I’ll start the story of Bruce Patch, with some background. When I started Uncorked Ventures with my brother in law Matt, or really a few months before that when we were talking about starting Uncorked Ventures, I wanted to get a feel for the wines that people were drinking.
San Diego, isn’t exactly home to a huge number of world class wine stores though, so that became something of a challenge. Two of the few spots that I came to appreciate almost immediately were the Wine Bank a few blocks from our home downtown & San Diego Wine Company, out in Miramar close to the helicopter base, which will always remind me of the Top Gun days…..but I digress.
In any case, there was a single maker of Zinfandel that was almost always sitting out near the counter at both stores: Wine Guerilla. The bottle art was memorable(San Diego has always been among the most conservative & family values centered regions in California and the art work was anything but) and the wines, were always Zinfandel.
A few weeks back, I became aware that the guy behind that Wine Guerilla brand, was actually Bruce Patch and that he was living and working still in Sonoma, with many of the same vineyard locations, but that he’d taken a step forward or two in terms of both production quality, but also price point.
So, here’s the deal with Zinfandel. Zinfandel vines can produce fruit for basically, an unending period of time. I’ve seen 125 year old vines in Napa Valley and there are older vineyard sites sprinkled throughout much of Northern California. When the average vine needs to be pulled after 30 years, Zinfandel is only getting started.
That’s both good and bad unfortunately. Old vine Zin, is as good as you’d expect. But, as vines age, their production quantities go down as well. Smaller quantity of fruit per vine, well I’m sure you can guess what that does to price point.
For our Explorations Wine Club, the unfortunate honest answer is that a real old vine Zin, is going to be hard to fit in when it comes to price points. Zinfandel from warmer sites (really the only spots it is planted these days) can be less complicated and less interested than Cabernet on the same site. That’s why, the grape has continued to struggle to gain market share.
So, I knew I needed to find someone that had done this before-but whose production would be small enough to fit nicely into my wine of the month club programs.
At first, I wanted to talk to the folks at Rock Wall Wine Company. I know their wine is good, I like the location on an old Navy base facing the financial district of San Francisco tells a story about urban winemaking here around SF and the family is the one behind Rosenblum Cellars, itself a famous Zinfandel name right? Well after the family sold the namesake winery a few blocks down, daughter and winemaker started a new project, that is of smaller production levels. As it turns out though, they’re already way too big for me to ship and call it a find.
So, eventually someone mentioned Bruce Patch and his old label, Wine Guerilla. It was pretty easy to be interested in seeing what he had going.
Bruce is more of a negociant than an actual winemaker-meaning in many cases he’s buying half finished juice, at least as often as he’s buying grapes. That’s a French concept in many ways and IMO, just fine to start seeing in California. It helps the industry handle the normal ups and downs that happen as part of the economic cycle-after all, pouring wine down the drain as has happened before, hardly helps anyone.
One way that good negociants can help to fix half finished juice, is by adding a little something to the blend. This is where art really becomes art, more so than science (and I think the actual act of fermentation is definitely science if you’re wondering).
Newer Zinfandel vineyards produce a lighter styled wine than most of us expect from Zinfandel, which can be a problem: of course, you can fix that by adding something to thicken up the mix so to speak. In this Zinfandel (the bottle is about 80% Zin, it has to be above 75% to be named that in California btw) you also have 8% Alicante Bouchet, 7% Carignan and 5% Petite Sirah.
Petite Sirah is likely familiar, it’s the inky and almost tarry grape that a select few winemakers are trying to bottle as its own entity these days. Carignan is one of my favorite grapes when done well, it’s intense as well.
Lastly, I even had to look up the Alicante Bouchet. In 5 years of picking wines for my wine clubs, I’ve never seen it listed on a label. Unlike some of my competitors, I won’t say that I taste a couple of hundred wines per month, I try to narrow down my options before tasting all that much, but I do end up tasting at least 50, maybe twice that number on some occasions.
Alicante Bouchet is a blending grape, largely used in the cheapest and least expensive wines made at any point out of California’s warmest interior regions. You know the spots, they produce those $5 jugs of bad Merlot that we all started out drinking.
I don’t bring that up to say this is cheap, instead as an example that Bruce Patch is using his winemaking skills, to produce something for $20, that according to literally every consumer written wine review you read, tastes a lot more like $30.
I’m still, as someone who likes wine, trying to figure out what to make of Zinfandel in general. We’re more a Mediterranean diet kind of house, than a BBQ rib kind of place and that can make Zinfandel a tough inclusion at times. That being said, we do love our hamburgers and we’re slowly getting more denser food added (after all I have 2 growing boys to feed)…..so Zin will find an ongoing spot. I think you’ll find this is a nice option when looking for a high quality Zinfandel, without having to fork over $40 or more to get it.