For the most part, I avoid panel discussions about wine. Nothing I hate more in the wine business than a Burgundy seminar. Trust me, NEVER go to one. They make waterboarding seem like summer fun. I do love listening to a knowledgeable person speak about wine. I was lucky enough once to listen to Gerald Asher talk about wine. His love for wine was matched only by his apparent and articulate love for language. And, of course, he has that cool fake accent. Panel discussions, on the other hand, tend to devolve into the worst sort of holiday dinner party—a lot of posturing, a lot of interrupting, a lot of people who were told once in their life they were funny and foolishly chose to believe it. There’s an old expression in TV that describes an unfailingly witty and charming guest on a talk show (think Amy Sedaris or Billy Crystal) as “giving good panel.” Far too many wine people think they give good panel when all they give is, well, panel.
So when I was invited to a panel discussion about Limerick Lane Zinfandel, I cringed. I loved the concept. Jake and Scot Bilbro, the brothers who own Limerick Lane, blackmailed all the folks who make Zinfandel from their fruit into bringing bottles of their 2013’s and talking about the vineyard. I love Zinfandel, so the chance to taste the Limerick Lane Zins next to the Matthiasson, Carlisle, Bedrock, Siduri and Biale versions made my heart race. I’ve got a little boner for Zin and it was being insistent, as boners can be. (I don’t know, is it me, or is there not enough use of the word “boner” in wine writing?) So, despite hating the idea of sitting through a panel discussion, I accepted the invitation.
The tasting was held at Healdsburg’s SHED. SHED is on the very cutting edge of wine country pretension, a place that uses the word “curate” a lot, and has a fermentation bar. I find that kind of thing creepy. After I visit I want to wash my hands in the Men’s Peristalsis Bar. But they do have a pleasant event space upstairs that comfortably accommodated the fifty or so attendees, who were curated by Limerick Lane’s David Messerli. On the panel were Jake and Scot Bilbro, Mike Officer (Carlisle), Steve Matthiasson (duh), Adam Lee (Siduri), Morgan Twain-Peterson (Bedrock) and Tres Goetting (Biale). The moderator was Tegan Passlacqua (Turley, and his own Sandlands). That’s a lot of winemaking talent.
Zinfandel gets short shrift among wine folks, in general. This is nuts to me. I’ve noticed there is a sudden fascination with Barbera among wine people lately, for example, a Barbera has won about four Best Red in Show Awards at recent wine competitions. I like Barbera just fine. But Barbera isn’t nearly as compelling a variety as Zinfandel. Where Zinfandel bats a robust third for California, Barbera is a scrappy eighth place hitter. Why all the fuss about Barbera? Well, it’s usually leaner and more emaciated than Zin, and we seem to be in that sort of wine-consuming modality these days. Courtesy of IPOB and the Natural Wine crowd—all those Wine Amish People. Zin, at its best, is curvy and voluptuous, busting out of its undergarments, absolutely ready to go at the drop of a trou. Yet at its best, it also delivers beauty and completeness, and can be wonderfully generous with food (I love Zin with most pizza, as well as rare lamb and all sorts of other foods). And there’s just something special about the Limerick Lane Vineyard. The panel attempted to explain why.
I won’t bore you with the discussion. Mostly because, like the quality journalist I am, I didn’t take any notes. The aforementioned winemakers are all friends, and their camaraderie was contagious, but the talk was a lot of Brix, pH, TA, and other assorted chemistry crap that no actual wine person cares about any more than FaceBook users know shit about how the internet actually works. Besides, I was distracted by the six wines sitting in front of me, all Limerick Lane Zinfandels from the classic 2013 vintage.
I get invited to events like Limerick Lane’s because they hope I’ll write about it. I always intend to, but if I’m not compelled by the event or the wines, I lose interest. And that’s deadly to writing of any kind. But there’s another issue with an event like this one. None of the wines tasted, outside of Limerick Lane’s, is available. Limerick Lane doesn’t have a lot of extra fruit to sell, so each winemaker on the panel had but a couple of tons of Zinfandel with which to work. A couple of tons translates into about 125 cases. So good luck with that. There are more cases of mad cow disease in California (if you can, get the one made from Old Bovines). My apologies for writing about wines you probably can’t get. The point of the tasting, simply put, was that Limerick Lane Vineyard is such a great Zinfandel vineyard that even some of the best young winemakers in California can’t fuck it up.
A point that was repeatedly made by the panel (and the nature of panels is to make the same point in different words several times) was how well the Zinfandel at Limerick Lane holds its acidity at high levels of ripeness. This seems to be unusual for Zin, if not most varieties. The result is wines of uncommon freshness, and, indeed, most of the wines were brilliantly vivid considering their weight and ripeness. The ’13 Matthiasson was by far the leanest of the bunch, though it had also just been bottled and couldn’t have been at its absolute best. Nevertheless, it showed the typical red fruit profile of Limerick Lane Vineyard, though in a very lean, restrained, rather ungenerous style. When I spoke with Steve Matthiasson afterward he told me that had he been more familiar with the vineyard, with its propensity to hold its acidity, he wouldn’t have picked his grapes nearly as soon as he had. Honest guy. Of all the wines, I found his Zin the simplest and the least interesting. Yet it still had great brightness and lovely aromatics, and was expertly made.
Siduri’s version struck me as the most disjointed. It was elbows and knees and Adam’s apples. Much riper than Matthiasson, it was sweet with alcohol, noticeably oaky, and kind of fat. That can be a style that folks like, but sitting next to the Twiggy version its extraction and ripeness really stood out, and not in a flattering way. Maybe it points out that folks who don’t spend a significant amount of time making Zin often struggle with it, make odd wines. Zin is a harsh mistress, even more challenging, I think, than Pinot Noir, and far more difficult than Cabernet Sauvignon. The guys on the panel who specialize in Zin made much better examples.
Morgan Twain-Peterson’s Bedrock version was brilliant. Morgan is a great winemaker of Zin, in my book, one of the best—even better than his illustrious father. His Limerick Lane Zin had everything—a beautiful nose, all that luscious, ripe red fruit (raspberry and plum), Zin’s spicebox, amazing vibrancy and delineation, remarkable freshness for a wine of such power, and a very long finish. Oh man, I wish I owned some of it.
Same goes for Mike Officer’s Carlisle Limerick Lane 2013 Zinfandel. Wow. It seemed a bit unkempt at the event, I can’t remember when Mike said it had been bottled, as though it was bottle shock-y. But it was great Zin. It was really cool to taste the stylistic differences between two such great versions of that great vineyard, the Bedrock and the Carlisle. The Carlisle was bigger, a bit more extracted, and, at that moment, showed chalkier tannins. But a lot of the ’13 Zins I’ve tasted have significant tannins, which may be symptomatic of the vintage, and maybe related to the drought’s effect on vines. Hey, I’m guessing. Which is why they don’t put me on panels. Or maybe why they should. Anyhow, the Carlisle is really big and really beautiful—why does Charlize Theron come to mind? I don’t think it has been released yet, so, Mike, if you’re reading this, HEY, SAVE A COUPLE OF BOTTLES FOR THE DAMNED HOSEMASTER!
I didn’t know that Biale made a Limerick Lane Zin, but it makes perfect sense. Their 2013 was also stunning, though it seemed to me to be the least emblematic of the vineyard. So what? It was delicious. Slightly jammier than the others, except maybe the Siduri, it had great intensity and that brilliant bright red fruit and invigorating freshness that is the hallmark of the place. Amazing how that ran through each wine, each winemaker improvising on that theme. Cool to experience. Like listening to five great sax players riffing on the same melody. All great, but all about style.
Scot Bilbro presented two of the Zins from their Limerick Lane label, the 1910 Block Zin, and their “basic” Limerick Lane Zin. The 1910 Block Zin was big and bold and beautiful, but, that day, it was very unyielding. I guess that’s as it should be, and one might hope that a wine like that would be held back by the winery for a couple more years for it to blossom in the bottle. But economics don’t work in harmony with winemaking. So it goes. I wish I could sit with this wine for several days. Like a great storyteller, I know it has a lot to say, and is no hurry to say it. There’s little doubt it’s wonderful Zin, but when you have about ten minutes to taste it, well, that’s not nearly enough time for something so intrinsically interesting.
But the humble 2013 Limerick Lane Zinfandel (available at some point in the near future) was the star of the show, I thought. It synthesized the beauty of the site’s bright red fruit, flashy acidity, sweet succulence, supple tannins and lingering finish. Zinfandel just doesn’t present like this very often, but at this place, in this little corner of the Russian River Valley, it sings. It makes me wonder how many places in California Zinfandel would outdo Pinot Noir, outdo Cabernet, if only people showed it more passion and respect. If you love Zin at all, try a Limerick Lane Zinfandel. These seven talented winemakers can’t be wrong. If you don’t like a Limerick Lane Zinfandel, trust me, it’s you. But you knew that.