June 21, 2007
Zinfandel Marks End of an Era

The first day of summer is an odd time to write of zinfandel. It's a fall and winter wine, best left corked until the end of daylight savings time. But burgers were on the grill last night and I had a hunch that a zinfandel would be just the match for the richness of the meat and the sweetness and spice of the sauce I'd whipped up.

The wine was the Stevenot Winery 2005 Calaveras County Block No. 23/7 Gran Reserva Zinfandel ($45), which is just about to be formally released. That's a mouthful of a name for a mouthful of a wine, a lush zinfandel packed with fresh ripe boysenberries, oak and spice. It's complex aromatics and flavor never faltered throughout the meal. It's high in alcohol - 15.5 percent - but tastes neither hot nor harsh. The tannins also are rigid, but they weren't obvious until after the burger was gone.

Overall, the flavor was bittersweet, but in an emotional rather than aesthetic sense. That particular zinfandel marks the end of an era. A few days ago, Chuck Hovey called to say that as of July 6 he'd be resigning as Stevenot's winemaker after 24 years in the position. He'll be taking a sabbatical and then plans to stay in Murphys as a consulting winemaker. A winemaker admired for his integrity, dedication and skills - and remarkably humble for all the praise he's drawn - he'll be in demand. For more than two decades he was the guy responsible for making Stevenot one of the more reliable brands to come out of the Sierra foothills. You could walk into a store or scan a restaurant wine list and if you chose a Stevenot wine you could be assured you were getting a varietal or blend true to form, balanced, refreshing and of high value.

About a year and a half ago, Barden Stevenot sold the vineyards and winery he founded on a century-old cattle ranch just outside Murphys in 1974, thereby helping launch the modern Calaveras County wine industry. Jack Munari and his son Al, members of a farming family in San Luis Obispo County, bought the property and have retained the Stevenot label while recently introducing a new brand, Red Rover. A new winemaker has been hired but his or her identity hasn't yet been released.

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