Zinfandel: The good, the bad and the whatever
I don’t think I’ve devoted an entire blog posting to Zinfandel, but I did a Zin flight yesterday that put me in touch with my inner Zinman, which is to say, it resurrected years of thoughts about this frustrating, inconsistent, loveable, problematic, unique and sometimes great variety of wine.
I can’t recall the first Zinfandel I ever drank, but the first I ever took a note on was Wine and the People’s 1976 bottling from Sonoma County. I opened it at the age of seven (no, not when I was seven, when the wine was seven). It had cost me all of $10 when I bought it, in 1979. I liked it a whole lot. The alcohol was 13.5%, and it was absolutely dry.
In the 1980s, Zinfandel was undergoing review by the then famous critics, who were declaring that it was actually a great wine, California’s only authentic variety. I took them at their word. But by the time I started to actually review wines, I was over my Zinfatuation. Too often the wines were overripe and pruney, with high alcohol and residual sugar. This problem was particularly acute in the Sierra Foothills and in certain Sonoma bottlings. When Paso Robles Zinfandel began to appear on the scene, in the 1990s, it too joined the parade of awkward, sweet freaks.
I always thought Napa Valley produces the most claret-like Zins, that being a compliment, although if you were a purist, you could object that they were too elegantly tailored. They were made to resemble Cabernet Sauvignon, and did, but didn’t reflect Zinfandel’s truest nature, which is or should be rustic, like a country cousin who likes Wayne Newton, wipes his nose in the napkin at the table and, all too legitimately, makes fun of citified ways. This high estimation of Napa in my mind is, however, a construct of the sort wine reviewers often form without checking the facts. For, if I revert to my database at Wine Enthusiast, I see that I scored 24 Sonoma Zinfandels higher over the years than anything from Napa Valley (which in this case was Rubicon’s 2007 Edizione Pennino Zinfandel, from Rutherford). The reason why I think of Sonoma Zinfandel being not as high as Napa Zinfandel is because, on average, there are far more bad Sonoma Zins than from Napa. But that’s mainly because there are waaay more Zins from Sonoma than Napa, which distorts one’s county-wide perception.
It’s not likely I would ever buy a Zinfandel, were I a normal wine consumer. I can’t think why I would. That’s my guilty secret. When I’m of split mind regarding Zinfandel, I always suggest pairing with barbecue. If you understand my reviews you know this is a code word that means, basically, “This isn’t the greatest wine ever, and in fact it’s a little rustic. But then again, if you’re grilling burgers, you’re not particularly fussy.” Such wines have their place in our lives. But Zinfandel for me is a little too country cousin. I actually have such cousins, and I like seeing them every few years. But please, not more than that.
The highest score I ever gave a Zinfandel was 96 points, which was for Hartford Court’s 2007 Highwire Zin, from Russian River Valley. It cost $55. That’s a lot of money to pay for a Zin, and I wouldn’t. Of those other 24 Sonoma Zins I’ve given high scores to over the years, the cheapest was Joseph Swan’s 2003 Lone Redwood Ranch, which back in 2007 when it was released cost $25. That was an anomaly. In yesterday’s tasting that I just referred to, Ravenswood really starred. It is gratifying that Constellation, which owns Ravenswood, so far has kept quality high; we’ll have to see if that remains the case. On the other hand, I have to admit to being disappointed by the Ridges, which have been too alcoholic and sweet. I hope that’s just a lapse on their part, rather than a permanent degradation of the wines.
All this makes me yearn for that Wine and The People of olden days. I wish I could retaste it now and see if I thought as highly of it as I did in 1983. Would I find a 13.5% Zinfandel green and leafy? Back then I called it “fruity and elegant” and I don’t believe my palate has changed that much over the years. How they managed to get a Zinfandel that low in alcohol that good, I don’t know.