This year's ZAP Zinfandel Tasting was big in all the usual ways. Wineries by the hundreds. Two pavilions full of purple-toothed acolytes. Mountains of cheese. Go with America's Heritage Grape and you go big.
But big ain't what it used to be. Some may still vaunt their "monster" Zins, but though high in proof, dark tannic bogs of writhing flavonoids they are not. Possibly to the benefit of all parties, the varietal is being honed down to its medium-bodied, consumer-friendly incarnation, something like a spicier version of Merlot. Extraordinary Zinfandels may really be as rare as angels' visits (or demonic possessions), but I do miss the concentrated purple nightmares of yore.
So why do my barbarian taste buds flip 180 where it concerns the subtle, pale-red Zins of Harvest Moon, a boutique family winery in the Russian River Valley? The Pitts family sold grapes for decades until their thirty-something son returned to the farm and started vinting. Their modest, comfortable tasting room showcases estate-grown Zinfandel and Gewürztraminer. Harvest Moon Zins do seem to show their distinct charms from year to year. Is it the time-consuming vineyard practices of multiple harvests of each row--what winegrower Randy Pitts calls "shaving" the vineyard--and all the other diligence and love that's put into these small-lot wines?
Love is the theme of Harvest Moon's 2005 Randy Zin, their least expensive ($18), grab-and-go party-pleaser with a fun label, the winery's black sheep with blackberry fruit and fiery spice (a few minutes out of the bottle dissipates a slight initial greenness, I'm guessing from the addition of Syrah). The 2004 Russian River Valley ($24) has the signature rosewater and cranberry character, while the 2003 Pitts Home Ranch Estate ($32) adds a whiff of toasted coconut and an even more demure finish. It's still the 2002 Russian River Valley ($24) that hints best at that fleeting strawberry scent that enchanted me in the first place.
You might expect the 2006 Late Harvest Zinfandel ($32) to be syrupy, with overripe, raisiny fruit. You'd be wrong, deliciously so. The heady perfume is of raspberry and roses, fresh-baked pastry and the silky texture of--hey, is that wine just over two months old? They like to bring out chocolates to pair with your second go at the easy drinking treat, although I needed no more convincing to snap up a bottle for a dark winter's evening. For a warm summer's evening, there are the unique Gewürztraminers: a dry, a sparkling and a peaches and cream bathed in vanilla cream soda--I mean, dessert.
Harvest Moon Estate & Winery, 2192 Olivet Road, Santa Rosa. Open daily from 10:30am to 5pm. 707.573.8711.