Maître de Chai Zinfandel

I honestly can’t think of another wine as divisive (and dismissed) as Zinfandel… White Zinfandel perhaps? Nope, still Zinfandel.

Every time I think about Zinfandel I’m reminded of my dad. He’s a lover of wine - not of the study of wine, but of the joy of sharing a bottle and sipping on a glass while grilling on the deck. And you guessed it, he loves Zins. But I always cringe a bit when I think back to the time he visited me in Paris while I was studying at Cordon Bleu and asked our snooty waiter for a bottle of Zinfandel - “or something like it,” he offered generously. I thought the waiter was going to spit in our food as he dismissively responded. “Sir, we do not serve Zinfandel here,” he proudly proclaimed before walking off without taking the rest of our order.

Oh, poor Zin! In fairness, the grape is often made into an overripe, jammy wine that has no place on the table, and in some cases turned into that sweet pink soda pop of a wine that truly put the nail in the coffin for its reputation. So, in some ways, it asks to be the butt of all the wine jokes. But as you’ve probably guessed, that’s not what we have here! I’m thrilled for all of you - and especially for my dad - to say that we can and should take Zinfandel seriously (when done well), and there are some rock star producers, like the Maitre de Chai team, that are making sure you see this maligned grape in all its glory.

This delightful bottle feels like a loving pat on the back. It energizes you, warms your soul, and puts a big smile on your face. A lighter, more fresh and tannic driven zinfandel than Californians are used to seeing, this wine takes a grape that is often gilded beyond recognition (and certainly beyond balance), and transforms it into something simultaneously serious and worthy of recognition, while also immediately enjoyable and perfect for the table. It would pair perfectly with:

~ Spanish style pork burgers
~ Skirt steak with chimichurri
~ Chicken tacos with chipotle
~ Harissa marinated lamb with eggplant toast and tomato salad
~ Grilled ratatouille
~ Zucchini noodles with mushroom bolognese


Curious to learn more?

Political persuasions aside, I think we can all agree that we live in a world that’s increasingly polarized. Everyone and everything seems to be confined by a label or some sort of box - barriers that seem increasingly difficult to break free from, and that seem to impair our ability to see from the other side.

In the world of wine we have the arguably outdated “Parker wines,” often dismissed today as overripe, over-oaked, and seeking high scores above all else. On the other side of the fence, we have the new wave of natural wines. At their best, they taste like well-made wines with no other indication that they are “natural” - often from lesser-known regions and grapes - that happen to have been made without any additives or manipulation in the winery. At their worst, however, these are faulty wines that hide behind the hype of a hip new trend. Unfortunately for the consumer, when winemakers claim to be part of one of these tribes, they are often stifled by their unwritten rules and expectations, with loftier goals and motivations getting left by the wayside.

But what if, like Marty Winters and Alex Pitts of Maitre de Chai, you are motivated to create wines simply by learning and evolving through experience, rather than conforming to (or seeking comfort from) a particular camp?

Marty and Alex both began their professional careers in the restaurant industry (in the kitchen rather than the wine cellar though). These weren’t your average neighborhood joints they were honing their skills in, but rather multi Michelin starred restaurants like Cyrus and the French Laundry that allowed them to taste through encyclopedic wine lists with bottles from all over the world and from an incredible range of vintages. As curiosity about the wine side of the restaurant world grew for both of them, they each moved from the kitchen to the front of the house. As one of Marty’s bosses told him, “If you can sell it, you can taste it.” And so they did.

After burning out from never-ending days with little pay in restaurants, both Marty and Alex came to the realization that their next chapter was going to be focused on figuring out how to make wine themselves. It feels like fate led them to Abe Schoener (who you’ll remember as the philosophical experimenter of winemaking that made the delicious Sauvignon Blanc in your December shipment), who took them under his wing and instilled his unique brand of winemaking into their process and overall philosophy.

“Dogma is what we’ve known in the industry. There was an era of wine critics. If Parker didn’t think it was a good wine, then it wasn’t. Instead of learning about wine, (producers) just made wine for this one person. Unfortunately, in the natural wine movement, some of the dogma came with it. Some people will never add sulfur (for example). But what we learned from Abe is that you should never be dogmatic. Instead, you should figure out what each wine needs. Abe said that consistency doesn’t exist - it’s all about the constant experimentation.” ~Marty Winters

Enamored by the commeraderie of the rotating cast of characters in Abe’s cellar, not to mention the interplay of emotional and intellectual approaches to winemaking, Alex and Marty kicked off their own side project, Maitre de Chai, in the corner of Abe’s cellar. Through their classical training in the kitchen and various vineyard internships, they had learned that wine was merely a recipe to be followed. But as they sat down to determine their own path forward, they quickly realized that what they wanted was a more hands-off approach. Intervention in the winery simply wasn’t interesting to them. Find good sites, and showcase them was much more their style.

“For us, we’re trying to understand our site. We make big decisions about our winemaking every 5 years. We make decisions on the vintage after tasting - what is the vintage giving us? We’re changing things as we go and motivated by learning.”

Unlike many of their peers in “The New California wine,” Marty and Alex decided to turn towards the classic wine growing regions and grape varieties that others were turning their backs on for being “uncool” - grapes like Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and of course, Zinfandel, grown in regions like Lodi, California.

“Alex and I saw what was happening with the classic wine growing regions in CA. (We were) looking at all these epic vineyards that are incredible sites that were planted decades ago for the right reasons that our friends were leaving behind that had so much history and so much soul. There’s nothing more California than zinfandel. We wanted to seek out a Zinfandel site and gravitated towards Ridge, eventually getting set up with the stampede vineyard... We got attached to these classic California grapes because of how they are farmed. It’s hard to find sustainably farmed affordable grape and it’s super rare to find a grower that listens to you. We have been so lucky to find the perfect combination.”


"At the end of the day, we want to make historic and classical grape varieties that speak of the place. It’s cliche but California has incredible terroir and we’re only scratching the surface of places to explore… Most (European producers) are dictated by longstanding laws, but for us, we’re dictated by the history of California. Lodi growing history was alive for 100 years! Looking at notes from winemakers from the 50s, 60s and 70s, you have classically trained winemakers that knew the wines of the world, and you know what, they were making Zinfandel!"

I hope you’ll forgive my long-winded story about Marty and Alex, but I find their approach of rejecting the current dogmas of winemaking and forging their own open-minded and curiosity-driven path so inspiring.

We shouldn’t like a wine because it earned 100 points just as much as we shouldn’t like it because the hippest wine bar in Brooklyn tells you it’s the best thing out there. We should seek out producers, artists, and entrepreneurs that are motivated by learning to create the best product possible and with only the best of intentions for both the environment and the end result - at least that’s what I’m committed to!


        * Photos of Alex, Marty, and the vineyards courtesy of Maître de Chai