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A Kinder, Fleshier Zinfandel

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Jan 26, 2007 10:11am ET

Zinfandel has a lot going for it, but it also has its share of problems and missed opportunities.

The wine is uniquely Californian. It grows well in many areas of the state, is capable of expressing terroir and is stylistically versatile. But it could win a much wider following if producers shifted gears and aimed it in the direction of where Pinot Noir is headed, where the emphasis is on fruit purity, supple textures, greater balance and finesse and softer tannins.

That said, I wouldn't for a minute change the style of some of the big boys. The amazing, powerful expression of a Turley Hayne Vineyard or a Rosenblum Rockpile Vineyard Zinfandel shouldn't be sacrificed. These kinds of vineyards are genuine treasures and the wines are proof that big can be balanced. But most Zinfandel vineyards can't produce wines of that caliber, character and depth on a consistent basis, and that's the problem.

Winemakers’ desire to showcase a single site often overlooks what might be achieved by tweaking a wine through blending, along the wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Grapes such as Carignane, Grenache, Petite Sirah and Syrah could fill in flavor and textural gaps, and give the wine a silkier texture and added flavor dimension.

Too often Zinfandel's quirks and idiosyncrasies are readily apparent in the wines. The grape is difficult to grow, sets uneven-sized clusters and berries and then, as a result of that, ripens unevenly. (Site and precision farming are essential to its success.) Too often Zinfandels are unbalanced, that is, they're short on fruit density and character and simple or hollow from midpalate on. The mix of high acidity and alcohol and dry, chewy tannins define the wine, rather than its more pleasurable wild berry and pepper nuances.

There are times when I like the wild stallion side of Zinfandel. But many other times I wish that that stallion had been broken, making it more approachable, caressing, even gentle, and so that its graceful strides and subtle nuances can be better appreciated.

I don’t want to strip Zinfandel of its varietal personality. I’d just like to harness it a bit and move it in the direction of where Pinot Noir is headed.

Patrick Cook
San Mateo, CA —  January 26, 2007 1:07pm ET
Ridge makes blended Zinfandels using some of the grapes you mention and this in my opinion gives their Zins more finesse
Tim Sylvester
Santa Monica, CA —  January 26, 2007 1:09pm ET
James--I'm easy and like every kind of wine so I do occasionally crack open a bottle of Zin. Unfortunately, I find that most producers make a punch-in-mouth style of exploding fruit that numbs the taste buds (maybe its the high alcohol content working) then finishes with a whimper. Further, I find few Zins to be food friendly nor are they particularly good to sip while reading a book before bed. That said, one strikingly good Zin is the Caldwell Aida Vineyards 1996, which is refined, elegant and very ageworthy (I think it has some P Sirah in it). Another producet that makes a more restrained Zin is Fred Scherrer with his "old and mature vines." James are there other harnessed Zins that you like?
Paul Gallagher
Berkeley Heights, NJ —  January 26, 2007 1:38pm ET
I have to agree, James. When I first starting drinking Zins, back in the early 90's, it was hard not to find a good example. I remember taking pot-luck with Fetzer, Cline, Trentadue, low-end Rosenblums and Ravenswoods and I was rarely disappointed. Lately, that has not been the case. More often than not, under $20 bottlings for me have been harsh & weedy or overripe throat burners. It seems like when I find one I like, the followup vintage is a disappointment.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 26, 2007 1:59pm ET
Tim, I had a nice bottle of Edizone Pennino 2004 Napa Valley the other night, from Francis Coppola's Rutherford vineyard. Supple, graceful, with loamy berry flavors. Suckling was desperate for a Zin and this turned the trick. I also like Seghesio, which makes four really tasty Zins, and is consistent. I've also like Scherrer and the new Williams Selyem Zins are lower in alcohol (still in the 15 range) but better balanced, a deliberate move by winemaker Bob Cabral. The biggest trouble is what Paul says: one year a winery gets it right, the next year it's not as good. That used to be a problem with Pinot, too, but less so of late.
John B Vlahos
Cupertino Ca. —  January 26, 2007 2:06pm ET
James, zinfandel's curse may be its versitility. You suggest that vintners concentrate their efforts towards making a pinot noir type wine, which from my experience can be sublime, but zin has so many different personalities that it hard to limit its style, I suggest. Last year a couple, writing about wines for the Wall Street Journel, visited Napa-Sonoma for two week and after trying over five hundred wines of all types found a zinfindel to be the best wine they tasted (Talty's 2004 Napa zinfandel). Can you name some examples of pinot noir type zins that you find to your liking?
Kurt-inge Eklund
Esl?v, Sweden —  January 26, 2007 2:08pm ET
I am a wine nut interested in a wide range of different wines. Different grapes, producers and terroirs. It is to me great to have differences in wines to enjoy and also different food. When I have tasted enough amount of wines with a widw range of origin I always end up with liking Cabernet and Pinot on the red side and Chardonnay and Riesling on the white. But during the circle to end up with that, please let us have the variety of caracters to enjoy. I think we have quite a few real good Zins out there with a nice amount of acid that is quite enjoyable. Please do not make one fourmula for all wines that is boring. Kurt-Inge from Sweden!!
Donald C Young
des moines,ia —  January 26, 2007 2:13pm ET
I agree, as I have enjoyed many bottles of Martinelli--such a unique one of a kind wine--you know you're drinking something different. However, I also miss some of the old style like Nalle from Dry Creek made, that were just pleasurable drinking wines with pasta and pizza or steak. The high powered ones now overpower food and are a terrible match for pizza--which was always a perfect food-wine match with Nalle,Storybook. I drink Pinot or Syrah with these foods now as they match up much smoother without the spicy,alcohol overtones of Martinelli,Turley, or Hartford, to name a few.
Rajiv Modak
Tucson AZ —  January 26, 2007 2:40pm ET
I can't think of a better example of the elevation of Zinfandel through blending than the wines of Linne Calodo. Matt Trevisan uses Syrah and Mourvedre in different proportions for his Zin blends. The result are wines of exquisite flavor, depth, balance, and an absolutely silky texture.
La Quinta, CA —  January 26, 2007 4:01pm ET
Starlite Zin made by Merry Edwards is 14.7% alcohol and Branham Rockpile Vineyard is only 14.2%. Both of these wines are great with food, or to just sip on. Seek them out. Dustin
Tim Sylvester
Santa Monica, CA —  January 26, 2007 4:20pm ET
Thanks James, good suggestions. I hope the quality Zin producers "get it" and start to better manage and refine their vintages and juice.
David Ruvalcaba
San Francisco, CA —  January 26, 2007 4:40pm ET
James, have you tried the Starlite Zinfandel? I was wondering if you had any thoughts on it? I believe Merry Edwards is the winemaker/consultant.
Scott Oneil
UT —  January 26, 2007 5:40pm ET
Regarding blending other grapes with Zinfandel, has anyone ever tried blending in Viognier, as they do with Northern Rhones and select Australian Shiraz? When I think of which wines are most similar to Turley-like Zins, I think of Aussie Shiraz, and I LOVE what 5%-or-so Viognier does for Aussie Shiraz. Could it do the same for Zinfandel? I'll also add my recommendation for Radio-Coteau's Von Weidlich Zin: it's not over-ripe by any means, and it's usually quite complex.
Chris Hilliard
Minnesota —  January 26, 2007 5:44pm ET
Ohhh I am loving this Zin talk. James will WS be doing more articals about it. Well on the other hand if all the info gets out there, there will be less for me... wow double edged sword.
Dave Joyce
Winston-Salem, NC —  January 26, 2007 6:18pm ET
James, I don't know if Zin is headed to be more like Pinot, or Pinot is headed to be more like Zins. The popular Pinot's (with the consumer that is, not the Pinot hound) are the super rich, ripe, concentrated, almost dark like Syrah type. Heck, Zin is already there. Once Turley set the style for concentrated, rich, ripe, high alcohol Zins almost 10 years ago, producers began to follow (like Rosenblum who style evolved that way under Jeff Cohn). Then they just plain rushed to follow as fast as they could, as the consumer voted with their pocketbook that this was the style they loved. Rombauer, Biale, almost all the Rosenblums, Michael-David Vineyards, Copain, Elyse, etc.,etc. are all top sellers in my neck of the woods. All concentrated, spicy, rich, riper styles in their best years.

If you want a Zin style that is more elegant, even Pinot Noir like (old style, not new style), then I agree with David Ruvalcaba about the Starlite Zinfandel. It reflects a delicious elegance, which certainly is the style of the Pinot's made by its winemaker, Merry Edwards. However, it is a fantastic food wine, but not one that Zin fanatics (and purchasers) have embraced at our store.
Doug Wilson
January 26, 2007 7:09pm ET
JimIt seems that too many Zinfandel producers are guilty of skipping the fining and filtering part of the winemaking process. We like to say unfined and unfiltered because that is what we are supposed to say...less is better right? Well zins like an egg or two like many other red wines. As far as filtering goes, if it is done correctly, it will enhance and protect the purity of the fruit, there is nothing worse than having a mudslide inside a bottle of wine. Most white wines are filtered and we love them, why is it different for reds? With that said, I am going to enjoy a lightly fined, carefully filtered, Petite Sirah infused Zinfandel! Sans cork of course! DW
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 26, 2007 7:14pm ET
Doug, I appreciate your thoughts on those matters as a long-time winemaker. Seems like fining and filtration have gotten both a bad name and rap.
Jameson Fink
Seattle, WA —  January 26, 2007 7:44pm ET
Foppiano Zin is 13.5% or less and under 15 bucks. A non-boozy, more elegant zin.
Elyse J Ward
Buffalo Grove, IL —  January 26, 2007 11:34pm ET
While I'm a huge fan of Zinfandel and do enjoy Rosenblum's Rockpile bottling (I think the '04 is better than the #3 ranking '03), I do believe that Seghesio is the most consistent producer. Their Home Ranch is probably the best Zin on the market, year-in and year-out. And, their Sonoma offering, which can retail below $15, would be considered a great wine at a price 50% higher. I've had the pleasure of buying their library offerings as a member of their club and the Lumetta bottling (their Rockpile vineyard series) is outstanding and is blended with 5% petite. I don't think you can go wrong with this vintner.
Thomas Smith
Antioch CA. —  January 26, 2007 11:55pm ET
James, Just what you were talking about, easy drinking zin,like a pinot. It's a Sinskey 02, 14.8 well balanced, no rasins, prunes, great for the weekend.
James Novack
Agoura Hills, CA —  January 27, 2007 9:06am ET
James, I agree, Zin is a hard grape to master, blending makes sense. I like the Prisoner as a good example of blending to bring out the character of the grapes.
Michael Culley
January 27, 2007 12:24pm ET
Scott, Storybook Mountain was(and perhaps still is)making a zin(Howell Mtn.?) with some viognier blended in though I don't remember the percentage. I used to joke that Howell Mtn. was the 'Cote Rotie' of zins because some had that roasted character from the altitude of the vineyards and shallow soil. Didn't realize that Turley set the style for high alcohol zins as that style has been around much longer than that winery has...DeLoach made some single vineyard zins..maybe'90 vintage? that were pretty amazing and 16 to 18 per cent alcohol. And I agree with the Seghesio sentiment. Most consistent high quality for the price year in and year out. My feeling is...leave pinot noir to the movies and let zin be.
Ray Carlson
redding, ca —  January 27, 2007 12:47pm ET
Interesting musings by JL. I have been drinking Zin for 40 years, starting with '68 Ridges and '69 JSwan. In my cellar, the best agers (with more of a Pinot perfume and texture) have been in the 12.5 to 13.8% range, often from years less highly regarded. It is true that the variety certainly has had many makeovers and reinventions. I think JL has it right when he focuses on Zin being amenable to many styles, but that it is wisest to let the terroir, age of vines, and vintage dictate the winemaking decisions,(with ultimate balance and symmetry in mind, rather than predetermined stylistic preferences. My candidate for Zins that have it all, including fine acid and sinewy structure, are some of the better Turley Ueberroth V editions, Storybook Mtn, and (believe it or not) Sineann Old Vines from The Dalles. Re: the Ueberroth, close your eyes and you can easily imagine you are sampling a hypothetical blend of classic Westside Paso Robles (Sauret)with the texture and aromatics of a good Petaluma Gap PNoir.
Scott Oneil
UT —  January 27, 2007 2:23pm ET
Mike, thanks for the heads-up on the Storybook Howell Mtn.; I'll look into it. I didn't mean to imply that Turley was the first, but they seem to carry the banner for high-alcohol Zins these days. If I had said, "a DeLoach-style Zin," would people have known that I meant high-alcohol/extraction? Perhaps not. On the other hand, you clearly knew what I meant when I said "Turley-style," right?
Michael Mintz
Washington DC —  January 27, 2007 8:08pm ET
I miss the Chateau Montelena 'Saint Vincent'. I believe they stopped bottling it some 4 or 5 years ago and now use their old vynz for the Calistoga(?) or Napa(?) labelled Zin. I had a couple of the new ones a few years ago but they don't compare...the St. Vincent had fortitude and class!
Michael Culley
January 28, 2007 11:36am ET
Scott, Dave from Winston-Salem made the comment that I was referring to..."set the style". I guess they did if they make zins every year at that high of a range. For me, high alcohol is 14.5 or 15 percent and that style has been around for a long, long time. I only know Turley by what I've read as I've never tasted any of their wines.
Gary M Lewis
Beverly Hills Ca —  January 28, 2007 9:59pm ET
James, I am a long time Zin grower and wine maker. I find that the best Zins I make or drink share one fact regardless of alcohol percentages or other stylistic nuances: Fruit concentration, as you touch on. I have also found to get that fruit ripe requires perfect attention to crop set, cluster thinning, and hand sorting on the table. Much of the reason for showcasing sites relies more on the labor intensive nature of growing Zin. The greatest Zins in my opinion come from small, insanely micromanaged vineyards. Martinelli's Jackass Hill comes to mind. I will admit that based on your ratings in WS our palates completely diverge in regards to Zinfandel. The broken stallion style of which you espouse is in my opinion an attempt to make Zin like CabS or Merlot, i.e., a French model. I honestly think your palate is the one that needs to make a shift. It is fantastic in all other regards, but with this one varietal, perhaps you should reevaluate your own expectations and scales with which you measure Zin. This is the only varietal WS rates that I seek ratings elsewhere. Thanks
Chris Hilliard
Minnesota —  January 28, 2007 11:54pm ET
Why do "we" all agree that Ravinswood has been so "off" the past 5,6,7 years? What have they changed? Are they getting to big? Just looking for thoughts. I was a memmber of there club and just canceled because I just fed upo with the product. Any one eles feel the same?
David A Zajac
January 29, 2007 9:17am ET
Ravenswood was bot out years ago and the wine has not been the same since. As for modern Turley styled wines, I find that everyone wants to duplicate what they achieved, and unfortunately the success rate is not all that great. Turley set the standard and everyone is trying to duplicate that, to the detriment of the grape. Paul Draper at Ridge is the exception, he still produces great wines and the alcohol is still in the 13-14% range. It seems every other zin I pull off the shelf is at least 16%, too much for my palate unless you really nail it. For whatever its worth, has anyone else tried the Carlisle zins? Fantastic stuff!
John Barlow
Libertyville —  January 29, 2007 11:22am ET
A couple of posters were close, but the Storeybook Zin they are referring to is their Eastern Exposures; usually blended with 7-9% Viognier and year in and year out my favorite bottle of Zinfandel.
Michael Greenwald
Wynnewood, PA —  January 29, 2007 12:02pm ET
Reading James's entry this morning immediately recalled to mind the marvelously balanced and elegant Linne Colado 2004 Outsider (zinfandel tempered by syrah and mouvedre) I enjoyed with food this past weekend. Although I see that Mr. Modak of Tuscon has gotten there first with his mention of Linne Calodo, a winery that has gone from strength to strength over the last five years (though unaccountably ignored by Wine Spectator during that same period), I'm pleased to second his nomination. I also agree with the commentator who mentioned Radio-Coteau, whose Von Weidlich zin as far as I know is unblended but comparably elegant and food-friendly.
Anthony Velebil
January 29, 2007 1:54pm ET
I tried the some of the 05 Carlisle's at ZAP and they were terrific. Also enjoyed some bottlings from Chase, Charter Oak, Gamba, Schrader VieuxOS and a couple others.Disclaimer: I work with Thomas Brown at Outpost and he makes the Schrader Wines
Dave Joyce
Winston-Salem, NC —  January 29, 2007 1:56pm ET
James, I have to partially agree with Gary M Lewis's comments regarding the scoring in Wine Spectator for Zinfandel. I do think that, for whatever reason, Zinfandel starts with a 4 to 5 point deduction just for being Zinfandel. If you look at the database of scoring for Zins for the 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 vintages, you find ZERO Zin's scored as Classic (95-100) and only 84 scored as Outstanding (90-94). And that is out of over 700 reviewed. I certainly don't think it is your palate, and it cannot be a bias against rich, ripe, more modern types as an examination of the top scoring wines in those years show out of the top 25, 14 of them are Turley and Rosenblum, and another 5 belong to Seghesio. All of these I think qualify as this more modern style. It is just hard to believe that not a single one of these Zin's rated a Classic rating. It just looks like there is a "Zin varietal deduction" factored in.

I certainly will not go as far as Gary did to say that seeking Zin ratings somewhere other than WS is better. Comparing the scores to other sources is not valid either (and is a feat only a statistics guru would undertake). Your scores are consistent, and you do seem to reflect fairly on the consumer's preference for this "new style" of Zin. To use WS to evaluate Zins, just read the tasting notes, look at the position of a particular Zin in relation to all others scored in the vintage, or just take the quick way and add 4 points to the WS score!
David A Zajac
January 29, 2007 3:33pm ET
Anthony, glad you liked the Carlisle, they are some of my favorites, along with Vieux Os! Thomas Brown is dong come great things for Schrader and I have been on their list from the start, they are, along with Carlisle, some of my favorite zins. Thomas deserves more credit for the outstanding work he is doing, and not just with zinfandel.
John B Vlahos
Cupertino Ca. —  January 29, 2007 5:12pm ET
James, I would like to agree with David's observation of WS scoring on zins. They are consistently scored lower than I believe they deserve. Is this possibly because there is no comparable French, German or Itilian counterpart that you can compare to the American zin? What do you compare them to?
Peter Seghesio
January 30, 2007 12:33am ET
Hey James - I see some nice comments on my favorite grape. I too am concerned about how many of my fellow producers let sugar levels go over the top. It's a tough grape to manage. It will move faster at harvest than any other grape due to its soft skins and raisining that will occur. Lot's of timed thinning is key to not missing the harvest window. I think producers across the spectrum with reds in our area are trying to get reds riper at lower sugar. But I've gotta a tell you, at the end of the night, with many opened bottles of wine - its where I gravitate to - Zin is pretty close to my heart.By the way - when is spell checking coming to the WS blog?
Gary M Lewis
Beverly Hills Ca —  January 31, 2007 11:35am ET
Peter Seghesio - Zin grower/wine maker and drinker here also, a true lover of the grape. I was going to mention you as an exception to the superripe=superfruit=hi alcohol group. I agree that multiple thinnings throughout the growth cycle is critical to reducing sugar levels yet maximizing fruit concentrations. I am truly impressed at the quality you consistantly acheive with this varietal at the qty's you produce. WELL DONE.I will submit that some VERY hi alcohol Zins are fantastic though, and others not so hi mught be a result of the spinning cone. In 2005 because of weather my Zins went to ~32 brix. God bless L2226, it went dry after 4 months, and is fantastic. Next time you are in Beverly Hills, feel free to email me for a free dinner and Zin tasting of local and faraway Zins: glewisfinancial at yahoo dot com.
Dave Adams
Maple Grove, MN —  February 5, 2007 9:56pm ET
Best Zin under $16, Buehler. Try it!
Patrick Cook
San Mateo, CA —  February 6, 2007 12:43pm ET
I agree with the comment on the Buehler. I had a bottle of the 04 with my wife last night and it was terrific. Cost about $13 and was better than a lot of the Zins I tasted at ZAP, most of which cost far more.
John Hingley
san francisco —  February 17, 2007 12:54pm ET
The Starlite Zin is the most sophisticated Zinfandel I have tasted. It will appeal to the non-zin crowd with its structure and elegance and to zin fans that are ready for something different than the over-extracted, hot zins that are too common these days. I've found it at several restaurants in SF (Coco500, Danko) and I think you can get it from their website www.starlitevineyards.com.

James, several of us would appreciate your opinion.
John Woodbyrne
Redding, CT —  February 22, 2007 7:26am ET
James....what about Radio-Coteau zinfandel? I noticed that there are some reviews of other R-C wines, but I could not find any mention of their zin. thanksJohn
Shawn Burns
April 3, 2007 2:05am ET
James, ever try the White Oak? One of my favorites! The 2002 is one of the best Zins I've had. Getting some Four Vines delivered anytime. Great reviews. Anyone try?
Arman Pahlavan
April 22, 2007 4:37pm ET
James,I am the proprietor of Starlite Vineyards. I am a late comer to resonding to these wonderful comments because I was not sure if the site is for comments by proprietors. But I was encouraged to write after I saw Pete Seghesio's comments.We have been a late comer to the Zinfandel production compared to all the other wonderful wineries that are mentioned in this blog. 20 years ago, I was a maitre d' at Stars Restaurant in San Francisco and I always dreamt of producing wine. It all came together many years ago. And we are thrilled to be in the industry.When we got started, we tried to do something that was a food wine rather than a bomb. Hence, our structured, lower alcohol content Zinfandel. It seems that we have had a tiny success in that the wine is getting good reviews from the folks on this blog as well as the restaurants.We will continue to try to make consistent wines, vintage after vintage, with this wonderful grape, which (as Pete Seghesio mentions) is actually quite hard to control as the sugar rockets when it goes into tanks. We now have four vintages under our belt and are still around to read these great comments about something that we fell into and has now become a passion. I have come to love this grape now and will continue to make a structured Zinfandel.My best,Arman

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