Duane David Dappen (yep, D-Cubed) says a big reason he likes Zinfandel is because it’s fun. “It’s California: relaxed and naturally bright,” he says. “And going to a Zin tasting is way more fun than going to a Cab tasting. Just walk into the room. You can feel the difference in the air.”
Dappen has nothing against Cabernet. He’s even the winemaker for another winery, called Bravante Vineyards, where he makes Cabernet, Merlot and Bordeaux blends. But for his personal endeavor, it’s a one-man Zinfandel-makin’ show. (OK, and a little Petite Sirah, too.) “I got a chance to buy a little fruit from an 80-year-old Petite Sirah vineyard, so I went for it,” he says. “Most of Napa’s Petite Sirah grapes were removed in the 1990s. But what was left was the better, more interesting stuff.” This particular wine won’t be released until next year.
Regardless of what Dappen is making, it’s definitely interesting stuff. At D-Cubed, he currently has four different Zinfandels released, each with its own distinctive characteristics.
“Zinfandel is versatile,” he says. “And that’s both a strength and a weakness, because the casual tasters might try one they don’t like and make up their mind [against it] before trying different styles and making a more informed decision.” He notes that there are two styles of Zinfandel, the traditional claret style, and the “fruit bomb.” It’s a matter of taste as far as what you like.
Dappen’s style is to create wines that reflect their vineyard or region of origin and also to ensure they pair well with food. (In other words, he mostly leaves the “fruit bombs” to other winemakers.”) On his website, you’ll find a link to “Audrey’s Kitchen,” which has recipes you can pair with his wines. At first glance, it might seem Audrey is Dappen’s chef. In actuality, she’s his 11-year-old daughter. So the recipes are “food I cook, that she eats, that goes with Zinfandel.” Each recipe must meet Audrey’s approval before being posted on the site. Dappen’s 3-year-old son, William, isn’t quite as vocal about the food. He’s more into fishing.
Right now the 2006 vintage is in the barrel and is just about ready to be bottled. In addition to the Petite Sirah, another new wine Dappen is making this time around is Primitivo (an Italian clone of Zinfandel). “It’s a little looser clustered,” he says. “It ripens more evenly and there’s not as much spice as with California Zins.” Most of the Primitivo gets blended into Dappen’s Napa Valley Zinfandel, but this time around, he’s kept some separate. “There’s not a huge market for Primitivo, but I think it’ll be interesting for people to taste the difference,” he says. Right now, it has a lot of berry aromas and flavors—and as far as I could tell, already tastes better than some of the Zins currently on the shelf.
“I think the 2006 vintage has really bright fruit. They’ll be accessible wines to drink young, and they’ll age well too. They’ll be fun to drink early. The same goes for the ’06 Cabernets and Merlots.”
There’s also a Korte Ranch Zinfandel from a 70- to 80-year-old vineyard just north of St. Helena. The difference between the two is immediately apparent. This one has a peppery nose and dark fruit flavors. The Brown Estate, which was planted in the early 1980s in the Chiles Valley, is also spicy on the nose. “This is more of the fruit bomb style,” says Dappen. “But it has the acidity to hold its structure.” And it’s meaty (Dappen says the meatiness is an element of the American oak in which it’s aged). “This is becoming a well-known vineyard. There are three or four wineries that make single-vineyard block wines from it. One of them is called ‘Kilt Lifter.’ You gotta love Scottish women!”
Dappen describes his Howell Mountain Zinfandel as one of his “big dogs.” I’m not so sure the others wouldn’t fall into that category just as easily, but who am I to judge dog size? “Howell Mountain wines have more structure and complexity than what I find in other appellations,” he says. “It has a lot to do with the volcanic nature of the soil. It’s sunnier up there, and the season starts later. The cool fog in the valley keeps it sunny and cool.”
Dappen’s Black Sears Zinfandel is made from the same vineyard where he purchased grapes for his first D-Cubed vintage in 1994. “It’s spicy on the nose. It’s my most intense vineyard.” Out of the barrel it has white pepper aromas and earthy aspects. Its luscious mouthfeel rounds out its remarkable characteristics with style and grace. In short, I was “wowed.”
Dappen, without a doubt, has Zinfandel in his soul. Having grown up in El Dorado County (near Placerville—where there are some excellent Zinfandels being produced), his winemaking career started out with a 4-H entry (“we were in high school and my friend’s dad helped us”) in the El Dorado County Fair Home Winemaking competition. The group made four entries (the wine was made in an old gold mine), and its blackberry wine won “Best of Show.” Next came an enology degree from UC Davis, followed by work at Grgich Hills Cellars, Jerry Seps’ Storybrook Mountain, Rombauer Vineyards and, finally, Frank Family Vineyards (where he currently makes his D-Cubed wines). “I couldn’t have asked for a more varied foundation,” he says.
You can find D-Cubed wines at The Vintner’s Collective in downtown Napa (1245 Main St.), on the D-Cubed website or in various wine shops throughout the North Bay. Dappen is also a host of this year’s ZAP “Masters of Zin” MexaZin cruise, which will embark this November (see www.zinfandel.org for more information). So be assured, regardless of the time or place you taste them, D-Cubed Zinfandels are all about fun.
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