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ZD Wines

Author: Karen Hart
October, 2019 Issue

In engineering parlance, ZD is an acronym for Zero Defects, a management tool aimed at the reduction of defects through prevention. It’s also the name of ZD Wines, founded in 1969 by two aeronautic engineers, Norman deLeuze and Gino Zepponi. The partners named the winery using the first initials of their surnames, but it was also a whimsical nod to a quality control program they worked under while designing rockets at AeroJet, a rocket propulsion manufacturer in Sacramento.

During the early days, they each invested $3,000 in the business. Working on a shoestring budget, they rented an old barn on the Sonoma side of the Los Carneros region and used old whiskey barrels to ferment the wine, mostly relying on their engineering-ZD approach. During the first 10 years, the partners remained in their day jobs at the engineering firm, while producing wine on weekends, holidays and vacations. In 1978, Norman became the winery’s first full-time employee. Meanwhile, they sought financing for a parcel of land along the Silverado Trail, widely considered a blessed terrior for Cabernet Sauvignon. When Zepponi passed unexpectedly in an accident in 1985, the deLeuze family bought out the Zepponi family interest, leaving Norman at the helm to continue their shared vision of ZD Wines.

Located in the heart of the Napa Valley, the winery recently finished renovations to its hospitality center, featuring a sleek, contemporary look, though a 37-year old Chardonnay vine suspended to the wall in the reception area serves as a reminder of the winery’s heritage. This year ZD celebrates 50 years in the business, and to celebrate the winery created its first-ever sparkling wine. On a mild late summer day in September, our host, Eric Savelberg greets us with a splash of bubbly, the perfect welcome wine to begin our vineyard tour tasting.

We begin in the barrel room where we learn about ZD’s winemaking approach and sample two soon-to-be-released vintages—a 2018 Founder’s Reserve Pinot Noir and a 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon. ZD’s commitment to organic farming practices and attention to detail from vine to bottle is what sets this winery a part. The fruit is hand picked and hand-sorted, then fermented in open tanks, along with the seeds, but without stems. “Open-top fermenting, allows the skins to float to the top and form a cap. We push the skins into the juice four times a day for Pinot,” explains Savelberg. “This ensures we get the right color, tannin and flavor.”

The next stop along the tour is what the ZD crews refers to as the “white room,” but with harvest about to begin, we get an abbreviated version of the tour and learn that ZD prefers a cold fermentation of its Chardonnay, which prevents the buttery flavor, giving their Chardonnays a refreshing, bright note.

On our way to the tasting room, Savelberg leads us through a long hallway that showcases a selection of wine bottles from various vintages and by chance, we encounter the second and third generation contingent of ZD Wines—Norman’s son, Robert deLeuze, chief executive officer and director of winemaking; and his son, Brandon deLeuze, partner and winemaker. The hallway serves as a  “walk through time”—as Robert calls it—and features photos of the founders during their early days as well as current photos of the deLeuze family. Robert was 11 years old when his father started the business. “I grew up in the business—most weekends and holidays were spent here,” he says, joking that the business rubbed off on him during his childhood.

The hall leads to the vineyard view room and deck, which offers a stunning view, where we have the immense pleasure of sharing a food-and-wine pairing with Robert and Brandon, who experience it for their first time with us.

ZD focuses on three varietals: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. We begin with the 2017 Reserve Carneros Chardonnay, a flagship wine with bright, fruit-driven aromas and a rich, creamy mouthfeel. This is paired with an inventive bite—goat cheese with preserved watermelon rind and herb oil. “We’re best known for our Chardonnays,” says Brandon. “Our Chardonnays maintain their natural acidity.”

Next, we move to the reds and begin with the 2018 Carneros Pinot Noir, which has lovely notes of strawberry and cherry with hints of vanilla and spice. This is paired with a local, apple-smoked trout on crostini, a delectable bite. And finally, we taste the 2015 Reserve Napa Valley Cabernet, a milestone vintage for the winery, as 100 percent of the grapes used to blend this Cabernet are certified organic. On the nose, it offers fragrant aromas of ripe cassis, blackberry, plum and hints of cedar. A lush beautiful wine that is elegant and balanced, it proves organic wines can be extraordinary. This final taste is paired with a savory braised beef turnover.

The move to organic didn’t happen easily, says Robert, but it’s all about taking care of the soil and it’s worth the effort. “Healthy, flavorful fruit makes excellent wine,” he says.

As ZD Winery celebrates half a century in the business it will release its Anniversary Reserve Cuvee Nov. 1. Next time you’re in Napa Valley, make a reservation for a tour and tasting at ZD, a jewel box of winery known for its attention to detail at every stage of the process from vine to bottle.




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