What’s a Winemaker to Do?

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Recently tasted 38 Dry Creek Zinfandels, almost all from 2003. The winemakers at my table were leery. The heat that summer, they said, was the worst in memory. They called the year a “winemaker’s vintage,” meaning that the quality of the wine was in human hands more than it usually is, because the weather was so freakish.

Dry Creek has got pretty much perfect Zin conditions, and a reputation for producing well-balanced, stylish wines with a great combination of fruit flavors, floral aromas (think violets) and spices (white pepper comes to mind). In most years, winemakers can let good grapes be the story. Frame them up in a little oak and send them out into the world.

Not in 2003.

The high heat had magnified Zinfandel’s tendency to ripen unevenly in the vineyard, so the fruit was not rich, ripe and jammy. It was more cooked, strained, or stewed. This part was definitely not the winemakers’ fault. It’s what they did next that I can’t understand.

For some reason, the route that dozens of winemaker took was to load up on oak. Many of the wines were hot, astringent, and un-fun – the opposite of what most of us want from Zinfandel.

A couple of the winemakers at the table were shaking their heads as we sampled wine after wine that featured big doses of charred wood. Some offered explanations – but withdrew them as soon as they had spoken the words. One winemaker said that the problem was that “the oak is showing through more because the fruit was a little overcooked.” What this means to me is, “overcooked fruit came into the winery, and we put too much oak on it.”

To be fair, every vintner at my table for the Dry Creek Tasting had a wine in the tasting, and every one of them was 100% Dry Creek Zin. This means they did not use other grapes, or Zin from other areas, to save their bacon. In other words, they gutted it out and did what they could, as winemakers, to bring in a good wine.

On the other hand, none of them selected their own wines as standouts. As one vintner said as he left the table hours later, “when we’ve got to douse Zinfandel with that much oak, even in a winemaker’s vintage, something’s wrong.”

So what is that “something?” One of my go-to guys, Mark Bowery, is a retailer and restaurant wine director with a tremendous palate and huge ability to coax people to try new things. He says that consumers “just want to be blown away,” and that’s why oak and alcohol are headed up, up, up.

Could it really be that we consumers are rewarding winemakers for burying even friendly, easy-going grapes like Zinfandel under too much oak?

- Thom Elkjer
Check out my regular wine coverage at www.winecountry.com.

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