Stuart Spencer calls his St. Amant Winery 2010 Lodi Marian's Old Vine Zinfandel "the mother of all zinfandels."
That can be taken a couple of ways. For one, the wine bears the names of two mothers. "St. Amant" is the family name of Spencer's mother, Barbara. "Marian" is in tribute to the late Marian Mohr Fry, who with her husband, Jeryl, began to farm wine grapes, cherries, beans and other crops in the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta in 1955. The Marian's Zinfandel is made with grapes grown in an 8-acre block on the sprawling Mohr-Fry Ranches at the southern reaches of Lodi, now under the direction of Marian's son Jerry.
Secondly, Marian's Zinfandel is one big and assertive zinfandel, even by Lodi standards, where zinfandels customarily are among the heavier and more concentrated in California.
At St. Amant Winery, Stuart Spencer abides by the standard set by his late father, Tim, when he and Barbara founded the place in 1981: Make wines that first express the nature of the site where the grapes are grown, with little intervention in the cellar.
For the Marian's Zinfandel, that means letting the grapes reach their full maturity, then handling them gingerly, so all their lush blackberry and raspberry fruitiness can be captured in the resulting wine.
That strategy also leaves the wine with a substantial wallop of alcohol, 15.9 percent in the case of the 2010 Marian's Zinfandel. The wine, however, doesn't taste hot. It's got enough sweet, ripe fruit to pretty much mask the heat of all that alcohol.
Often, zinfandels this massive, powerful and alcoholic will tire the palate after just a few tastes. The Marian's, however, is all about elegance and persistence, with one sip inviting another. Its richness is more refined than rustic, and the wine's overall impression is of evenhanded nobility.
There was a time when Spencer was concerned about the high level of alcohol in zinfandels made with grapes from the Marian's block of vines, which date from 1901. He tried various ways to reduce the alcohol, but he wasn't happy with the results, so he backed off and let the wine seize the essence of vineyard and vintage.
I tasted the 2010 alongside the 2009, and found the same sort of authority, sunshine, balance and length in both. In their depth and breadth, they are classic Lodi zinfandels, reflecting the appellation's rich soils, abundant sunshine and alternating warm days and cool nights.
They aren't tricked-up zinfandels. Spencer practices a careful hand with his use of oak barrels, most of which are American, only about a quarter of which are new. "Too much oak masks the Lodi charm, which is all that delicious fruit character," Spencer said.
Winemaking isn't Spencer's only passion. He's also a photographer. His photos that evoke the gritty work of farming a pair of weathered boots, rusty equipment, gnarled vine are featured in the labels of his wines. For the Marian's Zinfandel, he chose a photo of a vineyard sulfur duster dating from the 1920s; long ago, it was used at Mohr-Fry Ranches.
As with the Marian's Zinfandel, he also likes to give his wines names that suggest a story. He calls his verdelho "Miss Independent" both for his daughter pictured on the label and in recognition that he began to make the wine when virtually no one else was working with verdelho in California. His "Old Soldier" touriga was inspired by the photo of the circa-1950 Studebaker dump truck on the label. And the name "Bootleg" for one of his ports was inspired by his father, who had made a frantic trip to the Bay Area to retrieve a batch of port he'd made for a winery that he learned was about to file for bankruptcy.
"He drove down there and took back the port. He bootlegged it out of the place. That was our first commercial wine, a 1981 vintage port," Spencer said.
St. Amant Winery 2010 Lodi Marian's Old Vine Zinfandel
By the numbers: 15.9 percent alcohol, 300 cases, $24
Context: Winemaker Stuart Spencer likes the Marian's Zinfandel with rich meats, from the casual to the elegant, but he especially remembers a pairing by Philadelphia chef Tony Lawrence, who had prepared a "chocolate salad" to accompany the wine. Lawrence tossed field greens with bits of white chocolate, Gorgonzola, dried cranberries, espresso beans and brownie croutons, and dressed them with a vinaigrette based on rice-wine vinegar. "It actually goes very well with that wine," Spencer says.
Availability: The 2010 Marian's Old Vine Zinfandel should soon start to arrive in area grocery stores and wine shops. In the meantime, it can be bought at St. Amant Winery's tasting room, 1 Winemaster Way, Lodi, open noon to 4 p.m. weekends.