Pick your Poison

By Celia Strong
Yikes!  Does that get your attention or what?  But, hang on, it will make sense as soon as we get to this week’s wine. For that we’re off to California’s Sonoma County, in particular, the Dry Creek Valley AVA.
This AVA is located in Sonoma County just northwest of the city of Healdsburg. It is a valley within a larger valley, the Dry Creek Valley being formed by Dry Creek.  Silly, but I for one never stretched my thinking to realize there was an actual dry creek out there.  It is actually a tributary of the Russian River. Dry Creek Valley is about sixteen miles long and two miles wide and close enough to the Lake Sonoma reservoir to use it for irrigation. And, as small as the valley is, all of it is not suitable for vineyards. Despite its small size, though, this AVA has a long history of grape growing and wine making.  Even as early as 1879, it was recognized as an area “especially adapted to grape culture.”
The 32 square miles that make up the AVA are very diverse in their soils, climates and elevations. The valley’s soils are called “patchwork” because pieces of different ones line up next to each other. Each soil, some with names like Yolo, Manzanita and Cortina, each give their own characteristics to the grapes that grow on them. The overall climate in Dry Creek is warm days and cool nights. During the day, though, different parts of the valley warm up at different times to different temperatures for different lengths of time. Every little variation can make grapes just different enough to change how they show in a wine. The elevations up and down the valley control drainage but also how much and how long the fogs from the San Francisco Bay, 70 miles away, cool and dampen the vineyards. The northern part of Dry Creek Valley is actually warmer than the southern part. That means different grapes do better in different areas. Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc all thrive here. And each of these varieties, depending on exactly where it grows in the tiny 32 square miles, can make big, bold wines or delicate, understated wines. Zinfandel typically makes a robust red wine with higher than normal alcohol levels. The flavors of its wines depends on the ripeness of the grapes. Cooler climate grapes make wines with red berry fruit flavors, particularly raspberry. Warmer growing conditions make wines with blackberry, anise and black pepper flavors. At the turn of the 20th century, Dry Creek Valley was one of the most prominent areas in California for Zinfandel.  I know we’ve talked before about the decline of most of California’s vineyards during Prohibition, but, since the resurgence of Zinfandel in the 1970’s, the Dry Creek AVA has become the state’s top producer of this red variety.
Zinfandel is genetically equivalent to the Croatian variety known as Crljenak and the Italian Primitivo. Going back about five thousand years, Croatian vineyards had several indigenous varieties that were relatives of today’s Zinfandel.  These grapes were the basis of Croatia’s wine business until phylloxera killed them all in the nineteenth century. In 2001, nine vines that had survived were found on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia. (Nine vines means about four bottles a year.) The first documented use of the name Primitivo appeared in an Italian government publication in the 1870’s.  Zinfandel came to the United States in the mid-19th century, possibly from the Imperial Nursery in Vienna, Austria. A horticulturist on Long Island received shipments of grapes between 1820 and 1829. It’s possible one of these vines was some “Black Zinfandel from Hungary.” Not really verified, but the name Zinfandel could be from the Hungarian version of the German “zierfandler,” a white grape. Zinfandel vines were grown with some success and promoted from Long Island up into New England for several years. Then, some of these growers brought the grape to California in the 1850’s.  And, that is our history lesson for today.
Our winery this week is Armida. Here, brothers Steve and Bruce Cousins have a small operation where they specialize in artisan wines. Since 1994, they have worked to make their wines from Dry Creek and Russian River locations, about ten in all. They make Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, as so much of the Russian River is known for, and Zinfandels from Dry Creek. Their winemaker is Brandon Lapides.  He studied at the University of California at Davis, then traveled to New Zealand for several months to work at Brancott Winery in Marlborough where he learned how to make good Sauvignon Blancs. Back in the United States, he was hired as assistant winemaker at Peachy Canyon in Paso Robles where he worked with Zinfandel. Great wines and many awards there brought him to the attention of Dan Goldfield at Dutton Goldfield in the Russian River.  Four years with these great Chards and Pinot Noirs honed his skills and his palate. Now, at Armida, his work continues with more wonderful wines. But, it’s not just about the wine at Armida. Fun is also essential! So, they have parties, and tastings, and a pond and a bocci ball court. And fun with their wines, including some of the names.
The name of our wine this week is the most fun. Poizin. This wine is a Zinfandel, but blended with a bit of Petite Sirah. Officially, that makes is a field blend (a mix of whatever is in the vineyard). This is a serious wine, just in a fun package with a fun name. The nose is fruit driven with fresh plums, bing cherries, spicy peppercorns and zinberry. The texture in your mouth is smooth with milk chocolate and sweet oak flavors on top of the fruits and spices and a long finish. This is a dark wine with a firm structure thanks to good tannins. As they say at Armida – “A wine to die for!  It will probably be the only Poizin you ever ask for and like to drink. At $12.99, you can Poizin yourself and friends all day long. Enjoy!

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