04 May 2009

Tasting with Fredric: Ridge Vertical

Note: I'm going to delay my usual Monday green winemaking post until Wednesday to post this vertical tasting recap. Bear in mind that the following Ridge roundup was written before I read Fredric's article. I think it would be educational for our mutual readers to digest our two views on the same tasting. Somewhere, a grad student is mulling over a thesis concept based on these two differential approaches. And if she's in her thirties and is available, let the record state that I'm the single one. I contribute the following post to the scientific community, and salute those lasses with glasses that know the difference between the actinide and lanthanide series.

I've been to a handful of private wine tastings hosted by dear friend and fellow blogger Fredric Koeppel. I normally don't write about these, because I assume he's going to write about the bottles at some point and I don't want to steal his thunder. However, on this particular occasion, and with his explicit permission, I feel compelled to put virtual pen to virtual paper...

When I wrote recently about visiting the Ridge Winery, I noted that "Ridge wines tend to age fairly well under less-than-ideal circumstances". This was based on enjoying a few bottles around ten years of age that had sat in closets or in the back corner of a wine shop, i.e. not in a climate controlled cellar. Fredric sent me an e-mail shortly after with a combination of a challenge and invitation: in the early 90s he'd purchased a six-bottle vertical of Ridge's Geyserville Zinfandels (1984-1989) that had bounced around various domiciles since then, and suggested a lunch meeting to pop them open and test my theory. Even if I had to print a retraction later, there was no way I could refuse.

When the day arrived, Fredric was in the middle of fixing lunch. I carefully opened the wines--old corks can be messy and delicate, and to my credit only two corks broke, but I managed to keep the debris out of the wine. One bottle had leaked slightly, but this had no negative impact on the wine inside.

We started out with an escarole and scallion salad, lightly tossed with a vinaigrette. To cleanse the palate and awaken the tongue, Fredric poured a German Riesling, the 2004 August Kesseler Lorcher Schlossberg Kabinett. Lovely little white with a firm pear and petrol aroma, and a rich pear and mineral flavor. The touch of sweetness played well against the bitter greens in the salad.

The main course was a dish of braised oxtails, using a recipe from the famed Lut├Ęce in Manhattan. This was deep, savory, and soul-stirringly delicious, but I kept getting distracted by the six glasses of wine arrayed in front of me, representing the ages of 7-13 in my own childhood. Those years really encapsulate the magic time between "too young to know what's going on" and "having to start shaving". A half dozen years full of riding bikes, digging holes in the backyard, and trying to make my little brother laugh during church, which inevitably got us both in trouble.

These wines were primarily Zinfandel with varying percentages of Petite Sirah and Carignane. We started with the 1989 and moved back in time, though all wines were tried several times over the course of the afternoon. Colors were fairly constant, with the brick/garnet of an older red wine.

1989 - Started out unpleasant, with a funky aroma that suggested a flaw. But with breathing, this established itself as a decent wine.

1988 - Probably a textbook case of California Zinfandel, properly aged. It had all of that great Zinfandel flavor and pepper, plum goodness, but with the mellowed tannins and delicate acidity of age.

1987 - My favorite of the tasting, and the bottle I took home with me. This one ended up with a fascinating Bordeaux character, full of green bell pepper, tobacco, leather... Very mild mouthfeel and a slightly tart finish.

1986 - It started with a peppery zing but mellowed into almost a Burgundy-like wonder with mild black cherry and strawberry austerity.

1985 - Lots of cherry, with full fruit flavors, and it got even better with time.

1984 - Sort of a tea and blackberry aroma, but this one was perhaps just past its time. It was the only one that I thought didn't get noticeably more interesting over the course of the tasting.

Since I'd actually walked in the fields were these grapes were grown, it was a special experience. And I don't often get to taste wines that are 20+ years old--it was fascinating to watch them open up and blossom over time, behaving in ways that no 2 year old current release ever could.

* * *

A couple of hours after the bottles were opened, Fredric and I were still sitting around, sipping the wines and swapping tales. He spoke fondly of spending time twenty years ago tasting incredible wines with "Big" John Grisanti, the late patriarch of a local Italian food dynasty. Big John would call him and they'd waste away an afternoon or evening with well-preserved treasures from California and beyond, oblivious to price or circumstance. Fredric got a certain twinkle in his eye that, I'd like to think, I've shown when discussing certain magical wine experiences with my friends.

As I sat there swirling wine that was harvested and vinified when I was still in elementary school, I realized I was benefiting from a generational return of favor. So to Fredric Koeppel, Mike Whitfield, my father, and the others who have helped shape my wine education and pull me out of the young, bargain wines, I thank you.

* * *

From "The Factory Song" by the band Seven Nations, I quote this stanza:

I share this cellar with five of my friends
When the big bell rings our day's at an end
We clear our throats from the dusty air
The machinery's din we always hear


Allen said...

Remember my son, Family, Friends and Wine all get better with age.

Benito said...

Re: Allen


Wisdom, dear father, wisdom.

The Wine Commonsewer said...

Tough to beat a Ridge Zin

Samantha Dugan said...

Okay Benito...I was going to write something about your post, (I also read Fredric's today) but remember the time you told me that my post about my neighbor was one of the most adorable things on the internet? Well, these two comments just trumped my Baletimes Cuckcakes..or gave it a serious run for its money!

I have to say it was so cool to read the two perspecitives but most of all I loved the picture of two passionate wine lovers spending an afternoon, drinking and sharing wine...really what it is all about right?

fredric koeppel said...

well, you scoundrel, you brought a tear to an eye this morning. thank you for a lovely account of our tasting/lunch and that mention of Big John. Wine needs to be shared, and share we did, and share is what Big John did. Another of my mentors was Shields Hood, also a generous soul. As I move on (ever so slowly it seems) with my "100 Wines: A Chronicle" series, I will be writing about these gentlemen, soon I hope.

Big Mike said...

I can't beleive as I sat here this morning reading your post that I was actually there the day you were born!! You are a fine young man. To mention I might have had a hand in something a special as you and your wine education is kinder than I deserve for sure. I too remember Big John and have been blessed to share a glass of wine with Fredric and Shields Hood as well. As your Dad and Fredric have said here wine is meant to be shared with friends and family. I have been blessed, by your father, to always have been treated as if I was a member of yours. thanks for the credit, however good students are very hard to find. Keep up the good work I always enjoy reading your thoughts and ideas.

Big Mike

Allen said...

Big Mike,
You had a wise statement many years ago. "It is not the year, region, selection of grapes that is the most important of part of enjoying wine, what is important is the people that you take time to drink with."

Thanks Mike for the many glasses and time together.

Ben, one your students, is doing well.