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Reflecting on 20 Years of Zinfandels

Comparing the latest vintages to a retrospective tasting of the 2004s and 1994s
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jun 4, 2014 10:00am ET

I've been thinking about California Zinfandel a lot lately, its past and the future. For the June 30 issue of Wine Spectator, I sized up the 2011s and 2012s for my annual Zin report and also revisited the 1994 and 2004 vintages in a retrospective tasting.

While top winemakers thrived with the 2011s, the vintage runs the gamut on quality, delivering more than its share of average wines as well. The best wines have precision and focus, with vibrant acidity and slightly lower alcohol levels than usual. But many lack texture, freshness and stuffing, and some wines are downright hard, green and tannic.

"I made some of the worst and some of the best wines I've ever made in 2011," Bedrock winemaker Morgan Twain-Peterson said. "It was a huge learning year."

The 2012s could hardly be more different. After challenging harvests in 2010 and 2011, winemakers were genuinely enthusiastic about the 2012 Zins just after harvest. The wines are quite generous, loaded with approachable and voluptuous fruit, but they lack structure almost across the board. That is due in part to the warm weather and the large size of the crop. The top wines and best values in the report, coming from all three vintages, are worth tracking down.

The saying "with age comes wisdom" holds true for my blind tasting of 1994s and 2004s. I rarely do Zinfandel retro tastings. There aren't many 10- or 20-year-old Zins worthy of being put to the test, but I chose these two vintages for specific reasons.

The 1994s marked the first time—after decades of individually great Zins made here and there—that California winemakers collectively made an excellent vintage. In 2004, winemakers discovered how far was too far when it came to ripeness.

Considering their age, several of the 1994s were lovely, particularly the Turley Hayne Vineyard. The 2004s are another story. A warm vintage, it produced superripe wines that were fun to drink immediately. And yet after 10 years, the alcohol was noticeable even in the successful wines, and others were bitter and unbalanced, disjointed by an overwhelming bite of heat.

2004 was another learning year for winemakers, as I detailed in the story.

It was fascinating to revisit the '04s around the same time I tasted the 2011s. For more than a decade, cynics have complained about overripe California wines, Zinfandel in particular. The 2004s are solid evidence in their favor, and yet the 2011s prove that ripeness and alcohol are not the only litmus tests when it comes to Zinfandel.

It's a lot more complicated than that.

Eric Hall
Healdsburg, CA —  June 4, 2014 4:15pm ET
I can't speak for everyone in the wine making trade in Sonoma County, but in my experience you have to accept the "overripe" years just like you accept the "underripe" years, and enjoy them for what they were.

The grapes in 2004 were high in sugar very early due to the heat, but not exactly ripe in August, so everyone had to wait until they got physiologically ripe (you can't fix "green"), and then get them off the vine as fast as we could once that happened.

Of course, everyone else needed to pick at the same time, so there were logistical delays as well.

Eric Hall-
Roadhouse Winery
Rich Meier
Reno, NV —  June 4, 2014 6:14pm ET
I'm just saying ! What the critics called evidence for over ripeness, the 2004 versions of Rosenblum's Richard Sauret and Carla's Vineyard bottlings, we said Wow ! That's a zin ? Fill my glass up again please. Find those Tim please. Let us know how they held up, cause we drank all of ours fast.
John Thomas
Ocean City, Maryland —  June 5, 2014 9:17am ET
I enjoyed your article. Zins have become my go to wine and I am fortunate to be on the lists of Turley, Bedrock and Carlisle. The quality has improved over the last ten years with Bedrock leading the way. BTW when will you be tasting the 2012 Carlisles. No notes as of yet.
Tim Fish
Sonoma County —  June 6, 2014 11:53am ET
Thanks for the comments, all.
Russell Quong
Sunnyvale, CA, USA —  June 9, 2014 10:24pm ET
Hi Rich,
I ended up with a lot of Rosenblum Zins and Syrahs from the mid 2000's, and still have quite a few bottles. I had a Rockpile Zin 2003 last month and it was much better than I'd expected (say 88 pts), though the oaky vanilla notes I'm so fond of had faded. The 2003 Richard Sauret remains my favorite Zin of all time, but any bottles I had after 2007 had lost their magical zing. Still have one bottle I'm afraid to open.

More generally, I have not had a Zin with 5+ years of bottle age that I thought had improved. Some don't decline, but that's still no reason for me to hold them.

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