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NorCal Wine Blog

On Wine, Jazz and Inkblots

Great wine, like instrumental jazz, mines the observer for meaning. A bottle can be shared among friends, as can a night at The Blue Note. Everyone gets the same input. But individual perceptions can be very different. These are not representational arts with obvious images. They are more like the inkblots of a Rorschach test — an image that exposes your own personality and memories as you describe it.


Recently, Christopher Watkins, instigator-in-chief at Ridge Vineyards, unleashed jazz and wine on the minds of a small band of writers. He gave us this challenge: taste four untitled works of wine, drink in four tracks of music featuring jazz bassist Paul Chambers’ amazing fingers, then pair the sips to the songs. Creative motivation was provided by the requirement that we explain our pairings out loud, in front of a video camera. For this blind tasting, what mattered wasn’t where the wine came from, but where it took us.

The wines were all excellent. But, after the briefest of discussions, it was clear people saw them in very different ways. Nobody debated cherry vs. berry. Instead, the wines’ overall personalities, the stories they told and how they lined up with personal preferences provided the points of departure.

Those things were also the key to linking the wines with the music. None of the songs sounded like black currant. They were energetic or loping, disciplined or chaotic, cheery or “evil,” overtly complex or subtly complex. The music painted pictures of smoke-filled jazz grottos in Paris, sunny days in Mayberry, Miles Davis’ scowl and Monk playing piano to a different drummer.

Sometimes one wine was seen to have two wholly different spirits, both revolving around the same quality. The 1997 Ridge Geyserville Zinfandel’s velvety palate carries flavors of brown sugar and slightly raisiny fruit. Do you take that at face value and stroll back to happy memories of childhood innocence, eating delicious oat and raisin cookies on a beautiful summer’s day? Or is that wine an evil temptress, the wicked witch that lures Hansel and Gretel to her oven with sweets?

Christopher dealt the wines and music like a deck of inkblots. He exposed our personalities, moods and happy/dark pasts. He filmed our confessions. If not for our use of spit cups, there may have been a need for surreptitious cosmetic surgery and relocation.

While you’re reading my comments on the wines below, enjoy one of the songs we tasted. Here’s So What from Miles Davis’ 1959 album Kind of Blue. It features Paul Chambers on bass, Bill Evans at the piano, Billy Cobb on drums and both John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley on saxophone. The record was highly-improvisational with Davis giving the players only brief sketches of what he wanted them each to do. Kind of Blue remains a critics' favoriite and is thought to be the best-selling jazz recording of all time.


Four Hits from Ridge Vineyards

2001 Ridge Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon
The wine is medium-plus ruby in color and a little cloudy. Light, flaky black sediment settled to the bottom of my glass. Aromas include sweet black currant, cigar box, cherry and currant leaf. The body is medium-plus with moderate tannins of lightly chalky texture. Fruit intensity, acidity and alcohol are well-balanced and the finish long. This is a beautiful, happy wine with flavors of ripe black currant and cherry with cigar box, a classic California Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s showing  gentle development and is both within a window of excellent drinkability and capable of going another fifteen years. This wine is happiness in a glass. Very Highly Recommended.

2000 Ridge Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon
If the 2001 Ridge Monte Bello exemplifies New World Cabernet Sauvignon, the 2000 might have passed for Old World if poured blind at someplace other than the winery that produced it. It has medium-plus intensity ruby color and good clarity with scant flakes of black sediment. It smells of damp leaves, black currant and funky leather. Medium to medium-plus body and medium-plus drying, light-grained tannins support earthy spice, moist leaves, restrained dark fruit and essence of a hard day’s work. It evolves steadily as it sits in the glass but does not change character. This was the favorite wine of a writer who said multiple times she doesn’t like this kind of wine. I’d drink it over the next five years lest it grow embittered and foment a workers’ revolution in your cellar. Highly Recommended.

1999 Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandel
This Zinfandel is a clear, ruby-hued wine with medium color saturation and an appreciable amount of black sediment flakes. The nose offers slightly dried black currant and cedar. The body is medium-plus and the tannins on the generous side of moderate, their fine powder becoming chalky and gently holding your attention through a medium-plus finish. Flavors of black berry fruit, tobacco and dark spices dominate but there is juiciness and a constant stream of fleeting interjections by other flavors. It’s a cheerfully crowded wine bar in a glass and shows no signs of going quiet. Highly Recommended.

1997 Ridge Geyserville Zinfandel
This old girl is clear and ruby at heart, but shows garnet roots and fine black sediment. It entices with aromas of sweet stewed cherry, drying black currant and sweet dark spices. The palate is an afternoon at Nanna’s house with cookies of stewed cherries and currant, chocolate, brown sugar and spice washed down with warm tea. Nanna says, “Kids these days who think ripe Zinfandel can’t age well are full of nonsense. Now where did I put my glasses?” Highly Recommended.

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This article is original to Photos by Fred Swan. Copyright 2012 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved. The Rorschach inkblot is in the public domain.