Nalle Winery Zinfandel Makes You Smart
By Jameson Fink
I’ve been a big fan Zinfandel from Nalle Winery for a long time. There was an end-of-the-shift moment at a wine shop I was working at, surrounded by a panoply of open wine bottles, where I kept coming back to this wine from California’s Dry Creek Valley. Why?
Well, it was an astonishingly different take on Zinfandel. I happily cut my red-wine drinking teeth on Zinfandel that was rich, fruity, and full-throttle. And fun to drink! But while I appreciate the variety of styles of Zinfandel out there (see my Dry Creek Valley post for a few recommendations), I find that, in all red wines, I enjoy those with a lighter touch.
I try not to be obsessive to the point of judging wine by alcohol level; my initial enjoyment of Nalle came by staring at the glass rather than the label. Sometimes pre-sip label reading can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Fast forward many years later, and, to my great pleasure, I got to visit the winery as part of a barnstorming adventure courtesy of the Winegrowers of Dry Creek Valley. And fall for Nalle all over again with their 2012 Vinum Clarum. (I did note that it clocks in at a very modest 12.8% alcohol. There are plenty of Zins out there at 15.5% and higher. And many of them taste pretty damn good, too. Don’t judge a label by its number; trust your taste!)
Tasting the wines was a pleasure, but I was especially geeked to meet and hang out with founders Doug and Lee Nalle as well as their son and current winemaker, Andrew. (Doug has given himself the title of “Still Hanging Around”.)
Why are Nalle’s Zinfandels so distinct? Well, it goes back to Doug’s history of drinking old-school Zinfandel from the late 60s and early 70s, significantly those from Souverain and Joseph Swan. I’ll never forget Doug reminiscing about Zinfandels that he found “ethereal”. Have you ever heard that word used to describe Zin?!?
A lot of the uniqueness of these wines has to do with when the grapes are picked. I was there mid-October, and they were already done picking. In fact, all the Zinfandel grapes arrived a month before I got there! Picking grapes at a lower ripeness means less sugar in the fruit. That ensures a lower potential alcohol level, as sugar is fuel for alcohol production. Doug explained the guiding thought behind the founding of Nalle Winery that holds true today: “We’ll make world-class, claret-style Zinfandel under 14% [alcohol] that can age well.” (Claret is a term the British use to describe the wines of Bordeaux that were the kind of reds you’d drink with great pleasure and gusto at lunch. Thus, Vinum Clarum, a tribute to those wines. In Latin.)
Are you wondering, “Yes, Jameson, that’s all wonderful. But how does drinking Nalle Winery Zinfandel make me smart?” Well, just look at the winery crest atop this post: Vinum Sapientiam Tibi Dat. What, you don’t know Latin? If I remember from my college days, I believe that roughly translates to Wine Makes You Smart. [Note: I did not take Latin in college.] The crest, the saying, and the squirrels express the tongue-in-cheek manner in which Doug responds to certain self-important segments of the wine industry. And that anti-snob ethos has been passed down to Andrew. It’s nice to know the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. (Or should I say the grape from the vine?)
Heck, even their wine club is called the Squirrel Club. And people send squirrels to Nalle, and bring them by on winery visits to pay tribute. Let me point out that these are not live nor the once-living kind of squirrels, but rather artistic representations of the animal that graces Nalle’s crest.
One other thing I learned at Nalle and, in Dry Creek Valley in general, is that if you want to make wine, it helps to play petanque. It’s a game like bocce, but with stainless steel balls and a less-defined court. You can see Nalle’s court, conveniently adjacent to the winery, in the lower right-hand corner of the photo below. Can’t you envision yourself relaxing with a glass of Zin underneath a trellised canopy, watching all the petanque action unfolding practically in your lap? Playing, however, is another matter. Am I destined to be merely a spectator?