Friday, October 8, 2010

Wine tasting in California wine country: Zinfandel

Organizing a blind wine tasting is a fun way of discovering wonderful wines you might have missed. (Photo courtesy of Quentin Houyoux at via Creative Commons license.)
 At a zinfandel wine-tasting party with a couple dozen friends in California North Coast wine country, the surprise of the evening was the top three favorite zinfandel wines were all from Lodi.

Although Lodi's reputation for producing quality wines is growing, this appellation is little-known in Korea, where French and Italian wines reign supreme due to better marketing and Old World "mystique."

Lodi is located in San Joaquin County at the northern end of California's Central Valley. It's a couple of hours' drive south of the ultrapremium and luxury wine regions of Napa and Sonoma counties and has a warmer climate.

The Dry Creek Valley winegrowing region of Sonoma County is known for zinfandel. But Lodi produces about 40 percent of California's zinfandel grapes, according to the Lodi-Woodbridge Winegrape Commission.

Last year, I went wine tasting with more than 20 of my favorite people. We had every variety of red wine possible but this year we limited ourselves to one varietal: zinfandel. And spitting cups were optional. We also gave ourselves a cost limit for the first time, US$30 or less. It was a blind tasting — the bottles were wrapped in paper bags.

A blind tasting allows the wines to speak for themselves without their well-designed bottles obstructing the palate. Psychology can have as much of an influence on smell and taste as actual sensory perception, according to Master of Wine Tim Hanni:
... people’s preferences in food, music, wine and all things "sensory" can be best understood in two primary dimensions: Sensory Discrimination and Aspiration Value. While people are distributed all across these two dimensions, the deep genetic and cultural influences at work mean, in reality, that people are highly clustered into groups within the Flavor-Aspiration Matrix. [from his TasteSQ project website]

The key to a blind tasting is to make sure that none of the tasters have a clue on the origin of the wine. Paper bags work for those of us who don't have a bunch of decanters in our cupboard. (Photo by Tammy Quackenbush)

With those basic rules in mind, I went back to the Bottle Barn wine shop in Santa Rosa, Calif. Living in Northern California, a region well-known for its zinfandel, I wanted to avoid "California" appellation zinfandel to ensure my entry would be unique. Women tend to have an aversion to wearing the same dress to a party, and I didn't want to be caught in a similar predicament with my choice of wine.

Tasting results

Following are the top three wines that pleased my friends' palates and made memories from our party. Even though we had a limit of $30 per bottle, all these bottles are reasonably priced at less than $20 per bottle.

Barefoot Zinfandel from Lodi, Calif. was the winner of our blind tasting. It was the least expensive entry, it had the least amount of alcohol of it's cohorts (at 13.5 percent by volume) and is so mixed up, there's no year listed on the vintage because it's a blend of different harvests. (Photo by Tammy Quackenbush)
  1. Barefoot Zinfandel, Lodi. ($5-7) This wine won the Critics Challenge International Wine competition. Tasters tossed two-centers such as "stands alone or with food," "wine sorbet," "fruity" and "girly wine." It would match well with beef bolognese tteokbokki.
  2. 2007 Campus Oaks Old Vine Zinfandel, Lodi. ( $12-15) Samplers commented on its "biting finish" and "ruby color." The biting finish is courtesy of the 14.2 percent alcohol content. Try it at Thanksgiving with some turkey and kimchi stuffing.
  3. 2007 7 Deadly Zins, Lodi. ($12-17) The aspiring oenophiles called it "smooth", "good legs", and "pairs well with chocolate." At 14.5 percent alcohol, this wine has some power in its punch. It will also pair well with salmon.
A couple of people came late so we tasted those wines but they were not blind. One of them received some kudos I thought I'd pass along.

2007 Layer Cake primitivo, Puglia, Italy ($15)

This entry does carry some controversy, however. Carole Meredith, Ph.D, an American grape geneticist formerly with the University of California at Davis, found that zinfandel, primitivo, and crljenak kaštelanski (a Croatian grape variety) are genetically identical. Yet the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) has not yet changed the regulations so the terms can be used interchangeably.

Layer Cake's Primitivo from Sonoma California (via Puglia, Italy) was not part of the blind tasting but lots of good kudos regardless. It was the only wine brought to the party that had a screw cap top. (Photo by Tammy Quackenbush)

This late-comer was rated 89 by Robert Parker and was well-received by the tasters, who called it, "a little fruity with pepper." At 13.5 percent alcohol, the pepper and fruit are not obstructed by burning alcohol. Serve some of this with Bae Yong Joon's kalbi steak and soak up your guest's appreciation.

For Wine Day 2011?

Oct. 14 is designated Wine Day in South Korea. In a country obsessed with inventing activities to do on the 14th of each month (think, White Day on March 14), I'm happy that wine made it onto the list.

It is probably too late to go to your nearest wine importer and request these wines now to get them in time for Wine Day in Korea, but consider nagging the buyer to order you one of these for 2011.

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