Whiskey Tango Fun

A note to sensitive readers and hipster sommeliers: the following story contains multiple references to the existence of bourbon-barrel-aged Zinfandel.

If you are not already laughing out loud or hissing like an angry cat at the idea, the very idea, this brief backgrounder is just for you. America’s “heritage grape,” Zinfandel has been made in a variety of styles, from rosé to late harvest, for over 150 years. But today, you’re just as likely to hear a particular Zin recommended for what it isn’t as for what it is. To wit: “This isn’t one of those big, jammy, high-alcohol Zins.”

To the current temperance movement that pervades the wine world—in curious contrast to “double this, triple that”–obsessed craft brewing and the excitement over cask-strength bottlings that energizes the spirits sector—just add this: ripe, boozy California Zinfandel aged in bourbon barrels. So how’s that going?

Surprisingly well, according to Bob Blue, VP of winemaking at Fetzer. “People have been really open to it,” says Blue, who has shopped the wine across the country as well as to overseas markets like Denmark. “They see it as innovation.” Blue says that his
1,000 Stories project grew out of a mix of personal experience and company brainstorming. In the 1980s, when he started working for Fetzer, they were growing fast but were undercapitalized. So, like some other wineries at the time, they bought used “bluegrass barrels” to age their Zinfandel and other reds, because expensive French oak barrels were in short supply.

Fetzer’s 2014 1,000 Stories Small Batch Bourbon Barrel-Aged California Zinfandel ($18.99) rotates through new and used bourbon barrels in 5,000-case batches—they get a kiss of charred American oak and sweet booze notes after aging in wine barrels. Batch 15 smells and tastes like a typical Zin, with Mexican chocolate spice, smoky oak and mixed berry jam. Warm, prickly tannins cross-stitch the palate, and while the finish lingers sweetly, as much from the slight residual sugar as from the subtle hint of whiskey, it’s not heavy. Blue, who formerly headed Bonterra’s organic wine program, says that balance is the key to an enjoyable wine, bourbon or no bourbon. Stylishly packaged, the brand contributes funds to the Wildlife Conservation Society and American Bison Society. ★★★★

Robert Mondavi Private Selection has also entered the bluegrass game with its 2014 Central Coast Bourbon Barrel Cabernet Sauvignon ($13.99). Once again, the barrels just highlight aspects that one finds in many a quality Cabernet: liqueur-like notes of cassis, oak char and vanilla. Somewhat sweet upfront, it’s plush throughout, and it remains solid after one day open—upping the score. Two wines may not make a trend, but this one should not be dismissed out of hand.★★★★