Explore winemakers and their stories to find gems

September 23, 2023

When I think of Zinfandel, Matt and Erin Cline come to mind. Matt has a storied winemaking career reaching back into the 1980s. In 1985, he became winemaker at family-owned Cline Cellars (Little Red Truck sale provided Cline with a ton of cash) and assistant winemaker for Conn Creek. In 2001, he and Erin, his wife and partner, opened Trinity Cellars in order to return to lower-volume methods of farming and winemaking. Upon reaching 9,000 cases, they sold it in 2006. They founded Three Wine Company, S3X (small, sweet sips) with their lovely Late Harvest Reisling in Clarksburg, in 2008. Both are actively involved. I appreciate them most for their efforts in saving Bigelow, one of Cali’s oldest, high-quality vineyards, from developers in Contra Costa County, home to 130-year-old Zinfandel vines, as well as Mataro (Mourvèdre) and Carignane. Bigelow Vineyard Zin includes juice from those 130-year-old Zin vines blended with 14% Petite Sirah, Alicante and Carignane, then aged in 37% new French and American oak. Old-style rich and robust. Still dark purple-black from the thick-skinned berries, the nose shows cherry and raspberry, with cedar, rosemary and barrel spice accents. On the palate, dark fruit continues with peppery spice, and hints of strawberry and pine, 92 McD. Three Wine Company Bigelow Zin 2016 is available, and careful shoppers can find a six-pack with free shipping under $150. Keep in mind their new release is 2018 for both Bigelow and Evangelho Zins. Recent for others is 2019. They sell no wine before it is time, another reason I like them. I sampled nine labels including five Zins, one field red blend, one SMC and a Petite Sirah. The lowest score was 88 McD and it had a fine QPR priced under $25. Bigelow 2016, due to its aging, is in line with Ridge Geyserville and Lytton Springs, both 92 McD and $50 without the elevated price tag and necessary cellar time. Great buy up to $40.

Natalie MacLean’s new book, “Wine Witch on Fire: Rising from the Ashes of Divorce, Defamation, and Drinking Too Much,” is worth a read. Although it was uplifting in the sense of overcoming “too much drinking,” it was a bit much for me in the sentiments expressed about how the good old boys were all against her and the wine biz is misogynistic – but I still found it enjoyable. She writes a good hand and is a good storyteller. Her wine criticism is usually in sync with mine.

Appassionata is a new project housed at J. Christopher since Jay Somers and his wife Ronda moved down the road and former partner Erni Loosen took over. Loosen retained JC’s able assistant Tim Malone to take the reins. So, things may remain similar. However, Loosen has been a big-volume guy. JC Somers wished to continue his small-plot, terroir-driven efforts; his motto, “Wines should evolve at their own pace, with a minimum of intervention. I am taking inspiration from Old World wines and applying their model to the terroir of the Willamette Valley.” Jay’s method: no fruit bombs; wines that have a fine balance of fruit, acidity and texture; wines that give you more than just a big mid-palate blast; wines that are complete. My wife Barbara and I met the Somers, and enjoyed their hospitality and commitment to the terroir. We did some barrel tasting and JC played a few tunes on his guitar. Check out Get in early. You can bet I am continuing to follow this winemaker. JC Somers Croft Vineyard Willamette Valley Sauvignon Blanc, both 2019 and ‘20 at $31, are excellent, although they are quite different in that the 2019 employed oak and the ‘20 did not. Try the 2020 with hazelnut-crusted Pacific cod. His Corinne Vineyard Chehalem Mountains Chardonnay 2020, 93 McD around $43, is wonderful for those who enjoy crisp, focused Chards with citrus and pear aromas, mineral acidity and a hint of salinity. Reminds me of well-made Chablis.

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