April 11, 2008
Last Night's Wine

Maybe it's going through a funky stage, I thought. "Is it a merlot?" asked my wife, who prefers to taste wines blind, then speculate on varietal and the like, almost invariably being spot on. We were off to an uncertain start with a wine that shouldn't be at all ambiguous, being a new zinfandel out of Amador County.

What's more, it was made by some of the more inventive characters in the wine trade, the guys of Rebel Wine Co. in Napa Valley, responsible for the Three Thieves and Bandit lines of value varietals. I'm a fan of their generally environmentally sensitive packaging, their bargain-oriented marketing, their unpretentious attitude, and their direct winemaking.

But their latest project, the Wingnut 2005 Amador County Zinfandel ($13), was leaving me baffled. It was coming off as if growers in Amador County had sent their grapes to a finishing school in Napa Valley. There, the usually swashbuckling attitude of Amador County zinfandel got wrung out of the fruit and replaced with a kind of politeness that while appropriate in some circles isn't customarily expected at a table where Amador County zinfandel is poured. With its typical brashness, Amador County zinfandel can be counted on to stimulate the really interesting dinner topics of religion, politics and sex, but this interpretation is too well-mannered for that. It's cleanly made, all right, with modulated fresh fruit flavors and a readily accessible texture, but it isn't going to interrupt any conversations with its authority.

Nonetheless, I look forward to trying another bottle. Maybe with a little time it will bloom with more color and drama. I do like the pricing, and even more I like the back story. The principals of Rebel Wine Co. recruited student designers at the Portfolio Center, a communication-arts school in Atlanta, to create the packaging. The striking label, by Dave Whitling, who won a scholarship for his efforts, captures the "loopy, weird, oddball" way the Rebels see themselves and the attitude they want to represent in a wine called Wingnut. Another Portfolio Center designer, Rachel Strubinger, came up with the notion of stamping the cork in each bottle with a bit of unconventional wisdom. Ours said: "It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things," attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. I like the sentiment, but I think the Rebels may have missed another novel marketing twist by not putting the wine in bottles with wingnut screwcaps.

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