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The Zin Masters: Rosenblum

The new frontier

James Laube
Posted: May 24, 2004

 
Rosenblum winemaker Jeff Cohn (left) and founder Kent Rosenblum make opulent Zinfandels in their San Francisco Bay-area winery.
 
 
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The churning, thumping sound of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" reverberates off the thick concrete walls inside Rosenblum Cellars, and it somehow seems appropriate.

This warehouse-turned-winery in Alameda, across the bay from San Francisco, is a mecca for Zin-fanatics, even though the closest Rosenblum grape source is 40 miles away.

Inside, young intern winemakers from a dozen countries, including Australia, Germany, Italy, New Zealand and Portugal, are rocking and rolling, busily moving harvest 2003 through its paces. They're unloading grapes from trucks, hand-sorting and removing unwanted berries and feeding the best clusters through the crushers. The grapey, floral aromas of newly fermented Zinfandel waft through the air.

The interns are here, for the most part, for a chance to work with Zinfandel. "Our best wines come from the best vineyards in the state," says Kent Rosenblum, the lean, upbeat 60-year-old who founded the winery in 1978. This year he will make 90,000 cases of wine, 70,000 cases of which will be Zinfandel, including 16 single-vineyard Zins, many from what he considers prize old-vine sites. "When vineyards are there for 100 years, you know there's a reason," he says, peering over his wire-rimmed glasses. "From early on we could tell we liked the old-vine, head-pruned vineyards." He admits a preference, too, for hillside plantings: "They seemed to make a better wine."

Thirty years ago, Rosenblum stumbled across Zinfandel as a home winemaker. One day, he recalls, an old friend showed up with six lug boxes of old-vine grapes from Cullinane Vineyard, a 100-year-old site, once 30 acres, near the city of Sonoma. Rosenblum made the fruit into wine. He loved it, and it opened his eyes to all sorts of possibilities. Today, he still makes a Cullinane, but draws from just 2 acres, the only part of the vineyard the Cullinane family didn't sell.

From there, Rosenblum began to seek out old-vine Zinfandel vineyards and lock in handshake deals wherever he could, irrespective of the locality in which the grapes were grown. That has led to numerous bottlings from Napa and Sonoma counties, including Hendry and Brandlin Ranch in Napa and Samsel and Harris Kratka in Sonoma, but also some wines hailing from unexpected sites throughout the state. Carla's Vineyard, for instance, is planted next to a Kmart store in the city of Brentwood. You'll also find the names of vineyards that lie in Mendocino and Paso Robles, and even the San Francisco Bay appellation.

"Most of the time when you look at a vineyard such as Eagle Point [in Mendocino] or Rockpile [in Sonoma], you just know it's going to be great fruit," says Rosenblum's voluble winemaker, Jeff Cohn, 43, who owns his own label, JC Cellars. And at Rosenblum, rich, fruity wines are what Zinfandel is all about.

The Zinfandels share a definite house-style featuring plush, deeply concentrated flavors. In most vintages, the wines are opulent and fleshy, with big, ripe tannins; rarely if ever do they taste weedy or herbaceous. Rosenblum and Cohn definitely favor ripe flavors, and Rosenblum wonders whether consumers truly care much about higher alcohol levels. "I wonder how many people really have an issue [with high alcohol wines]," he says philosophically. "I think it's more of a wine writers' issue."

Rosenblum doesn't own any vineyards, so he has to work closely with growers. That typically means multiple trips to dozens of vineyards, and come harvesttime both Rosenblum and Cohn zero in on the ripeness levels, tasting the grapes and then deciding when they should be picked.

Experience has taught Cohn to abandon natural yeast fermentations, which he considers too risky for an operation of Rosenblum's size because he doesn't have as much control over how the fermentations finish. But he approaches all of the lots like a Burgundian artisan. Rosenblum and Cohn also like oak seasoning, so much so that they routinely use up to 50 different kinds of barrels, from different coopers and different toast and seasoning regimens, which adds flavor, texture and aromatics. But the wines don't taste oaky. They are impressive because of their richness and purity of fruit flavors.

For Rosenblum, Zinfandel has been a gold mine, yielding countless treasures. He remains convinced of Zinfandel's greatness, even if, he admits, "most restaurant wine lists don't agree with me."

But he senses the tide is changing, once again, for Zinfandel, as the cream rises. "I think the younger generation will gravitate to Zinfandel," Rosenblum says. So far, his instincts have served him well.


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