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New Wine Reviews: Pinotage

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As a California wine critic I came across very little Pinotage wine. Over the decades I drank maybe a few dozen, always from South Africa. I formed a generic impression of it, through both my own tastings and from reading other writers, as a dark red wine, dry and high in alcohol, that could be a little rustic—sort of the Zinfandel of South Africa.

But I didn’t really know. Wine critics can’t be expected to be experts on every one of the thousands of vitis vinifera varieties grown around the world! So it was nice when a P.R. rep from Vineyard Brands asked if I wanted to taste four South African Pinotages. Of course, I said yes.

Pinotage is a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault, created in South Africa in 1925. The name apparently was coined to suggest a red wine similar to Hermitage, which of course is made from Syrah. In theory, the developers of Pinotage wanted create a wine as delicious as Pinot Noir (thought at the time to be difficult to grow in South Africa), but as easy to farm as Cinsault.

I looked up the Pinotage ratings and reviews from my old magazine, Wine Enthusiast, and was surprised at the consistency of the scores: mainly between 85 points and 92 points, the former range dominated by less-expensive bottlings. Prices are nowhere near those of, say, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon or the better California Pinot Noirs.

Ashbourne 2016 Pinotage (Hemel-En-Aared); $58. “Hemel-En-Aared” means “heaven and earth” in Afrikaans. Close to the coast, it has a cool maritime climate. In red wines, the region is famous for Pinot Noir, and this Pinotage has a Burgundian delicacy, while keeping the proper varietal size and weight. It’s easily the best of the four Pinotages I was asked to review. The acidity, which is so fierce in the other wines, has been tamed by letting the wine go through complete malolactic fermentation. Meanwhile, the tannins seem softer, allowing the full range of flavors to reveal themselves: succulent ripe blackberries, with suggestions of spicy cloves, oak-inspired vanilla, and a meaty-beefy teriyaki sweetness. The wine shows the classic proportions of finesse: balance, integrity, cleanliness, power, and complexity. The alcohol is a modest 14.1%. It’s a joy to drink now, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it aged well over the next six years. Score: 93 points.

Southern Right Pinotage (Walker Bay); $33. Walker Bay, being on the South Africa’s southeast Atlantic coast, is a cool-climate region, where Chardonnay and Pinot Noir thrive. Although Pinotage also does well in warmer locales, it shows a liveliness in Walker Bay that makes this wine especially attractive. (The name is an homage to the right whales which swim along the coast.) It shows bright, almost searing acidity and thick, furry tannins, with a dense, hugely-concentrated core of black cherry and black raspberry fruit, super-rich due to long hangtime. The oak notes of vanilla are subtle, while an intense spiciness thrives throughout. The finish is totally dry. An alcohol level of only 13.5% lends delicacy despite the hugeness of the fruit. This Pinotage really made me sit up and think. The fruit is sensational, but it’s the structure that strikes me—so much more complicated and architectural than anything in California. The wine defines itself in the mouth: you can feel its edges and corners. I suppose it will age, but there’s no reason not to drink it now with, say, beef, game or even Indian food. Score: 92 points.

Lievland 2017 Bushvine” Pinotage (Paarl). $19. The Paarl, in the Western Cape, is a warm region, little benefitting from the Atlantic, more than 100 miles away. The term “bush vine” is commonly used in South Africa to denote grapevines grown in the “goblet” or untrellised style, like they used to be. The wine is quite dry and austere, with lots of acidity. There are blackberry and coffee flavors, with plenty of black spices, especially pepper; the oak influence is subtle. Tannins are thick to the point of astringent. If you’re used to, say, Napa Cabernet, this is the complete opposite: not opulent, but rather bitter, more intellectual. For that reason I find it attractive. The winemaker blended in a little Cinsault and Shiraz, which adds to the complexity. All in all, a sophisticated wine which will nicely accompany—and needs–beef. Score: 89 points.

MAN Family Wines 2017 “Bosstok” Pinotage (Coastal Region); $12. “Bosstok” is a word referring to what South Africans call “bush vines”—“goblet,” or untrellised vines, generally used in warmer climates; the leafy canopy shelters the grape bunches from the sun. The “Coastal Region” appellation is a large one, accounting for nearly 50% of all the vines in South Africa. Bottled in a screwtop, with alcohol of 14.0%, it’s a pleasant wine, the kind I’d call an everyday sipper, especially given the price. It’s very dark in color; the flavors are somewhat bitter, with cherry skin, espresso and dark spice notes; there’s some unripeness that gives a green streak. The oak influence is low, lending a touch of vanilla bean. Acidity is pronounced, while the finish is thoroughly dry. The winery suggests slightly cooling it before drinking; this is a good idea, to tame the acids and tannins. Score: 86 points.


Wine Reviews: Peju Province

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Peju Province Winery sent me their new releases for review, so here they are. Overall, I was struck by their high quality. Nothing below 90 points, with the 2016 “The Experiment” scoring a stunning 97 points.

2016 Piccolo (Napa Valley). At forty bucks, this is a pretty good value for a Napa wine this distinguished, from a winery with as good a track record as Peju. The proprietary blend is comprised of the major Bordeaux varieties, with Petite Sirah and Sangiovese added for good measure. The result is a wealth of flavors: raspberries, blackberries, cocoa, blueberries, cappuccino, wild anise, thyme, and plenty of spices, pepper especially. There’s not a lot of new oak; the wine doesn’t need it, but what there is brings a rich layer of sweet vanilla and toast. The tannins are what you’d expect from Peju: thick and complex, but soft and ripe. I would drink this wine immediately, with almost anything that wants a medium- to full-bodied, dry, fruity red wine. Score: 90.

Peju 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley). A very great wine from a drought vintage, Peju’s 2015 is absolutely delicious. Blended with a little Petit Verdot and Merlot, it shows immense, concentrated flavors of ripe blackberries, Cassis liqueur, sweet black licorice and cocoa, enhanced with oak notes of sweet vanilla and toast. The tannins are complex, lush and ripe, while there’s enough acidity to provide a clean balance of structure. The finish goes on and on. This lovely wine really captures the essence of a Napa Valley Bordeaux blend. It’s so easy to enjoy now, you might want to capture the beauty in all of its youthful brilliance, but it should hold in the bottle for six years or so. Score: 95.

Peju 2018 Sauvignon Blanc (Napa Valley). The first duties of Sauvignon Blanc are to be dry and crisp. This lovely wine succeeds on both levels. With brilliant acidity and just the tiniest hint of oak, it allows the fruit to star: grapefruit, papaya, lime and gooseberry, with a spicy white pepperiness that stimulates the palate. A touch of green grass adds to the complexity. It’s an exceptionally versatile wine at the table, but I might pour it with salad of greens, grapefruit and feta cheese, drizzled with olive oil. At a retail price of $22, it’s affordably elegant. Score: 90.

Peju 2015 Merlot (Napa Valley). Rich and dense in the modern style, this 100% Merlot stuns right out of the gate. It explodes in the mouth with cherries, chocolate and red licorice, while plenty of new French oak brings even richer elements of sweet toast and wood spice. The structure is just beautiful: soft, intricate tannins seem to melt on the palate, while bracing acidity cleanses and refreshes. Made from grapes sourced from various sub-regions of Napa Valley, the wine shows deft skill at the art of blending. I’d drink it now and over the next year or two, before it starts to lose its precocious youthfulness. At $48 the bottle, it’s a good value. Score: 93.

Peju 2016 The Experiment (Napa Valley). They call it an “experiment” because the winemaker used dozens of different coopers and barrel-roasting regimens to create this 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. But far from chaotic, it shows exquisite control. Certainly the darkest and sturdiest of Peju’s new releases, it’s a big, bold wine of immense depth and complexity. The flavors, of black currants, chocolate, vanilla bean, espresso and oaky toast, are not unique—most upscale Napa Cabs share it. But what makes this wine stand out is its sheer elegance. That’s a hard word to define, but you know it when your palate experiences it. I would place this wine beside the most culty of Napa Cabs and bet that it would acquit itself well. It’s so luxurious and delicious now that there’s no reason to age it, but if you want to, it should hold for a decade. Score: 97.

Peju 2016 Cabernet Franc (Napa Valley). Over the years, my reviews of Peju’s Cab Franc routinely described it as soft, delicate and gentle. That remains the case, although it does seem more delicious than in past vintages. A rich ruby-garnet in color, it brims with forward flavors of cherry compote and anise, while balanced new oak provides a toastiness and a note of vanilla. There’s a lovely herbal note: think of sweet green peas. The addition of some Cabernet Sauvignon adds a darker, deeper structural integrity. I love the tannins: complex and intricate, but pliant, making it instantly drinkable. I see no reason to cellar this, but if you insist, it will hold for four or five years. Score: 92.


Is the clock ticking down on cult wines?

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When I was California editor for Wine Enthusiast Magazine, I had the hardest time getting to sample the wines of Bryant Family Vineyard.

I managed to, two or three times. My last tasting, in 2012, was only because Tim Mondavi obtained a bottle for me to include in my tasting of the wines of Pritchard Hill, the region of Napa Valley that is not (yet) an official American Viticultural Area, but that is (as I wrote back then) “the best grape-growing region in Napa Valley you’ve probably never heard of.” (Tim has his own winery, Continuum, up there.)

Bryant’s Cabernets are routinely included among the “cult wines” of Napa Valley. Now, let me say that my nearly thirty-year career as a wine writer taught me a thing or two about cult wines. Today, six years after I retired, when I think of them, I think of exclusivity, of extreme difficulty gaining access (even for me), of super-high prices, and of a certain manipulation of the winery’s image as rare and difficult to obtain—precisely the kind of attributes that appeal to wine aficienados who have more money than common sense.

My most enduring memory of tasting these cult wines is of my visit to Colgin Cellars, a neighbor of Bryant Family’s on Pritchard Hill. After much difficulty obtaining an appointment, I was met, in the foyer of the winery (which reminded me of Le Petit Trianon, at Versailles), by the proprietress, Ann Colgin. It felt like a State Visit; never was I more uncomfortable tasting wine than under her hawk-like gaze, as I tried to shield my written notes from her wandering eye. It was not a welcoming vibe.

Other cult wineries were far more amenable to my visits. I remain indebted to Bill Harlan (who wrote the Forward to my second book) for always welcoming me, and for setting up the most extraordinary tastings. But even there, Bill continued to propagate an aura of mystique by insisting that we taste the Harlan wines in one structure of the estate, and the BOND wines in another, further up the hill.

Bryant has found itself with publicity lately that I’m sure is unwelcome by the owners. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Esther Mobley has been reporting on a lawsuit hagainst the winery by a former employee.

I’m not particularly interested in the details of the lawsuit, nor do I care about the winery’s monetary value (a subject of dispute). What I find interesting is Mobley’s question: “Is that business model [of cult wines] foundering in a changing wine market?”

Cult wines, whether they be in Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany or Napa Valley, always have depended on the desire of wealthy people to own them. They’re not “better” than other wines; this is a notion I’m firmly convinced of, after having reviewed perhaps 150,000 wines over a thirty-year period. The word “better” is, of course, impossible to define; quality is subjective. I’ve done many blind tastings in which a $30 Cabernet beat out a $300 Cabernet. Anyone who thinks that a $300 wine must be ten times better than a $30 wine is fooling herself. So there must be reasons other than objective hedonism to explain why cult wines cost so much. (Mobley writes that the current vintage of Bryant Family, the 2016, is $550. The 2009, by contrast, was a measly $335.)

These other reasons, aside from the market force of supply and demand, are psychological; they include the prestige of being able to afford such wines, the ego-gratification associated with big spending, and a desire to show off to whomever the buyer wishes to impress. These are not completely inauthentic reasons to buy a wine, but they have less to do with the wines themselves than the buyer’s internal needs.

For many years the cult winery owners were riding high. Sure, there were always rumors of financial troubles behind the curtain, but since the owners never revealed their books to anyone, the rumors remained exactly that. Was Bill Harlan raking in a fortune? Screaming Eagle, Araujo, Dalla Valle? Nobody outside the inner circle knew.

Now, Mobley opens the question in a way only a big-circulation newspaper like the Chronicle can. She doesn’t answer it, because there isn’t an easy answer. The question behind the question of whether the cult wine business model remains viable is, Is a new generation of Millennials as covetous of these wines as were their parents and grandparents?

I would be loath to state that consumer tastes in luxury goods, including wine, change dramatically in a short period of time. They don’t. The Western world has had cult wines at least since Roman times (when the Caesars had their favorites). The crowned heads of medieval and Renaissance Europe, including the Popes, similarly desired certain “cult” wines. It was only natural that California—settled as it was mainly by white people of European descent—would adopt a model that resembled that of Old Europe.

Are today’s wine consumers under the age of, say, 40 different in kind? Probably not. They too are likely to want their share of rarity and exclusivity (if they achieve the financial means of acquiring it). But does this automatically mean that Bryant, Colgin, Harlan, Screaming Eagle, et al. will be as desired by Millennials as they have been up to now?

Millennials, many of whom are laden with debt, don’t seem to have as much disposable income as their forebears. And they’re craftier shoppers: if they’re going to spend bigtime on something, they want some flesh on those bones—not just something to show off, but something of inherent worthwhileness. And I have to say in all honesty that cult wines overall are lacking in this inherent quality. Yes, they can be glorious. But so too can their non-cult wine neighbors, at a fraction of the cost. I think Millennials, in this era of Trump, are exquisitely sensitive to false claims and misleading image-making (as well they should be). They don’t want to feel like suckers, and this is why I suspect that cult wines—at least most of those in Napa Valley—may indeed have reached a tipping point. In fact, it may be that their uber-wealthy owners are keeping them alive, not through profits on sales, but by dipping into their personal fortunes.

I don’t foresee a wave of closures. But we have seen cult wineries sold (Araujo, Colgin, Screaming Eagle), and we’ve also seen wineries break into cult status that never used to be there: Chateau Potelle, for instance. (Good for my old friend Jean-Noel!) What I think will eventually prove to be the case is that a handful of today’s cult wines will still be treasured decades from now, while others will have enjoyed their fifteen years of fame and retreated into the background. And there’s this: it was easy for a wine to be defined as “cult” when the critical world was dominated by a few reviewers. It’s far more difficult nowadays. If the wine critics of the future are honest—if they taste blind, that is, and don’t have preconceived notions that cult wines are automatically the best—then Napa’s cult Cabs may already be past the tipping point.


“Parkerization” is not a myth or a lie

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Lisa Perrotti-Brown surprised no one with her glowing defense of her “greatest mentor,” Robert M. Parker Jr., which she published the other day, on the occasion of Parker’s “immediate” retirement from The Wine Advocate, the periodical he founded in 1978.

That Parker was the most famous and influential wine critic of the last 35 years, as Perrotti-Brown writes, cannot be disputed. In making the following arguments, I cite my own position: as the lead California critic for Wine Enthusiast Magazine for many years, I had a privileged seat at the high table of wine criticism—a seat that enables me to make these observations with some degree of eye-witness veracity.

I would not challenge a single word of Ms. Perrotti-Brown’s encomium. Bob Parker absolutely was “the father of modern wine criticism”; he did indeed “raise the bar” for all of us who followed. But where I part ways with Perrotti-Brown is in her unfettered denial that Parker created an “international style” of ripe, high-alcohol wines. This is not a “big lie,” as she asserts, but the pure, unadulterated truth—and everybody in the wine industry knows it.

Perrotti-Brown has been trying to undo or obfuscate this truth about the “Parkerization of wine” for years. Last June, she wrote her piece de résistance on the topic, a robust rebuttal that does not stand up to scrutiny. Parkerization is “a myth,” she says. It is “a lie.” Its effect on wine is “purported.” Yes, Parker’s reign, she admits, coincided with a time when “wineries…developed styles that fit the trend” of riper, fruitier wines. But “it was not Parker who created the trend, consumers did.” Those who continue to decry Parkerization and the international style, she states, are merely seeking “a villain.” Wine writers who dare to suggest that Parkerization is real are just “looking for something to write about that attracts more viewers.”

These are patronizing, insulting remarks that Perrotti-Brown did not have to make. But she did, and they need to be addressed. I’m certainly not looking to “attract more viewers” by writing these words, and I never thought Parker was a “villain.” I admire the man tremendously. But I was there, in the front row, watching this whole phenomenon unroll, from the early 1980s until I formally retired from wine criticism in 2013 (and even since then I’ve kept my eye on the scene). And I can state with clear conscience that Parkerization was and is real.

We all know that alcohol levels in wine rose drastically during Parker’s era. Bordeaux, Burgundy and California in particular, as well as the Rhône, saw these increases—all regions Parker specialized in. During my heyday (and Parker’s as well), alcohol levels in California Cabernet Sauvignon, especially from Napa Valley, soared. Frequently, levels of more than 15% were seen, and many of us—aware of the fudge factor the Federal government allows in wine labeling—suspected that a Cabernet of official 15.5% strength might in reality be in excess of 16%. This is not a “myth” but a fact.

Why did it happen? Perrotti-Brown says that “consumers created the trend.” That is a misstatement. Consumers do not create such trends in wine; they respond to them. Consumers enjoyed wine before the Parker era when alcohol levels were between 11% and 13%. There is no evidence that a consumer uprising occurred in the 1980s, in which these consumers demanded riper, higher-alcohol wines. Talk about “myths”!! It simply didn’t happen.

What did happen was that wine periodicals, like The Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator, assumed a far greater importance than ever before, as a maturing and wealthier Baby Boomer generation realized it needed help figuring out what to buy (and cellar) among the thousands of competing brands. Parker’s Wine Advocate wasn’t the first to fill that market niche, but it was the most successful and influential. The 1982 Bordeaux vintage, which Parker lionized, did indeed cement his reputation. After that, he was golden.

I can’t prove the following assertion but I strongly believe it: wine critics who became well known after Parker’s rise, including James Laube, James Suckling and myself, felt they had to praise the same sorts of wine as did Parker. This may not have been a conscious thought on their part; but wine critics don’t work in a vacuum. The handwriting on the wall was very clear by the late 1980s: Parker was giving huge scores to wines like Groth’s 1985 Reserve (the first California wine to get 100 points from him). With each high score, not only the winery’s reputation was boosted, but Parker’s, as well. Wine writers took note! The concept that big, fruity, high-alcohol Cabernets were better than their thinner, less ripe but often more elegant counterparts became entrenched. No wine critic is immune to his environment; like artists, they are affected by their contemporaries. There has got to be a scale or continuum of hedonism in criticism; otherwise, criticism makes no sense; and what Parker bequeathed the rest of us was to define the upper scale of this continuum.

This is what is meant by “Parkerization.” Parker himself never denied his personal preference for big wines; he simply recoiled from what he felt was the smear of calling them “Parkerized.” And now, his successor at Wine Advocate, Perrotti-Brown, has picked up the mantle of outraged indignation. But I really don’t see why. Why is it so irksome to her (and to her “greatest mentor”) that Parker had this impact on wine? The only reason I can surmise—and it’s just my guess—is because Perrotti-Brown shares to some degree the belief common among younger (and some older) critics and sommeliers that some wines have indeed become too ripe, too alcoholic; and to the extent there’s a reason for this, it’s because of Robert Parker and the Wine Advocate.

History will be the final judge of all this. Does anyone doubt that History will record that Parkerization and the international style he inspired were real and not fake news? Meanwhile, Perrotti-Brown should calm down. The more she denies the reality of Parkerization—the lady doth protest too much–the more defensive she appears. As for Bob Parker, I salute you, sir, and–speaking as one whose retirement preceded yours–I welcome you to our ranks, and wish you peace and health!


A wine tasting in San Francisco

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I went to a great wine tasting on Friday, “Flights,” put on by ZAP, the Zinfandel consumer and trade group I’ve known and enjoyed for many decades. The event was held in the elegant, posh Palace Hotel, in San Francisco.

A “flight” is a series of individual wines, tasted and evaluated side by side. All of the wines share a common theme. In this case, the theme was that they were all comprised of Zinfandel, or of “related” grape varieties.

These “related” varieties, which included Petite Sirah, Alicante Bouschet and Carignan[e], are not related to Zinfandel in any ampelographic way. Instead, the relationship consists in the historical fact that Zinfandel was frequently interplanted with the other varieties by [mainly] Italian-American immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries; the wines made from them (the grapes were often co-fermented) are called “field blends.” These old vineyards, once threatened with being torn out for housing development or with being replaced by more popular varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir, have been rediscovered over the years, with the vines lovingly tended. Some of the very interesting wines made from them were included in the tasting.

There were four flights, 13 wines in all. Here are my tasting notes, followed by a brief discussion. My notes follow my traditional pattern: starting with color/appearance, then proceeding through aromatic notes to flavors and finish.

First flight: 100% Zinfandel

McCay Cellars 2015 “Faith Lot 13 Estate,” Lodi. $32, 13.8% alcohol. Bright, clean. Red berries, esp. raspberries. Lots of peppery spice, sandalwood, briary notes. Delicious! Medium-bodied, elegant, claret-like. Good acidity, very well-balanced. Score: 93.

Easton Wines 2015 Estate, Shenandoah Valley (Amador County). $35, 15.1%. Darker, riper than the McCoy. Prune and dark chocolate aromas. Flavors of Dr. Pepper, cassis, tapenade. Full-bodied, a little porty and hot. Score: 87.

Day Zinfandel 2016 Grist Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley. $43, 15.2%. Made by Ehren Jordan, of Failla. A stellar wine, classic Dry Creek Zin. Good garnet color. Complex, alluring aroma: earthy, briary, spicy, tobacco, raspberry, toffee, licorice. Super-spicy, deep, juicy, fabulous complexity. No heat at all, refreshing acidity. Score: 94.

Hendry Wines 2015 Block 7, Napa Valley. $36, 15.4%. Darkest of all. Exotic aromas: wild mushrooms, blackberries, licorice, pepper. Deep, dark chocolate, berry and coffee flavors. Full-bodied, spicy, full-throttle Zin. Long finish. Will age. Score: 90.

Second flight: Carignan.

Ravenswood Winery 2015 Angeli Vineyard, Alexander Valley. $42, 14.5%. 100% Carignan, grown in the hot region of Cloverdale. Very dark color, purple-black. Aromas of meat (teriyaki beef), blackberry, coffee, black raspberry, spice. Very deeply flavored, enormous mouthfeel, yet elegant and balanced. Very good. Score: 92.

Ridge Vineyards 2015 “Geyserville”, Alexander Valley. $48, 14.5%. A blend of 70% Zinfandel, 15% Carignane, 12% Petite Sirah and 3% Alicante Bouschet. Very dark color, very ripe. Chocolate, blackberry, coffee, spice flavors. Tastes hotter than the official 14.5%. Some raisins, prunes, lots of sweet, savory fruit. Very tannic. Too ripe for me. Score: 88.

Bedrock Wine Co. 2017 Papera Ranch “Heritage,” Russian River Valley. $60, 14.6%. From Morgan Twain Peterson, son of the Flights moderator, Joel Peterson. From a vineyard planted in 1934. 49% Zinfandel, 44% Carignan, 7% “other.” Very dark. Complex aromas of spice, licorice, mincemeat, blackberry, blueberry. Insanely rich and sweet, glyceriney. A bit clumsy now, needs a few years to settle down. Score: 89.

Third flight: Petite Sirah.

Turley Wine Cellars 2016 Hayne Vineyard Petite Sirah, Napa Valley. $75, 14.4%. Very, very dark. Big, eruptive aromas of meat, fig, briar, blackberry, cocoa. Full-bodied and stuffed with big, sweet tannins. Leathery tastes and feeling, with more sweetness emerging mid-palate: sandalwood, peppermint patty. Delicious, gulpable. Score: 90.

Beekeeper Cellars 2012 Madrone Spring Vineyard Zinfandel, Rockpile. $NA, 14.75%. Contains 20% Petite Sirah. The vineyard is between 1,200’ – 1,500’. Good, dark saturated color. Impressive aromatics: black currants, raspberries, spices, coffee-toffee, vanilla. Very rich, sweet, fruity, long finish. Will age, but fully drinkable now. Score: 92.

Matrix Winery 2016 Bacigalupi Vineyard Red Wine, Russian River Valley. $38, 15.6%. This is a 50-50 blend of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah. The color is inky black, impenetrable to light. The nose is muted at first, gradually suggesting earthy tobacco, blackberries and spice. Very tannic, and pretty oaky. Oodles of sweet black fruits, cinnamon bun, cocoa, with some overripe raisins and heat on the finish. Needs time. Score: 90.

Fourth flight: Alicante Bouschet.

St. Amant 2017 Alicante Bouschet, Lodi. $21, 12.93%. Good translucent garnet color, so much lighter than the Petite Sirahs. Lovely, uplifted raspberry, vanilla, cedar and spice aromas and flavors. Pinot Noir-like in texture, silky and satiny, with delicate raspberry fruit and refreshing acidity. Very fine, delicate, delicious. Score: 91.

Once & Future 2016 Teldeschi Vineyard Frank’s Block Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley. $50, 14.8%. Inky-black color, no doubt from the Zinfandel and Carignane, which constitute 88% of the blend. The remainder is Alicante. Deep, bold, assertive aromas: packed with wild blackberries, earth, tobacco, leather, clove, anise. Full-bodied, lots of sweet fruit, figs and currants. Super-high quality. Score: 92.

Hartford Family Vineyard 2016 Dina’s Vineyard Old Vine Zinfandel, Russian River Valley. $60, 14.9%. Mainly Zinfandel, with 6% Alicante Bouschet and a few drops of other, undefined varieties. The color is very dark. The aroma is spicy and earthy, with notes of blackberries, cassis, blueberries and cocoa nib, as well as some overripe raisins. Dry and tannic, a big, ripe barbecue wine, although a little too robust for my taste. Score: 89.

The surprise of the tasting was the Alicante Bouschets, so out of place among those dark, tannic, heavy wines. What a pity more California winemakers don’t play with it, although who can blame them? The public is hardly ready for yet another obscure varietal. Among the Zins, Carignanes and Petite Sirahs, the Zinfandels showed best. Zinfandel is a noble variety in this family; the others can rise to the occasion, but always show some rusticity.


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