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Classic Collectibles: California Reds

Pinot Noir and Syrah prove there is life beyond Cabernet

James Laube
Posted: March 13, 2002

The Rochioli Winery

Although Cabernet Sauvignon remains California's most important red wine, adventurous collectors do have alternatives. The two red grapes that currently add the most excitement and dimension to the Golden State's wine scene are Pinot Noir and Syrah.

That Pinot Noir could be grown triumphantly anywhere outside the hallowed vineyards of Burgundy has to rank as one of the top wine stories of recent years. Today, there are pockets of success in areas such as Russian River, Sonoma Coast, Arroyo Grande, Santa Maria Valley and Santa Ynez Valley. My short list of greats is clustered in Sonoma County: Marcassin, Dehlinger, Kistler, Rochioli and Williams Selyem.

Meanwhile, no one having given serious consideration as to how Syrah might fare outside the Rhône or Australia until recently should rank as one of the greatest oversights. But despite its late arrival, Syrah appears capable of catching up with other varietals and making a profound statement in California.

Merlot arrived in California as an afterthought, a blending grape to soften Cabernet's more astringent side, taken from a chapter in the book on Bordeaux. However, its soft, fleshy personality, mild tannins (and pronounceability) catapulted it to mass-production stardom perhaps prematurely, before it really had a strong identity. Expect Merlot to redefine itself this decade; it has been replanted in what seem to be the right spots, and the right people are working with it.

The two long shots are Petite Sirah and Zinfandel. While these two grapes boast most of the oldest vines in the state, they are too often dismissed; because there is no wine that they resemble in the Old World, they are viewed as orphans.

That's too bad. Anyone who has sunk his or her teeth into a tannic, meaty, peppery Petite Sirah knows this can be a wine of sheer authenticity. Yet its vineyard acreage continues to decline.

Zinfandel is the prince that will never be king, though certainly Turley, Ridge, Rafanelli and Seghesio make wines worthy of special attention. Yet as a class, it too appears to be at a potentially perilous crossroad. Higher-alcohol versions and rising prices threaten to undermine its popularity and viability as a table wine.

As the old vines of Petite Sirah and Zinfandel die, all eyes will be on the growers. The grapes they choose to plant in their place will sketch the future of those wines in California.

This article appeaed in the the Jan. 31, 2001 - Feb. 28, 2002, issue of Wine Spectator magazine, page 77. (Subscribe today)

Classic-Scoring California Reds

Wine Score Price
Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast Marcassin Vineyard 1996 96 $368
Zinfandel Napa Valley Hayne Vineyard 1993 95 NA
Zinfandel Napa Valley Hayne Vineyard 1994 96 NA
Zinfandel Napa Valley Hayne Vineyard 1996 95 $173
Zinfandel Howell Mountain Black-Sears Vineyard 1995 95 $115
Zinfandel Oakley Duarte Vineyard 1995 95 NA
Pinot Noir Russian River Valley West Block Reserve 1994 96 NA
Pinot Noir Russian River Valley East Block Reserve 1994 95 NA
Pinot Noir Russian River Valley 1994 95 NA
Pinot Noir Russian River Valley Cuvée Catherine 1994 95 NA
Pinot Noir Russian River Valley Rochioli Vineyard 1991 95 NA
Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast Summa Vineyard 1991 95 NA

*Estimated current market value.

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