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ZIN-FANTASTIC WINES

RIDGE VINEYARDS

No other winery has brought as much attention to Zinfandel as Ridge Vineyards.   If you don't know Ridge, you don't know Zinfandel.  

Simple as that.


When they were founded the idea was to make red wines and Zinfandel was more readily available on the grape market than was Cabernet Sauvignon. Some fellows who worked at the Stanford Research Institute were curious about wine and this "hobby" turned into one of the top wine "domaines" in California.



Charlie Rosen, Dave Bennion & Hew Crane...

These guys were the original owners of Ridge...Dave Bennion quite SRI and became the winemaker in 1967 until they hired a young pup named Paul Draper to take over the winemaking duties.

 



The Montebello name was used for Burgundy, Chablis and Riesling, once upon a time!
 

With Cabernet in short supply, Ridge purchased Zinfandel grapes from Paso Robles, Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, Amador and Lodi.  The wines were all fermented individually and bottled either as a single-vineyard wine or as a regional bottling.  This practice continues today, the flagship wines being "Geyserville" and "Lytton Springs".    


 

 

The late Donn Reisen...
A photo of Donn in his days as the tasting room manager at Ridge...
He later became VP of sales and then was the President/GM until his untimely passing in 2008.


 

Ridge, you see, had an early grasp on the idea of "terroir," finding the various batches of Zinfandel to be different depending upon where the fruit was grown.  Over the years, Sonoma County has become a prime source for fruit and so they make a number of different Sonoma wines.  

They used to make dozens of different batches of wine.  Sometimes they'd have a "late bottling" of a wine, what with cooperage and storage space being scarce.  Experimentation has always been done at Ridge...and it's been quite a training ground for winemakers.  Paul Draper came on board decades ago and he's still over-seeing cellar operations.


Minimal cellar treatments are employed in an effort to bottle the most aromatic and flavorful wines.  The wines of the early 1970s were really monumental, some of them still tasting like barrel samples today (backwards and youthful)!  

The winemaking has been refined over the years and today Ridge, generally, puts out a pretty good bottle of Zinfandel.  What's interesting is the evolution of their wine and style since those early days.

Wines from the early 1970s were hugely extracted, dark, often a bit potent (in those days, 14% alcohol was considered a monster...today you'll find Zins at 16+% alcohol!).  Over the years the wines have become more elegant and refined.  While they may have appealed to "new" wine fans in the early 1970s, today they may appeal to more "mature" palates.

At one point in time, wine writers would advise readers to know the "3 R's of Zinfandel, Ridge, Ravenswood and Rosenblum."  Given some of the spotty wines of Ravenswood and Rosenblum, I'd say you only need to know one "R": Ridge.

We have several wines in the store, typically.  
And keep in mind Ridge is a source for some of California's best Cabernet and Chardonnay.
So...


The 2011 Lytton Springs comes from this special vineyard in Sonoma near the Dry Creek Valley.  It's an older vineyard and is a field blend...the old-timers planted a number of odd varieties in the same vineyard with the idea of producing a blended red without their having to do blending trials in the lab.  In fact, nobody in those days had a lab.  Deep, dark...mildly berryish with a spice note.

Three Valleys takes the place of what used to be called "Coast Range" in the really old days and "Sonoma Station" more recently.  It is a Zin-based blend with fruit coming from the Russian River, Dry Creek and Alexander Valley regions.  I suppose if they had grapes from Glen Ellen, for example, they'd have to re-name it Four Valleys.   The 2011 is very good...we didn't find the 2010 to be especially interesting, but the 2011 is spot on! 

The 2011 Geyserville is a full-bodied, berryish and mildly spicy Zin.  Brambly and notes of cocoa make for a complex, deep wine.  It's drinkable now, certainly, and will cellar well for 3-6 more years (at least).

Currently available:    
2011 Lytton Springs Zin, etc. SALE $34.99
2011 "Three Valleys" Zin (List $26) $22.99
2011 Geyserville 750ml (List $35)  SALE $33.99
2009 Lytton Springs Magnum (List $75) SALE $69.99
2012 Paso Robles  750ml SALE $27.99
3 Liter bottles of Geyserville and Lytton Springs are usually in stock, as well.





PEDRONCELLI
When you're an old-time winery with a long track record, you're often over-looked by those searching for the latest, most 'hip' wines.

Pedroncelli has been around for decades and we've known their wines going back to the late 1960s and can recall tasting their excellent 1970 Pinot Noir and 1970 Cabernet Sauvignon.  The family still runs the place, a smallish facility on Canyon Road in Geyserville.  

We've often got wines from Pedroncelli as they make good wines which are sensibly priced.  They get little recognition from today's critics, since the wines are not amped up and tasting as though they were made from grapes "on steroids."  

We've been especially fond of their "Mother Clone" Zinfandel, made from a vineyard within the Dry Creek appellation.  The vines were propagated from their ancient, about-100-year-old original parcel of Zinfandel planted by Grandpappy Pedroncelli.  The vines are actually about 25 years old, though they do blend in the grapes from the quarter acre parcel of original vines.  

A blend of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah, the 2011 is a delicious wine.  Lots of nice berry fruit and some brown spice tones make for a delightful combination.  The wine is not sweet, nor is it the over-the-top style which catches the fancy of wine "tasters," who have a different perspective than wine "drinkers."  On the other hand, it works well with food and you can share the whole bottle with a friend or two and live to tell about it.  

We've found the wine is one of those bottles which seems to benefit from being opened well ahead of time and/or  splashed around in a decanter.  It simply seems a bit quiet or subdued at the outset and then, after an hour, or so, it starts blossoming and showing its true colors.
 
Currently in stock:  2011 PEDRONCELLI Dry Creek "Mother Clone" ZINFANDEL $12.99

 

 
 
 
 
SEGHESIO
The Seghesio family has been making wine in Sonoma County since the late 1890s.   The winery used to be a "bulk producer" and only in the 1980s did they start bottling their own wines.  The new generation of Seghesios convinced the old-timers that investment in stainless steel, temperature-controlled fermentation tanks (to replace the open-top, cement tanks) and minor details like small oak barrels would be a good idea.  

I know the "kids" were persistent and today they're making some terrific wines.  

As they own substantial acreage, they're not having to buy expensive grapes on today's high-flying market.   Their "Sonoma" Zin blend has been a winner for many years now, unfortunately garnering high scores in some wine journals.  We say "unfortunately" because this means all sorts of people are suddenly hunting for this wine, whether it's suitable for their taste-buds or not.  

So many people need a third party to "validate" their taste in wine and they get a thrill from putting a bottle on the table and announcing it "received a 200 point score" from some critic.  We've long been fans of Seghesio's Sonoma Zin, as it's been consistently good.  While we've usually had an ample supply of this wine every year over the past two decades, now that the wine is famous and stores and restaurants who've never been associated with Seghesio are suddenly lining up and demanding their "share."  This means a smaller slice of the pie for long-standing customers such as Weimax. 

The 2012 is a good example of Seghesio Zin...deep in color, teeming with berry-like fruit notes and a hint of an underlying spicy element...it is drinkable immediately and pairs with a wide range of foods.  It comes from a number of Sonoma vineyard sites and it's blended with a bit of Petite Sirah which adds color, body and a spice note.


Currently available:  
2012 Sonoma County Zinfandel (List $24) SALE $19.99
Sonoma Zin 375ml bottles $12.49





 



 
ROBERT BIALE
The Biale family has been growing grapes and other crops in the Napa Valley for many years.  One customer, seeing the name Robert Biale on the labels, shrieked out "Bob Biale!  He's a chicken farmer!!!"  She used to live in the Napa Valley and used to purchase eggs from the Biale ranch.  
Production of wine is pretty limited.  Chickens, too.  They have a number of old vineyards and yet they make a more gentle style of Zinfandel.  The wines tend to have ripe fruit notes and a bit of wood, but are not strongly oaked.  Biale has also been fortunate to be able to purchase Zinfandel from the Louis Martini "Monte Rosso"  property in the Sonoma Valley (that's nice for Biale, but isn't it a shame that a winery sells old vine fruit because it's worth more as a "raw material" than as a finished wine by Martini!).

 

The 2012 Black Chicken Zin is deep and nicely spicy.  It's a wine showing notes of blackberries and dark cherries...Fruity and I find a nice shading of oak in the wine.

There's a wine from the Varozza vineyard...a St. Helena site near York Creek and not far from the Napa River.  The vineyard is a mix of older and younger vineyards and Biale does a nice job of highlighting some of the black fruit notes of Zinfandel without it going over the top...though it still is a big, robust red.  

Biale has long admired the fruit from the Moore Vineyard in Coombsville.  The Turley winery had been purchasing and vinifying those grapes, but a friend of Biale's (who's also a winemaker) married into the Moore clan and now there's a single vineyard R.W. Moore Vineyard Zinfandel in the line-up.  The 2009 is the first vintage...it's got a bit of dark fruit and a mild spice tone with mild tannins.  We're on to the 2011...similarly styled.

Currently available:  2009 "VAROZZA" Napa Zinfandel   SALE  $45.99
2012 "BLACK CHICKEN RANCH" Zinfandel (List $48) SALE $42.99
HALF BOTTLES:  BLACK CHICKEN RANCH (List $28) SALE $25.99
2011 R.W. MOORE VINEYARD ZINFANDEL SALE $49.99
 







D-CUBED
If your name is Duane David Dappen, I suppose you had no alternatives but to name your Zinfandel "D-Cubed". 

Dappen started his winemaking career working for Mike Grgich at Grgich-Hills before leaving to work with Dr. Jerry Seps at Storybook Mountain in Calistoga.  From there he went on to work for the Rombauer family winery.  He's making his current wines at the Brown Family winery in Chiles Valley (Napa).  

Under his own label he makes a rather peppery Howell Mountain-grown Zinfandel.   We've been quite happy with most D-Cubed Zins.  They tend to be exuberantly berryish and have a nice bit of spice to them.  

From the 2009 vintage we have their delightfully gentle, yet beautifully flavorful Napa Valley bottling.  It's said to be 100% Zinfandel and it sure tastes good!  Lots of blackberry fruit to this medium-full bodied red.  It's bright, fresh, zesty and has a touch of a cedary note from the oak.  It's smooth enough that we like to serve it at cellar temp.

Currently available:  2009 Napa Valley Zinfandel $26.99

 

CEDARVILLE VINEYARD
The Sierra Foothills seemed to be a hotbed of Zinfandelity back in the early 1970s.  Sutter Home was making its deep, robust Deaver Vineyard Zin, Ridge dabbled with a few Amador Zins and the upstart Monteviña were making waves back in the day.

Since then, Sutter Home makes its money on White Zinfandel, Ridge lost interest in Amador and Monteviña is now owned by Sutter Home and they make 'standard' wines.  

There is a handful of artisan producers in "them thar hills," but while the region was of interest to California connoisseurs back in the 1970s, being on par with Napa and Sonoma, these days you have to look diligently to find some worthy bottlings.

One of our favorite estates is Cedarville, a small "Mom & Pop" cellar owned by a couple of former Bay Area wine geeks.  Jonathan Lachs and Susan Marks had studied winemaking at UC Davis, but took actual "paying" jobs in the Bay Area to save up enough cash to invest in their winemaking endeavor.

In the mid-1990s they took the plunge, buying a property in the town of Fair Play, about a half hour south of Placerville.  
The estate comprises about 20 acres, with 15 of those devoted to vineyards.  They farm "sustainably," farming their grapes organically since 2010.  

Zinfandel from this vineyard can be rather charming.  The 2011 sure is.  It was a bit cool that vintage and we like the bright fruit and red berry notes from a year that's not hotter than hell.
There's a hint of plum and a touch of spice here.  Petite Sirah may give a bit of body to the wine and perhaps a spice note, too.  It's a ready-to-drink wine...best now and it should hold nicely for another three to five years.

Currently in stock:  2011 CEDARVILLE El Dorado ZINFANDEL  SALE $19.99
 
 
 







STORYBOOK MOUNTAIN
Dr. Jerry Seps was a professor or European history and he and Mrs. Seps had purchased a "ghost winery" in a remote location up in Calistoga.

The ghosts inhabiting the place were those of the brothers Grimm, but not the legendary story-tellers.  This Grimm family had roots, and still does, we're told, in German wine.  I know there's a Grimm weingut in the Rheinpfalz, so perhaps the boys emigrated from there back in the late 1800s?

Jerry and Sigrid embarked on their enological adventure in 1976 when they bought the place and planted Zinfandel, partly at the suggestion of legendary BV winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff.  In those days, Cabernet Sauvignon was often close in price to Zinfandel, for example.  We fondly recall the first wines from Storybook Mountain...the wines were truly regal in style.  (Andre might have also realized Seps might make better Cabernet there, so he led him "astray" down the Zinfandel road.  Perhaps.)

Over the years, Seps has continued to produce elegant wines.  This, despite the current fashion of "Zins-on-Steroids."  

Jerry has long been passionate about Zinfandel and I know it pained him to see so many vintners creating huge, mammoth wines with plenty of color, too much alcohol and tons of tannin.  Seps, I suppose being an historian, was well aware the market for Zinfandel was nearly killed around the early 1980s since winemakers "pushed the envelope" to the point where many consumers lost interest.  What's the point of buying a wine you cannot drink?  He was also aware of many wineries considering pulling out their Zinfandel in favor of planting more "expensive" varietals such as Chardonnay and Cabernet.

I'd seen Jerry one day and he was preoccupied with calling a winery owner in the Valley to urge him to not pull out his Zinfandel vines! Seps realized he "needed" more wineries making Zinfandel for the variety to continue to be viable in the market.

Jerry was instrumental in founding the ZAP group, Zinfandel Advocates and Producers.  He got a few producers together with Margaret Smith, who'd been at Sunset Magazine years ago and then was working on organizing wine "events."  Together they got ZAP off the ground and today the San Francisco ZAP tasting is pretty much out of control.  Zinfandel sales continue to be strong, thanks to Seps' great efforts.

Though "new" wineries have sprung up over the years and Turley and Robert Biale garner high numerical scores from various critics, Seps has retained his elegant, "claret-styled" Zinfandel.  If you're looking for the huge, late-picked, "gobs-o'-fruit" style of Zinfandel, Storybook Mountain Zin might not be to your taste.  It's not sweet, jammy or "over-the-top"-styled wine.  Jerry, after all, makes wine for "adults" and he makes wine for "wine drinkers."  He is a "living legend" and the hundreds of new Zinfandel producers around the state owe him a major debt of gratitude.  Major.


The 2011 struck us as even a bit more vibrant and fruity.  Berries and light spice notes...beautifully balanced and drinkable in its youth.  Very fine and complete...it has a great nose, lovely flavors and a nice finish.

This wine is made for adults, rather than kids, if you know what I mean.
 
Currently in stock:  
2011 Napa "Mayacamas Range" Zinfandel $31.99

 
 
 
RUNQUIST

Winemaker Jeff Runquist launched his own brand in the mid-1990s after working at a Paul Masson wine facility in the Central Valley, working at Montevina winery in Amador County and then at the J. Lohr winery in San Jose.

Then he became the winemaker at the McManis Family winery in Ripon, California, producing oodles (that's a technical term, well understood by accountants and CPAs) of Central Valley wine.

We gather he's now focused on his own brand and he's making quite a range of different wines.  But his "Z" Zinfandel is a flagship wine for Runquist and the fruit comes from the old Massoni vineyard in Amador County.

Jeff has a good recipe for making this wine and it, like most of his wines, is showy and consumer-friendly in a variety of ways.  

What is especially interesting is that Runquist's Zinfandel is consistent in its big fruit and fragrant oak style.  But we're surprised to learn that Jeff lets his various grape growers "do their thing" in the vineyard.  They even get to make the call as to when the grapes should be picked!

If you like a wine that's dark and youthfully purple in color, teeming with berry-like fruit and framed by plenty of cedary oak, this may be your wine.  It's big, but gentle on the palate, another feature of Jeff's wines.

His style is distinctive, though.  I can tell you I've been invited to be a judge at the San Francisco International Wine Competition tastings each summer.  On Sunday when we have the big show-down of picking the best of the best, a Runquist wine is often in the mix.  And I can pick his wines out of the tasting, typically.  And despite his winning a bunch of medals, he remains rather down-to-earth.

One time he was riding around with a sales rep whose portfolio featured lots of wines from winemakers who had lofty opinions of their own wines.  The rep told me "You can buy one case of this winery's Sauvignon Blanc per order, with one per week being the maximum."

I teased Jeff about what he could "learn" from this sort of sales program, but Runquist remarked "You know, the only time I want to tell a customer they can't have my wine is because it's SOLD OUT."

Bravo!

Currently in stock:  2011 RUNQUIST "Z" Amador County "Massoni Ranch" ZINFANDEL  $22.99

 

 

NALLE
Doug Nalle was the winemaker for an old, long-gone Sonoma winery called Balverne.   He went on to be the winemaker at Quivira, turning out some very fine Zinfandels under that banner.  For years now he's been the captain of his own ship, producing Zinfandel from Dry Creek Valley grown-fruit (his wife's family have been vineyard owners forever)...

In his early days of making "Nalle" Zinfandel, this was a much sought-after wine.  Anybody who knew anything about Zinfandel had to have Nalle wine.  Today, though, not many people know the name, since the big, brain-buster style of Zinfandel scores points with the critics.  As a result, Nalle is, today, a bit "under the radar" of most Zin drinkers, though he still has a very loyal following.


Zinfandel comes from older vineyards.  Some from seriously older vines.  About 20% new French oak each year gives just a touch of a sweet spice to his wines. 

Years ago, I was fortunate enough to be invited to taste his 2000 vintage out of barrel, back to each and every vintage to 1990.  These wines, for the most part, age quite nicely.   They are not likely to win blind-tastings, as the wines are not the "in-your-face," high alcohol, high oak, slightly sweet concoctions which seem to catch the attention of the critics.

Nalle's Zins are, almost always, less than 14% alcohol.  These are wines for the mature wine drinker, rather than the young whippersnappers out there who need a wine which "rocks." 
 
The 2009 is all of 13.6% alcohol...as some of the vineyards are mixed plantings, there's Petite Sirah, Carignane, Mourvedre and Alicante Bouschet in the mix with a few bunches of Chasselas for kicks...you'll find nice red and black fruit notes with a faintly spicy undertone (that's Dry Creek for you!)...


CLICK HERE FOR NALLE ZIN INFO & PHOTOS
Currently available:  
2009 Dry Creek Zinfandel  (List $36)  Sold Out
 

 


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