By Bob Johnson
Mention the word “fun” when discussing wine, and many people would envision a glass of blush or perhaps a rosé… typically with a hint (or a lot) of sweetness.
So when Joe Healy, the winemaker for Bella Vineyards in Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley, told me that he considered Zinfandel a “fun wine,” I wanted to hear more. After all, the verbiage most often associated with Zinfandel trends toward big… bold… racy… complex — positive descriptors, to be sure, but not exactly words that evoke fun.
Well, it turns out Healy takes a somewhat different approach to Zinfandel than many other winemakers.
“I like balance and finesse,” he says. “I don’t want an alcoholic fruit bomb,” the style commonly associated with California Zin.
He also takes it easy with his oak barrel program.
“We use no more than 20 percent new oak,” he says. “The oak is in the background so the wine is about the specific fruit flavors. That is what’s so fun about Zinfandel.”
After tasting through five Bella Zins — two from 2010, one from 2011 and two from 2012 — I began to understand what Healy meant, and to embrace the “fun” concept. Many of the “typical” adjectives associated with Zinfandel found their way onto my notepad, but each wine was nicely balanced and not at all “hot” (a sign of a too-high alcohol level).
The 2010 “Hills & Benches” bottling, a blend of Lily Hill and Florence Vineyard fruit, was big, spicy, jammy and… balanced.
The 2010 “Barrel 32” Zin was perhaps the most “easy drinking” of the five, which makes sense given how it’s assembled. It’s a Sonoma County cuvee that embraces numerous vineyards. “We go through every barrel in the cellar, looking for a few that speak to us,” Healy says, “Then we’ll experiment with the blend until we have that ah-ha moment.” The wine gets its name from its first vintage in the mid-2000s when, as proprietor Scott
Adams puts it, “the 32nd barrel was the wow barrel.”
2011 was a challenging vintage for much of California’s North Coast region, but Bella got its fruit in before the storms hit and was able to make a nice wine for its flagship Lily Hill bottling. That’s the Bella Zin most familiar to consumers, as its inaugural vintage was 1999. (Yes, you could say that Bella has been making Lily Hill Zin for two millennia.)
Aromas of violets and sweet peas jumped from my glass of 2012 Florence Vineyard Zin, which shows a lot of red fruit flavor on the palate. The vineyard is sited just down the road from the winery, and farmed by a friendly neighbor.
Like many wineries, Bella also sources fruit from the acclaimed Maple Vineyard — specifically, a one-acre grouping of vines known as Annie’s Block. The vines were planted more than half a century ago and are head-trained and dry-farmed.
Bella also makes other single-vineyard Zins, as well as a late-harvest Zin.
“We’re not trying to be over-achievers,” insists Adams. “There are wineries that make more Zins than we do. But we try to make each wine distinctive, and we let our customers decide which ones they like best.
“People who love Zin love Zin, and they love it for different reasons.”
And that, Joe Healy will tell you, adds to the fun.
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Bella Vineyards is located at 9711 West Dry Creek Road in Healdsburg, Calif. For $55, it offers “The Ultimate Tour,” which includes visits to the estate’s vineyard and wine caves, barrel samples, a Pinzgauer ride, tasting of limited-release wines and more. To make a reservation, call 866-572-3552.