In Search of a Rockpile

Wine Wednesday this week took us in search of the elusive zinfandels from the Rockpile AVA.  Rockpile is the newest AVA in Sonoma, established in 2002.  It lies at high elevations (between 800 feet and 2,000 feet above sea level) in a remote area northwest of our home base in Healdsburg, in the hills above Lake Sonoma.  Although accounts vary, we’ve been told that only 11 vineyards are planted in this somewhat secretive AVA, comprising a total of about 100 acres of vines.  There are no wineries located in the AVA, just remote farming operations.

The zins we’ve tasted from the Rockpile AVA in the past have appealed to us because of their relative “un-zinfulness”; that is, the lack of heavy jammy fruit that seems to be a predominant feature of many mass-marketed California zinfandels.  The Rockpile zins, by contrast, have great berry elements (usually blueberry and blackberry) with some mild peppery spice and very light tannins.  There is thankfully no jam to be found anywhere near these wines.  They make great wines to pair with food but also have enough complexity to drink on their own. 

Frankly, the biggest problem with Rockpile zinfandel is finding one.  With such a small production AVA and limited supply available to only a handful of wineries (who either own the vineyards or have long term leases on the grapes up there), getting some of this prized juice is no easy feat.  But fear not, this is what Wine Wednesdays were designed for.

Our first stop was at Mauritson Winery, that owns the Rockpile brand name for their wines.  Their tasting room is located right in the Dry Creek Valley, but they own a significant percentage of the Rockpile acres planted to vines.  During our visit they were pouring four different vineyard-designated zinandels from Rockpile.  Interestingly, we also learned that they make small productions of syrah, malbec, and caberenet sauvignon from Rockpile.  But, today was all about the zins and we had the tasting room rep line up the four Rockpile zins for a side-by-side comparison.  Our two standout favorites were the 2006 Cemeterey Vineyard and the 2006 Westphall Ridge.  We got great fruit from both, with softer tannins and even a little flintiness from the Cemetery Vineyard wine.

Not satisfied with tasting these tough-to-find wines from the comfort of a large Dry Creek tasting room, we decided to trek up to the AVA and check things out for ourselves.  What did we find?  Pretty much a whole lot of nothing.  Other than a few signposts warning us to “Keep Out – Poison” and a small number of gated driveways, there wasn’t much to see except for the beautiful views from atop the 2,000 foot ridge line.  You can check out a picture at the bottom of the post for a sense of the remoteness and beauty of this area.

Not to be denied we made one last stop, this time at Seghesio Family Vineyards here in Healdsburg.  One of the oldest bonded wineries in California, Seghesio still operates out of its original location on Grove Street.  While the tasting room wasn’t officially serving any of their Rockpile zins, we were able to “sweet talk” our way into a bottle that the staff had opened the previous night for themselves (wine tasting tip of the week – it never hurts to ask for something that’s not on the tasting list, they usually try to accommodate you).  Again, the wine exhibited great fruit with soft tannins, beautiful color, and not the slightest hint of jaminess.  All in all, a great wine.

We’re going to continue to search out more Rockpile zins and will keep you posted about our progress.  If you get a chance to try some of these great wines, please do – especially if you’re not a lover of the over-ripe jammy zins that we personally avoid.  Rockpile zins are generally a good value – usually in the $30-$40 range, but simply in short supply.  A good wine shop or direct ordering from the wineries mentioned here may be your best bet.