Often, when thinking of California Zinfandel thoughts go to the gnarled old vines of Lodi producing big, jammy Zins, or the slightly more subtle Zins of Sonoma Valley coming from Healdsburg, but Napa Valley is also known for producing a few refined yet classic Zinfandel, like those from Frank Family, Chateau Montelena, Buehler Vineyards and perhaps the best known (and loved from Napa) Turley, but one very small production Howell Mountain winery is giving other Napa Zins a run for their money, Black Sears. Located at the top of Howell Mountain in Napa Valley, 2400 feet above sea level and surrounded by peaceful redwoods, this rustic, small production winery and vineyard has been producing estate grown Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon since 1997.
I had a chance to stop by Black Sears last week while in Napa to taste with Chris Jambois, son-in-law of founders Joyce Black and Jerre Sears. In 2008 Chris and his wife Ashley joined her family’s business, helping grow the brand and expand Black Sears. Everything about this winery takes you back to a quieter time in Napa Valley, from the serene atmosphere atop the mountain, to the welcoming wine dogs greeting the few visitors that make their way up the mountain to try this beautiful juice, to the minimalist approach to wine making with a focus on the vineyards, to Chris’ relaxed attitude and job description – completely laid back, funny and gracious and yet on top of everything as this jack of all trades handles a little bit of everything at the winery along with his wife Ashley, from hosting guests, to managing the vineyards, to cleaning the winery, to taking care of a few baby goats and a new baby of their own on the property.
Founders Joyce Black and Jerre Sears acquired the vineyards in 1979, selling their fruit to some of the a fore mentioned and other wineries in Napa Valley, with those wineries often producing single vineyard designate Black Sears Wine, however in 1997 they began to produce their own estate wines under the Black Sears label. Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon vines have always been planted there, as the morning sun facing vineyards allow delicate Zinfandel grapes not to burn in sun drenched afternoons. Organically farmed vines reach deep into iron rich, volcanic soils which give not only flavor but also incredible texture to the wine with density, earthiness and depth. The majority of the vines are also dry farmed, meaning they are only irrigated through natural rainfall, which helps control the otherwise vigorous growth Zinfandel vines tend to have and develop deeper concentration in the wine.
The quality of this fruit has also attracted some of the most prestigious winemakers in the valley starting with Ted Lemon, now owner of the award winning Littorai Wines in Sonoma, and now Zinfandel specialist Thomas Rivers Brown, best known for creating the cult Zins of Turley Wine Cellars and 2010 Food & Wine Winemaker of the Year, who embraces the philosophy that great wine starts in the vineyard with good soil, sunshine and a gracious Mother Nature, and he is the steward to make sure the juice from vine to bottle is superb. Somewhat of an icon in the Zinfandel world, his wines are expressive without being abrasive, luscious and layered with elegance and balance.
Wine & Spirits magazine named the 2009 Black Sears Estate Zinfandel the “Year’s Best Zinfandel.” After a walk through the vineyards, and a quick tour of the property I had a chance to try the 2010, filled with highly concentrated blackberry and blueberry flavors without the jammy characteristics Zinfandel often has, balanced with black pepper, vanilla and herbal notes. Slightly earthy and natural, much like the beautiful Howell Mountain surroundings, this young wine will age nicely for 5-10 years. Due to the small production and continued accolades the current vintage of Black Sears Zinfandel is sold out on their website, however they will do a pre-release in the spring for their mailing list. Click here to sign up, you will be pleased you did.