It makes sense that Zinfandel has gained a reputation as California’s “heritage grape.” For many years, Zinfandel’s exact origins remained a mystery, or, as Jancis Robinson calls it, “a romantic thriller.” The red grape seemed to have made the trek and set fresh roots in the Golden State in conjunction with the forty-niners seeking their fortune in gold. Here, when the search for treasure proved fruitless, settlers turned to farming — and the Zinfandel grape thrived more than the Gold Rush ever could. Fields of vines flourished throughout the Sierra Foothills, and wine — namely jug wine — became a household staple and a new California industry.
With no known parentage and no knowledge of how the red wine grape arrived in the States in the first place — Zinfandel became California’s “wine child.”
The reputation Miles gave Merlot from his famous line in Sideways is not without merit. Sometime in the mid-1990’s American Merlot plantings boomed: In 1985 there were less than 2,000 acres in California, but by 2003 (just around the time Sideways released), there were over 50,000 acres planted. As a result, Merlot became the go-to red wine of choice or, as WinePros.org says, “the generic red wine flavor of fashion.” Winemakers were virtually mass-producing the varietal to keep up with popular demand. So Merlot became known for its lack of flavor, texture, and structure — an “easy drinker” that didn’t need to be understood. But with Miles’ line, the wine-drinking masses, along with the winemakers, seemed to have woken up. What is this red wine we’ve been drinking without a thought?
Merlot is actually a tricky grape to grow — its nuances so subtle and only noticeable when harvested at the proper time. There are good Merlots in the world — with depth, complexity, and uniqueness. So let’s take a look at what makes Merlot…Merlot.
Awhile back I did a close up look at Tannat in my feature Let’s Talk (and Taste) Tannat. Here, I focused on Tannats coming out of California and Oregon because, well, as a West Coaster, that’s what I have access to. The truth is, however, that Tannat is somewhat the “heritage grape” of Uruguay — a region I’ve only recently began to explore through various media tasting events. After reading my take on Tannat, I was quickly put into contact with Artesana, a boutique estate winery located in the Canelones region of Uruguay.
Founded in 2007 by American Blake Heinemann and under the dual, female winemaking talents of Analía Lazaneo and Valentina Gati, Artesana focuses on small-lot wine productions of Tannat, Tannat blends, and Zinfandel from the estate’s Las Brujas vineyard. The even smaller production of Merlot is used exclusively for their signature red blend, affectionately referred to as “TMZ.” And while there may be more than a few Tannat-based blends (and certainly other more popular blends that utilize a small percentage of Tannat), Artesana is the only producer that creates this precise mixture.
Being a California native, a graduate of UC Santa Cruz, and a regular ground-stomper of Monterey County, I’m amazed I’m only now learning about Big Sur Vineyards. But, to be fair, though the winery takes the name of a famous stretch of California coast, it’s a boutique, family-run operation.
Husband and wife duo Lenora Carey and Richard Gebhardt moved to the area back in 1983 becoming purveyors of lavender, olive and citrus trees, crafting essential oils and soaps in addition to selling their fresh produce. But it wasn’t long until they became enthused about what kind of grape varieties grew well in the area. Lovers of Rhone varietals, they picked and pressed the grapes of neighbors for many years — namely Grenache, Syrah, and Petit Sirah. And so it was, when they blended these three together, the “Big Sur Red” was born.
Flora Springs creates beautifully balanced red blends that could knock the socks off of even the most discerning wine drinker. But the winery also knows how to have some fun. Each year, the winemaking team creates a unique Halloween-themed wine in honor of their “Ghost Winery” in St. Helena. Apparently the historic stone cellar, built in 1885, has a few — shall we say — lingering guests.
The Flora Springs 2013 Ghost Winery Red Blend, available through the winery’s website, comes in three different labels, designed by Virginia-based artist Wes Freed. While technically “Halloween-themed,” something about Freed’s artwork this year just said “Dia de los Muertos” to me so…