Ridge Zinfandel East Bench 2007

There’s a state historic park here in California that covers an old town by the name of Columbia. It’s up in gold rush country a couple hours east of San Francisco, up in the foothills where prospectors first struck gold right around the middle of the 18th century. One of the things I most remember about Columbia – other than having first drunk sherry there long before it was legal for me to have done so – was Nelson’s Columbia Candy Kitchen, which was undeniably awesome when I was a wee pup. As I remember it – and this may well have nothing to do with the place as it actually exists – it was a large, cavernous place with wooden floors and a heavy smell in the air of sweet things: candy apples, candy buttons, horehound, taffy, oddball things you don’t see much these days. It smelled of grandmotherly hard candies, of cherries there only to hind the medicine hiding behind the surface. It smelled of abandoned paperboard suitcases, starched shirt collars, and residue scraped off of antimacassars. In short, it smelled… adult.Similarly, this Ridge wine crosses over from simple cherry-candy over to liniment and unguents only to pause for a second and then head right back over to bright cherry-berry fruit. There’s just a hint of a fresh-coconut note there as well, injecting humor into it all; this could pass for a Trader Vic’s concoction even though I doubt it’d taste better in a Tiki mug.It’s a beautiful deep-black crimson; again, it looks like something of another time, less like wine than tonic. There’s also a mesmerizing note of Christmas pudding, of dates and brandy and spice. One sip, though, and you’re transported into something far more outré than imagined: this wine is frickin’ huge, simultaneously fruity, bracing, lush, and yet strangely well within balance, relatively high alcohol and extract notwithstanding. Definitely porty to an extent, the wine drinks relatively straightforwardly until the finish, which is something like prune salt-water taffy (think richly fruited and yet not as sweet as it smells) and lasts for what seems nearly an eternity. All the while, there’s enough tannin here to ground it ever so lightly; at times, it seems like the acidity’s just a wee bit out of balance but that’s a minor quibble. This wine succeeds where so many others fail: it’s rich, complex, affordable, and also very much typical of a place (in this case, the Dry Creek Valley). Yes, California is well known for Napa cabernet sauvignon, but it’s wines like this that I think are our real strength: there are plenty of places that grow good cabernet, but only a handful where Zinfandel shines so beautifully as it does here.Ridge
Price: $30
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail

Frei Brothers Reserve Merlot 2005

These are the kinds of wine stores that there are here in San Diego:

  • Supermarkets
  • Liquor stores (bodegas)
  • Small wine shops competing on price (Wine Steals, Vintage Wines, SD Wine Co.)
  • Costco
  • Beverages and more!

I’d argue that there are no high end wine stores in San Diego – we don’t have anything like K&L here, so you’re stuck driving to Hollywood if you’re looking for the expensive stuff.Anyhow, I mention this here to discuss how and why this particular bottle of wine is in my house. Several months ago, friends of friends visiting from the Midwest generously invited me over to their vacation rental near La Jolla and shared their dinner with me. Completely unbidden, they even stopped at a corner liquor shop and bought a bottle of nice wine to share with me over dinner, but someone we didn’t get around to drinking it together, so here it is.This is a wine that you would presumably never, ever find in a “fine wine” kind of establishment. This is factory produce, courtesy of the Gallo family empire. Sure, they’re not mentioned on the label and everything’s been carefully designed that the wine’s produced by a family wine company (true, sort of) in Sonoma County, but between you and me? This is the Wal-Mart of the California wine world staring me in the face. (OK, not so much: Fred Franzia had nothing to do with this, but you get my drift.)So: Tonight’s question is simple: When your average American consumer heads down to the average corner liquor store and buys a nice bottle of wine (read: roughly double what the ordinary stuff costs), what does it taste like? Answer: It tastes like this:The color is very dark for a red wine, nearly black, dark all the way out to a thin, watery rim. Optically, it’s great: this looks exactly what you’d imagine expensive red wine to look at. The nose is decidedly sweet and straightforward, something like Christmas cookies; it’s a sort of low-key, friendly cherry spicebox effect with no real complexity and most assuredly neither funk nor greenness.There’s a noticeable lack of many of the things that make wine work for me as a beverage here. The line of this wine is very strange: it starts sweet, hangs there for a minute, shows a very small amount of tannin, and then finishes quickly and sweetly as well, with a simple berry flavor that isn’t even remotely compelling. I’m at a loss to describe the effect of drinking this, but on some level it seems like a fermented grape juice beverage product scientifically designed to appeal to people that don’t like wine. In fact, even the extremely mild, brief tannins that are here seem present only to announce that this is in fact a Very Nice, Expensive Wine because we’ve come to fear that particular sensation whenever we’re offered wine – if that makes sense. I guess I’m trying to say that there’s a homeopathic dose of nasty here (read: tannins) just to remind the drinker that they’ve moved on into Serious Wine Territory here.All in all, this is vaguely like Chinese barbecued pork in a bottle: slightly sweet, obviously red. Weirdly enough, though, it seems successful at what it seems to have set out to do: provide a wine drinking experience for an aspirational consumer who doesn’t actually like wine… and for that, I do have to respect the winemakers here.Frei Bros.
Price: $18
Closure: Cork