By John Engstrom
“Rock me baby, rock me all night long”: So begins B. B. King’s immortal song that could have been the theme of a memorable night of wine tasting. Tricia and David Grodin hosted a meeting of the Pompous Twits at their home recently, and all the wines were from the Rockpile AVA. An AVA, or American Viticultural Area, is a winegrowing region that has satisfactorily demonstrated a characteristic that differentiates it from neighboring winegrowing regions. In Rockpile’s case, it distinguishes itself in two ways. First, the soil is poor and, as you might suspect, very rocky. Also, to be classified as Rockpile, the vineyards must be at over 800 feet above sea level. The Rockpile AVA is northwest of Sonoma’s Dry Creek AVA, and there is some overlap of the two. There are no “old vines” in the Rockpile region. Not because vines weren’t planted there, but because most of the old plantings in the area are now beneath Lake Sonoma. The lake provides a benefit though, because it creates an inversion layer which pulls in cooling breezes from the Pacific Ocean, thirteen miles away, which gives the vines the much needed heat respite necessary to achieve balance in the finished wines. Still, the mid-day heat is too much for white wine grapes, which is why only wines from red wine grapes were tasted.
Aperitif: With no white wines, the welcoming wine was a 2009 JC Cellars Rose of Syrah. Possessing more Syrah flavor than some red wine Syrahs, this was a thoroughly enjoyable way to start the evening. $14 / ***+.
First Flight – Cabernet Sauvignon: This flight consisted of the 2005 Stryker Cabernet Sauvignon, the 2003 Paradise Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2007 Carol Shelton Cabernet Sauvignon. There was a vociferous few who thought that the Stryker was the best wine of the night. I was not among them. Neither the Stryker nor the Paradise Ridge had enough fruit component to balance out the heavy dose of tannins inherent in Cabernet Sauvignon, leaving the two wines in question with a dusty feel in the finish that I find off-putting. The Carol Shelton offering, on the other hand, was very enjoyable, because its black currant fruit was much more evident. This may be due to its younger age, or may be due to Carol Shelton’s winemaking ability. Alas, this must have been a limited release, because it does not appear on the Carol Shelton website.
2005 Stryker CS $38 / ***
2003 Paradise Ridge CS $28 / ***
2007 Carol Shelton CS $ 40 / ****
Second Flight – Mauritson Zinfandel: Unlike most wine producers that have one, or at best two sources of Rockpile fruit, Mauritson has several vineyards in the Rockpile AVA, Thus, this flight officially consisted of the 2008 Jacks Cabin Zinfandel, the 2007 Rockpile Ridge Zinfandel and the 2008 Westphall Vineyard Zinfandel. I say officially, because there was accidentally a 2007 Westphall Vineyard Zinfandel that was also poured. Zinfandel seems to be a better choice for Rockpile than Cabernet Sauvignon. It seems to develop more fruit flavors in proportion to the tannin. Rockpile Zinfandels develop an interesting fruit character. It is not unusual to find red raspberry, black raspberry, or Boysenberry fruit characteristics in Zinfandel. Even blackberry is fairly common. Well, in Rockpile, that berry flavor manifests itself as blacker-than-blackberry. This flavor is an extrapolation beyond the realm of comparable berry flavors currently known to mankind. All four of these wines, and indeed, most of the evenings Zinfandels possessed that fruit flavor. The Jacks Cabin was my favorite of this flight, and the evening, because it possessed so many nuanced layers of fruit, spice and tannin in perfect balance. However, as you can tell by the scores assigned, you can’t go wrong with any of these wines.
2008 Mauritson Jacks Cabin Zin $36 / *****
2007 Mauritson Rockpile Ridge Zin $36 / ****
2008 Mauritson Westphall Vineyard Zin $ 36 / ****
2007 Mauritson Westphall Vineyard Zin $36 / ****+
Third Flight – Zinfandel - Assorted Wineries: More Zinfandel, this time from three different wineries but only two different vineyards. The 2008 Hobo Wine Company Rockpile Zinfandel and the 2007 Branham Rockpile Zinfandel both came from Gary Branham’s vineyard in Rockpile. Wow, what a difference in these two wines. The Branham is intense, brooding and redolent of the ultra-blackberry fruit found in the previous fight with a black pepper spice component. The Hobo tastes like that wine mixed fifty-fifty with raspberry Twizzlers. In other words, it has a sweet candy like flavor on top of the usual Rockpile profile, and alas, not in a good way. The third wine in the flight was a 2005 Carol Shelton Zinfandel from the Florence Vineyard. This wine, like the Carol Shelton Cab of the first flight, showed much more Zinfandel fruit flavors than its flight mates, and in great balance. Still, if forced to pick between this and the Branham, it would be the Branham by the narrowest of margins.
2008 Hobo Rockpile (Branham Vyd.) Zin $30 / **
2007 Branham Rockpile Zin $30 / ****+
2005 Carol Shelton Rocky Reserve Zin (Florence Vyd.) $ 32 / ****+
Fourth Flight – Zinfandel - Assorted Wineries: The final flight, was again Zinfandel from three different wineries. The first and third wines in the flight were from wineries known for sourcing great Sonoma county Zinfandel fruit, Seghesio and Rosenblum. Meanwhile the middle man of the flight, Valdez, like the Carol Shelton of the last flight, uses fruit from the Florence Vineyard. The 2008 Seghesio Rockpile Zinfandel was very close in flavor profile to the Carol Shelton Zinfandel that was poured just before it, while exhibiting more restraint. There is a place for restraint in wine, even Zinfandel, but Rockpile isn’t it. A little too subdued for me. The 2005 Valdez Rockpile Zinfandel, had no such restraint. Its inky purple-black color showed no age whatsoever, but the alcohol was a touch out of balance. The 2006 Rosenblum Rockpile Zinfandel had all the fruit, and balanced alcohol, but there seemed to be a lack in the spice and acid components which made this wine slightly out of whack, thus three very good wines, each just missing that special something to put them over the top, and for me the hardest flight to pick a winner in.
2008 Seghesio Rockpile Zin $36 / ***+
2005 Valdez Rockpile Zin (Florence Vyd.) $35 / ***+
2006 Rosenblum Rockpile Zin (Rockpile Road Vyd.) $ 35 / ***+
If you like your wines intense, stock the Rock.
How I rate wines:
***** = Five Stars = Outstanding wines showing excellent balance, style and distinctive character. These are worth seeking out and purchasing as much as you can afford.
****+ = Four Stars plus = Half-way between Four and Five Stars.
**** = Four Stars = Excellent wines with enough character, finesse and balance to distinguish from the rest. Buy a few bottles, and you can thank me later.
***+ = Three Stars plus = Half-way between Three and Four stars
*** = Three Stars = Very Good wines, but lacking that certain something that makes them special. Buy a bottle or two or three.
**+ = Two Stars plus = Half-way between Two and Three stars
** = Two Stars = Good wine, but nothing exciting. Use it to round out the case for a discount.
*+ = One Star plus = Half-way between One star and Two stars.
* = One Star = Mediocre wines that are adequate to drink, but only if nothing else is available.
## = no stars = Seriously flawed wine.