A big red wine with a strangely familiar label
October 16, 2007
Bread? Check. Gruyere? Check. Pepper Bacon? Check. Fig Jam? Check. All that and a bag of chips.The plan was for grilled bacon and cheese sandwiches and chips with a glass of wine and the Rockies game. I was thinking zinfandel in general and probably something from the R’s, either a Ridge, Renwood, Ravenswood or Rosenblum. Good, reliable zins that would work well with the bacon and jam.But as I perused the zinfandel aisle, a label caught my eye that was new but somehow familiar. The wine was called The Climber, and on the front of the bottle was a graphic that featured a lithe climber hanging from a strand of a grapevine attached to the familiar label from the Clif Bar energy bars.
Interesting, I thought, so I picked it up, turned it around and began to read about the wine. It was dominated by zinfandel at around 60 percent of the blend, and there was also a healthy 20 percent of syrah. It was rounded off with cabernet sauvignon, some merlot and a little petit syrah.Silently, I said to myself, as I contemplated the label (which by the way also said “North Coast,” which I assumed designated the source of the grapes), “Zinfatage.” This word does not exist outside of my simple mind, but is defined in said simple mind as “a red wine blended from a variety of grapes but built around a zinfandel base.”Zinfatage is a pun on the word “Meritage,” an actual designation created in California for wines that blend two or more Bordeaux varietals, which for red wines include cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, carmenere, gros verdot, petit verdot, malbec and, of course, merlot. The name Meritage comes not from merlot, but rather a combination of the words “merit” and “heritage.” Hence the pronunciation rhymes with “heritage.” The Meritage Association has trademarked the name, and members, largely in California, but with some from New Jersey, Mexico and other places, can use it on their blends. Zinfatage is, again, in my mind only, a legitimate designation as well. It refers to a wine that is less than 75 percent zinfandel and is blended with a bunch of other stuff. It doesn’t matter if the other grapes are Bordeaux varietals; the only thing that matters is that the wine tastes good.
The zinfandel grape was originally planted in California in the 1850s, giving it (dare I say it, in my mind) both heritage and merit. It may not have the pedigree of some French grapes (it likely is Italian in origin with the primitivo grape being the most likely ancestor), but it is big, hearty and fruity, and I like it a lot.By the way, I pronounce “Zinfatage,” my new designation as “Zin-fa-tahj.” It’s just more fun to say it that way.But I digress. Thinking myself clever, I bought The Climber for dinner and paid around $18, a little more than I had planned to spend, but let’s call it a premium for the novelty of the “Clif” name. I took it home and poured a glass as I cooked my bacon, grated my cheese and nibbled on my sea salt and black pepper Boulder Chips (are they addictive or what?). It was perfect for my purpose.The fruit was right there. Ruby in the glass, it smelled of berries – straw, razz and otherwise. It was light in the mouth, not too hot with alcohol the way some zinfandels can be. The blending brought a balance to the wine and overall it was very drinkable. I could have gone through a couple of bottles as the Rockies put away their 16th win in 17 games.Clif Bar Family Winery is a custom crush winery founded by Gary Erickson and Kit Crawford, who own Clif Energy Bars. Recently, they purchased a farm in the Napa Valley and decided to make wine. The Climber Red Wine 2004 was made by the former winemaker, Rob Hunter. But they have since joined forces with Sarah Gott, formerly the winemaker at both Joseph Phelps and Quintessa, and are making wines at the Napa Wine Company.
It is an exciting endeavor, and I look forward to tasting the products that Sarah makes for Gary and Kit, be they Meritage, Zinfatage or whatever.Go Rockies.Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and a black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.