Well lucky, lucky me. After I posted my “Rock Me Baby” blog piece in August 2010, I sent a link to it to Gary Branham, Clay Mauritson and Carol Shelton among others. Clay sent me an invitation to attend the ‘Rockpile Rocks at Rock Wall’ event that September. Most of the wineries that use Rockpile grown grapes were there, along with several growers. There are no wineries actually in the Rockpile AVA. Those wineries that use Rockpile grapes either contract with growers or own vineyard property within the appellation.
I arrived at the Rock Wall winery in Alameda a little early, so I was graciously invited to sit with Shauna Rosenblum, Chelsea Blackburn and the rest of the Rock Wall crew as they finished their lunch, and then walked into the tasting. Well, first I was humbled. Charles Olken, of the Connoisseurs’ Guide to California Wine was there. I had met Charlie before, many years ago. He then introduced me to Steve Heimoff of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Okay, now I feel like a small fish in the big sea of wine writers. These are two guys that know what they are doing.
There were tables laid out in a horseshoe pattern, with one winery per table, so I decided to just make my way around. The first table was Seghesio where Ted Seghesio was pouring three vintages of Seghesio Rockpile Zinfandel; 2005, 2007 and 2009, the latter being a barrel sample. The second table is J. C. Cellars where Jeff Cohn was pouring two vintages each of his Haley’s Vineyard Syrah and Buffalo Hill Syrah. The third table has Gary Branham pouring the Branham Rockpile Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Senal, a blend of Zinfandel, Cabernet, Petite Sirah and Syrah. Next was Paradise Ridge with a three year vertical of Zinfandel and a three year vertical of Cabernet, along with the afternoon’s only Merlot. I can’t get to the next table yet, as videographers are talking to the father and daughter winemaking team behind Rock Wall, Kent and Shauna Rosenblum. So, I mosey on over to the table that invited me, Mauritson, where Clay Mauritson is pouring the Rockpile Ridge and Cemetery Zinfandels, the Buck Pasture red blend, a Malbec, and a Petite Sirah. Next is the Carol Shelton table where Mitch Mackenzie and Carol Shelton are hosting a ten year vertical of Rockpile Zinfandels, with a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Petite Sirah for good measure. Finally, the host table is vacant enough to try the Rock Wall wines that start with a Chardonnay?! Actually, the Chardonnay isn’t from Rockpile, but Rock Wall is offering it as a palate cleanser and because their only Rockpile wine is barrel samples of their 2009 Zinfandel.
After tasting these wines and talking with the winemakers, I have discovered a few things. Although there are 15,000 acres of land in the Rockpile AVA, only 160 to 170 are planted to grapes. Furthermore, there are only about 50 more acres that can be planted to grapes. The rest isn’t rocky soil, it’s just plain solid rock, or it’s on such a steep slope, you would have to be a mountain goat to tend the grapes. This rocky soil expresses itself in all of the wines made from Rockpile grapes as a mineral flavor that to me is akin to graphite, though I also heard it defined as slate. Whatever it is, it is inescapable and distinctive.
All of Rockpile is at 800 feet or higher, up to 2,100 feet. This means all the vineyards stay above the fog level due to an inversion layer created by nearby Lake Sonoma. You would think that the lack of fog would make Rockpile hotter than nearby Dry Creek, when in fact the opposite is true. The daytime highs are actually 10 to 15 degrees cooler than the Dry Creek valley floor during the growing season due to the 10 to 15 mile-per-hour gusts of wind coming off of the Pacific Ocean. These winds reduce grape size, and create looser grape bunches. The looser grape bunches mean less rot and more even ripening, which is especially important in Zinfandel. The reduced grape size leads to greater skin to juice ratios which means the potential for greater flavor extraction, as well as greater tannin extraction. These tannins give the wines a huge aging potential, and loads of complexity. They can also be rather astringent, especially in wines made from grapes with a lot of tannin anyway. It’s going to tale a long time for the tannins to resolve themselves in most of the Cabernet Sauvignons I tasted, and it may be decades before the Petite Verdot and Petite Sirah wines are fully ready.
There are no old vines in Rockpile, unless you consider teenagers as old. The oldest vineyards in Rockpile were planted in the early nineties by Cathy and Rod Park. The Mauritson family has owned land in Rockpile for generations, but did plant any of the current vineyards there until the late 1990’s. However, most of the Zinfandels I tasted had many characteristics of classic old vine Zins. I believe this is due to the more even ripening, and the fact that the vines are stressed by their surroundings from day one.
Rockpile became designated as an AVA (American Viticultural Area) in 2002. Apparently, there was a delay in the approval of the designation, because the agency that reviews these designation requests thought that the name ‘Rockpile’ was a joke. The AVA got its first major press when the 2003 Rosenblum Rockpile Road Zinfandel, was named one of the top 10 wines of the year by Wine Spectator.
After I concluded the general tasting, there was a session comparing Rockpile Zinfandels of the same vintage by different wineries. The first flight consisted of 2001 and 2002 Carol Shelton and 2001 and 2002 Mauritson Rockpile Ridge. Carol Shelton explained that they have used the same grape source (the vineyard owned by Jack Florence Sr.) for all their Rockpile Zinfandels, but what they call that vineyard has changed. Clay Mauritson added that for this part of the tasting; only Rockpile Ridge was used. I found the 2001 Carol Shelton with soft tannins supporting a blackberry and fig fruit flavor, while the 2001 Mauritson was still firm, and showed more of the characteristic graphite minerality. The 2002 Carol Shelton was plumy, fruit forward and showed great balance, while the 2002 Mauritson was more intense, not as fruit laden, but still very well balanced. I commented that I wish all eight and nine year old Zinfandels showed this much fruit, structure and balance.
2001 Carol Shelton Rocky Reserve Zinfandel $?/ ***+
2001 Mauritson Rockpile Ridge Zinfandel $? / ***+
2002 Carol Shelton Rocky Reserve Zinfandel $? / ****
2002 Mauritson Rockpile Ridge Zinfandel $? / ****+
For the next three flights, there were four Rockpile Zinfandels, each from a different producer: Carol Shelton, Seghesio, Mauritson (Rockpile Ridge offering) and Paradise Ridge. The second flight was 2005. The Carol Shelton was the softest and most balanced, and showed an earthy, mushroom-like undercurrent. The Seghesio was focused and showed the most of the graphite minerality. The Mauritson was the most intense with the blackberry fruit just beginning to peek through the tannins. The Paradise Ridge was the most blackberry flavored of the lot, and had a flavor of black tea as well..
2005 Carol Shelton Rocky Reserve Zinfandel $? / ****+
2005 Seghesio Rockpile Zinfandel $? / ****
2005 Mauritson Rockpile Ridge Zinfandel $? / ****+
2005 Paradise Ridge Rockpile Zinfandel $? / ****
The next flight was my favorite, 2007. I have come to the conclusion that you would have to try awfully hard to make bad wine out of 2007 Rockpile Zinfandel grapes. The Carol Shelton was perfect. Beautifully balanced, with loads of bright berry fruit, enough of the characteristic graphite minerality to know that it was Rockpile, and enough tannin to be confident that it will last seven to ten more years, and still be delicious. The Seghesio was redolent of mixed berries, and of course the inescapable minerality. The Paradise Ridge has that ultra-blackberry fruit flavor and a strong graphite backbone. The Mauritson tasted as if it were a blend of the other three, and that’s a good thing.
2007 Carol Shelton Rocky Reserve Zinfandel $? / *****
2005 Seghesio Rockpile Zinfandel $? / ****+
2005 Mauritson Rockpile Ridge Zinfandel $? / ****+
2005 Paradise Ridge Rockpile Zinfandel $? / ****+
The final flight consisted of 2009 barrel samples. Since the final product is not known, I won’t pretend to pass judgment on any of them, but the distinctions between the four remained. Of the four, Carol Shelton always seems to get as much fruit flavors as the others, but without as much harsh tannins. In each vintage, her wines were the most fruit forward. The Seghesio wines all come from the same two side-by-side vineyards, and almost taste that way. Like the close two-part harmony of the Everly Brothers (ask your parents) the wines taste as though they have a fruit side and a mineral side, singing together. The Mauritson wines always have as much fruit as the Carol Shelton wines, but are always a little more tannic, and more intensity. Clay Mauritson makes Zinfandel for people with wine cellars. The Paradise Ridge Zinfandels all have that blacker-than-black berry fruit and an undercurrent of black tea, which, based on this small sampling, seems to express itself more as the wine ages.