A Love Letter to Zinfandel

Zinfandel is one of my very favorite wines. Red Zinfandel, that is. So I was recently saddened to hear a few disappointing pieces of news about my favorite varietal. 

I love Zinfandel because it is BIG, BOLD, and POWERFUL! I love it because it is the complete opposite of me (generally shy, quiet, and definitively weak). Zinfandel is like my magical superhero power juice. The Zins I love best are from a few areas in California: the Dry Creek, Russian River, and Alexander Valleys in Sonoma (just about anything from Sonoma County is a good bet); Paso Robles for more affordable Zins; Lodi for even more affordable Zins (though these are more hit or miss on quality). Warm, sunny California…the complete opposite of my snowy, cold abode in New York state.

Zin vines au naturel at Turley Wine Cellars in Paso Robles
Zin vines au naturel at Turley Wine Cellars in Paso Robles

So, the news…

At the Viticulture 2013 conference in Rochester, NY, I learned a few good and a few bad things about my favorite varietal. First, the good: the 2012 Zinfandel vintage is set to be amazing, after a perfect growing season and a great harvest. The less good news: we’ll have to wait until 2014, at least, to taste the finest of the 2012 vintage (I’ll be counting down the days — Zin clock, anyone?). The truly bad news: Zinfandel’s market share continues to fall, likely due to the continuing decline in popularity of White Zinfandel. That means that Zin plantings will continue to be susceptible to uprooting in favor of more popular wines like Cabernet Sauvignon. Good Zins will continue to get more expensive, and I’ll continue to blow my wine budget on them.

And then, The New York Times twisted the knife. The 2010 vintage of the better Zinfandels was released at the end of 2012, having spent about 18 months aging in oak. In December, 2012, The New York Times’ wine critic, Eric Asimov, begrudgingly tasted the latest releases from the 2008 to 2010 vintages. You really have to pity him this onerous task; Asimov all but stated that he wouldn’t drink Zin unless he was paid to do it (which he was, presumably).

Asimov’s quest was for a Zin that “holds back on power.” Sacrilege! Stick with Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir if you want refined subtlety. Looking for restraint in a place where it doesn’t exist is silly. It’d be like…well, it’d be like tasting a wine known for being big, powerful, and bold and looking for subtlety and restraint. Great wines express the qualities and characteristics of their grapes and the land on which they were grown. Great wines are not manipulated to be something that they are not.

But yet, Asimov admits that there are some Zins he likes — notably from producers like Turley Wine Cellars and Ridge. We visited the Turley tasting room in Paso Robles and I was blown away by their Zinfandels — both by the quality, and by the price. The bottles on offer ranged from $25 to $88, with most in the $40 range. The Ridge Lytton Springs that topped their tasting is one of my very favorite wines (I know that we just met, but you’ll soon learn that I am a Ridge fanatic) but it’s quite pricey too, running from $30 to $45 in most stores. Asimov should have just came right out and said that he has a problem with cheap Zins.

The ten wines tasted by the NYT panel (and rated from 0 to 4 stars) were:

  1. Ridge Dry Creek Valley Lytton Springs 2010 *** ($33 to $41)
  2. Nalle Dry Creek Valley 2010 *** ($38)
  3. Dashe Alexander Valley Todd Brothers Ranch Old Vines 2009 ** ½ ($33)
  4. Seghesio Alexander Valley Home Ranch 2010 ** ½ ($33)
  5. Sky Mt. Veeder 2008 ** ½ (about $30)
  6. Limerick Lane Sonoma County 2010 ** ($30)
  7. Ridge Sonoma County Geyserville 2010 ** ($25)
  8. Green & Red Napa Valley Chiles Mill Vineyard 2009 ** (about $23)
  9. Storybook Mountain Napa Valley Eastern Exposures 2010 ** ($45)
  10. Neyers Contra Costa County Del Barba Vineyard ** ($25)

I wish they’d thrown in a Sonoma or Napa-sourced Ravenswood, Kenwood, or other $15-$20 bottle to show how the higher end Zinfandels compare to the mid-range bottles. Or maybe these are mid-range to my fellow New Yorkers on less-restrictive budgets. Sigh. The San Francisco Chronicle performed a more price-inclusive tasting, though it was limited to Zins from Napa (they included the Ravenswood). The NYT ranking doesn’t feel like a scientific tasting, it feels more like an excuse to rant. One doesn’t have to like all things — but one should not try to make a wine something it is not. If a horde of subtle Zins arrive in the stores in five years, I’ll be sending Asimov a bottle of my tears.

Drool-worthy...a vertical tasting of Ridge Zins.
Drool-worthy…a vertical tasting of Ridge Zins.
Sensory overload at Turley Wine Cellars.
Sensory overload at Turley Wine Cellars.