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Some Zinfandels I liked in 2012

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I reviewed fewer than 300 Zinfandels last year, which is about average for me. There isn’t all that much premium Zin bottled in California’s coastal regions, which is my beat. I no longer cover the vast Sierra Foothills—Virginie Boone does that—and I miss tasting those hearty, heady Zins.

Zinfandel accounted for 8.9% of all grapes crushed in California in 2011, giving it third place (after Cab and Chardonnay). While California acreage of Zinfandel is very wide—the #2 most planted red wine grape, after Cabernet Sauvignon—a lot of it is in the Central Valley counties of San Joaquin, Fresno, Madera, Stanislaus and Merced, and most of that fruit or bulk wine goes into jugs or boxes of inexpensive blends.

I suspect a lot more good Zinfandel could be produced along the coast, from the Russian River-Sonoma Coast and Napa Valley, down through the Santa Cruz Mountains and San Luis Obispo right into Santa Barbara. But growers and vintners have to look at the business side of things, and Zinfandel just doesn’t sell. It fetched a statewide average of only $443 per ton in 2011, actually one of the lowest for any variety, including Teroldego, Tannat, Calabrese, Gamay and Lemberger. Only a few truly execrable varieties—Ruby Cabernet, Rubired and Refosco among them—were cheaper than Zinfandel. (The average cost per ton of Cabernet, by contrast, was $1,029.)

Still, wineries who have long been committed to Zinfandel remain steadfast; no one, to my knowledge, who has produced Zin for any length of time has voluntarily given it up. The North Coast counties of Napa and Sonoma perform best. In my mind, Napa Valley Zinfandel is more finely crafted, more balanced and nuanced than Sonoma County Zinfandel, but I suppose you could call that a fault rather than a virtue. If you’re looking for classically brawny Zins, spicy, briary and heady, it’s Sonoma you look to.

Zinfandel for me is one of those wines that can’t quite decide whether it’s noble or common. In a great one, the aroma, the entry or attack, the complexity, the balance, the finish all are there, yet something at the last minute detracts. It’s like seeing someone very glamorous and well-dressed at the Opera with a piece of toilet paper stuck to their heel. The best Zinfandel I ever tasted was the Hartford Court 2007 Highwire Vineyard, Russian River Valley, which I gave 96 points four years ago. It was very high in alcohol (15.5%). I wrote “It should be in a museum” because of its classic Sonoma-ness. Yet even that wine, great as it was, was a little country, a handsome rube with hay in its hair.

Here are some of my top Zins of 2012, with their appellations:

Bella 2009 Barrel 32 (94 points, $48, Sonoma County)

Elyse 2009 Black-Sears Vineyard (93, $37, Howell Mountain)

Turley 2010 Tofanelli Vineyard (93, $34, Napa Valley)

Oakville Winery 2010 Estate (93, $25, Oakville)

Summers 2009 Four-Acre (93, $34, Calistoga)

Williams Selyem 2010 Bacigalupi Vineyard (93, $50, Russian River Valley)

De Loach 2009 OFS (93, $30, Russian River Valley)

John Tyler 2007 Bacigalupi Vineyard (92, $38, Russian River Valley)

Sausal 2009 Century Vines (92, $40, Alexander Valley)

Chateau Potelle 2009 VGS (92, $65, Mount Veeder)


A reader asks for Zin coverage, and I deliver

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On the “Comments” section of my Reader Survey (you can click here to access it, and I hope you will if you haven’t already), a respondent wrote:

“Steve, I enjoy reading your blog, but would like to see more coverage of less known wineries. Today it was about Williams Seylem. It seems everyone writes about them. I’d like to see coverage of folks and wineries that others don’t write about. Also, your coverage of Zinfandel is poor at best. This is such an important wine in our state and in the country as a whole. And I don’t mean another story about Ridge. There are a lot of interesting things being done by small producers…”

I’m impervious to mindless criticism, but when the jabs are justified, I hear them. And this reader is justified. So here’s a post about Zinfandel.

He’s right that Zinfandel is an important wine in California. There were 48,354 acres of it planted in 2011, making it the second most-widely grown red variety, after Cabernet Sauvignon, at 79,290 acres. The two counties growing the most Zin were San Joaquin (19,340, or nearly 40% of the statewide total), and Sonoma (5,349 acres, or 11% of all Zin in California). I suspect that most of that Central Valley Zin disappears into inexpensive jug and boxed red wines, while most of the Sonoma fruit goes into premium varietal bottlings.

There were 345,168 tons of Zinfandel crushed in 2011, making it the second most-heavily crushed red wine, again after Cabernet Sauvignon. But it’s interesting that Cabernet, at 384,301 tons, beat Zin by only a little, compared to its vast dominance in acreage. I conclude from this that all that Zinfandel in the Central Valley is heavily cropped. Growers are growing it to sell cheaply, so they allow those vines to bear as much fruit as they can.

The first Zinfandel I still have a record of drinking was a 1976 Wine and the People, with a “Sonoma” [neither county nor valley] appellation. This was before the U.S. had an official AVA system. The alcohol was 13.5%, and the retail price, in 1979, was $10. Not exactly cheap for that period. In my note I called it “strong and spicy.” I liked it a great deal and drank it with steak. A month later I had a Ridge 1976 Lytton Springs Zinfandel that set me back $8. It was from the vineyard on the east side of Dry Creek Valley, almost in Alexander Valley.

When I was learning about wine, the conventional wisdom was that Sonoma County produced the best Zinfandels. (Well, a lot of people argued for the Sierra Foothills, and Amador County specifically, but once I became exposed to them, I often found them a little too hot and sweet for my tastes.) I like a Napa Valley style of Zinfandel, which I find drily elegant, as exemplified by wineries such as Storybook Mountain, Rubicon’s Edizione Pennino, Schulz Lampyridae from Howell Mountain, and V. Sattui’s Black-Sears, also from Howell Mountain. But Sonoma County, and in particular Dry Creek Valley, really star. Some great larger producers are De Loach, Hartford, Seghesio and Ravenswood.

Here are some smaller Zin producers who have impressed me in recent years: Zichichi (Dry Creek Valley), Tres Vinicultores (Sonoma County AVA), Bella (also Sonoma County), Phipps (Dry Creek Valley), Bluenose (Dry Creek), Sanctuary (Mendocino Ridge), Black Sears (Howell Mountain, what great fruit), Titus (Napa Valley), Magistrate (Dry Creek Valley) and Dutcher Crossing (Dry Creek). I guess you’d have to say that, in terms of the sheer volume of top producers, Dry Creek Valley is producing the best Zinfandels in California.

I like Zinfandel, I respect its long history in California, I bear no ill feelings toward it, but I don’t drink a lot of Zin. I can enjoy a good bottle and give it a good score, but Zinfandel is not a wine I’d normally buy for myself. I suppose I have a tendency to think of it as a barbecue wine because even at its best, it’s lusty and briary, in the rustic way of a country wine. Zin can make a good Port-style sweet wine, but if I want Port, I’ll buy a nice ruby or LBV from Portugal.

Zinfandel goes up and comes down in popular esteem. Even when I arrived on the scene, it had that roller-coaster reputation: in one day, out the next. It didn’t help that it was made in so many different ways: red, white, rosé, carbonically macerated Zin that tasted like Beaujolais, sweet, dry, high alcohol, moderate alcohol, raisiny or not, even (OMG) sparkling. I think Zinfandel will always remain something of a niche wine, but that houses known for it (Seghesio, Ravenswood) will enjoy steady demand. Finally, it makes me very happy that all that Central Valley Zin is finding its way into people’s bellies at a fair price. The wine industry is a pyramid, its broad base consisting of millions of consumers who need sound, everyday wine, and that’s exactly what Central Valley Zinfandel gives them.


Thinking about Zin as summer slowly ends

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Summertime is Zinfandel time, of course, what with all the barbecues, and I’ve been enjoying my fair share. There are many styles of Zinfandel–always have been, which is one reason why it’s a little confusing to Americans. Even when I was coming up in the wine community, it was a common complaint that Zin was as hard to understand as Riesling. Would it be dry, sweet, hot, balanced, pink, white, oaky or even bubblegummy? You couldn’t know until you drank it.

My own preference, and the style I think works best across a range of foods, is what I call “claret style,” which is to say dry, not too high in alcohol, smooth and balanced. Napa Valley accomplishes it best, perhaps due to the climate, perhaps because winemakers there have mastered Cabernet Sauvignon, and the “claret style” of Zinfandel could also be called the “Cabernet style.” Storybook Mountain, Ravenswood’s Dickerson bottling and Chateau Potelle’s VGS are good examples.

I also admire Dry Creek Valley as a source of Zinfandel. In fact, in terms of high scores, mine probably veer more toward DCV than any other region in California. I often use the words “briary” and “brambly” to describe these Zinfandels. By them I mean a complex of qualities, both olfactory, taste-wise and textural. The bottom line is of a certain wild berry quality. If you’ve ever gone blackberry or black raspberry hunting on a hot summer day, you know the experience extends far beyond the taste in the mouth. There’s the warm dustiness of the dirt, which here in California, in summertime, is always dry and sere because it never rains. There’s the feral, dry scent of undergrowth: decaying leaves, crushed pine needles, humous and whatever wild plants grow nearby: chamomile, fennel, pepper things. A freshly picked berry, warm from its spot in the sun, oozes a fruity life savoriness that’s gone by the time it’s been crated and boxed for sale in the supermarket, or even the farmer’s market. It’s similar to plucking a sun-ripened tomato right off the vine: so sweet, almost like candy, a quality that disappears within moments after being picked. That briary brambly-ness is in the mouthfeel, too, a spicy, peppery, sandpapery quality, like dried nettles. This all makes for something wine writers sometimes call “rusticity,” a tricky word that can have dual meanings. Sometimes it’s a negative; when I use it in a positive sense, as with certain Zinfandels, I try to explain that it refers to something artisanal. It’s hard to describe all these sensations, but Dry Creek Valley Zins at their best display them, in wines from Seghesio, Ledson, Sbragia, Bella and Dry Creek Vineyard.

Alexander Valley Zins for me are more challenging because more variable. At their best, they seem round and mellow, sometimes a little hot in alcohol, but that’s Zin for you. The chief fault of Alexander Valley is a certain simplicity of structure; flavor isn’t hard to achieve, but depth is. Yet when done well–Bella again, Sausal at their best, Stuhlmuller, Rosenblum’s Harris Kratka Vineyard–they offer plenty of pleasure.

When it comes to Paso Robles Zinfandel, in my opinion the heat down there often gets the best of them. I don’t mind high alcohol if it’s balanced, but it does offend me when the wine tastes hot, overripe and porty. Don’t get me wrong, lots of people like this style. It’s not my preference, though. Which gets us into the question of “Should the critic give the wine a high score because he likes it, or because it’s a good example of its style and terroir?” Believe me, I ponder that everytime I taste a Paso Robles Zinfandel, and lots of other wines as well. I try to find a balance. I might say, “This is not a wine for everyone, but will have its fans” to alert readers that I’m trying to set aside my personal preferences and be objective.

Still and ultimately, it’s impossible for me, in passing an esthetic judgment on a wine, to entirely set aside my own preferences. It’s what readers expect me to do. They don’t want a bland, objective description of the wine without any guidance as to pleasure or its absence. That could be accomplished by a laboratory readout of pH, acidity and a breakdown of chemical constituents. Wouldn’t make interesting reading to many people, and would be useless except to a technologist. So in reviewing Zinfandel and everything else, it’s a balancing act between objectivity and subjectivity, and I think most people “get it.” The only ones who don’t are the nitpickers on either side who insist it has to be one or the other.


California’s new Golden Age of Zinfandel

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California is producing some of the greatest Zinfandels ever. Indeed, we’re in a Golden Age of Zinfandel. Although planted acreage of it has barely budged over the last ten years–from 47,000 acres in 2001 to 48,000 acres in 2010–acreage in such prime coastal counties as Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and San Luis Obispo has crept upward, fueling the drive toward quality.

For decades, as wine historians know, Zinfandel suffered from an identity crisis worse than any other variety in California, and matched only by that of German Riesling. If nobody knew what to expect from a Mosel or Rhinegau–sweet? dry? off-dry?–for Zinfandel the possibilities were positively bizarre. Not only the sweet-or-dry conundrum, but would it be impossibly tannic? High in alcohol, even approaching port? There was a brief moment when vintners used the carbonic maceration on Zinfandel bunches, same as in Beaujolais; I used to like it (freshy, fruity, zippy wines with a hint of gassy bubblegum) but in retrospect I can see that it was a circus freak. Zinfandel might have been white (and still might be), it might have been pink, it might have been fortified. Identity crisis, indeed.

A few houses, classically oriented, always turned out balanced Zinfandels, the kind sometimes referred to as “claret-style.” Pedroncelli, Louis M. Martini, Sutter Home, Joseph Swan, Foppiano, Montelena, Buena Vista, Clos du Val, Ridge, Grand Cru, Sebastiani–they kept the Zin flame burning, although in many instances, those wineries have gone through substantive changes today, so that one cannot say the same thing.

Pinot Noir often is referred to as the heartbreak grape, the hardest one to grow properly and vinify correctly. This is largely true, but Zinfandel will brook no challengers in the difficulty sweepstakes. It is far harder to get Zinfandel right than Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Syrah. Zinfandel is a notoriously uneven ripener: on the same bunch you might find shriveled grapes, green grapes and perfectly ripened berries. This is the chief difficulty, and is why so many Zinfandels are so unbalanced. A good Zinfandel has a purity of aroma. One sniff is all it takes to know that here is a lovely wine. The wine often is said to be “briary” and/or “brambly.” I myself use these terms (when applicable), to some extent interchangeably; and I use them to describe, at various points in the tasting experience, the aroma, or the flavor, or the mouthfeel. By these terms I mean to suggest the quality of a walk through the California countryside on a hot summer day. It could be on the sunny fringe of a dense Redwood forest on the Sonoma Coast, or in a benchland of the Sierra Foothills, under a brutal August sun. You are alert to the smells of the earth: the baked, dry dust under your feet, crumbling Douglas fir needles, pine cones, the mentholly sharpness of eucalyptus, a waft of ripe red and black wild berries. If you come across a berry patch, stick your nose as close as you can and sniff: that is the briary, brambly quality. You experience it in the chimney of your head, not quite aroma, not quite taste, but both, and tingly, like a whiff of white pepper. That is Zinfandel’s hallmark. Amerine and Singleton, in Wine (1967) described Zinfandel as being a variety “with a distinguishable varietal aroma”, although they did not describe what it was. Around the same time, in General Viticulture, professors Winkler, Cook, Kliewer and Lider repeated the meme, referring to Zinfandel’s “characteristic varietal flavor” but offering no further elaboration. But then, all of these writers were from U.C. Davis; academic prudence kept them from writing too subjectively.

The best Zinfandels I’ve had over the past year have been from Seghesio, Ravenswood, De Loach, Storybook Mountain, Ledson, Sbragia (well, Ed’s Zins are perhaps a bit too muscular to be called “claret-style,” but they’re very good), St Francis, Bella, Sausal and a nice Francis Ford Coppola 2009 “Director’s Cut,” at $24 a bargain. Geographically, they hail from the North Coast’s best valleys. What you look for in a well-grown Zinfandel are small clusters of evenly-ripened berries. The vineyard often will have a slope to it, and the ground will not suffer if the dirt is volcanic red; smell it, look for trace elements of minerals, candle wax, iodine, baking spices. So much the better if the vines are head-trained and dry-farmed. But look, too, for wild berries around the vineyard’s periphery, perhaps in a nearby stream bed. Zinfandel is a product of its ecosystem; it speaks terroir as purely as any variety, although the voice is baritone, not Pinot’s pure tenor.


Revisiting Zinfandel, with a side of wine writing

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I liked Wilfred Wong’s article (“Discovering Zinfandel’s true self”) in the Jan-Feb issue of Vineyard & Winery Management.  Unfortunately, it’s not available for free online. One of the reasons wine writers like Wilfred get better and more interesting to read as they get older is because they have more experience. Experience, like love, is one thing money can’t buy. Wilfred takes us down Memory Lane in describing the trials and tribulations of California’s only native varietal wine (well, it was born someplace in southern or southeastern Europe but it’s always referred to as Californian), from the balanced, dry style pioneered by Kenwood in the early 1970s through the White Zinfandel craze, the high alcohol thing (still happening) and the emergence of serious producers, like Ridge and Storybook Mountain. In my opinion, understanding this evolving history contributes toward a greater appreciation of the wine you drink.

I happened to be reading that article the same day I went through the latest batch of De Loach Zinfandels, six in all, along with a number of other North Coast Zinfandels to round out my flight. Those De Loaches were so good, I did something I rarely do: I emailed Jean-Charles Boisset to offer my salutations. I do this 4 or 5 times a year. There’s no formula; it’s instinctive on my part, the way most things I do are–just a feeling that I want to do it, and so I do. Winemakers are always keen to know what critics think of their wines, and usually they have to wait until the review comes out. But sometimes I just want to personally let the producer know what a good job I think he or she did. We all like that, don’t we–I mean, to be appreciated.

I tend to classify today’s Zinfandels into two broad classes: high-alcohol, overripe bruisers and a more elegant, “claret”-style. But even these two broad distinctions must be sub-divided. The first, the high-alcohol style, has a “good” expression and a “not so good” one. High alcohol, in and of itself, isn’t necessarily bad, particularly in a Zinfandel and particularly from, say, Dry Creek Valley or El Dorado County, where a prickly mouthfeel is part of Zin’s typicity. You may not like the heat from alcohol, but if you’re fair (and critics should be), you have to recognize that it’s an intrinsic sign of the terroir, same as acidity in German Riesling or tannins in Nebbiolo. A good example of a high alcohol Zinfandel is Rockpile’s 2010 Rockpile Ridge Vineyard. It’s official alcohol is 15.6% (the number on the label is so tiny and pale, I practically needed a microscope to find it). That surely is high alcohol, and for all I know (given the long leash the TTB gives wineries), the actual alcohol could be well over 16%. But you expect that in a Zinfandel from Rockpile, the appellation; to complain about it is like saying Alaska shouldn’t be cold in February.

So I gave the Rockpile a respectable score, even though it’s not really a style I like or wish to drink. More to my liking were those De Loaches, especially the ‘09 Nova Vineyard, whose official ABV is 15%. Fifteen percent seems like the sweet spot for Zinfandel. My two highest-rated Zins of last year, Seghesio’s ‘09 Cortina (Dry Creek Valley) and Ravenswood’s 2008 Old Hill (Sonoma Valley), also weighed in at 15%. Make Zin much less ripe than that, and its flavors turn green and stingy. Zin is a notoriously uneven ripener anyway, and it takes heat, sun and good viticulture to get the job done right.

But if Zin gets much higher than 15% or so, it loses everything about it we like. Wilfred, in his article, quoted someone as saying, “…high-alcohol zins become more alike, less distinguishable, less expressive of the vineyard.” I couldn’t agree more. Almost all of my top Zinfandels over the years have been vineyard designates, with ABV right at or just above or below 15%. All of them–the ones I mentioned above, as well as Sbragia ‘09 Gino’s, V. Sattui ‘08 Black-Sears, Ravenswood ‘08 Dickerson, John Tyler 2007 Bacigalupi, Williams Selyem ‘09 Papera, Vermeil ‘09 Luvisi–are in that neighborhood.

Rules are meant to be broken, though, and there always are outliers that  succeed. St. Francis somehow made the 16.1% alcohol on their ‘09 Pagani reasonable, primarily due to the fantastically rich layers of fruit and spice. At the other extreme is the 13.9% alcohol of Ottomino’s 2007 Von Weidlich Vineyard, which is in the Green Valley. In my review, I found “tobacco [and] cola” flavors and high acidity. Both of those sensory qualities testify to grapes that were not anywhere near as ripe as they would have been had they come from Dry Creek Valley, just a few miles across the river as the crow flies. But the wine itself was fine, as elegant as Zin gets. I suspect it came from a sunnier, higher elevation part of Green Valley than where Pinot Noir grows. Ottomino’s website says “the Von Weidlich Vineyard…averages nearly 10 degrees warmer than adjacent areas.”

Zinfandel is an enormously challenging grape and wine to get right, harder, I think, than Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s not quite as noble as Cabernet, and cannot be (that’s a whole other discussion). But if I never again had the opportunity to drink Cabernet [unthinkable], a fine North Coast Zinfandel would be a worthy substitute for a full-bodied red wine.

I’ll close by reverting to what I said earlier about experience. You don’t need an intimate knowledge of wine history to enjoy a nice wine, obviously. But for the professional wine writer, experience is “a treasure laid up in Heaven.” I can hardly imagine writing about anything without all this memory in my head I’ve accumulated over the years. It both informs my writing and passes it through to the reader, in the mysterious, alchemical osmosis that connects writer and reader in a bond of incredible intimacy. That’s why reading Wilfred Wong is so educational, and also why the wine world is poorer with the passing of such as Robert L. Balzer and Steve Pitcher.


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