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Bella Vineyards: Balance Backlash Zinfandel
By W. Blake Gray
Sep 21, 2010
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Scott Adams had great timing in buying one of the best Zinfandel vineyards in California -- and turning it into one of northern Sonoma County's top tourist draws.

In 1997, he paid $5.5 million for Big River Ranch, on which Zin was planted in 1906.  Five years later he got $4.3 million for selling just the lower half of it, which had Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and some Merlot, because he wanted to focus on the Zin.
Earlier this year, the lower, lesser half of the Alexander Valley vineyard -- which has been renamed twice in a decade -- sold again, for $6.1 million.  So who knows what the upper, better half of Big River Ranch is worth now?

"We couldn't buy it anymore," said Adams, who sold a family soybean and corn farm in Minnesota to raise the money.  “We got in as things were starting to ramp up, but far away from the peak of the market."

This story isn't about real estate, though; it's about Zinfandel.  I noticed Bella Vineyards, the winery Adams and his wife Lynn built, because of Big River, which provides fruit for one of my favorite of Ravenswood's single-vineyard Zinfandels.  Turns out that's why Adams bought it.

"We really had an affinity for Ravenswood wines," he said.  "That's what attracted us to Zinfandel.  We liked the Ridge wines too.  We liked the more restrained Zinfandels.  I like Zin's accessibility, I like its ripe fruit profile, and I like its versatility.  You can make a wide variety of wines out of Zin.  We've narrowed our house style because we've decided to focus on a more balanced Zin."

At first Adams tried to make the wines himself with lots of advice from consulting winemaker Michael Dashe.  But Dashe, based in Oakland, has plenty of his own wines to tend at harvest time, so in 2001 Adams invited recent Fresno State graduate Joe Healy for an interview.

Healy, 55, who looks like Adams' older brother, is in his third career, though he doesn't count the second one.  He started as a keyboardist backing a Brazilian jazz musician in the band Giorgio Pretti and the New Tuscaninis. 

"I was a New Tuscanini," Healy said.  "We were big in Korea.  Well, maybe not big.  I went to Cannes, France, to do a music festival.  They're the only ones who picked up our album."

Then came Healy's non-career:  "I worked for a vending machine company for a long time," he said.  "I got let go and said, 'I'm going back to college'."

At Fresno State, Healy was a bit older than most of the aspiring winemakers.  He ended up running the student winery, which makes 10,000 cases of wine per year.  That stood out to Adams.

"My interview was basically, 'We have some wines here.  Let's taste and talk about them'," Healy recalled.  "One of the things I really liked about the wines was that Mike Dashe had the technical knowledge, but also a very Old World style."

Adams said, "We wanted to make sure he was on board with what we were trying to do.  We wanted to make wines that were balanced and were good with food."

Food-friendly Zinfandels weren't fashionable back in 2001, when Healy started.  It was about midway into the bigger-is-better Zinfandel expansion, with higher ratings and prices going to wines approaching 16% alcohol.  The current, ongoing "balance backlash" hadn't gathered momentum.

Adams had a unique plan to sell wines that wouldn't require big scores from critics.  He built what has turned into one of the biggest tourist attractions in Dry Creek Valley -- and it's actually an important, functional part of the winery.

Bella has an extensive cave structure that took a year and a half and lots of dynamite to complete.  The payoff is more than just 5,200 square feet of storage space.

If you visit any winery tasting room on West Dry Creek Road, and ask for recommendations for other places to visit, the two that always seem to be mentioned are Preston, for the organic gardens, and Bella, for the caves.  The steady flow of tasting-room traffic has given Adams some insulation from a tough market for $40 Zins. 
"We have a three-month waiting list for our wine club," he said.  "It's kind of a captive audience."

But if you haven't been to Dry Creek Valley, you probably haven't heard of Bella.  Moreover, wineries take a risk by selling exclusively to the fairly uncritical people who stumble into their tasting room: it's easy to lose perspective and think your wines are better than they are.

Adams has decided to test Bella's quality by putting his wines into a little wider distribution, which makes it a good time to write about them.

The best is the one that first caught my attention, Bella Big River Ranch Alexander Valley Zinfandel 2007 ($40).  It's a lot different from Ravenswood's also excellent wine from the same vintage.  Bella picked its own vineyard 5 days earlier, but you wouldn't guess it from the taste profiles.  The Bella wine delivers ripe blackberry and dark cherry fruit with black licorice notes, very mild tannins and just 14% alcohol; Ravenswood's is spicy, with cherry and cinnamon notes.  It's fascinating to taste what two different people do with fruit from the same vineyard. 

Ravenswood winemaker Joel Peterson "makes wines with a bit of a Cabernet structure," Adams said.  "We're going for a little softer expression.  We've picked after him on occasion, but we started picking a little earlier than him about 10 years ago."

I also quite liked the Bella Belle Canyon Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2008 ($35), which is brambly and earthy, opening with raspberry fruit and bringing some smoke and duck fat on the midpalate.

Bella's winery is actually located on the Lily Hill Estate vineyard, source of two wines: Bella Lily Hill Estate Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2007 ($38) and a barrel selection, Bella "Barrel 32" Lily Hill Estate Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2007 ($48).  As is sometimes the case, Healy thought the barrel select was worth issuing by itself, and it's not bad -- ripe, juicy black cherry -- but it's not complex and would make a good element in the superior estate blend, which is quite savory, with blacker fruit and a smoked bacon note.

Bella only makes about 8000 cases of wine per year, which means they're not going to be in your local supermarket anytime soon.  But at least you no longer have to go caving to find them.