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Zinfandel: The good, the bad and the whatever

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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.

  1. Get thee to Lodi, my man! :) Some amazing older vines there, with fruit going into stuff like Gnarly Head because the grape prices are so low (for now, anyway…).

  2. The Amador/El Dorado Wineries(Sierra Foothills)have some truly wonderful representations of the varietal. The venues are considerably less stuffy than their Sonoma/Napa counterparts and the scenery no less impressive.
    There is also a bit of history in the region, as some vineyards go back to the days of prospecting, and a lot of new technology, as some wineries are mere months old.

  3. I tend to agree about Zin being a bit too blowsy and overblown — reminds of Anna Nicole, especially the latter years.

    I was impressed with the last batch of Ravenswood vineyard designate wines that I tasted (IIRC it was the 06 vintage); did you have a chance to taste those at your recent tasting? The Teldeschi and Barricia were particularly impressive.

  4. Steve, I definitely know what you mean about Zins being too overdone (Fruity and Alcoholic). That said, many of the Sierra Foothills wineries have “pulled it back” a bit and are crafting more balanced efforts true to the terrior of the ava. If you haven’t been up to Amador in a while you should check it out and see what I mean. Old stand bys like Easton and Cooper make some nice Zin (Noceto too) and even newer wineries like Andis and Helwig are making a zin with a lighter hand and much less burn on the palate and gloppity gloop fruitiness.

  5. Sherman, I did like those same wines.

  6. Steve – I recently enjoyed a 1976 Dehlinger Zinfandel that was off-the-charts delicious. It had tons of fruit left (blueberries!) and this wonderful slate-like quality. The stated alcohol? Just 12.3%! And not green or leafy at all. (photographic evidence of the bottle: http://twitpic.com/5hiblm)

  7. One word: Turley

    I also greatly enjoy zin from Dutton Goldfield and Williams Selyem, both renowned pinot masters. Different than Turley (and from each other) but very good in my not so humble opinion.

  8. I don’t drink much Zin myself but was delighted by Ravenswood’s Zin two weeks ago too. Mayby it was the setting.
    If you miss the People’s Zin, go down to Oakbarrel, I am sure Homer can find an old bottle around. ;-)

  9. David White, wish I could have been there! Thanks.

  10. Bill Smart says:

    Hi Steve – thanks for your persepective regarding Zinfandel and bringing attention this variety.

    Living in the cosmic epicenter of Zinfandel here in the Dry Creek Valley, I can tell you first hand there are some really passionate producers of the variety. Zinfandel at its best expresses a true sense of place. When I taste a blind flight of Zinfandels, more often than not, I can pick up those wines from the Dry Creek Valley. The redish soils of the valley give our wines an earthy, dusty complexity, that is yes rustic, but also fascinating to taste.

    I would argue that Zinfandel deserves the same respect as Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon or any of the other more “classic” varietals. Yes, it can be big and jammy and maybe a tad sweet at times but Zinfandel has earned its reputation as America’s wine grape and for that we should all be thankful.

  11. Dave Pramuk says:

    Hi Steve,

    We enjoy wines from around the world and we were basically weaned on Zinfandel.
    We take tremendous pride and satisfaction from growing it, crafting it, sharing it, telling its colorful stories, and keeping the old California tradition going.
    Every wine category has its disappointments but California Zinfandel’s, quirkiness, deliciousness, and people-pleasing nature earns it a place on our roster of the world’s most loveable wines.

  12. jon campbell says:

    we try to take our amador zin grapes in at 25 brix maximum…..

    I think some of your negative memories of sierra foothills zins should be relegated to the past…..

    most the zins up here are well balanced with ph’s in the 3.4-3.5 range with low 14 alcohols………..

  13. Joel Peterson says:

    Steve, I‘m really pleased that you liked my wines. In your review, I hope that you will state clearly what it was that you liked about them. Critics, arguably to some extent, drive wine style. Those big, oaky sweet wines from the Sierra Foothills of the late 1970’s and early 80’s, as well as many of the Zins from the early to mid 90’s received high scores and ovations from critics who seemed, at that moment in the cycle, to love big, rich, frequently over -the -top Zinfandels that made a statement. These obsessions influenced consumer behavior, the direction of wine style and retail sales behavior. Given your comments in previous writings concerning the current trend of some wine critics to be obsessed by alcohol content, I was a little surprised to hear you opining for the good old days of lower alcohol. I personally think that residual sugar may be an equal problem and frequently goes hand in hand with high alcohol. Given current consumer trends associated with sweet reds like Cupcake and Apothic Red, it seems unlikely that R.S. will be going away any time soon. For the record, I think that 13.5% alcohol is where Zinfandel starts to be good, especially in drought years like 1976. Over 15% alcohol with residual sugar and heavy oak is where is starts to go bad. So Steve, please tell us what you like about the Zins you like, and can score highly- you may start a movement!
    I find it unfortunate that your mind has pigeonholed Zinfandel as rustic and analogous to someone’s country cousin. You may, of course, feel the same way about the wines of Northern Italy or the Rhone (Cousin Luigi and Cousin Marcel?). If you do, we are in very good company. Zinfandel certainly has the capacity to be as interesting , complex and stylish as those wines. Perhaps you find the European countryside to be more romantic, and therefore, less rustic than the countryside of California?
    By the way, a $10 bottle of 1976 Zinfandel in 1979 was a fairly expensive wine. Ravenswood single vineyard wines, the only kind that existed then, sold for $7.50, which is about what a deeply discounted bottle of Ravenswood Vintners Blend sells for today. Depending on which index is used, you were paying between $30 and $50 in today’s dollars for that fine bottle of Wine and the People. That wine was definitely a lovely wine for the people and well worth the outrageous price.

  14. Any notes on Zinfandel from Storybook in the 90’s Steve. High up in Napa Valley Dr. Jerry Seps and his wife focused on claret style wines that I remember as lighter and elegant, a departure from the Zin style of the time. B.

  15. Hi Joel P., thanks for weighing in. If you read my actual reviews when they appear in Wine Enthusiast, you’ll see exactly what I liked about your wines. As for “country cousin,” all I meant was that Zinfandel almost always has a certain rusticity. That is its nature and its charm.

  16. You gave me inspiration to start the day. I preferred my 1975 Wine And The People Zinfandel. I am still trying to provide claret style Zins from Sonoma Mnt. & Mendocino, mostly to home winemakers.

    Am now battling for recognition for the vibrant wines of the Columbia Gorge AVA.

    Thanks, I am glad you enjoyed the 1976, I may have a bottle or two in the cellar.

    Peter

  17. While i will admit to enjoying a blowsy, port like Zin every now and again (a natural pairing with ribs), I also quite enjoy the more structured versions — both from the field blends like Bedrock and the “Zhone” blends like Linne Caldo (Zin + syrah,mourvedre, petite sirah etc). I think that both of these concepts represent the future of Zin in California

  18. Joel Peterson says:

    I am glad that you met the country cousin thing as a positive atribute. For too long “rustic” and associations like country cousin have been used to Damn Zinfandel with faint praise. I once tasted with Michelle Rolland who found Zinfandel entire too rustic on the palate. This, of course, was stated in the best of gallic highbrow demeanor. Translation, Zinfandel is not Cabernet. Mon Dieu!

  19. Cato Siamese says:

    I agree with you about Zinfandel. I work in a tasting room in Napa and we sell one old-vine Zin. I just say it goes great with Cheetos. That is about it for me. Wouldn’t drink Zin if I were paid to do it, except some of the Ridge Zins.

  20. Thanks for the commentary, Steve. I hope your writing doesn’t spoil all the fun that I have up in Amador, being the only one at the tasting bar about half the time. Too many favorable reviews will kill the place.

  21. I tend to agree except, good grief…have you been to Truett Hurst recently? Lambert Bridge? I tasted an unreleased Zin recently that drank like a pretty and peppy Pinot but was… I won’t even tell the ABV. And yet no love, still, for the decidedly unblowsy Zins of say, Harvest Moon? As a category, there are a lot of dogs, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the clear focus of more recent efforts.

    Napa Zin is nice indeed, and boring, unless we’re talking about Storybook.

  22. Steve
    Once again, you have a touch for exciting the natives. I am coming to admire you as a Machiavellian blogger. But I’d rather have my ass rubbed with a brick than send you one of my wines. Bunt

  23. Bunt: That’s all right. No time to taste everything anyhow!

  24. John Roberts says:

    As I am in agreement with most here, I will simply add another Zin to the list of acceptable offerings. I find the Zins at Woodenhead to be particularly expressive and authentic. Check them out. I think more of the lean-style Zins will be made now, given the zeitgeist.

  25. I grew up in Europe and tested completely different wines growing up but I fell in love with Zinfandel when I tried Brown Zin from Chiles Valley in Napa almost 10 years ago. I have been looking for good Zins ever since. I found Storybook and Green and Red among my favorites too. I just opened a 2005 Brown Chiles Valley Zin (I paid $36 for it in 2006) and it was a big wine with lots of layers and a kick of being rebellious but elegant and velvety smooth. I called it “my naughty inner twin” not “my cousin” and that was the appeal. No mater how highly publicized Napa Cabs are, for my palate, they rarely and with only few exceptions win over French Bordeaux. Off course, price point is also an important measurement but most good Cal Cabs cost no less than $50 per bottle or more, many can only last in a bottle for 10 years and then go off the cliff. Storybook Zin/Petit Bordeaux blend is a great wine that will cost you today $40 per bottle and will only improve over the next 10 years. Green & Red is $23. A good Zin can be paired with so much more than hamburgers…. So, why are Zins overlooked and snubbed? Are we all here so refined that our palate only accepts Pinots and Cabs or are we simply going with the flow and liking what we are sold and told to like?

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