Zinfandels from the Russian River Valley are less Lady Gaga-like; they’re not trying to be flamboyant.
These tame zins actually surprise the uninitiated with their restraint, according to Mike Officer. The vintner is behind our wine-of-the-week winner — the Carlisle, 2015 Papera Ranch, Russian River Valley Zinfandel at $47.
While the Papera has generous fruit, the accent is definitely on balance with this zin. It’s buoyed with bright acidity and that brings out the tangy flavors of the red fruit — currant and raspberry. It has great bones — structure — and nice length.
“The acidity provides structure to the wine, allowing it to age and develop in the bottle, and keeps the wine from becoming heavy and cloying on the palate,” he said.
Officer, 55, is a fan of zinfandel, this varietal that America was quick to adopt. The grape varietal was introduced to California in the 1850s during the Gold Rush.
“I love zinfandel’s history and how even though it originated in Croatia, it became California’s own,” Officer said. “Pretty much all other varieties have a benchmark rooted in the Old World. Cabernet sauvignon has Bordeaux. Chardonnay has Burgundy. Syrah has The Rhone. Not so with zinfandel. California IS the benchmark!”
The magic of wine bewitched Officer when he was 18. That’s when his oldest sister had a dinner party and offered him a glass. He initially refused, but then she asked him if he had ever tasted good wine. Soon she uncorked a ’76 Chateau St. Jean Late Harvest Riesling.
“I was stunned,” Officer said. “It was ambrosia! By the end of that evening I was sipping Freemark Abbey and Trefethen cabernet sauvignons, completely amazed that two wines made from the same grape could taste so different.”
Officer graduated with a degree in mathematics from Pomona College in Claremont in 1984. He began his career as a software developer in investment technology but after three years, the wine geek realized he wanted to craft wine for a living.
“I began home winemaking, first in West Los Angeles at a friend’s house and then later in my kitchen in San Francisco,” he said.
Officer and his wife Kendall lived in the Marina and they survived the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. Endeavoring to find more stable ground, they moved to Sonoma County in 1991. They launched Carlisle Winery & Vineyards in 1998, focusing on old-vine vineyards and Rhône varieties.
“Today we keep our sights purely on making the best wine possible,” Officer said. “We figure if we do that then hopefully there are enough wine drinkers in this country that share our tastes and will want to buy it. It’s a very naïve ‘if we make it they will come’ approach but at 9,000 cases, we’re small enough to get away with it.”
THIS WEEK’S BLIND TASTING
Carlisle, 2015 Papera Ranch, Russian River Valley Zinfandel, 15% alcohol, $47. ★★★★
While the Papera has generous fruit, the accent is definitely on balance with this zin. It’s buoyed with bright acidity, and that brings out the tangy flavors of the red fruit –– currant and raspberry. This zin is intense, yet balanced. It has great bones –– structure –– and nice length. Impressive.
Neyen, 2012 Colchagua Valley, Chile Red Blend, 13.5%, $40. ★★★1/2: This is a gutsy red with notes of currant, cherry and sandalwood. It has crisp acid and an undercurrent of spice. Nice length.
The Larsen Projekt, 2016 North Coast Grenache, 15.5%, $30. ★★★★: A pretty grenache with notes of blackberry, raspberry, mineral and spice. This is a refreshing quaff with tangy fruit and bright acid. Well crafted.
Lang & Reed, 2014 Napa Valley Cabernet Franc, 14.5%, $48. ★★★★: A savory cab franc with aromas and flavors of raspberry, blueberry, violet and herbs. This wine is layered, with an underpinning of bright acid. A lovely take on cab franc.
Trefethen, 2014 Oak Knoll District Napa Valley Merlot, 14.1%, $40. ★★★★: A complex merlot with a range of flavors — plum, cherry, mushroom and spicy black pepper. Ripe tannins. Generous fruit. Supple texture. Lingering finish.