Good friends are friends that host a little dinner party once in a while. Great friends used to work at a world-class winery and were gifted bottles of experimental wines that they held onto for years, waiting for the perfect opportunity to uncork and enjoy.
So it was that two friends, about to give up on New York for a ’round-the-world adventure, had a few noted snobs and budding wine enthusiasts — and me — over for a night of indulging. E worked at Ridge Winery when she and S lived in the Bay area, and as a gift from the winery several years ago, she received three special bottles of 2003 Zinfandel.
The neat thing about these three Zins? Cuttings were taken in each of the three regions noted on the bottles, and grafted onto root stock in Geyserville. The wines produced are a product of the terroir, then, of the original location of the grafts. The experiment taught a lesson in how different the same grapes could be even when each of the original three vines were then grown in identical conditions.
Before we got to that, though, there were other treats in which to partake. First up, S&E shared some of their stash of Bender, a 5%ish “oatmeal brown ale” from Surly Brewing, picked up from a recent trip to Minnesota: tasty, in balance between the somewhat sweet maltiness and a little background bitterness, the edge on the darker malts “rounded off” by the addition of oats, and reasonably low in alcohol. Plus, cans! The draft lines are everywhere in Minneapolis/St. Paul, and rightfully so. The good news is that the brewery is pretty much at capacity, and don’t really embrace the ticker mentality of constant new, strange, high-alcohol releases. And when they have done something different, such as the Coffee Bender, it’s almost assuredly a winner. Highly recommended, as are pretty much all the beers Surly brews.
Next, a bottle of 2002 Ridge Chardonnay was opened. While I thought it was a little past its prime — go figure — and I’m not a big fan of oaked Chardonnay to begin with, this bottle didn’t overwhelm with butter. Much of the acidity and “brightness” was gone to my palate, but it remained an easy drinker, and wasn’t displaying any real flaws, staying fruity and maybe a little thicker mouthfeel than I expected.
E also whipped up a couple of delicious dishes for eating with the wines. The onion tart was excellent; each bite was packed pretty much entirely with sweet onions. I think even the binder was laden with onions. The lamb, slow-cooked much of the day, was tender and retained much of its juiciness, and how do you go wrong with stew staples like potatoes and carrots?
The three wines were poured, after easily an hour of breathing. All were stored carefully in wine refrigerators for the length of their existence in similar conditions, so any differences could be isolated to the vines carrying different code for how to develop its fruit. I drank them right to left; by appearance, there simply was not a difference I could see.
The Pronsolino was up first. Pronsolino has a moderate climate; the mountains allow for warm days and cool nights, which will allow acidity to build in the grapes. The wine made from these vines was, to my palate, bordering on astringent. It was rather sharp and alcoholic in the nose; particularly dry, it didn’t quench so much as it made me pucker a little. Sure, there was a little fruit in there, but it was nearly consumed by the cloud of alcohol.
Moving on, the Hearts Desire vines proved to hold up better, with “jammy” fruit leading the charge and an accommodating nose allowing me to breathe it in without thinking of alcohol vapor. This, too, finished quite dry, but the residual sugars seemed a bit greater in this expression of the grapes.
Last, and best, Picchetti most resembled more “prime” Ridge zins, with a powerful fruity punch right up front, big cherry, plum, floral flavors largely masking the potent alcohol content — all three wines likely crested 15% alcohol by the time they were opened. The Picchetti, unsurprisingly, proved the best match for the food as well, though the relative dryness of Hearts Desire sometimes seemed the one to reach for with the tart.
I wouldn’t say a couple of these had peaked too long ago, but they had certainly developed a profile and structure that I wasn’t completely sold on. But knowing me, had these been in my possession they would have been opened years ago. I’m amazed my friends could sit on these for so long. E preferred Pronsolino, actually, while the rest of us seemed firmly in Picchetti’s camp. I can understand the love for Pronsolino, though, as I thought it more closely resembled a reasonable Malbec than Zin at this point and, well, sometimes you want a Malbec, right?
While we compared the wines, we also compared two very different olive oils from the same producer, McEvoy Ranch. The standard extra-virgin olive oil, at left, was a tasty, slightly herbal and grassy treat; but the Olio Nuovo, at right, is something else, as evidenced by the oil levels in the bottles. Bright green and pungent, the Olio Nuovo just intensified all the flavors I’ve come to expect in olive oil, and tasting these side by side, I can see why McEvoy commands $22 for these small (375ml) bottles – when they can keep them in stock, that is.
Now that we’d finished the taste test, it was of course time for… more aged wine, this time a 1997 Montebello. While I figured this to be less than prime, it still retained some interesting purple fruit and raspberry flavor to offset the dryness and what seemed to be a beastly amount of alcohol. It’s a Bordeaux blend (85% cab sauv), I’m told, and I’ve never had red Ridge wine that wasn’t Zinfandel or Petit Syrah, so it was a new experience for me. We made understandably short work of this bottle.
Aside from the beer, we managed to put a pretty good dent in out hosts’ Ridge supplies for the evening, which I’m pretty sure was exactly the point. While no more wine was to be consumed that evening, do you really think we were done? Of course not.
Like any good alcohol appreciation collective, we kept drinking, ending the evening, more or less, with a homebrewed Black IPA, a newish style that has become one of the biggest “I must brew this type of beer” for seemingly every single brewery in the past year or so. And Ben’s version failed to disappoint — the citrusy hops managed to coexist peacefully with judicious use of roasted barley and its attendant bitterness. While it might have been a bit on the thin side, it was overall a very good beer, and one that likely would have scored quite well at the last New York City Homebrewers Guild homebrew competition, Homebrew Alley 5, except that he failed to enter it on time. His loss.
Plus, I really, really enjoyed a side trip made to Duluth specifically for Fitger’s a year and a half ago, so I wanted its pint glass to be immortalized on this site.
In all, a very special evening was planned and executed to perfection, and I count myself lucky to know such interesting, generous people. I can only hope to return the favor in the near future.