We were lucky enough to attend the sold-out Project Zin fundraiser for the Downs Syndrome Association of the North Bay last night in Healdsburg, CA. Clay Mauritson of Mauritson Family Wines/Rockpile Wines and Charlie Palmer of Dry Creek Kitchen (and about half a dozen other acclaimed restaurants) sponsor this event. Between their respective mailing lists and the word of mouth from the other wine sponsors, this sells out in a flash, along with all the rooms at Palmer's Hotel Healdsburg. Guests came from as far away as Pennsylvania, according to Carrie Mauritson, Clay's wife. Carrie has an astounding memory for just about everyone she has ever met and recognized members of the Mauritson wine club from events many years ago.
The chefs also traveled from far and wide to prepare the food. Pictured below are some of the chefs and Clay--including Darin Nesbit from the Palace Cafe, "Cajun Frank" from Harvest Moon Brewery in New Jersey (and points in between), but the wine was strictly local, and strictly Zinfandel.
21 Wineries were represented, including almost all the great names of Zin. At our first stop, right by Charlie Palmer's cook station, were Rafanelli, Carlisle, and Williams-Selyem. We stopped for some Carlisle (2011 RRV) and W-S (2011 Bacigalupi). We paired that with Charlie's filet mignon "lollipops," a strip of filet wrapped around a roasted potato filling and cooked on a skewer. Carlisle was my first stop because every Zin maker tells me that's what he drinks when he's not drinking his own, and it's impossible to get unless you are on the mailing list. Mike Officer is essentially a legend in Zin circles, and he's only been at it commercially since 1998. If you aren't on the list, this is your best shot at getting some of his juice. I had high expectations, and they weren't disappointed.
Spreading our bets and doubling our efforts, my wife and I opted for different pours. She had the Williams-Selyem Bacigalupi. Of course we shared. We agreed the W-S was less blockbuster fruit, more layered and spicy. That's her kind of Zin and it was probably her Wine of the Night. Nice start!
While we were enjoying the first round, we met some folks who insisted we try Beekeeper, which was located in the entry area--we had walked past it on our way to our first stop. We were pretty focused on getting that W-S and Carlisle, I have to admit. Our new friends were fans of Ian Blackburn, who runs LearnAboutWine.com, a tasting and education company in LA. We met Ian, who was pouring his wine, and were not surprised that we liked it when we learned it was made at Mauritson with Clay from Rockpile Madrone Springs grapes. It's quite a bit more fruit forward than Clay's own blends, but still has the hallmarks of Rockpile--although we don't get the Zin from Madrone as members of the Rockpile club, only the Syrah. We took our glasses and grabbed two more small plates of beef--a smoked tri-tip and a chuck roast braised to perfection and served in a beef fat emulsion--gravy, but not like gravy you've had before. The two restaurants represented in these dishes were Bistro Ralph and Spoonbar--apologies, but I can't remember which one made which dish.
Beef in many forms is a perfect complement to Zin, and the beef served at Project Zin was especially on the money. No coincidence, really, as it was all Painted Hills beef, donated by Clay's father, who is a long-time rancher. As Carrie Mauritson said, her father in law is not one for big crowds and fancy events; he'd rather be in his truck walking the rows in the vineyards. But he wanted to do his part, and donating some of the best beef in the west was his end. We're picky about our meat, but this was delicious: Flavorful and tender, without the feed lot queasiness we often feel after eating commercial meat. I won't be touching red meat for a week (not till I go to OT's event next weekend) but I won't be missing it--I was deeply satisfied.
We moved on--incredible meatballs from Peloton Catering while we tried some Valdez Family St. Peter's Church and a Turley. The Turley name carries a lot of cachet, but if you don't know the story of Ulises Valdez, you owe it to yourself to read it. An odyssey indeed--from vineyard worker to having his wines served at the White House. We enjoyed both wines--but there was a long way to go yet. We hadn't had a drop of RockWall, Seghesio, or Bedrock yet. But those would have to wait--tucked away in a corner was a table with Sbragia and Ridge, and Ed Sbragia was pouring his own wines! We headed that way, once we figured out where the room was, and cornered Ed. I took a glass of Ridge, and my wife took a pour of Sbragia. Ed was perfectly willing to pose for a picture, even as my flash was dying and taking forever to go off.
Ridge was pouring Lytton Springs, which doesn't always have enough Zin to label itself as such, but everyone considers it a classic Zin. I'm sorry to say this one left me a little flat, but that didn't stop me from finishing the glass, mostly so that I didn't steal my wife's Sbragia (Promessa, I'm pretty sure). I went back the the table and got a pour of my own from Ed. My wife described it as "Italian," which is big praise from her, as she loves Chianti Classico and Brunello, and will also down Nero d'Avola, Ghemme, and all but the toughest Baroli with relish. My take was that it was definitely more on the rustic and savory side than anything I'd tasted thus far. Although she and I both like the same Zins, our favorites often differ--case in point round one, where I liked the Carlisle and she liked the W-S. But we both agreed the Sbragia was a contender for WOTN over the aforementioned first rounders.