Special Feature: Products Sally Recommends
In the course of a year, the Vintners Club panel evaluates 72 Zinfandels in six blind, comparative tastings of 12 wines each. The first- and second-place finishers of each qualifying tasting are subsequently re-assembled for one of the Club's most popular events, the annual Zinfandel Taste-Off, a 12-wine, cream of the crop tasting which always draws a record crowd; more than 34 tasters participated in this year's taste-off.
On this occasion, the taste-off Zins were mostly from the 1993 vintage, with only two of the 12 representing 1992. As usual, Sonoma County was best represented, with eight out of 12 wines originating in the county or one of its sub-appellations. Next came Napa County and Paso Robles with two wines each. Prices ranged from $12 to $28.
Each of the "3-Rs" of Zinfandel -- Ravenswood, Ridge and Rosenblum -- had at least one entry in the taste-off, which is to be expected; Ridge this year had three. In an earlier qualifying tasting, four Zins from the 1993 vintage of each of these producers were comparatively tasted, with Ridge's wines taking first through third place: Geyserville, Lytton Springs and Paso Robles.
Other great names in Zinfandel were participants in the qualifying tastings -- Quivira, Storybook Mountain, Ferrari-Carano, Edmeades, to name but a few -- but their wines finished below second place, which meant they wouldn't be in the taste-off this year.
While there is still a fairly good selection of 1993 Zins on retail shelves, most of the 1994s have by now been released, including outstanding bottlings from Turley, Rabbit Ridge, Robert Biale, Limerick Lane, Pezzi King and of course, the 3-Rs -- Ridge, Ravenswood and Rosenblum. The good news is that 1994 is the odds-on candidate for Zinfandel "Vintage of the Century" with outstanding wines from every California appellation where Zinfandel is grown. The bad news is that the '94s are much more expensive than previous vintages, due to a statewide shortage of grapes. The 1995 vintage will also be expensive for the same reason.
Having evaluated more than 100 Zinfandels from the 1994 vintage at the huge ZAP tasting at Fort Mason in San Francisco last January, I can say without any hesitation that if a winery produced a fine Zinfandel in 1993, it also produced a winner in 1994, probably an even better wine. Consequently, if the 1993 version of a Zin mentioned here has been replaced by its 1994 successor, don't hesitate to give it a try.
Some of the 1994 Zins that the panel has evaluated since the taste-off and rated as particularly worth a search include: 1994 St. Francis Zinfandel Reserve, Pagani Vineyard, Sonoma Valley $24 (deep, concentrated berry fruit with excellent balance); 1994 Pezzi King Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley $18 (lots of ripe raspberry fruit and clove spice); 1994 Ravenswood Zinfandel, Wood Road-Belloni Vineyard, Russian River Valley $19.50 (rich blackberry fruit; smooth with excellent concentration); 1994 Hop Kiln "Primitivo," Sonoma County $16.50 (forward black raspberry fruit with flavors that go on and on).
By the way, the 1997 ZAP Zinfandel Tasting will be held on January 25th, again at Fort Mason in San Francisco. This extremely popular event will focus on the 1995 vintage, which is already being touted as the equivalent of 1994 in terms of quality. For ticket information, call the ZAP office at (415) 851-2319.
1993 Hanna Zinfandel, Sonoma County ($12)
Forward, fragrant, appealing, almost jammy aromas of ripe blackberries and black cherries plus coconut and a hint of cinnamon. Delicious, mouthwatering flavors of ripe berry-black cherry fruit buoyed by excellent acidity and accented by allspice; smooth with medium, ripe tannins. Superior quality.
1993 Ridge Zinfandel, Lytton Springs, Dry Creek Valley ($20)
Deep, very ripe (but not overripe) aromas of black raspberry, spicy American oak, mint and a smoky note resembling mild bacon rind. Ripe berry flavors on the palate, along with black pepper and oaky notes: lots of stuffing. A big-style Zin with medium-full tannins and some hotness from alcohol (14.5%), but very impressive nevertheless.
1993 Eberle Zinfandel, Sauret Vineyard, Paso Robles ($16)
Lots of oak here, along with berry-black cherry fruit and a hint of tobacco leaf. Rich, ripe, extractive blackberry fruit shows through the oak on the palate. Smooth, although powerful, with medium-full tannins. Long, complex, spicy finish.
1993 Ridge "Geyserville," Sonoma County ($20)
Ridge can't call this varietal Zinfandel because the grape makes up but 60% of the blend (instead of the minimum 75% for varietal designation), which also includes 22% carignan, 12% petite sirah, 4% alicante and 2% mataro (also known as mourvedre). Tarry, mildly herbaceous nose of American oak, vanilla and ripe berry fruit. Smooth, round and luscious in the mouth offering delicious berry-cassis flavors plus a pleasant black pepper note. Very slightly hot (13.5% alcohol).
1993 Limerick Lane Zinfandel, Collins Vineyard, Russian River Valley ($14)
Always a winner in my book, the Limerick Lane offers deep, intense, fragrant aromas of ripe cherry-berry fruit, peppery spice, cedar and a hint of herbs. Impressively extractive and concentrated on the palate, with ripe, spicy berry fruit. Medium-full tannins don't get in the way of a wine that is drinking wonderfully now, but can only get better over the next three to four years.
1993 Rodney Strong Zinfandel, Old Vines, Northern Sonoma ($14)
Lots of black pepper in this wine, both in the aromas and on the palate, along with ripe blackberry fruit and evident, although well-integrated oak. Mouthfilling and delicious, the flavors replicate the nose, with the addition of vanillin oak; deep, extractive fruit. A beautiful balancing act. If you like your Zin with that distinctive flash of black pepper, this is one to seek out.
1993 Ridge Zinfandel, Paso Robles ($14)
Comparatively shy, fruity nose of berries and spice lead to a surprising palate that fairly explodes with ripe blackberries and black pepper spice; complex and flavorful with a medium-long finish. Good value.
1992 De Loach Zinfandel, Russian River Valley ($12)
Fragrant nose of ripe, jammy black raspberry fruit, American oak and a touch of black pepper. Round, smooth and rich in the mouth offering lots of ripe berries and black pepper; medium tannins and great acidity. A classic, forward Zin with delicious, youthful berry fruit and nice balance.
1993 Scherrer Zinfandel, Old & Mature Vines, Alexander Valley ($15)
Intense, slightly herbaceous nose of berries and coconut lead to similar flavors on the palate. Medium-full tannins; tart finish. Not that impressive in this group.
1993 Ravenswood Zinfandel, Sonoma County ($14.50)
Tarry, oaky nose offering shy fruit. Tarry and rustic on the palate with more ripe, brambly fruit evident than in the aromas. A wine from the old "monster Zin" school.
1993 Chateau Potelle Zinfandel, V.G.S., Mt. Veeder, Napa ($28)
What kind of Zinfandel does one get for $28? Well, first off, it comes in a tall, graceful bottle with a pretty label. More importantly, the fruit is mountain grown, which accounts for its being comparatively closed in at this point. The nose exhibits mint and black cherry fruit, which show up in the flavors along with shy black pepper. Medium-full tannins and a long, black raspberry finish complete the present picture. This wine needs another three to five years to arrive at its evident potential. "V.G.S.," by the way, is the winery's designation for top-of-the-line production. The first two words are "very" and "good." The reader must deduce the final four-letter word, commonly heard on the farm and around town.
1992 Rosenblum Zinfandel, Reserve, George Hendry Vineyard, Napa ($20)
A much better wine than its 12th-place finish would suggest, this Zin offers attractive, spicy, ripe berry fruit in the nose, a round, fleshy mouthfeel and lots of ripe blackberry fruit with spicy accents. There's also a hint of volatile acidity in the flavors, suggesting balsamic vinegar, which some tasters liked and many others didn't.
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.