California Zinfandel: A Lesson in Vintage and Regional Success

How homegrown grapes and a few off seasons remind us of the glory of Zin

One last point on this concept of ideals. A familiar refrain when tasting Cabernet, or Pinot Noir, or Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc is that they don’t compare with Bordeaux, or Burgundy, or Sancerre. Well of course not, jackwagon, it’s not one of those things, it’s home grown! And yet we can’t help but make those comparisons, particularly if we think the homegrown versions don’t measure up. Bunch of wine snobs we are. Zinfandel doesn’t have that problem. Yes, there is Primitivo from Italy, but it’s not really the same thing as Zin, and frankly it’s not as good a wine in general terms. 
Not to put down the Italians—they are making many great wines and improving all the time. But Zinfandel has a long and storied history in California. We know how to grow it, where to grow it, what to grow it with, and how to make it. We have a serious head start with our adopted indigenous variety. 
One thing that we have not really had, at least recently, is experience with challenging conditions through the growing season. And that has definitely been a trend over the recent year in California. Zinfandel already has a reputation as a tough variety to grow, relatively thin-skinned, prone to rot, and notoriously uneven ripening; one has to wonder how it would fare in these three most recent vintages. The answer (for the most part) is just fine, thank you very much. Yet another strike against vintage charts, which can tell you about the character of a vintage but tend to fail when it comes to the quality of a vintage, or certainly the quality of any particular producer in any given year. 
2009 had the potential to be a very good vintage, though split in two by rain at harvest. The grapes harvested before the storm may lack some ripeness but show freshness, early accessibility, and moderate alcohols—a welcome change in my book. Those harvested after the rains probably shouldn't have been harvested in many places, but the wines I tried from conscientious producers did not exhibit any overt defects.
While 2009 was made, or broken, at the end of the growing season, 2010 tried producers’ patience all through the season, with cold snaps, heat waves, and more rain. Portions of western Sonoma county, home to many of the greatest old vine Zinfandel vineyards, were particularly hard hit, but the truth is that wines from the vineyards that suffered the most simply never made it into the bottles of the top producers. Sold off in bulk and just abandoned, these wines did reduce the crop in 2010, but the wines that were produced are quite attractive, again lower in alcohol, and in contrast to 2009, more structured than normal. They seem to be wines that harken back to the 1970s, with their rugged demeanor and bright fruit. What’s to be afraid of?
As if things couldn’t get any worse. “Worst in a generation”—that’s a common refrain when referring to 2011 in California's wine country. Of course you have to keep things in context and realize how freaking fortunate California usually is when it come to weather, so their “awful” might very well be someone else’s “normal.” In this case, normal was cool, and wet, and then cool, and then wet, and then warm, a recipe for rot-induced disaster that reduced yields in many place by 30 percent to 50 percent. Yet once again, what was produced was a departure from the norm: lower alcohol, fresher fruited wines, wines I have a decided affinity for. So while winemakers struggled for these three vintages, they also learned more about their craft, their vineyards, and the wines they are capable of producing.

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GDP's California Zinfandels

Carlisle Zinfandel Sonoma County Monte Rosso Vineyard (2011)
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Dashe Cellars Zinfandel Florence Vineyard Dry Creek Valley (2010)
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Nalle Henderlong Ranch Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley (2010)
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Carlisle Zinfandel du Pratt Vineyard Mendocino County (2011)
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Bedrock Wine Co. Zinfandel Papera Vineyard Russian River Valley (2011)
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Bucklin Old Hill Ranch Zinfandel Ancient Field Blend (2009)
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Ridge Geyserville (2011)
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Talty Winery Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley Dwight Family (2010)
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Saxon-Brown Zinfandel Sonoma Valley Fighting Brothers Cuvée (2009)
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Ravenswood Zinfandel Barricia Sonoma Valley (2010)
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Woodenhead Zinfandel Braccialini Vineyard Alexander Vineyards (2009)
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Dashe Cellars Zinfandel Louvau Vineyard (2009)
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Ravenswood Zinfandel Sonoma Valley Old Hill (2009)
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Chase Family Cellars Hayne Vineyard Reserve Zinfandel Napa Valley (2009)
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Dane Cellars Zinfandel Old Vine Gehricke Road Sonoma Valley (2009)
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Dane Cellars Zinfandel Los Chamizal Vineyard Sonoma Valley (2009)
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D-Cubed Zinfandel Howell Mountain (2009)
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Easton Zinfandel Old Vine Rinaldi Vineyard Fiddletown (2010)
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Porter Creek Zinfandel Russian River Valley (2010)
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Black Sears Zinfandel Napa Valley Howell Mountain Estate (2010)
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Talty Winery Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley Estate William Talty Vineyards (2009)
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Ravenswood Dickerson Zinfandel (2009)
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Nalle Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley (2011)
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Quivira Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley Quest (2010)
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Woodenhead Zinfandel Bertolli Vineyard Leras Ranch (2010)
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Robert Biale Zinfandel Oak Knoll Aldo's Vineyard (2010)
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Turley Dogtown Vineyard Lodi Zinfandel (2010)
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Charter Oak Monte Rosso Zinfandel Sonoma Valley (2009)
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Dashe Zinfandel Dry Creek (2010)
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Dashe Todd Brothers Ranch Old Vines Alexander Valley Zinfandel (2009)
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Easton Zinfandel California Shenandoah Valley Estate Bottled (2010)
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Stuhlmuller Vineyards Zinfandel Alexander Valley Estate Bottled (2010)
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Ravenswood Zinfandel Sonoma (2009)
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Ravenswood Sonoma County Old Vine Zinfandel (2010)
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Woodenhead Zinfandel Mendocino County Guido Venturi Vineyard (2009)
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Claudia Springs Zinfandel Redwood Valley Rhodes Vineyard (2010)
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Cougar's Leap Black Rock Zinfandel Red Hills Lake County (2009)
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Cougars Leap Black Rock Cuvee Zinfandel Red Hills Lake County (2010)
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Easton Zinfandel Amador County (2011)
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Mauritson Wines Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley (2011)
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Preston of Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley Old Vines/Old Clones (2011)
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Topel Zinfandel Monhoff Vineyard Diamond Mountain (2009)
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Quivira Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley (2010)
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Mccay Cellars Contention Lodi Zinfandel (2010)
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Macchia Zinfandel Lodi Outrageous Old Vine Noma Ranch (2011)
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Ballentine Zinfandel Reserve Block 9 Napa Valley (2009)
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Ballentine Zinfandel Block 11 Napa Valley (2007)
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Bucklin Bambino Zin (2010)
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Carlisle Zinfandel Sonoma County (2011)
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Charter Oak Red Blend Napa Valley Guido Ragghianti Old World Field Blend (2010)
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Edmeades Winery Zinfandel Mendocino Ridge Perli Vineyard (2008)
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Rockpile Winery Mauritson Zinfandel Rockpile Westphall Ridge Vineyard (2008)
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Mcnab Ridge Zinfandel Cononiah Vineyards Mendocino County (2009)
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Quivira Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley (2011)
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Woodenhead Zinfandel Martinelli Road Vineyard Old Vine Russian River Valley (2007)
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Graziano Zinfandel Kazmet Vineyards (2010)
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St. Amant Winery Zinfandel Lodi Old Vines Mohr-Fry Ranch Vineyard (2011)
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Brutocao Zinfandel Estate Hopland Ranches Mendocino (2009)
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Edmeades Winery Zinfandel Mendocino County Piffero (2009)
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Edmeades Winery Zinfandel Mendocino County Shamrock Vineyard (2008)
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Jaxon Keys Zinfandel Etta's Block (2010)
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Outpost Zinfandel Howell Mountain (2011)
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Hendry Zinfandel Napa Valley Mike & Molly R.W. Moore Vineyard (2011)
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Ballentine Zinfandel Old Vine Pocai Vineyard Napa Valley (2009)
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Charter Oak the Zinfandel Mind Artist Series Napa Valley
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D-Cubed Zinfandel Napa Valley (2009)
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D-Cubed Zinfandel Howell Mountain (2008)
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Jaxon Keys Zinfandel Mae's Block (2010)
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Pedroncelli Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley Mother Clone (2010)
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Pedroncelli Winery & Vineyards Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley Pedroni-Bushnell Vineyard (2009)
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Ravenswood Zinfandel Alexander Valley Big River (2009)
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Ancient Peaks Zinfandel Paso Robles (2010)
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Bliss Family Vineyards Brutocao Zinfandel Mendocino (2010)
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Edmeades Winery Zinfandel Mendocino County (2010)
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Dane Cellars Zinfandel "Old Vine" Sonoma Valley (2008)
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T-Vine Cellars Zinfandel Napa Valley Frediani Vineyard (2010)
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Mcnab Ridge Zinfandel Family Reserve Zinister Mendocino County (2009)
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Mentioned in this article


  • Snooth User: brujazz
    532433 11

    Hey GDP, all those Carlisles, Ravenswoods, etc., but not a mention of any Ridge or Williams Selyem?

    Mar 21, 2013 at 12:58 PM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 202,194

    Yeah, I knew that I'd run into trouble there. I tried to get to Ridge during my recent visit to Sonoma, but couldn't find a date and time that would work, so sadly I have nothing to offer you there. I really do love em though, and have a nice set of orphans from the late 80s and early 90s standing up to be tasted soon.

    I've liked the Williams Selyem Zins that I've tried but don't really think of them as a must try wine, particularly at the price.

    Mar 21, 2013 at 1:05 PM

  • Snooth User: rhw168
    635553 131

    Rombauer Zin!!!! SWEET, big and fruity!

    Mar 21, 2013 at 4:16 PM

  • What about Dry Creek Vineyard? Love their Zins

    Mar 21, 2013 at 4:35 PM

  • GDP: Ever had Heidi Barrett's Paradigm Zin, or her Green and Red when she was still their winemaker? Pretty amazing stuff, almost could be a Pinot Noir substitute, believe it or not.....

    Mar 21, 2013 at 4:53 PM

  • Snooth User: princessp
    1166262 23

    How about Cakebread Zin? thats a good wine,

    Mar 21, 2013 at 5:55 PM

  • The thing that stumps me, is why there is no mention of the oldest zin vines in California... Old vine zin. Scott Harvey from Napa/Amador Counties makes an INCREDIBLE zin called 1869. There are six or seven wineries in the Amador and Lodi areas that make incredible wines from those grapes. So sad that the focus is always the Napa, Sonoma, Dry Creek areas. There really is life and wine beyond that small area.

    Mar 21, 2013 at 9:54 PM

  • Bogle Old Vine Zin is outstanding at $ 7.47 a bottle in south NJ. 14.5 alcohol, grapes sourced from old vines in Lodi and Amador, and a winemaker that could easily price wines at double and still have a serious following.


    Mar 22, 2013 at 9:08 AM

  • Snooth User: steve666
    392767 152

    Was in a small winery near Cambria (Central Coast north of Santa Barbara) and was told that in 1870 there were 70,000 acres of Zin either in CA or Southern CA, and some of that is still extant.
    RHW168, if you want big sweet high etoh zins, you cannot beat Opolo just west of Paso - they have three and all are over 16%, usually 16.6%. They are luscious when young but don't age well. The cheapest is Summit Creek (list is $20 I think, tho search the web because it often is cheaper) - it is somewhat lighter than the other two, but that makes it a better food wine. The Mountain Zin which used to be around $28 is almost indistinguishable from the Reserve Zin ($38-40?).
    I particularly like Ridge Geyserville which often is not a Zin as it is around 70% zin -- it is a field blend of about 8 varietals.

    Mar 22, 2013 at 4:34 PM

  • Snooth User: steve666
    392767 152

    GDP, thanks for the great listing. There are many vineyard specific wines there of which I was not aware.

    Mar 22, 2013 at 4:35 PM

  • Snooth User: DOCTOR T
    152537 36


    Mar 26, 2013 at 11:24 AM

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