My buddy Roger Bonga makes a sinfully serious chocolate wine out in Grand Rapids; Oregon’s Shallon Winery makes ‘a rich chocolate and orange whey* wine’; and of course, there’s that inexplicably weird and awful Dutch mess called Chocovine, a blend of cabernet and chocolate. Now, whereas I do not deny that dark chocolate and red wine share an otherworldly affinity, so do pinot noir and salmon. This does not mean that if they tossed a Chinook filet and some Pommard in a blender and strained it into a wine bottle, I’d queue up for one.
*If you want to know what ‘orange whey’ is, I’m clueless—go ask Little Miss Muffet.
In any case, my somewhat vacuous point is that the above wine folks are sort of cheating when it comes to chocolate wine, because in order to make it, they use chocolate. Purist winemakers like Tim Hardin of Stryker Sonoma do not employ such cheap tricks when they make their version of chocolate wine.
And wine writers like me who are also purists—(in fact, I am so goddamn lily-white pure that I am virtually supernatural)—appreciate it.
Ehhh, What’s Up, Médoc?
Of the allowable Bordeaux grape varietals, the one that generally gets the least press—and frequently the least respect—is petit verdot. The French (with the noted exception of Châteaux Palmer and Lagrange) have pretty much run out of patience with this high-maintenance, late-ripening problem child, and in fact the name (‘little green’) is actually a referential dis toward the grape’s irritating requirement for Club Med weather. It fairs a bit better in the New World, and in California, it is the most expensive grape you can buy, commanding upwards of six thousand dollars per ton. By contrast, you can pick up a ton of chardonnay for around half of that, and zinfandel is even less.
The reason, of course, is Adam Smith’s Third Natural Law of Economics: Supply and demand. Used primarily as a blending grape, individual vintners don’t use much petit verdot, and so, not much is grown. In fact, in terms of planted acreage, petit verdot ranks about the same as alicante bouschet, and by volume varietal crush in California, it doesn’t even make the top ten. Only very rarely will a winery release a stand-alone petit verdot, since it’s hard to recoup the overhead: There is only so much someone is willing to spend on an unfamiliar grape type.
That’s why, when you can find one, you snap it up, if only to find out what this bad-tempered Bordelaise bugger is all about.
Timmy and the Petit Verdot Factory
Stryker Sonoma, a Geyserville-based, self-styled ‘life embracing’ winery with a ‘slightly irreverent attitude with respect to the traditional methods of producing and marketing wine’ is justly proud of their two acres of ninety-year-old zinfandel vines, but consistent focus remains on the cabernet family of varietals. Stryker’s annual output is around seven thousand cases, with plenty of smaller lots coming it at between two hundred and three hundred cases, allowing for a lot of experimentation. In all, they draw from four vineyards, including Rod and Cathy Park’s famed Rockpile Vineyards and their own 32-acre ‘Estate’—the source for the petit verdot I sampled: Stryker Sonoma Estate Petit Verdot, Alexander Valley/Sonoma County, 2009, about $35.
Which brings us to all the chocolatey innuendos: This wine has cocoa contours and a mocha mindset quite unlike anything I’ve previously tasted. It so dominates the profile that one begins to look for specific cacao notes instead of grapey ones. Personally, I found this to be a fascinating step away from the clichéd ‘fruit bombs’ the Californios often foist upon an eager public, and although I’m fairly sure that winemaker Hardin would prefer I made animated allusions to juicy blackberry and peppery plum, to my palate, not much foreground fruit is obvious.
Again, I don’t list this as a fault: Here, you’re not dealing with a wine you’d call ‘delightful’, but not all wine needs to be Brady Bunch backyard beguiling, right? Some, like this one, can be Dark Shadows brooding.
I joke about old Charlie Bucket, but in reality, if I was going with a movie motif, an old school Western—Tim Hardin starring in ‘Stryker’ rolls easier off the tongue. The winemaker, who began his career as a cellar rat for my homeboys over at Zmoore, espouses a philosophy that, while not particularly unique, is nonetheless appropriate:
“Let the terroir speak for itself, focus on the varietals and style that lend themselves to the soil and climate of the location of the vineyard”.
Hardin, with his lone-wolf bottlings of cab franc, malbec, tannat et. al, along with various blends thereof, is becoming Sonoma’s foremost authority on such an approach to the Bordeaux biggies.