In January, we attended the largest single-variety wine tasting in America: the ZAP Festival at Fort Mason. We sauntered through the pavilions, glass in hand, point-blank asking winemakers how old their "old-vine" Zins really were. As all investigative journalists do when slightly drunk, we began entertaining visions of a Pulitzer, hoping to discover that growers were passing off grapes from 10-year-old vines as if they were five times that age.
SFoodie wanted a scandal, but all we got were rumors of winemakers who were brazenly cheating, sourcing from vines just 30, 20, and even 15 years of age to make "old-vine" wines. When we pushed for names of the imposters (even promising not to report who had snitched) no one would sing, fearing repercussions. It reeked of scandal, of coverups, of high-stakes games in a billion-dollar industry ― but the bombshell never materialized.
Everyone assured us their wines were from valid old vines ― but what qualifies a vine to be called "old"? Mike Kuimelis, the owner of Mantra Wines, thinks 40 to 45 years is the minimum. In St. Helena, Robert Fanucci, who owns Charter Oak Winery and makes wine from grapes grown on centenarian vines, sets the bar higher. He thinks no one using vines less than a century old should be calling their wines "old."
Frankly, SFoodie can't taste the difference between an old-vine and a not-old-vine Zin, so we have to rely a winemaker's word. So when Glen Ellen states that its 2009 Old Vine Zinfandel Proprietor's Reserve is made from grapes grown on 120-year-old vines, we can only raise our eyebrows, puff out our cheeks, and say, "Wowsers." Happily, this proudly named specimen comes at a bargain rate of 10 bucks per 1.5-liter magnum. It tastes prominently of cherry, licorice, and blackberry, and it goes down smoothly, though it lacks the prominent tart and peppery notes we all love in a classic Zinfandel. One of us even noted after the first sip, "That's good," and looked at the bottle. "Glen Ellen?" he added. "Really?"
Glen Ellen 2009 Old Vine Zinfandel Proprietor's Reserve: $9.99/1.5 liters at Roxie Market and Deli, 500 Kirkham (at Ninth Ave.), 731-2874.