The latest releases of offbeat Zinfandel brands and varietals

Heritage Oak Winery owner/winemaker Tom Hoffman

Heritage Oak Winery owner/winemaker Tom Hoffman

Except for three strategically placed grape leaves, the depiction of the “hot babe” pin-up on the inaugural bottling of the 2012 Zin-Phomaniac Lodi Zinfandel (about $18) leaves little to the imagination.  And the back label makes no bones either:  The scantily clad bottle tempts you… remove the cork carefully, slowly, your desire building with every twist…

IMG_1628True-blue Lodi grown Zinfandel lovers might also be taken aback by the back label’s slightly self-deprecating, if shameless, wording:  Sure, it’s from Lodi… but Zin-Phomaniac is more than that… arousing aromas… bold and voluptuous mouth feel… long, satisfying climax….

The key to appreciating this aggressively packaged bottling – produced by OFFbeat Brands, based in Petaluma, CA – is to lighten up.  It could, after all, turn on many new wine lovers hither and yon to the joys of Lodi grown old vine Zinfandel; and as you would expect, the Zin-Phomaniac is unabashedly fruity in its undeniably come-hither appeal:  garbed in purplish red, and gushing in a sweet toned, raspberry/strawberry preserves aroma, manifested in soft yet sturdy, full bodied sensations (the label’s approximation is 14.9% alcohol – don’t buy this if you’re looking for a “light” red).

For further point of reference:  Zin-Phomaniac treads on grounds similar to other comparably priced Lodi Zinfandels, such as DFV Wines’ successful Brazin and Gnarly Head products.  It is a tad bigger and (dare we say?) bustier than Michael David’s ever-popular, distinctively spice signatured 7 Deadly Zins, as well as the laid-back yet fruit-forward style of Lodi Zinfandel put out by Cameron Hughes.

In stark contrast to the bells-and-whistles approach of Zin-phomaniac, teeny-tiny Lodi wine producer Michael Klouda is right about to release his second-ever bottling of Zinfandel, the 2012 Michael Klouda Broken Vine Lodi Zinfandel ($26).  Klouda’s back label proudly acknowledges longtime Lodi grape grower Bob Schulenburg, whose 62-year old west-side Lodi-Mokelumne River AVA vines are the source for Broken Vine.

IMG_1432Mr. Klouda – whose day-job is as a viticulturist for Michael David Winery’s Phillips Farms operation – produced only 95 cases of his 2012, but the important thing is that he (with the help of just one other buddy) cherry picked and macro-bin fermented the grapes all by his lonesome.  The epitome of “hand” crafting.

Working on this scale, Klouda can time things exactly:  he’s practically the first person in all of Lodi to pick his Zinfandel because he’s partial to lower sugars, which gives you lower levels of natural, uncut alcohol, and a zestier edge of acidity.  Giant producers all over California, on the other hand, routinely pick Zinfandel at higher sugars – erring on the side of “more flavor” – while routinely “re-hydrating” their fermenting wines with water in order to lower alcohol levels to reasonable levels (for Zinfandel, somewhere under 16%).

The lower sugar/natural alcohol formula works for Klouda because you get nuances that are otherwise lost under riper fruit qualities:  in the 2012 Broken Vine, you’ll find “grape pie” aromas – tinged with cinnamon, pepper and clove spices – followed by medium bodied yet meaty palate sensations, finishing with lush, plummy, pure and plump fruit qualities.  Oak notes are also subtle, giving the Broken Vine something of a “naked” taste.  It’s almost ironic that you get a sense of sensuality in the taste of Klouda’s Zinfandel, as opposed to a “scantily clad” girl on the label.

At Heritage Oak Winery‘s bucolic vineyard property, tucked along the banks of the Mokelumne River on the east side of Lodi, winemaker/owner Tom Hoffman is now pouring four different recently released 2011 Zinfandels, including one packaged in big red, blocky letters for a bolder retail shelf appearance:  the deep, sturdy, almost sinewy textured 2011 Heritage Oak ZINHEAD ($25), beefed up by the spice and muscle of 25% Petite Sirah in the blend.  There’s lots of varietal fruit; but if you lean towards a more musclebound, dryer (as opposed to soft-fruity) tasting Zinfandel, ZINHEAD is for you.

Schulenburg Vineyard Zinfandel

Schulenburg Vineyard Zinfandel

But as longtime Heritage Oak followers know, if you go directly to the winery you’ll find access to Mr. Hoffman’s single-vineyard bottlings, which tend to be finer and spicier.  The ZINHEAD, after all, is made more in a rambunctious style to appeal to a broader audience; whereas Mr. Hoffman’s true style fall more towards a refined, almost stubbornly understated elegance:  such as in the 2011 Heritage Oak Block 5 Lodi Zinfandel ($24), which is showing exceptionally well – typically restrained in structure, yet bursting from the block with sweetly focused raspberry jam qualities, nuanced in both the nose and palate with licorice/black pepper spices and a swirl of vanilla in zesty, upbeat, roasted coffee-toned flavors.


Michael Klouda

Now for something completely different:  Mr. Hoffman has come out with a new red wine made from Charbono (a.k.a. Bonarda, Douce Noir, Corbeau) – a black skinned grape which has a historic record of success in California, but is almost inexplicably underappreciated today.  Charbonos from the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, for instance, have long been appreciated by connoisseurs “in the know” for their rock-solid structures, gracious intensity, and amazing ability to mature and improve for multiple decades (in some cases, more impressively than the best California Cabernet Sauvignons).


In this grand but now little known tradition, the 2010 Heritage Oak Lodi Charbono ($28) will already wow you with its big (but not weighty), broad, blackberryish concentration, and its thick, toothsome yet fluid feel, framed by zingy acidity and a plentitude of muscular yet suave, well rounded tannins.  In that sense, very much a “manly” wine – appealing to men who like a pervasive sense of power in a red wine, and to women who can also appreciate that feel.  A hard man, as they often used to say, is good to find – and so is a great Charbono!


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