Wine Reviews: California Zinfandel

It’s been too long since I’ve focused exclusively on California Zinfandel. Well, it’s about time. Especially now that it’s summer and I try to grill food as much as possible – juicy Cali Zin and grilled veggies and meats, it really never gets old for me. And there were a few beauties in this tasting.

These wines were received as trade samples and tasted single-blind.

Review: 2012 Grgich Hills Zinfandel - California, Napa Valley
SRP: $36
Rich ruby color. Smells of tart red cherries, deep currants, juicy plums, along with lots of sweet spice, smoke and earth. Well-structured with fleshy but firm tannins and some acidity for balance, this is a mouth-filling wine but it feels velvety. Black cherry and red currant, the fruit is slightly jammy but it stays fresh as well. The fruit is topped with dried leaves, clove, coffee, cedar shavings, a complex blend of herbal tea and spice. In addition to all that, I get this underlying floral, tar and mineral element. The complexity here is phenomenal. Delicious and ripe but it doles out the fruit with suavity. A whopping 15.5% alcohol, but, wow, is it woven in well. Aged 15 months in French oak. This is a perennial favorite of mine, and this vintage is rocking. (92 points IJB)

Review: 2014 Prisoner Wine Company The Prisoner - California, Napa Valley
SRP: $45
Vibrant purple color. Smells rich and juicy, with raspberry and blackberry jams, candied cherries, along with vanilla, spiced coffee and dark chocolate shavings. On the palate, this is a full-bodied and jammy wine with chewy tannins and low acidity. Bold, saucy fruit (blackberry and raspberry jams and sweet black cherries). Sure there’s plenty of toast, vanilla and coconut but time coaxes out nuances of loam and spiced coffee and dark chocolate. Stylistically, this is uber rich and forward, but it is undeniably delicious. Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah, Syrah and Charbono, aged in 30% new French and American oak. (87 points IJB)

Review: 2013 Frank Family Vineyards Zinfandel – California, Napa Valley
SRP: $37
Bright purple color. Rich aromatic display of dark berry fruit, a bit jammy but it smells pure and vibrant, not confectionary. I also get some pepper glaze, sweet coffee and mixed green herbs. Full-bodied, the tannins provide structure but they’re not harsh, moderate acidity cleans up the palate. Lots of different fruit action going on here (blueberry, black cherry, sweet plums), and a nice mix of earth, fallen leaves, cola, root beer, dark chocolate. This wine leans forward with its fruit and hedonistic flavors but it’s structured very well and contains some significant complexity. Drink now or hold for a few years. Aged 16 months in 1/3 new French oak. (90 points IJB)

Review: 2013 Edmeades Winery Zinfandel Shamrock Vineyard - California, North Coast, Mendocino County
SRP: $30
Deep ruby color. Bold aromas but the fruit is still bright, as cranberry sauce and raspberries mix with juicy black cherries, and I get a host of spiced coffee, clove and rose petals. Juicy acidity bounces off fleshy tannins, full bodied and chewy texture but not heavy (despite 15.5% alcohol). Tons of bright red fruit and black cherries, but I get a lot of non-fruit complexity in the form of anise, rose petals, tar and earth. Long finish. Delicious but serious Zinfandel, this comes from a vineyard perched at 2,800 feet in Northern Mendocino near Humboldt. Includes 3% Syrah, this wine is aged in about ¼ new French oak. (90 points IJB)

Review: 2013 Edmeades Winery Zinfandel Gianoli Vineyard – California, North Coast, Mendocino County
SRP: $31
Medium ruby color. A vibrant but jammy aromatic take, with raspberries, strawberries and some black cherry, along with some musk and spicy tobacco. A bold presence on the palate, that’s for sure, but this has a dusty tannic structure, I am really enjoying the bright acidity that makes this wine pop. The strawberry, cherry and red currant, the fruit is juicy and vibrant but plenty of texture. Notes of rhubarb pie, spicy tobacco, rose petals, some black tea, clove and library dust – loving the complexity of these intricate non-fruit flavors. Beautifully long finish. Wow. 15.5% alcohol. These grapes are sourced from the coastal mountains of the Mendocino Ridge AVA, in a site first planted in the 1880s. Aged in 30% new French oak. (91 points IJB)

Review: 2013 Edmeades Winery Zinfandel Perli Vineyard – California, North Coast, Mendocino Ridge
SRP: $31
Vibrant ruby color. Rich red currant, raspberry and plum fruit, slightly jammy and sweet but still vibrant, accentuated by pine needles, fallen leaves, pipe tobacco and rose petals. Large and in-charge on the palate, these tannins add some serious structure to the wine, which shows medium acidity, and that keeps this beast of a wine bright. Darker fruit on the palate, like raspberries mixed with dark plums and blackberries, the fruit is rich and saucy. Notes of loam, tar and roses mix with sweet vanilla and roasted chestnut. Rich and hedonistic but so structured and exciting at the same time. From a steep (almost 60 degree) slope vineyard at 1,500 feet, this radical vineyard was first planted in the late 1800s. Includes 3% Syrah, this wine was aged in 25% new French oak, along with some old French and American oak. (91 points IJB)

Review: 2014 Ghost Pines Zinfandel Winemaker’s Blend – California, North Coast
SRP: $20
Dark ruby color. Smells of bright raspberry and blueberry jam, some cola, violets and mocha as well. A juicy and fleshy approach on the palate with medium-soft tannins, medium-low acidity and juicy red and black berry fruit (quite jammy). Fun, tasty, uncomplicated stuff with notes of cola, rose petals and sweet coffee. Mostly Lodi grapes, but fruit is blended in from Sonoma and Lake Counties. (85 points IJB)

Review: 2014 Frei Brothers Zinfandel Reserve – California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
SRP: $20
Medium ruby color. Smells of jammy raspberries, strawberries, cola, sweet coffee and vanilla. Full-bodied but soft tannins, some moderating acidity. Jammy raspberries dominate, but I get some chewy black cherries, and the fruit is topped with cola, vanilla, cedar and sweet pipe tobacco and eucalyptus. A drink-me-now on the back patio (with the grill raring to go) kind of wine, but solid for the price. Includes 6% Petite Sirah, this wine was aged mostly in oak, a combo of new and old American and French. (85 points IJB)

A vertical tasting of Beekeeper Rockpile Zinfandel


Beekeeper Cellars started in 2009, a partnership between Ian Blackburn and Clay Mauritson. Mauritson owns the Madrone Spring Vineyard and was a principle in creating the Rockpile AVA, in 2002, They sent me a mini-vertical of four bottles of the Zinfandel, 2010-2013. I must say how wonderfully each of them shows off the terroir of the vineyard. These are big, voluptuous, heady Zinfandels, and they are picture-perfect exemplars of that style.

95 Beekeeper 2013 Madrone Spring Vineyard Zinfandel (Rockpile): $65. This beautiful, picture-perfect Zinfandel is ripe, dry and heady. The alcohol is quite high (15.4%), but the wine wears it well, with a slight, prickly heat to the superripe black currants, blackberry jam and black licorice. Thick, fine tannins and just-in-time acidity give it needed structure. I had never tasted a Madrone Spring Vineyard Zinfandel before, but I have reviewed several Mauritson Petite Sirahs from the vineyard, and except for an overripe ’08—a hot vintage—I came away with great respect for the grape sourcing; and, after all, Clay Mauritson co-made this wine. It really defines this intense, concentrated style of Zin. My friends at Connoisseur’s Guide gave it 97 points, and while I wouldn’t go that far, I know where they’re coming from. The fruit is complexed with dark chocolate, sage and black tea notes that grow more interesting with every sip. The wine will hold in the bottle for a long time, but there’s no reason not to drink it now.

95 Beekeeper 2010 Madrone Spring Vineyard Zinfandel (Rockpile): $65. The fruit is just starting to turn the corner, going from primary to bottle bouquet. Where the ’13 is all jam and licorice, this nearly six-year old Zinfandel tastes of dried fruits and prosciutto. It’s still vibrant and fresh, but, even with alcohol at a heady 15.4%, it feels light and lithe on its feet, an Astaire of a wine. Mid-palate, cocoa dust kicks in, sprinkled with cinnamon. The tannins are thick but so remarkably soft and silky, the wine just glides across your tongue. I have no doubt it will hold and change in interesting ways over the next 15 years, but it’s really compelling now.

94 Beekeeper 2012 Madrone Spring Vineyard Zinfandel (Rockpile): $65. There’s a succulence to this Zin that testifies to intensely ripe fruit, which of course the grapes do get in this hot, sunny appellation that rises above Dry Creek Valley. The wine brims with raspberries, blueberries, blackberries and mocha, while alcohol brings a pleasantly mouth-warming quality; fine acidity provides clean balance. Thirty percent new French oak is discernible in the form of toast and vanilla bean, but it’s completely balanced with the fruit. The tannins are smooth, complex and sweet. With a briary, brambly spiciness, this really is picture-perfect Sonoma Zin. It seems to be hovering at that interesting point where the primary fruit is evolving into secondary characteristics, shifting to reveal notes of bacon fat and leather. A wonderful, complete, wholesome Zinfandel, definitely big, but never ponderous. It should hold and evolve in interesting ways over the years.

94 Beekeeper 2011 Madrone Spring Vineyard Zinfandel (Rockpile): $65. The 2011 vintage was the coolest in a long time, and we certainly haven’t seen any cool vintages since. It was the year summer never came; grapes along the far Sonoma Coast in some cases failed to ripen, or were moldy, but Rockpile is a hot inland region. So here we have a wine that, while in the Beekeeper Rockpile Zin tradition, is somewhat more structured and not as massive as the ’10, ’12 and ’13. That’s in the wine’s favor. It still has the cassis and wild black currant fruit, the briary leather, and the spices, but there’s a savory herbaceousness, like dried sage and thyme, and tangy volcanic red rock iron. The wine has power, but also elegance and control: there’s a tension within that’s delightful, in no small part due to excellent acidity. Quite a bit of French oak, too, but it’s seamless. This distinctive wine makes a case for Rockpile Zinfandel even in difficult vintages that is persuasive. I quite like it. Only 90 cases were produced.

What I think about Zinfandel. (Hint: Ask me tomorrow)


I’ll be tasting a bunch of Zinfandels today as you read this. It’ll be the first time we’ve tackled Zin in my regular tastings at Jackson Family Wines; until now, we’ve done Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs, Cabernet Sauvignons and red Rhône blends.

I guess I’m like most people in that I consider some varieties more “important” than others. I know that’s irrational, but there it is. I know that Zinfandel is one of those varieties that can be stunning, but for some reason it doesn’t leap to the front of my mind when I think of California’s best wines, the way Pinot and Cab do. Perhaps it’s because there’s no great European analog to Zinfandel.

Maybe I’m wrong, and in a way, I hope I am. Historically, you don’t get any greater than Zin. But maybe it was Zin’s very association with Nonno and homemade wine that tarred its reputation. When people began to get serious about it during the boutique winery era, it looked for a moment like Zin might become very important. But it didn’t happen: Cabernet so overwhelmed the red wine category that people started ripping out their old Zin vines, a catastrophe that was temporized only by the unforeseen popularity of White Zinfandel.

Many of the Zins we’ll be tasting today are from those remaining old vines, particularly from Sonoma County and most particularly from the eastern parts of the Russian River Valley, around the Laguna de Santa Rosa. Here’s the lineup:

  • Edmeades 2013 Perli Vineyard Zinfandel (Mendocino Ridge)
  • Novy 2013 Limerick Lane Zinfandel (Russian River Valley
  • Novy 2013 Papera Vineyard Zinfandel (Russian River Valley
  • Hartford 2012 Old Vine Fanucchi-Wood Road Zinfandel (Russian    River Valley
  • Hartford 2013 Old Vine Highwire Vineyard Zinfandel (Russian River Valley
  • Edmeades 2012 Gianoli Vineyard Zinfandel (Mendocino Ridge)
  • Carlisle 2013 Carlisle Vineyard Zinfandel (Russian River Valley
  • Limerick Lane 2013 Zinfandel (Russian River Valley)
  • Turley 2013 Zampatti Vineyard (Sonoma County)
  • Robert Biale 2013 Grande Vineyard Zinfandel (Napa Valley)
  • Sineann 2013 Old Vine Zinfandel (Columbia Valley)
  • Williams Selyem 2013 Papera Vineyard (Russian River Valley)
  • Martinelli 2014 Jackass Vineyard Zinfandel (Russian River Valley)

Pretty cool, no? Edmeades, Hartford and Novy are, of course, Jackson Family wines. It’s important for a winery to taste its wines against the best of the competition, and the other Zins are wines that traditionally get high scores from the critics, including me. The Sineann is from Washington State: I wanted to include it because it’s been getting some good scores, and also I like to include in these blind tastings “ringers.” I’ll tell the other tasters that one of the wines is an outlier and we’ll all try to guess which it is.

You have to be very committed to Zinfandel in order to do it at the level of these wineries. Zin remains a tough sell. If it’s expensive—and these are—people wonder why they should buy Zinfandel instead of, say, Cabernet, Merlot, Petite Sirah, a Chilean Carmenere or Argentine Malbec, or some other full-bodied red wine. The “Zin and barbecue” formulation is true enough, but it’s become a journalistic cliché, encouraged by editors selling advertisements. And producers don’t want the public to think you can only drink Zinfandel when ribs are grilling on the barbie. Zinfandel acreage in California is actually up in the 2000s, although not by much: in Sonoma and Napa, it’s virtually unchanged, which shows that growers don’t place much faith in its future.

But as I say, the wineries we’ll be tasting today believe in Zinfandel, and each of them has their loyal fans. I’ll report on our tasting tomorrow, and on whether or not we were able to nail the Sineann as the outlier.