Winemaker Carol Shelton’s recent visit to Salt Lake City afforded me the opportunity to sample some of her award-winning wines. Shelton is no stranger to awards; she is said to be “the most awarded winemaker in the United States,” and has been named Winemaker of the Year four different times. I have only myself to blame, but for some reason—although I’ve long known of Shelton’s reputation, especially as the “Queen of Zin”—I don’t remember ever tasting her wares. Well, I’ve rectified that oversight. And, if you’ve not familiarized yourself with the Shelton magic, you owe it to yourself to do so, posthaste.
I wouldn’t want to engage in a “name that wine” contest, based on wines’ aromas, with Carol Shelton. When Shelton was 6, her mom created a “identify the scent” game using household spices and herbs. No wonder, then, that as an adult, Shelton would fall under the tutelage of Ann Noble, the developer of the wine Aroma Wheel, and launch into wine studies at UC Davis.
After working with winemaker legends such as Robert Mondavi and Andre Tchelistcheff, she began to focus seriously on Zinfandel as her favorite varietal. In 2000, she and her husband, Mitch Mackenzie, launched Carol Shelton Wines and, predictably, she chose to focus on Zinfandel. Today, she produces five different Zins, all with whimsical names—evidence of Shelton’s literary streak, as she originally entered UC Davis to study poetry. The Zinfandels are named Rocky Reserve, Maple Zin, Karma Zin, Wild Thing and ’Xander Zin. She also makes a late-harvest Zin called Black Magic.
The first of the Carol Shelton’s Zinfandels I tasted was her Wild Thing Old Vine Zinfandel 2008 ($14.04). This is Shelton’s “workhorse” Zin, the one with a cool etching of old Zinfandel vines on the bottle. A wine-expert colleague of mine refers to Shelton as “one of the mightier intellects in fermentation” and says she’s “quite the badass, all in all.” When tasting her wines, I began to understand his affection for Shelton. These are not cookie-cutter, please-the-masses, lowest-common-denominator wines. I mean, they are outstanding, but they are also unique, each with its own distinctive personality.
Wild Thing is scrumptious—a lush, well-rounded Zin with loads of jammy raspberry, black cherry and plum flavors and a judiciously restrained use of oak, resulting in subtle vanilla notes. It’s a remarkable wine for 14 bones. Rocky Reserve Zinfandel Florence Vineyard Rockpile 2008 ($25.04) is a blend of 95.5 percent Zinfandel and 4.5 percent Petite Syrah. The aromas remind me of Grandma’s huckleberry jam. Rolling this Zin around on the tongue (it was my pleasure, believe me), I tasted ripe blackberries with hints of licorice and black pepper, making me think that grinding a little pepper on my morning blackberries might not be a bad idea. All in all, this is an elegant, beautifully structured Zin that’ll leave quite a positive impression on your palate.
Although it’s her specialty, Shelton doesn’t limit herself to Zinfandel. She also produces Petite Syrah, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and even a pink wine: Rendezvous Rosé 2011 ($12.04). This is a crisp, very dry combo of 70 percent Carignane along with a 30 percent field blend of mixed red grapes, aged partially (70 percent) in stainless steel and barrel fermented in older oak (30 percent).
My favorite non-Zin Shelton wine, though, is Coquille Blanc 2009 ($16.25). I admit I’m a sucker for Rhône-style white-wine blends. Well, this one hits all the right notes. It’s a Grenache Blanc/Roussanne/Viognier blend with gorgeous white-peach and pear aromas and exotic fruit flavors on the palate, with hints of almond and honeysuckle. It’s a perfect end-of-summer wine.