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Zinfandel Taste-Off: Sonoma Prevails Again

by Steve Pitcher

While the origins of the zinfandel grape are more than a little murky -- some claim it came from Italy, others claim it originated in one of the states that made up the old Austro-Hungarian Empire -- there is a consensus among wine writers and scholars that its first home in California was Sonoma Valley, where it flourished in the vineyards of Colonel Agoston Harasythy, now regarded as the "father of California wine."

Popular theory has it that zinfandel was among the thousands of cuttings Harasythy brought back to California from a state-sponsored collecting trip to Europe in 1861, and was propagated along with many others in the vineyards and nursery of Harasythy's Buena Vista estate on the outskirts of the village of Sonoma.

And, while cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay can be found in many wine-producing countries, virtually all commercial-quality zinfandel grapes are grown in California, giving the state the right to claim it as California's own noble varietal. In fact, it's the most widely planted red grape in the state, with more than 32,000 acres in commercial production from Mendocino in the north to Paso Robles and Santa Barbara in the south.

Today, the descendants of those first plantings in Sonoma may be found in many of the state's wine-growing regions in the form of ancient, head-pruned vines that produce small quantities of exquisite Zinfandel. The largest number of these older zinfandel vineyards are in Sonoma County; Mendocino, the Sierra Foothills and Lodi in the Central Valley also have extensive older plantings. With Zinfandel's ever increasing popularity, wineries are willing to pay big bucks for old-vine zinfandel crops to make wines they know will be sought out by connoisseurs willing to pay big bucks to acquire the best Zin offerings available.

Sonoma's Well-Earned Reputation

Not surprisingly, Sonoma Zinfandels, whether made by wineries in that county or elsewhere, have a well-earned reputation as consistently the best examples of the wine that can be made from the grape. That certainly is the case at the Vintners Club, which has been tracking Zinfandel since the club was founded in 1973. Of the 17 Zinfandel Taste-Offs held since the first one in 1975, Sonoma fruit (whether used by Sonoma wineries or wineries in other counties) has produced the wine in the bottle of first-place winners 13 times!

Last year, Taste-Off honors went to Hanna Winery for its 1993 Sonoma County Zinfandel. Before that, the 1991 Limerick Lane Zin from the Collins Vineyard in Sonoma's Russian River Valley held the title, preceded by the 1990 Ridge Geyserville. This year, the 1994 St. Francis Reserve Zinfandel from the Pagani Vineyard in Sonoma Valley emerged as the ultimate winner in the club's series of Zin tastings, in which the top two wines from each of six 12-wine elimination tastings were reassembled for the Taste-Off.

Great Vintages - High Prices

The back-to-back vintages of 1994 and 1995 have been the greatest Zinfandel growing years in history, producing concentrated, balanced and enormously flavorful wines exhibiting perfect varietal character. A recently sampled bottle of the 1995 version of the St. Francis Reserve Pagani Vineyard Zin is every bit as wonderful as its 1994 predecessor, perhaps even deeper and more exciting in its complexity and fruit-acid balance. Reflecting the unavoidable consequences of small crops and heightened demand, the 1995 St. Francis is priced at $28, $4 more than the 1994 bottling. While that may seem an enormous sum for Zinfandel, for that price one acquires a wine that can challenge many Cabernet Sauvignons priced at $40 and more per bottle for pure drinking pleasure.

Tasting Notes

FIRST PLACE

1994 St. Francis Zinfandel Reserve, Pagani Vineyard, Sonoma Valley ($24)
The 55-acre Pagani Vineyard is located in the Sonoma Valley, about four miles south of St. Francis Winery on Highway 12, just before the Glen Ellen turn-off. The Zin vines here are between 70 and 100 years old, and share space with equally ancient Petite Sirah and Alicante Bouchet vines. All three varietals produced the field blend for this mostly Zinfandel stunner, which was aged for 14 months in new American oak barrels. The darkest wine in this group, the St. Francis Pagani Zin is wonderfully fragrant, offering deep aromas of ripe, plumy black raspberry-black cherry fruit enhanced by vanillin oak and warm spice. On the palate, the wine is fairly bursting with concentrated, anise-tinged black fruits, exhibiting fine depth of flavor. Moderately rich with medium-full tannins, the wine's luscious fruit nicely masks the 14.5 percent alcohol. Give it at least a couple of years in the cellar to soften the tannins. Superior quality.

SECOND PLACE

1995 Sierra Vista Zinfandel 5-Star Reserve, El Dorado County ($14)
Exhibiting characteristic "old vines" scents distinguished by "lead pencil" or "pencil shavings" notes, the nose offers fragrant, ripe, brambly blackberry fruit accented by black pepper spice, vanilla and slightly smoky oak. Lots of black fruits with peppery overtones on the palate, the wine's generous flavors are bright and exuberant. Medium-full tannins make for a big wine with excellent ageing potential.

THIRD PLACE

1994 St. Francis Zinfandel, Old Vines, Sonoma County ($18)
The nose requires about a half hour to open up, eventually presenting ripe berry-black cherry fruit, toasty oak, cocoa and vanilla. Concentrated and moderately complex on the palate, the wine offers lots of fruit and sweet oak. A tannic, old-style Zin with a long finish.

FOURTH PLACE

1994 Signorello Zinfandel, Napa Valley ($20)
Deep, fragrant "old vines" nose of lead pencil mingled with blackberry-cassis fruit, cinnamon spice and a hint of green olive herbaceousness. Smooth and supple in the mouth, the flavors focus on cherry-berry fruit, mild herbs and black pepper.

FIFTH PLACE

1995 Fanucchi Zinfandel, Old Vine, Fanucchi-Wood Road Vineyard, Russian River Valley ($26)
Very ripe, almost port-like nose of black cherry-blackberry fruit, lightened a bit by tea-like scents and rose petals. Quite ripe on the palate, showing sweet, jammy berry fruit and mild herbal notes. Silky and smooth, but with a slight alcoholic bite in the finish.

SIXTH PLACE

1993 Ravenswood Zinfandel, Los Chamizal Vineyard, Sonoma Valley ($19.50)
Fragrant nose of toasty oak and black cherry-blackberry fruit, cedar, tobacco leaf and clove spice, along with a slightly earthy quality. Smooth, rich and generous in the mouth with lots of ripe berry fruit enhanced by hints of chocolate and orange peel. Ripe, medium tannins; slightly peppery finish.

SEVENTH PLACE

1994 Hartford Court Zinfandel, Hartford Vineyard, Russian River Valley ($30)
Wonderfully aromatic nose of blackberries and black cherries accented by clove, vanilla and a hint of bell pepper, along with toasty oak. Rich, ripe, concentrated blackfruits and hints of chocolate define the flavors, which evidence a fair amount of oak, too. Smooth and nicely balanced even now, the wine will benefit from a couple of years in the cellar to soften the tannins.

EIGHTH PLACE

1993 De Rose Zinfandel, Hillside Reserve, Cedolini Family Vineyard, Cienega Valley (San Benito County) ($12)
Shy scents of berries, clove, mint and licorice exhibit a volatile element reminiscent of vinegar. Very ripe, sweet cherry-berry fruit on the palate, along with some astringency and chewy tannins. This wine would benefit from pairing with hearty, robust barbecue fare.

NINTH PLACE

1995 Lamborn Family Zinfandel, "The French Connection" Special Bottling, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley ($18)
Earthy, not quite pleasant nose of shy brambleberry fruit, smoky oak, tobacco leaf and chocolate, which never shakes an underlying mustiness. The extracted, though slightly muddled, berry fruit is fairly one dimensional. This wine has shown better on other occasions.

TENTH PLACE

1993 Hess Collection Zinfandel, Napa Valley ($15)
Shy berry fruit nose enhanced by cinnamon spice, oak and a hint of pepper. Moderately rich with medium tannins, the wine is tasty, but not outstanding.

ELEVENTH PLACE

1993 Haywood Zinfandel, Los Chamizal Vineyard, Sonoma Valley ($15)
A much better Zin than its ranking here would suggest, this wine offers lots of ripe berry fruit enhanced by vanillin oak and notes of freshly cracked black pepper. A little on the rough and rustic side, the flavors focus on concentrated, slightly peppery blackfruits and nicely integrated oak. A delicious wine that cries out for hearty fare.

TWELFTH PLACE

1995 Saucelito Canyon Zinfandel, Arroyo Grande Valley ($17)
Somewhat perfumed aromas of raspberries, bing cherries and cranberries, plus black tea and dill. An elegant, small-scale Zin compared to the others in this group, offering tasty red fruits and notes of licorice and bell pepper, along with a slightly herbal quality in the finish. Might pair well with grilled salmon, much like a Pinot Noir.

Steve Pitcher is a freelance wine writer based in San Francisco. He is vice president of the Vintners Club and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the German Wine Society.



Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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