You might have heard about the recent trend in red wine production in which full-bodied wines such as Zinfandel are aged in used bourbon barrels. It seems to go hand-in-hand with the millennials’ fascination for artisanal spirits and craft cocktails: wines exposed to a breath of American whiskey might appeal to their youthful palates, inspiring them to drink more wine. But what you might not know is that this process has been around a lot longer than you think. It’s more “What’s Old Is New Again” rather than a clever ploy to capitalize on bourbon’s recent popularity.
Turns out, aging wines in used bourbon barrels goes back to the early days of California wine production, when oak barrels were in short supply, even if you had enough money to pay for them. Used (neutral) whiskey barrels, on the other hand, were affordable and available, and budget-conscious winemakers took advantage of them.
Bob Blue, Winemaker and Head Storyteller at 1000 Stories sees his wines as a throwback to those times, but with a modern twist. While his predecessors worked to minimize the discernible influence of the barrels on a wine’s natural aromas and flavors, Blue believes that a subtle hint of bourbon enhances the finished product.
Finding Just the Right Barrels
1000 Stories’ flagship wine is based on Zinfandel, a grape known for its profusion of red fruit flavors and spicy aromas. California produces some of the finest Zin in the world, from plots of old vines in places like Lodi, Paso Robles, Mendocino, and Amador. To enhance the unique character and sense of place embodied in these grapes, Blue and his team go to great lengths to select the perfect barrels for aging the wine.
They source barrels from a wide range of producers, most of whom craft several different styles of bourbon, each leaving a distinct imprint on the barrel. Blue and his staff conduct tastings from every potential source to identify just the right one for each wine.
In general, bourbon barrels impart a stronger vanilla essence than traditional American oak barrels do, as well as intense aromas of clove and dill. Older, used barrels bring sweetness; newer ones bring the smoke. The key is to strike a sensible balance between varietal character and the desired enhancements from oak treatment. As Blue says, “Each barrel is different; each batch of wine is different.”
1000 Stories California Zinfandel and Half-Batch Petite Sirah
As I mentioned above, their Zin is the winery’s premier offering. But they also have a special selection Petite Sirah that has been well-received by consumers. It’s interesting to note the different barrel treatment afforded to each.
The first stage for both wines is a period in traditional French or American oak barrels, followed by a second stint in bourbon barrels. Because the Petite Sirah starts out as a sturdier wine, it can handle more intense exposure to the bourbon influence; accordingly, Blue adds more bourbon barrels to the Petite Sirah’s aging regimen. For the Zin, preserving varietal fruit character is of utmost importance. That dictates a lighter touch from the bourbon barrels, calling instead for more of the traditional oak vessels.
The Taste Test: Will These Wines Work With Food?
I paired both of these wines with two dishes: a hearty, Portuguese sausage and kale soup; and a pizza with barbecued chicken, smoked gouda, and chipotle spice. The results were quite interesting!
2015 1000 Stories California Zinfandel (15.5% abv; $19 SRP)
Color: Deep, dense ruby, fading just a bit at the edge.
Nose: Raspberry, blackberry, and plum, ripe but not jammy; notes of vanilla and burnt sugar surface after a few minutes. Just the faintest hint of baking spices in the background.
Palate: A symphony of red and black fruit, it reminds me of when my grandmother used to make fresh jam. There’s cinnamon, nutmeg, and sweet vanilla, too.
Paired with the Soup: The wine’s fruit profile really accentuated the sweet flavors of the vegetables in the soup (butternut squash, carrot, red onion) and seemed to punch up the intensity of the garlic in the andouille sausage. A much better match than I was expecting.
Paired with the Pizza: Very friendly pairing. The wine highlighted the caramelized onions and the sweetness of the barbecued chicken. Sweet with sweet!
2015 1000 Stories Lake County Petite Sirah (15.1% abv; $19 SRP)
Color: Deep purple-black.
Nose: Sweet aromas of buttered toast, along with a distinctly metallic note. Takes a while for the fruit to emerge (decanting is a must!) but eventually there are ripe blueberries and black cherry, a hit of licorice, and vanilla.
Palate: My first impression is wow – big tannins! Then I get blue and black fruit, clove, cinnamon, and vanilla-sugar. Truth be told, I’ve never been a fan of Petite Sirah, usually find it a bit overwhelming. But this one seems a little rounder at the edges, not as harsh as others I’ve tried. Could it be the bourbon barrels? If so, I think it’s a win!
Paired with the Soup: Really great with the smoky sausage – like off-the-charts great. Perhaps a little too much for the vegetables in the soup, though.
Paired with the Pizza: Superb! The pizza had spice, smoke, and earthy flavors, all of which welcomed the wine’s big personality. Despite my inherent bias against Petite Sirah, I found myself reaching for the glass again and again, surprised at how enjoyable it was. I’d definitely buy this wine again.
But Wait, There’s More . . .
You’ve probably got the idea that I really enjoyed both of these wines, however skeptical I might have been before I tasted them. The bourbon influence is quite subtle, in my opinion, evident more in the texture of the wine than in its flavor. If my dinner plans called for something sweetly smoky, with a little spice to it, I would happily pick up a bottle of 1000 Stories Zin or Petite Sirah as an accompaniment. At the under-$20 price, you could do far worse.
And if you needed another reason to try the 1000 Stories wines, how about the fact that they are actively involved in efforts to restore native habitats for the American bison? The bison, an icon of the American west and symbol of our rugged independence, has been protected by the Wildlife Conservation Society since the early 1900s. While those efforts were successful in regenerating a dwindling population, they did not address the related issue of protecting the animals’ grazing lands and their ability to live without human intervention.
In 2005, the WCS relaunched its bison program, building a network of experts and forging strong relationships with ranchers and Native American tribes in an effort to restore natural habitats for the bison population. 1000 Stories proudly supports these efforts and works with WCS to develop programs to reintroduce bison into healthy environments where they may thrive and contribute to the ecosystems once again.
Proud to Be Part of the Fetzer Family
1000 Stories is an important part of the Fetzer Vineyards portfolio. Fetzer was the original pioneer in organic and biodynamic farming in the U.S., and it seeks to support other businesses that view their work through a lens of social responsibility. 1000 Stories represents a special tradition in winemaking, one driven by respect for the land and a commitment to conservation. As such, Fetzer believes it deserves its own narrative and brand identity. I will explore two other Fetzer brands (Bonterra and Adorada) in upcoming posts, as well as a feature on three of the classic Fetzer wines. Stay tuned!
Thanks to #Winestudio for Another Enlightening Wine Experience
If you’re a wine lover but are not familiar with the #winestudio program run by maestro Tina Morey, click here immediately! Each Tuesday evening at 9pm ET, Tina leads a wine safari in which we learn, directly from winemakers, the hows and whys behind their prized bottles. It’s unlike any traditional wine program I can think of, and I mean that in a good way. Wine professionals, journalists, educators, and marketers join the on-line discussion, making it the most dynamic program out there. And we manage to have a pretty good time while we’re at it. Interested? Tune in via Twitter, following the hashtag #winestudio.
Note: Both wines mentioned in this post were provided to me as samples, as part of the #winestudio program. I received no other compensation and was not required to write a positive review. All opinions expressed are entirely my own fault!