I'm not alone in owing my allegiance to zinfandel to things like old Ravenswood zin and David Darlington's book Angels' Visits. These days you might know Ravenswood as a ubiquitous brand on grocery store shelves across the U.S. Back in the day, Ravenswood was a small Somona producer of serious zinfandel, wine at the time considered "big" but downright subtle by today's alcohol and ripeness standards. I can relate to founder Joel Peterson, starting a winery with a day job and a passion or obsession with a certain vision for wine.
Nearly 20 years ago when I got into wine, I first read Angels' Visits, what was a new book at the time. Subtitled An Inquiry into the Mystery of Zinfandel, it was just that -- a journalist's inquiry into the story and appreciation of California zin. If you like wine and wine books, you might have found like I have that you can read a good book about wine, even wine you don't know about or care about, and both LOVE the book and find yourself compelled to seek out the wines mentioned therein. Good travel writing is similar. You read something and find yourself compelled to travel somewhere you would never have guessed. Happily, with wine that travel can be a lot simpler.
Angels' Visits is one of those books, and something that many wine lovers I know will easily suggest if asked about good wine books for a summer trip or just lounging around the house, preferably with a glass in hand. It's set in the late '80s, chronicling the '88 harvest at Ravenswood with lots of juxtaposition with Ridge winery down in the Santa Cruz mountains, another zinfandel legend.
There's also a great recounting of zin's mysterious history in California, somewhat out of date given more recent genetic study of zinfandel's origins but still worth knowing for the CA history and what zinfandel meant twenty and more years ago. There are visits to specific vineyards, like Old Hill and Dickerson, and California wine legends like Darryl Corti of Corti Brothers in Sacramento. There's dinner at Chez Panisse, reason enough to read anything in my mind. And there's homebrewed zin. The author Darlington contributed to my winemaking inspriation by making his own home zin with Ravenswood-sourced grapes as a narrative foil to the zins he observed in production all over northern California during the time he wrote the book.
One of the several threads in the book is the critical reception of the 1987 Ravenswood Zinfandel Dickerson Vineyard. Dickerson is one of the top sites for zin in California, interesting for being in Napa (cabernet country) where most top flight zinfandel comes from Ravenswood's home, Sonoma. Dickerson is known for producing wines with intense minty eucalyptus character, like the old Martha's vineyard in Napa, similarly surrounded by oily eucalyptus trees. Without being a spoiler, near the end of Angels' Visits we learn that Robert Parker of The Wine Advocate has awarded the '87 Ravenswood Dickerson 93 points, then an extremely high score (things have changed in that arena). The implication is that the Dickerson reputation is reaffirmed.
Fast forward to last year when I found a bottle of 1987 Ravenswood Dickerson Zinfandel at auction for a pittance. Why not buy and see if a premise in the book, supported by Parker's reviews at the time, was true - zinfandel could age and Ravenswood Dickerson zin especially could age, perhaps turning Bordeaux-like.
So with Thanksgiving dinner, the American holiday, a quintessential American wine opened alongside a cabernet-based Bordeaux, the 1994 Cos d'Estournel St. Estephe. The Cos was prototypical Medoc wine, gravelly cassis and bell peppery cabernet with resolving tannin, a good amount of French oak, but nice length and savor. I was really impressed with this wine, which is still young but drinking well. By contrast the 1987 Ravenswood Dickerson was evolved, still together and to my taste delicious but clearly on the far end of the evolutionary spectrum. Not tannic as the Wine Spectator apparently complained on release. Lots of eucalyptus notes that people seem to either love or hate (the former for me in this case). And sweet/savory dried red fruit flavors that went well with the earthy flavors of Thanksgiving dinner.
Before you dismiss the zinfandel as an overdone new world mess unfit for any dinner table, note the 13.8% alcohol on the label, back when that was high, justifying Ravenswood's now tired slogan "no wimpy wines." Whatever happened to 13% range zinfandel that can age and match with food, even decades into its life? There are a few still out there, but if you're like me, you're also trolling the auctions to find these lately unwanted gems. And thinking about pulling out Angels' Visits for yet another read. Like some wine, great books can get better with time.