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Cabernet Sauvignon Grenache Merlot Petite Sirah Port Syrah Zinfandel

Mine’s bigger

I’m not quite sure what compelled me to attend the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento last month. Perhaps Your West Coast Oenophile was feeling a bit cooped up in San Francisco. Maybe I felt a leisurely drive past miles of rolling hills might feel therapeutic (few sights can rival the verdant Northern California countryside following a spate of winter rains). Part of me thought I might find fresh sources of funds for Sostevinobile, but, in truth, my primary incentive was a free exhibits pass I received from Kantharos, the Process Water Systems recently installed at Kendal Jackson’s Cardinale winery designed to reduce, if not eliminate, the need for wastewater ponds by filtrating and recycling water runoff.

 

My route to the Sacramento Convention center took me past the State Capitol but, alas, Arnold was nowhere to be seen (I half-hoped I might espy him taking a break in his cigar tent). I thought that Arnold’s famed Hummer might be the biggest vehicle in this town, but it turned out to be downright puny compared to some of the behemoths I encountered inside the Exhibition Hall. This array of backhoes, tillers and harvesters could make mincemeat out of the Guvernator’s ride, and given the way he has handled California’s economy over the past two years, as well as oversight of the whole state, I’m pretty sure there were more than a few attendees at the Symposium who would have volunteered for the task—provided Schwarzenegger were guaranteed to be inside!

It turns out the Symposium had little to do with showcasing wine, although a few of the exhibitors did offer tastings (Tablas Creek!)—not quite Plato meant by Συμπόσιον. True, there had been a wine reception following the informational forums on the previous day, but my excursion to Sacramento proved little more than a respite from desk duties. Besides, I had won a free ticket to the Good Eats & Zinfandel Pairing that evening and would have plenty to imbibe when I arrived back in San Francisco.
This soirée offered a (somewhat) less harried preview to Saturday’s Grand Zinfandel Tasting at ZAP. The most ginormous of all of San Francisco’s Grand Tastings every year, ZAP #19 was much like ZAP #18 was much like ZAP #17 etc., ever since they reached the point of filling two entire exhibit halls at Fort Mason. Although this year’s event may have been a tad less crowded and with slightly fewer participating wineries. And, like Family Winemakers this previous summer, the absence of an Aidells Sausage table was acutely felt (6+ hours of wine tasting demands protein)
Having covered last year’s event in this blog, a flowery description of the setting seems superfluous. This year, I devised a two-pronged attack to make my way through the event—sample all the new members, then try to reach every table I had missed in 2009. An ambitious approach, to be sure, but one at which I succeeded quite admirably. As such, let me now enumerate my discoveries:
I began the afternoon in the Festival Pavilion—wineries H-Z, which brought me first to Paso Robles’ HammerSky. Both their offerings impressed me, but I strongly favored the 2007 Open Invitation Zin Blend, Paso Robles, an estate wine rounded out with 10% Merlot. Of course, I could not resist visiting with their tablemates, the incredible Harney Lane, a winery that never fails to impress me. As I expected, I immensely enjoyed both their mainstream 2007 Zinfandel Lodi and the designate2007 Old Vine Zinfandel Lizzy James Vineyard.
Somehow, I had missed J. Rickards Winery at last year’s tasting, so I was glad I could atone and savor their 2006 Zinfandel Ancestors Selection Block, a wine they describe as grown from our block of vines replicating the century-old zin-yards of Alexander Valley” (given the plethora of “Old Vine” Zins I would encounter throughout the day, I welcomed the implied contrast of this designation). Next table over, J. Keverson Winery stood totally new to ZAP and to me but impressed in their debut with 2006 Zinfandel Hales from Dry Creek Valley and the 2007 Zinfandel Buck Hill, a Sonoma appellation. 
Apart from being the first Vice-President to accede to the Presidency upon the death of his predecessor, John Tyler also holds the record for most (15!) children by a White House occupant. Sonoma’s Bacigalupi family, owners of John Tyler Wines, may not be quite so prodigious, but I still found myself enjoying a three year vertical of their wine, the 2003 Zinfandel Bacigalupi Vineyards standing out among its successive vintages. Next up, Napa’s JR Winery showcased a trio of Zins, of which I found the 2006 Zinfandel Los Chamizal and the 2007 Zinfandel Rocky Terrace the most compelling.
In Miwok mythology, the animal-spirit of the Hummingbird that predated human culture was known as Koo Loo Loo. Yountville’s Koo Loo Loo Vineyards may not be supernatural, but their organic vineyards yield a compelling wine, as evidenced by both their 2007 Organic Old Vine Zinfandel and its successor, the 2008 Organic Old Vine Zinfandel. Northwest of this winery, Mariah Vineyards of Point Arena marked its first ZAP with their 2006 Estate Zinfandel Mendocino while Ukiah’s McNab Ridge offered a 2007 Zinfandel Mendocino and a fortified vintage, the 2005 Puerto Zinfandel Port Mendocino.
Mendocino is also home to Neese Vineyards and their Giùseppe Wines, paying homage to their grandfather with the 2002 Nonno Giùseppe and the 2003 vintage of this Redwood Valley Zinfandel. Back in St. Helena, Nichelini, the winery that had introduced me to Sauvignon Vert last year, made quite the bold statement with their 2007 Zinfandel Chiles Valley. Ottimino, a quaint diminutive loosely translated as “Little 8,” is a Zinfandel-only winery in Occidental, Sonoma’s rustic Italian enclave. This exclusivity serves them well, as evidenced by their 2006 Estate Zinfandel, Russian River Valley, the 2006 Zinfandel Von Weidlich Vineyard and the 2007 Zinfinity (aka Little ∞).
Before they started selling off some brands last year,  might also have stood for Constellation’s targeted wine output; they have since slipped back into a comfortable 3rd place among the largest wine producers. A brand they did keep, Paso Creek, is based in St. Helena but produced a 2007 Zinfandel Paso Robles. On the other hand, Proulx, the premium label from Blackburn Wine Company, is a small lot operations based in Paso Robles and offered two vineyard-designate wines from this AVA, the 2007 Zinfandel Reserve Paso Robles and the 2007 Zinfandel Jack Barrett.
The three R’s of Zinfandel have long been considered to be RidgeRavenswood, and Rosenblum, which has been subsumed by Diageo. Its worthy successor, Rock Wall, brought along a trio of Kent Rosenblum-inspired Zins: the 2007 Reserve Zinfandel Monte Rosso Vineyard, the 2007 Zinfandel Sonoma County, and the 2008 Zinfandel Jesse’s Vineyard. Other prominent R’s include RafanelliRobert RueRombauer and, of course, the Sierra Foothills’ Renwood Winery, with their patriarchal tribute, the 2007 Grandpère and its companion 2006 Grandmère and 2006 Old Vine Zinfandel. Renwood, however, should not be confused with another veteran winery, Haywood Estates of Sonoma Valley, whose versatility shone brightest in its 2006 Zinfandel Los Chamizal Vineyards and its 2007 Zinfandel Rocky Terrace.
Sextant Wines showcased a trio of their Paso Robles Zins, but their real standout was the unlisted 2007 Night Watch, a blend of Petite Sirah, Grenache, Syrah and Zinfandel. Another unusual twist came from Starlite Winery, founded by former Stars maître d’ Arman Pahlavan and directed by Merry Edwards, a winemaker widely acclaimed for her Pinot Noir. Her versatility with this varietal was readily apparent, nonetheless, with the 2006 Zinfandel Alexander Valley and its worthy successor, the 2007 Zinfandel Alexander Valley. And yet another surprise came from ZAP newcomer Sierra Starr Vineyards, which countered its three Zins with a rather novel wine, the 2009 Zinjolais, a young, fruit-forward expression crafted like a Beaujolais Noveau!
I have to admit, there’s something instantly likable about a winery that calls its port-style bottling Portentous, and the Stephen & Walker Winery lived up to my preconceptions with a vertical of their Sonoma Zins, the 2005 Zinfandel Dry Creek garnering the most favor. I should also have cottoned to the 2007 Controlled Chaos from Thacher Winery, but my preference was for their 2006 Je T’Aime from Paso Robles. Meanwhile, the Valdez Family Winery in Geyserville topped all punsters with their 2007 Bottlicelli, a Rock Pile Zinfandel.

I was a bit surprised that I hadn’t previously partaken of Tofanelli’s wines, so I indulged in both their fine pourings, slightly favoring the 2007 Estate Zinfandel Napa Valley over its predecessor. As Virgil’s Vineyard was a newcomer to the tasting, I had no similar regrets in not having tasted his wines before but regaled in the mischievous delights of his 2008 Smuggler’s Son, a liquid paean to his grandfather’s Prohibition activities.
Some feel that the term
“Old Vine Zinfandel” is somewhat cliché, a marketing ploy at best. XYZin gives this moniker clarity with the precision of their Vine Age Series, offering a 2007 Vine Age Series, 100 Year Old Vines, Dry Creek Valley, the 2007 Vine Age Series, 50 Year Old Vines, Russian River Valley, and a fin de siècle 2007 Vine Age Series, 10 Year Old Vines. Winemaker also likes to bill XYZin as the last word in Zinfandel, but she is wrong! Napa’s Z-52 is a Zinfandel-only project from Philip Zorn and Brent Shortridge, with three vineyards in the Shenandoah Valley, another in Lodi, and my favorite of their single vineyard offerings, the 2007 Zinfandel Brsada Vineyard from Sonoma Valley. And holding up the end of the list, Templeton’s ZinAlley poured both an admirable 2007 Zinfandel Paso Robles and an alluring 2007 Zinfandel Port.
Having reached the end of my list, I now needed to address the beginning and head to the Herbst Pavilion. I did, however, first stop off and visit with my former squash opponent, Jack Jelenko, whose many wine forays have now led him to Villa Toscano in the Shenandoah Valley. Though specializing in an eclectic mix of Italian-, Spanish and Rhône-style wines, this winery cum bistro nonetheless handles Zinfandel quite ably, the 2007 Fox Creek Old Vine Zinfandel narrowly eclipsing their other two tastings. Over on the A-G side, I stumbled upon another noteworthy Shenandoah selection, the 2007 Zinfandel Potter Valley from Ione’s Clos du Lac, who also impressed me with their 2007 Reserve Blend Zinfandel.
Were it not for Italy’s perennial representative at ZAP, Accademia dei Raccemi, Barnard Griffin of Richland, WA would have garnered top honors for most remote entrant. Nonetheless, its 2006 Zinfandel Columbia Gorge fit right in with its California kindred. A stellar representative of that same vintage came from newcomer Arrowhead Mountain, whose 2006 Zinfandel Sonoma Valley hailed much closer to home.
I am not one of those wine bloggers who believes he can impart to his readers the particulars of how a certain wine tastes—every person’s palate is his or her own, and, frankly, the whole idea of this journal is simply to expose my readers to an array of wines I have enjoyed and let them discover what they find in it. Among those fellow scribes who do offer their rendition of a wine’s component flavors, flint or flint-like may be a frequently-cited epithet, but I have yet to hear a wine described as Flintstone. However, I was pleased to discover Sonoma’s Bedrock Wine Company, a promising young venture with young promising wines: the 2009 Zinfandel Stellwagen Vineyard and the 2009 Zinfandel Dolinsek RanchCoffee is a term more frequently associated with wines like Petite Sirah or Petit Verdot, but Peet’s Coffee baron Jerry Baldwin has focused his wine aspirations on Zin, with a commendable debut of his 2008 Rattlesnake Ridge Zinfandel from his Gerald Baldwin Wines.
I won’t try to make correlations between Beaver Creek’s name and the flavors of its wines. Their organic and biodynamic wines speak for themselves, as their 2007 Zinfandel Lake County attests. Close to the Lake County border, Howell Mountain’s Bella Vetta in Angwin sources its Zinfandel from estate vineyards in Dry Creek—certainly, their 2006 Jack’s Cabin Rockpile Zinfandel stood up admirably to its pedigree. On the other hand, I wonder how Celia Dineen Brown and her family managed to stay standing with the crowds that flocked to their table! Brown Estate superseded their popularity from last year’s ZAP with a striking 2008 Zinfandel Napa Valley, their dessert-style 2006 Arrested Zinfandel and a spectacular blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Zin
fandel, the 2007 Chaos Theory. Another winemaking family, the Hopes of Paso Robles, debuted their fourth line, Candor Wines, with a non-vintage Zinfandel Central Coast.
Usually sparkling and distilled wines come first to mind when I think of Philo, but Claudia Springs dispelled this perception with a quintet of vineyard-designate Mendocino Zins, including their 2007 John Ricetti Vineyard Zinfandel, the 2006 Valenti Ranch Zinfandel and their superb 2006 Rhodes Vineyard Zinfandel. Further south, I associate Alexander Valley more with Cabernet Sauvignon, but relished my chance to try Gia Passalacqua’s Dancing Lady and their vertical selection of Old Vine Zinfandel Della Costa Family Vineyard, with preference toward the 2007 vintage.
This year, ZAP decided to alphabetized the numerically-named wineries as if spelled, thus 585 Wine Partners and 5 Mile Bridge Wines were found among the Fs. The former, the victim of a ruthless coup d’etat the very next day, offered two organically-grown Zins, the 2007 Steelhead Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley (a joint venture with Quiviraand the 2008 Green Truck, along with their noteworthy 2008 Powder Keg Zinfandel. 5 Mile Bridge hails from Paso Robles and like 585, offers reasonably-priced wines that belie their quality, the 2006 Zinfandel Margarita Vineyard and the 2007 Stinger, a considerable bargain at $10.
I always make sure to visit with fellow Big Green wine producers, like Peay or Limerick Lane, so upon learning of Jay Fritz’ Dartmouth heritage, I circled over to the Fritz Winery table to taste their 2007 Estate Zinfandel Dr Creek Valley and a deliberately understated 2007 Late Harvest Zinfandel. I wound down ZAP with Gamba Vineyards from Fulton, a final Zin-only producer, whose 2007 Estate Old Vine Zinfandel and 2007 Zinfandel Moratto Vineyard made a superb coda to my 5 hour marathon.
Fortunately for me, no other Grand Tasting approaches the size of ZAP, so I hope to make up for lost time with more abbreviated summaries of the five or six events I attended in February. Something much bigger—the realization of Sostevinobile—demands that I do…