"Irreverence is easy--what's hard is wit."--Tom Lehrer
Monday, May 12, 2014
Kind of a Tribidrag When Your Baby Don't Love Ewe
Limerick Lane and Marietta Wines I’m Using to Talk About Myself
Limerick Lane 2011 Zinfandel Russian River Valley $32
Limerick Lane 2011 Syrah Grenache Russian River Valley $36
Limerick Lane 2011 Rocky Knoll Zinfandel Russian River Valley $45 (190 cases)
Limerick Lane 2011 1910 Block Zinfandel Russian River Valley $48 (190 cases)
Limerick Lane 2011 Headpruned Syrah Russian River Valley $44 (150 cases)
The first red variety that I fell in love with was Zinfandel. It’s my high school sweetheart for whom I still carry a torch (Evelyne), my first great dog (Lucy), the first time I got a big laugh from an audience (junior high school talent show emcee, dressed as a girl), and that first time I woke up and the bed was dry (freshman year in college) all mixed into one bottle. I know a lot of wine folk who have very little affection for Zinfandel. It’s almost trendy not to like it, like Chardonnay and Kardashians. And yet Zinfandel has quite a large fan club. At least compared to, say, head lice.
I understand why some people don’t like Zinfandel. It can be too much. I have friends like that. Zin can be a wine that you want to tell, “Shut the hell up.” I love its exuberance, but I agree that it can go too far, be too much, and in ways other varieties don’t. But when it doesn’t go over the top, I adore it, whether it’s from Dry Creek Valley, the Sierra Foothills, Paso Robles, Mendocino, or the Russian River. All of those appellations strike me as very different kinds of Zin, and yet they are unmistakably Zin. And isn’t it something of a bonus that Zinfandel is never, and can’t be, compared to some classic Old World example? I think we are all tired of domestic Pinot Noir being referred to as “Burgundian,” especially by marketing types who wouldn’t know Burgundy from Apothic, or truth from spin. Cabernet gets Bordeaux, Sauvignon Blanc gets the Loire, Sparkling Wine gets Champagne, but Zin is Zin. If another country wants to hang their wine hat on making great Zinfandel, they’ll have to suffer comparisons with California. I find that refreshing.
The Zinfandels I first fell in love with were from the likes of Ridge, Joseph Swan, and Ravenswood. Along with a few others, they were the standard bearers of Zinfandel in an era where Sutter Home’s big mistake was yet to happen, and everyone knew Zin was red. I was smitten by Ridge’s Geyserville bottling, and still am. Joseph Swan’s Zinfandels were legendary, and for good reason. Seeking out old vineyards, Joe Swan was the first guy to vineyard designate Zinfandel, and he was clearly nobody’s fool. His protégé, Joel Peterson, began, a little later, to bottle the Ravenswood single-vineyard Zinfandels. These three made very different styles of Zin, Ridge leaning more toward polished and elegant Zinfandel (rather ineptly referred to, not by Ridge, but by others, as “Claret style”—what genius came up with that vague descriptor? It’s like calling a Sauternes, “Sticky style.”), Swan having a very bright and graceful style, while Ravenswood has always just let it rip, show Zinfandel’s flashiest side. I loved all three. It is weird to think how I once used to sit around after work at night and drink a bottle of Zinfandel without any food. That seems insane to me now, like most of the things I did in my 20’s, I guess. Having full-bodied wines without food is like playing music really loudly while turning up the bass all the way. You’re missing the point, and you’ll have a nasty fucking headache when you’re done.
There were other smaller, and more colorful, Zinfandel producers back then, too. Lytton Springs, before it was purchased by Ridge in 1991, produced an estate Zinfandel that was ridiculously flamboyant, and usually filled with volatile acidity, but had a big following. I seem to recall that there were rumors that pornography had been produced on the property, or that the owner had made money in the porn business. Anyone else recall this? It would explain why they call them “bush vines.” And there was also Limerick Lane, though their first vintage was later, in 1986. Their Zin burst onto the scene with its first release, and developed quite a following. The Collins family elevated the old vineyard’s reputation, originally planted in 1910, to cult status. But they seem to have been a troubled family, a series of tragedies occurred, which it would be unseemly to talk about here (unlike pornography!), and the label basically vanished from the marketplace.
Enter Jake Bilbro. Jake’s father, Chris, is the owner/winemaker of Marietta Cellars, and Jake’s brother, Scot is also a winemaker. Their brother, Sam Bilbro, along with his wife Jessica, own Idlewild Wines. (There’s another son who works at a grocery store, you’ve probably heard of him—Bilbro Baggins.) Wine is in the Bilbro blood, and vice-versa. Jake stepped in and purchased the legendary Collins Vineyard a few years ago, and he and his brother have brought back this great Zinfandel label. For a short period of time, I worked with Sam Bilbro, who informed me that Jake was a fan of my stupid blog. Jake and I met at Limerick Lane Winery a while back (where I also had the pleasure of meeting his father Chris and listening to great stories about the early days of Marietta), and then recently Jake gave me these samples for me to potentially write about. Yeah, so here we go again, more of my insufferable wine reviewing.
I can't make any sort of lamb dish for dinner and not crave Zinfandel with it. Once in a while, I might prefer an aged Cabernet Sauvignon, one at least fifteen years old, to accompany lamb, but I usually reach for Zin. I don’t want a Zin that’s hugely extracted, or high in alcohol, or with any residual sugar; though “highly extracted” is subjective. In my mind, Zinfandel can be considered highly extracted when you pull the cork and your dog runs into the other room and hides under a blanket. The kind of Zin that’s like sucking on a Taser. It might be interesting to taste, and it certainly commands your attention, like a pit bull with a vise grip on your testicles, but if I drink three glasses of a Zinfandel like that, I wake up in the morning and feel like someone kicked me in the kidneys.
I roasted some lamb one night and opened the Limerick Lane 2011 Zinfandel Russian River Valley. 2011 was, to say the least, a challenging vintage in Sonoma County. It was very cool, and wet enough to be troublesome, like those unobtainable girls I yearned for in high school. (You don’t get that kind of vintage insight from Parker.) But there were certain varieties in certain places that did quite well. Limerick Lane’s Vineyards are on the far eastern side of the Russian River appellation, and the long, cool summer ripened the fruit nicely. Sure, Zin is prone to mold, for which my jokes also have an affinity, but that’s what careful harvesting and sorting tables are for. In the end, the Limerick Lane 2011 Zinfandels are very successful wines. The flagship Russian River Valley bottling is truly evocative and wonderful Zinfandel. I think it was Doug Nalle, an old hand at Zin under his own label and others, who coined the word “Zinberry” for the unique fruit profile one can get from great Zin. It’s here in this wine, I think, a sort of cross between red fruit like raspberry and black fruit like blackberry—not one or the other, but some kind of hybrid, and with all the fresh fruitiness of an imaginary Zinberry freshly picked and tasted. It’s just delicious, and lighthearted. And those of you who think that a wine over 15% alcohol can’t be lively and balanced and gorgeous, well, here’s proof you’re mistaken. I loved this Zinfandel, and it’s worth every penny of the $32 I didn’t pay for the privilege of drinking it with lamb. Oh my, was it good with the lamb.
So the next time my wife and I dined on lamb, we consumed the Limerick Lane 2011 Rocky Knoll Zinfandel (though I thought “Rocky Knoll" was another maudlin Sylvester Stallone movie sequel starring Beyoncé). Yeah, I’m in something of a lamb rut—must be mating season. The “Rocky Knoll” is a crustier, meatier big brother to the flagship Zin. The “Rocky Knoll’s” nose is more about power, where the flagship’s nose is more about the beautiful fruit. The background meatiness of the nose married marvelously with the seasoned lamb, and the aroma of the meal and the wine together just made my mouth water. Here is a Zin that, like the best Syrahs and Pinot Noirs, relies on texture to deliver the goods. It’s a big Zinfandel, filling your mouth with blackberry and briary fruit, but that cool 2011 vintage has graced it with the acidity to feel fresh and vibrant in your mouth. Blockbuster stuff, and to make a Zinfandel this powerful and graceful at the same time takes great talent as well as a lot of experience. It’s classic Russian River Zinfandel, and that means it’s a Zinfandel with the sort of elegance, richness and balance I associate with the Pinot Noirs of the region. Yeah, that's right, it's "Burgundian!"
Holy Cow, is the Limerick Lane Zinfandel 1910 Block Zinfandel something special! One of the great and historic vineyards in all of Sonoma County, the fruit sought after by the likes of Zin masters like Morgan Peterson of Bedrock and Mike Officer of Carlisle, Limerick Lane’s oldest block has produced this spectacular 2011 Zinfandel. But there’s a lot to the wine besides Zin. This old block is home to many varieties, including Peloursin (Petite Sirah’s sire), Negrette, Grand Noir, and even a few vines as yet unidentified. A wine like this is the history of California wine in a bottle, and, in my mind, deserves some reverence, as well as thanks to the folks who preserve these old vineyards. It teeters on the edge of overwhelming, but its impeccable balance keeps it from falling over the edge. I don’t have anywhere near the talent to describe a wine this interesting and profound. It’s huge, which is a style that seems to be badmouthed a lot lately, but you can’t put this wine in your mouth and not reflexively raise your eyebrows in awe. Bigger might not be better, but it sure as hell is as good. So, my notes read, “Inky, spicy, chewy, very intense Zinfandel.” And as the meal (beef this time!) progressed, the wine blossomed and revealed uncountable layers, and truly impressive complexity. I found a new flavor just about every time I tasted it. For a person who has always loved Zinfandel, the 1910 Block was damned near orgasmic, so maybe don’t order it in a restaurant if you’re a screamer. It reminded me of a Ridge Geyserville bottling only turned up a notch or two. It belongs in that league anyway, and I hope I get to taste it again in about ten years. My hunch is it will be even more breathtaking down the road a piece. A great Zinfandel, and by any definition, a great wine.
They don’t just make Zinfandel at Limerick Lane. Jake also gave me a couple of terrific wines from Grenache and Syrah to drink. The Limerick Lane 2011 Syrah Grenache (2/3 Syrah) transported me instantly to the Southern Rhône, a trip I’m always willing to make. It reminded me of Gigondas from a juicy, warm vintage. That luscious sweetness that typifies Grenache is nicely expressed here, and is able to stand apart from the rather brooding Syrah. But all of the Limerick Lane red wines that I tasted were notable for their grace and lightness of foot. Yeah, they are big and concentrated wines, but they dance quite gracefully. Sort of like all the great fat comedians who were so filled with grace—Oliver Hardy, Jackie Gleason, John Candy… The Syrah Grenache was even more graceful the second night, revealing even more lusciousness with all the air. You’ll never guess what we ate with it. Lamb. (I eat so much lamb I’m starting to grow curly white hair. Well, that could be age. I’ve got plenty of mutton, and mutton’s plenty for me.) For Rhône lovers, give this a try. Sundrenched, powerful and delicious.
And, finally, the Limerick Lane 2011 Headpruned Syrah, spectacular Syrah made from old headpruned vines (“Hey, I’m not bald, I’m headpruned.”). This Syrah is a doozy, a nice example of Syrah in all its glory. Meaty, spicy, bold, peppery, all in equal measure. The nose gets more and more captivating as it breathes. But, again, considering the power here, and the intensity, it has the grace on the palate that all great wines have, but so many merely good wines need. I think the more I taste wine, and I’ve been tasting wine since I was sommelier at the Last Supper, the more I seek out wines with both power and grace, both intensity and precision. This Syrah has all of that. Even if you think you don’t like Syrah, I dare you to not like this wine. It’s glorious. There are times Syrah can be more intellectually pleasing than sensually pleasing, but not this Limerick Lane 2011 Headpruned Syrah. It’s sexy and smart.
Limerick Lane has arisen from the ashes with a vengeance. Zinfandel lovers need to own these wines. Wine lovers need to own these wines. Shall we close appropriately?
There once was a grape known as Tribidrag A name with the charm of a kitchen rag. It said, “What the hell, I’ll become Zinfandel, Turn white, and make shit that will make you gag.”
After 19 years as a Sommelier in Los Angeles, twice named Sommelier of the Year by the Southern California Restaurant Writers' Association, I moved to Sonoma County to explore the other aspects of the wine business. I've spent, OK wasted, 35 years learning about and teaching about and swallowing wine. I am also a judge at the Sonoma Harvest Fair, San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and the San Francisco International Wine Competition--so I can spit like a rabid llama. I know more about wine than David Sedaris and I'm funnier than James Laube. Stay tuned for an informed but jaded view of everything wine and everything else.
I'm living proof that alcohol kills brain cells.
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