As a journalist, I’ve grown used to both makers of Amador County wines and lovers of Amador County wines announcing with a wry, slightly proud grin: “Well, we’re not Napa County.” But I’ve also discovered there’s another stretch of California vineyards where residents and sommeliers wink at visitors with the same reassuring mantra, those being the tasting rooms of Napa’s sister county to the west, Sonoma.
And that connection between two of the major “not Napa” vino producing regions may get a little tighter now that a longtime Sonoma County winemaking family has launched an amazing zinfandel made from Amador County grapes. The zin’s decidedly a hit in both counties.
I know some hardcore Amador wine devotees typically place Napa and Sonoma counties together in the pantheon of overprized pretentiousness. However, in the southern slopes of Sonoma, just above the mega-mansion vintner estates trying to copy Napa’s overkill, you come to a Sonoma hideaway known as the Kenwood-Glen Ellen region, which has a downhome, easy-going feel reminiscent of Amador’s tasting rooms from Latrobe Road to Sutter Ridge. One of the most fun places to go wine drinking in the Kenwood-Glen Ellen zone is Deerfield Ranch Winery, which has an elaborate underground cave and specializes in organic Syrahs and Pino Noirs that are extremely low on sulfites and carry almost no histamines. Deerfield Ranch’s Glass House Pino Noir is especially exceptional, a rare mix of cranberry with gleaming balance and smooth grape signatures. The absence of histamines in Deerfield Ranch’s reds means you can glug several glasses of the Pino Noir without having to worry about a headache.
Another enjoyable stop in the Kenwood-Glen Ellen area is Muscardini, a Tuscan-influenced operation churning out bold, flavorful Sangiovese and clear grappa that hits the face like nitroglycerin.
Just south of the Kenwood-Glen Ellen Valley are the grades of Sonoma County that were first planted with vineyards in 1856. The man who planted those pioneering vines was Hungarian immigrant Agoston Haraszthy. Today, Haraszthy’s great-great-grandson, Vallejo Haraszthy, is still the owner of Haraszthy Family Cellars in Sonoma. The grapes for Haraszthy’s 2013 zinfandel are grown in northern Amador County and then cellared and bottled in Sonoma County. It’s become a mainstay bottle to grab at Petaluma’s sizzling, cloud-pluming barbecue and smoke house, Lombardi’s. It’s also getting pulled off the shelves of Wine Source locations across the Sacramento region, as well as gaining numerous fans in the county of its grapes’ origin.
In March, I hosted a barbecued tri tip dinner party. A lot of rare beef came off the grill and even more red wine flowed into glasses. Someone had grabbed a bottle of Haraszthy Family Cellars’ zinfandel for the event, simply because of the unique sketch of a bear picking grapes on its label. It reminded that person a little of John Johannsen’s artwork. Yet as soon as the cork popped out, it instantly became clear there was a lot more to this wine than eye-catching bottle art.
Haraszthy’s zinfandel strikes the palate with a tinge of tart watermelon, a little brown sugar followed by a sweet-and-sour slide of dark nectar notes. With each bottle coming in at 14.8 percent alcohol, Haraszthy’s Amador offering packs more of a punch than almost anything out of the Shenandoah, with the exception of Dobra Zemlja.
At the end of the party, guests unofficially voted the Haraszthy their favorite wine of the night. Right now, most people I know simply call it “the new bear wine.” Yet if the Haraszthy family continues to take its generational knowledge with these Amador grapes to the next level, that time-tested Hungarian name will get a lot more familiar on the lips of Mother Lode wine drinkers.
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