Trying To Pin Down an Apellation’s Flavors

What does the Dry Creek Valley taste like? Not an easy question to answer with anything other than “It depends…” Yet that was precisely the goal of a little get together on a cold rainy morning a few weeks ago in southern Sonoma County. Along with some famous local winemakers, a couple of journalists, and a couple of local restaurateurs and sommeliers, I had been invited to a most unusual wine tasting event. Over the course of four hours and nearly forty glasses of wine, our group of “experts” was tasked with trying to decide and describe the standard characteristics of Dry Creek Zinfandel.

On the face of it, this was a pretty interesting exercise, and a fairly useful question, at least for those who make or taste a lot of wine from Dry Creek Valley. We talk a lot about terroir in the wine world, and there’s a lot of hand waving and vague pronouncements like “you know it when you taste it” but at the end of the day there are very few agreed upon standards for what any given terroir tastes like. When the folks at Appellation America set up shop a few months ago with the goal of providing comprehensive resources about each of America’s specific winegrowing regions, it wasn’t long before they arrived at the question “so what does a typical wine from this place taste like?” The only way to decide, really, was to get a bunch of people together and figure it out.

So there we sat in the lovely little Gables Inn with forty different Zinfandels from Dry Creek Valley spread out blind in front of us, and only our palates to guide us.

I don’t know what I was expecting from this tasting. I’ve never attempted to do something like this. While I have a sense of what certain areas taste like based on my own history of tasting (Spring Mountain Cabernet or Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir, for instance) I’ve never sat around trying to document exactly what those flavors are nor to validate my rather intuitive sense with deliberate blind analysis of many wines side by side.

I don’t think, though, that I expected it to be as difficult as it was. While there were descriptors that I found myself writing down somewhat frequently (blackberries and blueberries, or white pepper and spices, for instance) they certainly were not dominant in anywhere near a majority of the wines. These 40 Zinfandels were all so….different, spanning the full range of Zinfandel flavor profiles, from spicy to fruity, red fruit to black fruit, light to thick and extracted. It was most certainly not possible after tasting all of them to say, “Oh yeah, Zinfandel from Dry Creek Valley tastes like this.

According to the winemakers present, we were all handicapped from the beginning by a tough vintage. The 2003 Zinfandel harvest in the Dry Creek Valley was apparently far from optimal, and therefore the wines we were tasting were not as “typical” as they might have been in a really solid vintage. But that begs the question: even in a very consistent vintage, how easy would it be to make generalizations about the elusive effects of terroir on a group of wines?

I’ve been involved in tastings that were able to isolate one contributing factor to a wine’s taste or character simply because the winery made lots of different wines. I was able to taste the same grapes from the same vineyard from the same year, one fermented in oak, the other in no oak. I was able to taste grapes from the same year, the same vineyard, and the same vinification, but some from vines that were 10 years old and some from vines that were 45 years old. And so on. It seems to me that this is the sort of controlled tasting that would be really necessary in order to determine what Dry Creek Zinfandel really tastes like. But the likelihood of convincing a bunch of vintners to pick, sort, vinify, and age some wine from a given vintage in exactly the same way seems pretty slim. And even then, would it make sense? Each wine needs to be treated on its own given the microclimate it comes from.

So I’m not sure I really know any better than I did before this tasting what Dry Creek Zinfandel really tastes like, but it certainly was an interesting exercise.