There are times in your life that you consider yourself to be rather lucky. There are the oft recited days: graduate from college, marriage, birth of children, your in-laws move to Peru. Many of those moments are planned out and you can anticipate.
Then there the days that happen by chance: you find a $100 bill on the street, a new checkout line opens just as you walk up, or Helen Mirren allows you to take a selfie with her.
Then there are those that are a bit of a combination of the two. Such was the case a few years ago, when I happened across the book Pacific Pinot Noir by John Winthrop Hæger. I had just started along the path of Pinot infatuation and the book was an incredible resource as I travelled Oregon and California looking for fantastic juice.
One such winery that Hæger outlined in the book, Freeman Winery, was rather new at the time, but their wines were receiving great reviews by many, including Hæger. Thus, on one of my trips out to visit my in-laws (who, I hope, never move to Peru) I decided to descend upon Freeman, just outside of Sebastopol, California, to investigate for myself.
At the time, Ed Kurtzman, a bit of a winemaking legend, was listed as the winemaker, and I was looking forward to meet him. I made the appointment with the founder and owner, Ken Freeman who mentioned that he would also be there to show me around the property.
Well, I showed up to learn that neither Ed nor Ken were able to be there to meet me. Instead, my steward for the day was Eric Buffington, officially the assistant winemaker.
I tried not to be forlorn, but, well, no one is ever excited about meeting an Assistant Coach, an Assistant Secretary of State, or the Assistant to the Burgermeister Meisterburger.
That may sound judgmental (because it is), but I don’t think I am alone in thinking that if I could script my life, I would always come in contact with the “A” list, the shining star, the varsity team (like, say Helen Mirren).
Well, the first few minutes of that initial visit only cemented my judgmental tendencies–Eric is not the most loquacious guy you will ever meet, so I found myself doing most of the talking, which is not want anybody wants, including me.
Eventually, though, we got to chatting and realized that we had a bit in common (his wife was from Pennsylvania and we both appreciated our in-laws) and the conversation really opened up (I am sure the wine had something to do with it, too). Based on that first chance conversation, which was close to two hours, I made a point to visit Freeman every time I was anywhere near Sebastopol to catch up with Eric and try some great wine.
During the third visit or so, Eric, who is not the type to boast, indicated that he was essentially the winemaker as Ed Kurtzman had so many projects all over the state, that he only showed up a couple of times a month to “check on things.” A few visits after that, Eric indicated that he had his own label, Amelle, making a Pinot and a Zinfandel, and wanted to know if I would like to try some.
Given what he was doing with Freeman’s wines, I told him that I would love to taste the Pinot, but I was not really much of a “Zin guy”. Undeterred, he convinced me that I should give it a try as it was a “cool climate Zin” and therefore not as big as other wines made from the variety.
Well, who was I to argue?
And I am glad I didn’t. Both wines were fantastic, but that Zin was incredible: understated and soft-spoken, it reminded me of a Pinot as it was multi-faceted with plenty of depth, but with more fruit. A real treat.
Eric left Freeman a few years ago to work closer to home (he was driving about two hours each way), and I have not been back to Freeman since (and never did meet either Ken Freeman or Ed Kurtzman). Eric and I have kept in touch, though, and a couple of years ago, I bought a bunch of both the Amelle Pinot and Zin and I have been hoarding them ever since.
Last night, seeing that it was Zinfandel Day, I opened an Amelle, a wine that initially I prefered to share–to show others that there is another side to Zinfandel, a subtler, gentler side. As the stash has steadily dwindled though, my wife insisted that we only open them when it was but us two as it is her favorite wine. Not favorite Zin, but favorite wine.
Even though my wife would likely kill me, I decided to throw caution to the wind and open it before she was back from work. Before I knew it, I was through half of the bottle and was contemplating my next move: either finish the bottle and burn the evidence, or just confess my crime and beg forgiveness.
Mid-contemplation (and I was leaning toward option one), my wife walked in. When she saw the distinctive label on the table, she let out a shriek (as if she had seen a mouse) and shot me a deathly glare (as if I were said mouse). For once I really had no retort when she grabbed the bottle and gave herself a healthy pour, practically draining the rest of the bottle. She did allow me to have the last swallow, though.
I guess I should consider myself lucky.
2008 Amelle Zinfandel Buck Hill Vineyard Sonoma County: Retail $24. As I mentioned above, I consider myself to be a friend of the winemaker, but that in no way clouds my judgment. Seven years out, this still needs air–a good 30 minute decant at least. Once there, this is a Pinot-lover’s hedonistic delight. This is not a bombastic Zin. Far from it. This is requires contemplation, even retrospection. Hell, this demands your full attention. Rich red fruit but incredible depth, the kind of depth that gives me goosebumps and makes me want to hold onto this wine for dear life. When treated right, this verges on other worldly. Outstanding 93-95 Points.
Listen, there are a ton of really great wines in the world and for me to declare this one the best Zinfandel out there is certainly a grandiose statement, but for me, it certainly was last night.
As far as I know, Amelle is not available anywhere except their website: Amelle Wines