At Zinfandel Tasting, 2007 Shines but 2008 Is a Mixed Bag

Sharing my notes on favorite wines, and my early vintage impressions, from amid the enthusiastic crowds at ZAP's annual festival
Feb 2, 2010

People are quick to write off the annual Zinfandel Advocates & Producers (ZAP) tasting in San Francisco as a big boisterous party, not a serious tasting.

Well, hello? Don’t they get it? That’s what it is designed to be, and if it weren’t, the regulars would riot. The folks who like Zinfandel really like it. They’re nuts about the stuff. They are looking to get down and sticky with it. “They were lined up outside like it was a rock concert or something,” Outpost Winery owner Frank Dotzler said.

Still, money talks, and with the economy still suffering, the numbers were down at this year’s ZAP tasting, held on Saturday at Fort Mason. This year, 211 producers poured their Zins, compared to 254 last year, and the crowd was thinner than the usual 8,000. But would Chardonnay or Merlot draw a crowd that even approached 8,000? Maybe Bordeaux or Napa Cabernet could, but that sort of passion is not easily built.

The Zinfandels being poured at the 19th annual tasting were mostly from the 2007 vintage, but there were plenty of 2006s and 2008s. Since ZAP is not a blind tasting, and most of the 2008s were barrel samples of unfinished wines, it’s best not to read too much into individual wines. That said, ZAP can be a good indicator of the overall quality of a vintage.

After the tasting, I’m more impressed with the 2007 vintage than ever. I’ve rated nearly 250 different 2007s in blind tastings in our Napa office (not all the reviews have been published yet), and the best wines are loaded with fruit but still balanced, rich, supple and complex. They’re a complete package.

The 2007s continue to come into the market, and there were a number of excellent examples at ZAP, including Carol Shelton Rocky Reserve Florence Vineyard Rockpile ($33), St. Francis Sonoma Valley Old Vines Rowe Vineyard ($40), McNab Ridge Mendocino ($18) and Sextant Paso Robles Wheelhouse 2007 ($20). There was also an impressive 2006 from Franz Hill Napa Valley ($32).

The 2008s are a mixed bag. It was a vintage full of headaches for growers and winemakers, who faced just about everything except a plague of locusts: frost, heat, fires, drought and wind.

During bloom in May, a heat wave wreacked havoc and the vines set a small crop, then the 95°-plus temperatures returned in September and sent the grape sugars skyrocketing. Some regions were hit worse than others. Winemakers who picked during the heat had grapes that were technically ripe but didn’t necessarily taste physiologically mature. Some of the 2008s showed both raisin and harder green qualities.

In general, the 2008 Zins are riper and more full-bodied than any vintage since 2004. They are soft and smooth, yet rather hollow in the middle, lacking a backbone of structure and acidity. Those are my early impressions. I’ll keep you updated as I taste more 2008s.

Following are some of my favorite 2008s from the ZAP tasting. They’re listed in alphabetical order, not preference. I would give all of these wines a preliminary rating of 88-92 points, non-blind, on Wine Spectator’s 100-point scale. Some of my favorites were blends that included small amounts of Cabernet, Syrah or other Rhône varieties, which may be an advantage in a year like 2008.

Bedrock Sonoma Valley Bedrock Heirloom 2008 ($35) Rich, layered and incredibly focused. A blend that’s loaded with spice and a mix of dark and bright red fruit.

Robert Biale Napa Valley Black Chicken 2008 ($40) Dense and powerful but balanced, with blackberry, black cherry and tons of black pepper.

Cline Ancient Vines California 2008 ($16) A good value, offering super ripe aromas and soft, jammy blackberry cobbler flavors.

Easton Amador County 2008 ($17) Has laser-like focus but it’s still young, with bright cherry fruit and loamy acid vibrancy. Also a good value.

Mauritson Dry Creek Valley 2008 ($27) Riper than the classy 2007 but still sleek and balanced, with black cherry and spice notes.

Novy Russian River Valley Papera Ranch 2008 ($30) Powerful and gutsy but still retains finesse, with tart plum, cherry and layered herb and spice flavors.

Orin Swift Saldo California 2008 ($28) A cousin to The Prisoner, Saldo is a hearty yet stylish Zin, with rich and supple flavors framed by toasty oak.

Outpost Howell Mountain 2008 ($45) Perhaps my favorite of the tasting. It’s dense and complex yet rich and supple. It’s got it all.

Turley Napa Valley Hayne Vineyard 2008 ($75) Wonderfully focused, it’s ripe and rich yet light on its feet. Lots of complex cherry and plum fruit, plus pepper.

United States California Red Wines Zinfandel Opinion

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