Learn About Zinfandel with Katie Madigan

Katie Madigan and her fave wine, zinfandel
Katie Madigan and her fave wine, zinfandel

If you want to learn about zinfandel, or casually known as zin, you definitely want to talk to winemaker Katie Madigan, of St. Francis Winery & Vineyards. She’s in charge of the zinfandel program at the winery, where she’s been working from the ground up, you might say, since 2002.

“I started in 2002 as an intern,” she said, “working the harvest and one of my main jobs was sampling the vineyards for winemakers and getting accustomed to the land. So I sampled all the grapes and I updated the winemakers on the maturity level, and I just really became impassioned with working in vineyards, working in the winery. So then I went to UC Davis and finished my studies in enology/viticulture in 2005. St. Francis asked me to be assistant winemaker. I was Tom Mackie’s assistant for eight years and when he retired in 2011, he asked me to step in and be winemaker.”

Madigan, who also makes the winery’s chardonnay, called zin California’s signature grape.

History of Zin

“Zinfandel has a very complex history, first of all,” Madigan said. “I think we tend to see it as California’s grape varietal because it has been here since about – they think – 1830s is when they think it really came to California. We’re still working out the kinks on where we think the origin is. We think it’s Croatia. It could be Italy, as well. It’s very, very close, what the records say. But for me, zinfandel is a fresh variety. It has lots of fresh fruit, but also some pretty good spice. It should be a complex wine. It shouldn’t be too soft. It should be very enjoyable with or without food.

She added that zin can also show off where it’s grown by its flavor.

“It’s a very aromatic varietal, that’s what I love about it. It’s very representative of where it’s grown. So if it’s in a cool area, you’ll get more light red, raspberry. If it’s in a warmer area, you get more of that blackberry, blueberry aroma. And that’s very interesting,” she said.

Zinfandel styles and food

Now, some of us (like, say, Anne) have not been big fans of zinfandel because back in the 1990s, winemakers focused on a very, very fruity wines with lots of alcohol that tasted like jam in glass (and Anne firmly believes jam belongs on toast, instead). Madigan said that it seems like that style of zinfandel is going away.

“I hope that we’re going back. The zinfandel… What I call Old World zinfandel, does have a very distinct pepper spice note complexity. I think there was definitely a decade that saw a very soft, supple zinfandels and I’m hoping that what we’re seeing these days is kind of a fusion of both,” she said. “To me, the texture of the wine and the mouthfeel is what I find most fascinating. I’m like you. I’m hoping we’re seeing more complexity and length and spice on those wines.”

As for what to eat with zinfandel, Madigan is pretty open.

“Honestly, I do believe that zinfandel is one of those wines where I call it an all-weather wine,” she said. “Here in California, it’s our go-to barbecue wine. Anything that’s put on the barbecue is going to pair with zinfandel. But also, Thanksgiving. Usually the Thanksgiving feast pairs very well with it. I think it can transition from season to season. That’s what’s so great about it.”

The Dreaded White Zin

Alas, no discussion about zinfandel would be complete without talking about white zin – usually a sweet, medicine-like wine that was quite the fad some years ago. But for the fun of it, we asked Madigan if one could make a nice dry rose out of zin.

“We do one that’s for our wine club only,” Madigan said. “We only make 300 cases of it. And it’s a hundred percent zinfandel. It’s made in the Provence style. I think white zinfandel was a trend and it was a style of wine. Rose is also a style of wine, and I’m very inspired by Provence, and so even though it’s made of zinfandel, which is not traditional, it tastes very similar to what you’ll find in traditional French roses.”

And while that’s not everything you need to know about zinfandel, what’s left is tasting it yourself.

What’s your favorite zinfandel and why do you like it?



Dinner at Aventine Proves Matching Theory

The media table at the Vino California wine dinner at Aventine Hollywood. Yes, we're in there somewhere.
The media table at the Vino California wine dinner at Aventine Hollywood. Yes, we’re in there somewhere.

The thing about wine dinners is that they are generally pretty pricey affairs, and it’s understandable, since a lot of time and effort goes into planning the menus and matching the wines, plus the cost of the wines, since you’re generally drinking a different wine with each course. We were, fortunately, the guests at a recent dinner at restaurant Aventine Hollywood, as part of the Vino California Italian Wine Classic – a wine event featuring a grand tasting and dinners around Southern California, put on, in part, by the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce West.

The idea of the event is to introduce American audiences to Italian wines beyond Chianti and the other super-Tuscans. And trust us, just about every region of Italy has a trademark wine of its own, most of them very good, but rather hard to find here in the States.

As noted, such dinners are usually pretty pricey – ours would have been $60 a person, if we hadn’t been guests and that’s on the cheap end. We’ve seen prices as high as $200 per person, but most wine dinners run around $100 a head. The advantage of paying that kind of money is that you’re going to try a little of whatever is served. That means you’re going to get exposed to some stuff you might have been convinced you wouldn’t like and either find out that you were right or discover a new fave.

But what really struck us that night was how important the food was to the whole experience. Seriously. Italian wines, like French and other European wines, tend to not be as fruity as American wines do, and usually are a bit more acidic. Which means they’re not quite as tasty by themselves. They’re not meant to be. They’re meant to be consumed with food because that’s how most Europeans drink wine. It’s part of dinner. You drink Campari and soda before dinner or Pernod or some other aperitif. You save the wine for the meal.

We started with a Calabrian white, Statti Grece I.G.T., to go with our Arancini and Bruschetta. Now, it’s important to note that there’s only one wine here, but two different hors d’oeuvres, and each had a slightly different flavor profile. The Arancini were fried rice balls stuffed with fontina cheese and featured a bell pepper sauce for its major flavor. The Bruschetta used fried artichokes as its strong flavor, played off the milder flavors of a poached egg, a mild melted cheese sauce and the grilled bread. And yet, the same crisp white wine – reminded Mike very much of a sauvignon blanc – paired brilliantly off both.

There was a Apollonio Casa Vinicola Only Rosso Salento 2011, a blend of red grapes that showed a nose of cherry and spices but was more subtle in the mouth. The radicchio and arugula salad with a mild burata cheese and blood orange honey dressing still worked well, as did the tuna tartar, baby octopus and shrimp, frisée and lemon vinaigrette. Truth be told, the citrus and bitter greens elements were common to both salads, but the seafood was an additional bit of flavor.

Now, they did pour separate wines for the two entrees, a swordfish with eggplant and oregano white wine sauce, and lamb chops with kumquat confit and balsamic mint reduction. The rosé, yes the pink stuff, was a delicious Le Moire SRL Shemale Savuto 2011, but the Alovini Alvolo Aglianico Del Vulture 2008 was freaking amazing – and with the lamb… Anne was almost in tears. The rosé paired with the swordfish, the lamb AND the cannoli with candied orange and pistachios. Talk about spanning a range of food and flavors.

The first lesson, of course, is not to blow off a wine just because it seems a little bland and mildly acidic. Try it with some food. If that doesn’t help, then you’ve got a bland, insipid little wine and we hope you didn’t pay too much for it. But chances are, it might actually be a great food wine, the trick is finding the right food to go with it.

The second lesson is not to get too anal about matching the wine. Yes, a great food and wine pairing is worth a lot – that’s another reason prices tend to be so high for these kinds of dinners. But as we made a point of noting above, two of those wines perfectly accompanied slightly different flavor profiles. It’s about picking a balance and just having a good time with it.

Admittedly, there are those times when you want everything to be perfect and wonderful – an anniversary dinner, pleasing the boss, whatever. But the food and wine are only part of it. The rest is the company – and we have to say, the company at Aventine was spectacular. Lovely, lovely people and we hope to run across them again soon.

Celebrity Wine FAQ – Wallace Langham





Wallace Langham, Courtesy CBS

It’s really interesting how many people have questions about wine – even folks who don’t drink or can’t drink at all.

Take Wallace Langham, who plays lab tech Hodge on CSI.

“I stopped drinking wine,” he told Anne at a party at the TV Critics Press Tour.  “I stopped drinking altogether.   But I can think of one.   Ah.  Is it all right to drink rosé all year round?”

Langham was asking on behalf of his wife, who loves rosé.  We say you go, Mrs. Langham (assuming that’s your name).  Rosé is a great option all year long.  Admittedly, we’re not talking white zinfandel, which does have a tendency to be over sweet and medicinal.

A dry pink has some of the fruit of a red wine, but it’s also light and dry like most whites – a perfect summer compromise when you want something to stand up to a great grilled steak, but it’s too hot for a red.  And great in the winter when you want something to go with your scampi and spaghetti alfredo, but a red wine’s too much and a white wine just isn’t up to the heavy garlic and cream in the alfredo.

When a lot of us think of rosé, we think about the sugar-laden pinks of the past, such as Lancers and Mateus.  And, yes, white zinfandels.  Well, if that’s what you like, then drink with pride.  A good wine is the wine you like.  But do check out some of dry pinks that are becoming more and more available.  They’re often a real bargain, too, and definitely great all year round.

Don’t forget to submit your question for our Wine FAQ contest – Click here for more information!

Tablas Creek 2009 Rosé



Courtesy Tablas Creek Vineyards


Type: Dry rosé
Made with: Mourvedre, Grenache, Counoise
Plays well with: duck, figs, cheese, nuts and picnic fare.

Let’s be clear.  This is not a sweet wine.  Alas, US rosés, in particular, have that bad rep from the cheap box wines that were so popular in the 1960s and ’70s.  But this ain’t your daddy’s Lancers.  The Tablas Creek 2009 Rosé was pink, as in the color a fresh rosé should have. The nose was fruity with watermelon and strawberry, and the fruitiness continued into the taste, even though it is very dry without any residual sweetness. It also had that yummy, thirst-quenching cleansing effect on our palates.  Alcohol was a decent fourteen and half percent.

Keep in mind, we drank this at the Hospice du Rhone Rosé Lunch, along with about five other Tavels – rosés from the Tavel region of France, near the south of the Rhone Valley.  The Tablas Creek rosé stood out among the Tavels because it was more fruit forward.  But that’s the California style. And did we say it was dry?  It is.  Really.

You can find out more Tablas Creek Vineyard at their website, www.tablascreek.com.

Jason Haas – Tablas Creek Rosé Heaven

Jason Haas, of Tablas Creek and nice pink stuff

We’re having an insanely good lunch at the Hospice du Rhone on the last day of April – duck confit, goat cheese, roasted veggies (food was catered by The Girl and The Fig, of Sonoma, California), and it’s the rosé lunch, partly sponsored by the Synidcat de Tavel, where they make some of the world’s greatest dry rosés.  Every table had five Tavels to share.

So what does Jason Haas, general manager of Tablas Creek Winery, go around and do?  Plops down random bottles of the Tablas Creek 2009 rosé.  Thank you, Jason.  Was that good stuff!  And given that we had the best of an entire region to compare it to, it compared quite favorably.  We can’t say that any one of the wines was better than the others because they were all fabulous.

Anne then got out her trusty voice recorder and caught Haas sitting down for a chat about making rosé.  As he noted, it’s a pretty simple process.

One of the nice things about the rosés is that they’re very straight forward to make,” Haas said.  “You make your decision as to which lots you want to use. You bleed ’em off. You stick them in stainless steel and they’re done three weeks later.”

Well, actually, there are two ways to go.  Keeping in mind that most grape juice is white, red wines and rosés get their color from the grape skins.  Red wines are fermented with the grape skins and the juice.  Juice that becomes rosé sits on the skins for only a day or two.  Then, if that particular batch of wine is only going to be rosé, the grapes are pressed and the pink juice is made into wine.  Or, if the winemaker wants to punch up some of the fruit flavors in a more typical red wine, some of the juice is bled off after a day or two and either tossed (feh) or made into rosé.

So which way do they do it at Tablas Creek?

“It’s actually half and half,” Haas said.  “We have a section of the vineyard that we dedicate to making the rosé. We co-harvest and co-ferment about four rows of mourvedre, grenache and counoise. And use that as the base of the rosé. It’s actually our original nursery block that we planted to get more vines to plant the rest of the vineyard. So that’s the base of the rosé, and then we supplement that with mourvedre and grenache saignées from other lots of the vineyard. [Saignées are]bleed offs from the fermentation.”


The bleeding off, however, is not about the reds, Haas said, “Because we really like rosé. It would honestly make our lives a lot easier if we didn’t have to do it. But we love the rosé so much that we always scour the cellar for lots that we feel like we can bleed a little bit of wine off without making them too intense.”


The result was yummy.  Stay tuned for tasting notes to come.

Consensio 2008 Rosé “Harmony”

Type: Dry rosé
Made with: Syrah and Grenache
Plays well with: Seafood, salmon, chicken, pork, it’s rose – anything goes!

This rosé is so spectacular that you can’t help feeling a little smug when folks who supposedly “know” sneer that they don’t drink rosé. Good. More for us.

Bone dry, it’s made up of sixty percent syrah and forty percent grenache with a scant .02 percent residual sugar. You won’t taste even the slightest hint of sweetness.

The salmon color is typical of a rosé from the French region of Provence. The nose is full of guava and watermelon – promising fruit but not sweet. The resulting mouthfeel is dry – very dry. The fruit is there in the middle palate, along with good acids and a modest alcohol which we remember being in the twelve and a half percent range.

Food is the only way to serve this wine. We think that, while it is a good gulper, the addition of a seafood salad, light chicken or pork dish simply prepared or a risotto full of spring or summer vegetables completes the wine and makes for a lovely meal experience that the San Francisco Chronicle wine judges could only wish for.

Chateau d’Aqueria 2007 Rose Tavel

The good folks at Blackwell’s wines and spririts were featuring Chateau d’Aqueria 2007 Tavel when we wandered in there a couple months ago. The winery is one of the oldest in the Tavel region of France’s southern Rhone region (French wines being labeled after where they’re grown and made rather than by the grapes in them, with each region using basically the same grapes to make the wine, anyway, so a Bordeaux is always going to have cabernet sauvignon and merlot in it, no matter who in Bordeaux made it). Tavel is best known here in the States – when you can find it – for its dry rosés.

We at OBG love well-made rosé. We love drinking it and we love making it. Rosé, when made dry, is a fun wine full of fruit and ready to drink with all kinds of foods, from ham to cheese to more strongly-flavored fish to just about anything too strong for a white, but not heavy enough to compete with a red.

Modern commercial winemakers will sometimes bleed off some of the freshly crushed juice of red wine grapes to concentrate the color, aroma and flavors in the remaining skins and juice. But good winemakers would never dump the stuff they bled off. Good winemakers use it to make rosé – fermenting it until it’s nice and dry and crisp.

The label on the Chateau d’Aqueria Tavel just listed the blend of grapes that went into it: Grenache, Clairette, Cinsault, Mourvedre and Borboulenc, but alas, not what percentage of which. That the grapes are listed on the label at all is in consideration of the U.S. market.

The blackberry nose and other red fruits opened up to some spiciness in the mouth and a light mouthfeel that cleansed the palate with nice, dry tanins.

Three things you need to know about rosés. The first is that they are meant to be drunk young and are not to cellared. The 2007 Tavel seems to be doing well. The second thing is that many roses are small productions and supplies can be limited. The final thing you need to know is that Blackwell’s was selling the Tavel for twelve dollars and we figure it probably didn’t last at that price. That being said, the folks there are so great, we’re sure they’ll find something just as good at just as good a price.

Coral Mustang 2006 Tempranillo Rosé

When you’re ready to drink this rosé, pull it from the fridge about half an hour to an hour before you drink it.  You want it chilled, but not too cold or you’ll miss all the lovely complexities in the wine.

It’s light in color with a strawberry nose.  There are none of the herbs, leather or smoke that you normally associate with tempranillo.  That’s because those elements, along with the color, come from the skins of the grapes.  Red wines are red because they are initially fermented after the whole grape berry has been crushed to release some of the juice, but before that juice is pressed out of the grape. Roses are usually made from juice that’s been in contact with the grape skins for a short time before being bled off a larger red wine batch or pressed out of the skins.

Whe you taste the Coral Mustang rose, you should get dry lighter fruit with some acidity to cleanse the palate. Modest in alcohol, it’s an excellent summer sipper on its own or a best friend to a salad of any kind. This was one of the first Roses we tried and it still stands out as one of the best against French, Spanish and our own home made.

Yosemite View 2007 California Caprice Rose

Yosemite View is Mariposa Wine Company’s “value” line, but it is a significant value, especially the 2007 Caprice Rose.

Roses are often blends and it’s not unusual to sip one and wonder what went into it.  Fortunately, we didn’t have to wonder with the Caprice Rose, an exceptional wine, let alone rose.
The blend of juices is 30 percent cinsault, 60 percent zinfandel and 10 percent pinot grigio. which is different to be sure. Take away the cinsault’s structure and the pinot grigio’s acidity and you’re left with the usual syrupy sweet white zinfandel. But put together with some consideration, the result is a real treat of a wine.
Since roses almost never have any exposure to oak or long term storage, there should be nothing between your nose and the fruit.  The nose on the Yosemite View is a lovely combination of strawberry and passionfruit.
The first taste was a surprise and Mike took another right away to make sure he wasn’t missing something. The surprise was the balance of acids to tannins to what sweetness there was in the wine. No one component stood out but all were there. As a home winemaker, this is the rose that Mike wants to make for himself.
Needless to say, the Caprice is a terrific food wine for cool, summer salads or a nice ham sandwich or even hot dogs off the grill. The alcohol is a modest 11.9 percent. That means even the alcohol doesn’t get in the way of a second glass after dinner in the park on a summer’s night.