I was fortunate to share a meal with Mike Dashe -- and several of his wines -- some seven or so years ago. A mutual friend arranged the little soiree here in New York City and introduced me to these lovely wines that highlight the luscious fruit of old vine Zinfandel, but manage to avoid the worst excesses that usually accompany the breed: excessive alcohol, over-ripe pruny flavors, and flabbiness.
The fact that these wines show such poise and definition should come as no surprise; Mike learned a thing or two during his stint at Ridge Vineyards, as assistant winemaker to Paul Draper, no less. The wines Mike produces today share much with the famed Ridge Zins. They may no longer be called Zinfandel, but Geyserville and Lytton Springs will always be Zins to me.
What to expect: ZinfandelZinfandel is considered America's own great, indigenous grape, even though its origins lay on the Adriatic coast. Planted throughout California and the Pacific Northwest, Zinfandel is at its best in warm regions with cooler temperatures during harvest. The wines can range from off-dry Rosés (White Zinfandel) and light, bistro-styled wines to big, rich powerful wines - even luscious wines for dessert bottlings. The flavors range from plummy to raspberry, although deep blackberry fruit and brambly spice tones are most common.
The Dashe style, while echoing that of Ridge, shows an obvious evolution. Gone is the American oak, replaced by a judicious use of French oak. The wines generally show a bit more restraint than the best of the Ridge wines, yielding more focus and elegance in the mouth. That elegance and restraint might just be the influence of Mike’s wife, Anne, a trained oenologist with a background that includes time spent at both St. Emilion’s Chateaux la Dominique as well as Chappellet and Seavey in the Napa Valley.
The couple founded Dashe Cellars in 1996 with a shared vision: To craft elegant, layered wines from great vineyards using time-honored techniques. To this day Mike and Anne continue to produce their wines using indigenous yeasts, little or no fining or filtering, and the attention to detail only a small-scaled winery can achieve.
The wines move from strength to strength with each passing year, and while Dashe remains under the radar, they deserve all the attention they get. These are wines, the Zins in particular, that preserve a part of California’s vinous heritage. Zinfandel is undergoing a renaissance of sorts. While it lacks the glamour and cachet of Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir, and thus the prices those wines realize, it is truly California’s own.
Yes, it may be Primitivo -- but Primitivo does not taste like classic California Zinfandel. Zinfandel is a treasure that has been perverted over the years. First by White Zinfandel -- and I thank God for White Zinfandel, which saved countless acres of old vines -- and then by a style of winemaking that forced everything out of each grape, even some things we didn’t really want or need.
The Dashe style is one that finds the happy medium that allows for wines to be super expressive and eminently drinkable at the same time. It’s no surprise that I like the wines, what may be surprising is how damn good their dry Riesling is! You have to love these wines; I mean, who else has a monkey riding a whale on their labels?
And since we are talking about the unusual here, I urge you all to try and find a bottle of the Dashe L’enfant Terrible Zinfandel. This cult wine, and it really is about as culty as they come, is Zinfandel as a French or Italian farmer might make it, bright fruits over earthy tones with no discernable oak influence.
In 2008, production was way down due to rain during flowering, adding to the culty nature of this wine since it’s now almost impossible to find; if you track a bottle down, you must try it. If you can’t, keep on the watch for the release of the 2009. L’enfant Terrible is a uniquely wonderful wine, and one that will help solidify Dashe’s reputation as a great American winery.
This has some immediate and penetrating aromatics. It smells a bit leesy at first, then it offers up intense yellow apple, peach, floral, and sharp, granitic mineral tones with a hint of salt and a tiny hint of garlic chive. On entry this is fun and rich, profoundly so considering it's completely dry. The fruit is cut by mineral tones; a touch more acidity would not be a bad thing. It’s full of apple, and subtle unripe pineapple flavors that yield to more minerality and soft dried mango and earthy notes on the long finish with just a whisper of icy mint on the finale. A really lovely effort that combines a rich mouthfeel with attractive minerality. This would work very well with oily white fish like swordfish or mackerel. 92pts
This has a bit of fuminess to it at first and needs time to gain some focus, but it reveals dark chocolate-streaked, pepper-laced dark berry fruit touched with sapwood and smoky, loamy earth. It’s surprisingly light on the palate with more than a bit of tannin to lose, but features wonderfully refreshing and pure, slightly spicy, briary black raspberry fruit that offers up hints of orange oil and baking spice on the backend. The finish allows the tannins to creep back up, giving this excellent follow-through with the toasty vanilla of the oak being covered with cool, wild red berry fruit until the spicy finale. Give this two years to let the tannins soften and drink it over the next five or so, or else grill up some beef and enjoy this for all it offers today. 92pts
This has a very fine nose, real brambly blackberry and black cherry fruit with a touch of plum and licorice, a bit meaty with a nice savory hoisin note tightly wound up in the fruit. This is a big wine on entry with lots of glycerin and richness but almost immediately it gains snap and focus. The tannins here are abundant but quite fine, and the acidity is floating just under the fruit. The flavors are dark and just a bit dusky with plum, caramel, earth, licorice, and a hint of mint all in balance on the mid-palate. The backend offers nice lift to the fruit, which floats off on the long finish. This is spicy on the backend but surprisingly lightweight with black fruit notes and a licorice, leathery savory tone on the finale. A bit of a tight showing but this promises to flesh out and soften a bit with time in the bottle, remaining elegant but gaining breadth in the mouth. I can see this working well with pork in chipotle sauce. 90pts
This has a huge nose with top notes of violets over deep black plum, slight prune, and spicy hints of chocolate and vanilla with a core of savory elements that recall herbal, dried black olives. Lightly sweet on entry this has plenty of acidity to keep the wine lively and lovely ripe tannins that help break up the sweetness. It’s a light, fresh style of dessert wine with a balance akin to fresh fruit making it easy to drink. It’s a bit simpler on the palate than on the nose, but is full of briary, tobacco-edged plummy and dried berry fruit that yields to a lightly sweet finish balanced by drying tannins. 91pts
Two Brilliant Examples from Dashe Cellars2008 Dashe Dry Riesling McFadden Farms
On entry this is fun and rich, profoundly so considering this is completely dry. A really lovely effort that combines a rich mouthfeel with attractive minerality and flavors of intense yellow apples and peaches. This would work very well with oily white fish like swordfish or mackerel.
2006 Dashe Zinfandel Louvau Vineyard Old Vines
This is surprisingly light on the palate with more than a bit of tannin to lose, but wonderfully refreshing and pure, with slightly spicy, briary black raspberry fruit. Give this two years to let the tannins soften and drink it over the next five or so, or else grill up some beef and enjoy this for all it offers today.