Zinfandel Nouveau


For almost ten years Walter Schug, the winemaker at the Joseph Phelps Vineyards, has been making new Zinfandel for us by the traditional carbonic maceration method. Like Beaujolais Nouveau, the wine is fruity, fresh, light, and alcoholic. Now a variety of ‘nouveau’-style wines are becoming available that would complement this meal.” —Alice Waters, Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook, first published in 1982

Schug, of course, has long since moved on to his eponymous Schug Carneros Estate Winery, from which he has now retired. But his son, Axel Schug, confirms Waters’s statement: “They made it special for Chez Panisse,” Axel told me over the phone, “and indeed used carbonic maceration—whole-cluster fermentation until the berries burst, so the juice ferments from the inside and creates a forward fruit character. Carbonic maceration is the normal way to make Beaujolais Nouveau from the Gamay grape.”

I asked if he knew of anyone still doing this—still making a Zin Nouveau, as it were, in California—and he said he did not. “And if anyone is, they’re brave, and kudos to them. The problem is that the image of Beaujolais Nouveau is a cheap frilly wine you serve for Thanksgiving, and you don’t get a lot of money from it. And the only reason Zinfandel has respect again is that people began making it heavy and jammy and extracted, which is a shame, because the fruit can handle different styles, but the fruitier it gets the more people think of white Zin. But the grape is a natural for carbonic maceration: large berry, a fair amount of color in the juice.”

I looked into all this because I cooked Alice Waters’s “Menu for the Zinfandel Festival” on Christmas Day—the very menu where the quote about Schug and Nouveau appears. Here’s the lineup:

Ragout of wild mushrooms with veal stock and red wine
Confit of duck with flageolet bean gratin
Escarole salad (with Meyer lemon vinaigrette and truffled pecorino, both at the suggestion of my friend Sam Mogannam from Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco)
Poached pears and figs in Zinfandel with cassis cream (we had a professional pastry chef coming to dinner, so we left out this dessert and let her dazzle us with a yule log and little meringue mushrooms)

As far as I know, Axel Schug is correct: You don’t hear about people making a Zin Nouveau anymore (although this will doubtless prompt a comment from somebody who knows of 10 wineries doing it …). But that’s almost beside the point. What I love about the Alice Waters bit is the impulse, the mythmaking and culture-creating impulse; it’s so her, so beautifully idealistic, and so redolent of an era when everything in California food culture was suddenly new and suddenly possible. We’ll re-create France right here at home! We’ll have traditions and farmers and a turn of the seasons! But we’ll do it our own way, with our own grapes and foods! So much of her vision has become the air the rest of us now breathe that it’s instructive to see a piece that didn’t catch on.

The menu, incidentally, was great: My sister-in-law sourced mushrooms for me and found about seven varieties, including chanterelles, black trumpets, hedgehogs, oysters, matsutakes, and a few others I’ve forgotten. Sammy at Bi-Rite prepared the duck confit for me (I needed 30 legs, for 30 guests), and he told me how to warm it carefully in the oven and then, just before serving, pan sear each piece to crisp up the skin. I made a flageolet bean gratin to go with the duck, and flavored it with goose stock from the prior night’s dinner. The salad, again with Sammy’s tweaks, was terrific. And the whole party happened at my mother’s place in Berkeley, the home in which I grew up. Here are the wines my father served, at the recommendation of his brother, Jim Duane, the Champagne buyer for a wine store in Costa Mesa, California (and the man who inspired/taught me to surf):

The Lowdown:

2006 Chablis AOC Jean-Claude Bessin

Grapes: 100 percent Chardonnay
Wood: N/A
Alcohol: N/A
Price (Retail): $19.99
Tasting Notes: Smells like straw and wet rock. Barely ripe melon and citrus, with strong acidity and an austere mineral quality. Recommended.

2005 Matanzas Creek Winery Sonoma Valley Chardonnay
Grapes: 100 percent Chardonnay (60 percent from Carneros, 40 percent from the Bennett Valley)
Wood: 8 months in one-third new, one-third one-year-old, one-third two-year-old French oak
Alcohol: 14.5 percent

Price (Winery): $29
Tasting Notes: Unusually pale, strawlike color and a nose of papaya-seed funk, butter, and cucumber. Tastes like butter and citrus, toasted oak and vanilla, mango. Recommended.

2004 Frog’s Leap Napa Valley Zinfandel
Grapes: 84 percent Zinfandel, 13 percent Petite Sirah, 3 percent Carignane
Wood: 12 months in American oak
Alcohol: 14.5 percent (a lot)
Cases Produced: 9,500 (a fair amount)
Price (Retail): $19.99 (though there’s a lot of variation in the price of this wine)
Tasting Notes: Dark purple in color; smells like damp forest floor, lavender, and cinnamon. In your mouth, it feels big and plush, with medium-grained tannins. Huge plum fruit and a curious mushroomlike quality. Recommended.