David Nakaji has some nerve.
One early morning Nakaji was checking a vineyard when he was confronted by a man in a bathrobe with a shovel. The man wanted to know what the h#@% Nakaji was doing in his vineyard.
Nakaji is the winemaker behind our wine-of-the-week winner — the Sebastiani, 2014 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel at $36. This is a gorgeous zinfandel with high-toned raspberry fruit and a hint of cranberry. It has notes of white pepper and toast, with a great oak treatment. The zin has impressive jammy fruit, with a brambly finish.
Nakaji’s regimen of checking vineyards early in the morning leads to some amazing results – even though he occasionally risks his life for the mission.
“The vineyard owner and I got quite a laugh when we figured out who each other was,” Nakaji said. “I had only met the vineyard manager at that point.”
Nakaji said the most challenging part of making zinfandel is pinpointing the pick.
“Hitting the ripeness window just right is tough,” he said. “Zin goes quickly from too green to raisins. Because the cluster doesn’t ripen evenly, it is more art than science getting it right.”
The winemaker said choosing the perfect grapes is one thing that happened behind the scenes to make this particular zin a standout.
“We sourced the grapes for this wine from a single vineyard in Dry Creek, which is the heart of California zin country,” Nakaji explained. “The picking is timed to hit phenolic ripeness. We want the tannins to soften, but we don’t want it to get too raisiny … I am trying to make a zinfandel that is ripe, but not too ripe. I like wines that pair well with food.”
Nakaji, 53, is the epitome of the professional student. He studied at UC Santa Barbara, graduating in 1986 with a bachelor’s in chemistry. He then studied at Yale, graduating in 1992 with a PhD in chemistry. Finally he studied at UC Davis, graduating in 2003 with a degree in viticulture and enology.
“The technical side of winemaking comes easy to me,” Nakaji said. “I don’t always enjoy the showman/cult of the winemaker side.”
What makes Nakaji a good fit to be a winemaker is passion, coupled with his technical prowess.
“Wine and food are a passion for me,” Nakaji said.
“I have a technical inclination as well. To make good wine consistently, it takes both.”
THIS WEEK’S BLIND TASTING
Siduri, 2015 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, 14.3% alcohol, $35. ★★★★
A juicy pinot noir weighted to red fruit, with notes of mushroom, mineral and pepper. Layered, with a silky texture. Nice length. What makes it a standout is its generous red fruit. Impressive.
Roger Roessler’s Day Ranch Vineyard, 2013 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir, 14.2%, $34. ★★★1/2: A pretty pinot noir with red fruit and notes of rose petal and spice. Bright and lively, with crisp acidity. Lingering finish.
Gloria Ferrer, 2013 Carneros, Sonoma Pinot Noir, 13.5%, $29. ★★★1/2: A supple pinot with bright red fruit, spice and crisp acidity. Great mouth-feel. A touch earthy. Lovely.
Marimar Estate, 2013 Cristina Don Miguel Vineyard, Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, 13.9%, $65. ★★★★: Aromas and flavors of red and black fruit, toast and a hint of clove. Bright acidity. Great balance. A savory pinot.
Porter Creek, 2014 Fiona Hill Vineyard, Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, 13.9% $46. ★★★1/2: A fleshy pinot with notes of berry, herb and pepper. Supple mouth-feel. Lingering finish. Balanced.