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Between a Rockpile and a Zin Place

Sonoma's young AVA is a distinctive place that makes distinctive wines
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jun 13, 2012 10:00am ET

How can you not like a wine region called Rockpile? The name alone brings up all sorts of images, of prehistoric-style rugged countrysides or chain gangs busting stones in the godforsaken sun. The reality of the place is not all that different from that.

Rockpile is a rustic landscape and a distinctive place that makes equally distinctive red wines, particularly Zinfandel and Syrah. Some of the wineries that use the region's fruit include Carol Shelton, JC Cellars, Seghesio, St. Francis and Valdez Family.

My favorite Rockpile wines have a unique combination of intense structure, fresh acidity and jammy ripeness, something that's not easy to find in California. Just consider the Robert Biale Zinfandel Rockpile Rocky Ridge Vineyards 2009 (90 points, $50), which is ripe but tightly wound, with wild berry and pepper aromas that lead to layered flavors of plum, licorice and spicy oak.

Even if you believe the idea of "terroir" is overused and abused in California, it's hard to argue that Rockpile has it in spades. Carved out of the mountainous northwest corner of Sonoma's Dry Creek Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA), Rockpile is one of the smallest and most recent AVAs in the country, approved in 2002.

It includes only 15,000 acres in all and just less than 200 of those are planted to vineyards. Vineyards begin at an elevation of 800 feet and go up to nearly 2,100 feet, and even though the Pacific is only a dozen miles away, the vines almost never see fog and receive full sunlight throughout the summer growing season. The ocean does provide a near-constant flow of wind and, as a result, the temperatures run 10 to 15 degrees cooler than in the heart of Dry Creek. The soils are extremely shallow and are a mix of loam, clay and—unsurprisingly—rocks. Water is scarce.

The Pomo tribe called the region "Kabe-chana," which translates roughly as "place with many rocks." In the mid-1800s, colorful character and local sheriff Tennessee Carter Bishop founded Rockpile Ranch and reportedly used prisoners from the county jail to clear a passable road. Grapes have been planted there since the late 1800s—one of the earlier pioneers was a man named S.P. Hallengren—but the region was used mostly for sheep grazing and hunting wild boar until the first modern vineyards were planted in the early 1990s.

Today, Hallengren's great-great-grandson Clay Mauritson makes wine in Dry Creek Valley from grapes his family farms. The Mauritson Zinfandel Rockpile Rockpile Ridge Vineyard 2010 (91, $37) is just a baby, intense and a bit rough around the edges, it has spicy raspberry aromas and structured flavors of baked cherry, toasty anise and cinnamon. Stylistically, it's classic Rockpile.

Since Rockpile is such a small region, the wines can be hard to find, but they are always interesting and worth seeking out. Do you have a favorite Rockpile wine or vineyard?

Brian Burkhard
Cleveland, OH —  June 13, 2012 11:38am ET
Rockpile rules!...great call Tim. I've been a fan of Seghesio Rockpile for a while (much to my chagrin, I'm down to my last bottle of the '07...but the '09 is fantastic too!). Also love the Haley Syrah from JC...a classic "big" and great wine from Jeff!
Brad Rollin
San Anselmo, CA, USA —  June 13, 2012 1:04pm ET
Like many, I became aware of Rockpile early in the 2000's via Rosenblum, especially its highly regarded 2003 vintage. I remember attending a lecture at Copia and hearing the winemaker describe Rockpile Zins as displaying "chocolate covered cherries" on the palate. Subsequent Rosenblum Rockpiles were a bit less consistent and, at times, cloyingly sweet, thus muting my sense that Rockpile had become Zinfandel Nirvana. I'm certainly open to trying some of the others however.
Tim Bell
Healdsburg, CA, USA —  June 13, 2012 2:48pm ET
I remember Rockpile as one of the best pop-rock bands ever! I'm looking forward to this year's first harvest of St. Peter's Church Zin from our own vineyard, the clone made famous in the Rockpile AVA. Sounds like we ought to try pairing it with some wild boar...thanks for another interesting post, Tim.
Dave Reuther
Deerfield, Illinois —  June 13, 2012 7:12pm ET
My experience with Rockpile Zins has been with the 02, 03 & 05 vintages from Rosenblum. My favorite is the 2003. My tasting notes indicate that a chocolate aspect did occur with these Rosenblum Zins from this AVA. I find that these Zins age fairly well. I am fortunate to still have a bottle of the 05 and 2 btls of the 03 left to enjoy.
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  June 13, 2012 7:30pm ET
Thanks for joining the conversation. I'm wondering how much oak plays into the chocolate quality some of you are describing?
Erik Miller
Santa Rosa, CA —  June 18, 2012 6:02pm ET
Great article and definitely a special place! I am surprised not to see Mauritson Winery mentioned. Clay Mauritson has been one of the biggest promoters of the appellation. We teamed up with Cam and Blake Mauritson to get our first Rockpile Zin in 2011 and we are excited/ proud to add it to our Zinfandel protfolio!!
Mark Fiedler
Breckenridge, Colorado —  June 20, 2012 7:49pm ET
Cheers to Clay...
FYI, You will often find Rockpile fruit in Clay Mauritsons Dry Creek Zinfandel, at a fraction of the cost of most Rockpile bottlings.

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