They may have pulled out a toupee's worth of hair during harvest 2011, but California Zinfandel producers have been telling me for months that the 2011s are much better than they expected. Of course, winemakers always say that after a difficult vintage because, eventually, they have to sell the wine, so I generally take it with a grain of salt.
But as the annual Zinfandel Advocates & Producers (ZAP) Festival in San Francisco on Saturday showed, they weren't stretching the truth this time. The 2011 Zinfandels are lovely wines in general: fresh, floral and elegant, with crisp acidity and modest levels of alcohol. Those who love to bash Zinfandels as fruit-bomb monsters have nothing to complain about with the 2011s.
True Zin lovers like every style, so they didn't seem to be complaining. This was the 22nd year for the ZAP Fest and I've been to all but a handful. The main event was Saturday's walkaround tasting, which drew about 7,000 fans and more than 200 Zinfandel producers.
There's no better place to connect with Zin masters like Joel Peterson of Ravenswood, Mike Officer of Carlisle and Paul Draper of Ridge, not to mention get a preliminary glimpse of the quality of a new vintage.
Wineries were pouring a range of vintages, mostly from the 2010 vintage but also wines from 2009 and of course 2011. Since it's not a blind tasting, I try not to read too much into individual wines, especially since a few of the 2011s were barrel samples.
To fully appreciate the 2011s, it helps to understand the growing season. Things got started late in the spring, and summer weather was moderate and cool, with temperatures that rarely broke 90° F in Northern California. The Zinfandels were nearly ripe when the forecasters predicted a major storm along the California coast. Since Zin is a thin-skinned grape prone to rot, most Zin producers hustled to bring in the grapes before the rain hit the first of October.
"2011 forced winemakers to make Zins they don't want to make," Peterson said at ZAP. "It forced them to make wines that are well-proportioned." I agree with Peterson to a point. One of the things I love about Zinfandel is how each vintage delivers a slightly different style. The "well-proportioned" part is key because it's possible to have balanced Zins that are also big and ripe. It all depends on the vineyard and the winemaker.
The best 2011s have "focus and precision," as Officer described it, but that didn't happen by accident. As John Olney, winemaker of Ridge Lytton Springs, said, "I've been pleasantly surprised with my '11 Zins. I think rigorous selection at harvest is finally paying off, as the wines have really lost the sharp edge they had for the first six to eight months."
Since I was concerned about the quality of the 2011s, I focused almost exclusively on the top players at the ZAP tasting, to best appreciate what the vintage was capable of. While I'm reserving judgment on the vintage, what follows are some of the wines that captured my attention. Except for one that I've already reviewed blind, they have a preliminary rating on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale. Look for my official reviews in the future.
Bedrock Zinfandel Sonoma Valley Old Vine 2011 (90 points, $24)
Carlisle Zinfandel Dry Creek 2011 (90–94, $34)
Ravenswood Zinfandel Napa Valley Dickerson 2011 (88–92, $35)
Ridge Zinfandel Sonoma Valley Pagani Ranch 2011 (92–96, $35)
Seghesio Zinfandel Alexander Valley Home Ranch 2011 (90–94, $58)
Turley Zinfandel California Juvenile 2011 (88–92, $20)