s no law against adding an ice cube to a glass of wine — regardless of its hue.

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Posted in Wine FAQ

9 Places to Dine After a Day of SLO Wining

novodishAbout halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, San Luis Obispo wine country unfolds along the seafront side of the Santa Lucia mountain range in San Luis Obispo County.

Adjoining American Viticultural Areas are Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande Valley, and the average distance between the wineries and the Pacific Ocean is just five miles. It’s a true maritime climate, and one of California’s coolest for wine grape growing.

Most of the tasting rooms have a laid-back vibe, with stunning scenery against a blue-sky backdrop. And once you’re done tasting wine, a number of exceptional restaurants beckon for a wind-down dinner. Here are nine of our favorites…

  1. Alex Madonna’s Gold Rush Steak House

Renowned for its outstanding menu and spectacular pink and gold décor, this award-winning restaurant features amazing oak pit-barbecued steak, fresh seafood, vegetarian entrees, a superb wine list, decadent desserts and nightly entertainment. Its Silver Bar offers cocktails, wine, beer and appetizers. 805-543-3000.

  1. Big Sky Café

Featured in a Wall Street Journal story on where to eat in San Luis Obispo, this casual and contemporary downtown eatery features fresh market cuisine and 20 local wines by the glass. Organic products, fresh seafood and many vegetarian choices are included on the eclectic international menu. 805-545-5401.

  1. Café Roma

A quintessential Central Coast experience. From its classic Italian dining room to its covered patio and casual bar, you’ll be transported to Italy when you walk through the doors. Its classic seasonal menu is complemented by more than 200 Italian and local wines. 805-541-6800.

  1. Lido Restaurant & Lounge at Dolphin Bay

Enjoy stunning ocean views and farm-to-table cuisine, expertly paired with fine local wines. If you’ve been wine touring all day, two bottles may be brought in and opened with no corkage fee. Locals enjoy the weekday sunset happy hour, as well as the exceptional weekend Champagne brunch. 805-773-8900.

  1. Luna Red

Located at the Mission de Tolosa in the heart of San Luis Obispo, this restaurant serves innovative, globally inspired cuisine sourced from local growers and purveyors. It also offers a wide selection of local and international wines, and features live music on select nights. 805-540-5243.

  1. Novo

Set against a rich, eclectic backdrop, Novo’s international flavors are the leading ingredients in an exotic dining experience. Located in an historic downtown building with spectacular creek-side seating, it’s a favorite with locals and tourists alike. It features an extensive global and local wine list, and has a downstairs “cellar room” for private parties or large groups. 805-543-3986.

  1. Rooster Creek Tavern

Creative appetizers, main-course dishes such as Cane Rum Cured Salmon and wood-fired artisan pizzas are just part of the culinary allure of this restaurant in the village of Arroyo Grande. The wine list is extensive, spotlighting numerous local estates. 805-489-2509.

  1. Splash Café & Artisan Bakery

We can think of three reasons to frequent this charming café: 1. for a bowl of clam chowder as a prelude to a fresh seafood entrée; 2. for an amazing breakfast pastry, baked fresh daily; 3. for a box lunch to accompany a wine country picnic. 805-544-7567.

  1. Windows on the Water

The menu changes with the seasons at this fine-dining restaurant overlooking Morro Bay and Morro Rock. Local sources are used for fresh fish, vegetables, fruit, herbs, livestock and seafood, and the award-winning menu is accompanied by a thoughtfully selected wine list. 805-772-0677.

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Posted in Our Wine Travel Log

How 9/11 Changed My Wine-Drinking Philosophy

9-11-2011aThirteen years can pass in the blink of an eye — something we’re reminded of each holiday season, each birthday and now on this 13th 9/11 since the terrorist attacks of 2001.

Virtually every American was touched in one way or another by that horrible day, including America’s wine family. Among them was Eric Munson, who lost two brothers-in-law (the brothers of his wife) on that fateful day, as described in this blog from 2007.

As was the case with the Kennedy assassination 38 years earlier, most people will never forget where they were when New York’s “twin towers” came crashing down that morning.

Two of my good friends, Donald and Nancy Dudzinski, happened to be on vacation in California’s North Coast wine country. They recall stopping by a winery in Sonoma County that morning and being somewhat surprised to find the tasting room open.

“What can we do?” the staffer told them. “On a day like this, drinking wine is probably a good thing.”

Paranoia was rampant in most of America’s big cities. Officials took immediate steps to protect their tallest buildings, fearing that additional airplanes could be coming their way. But in California wine country, calm intermingled with the sadness of the day. It seemed unlikely that terrorists would spend their resources on destroying lightly populated winery buildings when so many more lives could be ended by targeting skyscrapers.

And so, my friends went on with their day, taking a few bottles and a picnic lunch to Lake Sonoma, where they sipped and snacked in near silence, made eerily so by the events of that morning.

A few days later, with America’s airplanes grounded, they kept their rental car and drove it home to Chicago.

That’s where I was living at the time, and I’ll never forget how the downtown area cleared out within a couple hours as the magnitude of the attacks became apparent on television. Commuter trains went off their light mid-morning schedules, instead adopting a “load-and-go” policy. By lunchtime, downtown Chicago was a ghost town.

I worked in a high-rise, and remember going outside and trying to figure out what it would take for an airplane to strike that building. I concluded that it would take some pretty sophisticated maneuvering, so I decided to stay put. I believed I was safer there than in my high-rise apartment building, which was just three blocks from the famous Sears Tower — a much more likely target.

Finally, around 3 o’clock, I decided to walk home. I made the three-quarter-mile trek in record time, as there were few fellow pedestrians to maneuver around and only a handful of cars (mostly taxis) on the street. That meant I could ignore the “Do Not Walk” signs and go non-stop.

A two-block perimeter had been set up around the Sears Tower (now known as the Willis Tower), which meant I had to take a slight detour. Police officers stared at me as I strolled alongside the red cones and other more secure barriers they’d set up.

Once I was home, I did what virtually every other American did that day: I turned on the television set, soaking in the sights and sounds provided by CNN and other news outlets, and tried to understand what had happened.

But this was one of those occasions when understanding was unattainable. I recall opening a bottle of wine to help anesthetize my psyche.

It was red wine, but I couldn’t tell you the variety or the brand. I do know that it was one of the best bottles on my rack, and I recall reaching for it because, as I continued to watch the horrific images on TV, I came to understand that no tomorrows are guaranteed.

9/11 impacted everyone differently. Some decided to bury the hatchet with estranged family members, something that (fortunately) did not apply to me. Others updated their “bucket lists” and began contemplating where they wanted to go once the airplanes returned to the skies.

For me, that was the day I stopped aging wines and began drinking them. It’s a philosophy I still embrace today, 13 years later.

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Posted in Editor's Journal

Seeking Bubbly Bliss as Autumn Beckons

sparklingwine914It wasn’t until 2008 that “Prosecco” — the Italian name for sparkling wine — was added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

Oh, Prosecco had been around for generations. But it had not yet become trendy enough in the United States for the word to be considered part of our lexicon, as I explained in this blog written that same year.

In the six years since it became okay to say “Prosecco,” things certainly have changed. Imports to the United States have doubled from 16 million bottles to 32 million bottles, the spike in popularity boosted, in large part, by millennials. Not only is that generation partying with Moscato, they’re toasting with Prosecco.

One reason, of course, is price. Prosecco tends to cost less than Champagne, the famous sparkling wine of France.

Another is flavor. Prosecco makers clearly understand that American palates also expect quality, and many have invested in state-of-the-art equipment to help ensure that their bottlings are just as consistent from year to year as their French counterparts.

Which style of sparkling wine do you prefer? Prosecco? Champagne? Perhaps sparkling wine from another region of France, known as Cremant (typically with an appellation name tagged on)? The Sparkling Wine Sampler being featured by Vinesse provides an opportunity to sample three exquisite sparklers side by side at a very reasonable price.

Earlier this year, we posted a recipe for an Italian-style risotto that’s made and pairs perfectly with Prosecco. It also matches nicely with Champagne and Cremant — a special culinary treat, particularly as the cooler autumn weather beckons.

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Posted in Food and Wine Pairings/Recipes

Quake Reminds Us That You Can’t Put a Price on Human Life

TrefethenTwo weeks and two days have passed since the largest earthquake to hit Northern California in a quarter-century rocked the Napa Valley.

We reported on the quake the day after it hit, sharing friend and colleague Jim Caudill’s early impressions. He was awakened by the shaking, and the word he used to describe it was as good as any other assessment I’ve heard in the quake’s aftermath: “gnarly.”

The next day, we included a picture of a badly damaged historical building at Trefethen Family Vineyards. Its damage looked a lot like that sustained by so many buildings in downtown Napa.

Early assessments of the overall damage ranged from the tens of millions to a billion dollars. Such assessments are educated guesses, at best, and we probably won’t know the full economic impact for months.

One thing we all can agree upon is that the timing of the earthquake — 3:20 a.m. — couldn’t have been better, as magnitude 6.0 quakes go. Most of Napa Valley’s wineries sustained little, if any, structural damage. Their greatest losses came in the form of lost wine, spilled from broken and shattered barrels. Had the quake occurred during regular operating hours, it’s likely those flying barrels would have killed several people.

Lost wine is sad. Lost lives would have been tragic.

Once the clean-up was completed at wineries, many owners began thinking about how they could better “ride out” the next big quake — which could come in 25 years or 25 days. According to one report, most of the destroyed barrels were set loose from two-barrel racks, whereas sturdier four-barrel racks seemed to fare better. It also seems that the higher the racks were stacked, the more likely they were to let barrels loose.

Moving forward, winery owners must assess their rack systems not only as “line items,” but for their safety. The two concerns are not independent of one another. In the case of Silver Oak Cellars, according to an Associated Press report, “each full barrel that stayed put and didn’t break represented upwards of $32,500 in wine saved.”

But beyond that, we should not forget that every life saved is priceless.

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Posted in Wine Buzz

Exploring the Olive Oil-and-Wine Connection

Wine Olive PairingCalifornia’s climate is similar to that of the Mediterranean, and perfectly suited for growing olives.

Lot, hot, dry summers promote growth of olives with optimal oil and antioxidants that are believed to enhance health and longevity.

Numerous olive varieties are grown in California, the most prominent being Manzanillo, Sevillano, Mission, Ascolano, Frantoio and Arbequina. Harvesting at varying degrees of ripeness captures a wide array of flavors — just like what happens with wine grapes.

This means California’s artisan olive growers are able to create a bounty of diverse, extraordinary Extra Virgin Olive Oils that cover an incredible spectrum of flavor possibilities. There truly is an olive oil for virtually every palate and culinary use.

A company called We Olive opened its first store in 2003 to create a place for these artisan growers to market their products. Now, it is California’s premier olive tasting bar and retailer, offering olive oils from more than 20 producers at eight locations throughout the state.

Tasting an olive oil is the best way to be sure it’s what you like — and what you’d like to share with others. We Olive provides a place where people can enjoy the full spectrum of the finest olives, olive oils, other foods and gifts that the Golden State has to offer.

It’s kind of like going to a winery’s tasting room, only with a different product to taste, assess and, perhaps, purchase.

A few years ago, Carol Firenze wrote a blog about the similarities (and a few differences) between wine and olive oil. One main difference is that olive oil typically does not age well; it’s best to consume it within a month or month-and-a-half after opening the bottle. Check out Carol’s informative blog here.

Many wineries in Italy have been making olive oil for generations. In recent years, a growing number of California wineries have joined their Italian cousins in that pursuit. Two of my favorite olive oils made by Golden State vintners come from Jacuzzi Family Vineyards and B.R. Cohn Winery.

Jacuzzi is located in Sonoma, and its award-winning olive oil is produced on the estate by The Olive Press. B.R. Cohn, in Glen Ellen, named its home vineyard after the grove of Picholine olive trees on the estate; it’s called Olive Hill Estate Vineyard.

Want to try a dish that successfully marries food, wine and olive oil? It’s tough to beat this Pizza Margherita recipe from Dominic Orsini, the winery chef at Silver Oak Cellars. The recommended wine pairing: Cabernet Sauvignon.

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In October, I’ll be spending five days in Barcelona. Like Italy, Spain is known for its olive oil, and I hope to find some unique bottles to bring back home. Have you been to Barcelona? If so, could you recommend an olive oil “destination” for us to check out? Click on “Leave a comment” below this blog’s headline, and let me know!

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Posted in Vinesse Style

Dealing With Hangovers — Before and After

Red_Wine_Pouring2Wine is not a beverage that one binges on. We don’t “shoot” wine, like some consume whiskey, tequila or other potent potables.

Rather, most people sip wine, or enjoy it as part of a meal. As a consequence, wine hangovers are rare.

But let’s say you had one too many, and on the morning after you’re feeling the effects of the night before — right between the eyes.

How does one deal with a wine hangover?

Well, whatever you do, don’t drink more wine. (Not yet, anyway.) The “hair of the dog” approach never really works. It may re-numb your senses for a while, but before long that annoying headache will be back, perhaps stronger than before.

Many people start chugging coffee… which also is a bad idea. One of the reasons you have that headache is because you’re dehydrated. Alcohol does that. Coffee is packed with caffeine, so drinking it to cure a headache will not work; it’s just likely to make you more alert and, thus, more aware of your headache.

The best beverages to fight a hangover are packed-with-Vitamin-C juices, sports drinks that are not loaded with caffeine (such as Gatorade), or — the best choice of all — water.

Once you’ve rehydrated your body, the headache associated with a hangover will begin to subside.

Of course, the best advice in dealing with a hangover is to avoid it in the first place.


By drinking just as much water as wine. I do this simply by alternating sips: a sip of wine, a sip of water… a sip of wine, a sip of water. Add bites of food to the “rotation” to further mitigate the affect of the wine’s alcohol.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Because you have to pace yourself, preventing a hangover can actually enhance your wine-drinking experience.

You’ll also remember it better.

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Posted in Wine and Health
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