Zin Excess

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Zinfandel wines leave their mark on you. As I strolled out of Fort Mason's Hearst Pavilion Saturday earlier this month, I looked down and noticed my fingers were stained purple. I had tasted more than 30 wines over the course of two hours at the 18th annual Grand Zinfandel Tasting thrown by ZAP, Zinfandel Advocates and Producers. The next day, my index finger still bore the mark of Zinfandel. People love this grape because it possesses that kind of indelible power, joyfully married to flavors of raspberry, chocolate, and spice.

Lining up for the Saturday tasting at ZAP
Lining up for the Saturday tasting

The ZAP Festival is never glamorous. This year, more than 250 Zin makers from up and down the state converged inside two warehouse-like pavilions at Fort Mason. Then hundreds of Zinfandel geeks flocked in.

Beth Colagrassi and Anna Christensen
Beth Colagrassi and Anna Christensen show off their new glass holding technique.

They flitted noisily from table to table, tasting and spitting 500 or so Zinfandels, sustained only by small baguettes and cheese stations. The event spanned four days, and wavered between glorious bounty and exhausting excess.


The same is true of the wines. Zinfandel is notorious for uneven ripening, and winemakers often delay picking to avoid green, underripe flavors in their wines. That technique maximizes bold flavors and sugar at harvest, which can then result in wine with overpowering alcoholic heat. The wines at this tasting ranged from lows of 14.1% to more than 16% alcohol, and I picked up unpleasant aromas of rubbing alcohol and acetone (nail polish remover) in a number of wines.

Still there were many more successes than failures. Over two days, I tasted more than 60 wines. I've edited down my notes here, sparing you the dullards, and highlighting the great, the ghastly, and a few good values.

The stars included Carol Shelton Wines, Ottimino, and Ridge Vineyards.

Shelton herself showed off a quartet of extraordinary wines, sourced from all over the state. She is a short woman, in glasses, with a gentle smile. That lovely manner, however, belies her skill at controlling this unruly grape. Shelton is the mistress, even the benevolent dominatrix of Zin. She reduces the alcohol level in her wines (using a spinning cone) to achieve a "sweet spot." That way, Shelton can pick at high ripeness, but avoid alcoholic heat. Her wines defy the purists who disdain manipulation in the winery. All showed personality and terroir (regional character).

Carol Shelton
Carol Shelton: Unrepentant Zinner.

Not one of Shelton's wines disappointed. The 2005 Wild Thing, from Cox Vineyard in Mendocino County, is big and juicy ($28). It seems a wine to drink now, to soften the recession.

The 2005 Maple Vineyard from Dry Creek Valley is even better. Solid tannins underlie chocolate, spice, and raspberry flavors. This will get much better with age. It is worth its retail price of $33. Drink this one when the Dow Jones hits 10,000.

Shelton's 2006 Monga Zin, Lopez Vineyard from Cucamonga Valley, east of Los Angeles, is deeply tannic, with flavors of toffee and spice box. She says the 81 year old vines there are "starved for water," dry-farmed, barely one foot tall, and producing a few handfuls of grapes per vine. I think it's a deal at $21. Hold it until the Dow hits 11,000.

I had never tasted wines from Ottimino in Occidental, and they were a revelation.
Winemaker William Knuttel (also executive winemaker at Dry Creek Vineyards) manages to extract effusive flavor without excessive heat from dry-farmed vineyards in the cool Russian River Valley.

My favorite Ottimino was the 2005 Von Weidlich Vineyard. The wine is big and tannic, and needs time to perfect its chocolate, spice, and everything nice flavors ($37). The 2005 Ottimino Rancho Bello Vineyard was dark as night and loaded aromas of black cherry ($29).

People crowded around Ottimino's table; they bowed down at the pouring station for Ridge. Winemaker and CEO Paul Draper has produced Zins worth idolizing at Ridge for decades-- well stuffed, but with impeccable balance.

Eric Baugher
Eric Baugher: Zin coming out of his ears

Eric Baugher, Ridge's vice president of winemaking, was pouring samples of the soon to be released 2007's. The Ponzo Vineyard from the Russian River Valley was just delicious: supple, and loaded with chocolate and black raspberry. You should drink the Ponzo while you wait for the Ridge Geyserville from Sonoma County to soften up. It smells and tastes like an encyclopedia definition of great Zinfandel, with milk chocolate, violets and blackberries backed by oak and vanilla.

Here are a few more highlights: Storybook Mountain Vineyards, Claudia Springs Winery, and Seghesio Family Vineyards all poured exceptional wines. The talented Paul Hobbs is consulting winemaker at Sonoma’s Valdez Family Winery, and they offered tastes of three delicious if pricey wines. People crowded around to taste Turley Wine Cellars' 2007 Hayne Vineyard from Napa Valley. I thought it was hot and overstuffed, but still amazing with its roasted coffee, tar, dark chocolate, and toffee notes. This wine will garner huge scores from wine writers, but it's not worth the $75 price tag.

The Hayne Vineyard was among the highest priced Zins at this event, thus illustrating one of the secrets of Zinfandel’s appeal. The best wines sell for about $35, and are much better values than top-of-the-line Cabernet and Pinot Noir. (For more on how the recession is hitting the wine industry, listen to my KQED Radio story reported from the Zinfandel Festival.)

I tasted two wines that are real bargains. The 2006 Bonterra Vineyards Mendocino County is an organic delight, showing some green fruit character, but still chocolaty in the nose and juicy in the mouth. I've seen it on sale for as little as $12. I also love the 2005 Murphy-Goode Liar's Dice from Sonoma Valley. It lists for $21, but I’ve seen it in stores for as little as $14.

Oh, I nearly forgot the catastrophes. I tasted three wines that stank of Brettanomyces, a common spoilage problem. I got a whiff of wet dog in my glass of 2006 Edmeades Perli Vineyard, Mendocino Ridge. The 2006 Frank Family Vineyards from the Napa Valley smelled of sweat socks and varnish. And in the 2007 Easton Wines Amador County, I smelled the mildewed corner of a shady yard. Approach these bottlings with caution.

I can’t finish this article without mentioning Rosenblum Cellars, the popular and prolific urban winery in my home town of Alameda. Founder Kent Rosenblum championed big complex Zins a quarter century ago, when many serious wine drinkers still scorned the grape for its jug wine origins.

Kent Rosenblum, Kathy Rosenblum, and staffer Jennifer Anderson
Kent Rosenblum, Kathy Rosenblum, and staffer Jennifer Anderson


These days most of his Zins (he makes 19) taste the same to me, because they're so hot and alcoholic. The international drinks-maker Diageo bought Rosenblum Cellars last year, but Rosenblum remains the consulting winemaker, and he was at the Festival with his wife Kathy, soaking in the adulation of his many fans. When I asked him about critics who disparage his over-the-top style, Rosenblum told me, "Our fastest selling wines are the ones with the highest alcohol." He was pouring his 2006 Monte Rosso, a vineyard, high up in the Mayacamas Range between Sonoma and Napa. It was a delicious mouthful of blackberry jam and cedar, and as I tasted, I felt transported to the redwood groves and red soils of that site. What more could I ask for.