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Zinfandel finds an elegant balance

Fondness for style that won California's grape early fame

Published 6:40 p.m., Friday, September 7, 2012

Steve Hall, winemaker at Robert Biale, tastes old-vine Zinfandel grapes in Sonoma's Valsecchi Vineyard. Photo: Liz Hafalia, The Chronicle / SF

Steve Hall, winemaker at Robert Biale, tastes old-vine Zinfandel grapes in Sonoma's Valsecchi Vineyard. Photo: Liz Hafalia, The Chronicle / SF

When Zinfandel was first planted in California, it was considered to be the grape most capable of producing elegant wine, worthy of such lofty 19th century labels as "California Claret" and "California Burgundy."

But over the last two decades, the idea of elegant Zinfandel has, for many wine lovers, become something of an oxymoron.

"Zin is still recovering from the paroxysm of the late 1990s," says Morgan Twain-Peterson, owner and winemaker at Bedrock Wine Co., a producer of Zinfandel and Syrah with a focus on historic vineyard sites in Sonoma. "You had these massive, opulent wines with residual sugar and 17 percent alcohol and everyone sort of said, 'Wow, this is so different.' "

Notwithstanding white Zinfandel (another discussion entirely), much of Zinfandel's modern image, like that of Napa Cabernet, has been shaped by the super-ripe and sweet wines of that period. But as California slowly writes a new chapter, focusing more on balance and freshness, Zinfandel has found itself at a crossroads.

'Coming into its own'

"My general feeling is Zin is coming into its own, in a way," says Twain-Peterson. "But it's still a fundamentally misunderstood variety, both in the way the public expects it to be and the way winemakers are working with it."

Twain-Peterson should know. As the son of Ravenswood founder Joel Peterson, Zinfandel is virtually in his blood. And to him, Zin's "own" is a return to what many refer to as the traditional claret style of Zinfandel, which strives for brighter flavors and lower alcohol.

Some, like Paul Draper at Ridge Vineyards and Mike Dashe of Oakland's Dashe Cellars, always sought to make that style of Zinfandel. Others, like Turley Wine Cellars, have swung with Zin's stylistic pendulum. In the mid-1990s Turley was a poster child for high-octane Zin....


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The Other Side of San Fran Bay: Discover Oakland

 

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — It's not easy being Oakland, existing in the shadow of glamorous San Francisco. But this is no ugly stepsister of a city. 

It's true Oakland has some big-city blues, including a perennial struggle with crime; this is one of those places where you want to stay aware of your surroundings. But whether you live in the area or are just contemplating a quick stopover during a visit to that other city by the bay, Oakland has a lot to offer, from elegant neighborhoods and beautiful parks to a thriving food and arts scene. Not to mention lighter crowds and generally balmier weather than the big city.

Getting here from San Francisco is as simple as driving east across the Bay Bridge or catching the Richmond or Pittsburg/Bay Point Bay Area Rapid Transit trains to the 12th or 19th Street stations that put you in the heart of Oakland. What to do? Here are few things to consider.

GET INTO A GONDOLA: Row, row, row your boat is one way to go, but wouldn't it be more relaxing to have someone else do the heavy lifting? You can take a gondola — yes, gondola — ride from the Lake Chalet restaurant on Lake Merritt, which serves as a relaxing oasis near downtown. Also at the lake are paddle or other boat rentals, restaurants and cafes, a jogging path and a bird sanctuary (watch where you step). Catch a movie at the Grand Lake Theater at the top of the lake, home to a mighty Wurlitzer that plays before selected shows. Or, if you have small children in tow, take in the mild thrills of Children's Fairyland, an amusement park for the pint-sized set.

SEE STARS: Catch a musical act at the renovated Fox Theater; see a classic movie amid the old-time glamour of the Paramount Theater; settle in for some cool jazz at Yoshi's Oakland. Or go for a different type of stellar experience with a visit to the Chabot Space & Science Center set in the hills above the city.

STICK A FORK IN IT: For a restaurant with a casual vibe, try Plum and adjoining Plum Bar in the Uptown neighborhood. Reclaimed wooden tables and benches and an open kitchen set the mood here with the focus on local products. Another option is Camino, not far from the Grand Lake Theater, where local specialties are cooked in a wood-fired oven right in the dining room. For a chilly treat, visit Fenton's Creamery, a hometown favorite that just may look familiar. It was featured in the movie "Up" made by Pixar, headquartered just across the border from Oakland in Emeryville.

SOAK IN A LITTLE HISTORY: The USS Potomac, a Coast Guard cutter that became FDR's "Floating White House," had a rough time of it after Roosevelt's death. After passing through the hands of a number of owners, it was seized in San Francisco in connection with drug smuggling and sank after being impounded. Left to rot on an estuary, the ship was rescued in the nick of time from becoming scrap and was painstakingly restored. You can take a dockside tour, join one of the cruises scheduled throughout the year or even charter the vessel yourself for a very special event.

HIT THE (URBAN) WINE SCENE: Visit wine country, minus the country. Oakland is home to a number of urban wineries, many of them scattered along decidedly unromantic Fourth Street. You won't find vistas of sweeping greenery here but you may encounter some enthusiastic vintners and interesting wines. Of note, Dashe Cellars, producer of some standout zinfandels.

LONELY PLANET FAVE: One of the world's biggest travel guidebook publishers, Lonely Planet, happens to have its U.S. headquarters in Oakland. And where do these world travelers go for fun after work when they don't want to stray too far from the office? The Linden Street Brewery, an Oakland microbrewery with a taproom.

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Wine Wednesday: Dashe Cellars

POSTED BY CHRIS CHAMBERLAIN ON WED, MAY 16, 2012 AT 8:11 AM
When Jenny Boone of Boonedocks Distribution drops me a line about someone special she's bringing to town, I usually take notice. When she told me that she was introducing a new line of boutique Sonoma County Zinfandels and Cabernet and bringing one of the winery owners into town for a whole week, I wasn't interested. I was fascinated.
 
I'm a big fan of red zin in all of its expressions. From big, bold fruit bombs to more subtle European treatments, wines made from Zinfandel, or Primitivo, have long been some of my favorites. Dashe Cellars is owned and run by a husband-and wife team who add two unique sensibilities to the production of
fine wines. Anne Dashe has a degree in oenology from the University of Bordeaux, while her husband is a graduate of the University of California at Davis. When they came together as a family and a winemaking team, each Dashe contributed the best of the New World and the Old World to their wines, with a special commitment to showcasing the elements of terroir that reflect the unique soil, climate and regional characteristics of the vineyards where they harvest their grapes.
 
I met Anne at a tasting at RED Spirits and Wine and found her to be a passionate and engaging ambassador for her wines. Although the Dashes don't own any vineyards, they have long-term contracts with their growers to ensure consistent supply and quality of fruit. They especially seek out plots that will help them emphasize the old-school style of winemaking that demonstrates minerality. Dashe uses all indigenous yeasts, and little or no filtration of their wines. In fact, they strive to add very little in the way of outside influences on the process. Dashe summed up her philosophy as, "Leave it alone and intervene only when needed."
 

 

Put wine in play for baseball fans

Visiting a ballpark? Here's a wish list of wine pairings with local grub

April 25, 2012


"Cold wine here! Get yer cold wine here!"

This you will not be hearing at a Major League Baseball park this summer.

Sure, in the hoity-toity private boxes or on "club level," good wine abounds. It's one of the draws. But for the hoi polloi who snag a dog or a slice at the down-market concession stands, the wine selection (if any) is pretty much what my son, Colin, reported finding at his home base of Coors Field in Denver: "Woodbridge and Sutter Home merlot and white zinfandel."

I'd rather a brew. There's more flavor.

Ah, but for a glass of good wine with the hot dog. Yet, to play off Yogi Berra, "If the fans don't want wine at the ballpark, you can't stop them."

Wouldn't you guess that they do serve a decent wine at field level in the San Francisco Giants' AT&T Park — Hess Select's Monterey California Chardonnay? I asked Sandie Filipiak, director of concessions there, what archetypal Giants ballpark food she'd serve with that wine. She said, "I would say our famous Crazy Crab'z sandwich, a Dungeness crab and tomato sandwich, lightly grilled on sliced sourdough French bread." Perfect pairing for the country's numero uno wine-producing state.

That got me to thinking, what would be my wish list were I — or any lover of delish wine — to venture to fields afar this summer, to catch a game and the local grub, and with them a glass of good wine? Here we go, east to west and back to San Francisco Bay....

...The Coliseum, Oakland Athletics: Kinder's BBQ ball tip sandwich

2009 Dashe Cellars Zinfandel Florence Vineyard Dry Creek Sonoma California: In a world of high octane zins, Dashe still turns out food-friendlies, such as this "dry" blackberry jam turned liquid, with a gorgeous hint of (of all things) melted butter; plush tannins, moderate alcohol, juicy and delicious; little better for red meat barbecue. $32....


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Dry Creek Valley moves up the zinfandel ladder

California is the pinnacle of American wine. It produces 90 percent of all wine produced in the United States, and its best rival those of any wines in the world. Yet in global terms, California is still a young wine region — evolving in style, influenced by changing preferences of consumers and winemakers.

Case in point: Dry Creek Valley, one of my favorite wine regions to visit, in person or in bottle. It extends northwest from Healdsburg in northern Sonoma County to the dam at Lake Sonoma and beyond into a mountainous, almost primal region known appropriately as Rockpile. The area makes great sauvignon blanc and lots of cabernet sauvignon (though most cab disappears anonymously into Sonoma County blends).

Recommended zinfandels 

Dry Creek really is prime country for zinfandel. The climate is hot enough to ripen zin, yet cool enough that the grape — which can produce wines of 16 percent alcohol in hotter regions such as Lodi or Amador — can be moderated in the hands of a careful winemaker.......

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Michael Dashe, who has made zinfandel in Dry Creek since 1989 with Ridge Vineyards and since 1996 under his own label, has seen the region’s style move toward higher-alcohol wines and back toward more moderate levels.

“Global warming has had an effect on grape ripening, and in Dry Creek the sugars were getting higher without the flavors getting ripe,” Dashe says. “In my years, there had been a shift to higher- alcohol wines partly because people haven’t been sure how to handle that issue of the grapes getting riper later. Now I think people are dealing with it better and are able to get grapes riper at lower sugar levels. Of course, it helps that the last few years have been cooler, too.”

Dashe’s zinfandels, produced from various vineyard sites in Dry Creek Valley, tend to be more earthy than fruit-forward. This may reflect a European sensibility. Dashe’s wife, Anne, is French and determines the blend of each bottling.

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