Subject: The 2012 Zinfandel ‘Vista Luna’ from Neyers Vineyards: The story behind the wine
I had a message recently from my distributor liaison in New York City, Chris Newman, with a question about our 2012 Vista Luna Zinfandel. At the end of his message, Chris asked if there was any interesting background information on this wine. There is, and it’s a fascinating story. It starts ten million years ago with the formation of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, however, so be patient.
The Sierra (without a plural ‘S’) are uplift mountains, were created 10 million years ago when a tectonic plate slammed into the west coast of what is now California, forcing thousands of feet of rock and earth to rise above the surface to form these mountains on the Nevada border. Over time, they have been worn and etched into their current shape by almost everything imaginable, from glaciers to earthquakes to man. At the western base of the mountains is the start of California’s lush Central Valley, but the area in the foothills immediately west of the Sierra – part of Calaveras and San Joaquin Counties -- contains some igneous rock that worked its way to the surface and remains there today. In 1995, a portion of this area was approved as a new AVA named Borden Ranch. Here, we like to say, the soil for grape growing begins to get interesting. A few years ago, Tadeo and I traveled there to visit with Markus Bokisch, a long-time friend and grape grower in Lodi. Markus took us to see a Zinfandel Vineyard that he was managing called Vista Luna. The vines were on a mound 100 feet or so in elevation, with the mountains visible to the east. We were immediately struck by the amount of Quartz that was scattered on the surface of the vineyard. In fact, I tripped over a large, partially submerged piece of quartz about every two or three steps. Markus confirmed that the vines were planted on an outcropping of Quartz, and that as far as he knew it was 100 feet deep, or more. Only two winemaking regions I know of in France are planted on Quartz: the Savoie in the foothills of the Alps, near the Swiss border, and northern Alsace, near Strasbourg, in the town of Epfig. Both regions make wines of remarkable character, with exotic mineral aromas, and crisp, elegant flavors. We eagerly agreed to buy the grapes.
But that wasn’t all that we found interesting about this vineyard. The clusters were much smaller than those we were accustomed to seeing in other Zinfandel vineyards, and the individual berries were smaller as well. We thought it might be due to the hard, rocky soil, but Markus – as a UC Davis graduate in Plant Science -- had a different, more educated theory. The vineyard had been propagated vegetatively from existing Zinfandel vines, and was not planted to nursery stocks. By law in California, vines obtained from a nursery must have been subjected to heat treatment -- to remove virus -- and are then cloned to eliminate variation. These vines at Vista Luna were, it turns out, an heirloom version of Zinfandel, neither heat-treated nor cloned. The smaller clusters allow for even ripening, with lower sugar levels at harvest. The alcohol level in the finished wine is accordingly lower. We knew we were on to something.
When I moved to San Francisco in 1970, Zinfandel was all the rage. It was fruity, quaffable and complex enough to enjoy regularly, and except for a few examples was modestly priced. I learned to love it. As stronger and more disease tolerant versions of the variety were developed through heat treatment and cloning, the size of the clusters grew, higher sugar levels were necessary for maturity, and the alcohol level increased in the finished wines. My fondness for Zinfandel declined. Many other wine lovers found themselves similarly less interested in the wine. But here we begin to see the charm of a return to the past. The heirloom plant material and the hard quartz soil in this Vista Luna vineyard favor the development of small clusters. As such, they ripen normally, and develop fruit flavors that are reminiscent of my early love affair with the grape and its wine. The flavors here are rich, as we expect Zinfandel to be, but there is a high-toned, graceful and vibrant side to the wine as well. Drinking a whole bottle is more of a pleasure walk than a determined amble. At the end there is that delicious, fresh berry finish that always seems to invite another glass. Join us in sharing a trip back in time. You’ll like it.