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Some Zinfandels I liked in 2012


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)

  1. Mike Officer/Carlisle Winery says:

    There’s an error in your math Steve. You included total tons of raisin and table grapes in your calculation of 8.9% Zinfandel crushed in the state. If you eliminate raisin and table grapes, Zinfandel accounts for 10.3% of grapes crushed for wine in California, but still behind Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.

    Also, I disagree with your statement that Zinfandel doesn’t sell. On average, a ton of Zinfandel in Sonoma will cost you more than a ton of Cabernet Sauvignon by over $200. In Napa, a ton of Zinfandel will cost you on average $300+ more than a ton of Pinot noir or Merlot. If Zinfandel didn’t sell, it wouldn’t command these kind of prices. Also, in 2011, there were 5,349 acres of Zinfandel in Sonoma County. Only one other county in California, San Joaquin County, has more than that. Next closest to Sonoma is Merced at 2909. Again, if Zinfandel didn’t sell, why would one of the state’s most premium wine region have so much planted?

    As for the $443 a ton you cite, you mention most of the Zin in the Central Valley goes to inexpensive jug wine. But you fail to mention it also goes to an ocean’s worth of white Zin. In fact, if you extrapolate from Nielsen sales data, it appears there is nearly 3 times more white Zinfandel produced than red Zinfandel. The Zinfandel fruit for white Zin and jug wines brings the average down considerably. And does this mean that growers aren’t making money? No. Zin grown for these types of wines is typically cropped at 12+ tons to the acre as opposed to the typical 3 tons per acre in Napa or Sonoma. Also, Zinfandel grown at this kind of yield is typically grown in the Central Valley where land is substantially cheaper than in premium coastal regions. As a result, growers are still making money. How much Cabernet Sauvignon is being grown for jug wine (or white Cabernet ;-)? A negligible amount compared to Zin.

    Finally, Zinfandel is very much a noble grape. It has been discovered in an herbarium in Croatia as Tribidrag. Tribidrag has been documented as growing in Croatia for over 500 years. Just because Zinfandel doesn’t have a current French or expensive Italian counterpart, it is no less noble.

  2. Kurt Burris says:

    Mike: I am not arguing with your numbers, but if Napa Zin is selling for more than Napa Pinot why are the retail prices so different? Steve: I’m not a high ETOH fan, but acknowledge that you can make delicious high ETOH Zinfandels. Just out of curiousity what was the alcohol of your favorite list?

  3. Mike Officer/Carlisle Winery says:

    The short answer Kurt is because the price of grapes usually has little bearing on how a wine is priced. The longer answer, by way of example, is, consider two wines, one made from grapes priced at $2500 a ton, the second from grapes priced at $5000 a ton. Given that a ton of red grapes typically yields 660 bottles, the extra $2500 a ton for the more expensive fruit adds only $3.79 more to the cost of the second wine, all other things being equal. A lot of wine pricing is based on perception. Unfortunately, some wine writers/critics (not saying you Steve) and consumers look down upon Zinfandel, as if it’s some second class citizen. As a result, they feel it should be cheap. That keeps a lid on prices, a good thing for Zin lovers as many of the best Zinfandels (often from low yielding century old vineyards) can rival the best of other varieties in terms of quality and enjoyment.

  4. Echoing on Mike’s comment of “… consumers look down upon Zinfandel, as if it’s some second class citizen”… we were at a vineyard party/BBQ in Napa’s Oak Knoll District this summer where my wife and I brought a bottle of 2010 Easton Zin from Amador… The bottle was attacked (criticized) instantly as if it were a wounded animal in a ring of wolves. How dare I bring it into Napa! It was coined, “Truckee Trash” before the bottle was even opened. After it was opened though, a few of the people who tried it found it surprisingly good. At $18 a bottle retail, it really is quite a steal. With Turley now setting up shop in Amador with the purchase of Karly, Ann Kraemer opening up a tasting room in downtown Sutter Creek for her family’s Shakeridge label, Yorba, Miraflores in El Dorado County, and Perry Creek’s Altitude series in Fair Play, it’s starting to get a little more exciting in the Sierra Foothills… Steve, you might want to try to reclaim that terrain!

  5. “Truckee trash”? You just gave me a new label idea…
    Please step-up and try or single vineyard and old-vine Zinfandels. We sell aged Zinfandel releases as well. Thanks for visiting.

  6. Jane O'Riordan says:

    Hey Bill, even though Truckee Trash has a nice ring to it, I don’t see the connection. I challenge any winemaker to try and make wine in Truckee. Talk about high elevation! As we know, Truckee is not in the Sierra Foothills and the Truckee river does not run though it. Maybe these Napa folks should actually stop in the Foothills on their way to the Sierra and see what these wines are all about. Then they might even remember where the foothills are.

  7. I agree with Mike above. Then again, I am a huge zinfandel freak and just got my most recent allocation from Carlisle. 😀 As a wine geek in Washington State, I have a lot of friends who visit our home for food and wine. The number one request I get for the next cork to be popped is always something from my zinfandel stash (Carlisle, Novy, and Bella are the usual requests), and the second choice is usually a syrah (Walla Walla Valley – such as Cayuse, K Vintners, Cougar Crest, etc.) Perhaps some of that is because there isn’t a lot of zinfandel grown or produced up here and people like to try new things, but a lot of it has to do with the quality of the zins I buy, and that a $40 bottle of zin often brings a lot more to the table than a $40 bottle of Napa cab (in my most humble opinion). I have a fairly large amount of Bella zins from at least 8 previous vintages that are humming along quite well. A few months back we cracked open a Papapietro Perry 2004 Russian River Valley zin that was abso-freaking-lutely killer. That wine still had some very good years ahead of it. I was almost sorry I opened it, and I was very sorry I didn’t have any more. Noble? Hell yeah. I can’t wait to get back down to Sonoma County in the spring to see what new ma-and-pa zin specialists I can dig up. Plus, we stay at one of the 6 houses on the cliffs at Goat Rock (our friends own it), which is one of my favorite places on the planet. Damn. Now I am thirsty. Cheers all!

  8. I’m interested as to your response to the points Mike and others brought up Steve…

  9. Dear Jake, I’m not sure which of Mike’s comments you want me to reply to. My overall take is, since the county “allowed” Los Olivos to turn into a little winetasting theme park, it seems silly for them not to let Larner do a tasting room and have occasional events. How many “tourists” would Larner bring, compared to the far greater number that come to LO (and Santa Ynez, and Solvang, and Ballard, etc. etc.)? Not very many, I think.

  10. Steve,

    I was interested in your response to Mike Officer’s comments regarding Zinfandel not the winery development discussion.

  11. Jake: Oh. You have to specify in the future exactly whose comment you’re referring to, since it gets pretty busy here on the old blog. Regarding Mike Officer, well of course he’s defending Sonoma County Zinfandel, as well he should! Still, I stand by my argument, which is based on the entire state of California, not just the one county where Zinfandel still has a major presence.

  12. Steve,

    I know that we do have to deal with the pricing issue some with Pinot Noir. Unfortunately, when it comes to the Grape Crop Report, Pinot Noir pricing doesnt differentiate between Pinot sold for still wine and sparking wine. Same for Chardonnay. In both cases, though, that pales in comparison to Zinfandel pricing, which is truly dragged down by the large amount of White Zinfandel produced. I don’t think any other varities have these issues…and none as bad as Zin.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  13. Mike Officer/Carlisle Winery says:


    You think Sonoma is the only county (outside of San Joaquin) where Zinfandel has a major presence? You know what county in California ranks number 4 in terms of Zinfandel planted, just 140 acres behind Fresno? San Luis Obispo. There’s almost as much Zinfandel in SLO as there is in Madera! And in Napa, Zinfandel acreage is higher than both Merced and Stanislaus. In Santa Barbara County, plantings of Zinfandel were up over 7% between 2010 and 2011. Fresno County may be number 5 on the list in terms of Zin acreage but not too far behind at number 6 is Amador. And number 7? Mendocino. Zinfandel acreage is also up in Contra Costa County from 2010 to 2011. In fact, Zinfandel plantings are up almost 11% from 2003. And you say Zinfandel isn’t doing well? Au contraire Steve. Zinfandel is doing very well.

  14. Barnaby Hughes says:

    I was surprised not to see any mention of Dry Creek Valley, which makes some of the best Zinfandels. I think of wineries like Dashe and Dutcher Crossing – even Quivira.

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