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Kempton Clark zinfandel great wonderful
by Jonathon Alsop
November 1999

According to legend, sheep rancher Kempton Clark got into the wine business when he hired a team of Basque shepherds to come work his ranches in California. They demanded wine as part of their contract, and before he knew it, he was in the wine business.

Probably wisely, the Basques were willing to make the wine themselves, so Kempton Clark planted ten acres of zinfandel. For years, they called it Basque Red, and the little they didn't drink went not too far beyond Clark's cellar. Today, coming up on its fourth decade, the Kempton Clark line from R.H. Phillips is great old vines stuff.

The flag ship wine is the '97 Lopez Ranch Zinfandel, 100% zinfandel from 85 year-old vines near Cucamonga. Right behind that comes the '97 Mad Zin, a more affordable blend of zinfandel and petite sirah. With California prices a little out of control in the waning moments of the century, both of these wines fall right into the middle of the normal range for dependably good wine, which makes them both bargains, since they're much more than that.

One of the best characteristics of California zinfandel is a ripe concentration of red fruit flavors -- raspberry, blackberry, bing cherry, menthol, smoke and more all comingle. The Lopez Ranch is head and shoulders above the Mad Zin when it comes to intensity of fruit and absolute extraction, as it should be.

When wine comes out tasting too much like a cough drop, it can't be taken entirely seriously, and that's a lot of the criticism of California zinfandel, especially in the $10 to $15 dollar range. Even around $20, you can end up with something that's infused with USDA Oak Flavor Number 9.

Both of the Kempton Clark zins are oak aged, but the touch is light. The Lopez Ranch spends even less time in wood than the Mad Zin, and the result is a fluffy feeling wine in the mouth with lots of tannin, but soft and smooth tannin. Either of these would be a great introduction for people who aren't sure if they like red wine.

People get into the wine business for many different reasons: the desire to make a lot of money, which can be done; the desire to make a lot of friends, a little harder thing; or the desire to consume vast quantities of excellent wine, something that seems to motivate plenty of people. Thanks to that Basque wine contract, we have even more excellent wine to motivate us.

'97 Kempton Clark Lopez Ranch Zindandel (about $18, available at the larger wine shops around Boston, but availability is limited) Fresh fruit flavors, bark and sap essence, soft everywhere tannins come together in an awesomely yummy wine. The color is like a garnet with a black center. Take it to Thanksgiving if that's your job, just don't let any of it get near your turkey.

'97 Kempton Clark Mad Zin (about $13, available pretty much everywhere) Bright red and smelling of juicy fresh berries, super light oak and tannins, a brusque and unpolished beauty. Much better than many zins at this price.

The previous most compelling story I'd heard about people getting into the wine business came from Peter Berntson of Diamond Hill Vineyards in Cumberland, Rhode Island.

Peter met his wife Claire while he was stationed in France with the Air Force, and she was an exchange student there of some kind as well. They were young and beautiful, free and in love a million miles from home, so I probably don't have to paint you a picture of the wild and wonderful picnics they enjoyed between the vines.

Peter and Claire resolved to have that vineyard experience close at hand always, so to speak, and today they have five acres of pinot noir vines right within easy reach of the house. Most of their wine business is still in their barrel fermented and oak rich fruit wines, but their pinot noir is there every year. If it doesn't come in ripe enough to make a rich red wine, they do a rose.

Either way, there's opportunity for Peter and Claire to stage more than a couple of picnics, I'm sure.

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