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 46% Zinfandel, 22%
Cabernet, 12% Syrah, 18% Petit Sirah and 2% Charbono, leaving out the one
percent of Grenache this year.
It's a powerful, fruit-bomb-of-a-California-wine as usual. We felt the
2010 was overtly sweet and sugary. The 2011 seemed less so and the
2012 is much in line with the 2011, but still
big, fruity and showing the "gobs-of-fruit" styling which
attracted so many consumers to it.
- Currently in stock:
2012 ORIN SWIFT "The Prisoner" $37.99
- 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?
(Owning a retail shop, I can tell you the labels resembling to some degree, a
postage stamp, were far more of magnet for customers roaming around the
store. But printing those cost a few bucks and so they changed to a
distinctive, but less magnetic label with the two ducks on it.)
The 2010 is the current vintage and it's 63% Zinfandel, 29% Cabernet Sauvignon
and 8% Merlot. The wine spent a bit more than a year in oak,
both French and American. About 40% of 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
With Orin Swift making its famed "The Prisoner" wine of a similar
blend, we can understand the motivation for producing this sort of
wine. But if we have to choose between Paraduxx and The
Prisoner, we're going with the Paraduxx.
Currently in stock: 2010 PARADUXX (list $48) SALE
sure most serious wine folks would dismiss a brand called Jelly Jar as the
work of a marketing company and not a quality-oriented, serious wine
But that would be a mistake, as Shannon and Andy Pestoni produce a few
bottlings of small production wines, with the centerpiece, a brilliant
Zinfandel from Lake County.
The somewhat carefree name for the brand is a bit of an homage to
Pestoni's forefathers who came over from The Old Country in the
1890s. Wine was a mealtime beverage, not something put on a pedestal
and admired as art work. And, as such, they didn't need fancy
stemware to enjoy a bottle of wine...sometimes a water glass or jelly jar
would suffice. (I recall a fancy-pants restaurant on the Peninsula
was enamored with the idea of serving wine as they did years ago and so
their wines were to be poured in something akin to a jelly jar. I
could appreciate their pouring the little "house selection"
Chianti in such a glass, but not my bottle of 20 year old Barolo!)
The vineyard is located near the base of Mount Konocti in Kelseyville and
it's on volcanic soils. Head-pruned vines, planted in the late
1960s, or so, and they're organically-farmed we're told.
- We're delighted by this wine...it displays a wonderfully berryish
fragrance and a nice touch of oak which contributes a 'sweet' aspect to
the nose. It's medium-bodied and fairly supple on the palate...ready
to drink now (cool cellar temp is ideal).
Currently in stock: JELLY JAR 2011 Lake County
BUCKLIN (Old Hill Ranch)
the Sonoma Valley you'll find a vineyard site which was originally planted
in the 1850s by William McPherson Hill in what is now the town of Glen
Old man Hill is long gone, but the Old Hill Ranch continues to thrive, run
by the Bucklin clan, whose parents bought the place in 1981.
In the 1980s, the grapes mostly were purchased by a fledgling little
winery called Ravenswood and this lot was bottled as a single vineyard
wine. We also recall our old friends Bob Roudon and Jim Smith making
an "Old Hill" bottling, or two...that may have been even before
The Bucklins will tell you their parents found the vineyard to be
overgrown and unkempt. Some farm advisor took a look at the place
and suggested ripping out the vines and starting over...but fortunately
they didn't cotton to that notion and so they asked the opinion of some
local winemakers. Joel Peterson, who's a big fan of old, historic
vineyards, suggested they sell the grapes to his winery, Ravenswood.
And soon after, "Old Hill Ranch" became a famed bottling in the
Ravenswood stable of big, powerful Zinfandels.
The vineyard, though, is not entirely Zinfandel. There are several
dozen varieties planted in this one vineyard. They know it's
predominantly Zinfandel and they spent two years examining each vine in
order to ascertain what's there exactly. Colombard, Trousseau,
Tannat, Grand Noir, Lenoir and Chasselas have been identified, along with
more normal varieties such as Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre.
The Bucklins decided to take the winemaking plunge at the turn of the
century and winemaker Will Bucklin was lured back to the old homestead
from his gig as a winemaker for a Willamette Valley winery.
We've tasted Bucklin wines over the years and are delighted to have found
the 2011 Ancient Vines bottling to have hit the mark. It's dark
purple in color and has all sorts of interesting fruit notes. We
find ripe plum, blackberry and some spice, along with a mildly vanilla
bean fragrance. It's full-bodied and dense on the palate. This
is one of those wines which needs a big wine glass and a lot of
swirling--you'll find different nuances emerging over the course of a meal
which adds to the enjoyment of a grand bottle such as this!
The production is limited, of course, as these old vines don't yield a
large crop. Some vintages produce 500 cases. In 2011, there
were less than 400 cases made.
Currently in stock: BUCKLIN "Ancient Field
Blend" OLD HILL RANCH ZINFANDEL, etc. $33.99
- 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...so there goes the
Rosenblum name, as that's been sold.
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!
Well, these wines are no longer for us...the wines are made for the
marketing department of a big drinks company and they've totally lost their
way with making distinctive, good quality Zinfandels.
Rosenblum, by the way, bankrolled his daughter in her wine-making venture
called Rockwall Cellars. But most of those wines seem to be
over-the-top fruit bombs, too.
- 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: 2011 Rom-Baby "California" Zinfandel
(List $30) SALE $26.99 (750ml
Bilbro started his winemaking adventure in the late 1970s, setting up a
small wine cellar in an old barn near the town of Geyserville.
Of course, this is Zinfandel country and the wines of Marietta are based on
Zin. He makes a few blended red wines along with his Zinfandel
bottling. The grapes are mostly from the Alexander Valley, augmented
with a small amount of fruit from the Dry Creek and Russian River
The Zin has a good following as it's a bit particular. For our taste,
the wine has a bit of sweetness to it. As a result, it's a wine which
appeals to fans of Rombauer or Napa's Brown Family Zinfandel.
If you find most red wines to be "too dry" and want to try
something that's got just enough sweetness to take away the bitter edges
from a red wine, you might try this Marietta Zinfandel.
Currently in stock: MARIETTA 2010 Sonoma ZINFANDEL
- 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 2011 is terrific wine and pairs well with grilled
meats or a range of nice cheeses. It's one of California's BEST
Zinfandels and that's saying something!
Currently in stock: 2011 OUTPOST Napa/Howell
Mountain ZINFANDEL Sold Out Presently