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A classic Zinfandel tasting



Every once in a while you have a winetasting you know you’ll long remember. Yesterday’s Zinfandel romp was one. We’ve had a lot of amazing tastings over the last year and a half, but this was one for the books.

Yesterday I suggested that Zinfandel has always been a bit of an under-achiever, in my book. We talked about this at the tasting: somebody wondered why Zin never gets perfect 100s. I speculated that it could be for two reasons: First, that it’s not really a “noble” variety and thus not capable of perfection. Secondly, that it would take a considerable amount of courage for a professional critic to give a Zinfandel 100 points. Wine Advocate, for instance, has never given more than 98 points to a Zin, nor has Wine Spectator given higher than 96 points. Maybe there’s just something inherently rustic about even the best Zinfandel. We can argue endlessly about why this is.

Anyhow, when you do a blind tasting that thrills you to the marrow, it’s terrifically exciting to remove the bottles from their papery shrouds and see what’s what. This was certainly the greatest Zinfandel tasting I’ve ever attended and I’m tempted to say it’s one of the best that’s ever been held. It wasn’t big—only thirteen wines—but it did represent a critical best-of-the-best. Should other wines have been included? Sure. You can’t have everything. Should we have had bottles from Paso Robles and the Sierra Foothills? Probably. But I have to draw the line someplace, so I held it to Napa-Sonoma-Mendocino—with that one outlier from the Oregon side of Columbia Valley, Sineann.

Here are my results (not the group’s):

98 Hartford 2012 Old Vine Fanucchi-Wood Road Zinfandel (Russian River Valley): $55, 14.6%. This was quite simply the greatest Zinfandel I’ve ever had. It immediately followed the spectacular Martinelli [see below] and was so different in style, it momentarily caught me off-guard. But then I realized the wine’s magnificence. My notes as I wrote them: “Black! Huge, deep, dark, brooding. A helluva Zin. Massively compact: raspberries, blueberries, cherry pie, dates, bloody meat, bacon, sweet oak, spices. Ultra-rich, yet balanced and silky. Really a super-Zin, distinguished and terroir-driven. An almost Oriental complexity.” During our subsequent discussion I compared it to a Bach fugue: So many levels, all playing contrapuntally off each other.

96 Martinelli 2014 Jackass Vineyard Zinfandel (Russian River Valley); $95, 16.6%. It should be noted that this is not the winery’s Jackass Hill Zin, which is grown on a far steeper slope. I wrote: “A ripe, flashy, approachable style, but enormously complex. Strawberries, raspberries, vanilla bean, cocoa dust, toast, mocha, orange zest and masses of spice. Simply delicious and easy. Silky sweet tannins, the perfect glass of Zin, oaky-sweet.” Another taster found white chocolate. The alcohol was enormous, but the wine wasn’t hot at all. Just a lovely effort from Martinelli. It stood in contrast to the Fanucchi-Wood: The Beatles, say, instead of Bach.

96 Hartford 2013 Old Vine Highwire Vineyard Zinfandel (Russian River Valley): $55, 15.5%. A spectacular Zin. What a roll Hartford is on! From century vines, including some Carignane and 55% new French oak, which it easily handles. My notes: “Very bright, uplifted nose. Super-briary and brambly, classic Russian River Valley Zin.” (Yes, I nailed that!) “Wild raspberries, chamomile, cedar, menthol-eucalyptus. Tons of sweet raspberries, spices (clove, pepper, cinnamon). First-rate Zin, delicious and satisfying.”

95 Novy 2013 Papera Vineyard Zinfandel (Russian River Valley); $33, 15.8%. Another old vineyard, planted in the Laguna de Santa Rosa section, and a field-blend of various other varieties. It was interesting to compare it to the Williams Selyem [see below], which also was from Papera fruit. My notes: “Dark. A lush, ripe, fruity style. Flashy and delicious. Raspberries, mocha, red cherries, smoke, brown sugar, cinnamon. Very delicious, complex, a real beauty. Lots of zesty acidity, with a long finish.”

94 Sineann 2013 Old Vine Zinfandel (Columbia Valley); $39, 15.2%. I included this because I wanted a ringer in the group, but also because Wine Enthusiast gave it 95 points while Wine Advocate said, “To be totally honest I find this difficult to even think about swallowing in a[n] appreciable measure” and declined to give it a rating. My notes: “Lively, clean. Nice burst of acidity, smooth, silky tannins. Rich, spicy raspberry, cherry, persimmon fruit. Scads of spices: white pepper, clove, cinnamon. Orange zest, vanilla, cocoa, smoke. Drinkable now.” So I guess I agree with Wine Enthusiast on this one!

94 Edmeades 2013 Perli Vineyard Zinfandel (Mendocino Ridge): $?, 15.5%. Edmeades is fortunate to have access to this and other high, remote mountain old-vine vineyards in this gorgeous part of Mendocino County. The grapes grow on 60% slopes at 1,500 feet, which no doubt accounts for the intensity. I wrote: “Black! Very rich, almost candy-sweet in cherries and dates. Smooth, silky tannins, nice smokiness, a fleshy note of pork belly. Fat, gras, glyceriney (high alcohol). Hedonistic, heady, a great example of a big, rich, ripe Zin.”

93 Williams Selyem 2013 Papera Vineyard Zinfandel (Russian River Valley): $55, 14.8%. This was the first wine in the lineup and I loved it instantly; we all did. But sometimes that first wine tastes better than it really is, so I went back to it several times. I wrote: “Good saturation. Gorgeous perfume: raspberry, cocoa dust, violets, black pepper. Burst of acidity. Smooth, sophisticated. Huge blast of raspberry and spice. A touch of raisining. Some heat, not much. Nice herbaceousness. Classic Zin.” Clearly the Papera Vineyard gives ripe, balanced and elegant fruit.

93 Carlisle 2013 Carlisle Vineyard Zinfandel (Russian River Valley): $47, 15.0%. I “discovered” Carlisle years ago at the old Hospice de Rhône event in Paso Robles, when Mike Officer was pouring his Two Acre. I thought then it was one of the best blends I’d ever had, and gave him, I believe, his first major review. His estate vineyard, like Papera, is in the Laguna de Santa Rosa, and is a field blend containing who knows how many other varieties. I wrote: “Lovely aroma, all wood smoke, raspberry preserves, clove-cinnamon spice, sous-bois. Good fruit, sweet, silky tannins, with a minerality.” Initially, I found the wine overly tart, which was a turnoff that caused me to lower my score. However, over time, I found myself liking it more and more. My 93 point score may be generous, though. I’d like to try this wine another time.

93 Limerick Lane 2013 Zinfandel (Russian River Valley); $56, 15.0%. Spectator gave this 96 points. I didn’t like it quite so much, but it is a very nice Zinfandel. I wrote: “Dark! Very young, tight aroma…closed, dumb. Hints of forest, wild herbs, blackberries, smoke. Closed, tannic, muted in the mouth. But feels fine, high quality. Give it 4-5 years.”

92 Edmeades 2012 Gianoli Vineyard Zinfandel (Mendocino Ridge); $31, 15.5%. Another of those fabulous mountain vineyards Edmeades sources from. My notes: “A lighter color. Easy-breezy Zin, super-drinkable, likeable now. Silky and balanced, with tons of sweet red fruit, toast, marzipan, macaroon. Zesty acidity. Well-made, with some raisining.”

91 Turley 2013 Zampatti Vineyard Zinfandel (Sonoma County): $65, 15.9%. The tiny vineyard is in Santa Rosa and qualifies, I believe, for a Russian River Valley appellation, although it doesn’t say so on the label. It was planted in 1915. I wrote: “Good ruby color. Delightful aroma, clean and classic Zin. Briary, brambly, with wild cranberry, persimmon fruit. Deep, broad flavors, polished, silky, very appealing. Not a profound wine, but with vast appeal.”

90 Robert Biale 2013 Grande Vineyard Zinfandel (Napa Valley); $50, 15.4%. The vineyard was planted in 1920 on the Silverado Trail, in what is now the Oak Knoll District, and is another multi-variety field blend. This was definitely a wine that improved in the glass. I wrote: “Bigger, riper, raisiny [compared to the Williams Selyem that preceded it]. For me, though, a bit too big, alcoholic, almost a Port except it’s bone dry. Rather soft, too.” But as it showed more complexity and an almost intellectual component over time, I ticked my score up a few points.

87 Novy 2013 Limerick Lane Zinfandel (Russian River Valley); $34, 15.3%. This was a big disappointment, especially because the Limerick Lane Zin was so much better. I wrote: “Reduced (sulfur). Not blowing off. Somewhat tough and astringent. Full-bodied, with blackberries, but outclassed in this flight. Somewhat heavy.” It did improve with time in the glass, but sadly, 87 points was the best I could do. Others found it more appealing.

  1. Bob Henry says:

    “Initially, I found the wine [Carlisle 2013 Carlisle Vineyard Zinfandel] overly tart, which was a turnoff that caused me to lower my score. However, OVER TIME, I found myself liking it more and more. …”

    — AND —

    “But as it [Robert Biale 2013 Grande Vineyard Zinfandel] showed more complexity and an almost intellectual component OVER TIME, I ticked my score up a few points. …”

    Readers of wine magazines (starting with me) are curious by the reviewing process.

    How much time did you spend with these wines before committing your final comments to paper?

    Was that more or less time than you would have accorded each wine during your service as reviewer for Wine Enthusiast?

  2. Bob Henry says:

    By comparison . . .

    Excerpt from the Los Angeles Times “Main News” Section
    (February 23, 1999, Page A1ff):

    “He Sips and Spits — and the World Listens”

    (Series: First of Two Articles)


    By David Shaw
    Times Staff Writer

    Parker is known as a fast taster. Jorge Ordonez, whose Fine Wine Estates from Spain is one of the leading American importers of Spanish wines, says he has “never seen anyone able to pick the best wines out of a ‘flight’ of 50 or 60 as quickly.”

    Parker looks at each wine, sniffs, swirls, sips, sucks air into his mouth and gurgles. (The swirling and gurgling help aerate the wine and give a sense of how it’s likely to develop in the glass.) Then he spits it out. Each wine is in his mouth for maybe FOUR OR FIVE SECONDS.

    If his first taste suggests that a wine is not worth at least 80 points, he won’t taste it again. “Why bother?” he asks. …

    But any wine that initially seems to merit 80 points or more is TASTED TWICE, MAYBE THREE TIMES IN SUCCESSION before Parker determines its final score. He doesn’t linger or ponder. …

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