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Talkin’ Zinfandel blues


ZAP, the annual Zinfandel tasting at Fort Mason, is this week. I haven’t gone for years. At the last one I went to, along with 20,000 other people, all the toilets overflowed, not a happy thing under any circumstances, much less when everyone’s drinking.

I used to actually drink Zinfandel, rather than just critically review it, which is the main reason why it passes my lips these days. The first Zinfandel I have any record of having had was from Wine and The People, a 1976 bottling whose origin is listed as “Sonoma.” Not Valley or County; this was before labeling laws were initiated by the Feds. I must have bought it in San Francisco, where I was living, in 1979, although I did not open it for another four years. I remember the wine store clerk explaining to me what Wine and the People was, but I don’t remember anything he said. I turn now to Google; find tidbits, like eroded artifacts culled from an archeological dig. Wine and the People was located in “an old warehouse” in Berkeley.  Originally, it was “a home winemaker supply store and later on Berkeley’s first licensed winery [and] a meeting place for many budding winemakers, many now famous names.” The name referred to the fact that you — a person, anybody — could go there and make and bottle your own wine. (A kind of precursor of Crushpad?) It was founded by a gentleman named Peter Brehm, who now runs Brehm Vineyards.

Here are my exact notes on that Zinfandel:

“Date – 6/8/83
Color – rose, garnet, salmon rim
Nose – strong Zin; spicy, cedar/eucalyptus, vanilla & cantaloupe
Taste – powerful and alcoholic. Tannic. Fruit almost overwhelmed. Austere, elegant. Long finish – several minutes.
Food – steak.
Price – $10 (in 1979)”

A few things. Concerning the “salmon rim,” this refers, of course, to the meniscus, the outer edge of the wine in the glass. That Zin was nearly seven years old, and losing color. Concerning the “nose” (where did I learn to use that old-fashioned synecdoche? Broadbent?), I have no idea what I meant by “cantaloupe.” “Fruit almost overwhelmed” obviously refers to the tannins. But then, as the alcohol was 13.5%, it would not have been the kind of super-fruity Zinfandel we see today. (So why did I say it tasted “alcoholic”?)

Interestingly, the next Zinfandel I tasted, two months later, also was a 1976, Ridge’s Lytton Springs, from Dry Creek Valley, and it cost me all of $8 when I bought it, also in 1979. I liked it considerably more than the Wine and The People Zin, and used words like “brilliant,” “magnificent” and “perfect” to describe it. Unfortunately, I did not note what the alcohol was, but would be surprised if it exceeded 14%. Perhaps someone from Ridge will enlighten me.

I’ve had my ups and downs with Zinfandel during my career. I never did care for the fat, extracted, high-alcohol sweet style. Clumsy, inelegant, and undrinkable with almost anything, except for that all-purpose food group, “barbecue,” by which is meant “If you’re in the backyard gorging yourself on roasted animals, feel free to drink anything your hostess provides. Yes, even if it’s from a paper cup.”

On the other hand, given Zinfandel’s tendency to clumsiness, I am suitably impressed when an authentically balanced one comes my way. If you ask me where the best ones come from, I’d say, off the top of my head, Napa Valley, because they tend to show balance and richness, while remaining dry; and then, there are those Napa tannins, still the best in California. However, top-of-the-head truths can often by upset by bottom-line facts, as a search of my Zinfandel reviews (about 550 in all) in Wine Enthusiast’s database demonstrates. My highest-scoring Zinfandels all have come from Sonoma County’s valleys (Russian, Dry Creek,  Sonoma). I did like a Ravenswood 2007 Dickerson, and also a Zinfandel I had only two days ago, Rubicon’s 2007 Edizione Pennino. Both vineyards, interestingly, are in Rutherford. Although the Sierra Foothills are famous for Zinfandel, I haven’t cared all that much for them. Too alcoholic, often unbalanced. There’s some pretty rustic winemaking up in them thar hills. Coincidentally, as I turn the pages in my old cellarbook, I come to Zin #3 from those long ago daze: Also from Ridge, but this time it’s the 1980 Shenandoah Vineyards, which hailed from the Shenandoah Valley of Amador County. Of it I wrote: “warm…prickly and tart…bit hot on finish.” As too many Foothills Zins are today.

Zinfandel styles come and go, like women talking about Michaelangelo. We’ve had white Zin, blush Zin, carbonically-macerated Zin a la Beaujolais, Zinfandel port, “claret-style” Zin, knock-your-sox-off Zin, even (a crime against Nature) sparkling Zinfandel. Who can blame the public for being confused?

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