Zinfandel, America’s Sweetheart
Carol Shelton Wines
California winemakers have always looked over their shoulders at what their European counterparts were doing. After all, wine making, wine drinking, and wine literature had at least a two thousand year history in Europe while Americans were still drinking water from streams. Well known and highly regarded winemaker Carol Shelton must also have thought a lot about European wine. Early in her career, she worked with Robert Mondavi and Andre Tchelistcheff, both giants in modern California wine history, and for both, European wine was the benchmark. But when she opened her own winery in 2000, Carol Shelton chose to feature Zinfandel, that all-American wine, a grape variety that is associated with California more than any other place in the world. If Zinfandel is grown elsewhere, it is largely because of its popularity in the United States. “A lot of the reason is because I didn’t have to match it to some European standard,” she says. “I can make it as fruit forward and California friendly as I like. I don’t care for a lot of European wines. A lot of them are too earthy, too lean. Winemakers don’t get them ripe enough over there. California can do them so much better, even the same variety that they’re using in Europe.”
Carol Shelton has won many awards and titles over the years, including being named the Bon Appétit/Tchelistcheff Winemaker of the Year in 1993, Jerry Mead’s Winemaker of the Year in 1996, and Dan Berger’s Winemaker of the Year in 1999. In 2005, the San Francisco Chronicle named Carol Shelton “Winemaker of the Year.” Her attitude toward Zinfandel and wine in general is indicative of the maturity and independence that California winemakers have achieved in the last 15 to 20 years. California wine has adapted to the American palate and to American habits, including drinking wine without food or with just appetizers. Even though Carol has traveled widely, her personal wine reference points are domestic. In upstate New York, where she was born, her parents drank Catawba, a slightly sweet version of a red hybrid grown mostly on the East Coast. The family moved to California when Carol was a teenager, and she was impressed by California wine. After visiting the Sebastiani tasting room in Sonoma, she decided to become a winemaker. Hers is an entirely American story as is her wine. I reprint our conversation here, slightly edited for clarity and space.
You’ve made every wine in the book. Why do you specialize in Zinfandel?
I’ve dealt with just about every variety that you can think of. I haven’t really done too much with Rhone varieties other than Petite Sirah, but I‘ve made many Cabernets, many Chardonnays, sparkling wine, Port, Sherry, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, French Colombard, Chenin Blanc, everything, and because of that I was able to narrow down to a favorite variety. I’ve also made every Zin you can imagine from pink to port and everything in between. I’ve made White Zin, actually one of the harder wines to get the color dialed in. I’ve made the lighter styles of Zinfandel, the Claret styles, all the way through to Zin Port. It’s the most transparent grape to terroir than any other varietal. My Rockpile Zin is not harvested from an old vineyard, but Rockpile Zin is extremely distinctive in its flavor profile. Rockpile tastes different that Dry Creek, which tastes different than Alexander Valley, and those from Sonoma County, Mendocino, or Napa, taste different from one another when you taste them all side by side, especially if they’re all made by the same person and not over oaked or over ripe. If the fruit is over ripe and over oaked, it might as well be Petite Sirah or Pinot. It doesn’t matter. They all taste the same.
So you’re focused on terroir and the different character that it contributes to each of your Zinfandels.
Yes, and my Zins come out with different styles as well. My Wild Things is creamy with big fruit, but it’s not sweet, and it’s not hot, and not much oak. It’s a nice easy-to-drink only slightly complex wine. And then you go to Monga Zin, which is from Rancho Cucamonga, 94 year-old vines, and it’s so dry-farmed [without irrigation] that it’s very concentrated, the polar opposite in style from Wild Things. It’s big, chewy, and spicy, mostly spicy with cardamom, cumin, and coriander.
So we’re defining style in terms of the different flavors that a particular wine can have?
Actually, it’s all of the above. It’s the aromatics, the flavors in the mouth, the mouth-feel, and the over all compatibility to food, how you use the wines. It’s the whole big picture, a holistic thing.
What about food? Zin can be over-powering. What kinds of food, generally, are most compatible with your wines?
Different wines are more compatible with different things, but Wild Thing is really compatible with grill and foods that are slightly smoky like chipotle seasoning or tomato sauces if they have enough bright acidity to stand up to tomatoes, which a lot of wines do not. But Monga, because of its interesting spice profile, excites chefs when they try it because it might suggest a new Moroccan dry rub that they want to try or a chimmy churry sauce, or whatever they come up with.
So you would be pairing Zinfandel with big and acidic flavors like tomatoes?
Not with most Zinfandel, but with my Zinfandel. Too many Zins are made in a sweet, flabby style with too much alcohol. If they’re flabby [without acid and tannins], they don’t go with acidic food, and high alcohol with spicy food makes the spiciness bite more. I have a really sensitive mouth, and I don’t do anything peppery.
What experiences were catalysts that eventually made you want to become a winemaker?
I was the youngest of four, and my mother saw that I liked to cook and putter around with her. On New Year’s we had a gaming night when the whole family played games together. There was one game with objects on a tray, all related to a theme like a baby shower with diaper pins and diapers and baby powder and all that stuff, and we were supposed to memorize them. Then my parents covered it up, and we tried to remember what was on the tray. My sister always won that. And then we’d have more physical games like pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, and my other sister won that. So what was I ever going to win? So my mother lined up all these little jars with herbs on a tray, each one wrapped with tin foil, and we had to try to guess what they were. I beat everybody at it because I had started to cook with my mother. Later in high school, I loved language of any kind. I’m a classic Gemini because I like both the arts and the sciences. I took Latin, French, Spanish, German. I love, love language. I thought about going to Middlebury College in Vermont and studying language. Robert Frost taught there. That was my ultimate dream at the time, but Robert Frost died while I was in high school, and that dream ended. We were in California, and my parents had paid for three college educations with very expensive out-of-state tuitions. They were tapped out. I got into Stanford and then the U.C. system, and my parents said, “Great, glad you got into Stanford. We can pay for two years of junior college and two years at Stanford, or you can go all four years to the University of California. So obviously, I went to U.C. While I was there, I was with my parents one weekend in Sonoma, and we went to Sebastiani Winery. I walked into their big cask cellar, which is pretty close to the tasting room, and the smell of red wine permeated with oak was just insane. So that was it. I looked into the career and thought, “I like using my nose, and winemaking is very creative science. I’ll do that.
Apparently, women winemakers are fewer than 10% in the business. Does that surprise you?
Not really. It depends on whether you’re talking about the people behind the wine or those who have the title of winemaker. Big difference. When I graduated from Davis, they wanted to stick all the women in the lab or in sales and marketing, because they didn’t believe that we could fit into the cellar, that we could do the heavy work load. I see a lot of women now still in labs, some in the cellar, a few in winemaking positions, and there are a few in winemaking positions that don’t do any winemaking because it was advantageous for the company to stick a person there, a figurehead, who was female. So it’s a very confusing situation. I have no idea how many real women winemakers there are. But in the wine business, it takes a long time to work your way up. You don’t just rush right out and get a winemaking job. But women are still fighting to be accepted.
How did you cope with the hard work? You’re small and delicate, not the stereotype of an out-door person.
I am a very outdoorsy person and not super delicate. I was raised with a lot of camping and stuff like that. My career started kind of sideways. I wasn’t actually in main line production cellars. I started doing small-lot research for Robert Mondavi, in fact a glorified home winemaker. I did about 200 batches of small-lot wines. It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s not hauling 200-pound hoses or pushing big pumps. So I did all my own work, but it didn’t require heavy equipment. We make 5000 cases here at the winery, but except for Wild Thing, which is 3000 cases, the rest are small lots.
California Wines of the Month
Carol Shelton Wines – 2008 Monga Zin, Lopez Vineyard, Cucamonga Valley
Winemaker Carol Shelton’s Notes
Monga Zin is made from grapes that were harvested from a 94 year-old organically farmed and certified vinyard in the Cucamonga Valley. We christened the Monga Zin as we stumbled while saying its appellation too many times, probably after having too much of this HUMNGOUS mouthful of fruit and rich milk chocolate. The fruit is dry farmed and very concentrated, with very bright pomegranate-wild cherry fruit, brown sugary-carmel oak, and fragrant Asian spices. The wine was aged for 12 months in 25% new American oak barrels and 75% older French and American oak (alcohol 14.7%, total acidity 0.60 gm/100ml, pH 3.53, brix 25.2, cases made 1768).
Anna Maria’s Notes
Apart from the intrinsic beauty of old vines and Carol Shelton’s deft winemaking, you can easily taste the spice in this wine. Carol says that because of the wine’s interesting spice profile, chefs get excited when they taste it because it goes with foods that might be otherwise difficult to pair with wine, like a Moroccan dry rub or a chimmy churry sauce. The Monga Zin may be on the high side of alcohol, but like all of Carol’s wines, fruit flavors are intense yet balanced with acid, tannin, and oak.
Carol Shelton Wines – 2010 Coquille Blanc, Paso Robles
Winemaker Carol Shelton’s Notes
We originally created the 2008 version of this wine for release in 2010 to celebrate our 10th anniversary as a winery. With the exotic complexity and food friendliness of a white Rhone-style blend, it is a “red drinker’s white,” a complex alternative to the more one-dimensional white varietal wines like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. French for “shellfish” or “scallop,” like the scallop shells on the Shelton family coat of arms, Coquille Blanc is the perfect complement to its namesake shellfish, as well as chicken or pork dishes with buttery-creamy sauces. A blend of 40% Grenache Blanc, 30% Roussane, 15% Marsanne, and 15% Viognier, the wine has an exotic nose of spicy pears and white peaches, almond paste/marzipan, and a touch of honeysuckle perfume. With many layers and a hard-to-describe range of aromatics, Coquille Blanc is intriguing and almost mysterious! Aged for 11 months in three year-old French barrels, the wine is crisply dry yet creamy in the mouth and round and full-bodied with nice almond paste on crisp yet juicy pear fruit (alcohol 13.4%, total acidity 0.58 gm/100ml, pH 3.44, brix 23.7, cases made 495).
Anna Maria’s Notes
This delicious white wine reflects a newer interest on the part of some California winemakers, who are at last turning their attention to white wines and to blending them in such a way that they deliver layered and complex flavors that please anyone who appreciates and enjoys wine. Serve chilled.Content here
Carol Shelton Wines – 2009 Rockpile Reserve Petite Sirah
Winemaker Carol Shelton’s Notes
Our Rockpile Reserve titles designate a series of elegant red wines from the Rockpile AVA (American Viticultural Area), 1000 to 2000 feet above Lake Sonoma and the Dry Creek Valley in NW Sonoma County. The Petite Sirah fruit was harvested from the Parks’ Rockpile Vineyard, one of the first vineyards to be planted in the AVA back in 1988. With 96% Petite Sirah plus 4% Zinfandel, the wine is not a “rip your face off” Petite but graciously styled though still full bodied and packed with black pepper and sweet oak. Aged for 25 months in one and two year-old French and American oak barrels, Rockpile Reserve Petite Sirah is passionate purple in color and shows lively black peppery spice on perfumey blue-blackberry fruit along with Japanese Plum (alcohol 15.5%, total acidity 0.62 gm/100ml, pH 3.69, brix 25.8, cases made 280).
Anna Maria’s Notes
Considering that Rockpile became an AVA a short time ago in 2002, it has attracted much attention for its unusual growing conditions and fine vineyards. Located in Northern Sonoma County, at the northwest corner of Dry Creek Valley, the Rockpile AVA is planted to under 200 acres at this time, mostly at an elevation around 1000 feet.
Poor soils, steep slopes, great sun without fog, and a lot of wind together stress the vines and produce intense fruit. If you don’t already know it, Rockpile is an AVA to remember. Petite Sirah is commonly added to Zinfandel because it adds a layer of spice to fruity Zinfandel. In this case, you’re getting a mouthful of pure spice. Serve at cool room temperature.
Carol Shelton Wines – 2006 Bacchus Laureate, Dry Creek Valley
Winemaker Carol Shelton’s Notes
The Bacchus Laureate celebrates my 30th Anniversary of getting my Bacchalaureate in Fermentation Science from University of California, Davis in 1978. I am happy to give tribute back to my professors by donating $2 of each bottle sold for the building and equipping of the new U.C.D. winery, which will be the dream of any enology student!
The wine is a blend of 88% Zinfandel, 4% Syrah, 3% Petite Sirah, 3% Carignane, and 2% Alicante Bouschet. Also a blend of vineyards, 54% of the fruit was harvested from Maple Vineyards, Dry Creek Valley 27% Florence Vineyard, Rockpile/Dry Creek, 15% Rue Vineyard, Russian River Valley, and 4% Exhale Syrah, Dry Creek Valley. Aged for 13 months if new and one year-old French and American oak barrels, the Bacchus Lauareate shows deep blackberry fruit and big spice plus black pepper, a touch of chocolate, and cola in the oak contribution. The wine is richly textured in the mouth with good structure for aging and a long black fruit finish (alcohol 14.75%, total acidity 0.68 gm/100ml, pH 3.63, brix 26, cases made 316).
Anna Maria’s Notes
The composition of this wine is reminiscent of the old field blends, different grapes planted in the same vineyard and harvested at the same time, each contributing particular flavors to the final wine. In other words, the wine was blended in the vineyard instead of the cellar. But the modern twist is that the Bacchus Laureate is controlled by Carol Shelton’s predictable and extraordinary skill instead of Mother Nature’s whimsical attention, which in a field blend may have ripened one grape and not another. In the Bacchus Laureate, each ingredient, whether the grape, its percentage of the whole wine, or the vineyard and its particular characteristics are all carefully calibrated for our enjoyment.
Menu of the Month
The pleasures of late summer, early fall
Crostini topped with a mix of dried and fresh mushrooms
Rabbit with Peperonata served with triangles of grilled polenta and par-boiled
broccolini drizzled with olive oil and served with lemon wedges
Baby arugula salad, dressed with olive oil and sea salt
Peach crisp served in dessert glasses
Recipe of the Month
Rabbit with Peperonata
Here in Northern California, organic, locally grown bell peppers are plentiful in the late summer and are as tasty as they are beautiful. The recipe below is adapted from The Silver Spoon and combines them with rabbit in a delicious meal for six.
1 carrot, chopped
1 fresh sage sprig, chopped
1 fresh rosemary sprig, chopped
1 rabbit, cut into pieces
5 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 red bell pepper, halved, seeded, and thickly sliced
1 green bell pepper, halved seeded, and thickly sliced
1 yellow bell pepper, halved, seeded, and thickly sliced
1 onion, thinly sliced
3 tomatoes, seeded and diced
Salt and pepper
Pour a puddle of olive oil into a heavy bottomed pan. Add the carrot, sage, and rosemary and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally for several minutes. Add the rabbit pieces; increase the heat to medium; and cook, turning frequently, for about ten minutes until browned. Then season with salt and pepper to taste. Mix the vinegar with 5 tablespoons of water, and add to the pan. Lower the heat, cover, and simmer for 45 minutes or until the rabbit is tender. Meanwhile, pour a few tablespoons of olive oil into the bottom of a skillet, and add the bell peppers and onion and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes. Add the tomatoes, lower the heat, cover and simmer until all the vegetables are softened and cooked through. Season with salt and pepper; transfer the bell pepper mixture to the pan of rabbit; and cook together for a few minutes more. Then serve.