ORIN SWIFT'S)) "THE
you're looking for a fellow named Orin Swift at this winery, you're going to
be out of luck.
The owner and winemaker was Dave Phinney and you might think Orin Swift is
his Witness Protection Program pseudonym. It is not. His dad's
middle name was Orin and his mom's maiden name was Swift...so, Orin Swift.
Dave spent some time in Italy and, of course, fell in love with wine.
When he returned to the U.S., he was in Arizona and worked in a wine shop
trying to sell wine to beer drinkers. The University of Arizona had
planted an entire acre of an experimental vineyard and I gather Phinney got
some dirt under his fingernails before heading to the University of Robert
Mondavi in Napa for an internship.
Mondavi, Opus and Whitehall name are tattoos he sports, but the best one is
his own "Orin Swift Cellars" logo.
The most famous wine from Orin Swift is a Zinfandel-based blend that's
become quite popular and for good reason. The wine features the
painting of Francisco Goya called "Le Petit Prisonier" and it's
called The Prisoner.
The Prisoner label was sold (or Phinney took on a partner).
The new owner is Augustin Huneeus who owns the Quintessa brand from Napa and
a Chilean portfolio called Veramonte as well as having invested in the
Flowers winery in the Sonoma Coast appellation.
The second vintage under new ownership strikes us as superior to the first
and a bit of a return to the style of wine which made "The
Prisoner" a popular wine. The blend is 51% Zinfandel, 19%
Cabernet, 15% Syrah, 12% Petit Sirah, 2% Charbono and 1% Grenache (or so
It's a powerful, fruit-bomb-of-a-California-wine as usual. We felt the
2010 was overtly sweet and sugary. The 2011 seems less so, but still
big, fruity and showing the "gobs-of-fruit" styling which
attracted so many consumers to it.
- Currently in stock:
2011 ORIN SWIFT "The Prisoner" $37.99
- BLACK SEARS
- The Black
Sears name is fairly well-known to serious Zinfandel drinkers, as it's been
seen on labels from wineries such as Turley, Elyse, Cornerstone, D-Cubed and
Howell Mountain Vineyards.
The name is that of the two people who own this Howell Mountain estate,
Joyce Black and her husband Jerre Sears. She's a Napa Valley native
and is a psychotherapist (I could make a snarky remark about Napa being
fertile ground for someone in that line of work). Husband Jerre has a
background as a venture capitalist and he has a PhD in
Their Zinfandel vineyard was planted with budwood from the Hayne Vineyard in
Rutherford. They have about 20 acres of dry-farmed Zin (and 6 of
Cabernet, etc.) and these are cultivated biodynamically.
Howell Mountain Zinfandels tend to offer plenty of spice notes, with black
pepper and hints of anise. The 2005, of which they made slightly more
than 300 cases, is an exceptional wine. It's deep in color and teeming
with peppery, spicy notes. There's a nice note of wood (half American,
half French, one-third of the barrels being new), but the oak is dominated
by the spice. The fragrances are intense and delightfully complex and the
flavors linger on the palate.
We like this 2005 Zin for immediate drinking, but suspect there's sufficient
acidity to allow this to mature over the next 3-8 years.
Currently in stock: 2005 BLACK SEARS Howell Mountain
ZINFANDEL Sold Out
- This brand is
an offshoot from the Duckhorn winery. The Duckhorn brand was dedicated
to making Bordeaux-styled wines. In 1994 they launched a wine called
Paraduxx, a blend based on Zinfandel with Bordeaux varieties.
Over the years, the blend has changed, but it's been remarkably good and
consistently delicious, no matter what the particular blend.
How do you like the new label?
The 2009 is the current vintage and it's 62% Zinfandel, 31% Cabernet Sauvignon
and 7% Merlot. The wine spent a bit more than a year in oak,
both French and American. About half the barrels are brand new and this
gives the wine a beautiful sweet vanillin, cedar tone. Add the dark fruit
aromas and you've got a very satisfying bottle of wine. It's probably most
interesting as a fairly young wine, so we don't look to cellar this more than a
few years, if that.
It's the sort of wine which will "wow" those who "only drink
Currently in stock: 2009 PARADUXX (list $48) SALE
- ROSENBLUM CELLARS
- You can call
him "Doctor" Rosenblum if you like since Kent is also a
veterinarian. I don't think he prescribes Zinfandel for his patients,
but probably for their owners.
Kent Rosenblum was deported from Minnesota around 1970. He has managed
to lose most of the accent, having lived in the Bay Area for so long.
After embracing the California lifestyle, he decided he wanted to explore
making wine, not only drinking it. So he and a neighbor started
producing some homemade wines. Encouraged by the results, he decided
to see about making wine professionally. Rosenblum was able to
convince a banker to lend him enough cash to start a winery. The poor banker
didn't know what a monster he was unleashing! That was in
Now things have gotten seriously out of hand. Rosenblum cellars
produces about 90,000+ cases of wine annually. And Dr. Kent sold the
winery to Diageo, a bazillion dollar drinks company. He'll still be
affiliated through this year (2013), we're told.
They make something like
18 Zinfandels, not to mention really curious things like Vanilla and
Chocolate-flavored "Port" wines. Some of the
Zinfandels approach the style of Port, so perhaps it's not much of a stretch
to produce something that is "port-styled."
In the relative early days, Rosenblum made some nice wines...and later on
with Jeff Cohn as their winemaker, they routinely produced charming, fruity,
berryish Zinfandels. And then...then they got sidetracked.
Of late, they seem to be catering to the cocktail crowd.
Many of the wines show deep, saturated colors, extremely ripe fruit, very
high levels of alcohol and, often, residual sugar. For many wine
drinkers, the range of Rosenblum wines is "over the top" as
they're "pushing the envelope" and then some. The
labels don't inform consumers that the Zinfandel inside the bottle may
contain a substantial amount of residual sugar.
From a marketing standpoint, having relatively small lots of wines makes
selling some of them an easier task. You can more comfortably scale a
series of small hills, perhaps, than a high mountain. The character of
the particular region, though, seems to be muted or masked by the current
style of winemaking here. Virtually everything tastes more of
"Rosenblum" winemaking than it does of
They make all sorts of single vineyard Zinfandels and this would be great if
they would pick the fruit when the grapes are ripe instead of picking them
over-ripe. The notion of capturing "terroir" or the
somewhere-ness of a site by making wine from raisined grapes is simply folly
and it's a pity.
But that's what can happen when the marketing people and the accounting crew
have more "say" in the winemaking than well-trained enologists or
Rosenblum wines are typically high in alcohol. That may explain why
one label, years ago, told about the vineyards in Contra Costa, "40
miles west of San Francisco." I called legendary San
Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen who loved making fun of people for
this sort of thing. Kent got some publicity for his wine, as a
result. I hope he doesn't hold a grudge!
- Currently in stock:
2006 "Rockpile Road" ZINFANDEL 750ml ($35 List) Sold Out
2005 "Richard Sauret Vineyard"
ZINFANDEL Sold Out
Rombauer wines have what seems to be a loyal following. Zinfandel has
often had a bit of sweetness and now they're really catering to those
consumers who prefer noticeable amounts of sugar in their "dry"
wines. Chardonnay, too, has plenty of sweetness and has never been
The Rombauer wines are a textbook example of "consumers talk
'dry' but drink 'sweet.'"
This wine is 60% from the Sierra Foothills and the balance is "Northern
California." The wine
displays sweet berry fragrances with notes of chocolate.
- The wine is
sort of like a dryish Port/slightly sweet Beaujolais...too sweet for the dinner table but not really
sweet enough for dessert.
Think of this as California's leading Spätlese
It's a kind of 'cocktail' wine for some
consumers, being full-bodied and rich on the palate. In a
blind-tasting, I also detected a note which reminded me a bit of
pineapple. Curious. Anyway, it's a Zinfandel which really
excites some consumers. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.
- Currently in stock: 2010 Rom-Baby "California" Zinfandel
(List $30) SALE $26.99 (750ml
Montelena winery is so famous for its Cabernets, probably not many wine
geeks know they've been making Zinfandel since the early days.
One of the most memorable Zinfandels I tasted in the 1970s, aside from some
stellar Ridge bottlings, was a curious wine Montelena produced in
1973. Winemaker Mike Grgich inhibited the secondary malolactic
fermentation. The wine was remarkably bright and fruity...tons of
raspberry-like notes. We couldn't keep our hands off such a delicious
wine, so I never did get a chance to see how this aged and matured.
They still produce a nice Zinfandel, but it's not the sort of wine which
attracts the attention of many wine critics, partly because Cabernet takes
center stage for red wine at Montelena.
Instead of making the
hugely alcoholic, over-ripe, monster style of wine, Montelena's Zin remains
a rather refined, claret-styled red wine. Bo Barrett knows the
difference between Port and table wine and there's clearly no confusion here
as to which style of wine he's trying to make. Unlike some of the
wines listed above on this page, Montelena's is made for "adult"
The 2008 is labeled "Montelena Estate" and I suppose they grow all
their own these days, since in former times they augmented their production
with purchased fruit. The wine is light in color and offers
bright strawberry and red cherry fruit aromas. Unlike some Napa Zins
which have a decidedly peppery character, this one features more the red
fruit tones and little in the way of spice. Oak is not a feature here,
either...it's Zinfandel taking center stage here.
The wine is medium-light bodied...sort of Chianti-like in some respects and that
makes it a good candidate for Mediterranean fare. It's ready to drink
now and will hold nicely for several years.
Currently in stock: 2008 CHATEAU MONTELENA Napa ZINFANDEL (list $30)
- Bruce Neyers has been in the Napa Valley for several decades. Our
paths first crossed when he was the sales manager for a little enterprise which was called
"Stonebridge." (or was it Bridgestone?) The label for this winery was (and
remains) "Joseph Phelps Vineyards."
Eventually Bruce moved on from Phelps, taking a job with a notorious importer and being in
charge of selling French and Italian wines. In the mean time he started his own
label, which he said he could do "...thanks to Mr. Phelps."
Years ago we'd taste Bruce's Chardonnays and would consistently find we weren't quite on
the same page.
Perhaps a change took place when Neyers enlisted the services of a young fellow who's also
the winemaker for Turley Wine Cellars. Ehren Jordan seems to have beefed up the
Chardonnays of the Neyers label and is also making some showy Zinfandel and Syrah.
Tofanelli Zin comes from an old vineyard in Napa, having been planted in the 1930s. It's in
Calistoga, not far from Clos Pegase. The 2001 fared very well in one of
our blind-tastings of Zinfandels. It's a deep, rich, berryish, mildly
- Currently in stock: 2004 NEYERS "Tofanelli" Zinfandel
$35.99 (last bottles)
The Outpost winery is located way up on Howell Mountain and it is a
relatively remote Outpost. The brand was started in the late 1990s and
we've long admired their exceptional Zinfandel.
With a small production, the winery had only sold its wines to private
customers along with some restaurant accounts. I recall asking the
original proprietor, as Ellen and I tasted his wine, if he had sufficient
quantities to sell a bit of wine in stores. He said he wasn't
interested in selling Outpost wines in stores and when I asked if he could
explain why (knowing what his response would be), he told us "I want my
wine to be served with good food."
A vein in Ellen's neck started to bulge out and was pulsing as she
contemplated jumping over the table to throttle the poor fellow. After
all, it's not like customers come into the shop looking for $40-$50 bottles
of Zinfandel to pair with a can of Spaghetti-o's.
- The wine is made by Thomas Rivers Brown who worked at Turley some years
ago and who today consults for an impressive list of wineries.
They produce approximately 1200 cases of Zinfandel annually and the wine
is deep, complex and shows the typical pepper spice of Howell Mountain
Zins. The wine has a beautiful red fruit character and some pepper,
along with a brushy, leathery note. It is exceptional.
Anyway, the Outpost 2009 is terrific wine and pairs well with grilled
meats or a range of nice cheeses.
Currently in stock: 2009 OUTPOST Napa/Howell
Mountain ZINFANDEL $44.99