Several months ago, at a big and boozy wedding, an old friend named Matt busted out a bottle of zinfandel. “It’s homemade,” he said, cracking a big smile. On the inside, I was frowning.
Matt poured a generous amount of the scarlet wine into a glass. At least it looked like wine. More glasses were filled, and we made toasts to the bride and groom, wishing them a long, happy, and prosperous life. Privately, I made another mental toast, hoping that the wine wouldn’t stink up the joint. Finally, there was nothing left to do but drink the stuff.
Much to my surprise, instead of sucking to the stars, the zinfandel had legs galore and an aroma that some might call redolent of ripe blackberries on a hot summer day with a subtle pepper nudge. Long story short: It was good.
Makers of homemade wine are usually an insecure bunch who demand constant validation that their product doesn’t compare with the sensational taste of pruno, the infamous jailhouse swill made from hoarded bread and rotting fruit. But unlike many who homebrew or vint, Matt turned out to know what he is doing. He is a member of the Gates of Hell wine cooperative, a loosely based bunch of friends who make an astonishingly good zinfandel that is available only to co-op members and their lucky friends.
The wine cooperative is located in the outer reaches of the Alameda Naval Base. “Not many people want directions to the Gates of Hell,” Matt joked in an e-mail response to Food Fetish’s request to attend one of the co-op’s regular monthly meetings.
The members meet in a large room inside an even larger industrial warehouse. An ornately beautiful filigreed iron gate is mounted over the doorway, which someone has decorated with Mephistophelian red plastic flames. Inside the room on a recent Friday night, people were boisterously talking and laughing. Perhaps not surprisingly, everyone held a glass full of wine. Rick soon offered me a glass too. “This is some Lodi old-vine zin,” he said. It was good, with a piquant, lusty taste.
Matt introduced the club’s founders and several other co-op members, including his girlfriend Kate. Founders Rick and Mary Jo started the wine cooperative back in 1975. A Bay Area boy who calls the Crockett and Rodeo area home, Rick learned the art of making wine from his two ornery Bay Area grandfathers, one Portuguese and the other Italian.
“My grandfathers hated each other and they hated each other’s wine,” he remembered. “Each was convinced that their method of wine was the best. The Italian one would say the Portuguese wine was ‘Too pique! Too pique!’ because he thought the Portuguese wine tasted like vinegar. And the Portuguese one would say that the Italian wine was too sweet.”
Several decades later, Rick is proud of Gates of Hell’s zinfandel and its pure, unassuming flavor, which is far more reminiscent of the Portuguese grandfather’s wines. “We want our wines to taste like when your grandpa takes you down to the cellar with a little hose and you drink the wine out of that, and boom!” he said, reminiscing fondly. “That’s our family’s style.”
And indeed, talking to Rick is like reading a book about home winemaking in the old Bay Area. He recalls his Portuguese grandfather cleaning oak barrels with chains. “You put a ten-foot chain in each barrel,” he said, mimicking the action. “Then you roll the barrel with a bung. The chains breaks down all the lees [wine sediment]. Once my grandfather left a chain in there for five years!” Suffice it to say that the wine was a strange, bad batch with a slightly metallic aftertaste.
Here at the wine co-op, there are large oak barrels too. They’re arrayed on the floor containing wine in various stages of aging: baby zinfandels, sassy teenage zinfandels, and a barrel of mellow four-year-old zinfandel that soon will be bottled. Matt extracted wine from one of the infant barrels. The young wine was paler in color, a soft red with hues of rose pink.
Matt and Kate are the co-op’s newest and youngest members, having joined about two years ago. “Rick convinced the others to let me join ’cause I had a two-quarter-ton pickup truck,” Matt recalled.
Each member pays for the cost of making the wine and, come harvest, everyone pitches in to get the zinfandel made. “When the grapes are ready, you have to be ready, and you have to drop what you’re doing,” explained Mary Jo. “We buy the grapes from the growers and they pick them for us, but we have to be there at a certain time. Then we set up our big crusher; the crusher pushes the grapes out, but doesn’t break the seed. We buy our grapes in Lodi because Napa has just gotten way too expensive.”
Rick is surprised by how popular California wines have become since he first started the wine club, back in the days before Napa and Sonoma counties became destination places for tour buses full of senior citizens. Rick says he has always preferred more hearty robust wines — the ones he calls “mafia wine” — to the more refined wines typical of California.
Matt comes over and confers with Rick about a zinfandel. The words “vanilla” and “oaky” are tossed around. Obviously, since they ain’t sellin’ the stuff, the co-op’s wine is a true labor of love. What does Rick think about those people he knows who take viticulture classes at UC Davis, spend millions on equipment, and buy vineyards? “Clinically, the wine was made right, but it had no character,” Rick said.
More zinfandel is consumed. The four-year-old tastes almost ancient. Somehow, each little sip contains a tiny memory of fruit trees and dusky vineyards.
A writer once suggested that the oldest souls on the planet are winemakers. So attached are they to the land, their families, and the wine, that they are reborn over and over again as vintners. Listening to Rick tell stories about his grandfathers and their wine, it’s easy to think it just might be true.