Wine Tasting Notes, 2008: Dobra Zemlja Winery, Amador County

dobraLocated deep within the golden foothills of Amador wine country, Dobra Zemlja Winery is a modest little outpost, nestled among the ancient oak trees that dominate the rolling landscape. The winery, which was founded in 1995, is the livelihood of 74-year-old Milan Matulich, a Croatian-born winemaker who has farmed the 50-acre property for nearly 25 years.

I trekked up to Dobra Zemlja based upon a pretty tenuous notion: that Matulich might make wine in the same style as fellow-Croatian Mike Grgich, the proprietor of Napa’s famed Grgich Hills Estate. In terms of their ages, Matulich and Grgich are only about 10 years apart, so I expected them to share many of the same old-world influences in their approach to vinification.

My second hope was that — with Zinfandel being native to Croatia (as determined by UC Davis in 2002) — perhaps Matulich would likely share Grigich’s lifelong familiarity with the varietal. With winemaking, there is a lot to be said for practice and repetition. Zinfandel, which is genetically identical to Plavic Mali, has always been a staple of Croatian winemaking, and I assume that both men probably grew up drinking their own family’s version of this wine.

As I had suspected, the 2006 Dobra Zemlja Zinfandel ($26) indeed delivered. It is a wine that is every bit as delicious as it is big (weighing in at 16.6% alcohol), yet it does not come across as boozy, like so many other high-alcohol wines. What I didn’t suspect, however, was that the 2006 Dobra Zemlja Syrah ($26) would be my favorite wine of the day (at a super-ripe 16.8% alcohol). This wine was surprisingly elegant, with terrific potential to improve with age.

The most endearing wine at Dobra Zemlja (which is Croatian for “Good Earth”) was definitely their Milan Ruz, a non-vintage Zinfandel blend, available by the one-liter jug ($20). This wine — much like Sausal’s similarly-styled Cellar Cats Red — is a top-rate quaffer, both affordable and honest. The Milan Ruz jug has three different label styles, all painted by Matulich’s wife Victoria, and all depicting her husband, who looks like Samuel Clemens, in rare form (he wears a loincloth on two labels, and a pink tutu and leotard on the third).

The winery offers its patrons $3 off their next liter of Milan Ruz if they bring back their jugs for a re-fill. It is an incredibly popular program that consistently lures visitors back to the Amador winery. And, of course, it is an old-world concept at its very core. Leave it up to a spry old-timer from Croatia to think of that.

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