Published on January 30th, 2011 | by Greg0
A Wide World of Zin
We don’t know where the name comes from for certain, but that hasn’t stopped Zinfandel from becoming one of the more common varietals planted in California vineyards. And despite the destruction of many of the vines during Prohibition, what was formerly the most common grape planted in California has made a strong come back. Old vine plantings still exist, some which have lasted over 120 years, hence the “old vine” designation on some bottles even though the term doesn’t have any legal meaning.
Despite the bewildering background, Zin is one of America’s premier grapes. So we put aside the our personal tastes, which tend more towards Pinot Noir, and visited Fort Mason today for the annual Zinfandel Advocates and Producers Grand Tasting- if we wanted to get a taste of Zin, this was the place. We arrived to a packed event, full of folks waiting to try vino from over two hundred wineries, most local but some from as far afield as Italy. Each of the small tables typically featured two or so different wines, all of them Zin or Zin blends. When you arrive, you’re handed a glass, a program, and proceed around the hall sipping and pouring and tasting, and trying to scratch notes on each pour- a trying task due to a lack of open table space, chairs, and the press of time/limited consumption. Despite our best efforts, we managed to hit only forty or so of the exhibitors, including the favorites from our last article, Acorn Winery. Prices on the bottles ranged from a bit under $10 to $50 or so, and most were recent vintages, 2007 or so onwards.
Before we move on to mentioning the individual producers, it is worth noting that the program broke up the group into many different lists, including normal ones like pricing and appellation, to more interesting ones such as how many generations a winery had been in the family and even the winemaker’s hair color! Since they were arranged alphabetically though, we’ll sort that way as well. The specific vintages are not listed, primarily for space and because most wineries offered only a couple. For instance, the HaGafen Cellars wine we tried was from Napa, and it technically is called the 2005 Prix Reserve Moskowite Ranch Block 61… oof! If in doubt, contact the producers directly and they’ll almost certainly know. And note that many of the wines may not be widely available.
Ancient Peaks was one of the first that grabbed our noses- a fruit-front, fairly spicy finish, classic Zin that also was a good value at $16 or so. By comparison, the Artezin (a pun which we could forgive if there were not quite so many very similar), offered tastings that felt not quite ripe. And while Bartholomew Park was passable, one of the worst of the day was one we really wanted to like- the biodynamic and organic Beaver Creek. We agreed that the antiseptic nose and off-taste were one of the worst of the show, and barely drinkable in the only one we tried from them, the 2007. Of course, wines vary widely from year to year and area to area, and some makers offer vastly different versions- for instance, Beaver Creek’s 2007 Zin was from Lake County, while their 2008 Zin came instead from Russian River Valley.
Two more that were of note in the B’s were Brazin, which at the very least offers distinctive and interesting packaging. And Brown Estate had a wine whose name drew our attention- Chaos Theory- but proved to offer a couple of wines drawing mixed reception. Described as warm and fuzzy, they were simply a bit non-descript. Cakebread Cellars seemed a bit overpriced at $40+, but was at least distinctive- a brassy, coppery Zin that actually ended up warming into something smooth and memorable, if not easy-to-enjoy. Cedarville offered a vanilla/oak combination that was fairly enticing, but Cellar No. 8 drew us closer with their talk of a wine that matched well against pepperoni pizza. Oddly, it ended up being their more expensive, 2006 $25 bottle instead of the 2007 $10 bottle, but we liked it nonetheless.
Not every wine stands out because of something specific. D-Cubed offered a balanced Zin, that was one of our overall straight-forward favorites- it was just drinkable, light and fruity, offering depth but easy pairing options. By contrast, Dancing Bull ‘s 2007 was one of the jammier wines, and with a weird twist of earth on the nose that made it work better than many full-fruit wines. Dancing Lady and Dashe couldn’t quite compare in our eyes (or mouths).
Fontanella was an early top contender for our best and one more likely to buy. It had an old world feel, smooth and with a hint of toffee or caramel that had us thinking about it later and nodding our heads happily. Gnaughty appeared to be all marketing- the wine was only so-so and unremarkable. But that was better than HaGafen Cellars managed- their Zinfandel felt and looked watery and offered a flavor profile closer to cardboard. The Headbanger wasn’t actually so punishing- it simply felt a bit over-ripe. Lucas Winery from Lodi, though, repelled us completely- a single sip had us snacking on bread and running to clear our palates (which we were able to do quite nicely, thanks to SanTasti water- more on that in an upcoming review)
We tasted grapefruit and leather, a surprisingly good combination, from Mike and Molly Hendry Wine (yes, really). And Matrix seemed floral to us, in a nice way, that wasn’t overpowering or perfume-y. Sapphire Hill’s Zin brought out the tobacco notes that can be found in some Zins, but it was Mantra Wines that knocked our socks off. The single most distinctive wine we tried at the show was theirs, a 2007 that they mentioned off-handedly was smoky. It turns out to have been a year of forest fires in Mendocino, and the result is a wine that is in some ways more like whiskey. It’s not a classic Zin, it might not age well, it would be hard to pair and easy to dislike- but it’s interesting, challenging, and pretty darn good if you can forget that you are drinking Zinfandel.
Sledgehammer wasn’t so strong as it was herbal, but quite decent, and Storybook was simply disappointing. Talty offered a toasty-to-jam experience in each sip that was quite good- a wine we’d definitely try again. The Federalist’s (warning, link causes audio to play automatically) costumed character was notable; their wine, decent and well-tuned though sparse, was not-so-much. One of the best values we saw at the show was from The Other Guys, formerly part of Sebastiani and makers of Plungerhead and Leese-Fitch. Sure, the names might not draw you in, but the $10-$12 price per bottle for a husky, throaty, full-bodied wine should.
Thanks to ZAP- the Zinfandel Advocates and Producers- as well as the individual wineries participating in today’s event. A variety of other events happen throughout the year, including cruises, events in Kansas City and Austin, and of course next year’s event which we are already looking forward to.