Those who think that California wine begins with Napa and ends with Sonoma should remember that one of America’s distinct homegrown contributions to the world wine stage is the zinfandel grape and the abundant, jammy style of red wine that it delivers. Central to this heritage is Amador County in California, 80 miles east of Napa County and just southeast of Sacramento.
Amador is home to some of the best known zinfandel producers in the state. One of these is Renwood Winery which, upon its founding in 1993, quickly established itself as a leader with its distinctive Special Reserve Grandpère Zinfandel. Consistently, the soft mouthfeel and forthcoming ripe fruit in the nose set a standard for old-vine zinfandel at annual tastings like those organized by ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates & Producers), a non-profit group dedicated to the promotion of the grape and its wine.
Early on, Renwood seemed to have a clear direction: making world-class zinfandel from individual named vineyards, especially those growing old vines (roughly speaking, more than 30 years old). However, later on, the rails and Renwood parted company and the winery filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization in 2009. After two years under the bankruptcy administrator, the winery, brand, and inventory were purchased for $6.95 million by an Argentine investment group including Alejandro Pedro Bulgheroni, multibillionaire businessman, and Carlos Pulenta, wine business veteran. That may look like a relative pittance, but it doesn't count the huge investment needed to restore the winery and sell its wine in a marketplace that had become more crowded than ever.
Five years later, Renwood is ready for its re-entrance into the wine world. The new winemaker is Joe Shebl, who joined in 2013, and was actually returning to Renwood, as he began his career there 15 years earlier. There is also a consulting arrangement with Kent Rosenblum, founder of Rosenblum Cellars, and one of the most experienced zinfandel winemakers in the state. The purchase of 3,000 new French and American oak barrels for aging, a four-fold increase on the previous level; new, state-of-the-art fermenters with an automated punch-down capability; and a Napa-quality tasting room that is integrated with daily food and wine pairings are further indicators of the owners' commitment.
On a recent swing through town, Shebl took me through some of his wines, and I think it is safe to say that Renwood is back. The line-leading 2012 Grand Wren earned a 94/100 score in an August 2015 Wine Enthusiast review, heading a list of no fewer than seven Renwood zinfandels in the top 11 zinfandels in the review. (The lowest ranked of those seven scored an impressive 91/100 points.) Of course, prices have moved up in line with ratings. The Grand Wren tips the scales at $100 and none of the “magnificent seven” sell for less than $40.
The unwavering focus on individual vineyards is one of the reasons for the resurgence. The winery now has more single-vineyard wines than ever. Also, Shebl is effusive in his praise of the new owners, who made investments in new equipment and made the quality winemaking possible.
For a budget introduction to Renwood, try the 2013 Premier Old Vine Zinfandel ($20). A little further up is the 2012 Fiddletown Zinfandel ($25). Both are masterclasses in what modern zinfandel is about, offering mouthfuls of ripe, gushing, forward fruit (blackberries, black cherries, and plums) and sometimes touches of black pepper, all atop a sultry velvet tannin foundation — with a corresponding nose that explodes out of the glass in as many directions as a North Korean ballistic missile test.
Further up the price range are the single-vineyard wines on which the Renwood name will stand or fall. The 2013 Grandmére ($65) is (despite the accent being the wrong way around on the label — merde!) a standard bearer, winner of a Double Gold at the 2016 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. The principal differences between zinfandel like this and the bottlings referred to earlier is a seismic shift in fruit intensity and an individuality that makes the vineyard terroir a recognizable entity in its own right.
Renwood also does half a dozen other grapes including whites such as viognier and orange muscat and a rosé made from 100 percent zinfandel (only 200 cases of that). Other reds include barbera, petite sirah, syrah, and tempranillo. It will be interesting to see how these evolve in the product line.
Renwood wines are in national distribution and may also be ordered online.