2005 Toucan Wines Zinfandel, Arroyo Grande, California

I find out about the wines I review here on Vinography in a lot of different ways. Most common are the large tastings that I attend regularly. I also try to go tasting in wine country whenever I can, making special efforts to stop by new wineries or those to which I’ve never been. Of course, I also get sent a lot of wine in the mail, from people known and unknown, and I do my share of reading wine magazines.

This particular wine, however, I discovered long before it was even harvested and bottled for the first time. One of the benefits (and curses, at times) of having the blog is that pretty much anyone can and does send me e-mail. About 2 years ago I started getting occasional thoughtful e-mails and comments on the blog from a guy named Doug Timewell. In the course of our exchanges, he shared with me that he was in the midst of making his first wine from his own recently planted vineyard, and I learned a little about the trials and tribulations of going from a bare patch of ground to a working Zinfandel vineyard.

I remember the glee with which Doug told me he was bottling the first vintage of Toucan Wines, and he asked if he could send me a sample of the wine. I couldn’t refuse, as I accept samples from anyone, but I was nervous, especially about the fact that I might not like the wine, and how disappointed Doug might be.

Well, I got the wine, and….I didn’t like it. It was clearly without faults, but it had a greenness and an edge to it that was not pleasant, and so I opted not to review it, and I told Doug why. It’s never fun to tell people you don’t like their wine, but I’ve gotten used to it by now. Call it an occupational hazard.

Well, another year passed and a new bottle arrived in the mail recently, and so I pulled it out and tasted the new vintage alongside a few other Zinfandel samples I had received and….shebang! — this one was a keeper.

That’s the great thing about wine that many inexperienced wine drinkers tend to forget. It’s always changing, both because every year is a new harvest, but also because people are constantly trying to make better wine. Weather changes, but so do techniques, approaches, knowledge, and the somewhat mysterious and unpredictable chemistry of the winemaking process itself. I learned long ago that to write off any winery based on one or two bottles, or even one or two vintages, is to potentially close yourself off from some excellent wine.

In Doug’s case, my suspicion is that his five year old vines were just a bit young for that first vintage, but with another year they’ve started to come into their own, and judging from this bottle, they’re only going to keep getting better. And they most certainly should, knowing where they came from.

Doug Timewell and his wife Terrie Leivers began their adventure as winemakers almost by accident, when they were made the (almost offhand) offer to take the few remaining unharvested grape clusters that they innocently asked about on a visit to a vineyard in 1992. On a whim, and no doubt to the surprise of the vineyard owner, they accepted the offer and that year they made a tiny lot of Zinfandel in two plastic cans in their garage. Affectionately called “Two Can Zinfandel,” it delighted them as only a first successful effort to make drinkable wine can, and they were hooked.

The next year Doug made Zinfandel from grapes obtained the normal way — through a regular contract with a grower, and within a couple of years he found himself preparing to plant a three-and-a-half acre parcel of land with vine rootstock.

There was no question that he would be planting Zinfandel, both because of his love for the grape, and because that seemed to be the appropriate variety for Arroyo Grande, where Doug and Terrie had make their home. The real question though, was which Zinfandel, and the answer to this question came from a bit of luck and a lot of persistence on Doug’s part.

Through various connections, Dough managed to get introduced to Benito Dusi, whose Dusi Vineyard, planted in 1923, contains what many feel to be the benchmark for old vine Zinfandel in the Paso Robles area. The friendship that Doug and Benito eventually forged would yield two priceless gems for Toucan Wines. The first was enough vine cuttings for Doug to graft onto his new rootstock, and the second was the invaluable and incredibly scarce knowledge about how to properly farm old-style head trained zinfandel vines.

Six years after their grafting, those cuttings have matured into healthy, hardy Zinfandel vines (with a little Petite Sirah mixed in, just like the old-style “mixed black” vineyards common at the turn of the century) and Doug has proved an able and talented student of Dusi’s experience. Toucan Wines now produces about 300 cases of Zinfandel, which is actually a field blend of 89% Zinfandel and about 11% Petite Sirah. Hand harvested and meticulously sorted to remove any damaged fruit, the wine is fermented in separate vineyard blocks with a cold soak and extended maceration for those lots which seem to need it. After an overly-gentle pressing in a traditional wooden basket press, the wine is placed into a mix of French, Hungarian, and American oak barrels, of which 70% are new. The wines are never fined or filtered.

With an occasional helping hand from Terrie, and a few friends at harvest, Doug shepherds every vintage from winter pruning to bottling. It’s fairly accurate to say that pretty much every single bottle is his personal handiwork, a fact which makes tiny boutique wineries such as Toucan so precious, and the wines, so often good.

Toucan Wines has come a long way from those initial two cans in a garage, and as far as I can tell, has a long and promising future ahead. It’s been fun to watch the birth of this vineyard, and it will be even more fun to watch it mature into something great.

Full disclosure: I received this wine as a press sample.

Tasting Notes:
Dark purple in the glass, this wine has a nose of rich black cherry and chocolate aromas, as if one had stepped into the middle of a confectionary. In the mouth the wine is smooth and silky on the tongue and offers a delicious mix of blackberry, cassis, and chocolate flavors that are made slightly more complex by light tannins that provide the friction to slow the wine down for an excellent finish. This is a classically styled Zinfandel that exemplifies what people love about the variety.

Food Pairing:
I tend to prefer my Zinfandels just on their own, but if I’m going to have them with food, I prefer them with cheese or with grilled meats of any kind. This wine would pair beautifully with these mustard coated grilled beef skewers (though I’d leave out the garlic for the best pairing).

Overall Score: 9

How Much?: $30

This wine is available for purchase on the internet.