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Young Love in an Old Bottle
By Roger Morris
Sep 27, 2023
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Do you remember when you first fell in love with wine?
I mean really fell in love – when you began collecting a few bottles and putting together a cellar, bought that first wine rack, began looking at wine books whose stories read like fairy tales and before you got into planning wine-country vacations with equally besotted wine friends?
Looking back from where you are now, wasn’t there a thrill and freshness about it, a bit like the first blushes of teenage love?

In the late 1970s, I fell into a job as Sunday wine columnist for the Washington Star although I no longer lived in the city.  So after work at my day job in Delaware, I would speed down I-95 to downtown D.C. for wine tastings, meeting my friendly competitor – Jo Hawkins at the Post – and stay for dinners with visiting winemakers such as Angelo Gaja and Richard Arrowood.  For me, it was a heady time.
Recently, I was rummaging through the un-catalogued section of my wine cellar – bottles that never seem to make the cut whenever I need something for dinner that are mixed in with single bottles that have waited patiently for decades for that special special occasion to arrive.
That’s when I came across a bottle that fell into the latter category. I hadn’t forgotten about it – just kept delaying opening it.  It was a half bottle of 1978 Ridge “Dusi Ranch” Late Harvest Zinfandel, and it set off a cascade of remembrances:
Scene One: North East, Maryland, late 1970s.  If wine is my newly discovered lust, then Charlie Weaver’s wine shop is our love nest. Maryland is a better place to buy wine – better selection, lower prices – than Delaware and the surrounding states.  Wine lovers and wine collectors with deep pockets have taken notice, and on weekends the crowded parking lot is littered with out-of-state license plates.  So I come here after work on weekdays and chat with Charlie and his young and enthusiastic assistant, Matt.  I also get a chance to see the new wine arrivals before anyone else does and sometimes sample them.
Charlie likes the fact that I’m a writer and understands what he does. And one of the things he does is get in all the trendy California wines.  One of those is Ridge.  Everyone in the wine business is fascinated by Ridge’s Paul Draper and his line of vineyard-designated Zinfandels from Amador County, Paso Robles and Sonoma County, especially.
Some of these wines are on allocation, so some are bundled by the distributors with lesser-known brands.  Buy those and get a few bottles of these.  Rather than put six bottles of something special on the shelves to be snapped up by whoever comes in the door first, Charlie saves them for good customers.  Since I have spent the past five years at Charlie’s, building my first wine cellar, that is how I am first introduced to Ridge’s Late Harvest Zinfandel.

Scene Two: Monte Bello, California, September 1980.  I have spent the last week mainly in Napa Valley and Sonoma County visiting four wineries a day, which will serve as fodder for my weekly columns in the Star well into the winter.  My last stop before getting on the plane is my first visit to Ridge.  It’s on a Saturday morning.  There was a bad storm last night, and the tortuous road leading up to Monte Bello Ridge is made even more so by navigating around fallen branches.
But here I am standing on a catwalk outside the Ridge winery over an aromatic tank of pump-over Zinfandel interviewing Paul Draper.  We talk mostly about how he makes wines and his thoughts about sourcing grapes.  Amador County is a far-away, romantic location with some great old vines.  And there’s this character down in Paso named Benito Dusi, a passionate wine grower and the source of some of (most of? all of?) Draper’s late-harvest Zin.  But Draper thinks his best Zins come from the Dry Creek area of Sonoma – better balance, more richness of fruit.
Although decades later I will interview many of the great winemakers of Europe – de Villaine, Rothchild, Symington, Lurton, Cazes, Delmas, Moueix, Vauthier – today, just being in this casual setting and chatting amiably with one of the California greats, will always be one of the high points of my writing career.
I have been selective in the wines that I have purchased this week to carry back East stashed in the overhead bins of American Airlines, but there certainly is enough room for a half-bottle of the Ridge Late-Harvest.

Scene Three: Paso Robles, September 2003.  The Washington Star folded in the early ‘80s – the fate of afternoon newspapers in a TV era – and I became wine writer for USA Today for a year before I was dumb enough to quit for some arcane reason.  So for the next 15 years, I was a writer without an “outlet” – a purgatory that was softened only by a cushy corporate day job that allowed me to travel widely.
I’ve now been officially “retired” for four years, but have morphed into a full-time freelance writer.  And one of my current outlets is Saveur magazine, edited by the great Colman Andrews.  I have travelled on assignment for the magazine to Bordeaux, Napa Valley and an emerging Virginia.  Today, I’m in Paso Robles, writing a big article on the rise of that region.  There is one person whose has been on my interview list from day one – 70-year-old Benito Dusi, the same guy whose name is on the label of all those late-harvest Zinfandels produced by Paul Draper.  Dusi proves to be insightful and funny and the kind of guy a writer who’s looking for stories and quotes loves to talk with, as we are now doing in his front yard.
“They keep asking me, ‘Benny, when are you going to get off the tractor?’” he tells me.  “I tell them, ‘When I fall off it!’”  Then he regales me with stories of the old Paso, a time when he could drive his tractor across Highway 101 without worrying about traffic.  Now, it’s a four-lane freeway with no direct access to his 40-acre farm.  He is still, he says, selling grapes to Paul Draper.  The “Dusi Ranch” designation lives on.

Scene Four: Avondale, PA, August 2023.  Anthony Vietri is an excellent winemaker and great friend, and every few weeks we convene, just the two of us, on a weekday afternoon in his Va La Vineyard tasting room or outside on the porch overlooking the vines, as we are today.  We drink wine and talk about whatever crosses our minds.  He brings a bottle from his cellar that someone else has made or one he has purchased at the state store – this is Pennsylvania, after all.  I bring a current sample bottle some winery has sent me, already opened and tasting notes made, or an old bottle from my cellar.

Today, it’s an old bottle – the 1978 Ridge “Dusi Vineyard” LH Zin.  “Wow, what have we here?”  Tony muses.  Before he became a full-time winery owner 25 years ago on the farm once owned by his grandparents, Vietri was in the film business – a writer – and spent time in Italy but also in Southern California where he and his wife, Karen, would venture out into the old vineyards of gnarled vines in Cucamonga to buy Zinfandel for their home winemaking, a passion that his relatives brought with them from Northern Italy.  So Vietri brings his own fond memories of the old days of Zinfandel winemaking and drinking.
We are amazed at the Ridge’s richness, depth of flavors, structure and fact that it is still reasonably fresh.  A few sips, and we are soon lost in tales of Cucamonga, catwalks on Monte Bello Ridge and the pros and cons of field blends.  Like Benny Dusi, Vietri spends most of his days during the summer months on his tractor, so perhaps there is an additional kinship that he feels with Dusi and his grapes.
We decide not to finish the bottle.  “Take some home for Miss Ella to taste,” he says, and I do, along with some figs and soon chestnuts Vietri has grown on “the little farm.”

Scene Five: Pike Creek, DE, September 2023.  It is about 6:30 on a weekday morning, and Ella and I are in the breakfast room – I have my coffee, she has tea – reading today’s New York Times and previewing what we will be doing the rest of the day.
“Your cupboard is getting a bit bare,” she notes, looking at the wine rack besides the old sideboard we bought years ago in West Virginia.  The rack is where I keep sample bottles as they arrive.  It sometimes has only a few temporary residents, but usually it is overflowing with bottles marching across the floor like kudzu across the Southern woodlands.

I had largely forgotten about the small wine rack – a simple, utilitarian black-wire fixture that holds only 35 bottles – for all the years we lived in a larger house nearby.  It was nearly lost among the large wooden wall unit that held hundreds of bottles.  But when we moved here, and all the wooden racks relocated downstairs, I rescued it and put it upstairs in a place of honor.  Ella has wondered if I didn’t want for this space something, well, more elegant.  But “no.”
It is the first wine rack I ever purchased, and in our first house it was positioned at the foot of the basement stairs.  Getting started, I wondered if I would ever fill it, buying a bottle here and there, not understanding why the neighborhood wine store (before I met Charlie Weaver) didn’t carry Hermitage or Lafite that I read about in my new wine books.  I smile whenever I look at its innocence – and mine.
So, while I may not be able to ever duplicate the thrill of those early years of discovering wine, a half-bottle of 1978 Ridge can help relive it.  And, fortunately, I have a few other old young loves stashed away downstairs.     

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