Dunne on Wine

Wine commemorates the classic zinfandel of Charles Myers

Darrell Corti flips through the home winemaking journal of Charles Myers, who started to keep the journal in 1956.
Darrell Corti flips through the home winemaking journal of Charles Myers, who started to keep the journal in 1956.

On a spring day in 1968, a few wine enthusiasts gathered for a picnic at Ken Deaver’s vineyard in Amador County’s Shenandoah Valley.

One of them was Bob Trinchero, winemaker for his family’s Sutter Home Winery in Napa Valley. Another was Sacramento grocer Darrell Corti, who had brought along unassuming bottles of 1965 and 1966 zinfandels. They were made by Corti’s pal, home winemaker Charles Myers, an English teacher at Sacramento City College who also joined the party.

What happened next turned out to be a pivotal moment in California’s modern wine history. Over cold cuts and bread, Corti poured the zinfandels. Trinchero liked them so much he struck a deal with Deaver to start buying zinfandel from his vineyard.

“I hadn’t the faintest idea where Amador County was, but the wine … dazzled me,” Trinchero recalled recently via email. “It was virtually black in color, with a huge bouquet of ripe, spicy blackberry fruit, a thick, chewy texture and incredibly intense, robust flavors. It was really one of the finest wines I’d ever tasted. … When we released our 1968 Amador County Zinfandel in 1971 it put us on the map.”

(Over the decades, accounts of that epiphanous moment have differed on the vintage of the Myers wine, with reports ranging from 1963 to 1966. Corti, however, is confident that both the 1965 and the 1966 zinfandels made by Myers were poured at the picnic.)

When Trinchero released the Sutter Home zinfandel off the 1968 harvest from Deaver’s vineyard, consumers also were struck that the variety could express so much thrust and grit.

It created such buzz that it helped secure Sutter Home’s standing for zinfandel and laid the foundation for what today is the nation’s second largest family-owned winery, Trinchero Family Estates, home to 45 brands selling 28 million cases annually, say company officials. (Trinchero still buys zinfandel from the Deaver vineyard, with grapes from the older vines in the plot going to neighboring Terra d’Oro Winery. Owned by Trinchero, Terra d’Oro uses that fruit for a Deaver Vineyard zinfandel.)

The original 1968 Sutter Home zinfandel also drew attention to Shenandoah Valley, which then had just one winery and only around 400 acres in wine grapes. Today, Shenandoah Valley has about 3,700 acres in grapes and 30 wineries, reports Melissa Lavin, executive director of the Amador Vintners Association.

And after 16 years as a home winemaker, Charles Myers went commercial, founding Harbor Winery in West Sacramento in 1972.

When he began home winemaking in 1956, Myers kept a notebook that detailed virtually all the steps he took to make each of his wines, from picking grapes to bottling the final product.

After Myers died last year at 85, Corti found the notebook in a stack of books at the family’s estate sale and paid Myers’ daughter Margaret $2 for the journal. In it, Myers outlined how he made his first zinfandel from the Deaver vineyard in 1965. While he didn’t say was how much he paid Deaver for the 500 pounds of grapes, he noted that zinfandel from the vineyard was selling for $75 a ton at the time. Today, zinfandel in the same area can command more than $2,000 a ton.

Corti feels that Myers’ role in establishing Amador County as a fine-wine region has been underappreciated. To help compensate for that oversight, Corti struck upon the notion of producing a commemorative wine to mark the 50th anniversary of the first zinfandel that Myers made with grapes from Deaver’s vineyard.

Thus, on the eve of last year’s harvest, Corti handed Myers’ journal to winemaker Mark McKenna of Andis Winery in Shenandoah Valley and asked him to make a zinfandel in accord with the steps Myers took in 1965. (McKenna recently left Andis.)

That wine, under the Corti Brothers label, is now being released ($25). McKenna couldn’t follow precisely each measure that Myers took in making his 1965 zinfandel. Grapes for the wine, for one, didn’t come from the Deaver vineyard but from a neighboring plot on the Andis estate.

“I followed his path pretty closely,” McKenna said in July as he pulled samples of the wine prior to bottling. “It was a real comfortable wine to make. It behaved itself the entire time. It’s like an echo of history.”

Corti was delighted by the results. Among other things, the wine came in with 13 percent alcohol, more representative of the style of zinfandel in the 1960s than today’s warmer interpretations, especially in Amador County, where alcohol levels not infrequently range between 15 and 16 percent.

During that early tasting, Corti also liked the wine for its freshness, fruitiness and the “brambly” character that he feels distinguishes Amador County zinfandel. “This is what the wine was like when Charles made the wine,” he said.

He also picked up a trace of egg yolk in the zinfandel’s aroma, an uncommon smell in wine.

With just a little age to the wine, that trace commonly disappears, and with bottling and release of the 2015 tribute zinfandel, it has. Now, the wine is lithe and frisky, its intense raspberry fruit punctuated with cinnamon and cloves. It is rich but not overly ripe, and its acidity is rejuvenating. It isn’t a blockbuster as are so many zinfandels today, but that wasn’t the intent. The model for zinfandel in the 1960s was of a relatively light and direct wine, but capable of aging.

“This is very comparable,” Corti said of the finished wine. “It has very pretty fruit, which is one of the charms of zinfandel. Before 1968, zinfandel always made a light wine, but it was a wine that would keep. With age, those wines were almost like old Bordeaux.”

Ironically, the wine isn’t in a high-shouldered Bordeaux bottle, which is the California custom. Instead, Corti chose a slope-shouldered Burgundy bottle, which was Myers’ practice. In contrast to the Myers’ way, however, the bottles are topped with screwcaps, not corks. “Charles didn’t use screwcaps for his wines but he wasn’t averse to them,” Corti says.

But the most striking aspect of the bottle is its label art, a 1963 painting by Sacramento artist Wayne Thiebaud called “Man Reading.” The man in the painting wears a suit and tie, sits on a spindly chair, and is so bent and engrossed in his book that the top of his bald head dominates his features. The model, then as now, was Charles Myers.

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.