MS, MW, friend of 1WD, and exceptionally cool wine geek Doug Frost is not a man to mince words. As a media guest recently for the 2019 incarnation of Zinfandel Experience in San Francisco, I managed to catch up briefly with Doug, who had this to say regarding Zinfandel continuously being cited as the quintessential American grape variety:
“That’s utter bullshit.”
This is, of course, because Zinfandel is actually of Croatian origin, where it sometimes goes by the name of Tribidrag (which might also be the name of a character from The Silmarillion… I’m not sure). In the shorter-term history of American fine wine, however, Zinfandel does have deeper roots than most other grapes, Croatian or otherwise. As Frost put it, “back in 1961, Sonoma’s principal grape was Zin.”
ZinEx, for me, consisted of several tastings, both media-only and open to the public, though I find the former a lot easier to digest than the latter (I’m not exactly a large guy, so it’s not easy to signal my way to a spit bucket with a mouthful of high-octane red wine in a crowded room). The minor suffering was worth it, of course, as ZinEx was chock full of excellent examples of the surprising versatility of California’s adopted Croat wonder-boy grape.
Following are highlights from my ZinEx encounters (skipping badges, because there are just too many recommendations, 90% of which would just be tagged “Kick-Ass” anyway)…
NV Rock Wall Sparkling Zinfandel (Lake County, $40)
Let’s just kick things off the right way – with something bubbly, and something totally unexpected. What the actual f*ck is this doing here, all earthy and bright and exciting and turning our expectations of burly Zin firmly on its ear? As Rock Wall winemaker Shauna Rosenblum perfectly described this to me: “It’s like one of those barrel-aged [beer] sours, but without the Brett and lactose!”
2016 Robert Biale Vineyards Aldo’s Vineyard Zinfandel (Napa Valley, $85)
Hailing from Zin grown on clay soils, Aldo’s is a gorgeously layered red; bay leaf spiciness, and red/blue/black fruits that have both depth and length, all bound together in a stylized, excellent experience.
2016 Scott Harvey ‘Vineyard 1869’ Zinfandel (Amador County, $49)
Most of this fruit comes from 147+ year old vines, and they are doing their part to up the perception game of Amador in general. Sporting bay leaf, leather, black licroice, berry compote, plums, raisins along with savory and floral notes, this is broad, generous, powerful, and yet able to capture a bouncy step within its friendly fruitiness.
2016 Peachy Canyon ‘Willow’ Zinfandel (Paso Robles, $44)
Nothing to weep about here. Winemaker Robert Henson attributes this wine’s sweeter array of spices, plums, mint, roses, and bramble to the “pure chalk” soils that extend down “at least fifteen feet,” making the vines work for their suppers while their western location in Paso allows for more ocean influences. This is an open, deep Zin, with textbook ripe tannins, and yet hints of greener herbs and red cranberries that liven it up.
2017 Bedrock Wine Co. Evangelho Vineyard Heritage Red (Contra Costa County, $45)
Morgan Twain-Peterson, son of Zin icon Joel Peterson, literally grew up with the grape, and that shows in the Bedrock Evangelho (here acoompanied by Carignane and Mataro). Savory, quite herbal, and rocking the cranberry and peppercorn before moving into darker/riper plum flavors, this is a sultry, supple, spicy, and well-made red. A big, powerful boy it is, too
2016 Ravenswood Winery Single Vineyard Belloni Zinfandel (Russian River Valley, $42)
Not to be outdone by his offspring, the company that Morgan Twain-Peterson’s father famously founded is not exactly slouching in the single-vineyard Zin department, either. A focused, mineral, and refined effort, Ravenswood’s Belloni has ample dried herb action, graphite hints, and an approach to its powerful dark fruit flavors that’s akin to a big fist in a velvet glove.
2005 Ridge Vineyards Lytton Springs (Dry Creek Valley, $NA)
Folks, this is what we call a “ringer.” Ridge president David Amadia showed up with this aged beauty, which is based on about 77% Zinfandel from field-blend 1901 plantings. It’s stunning. Black cherry, bramble, graphite, earth… this is juuuuust starting to soften and is now coming fully into its own as a stellar product of a stellar DCV vintage.
2016 Berryessa Gap Zinfandel (Yolo County, $22)
Berryessa Gap’s winemaker Nicole Salengo seems deceptive; while youthful, she is packing a decade of experience under her belt, as well as studies in Geology and viticulture. Yolo sits about thirty miles east of Rutherford, and Salengo is convinced it’s an area that’s worthy of its own terroir discussions; to wit, her 2016 Zin (of which only 600 cases were made). Based on a Primitivo clone, this is leathery, smoky, meaty stuff, with powerful dark cherry flavors; but the real delight comes in the tea-like herbal notes and vibrant acid profile.
2014 DeLoach Vineyards Saitone Vineyard Olivet Bench Zinfandel (Russian River Valley, $45)
By the numbers: 300 cases, 25% new oak, 1895 (head-pruned) plantings that are 90% Zin. For all of its sexiness, this red is fresh, bright, herbal, focused, and textured. Sure, there’s raspberry compote galore, but the vivacity and concentration are so natural that they exude texture, purity, and a sense of purpose.
2016 Pedroncelli ‘Courage’ Faloni Vineyard Zinfandel (Sonoma County, $32)
Queue the Cowardly Lion… Anyway… 2016 is the inaugural vintage of this red, crafted from fruit that has been farmed for three generations in the northwest valley floor of Dry Creek. Sexy, supple, savory, sultry, and supersized, this is Big Boy territory done right, with a splash of cardamom for good measure.
Michael McCay is now Lodi’s patron saint of elegance, continuously teasing out a more feminine side of the burly grape. The Faith Lot is right on that target – spiced plums, saline, minerals, currants, cranberries, roses, all with length, juiciness, verve, and an sense of reserve that belies the age of its 1915 source fruit plantings.
2016 Hendry Block 24 Primitivo (Napa Valley, $39)
Whaaaaaaat. The. Hell?!?? Napa Zin that’s not overdone, overpriced, and made from the oft-maligned Primitivo, to boot? Broad, floral, and vibrant, this is a red to love. Dark cherries, plums, incredible spiciness, and oodles of pepper. You can get lost in a wine like this.
2015 Domaine de la Terre Rouge Easton Shenandoah Valley Estate Zinfandel (Sierra Foothills, $35)
Head-trained vines, influenced by the cool air of nearby Carson’s Pass make up Easton’s plummy, jammy Estate Zin. There’s a lot of ass being kicked here, with cardamom, clay, pepper, and nearly to-die-for texture.
2012 Beekeeper Cellars Madrone Spring Vineyard Zinfandel (Rockpile, $NA)
Ian Blackburn included 20% Petite Sirah in this Zin, and it’s kind of a crime that there’s no more left… though it makes a compelling argument for seeking out the rest of his low-production reds. Smoked meat, roses, pepper, and spices give way to both structure and heft, that in turn gives way to a sense of crisp, clean clarity.
2016 Once & Future “Frank’s Block” Teldeschi Vineyard Zinfandel (Dry Creek Valley, $50)
No one escapes ZinEx without encountering Joel Peterson and his wines, which now are under the Once & Future label, and the fabled Teldeschi vineyard, its 30 acres of early 1900s plantings on gravelly clay loam having produced some stellar Zins. Joel’s version includes small amounts of Carignan and Alicante Bouschet, with the result being both complex and crowd-pleasing. Layers of red and black fruits, moving from jammy to tart, rounded out by roses, violets, and a beautiful sense of tension.