Over the years, I have encountered many red zinfandels that stunned me with their beauty, intriguing vinosity, savoriness, tastiness and wonderful food-friendliness. I vividly remember the 1976 Ridge “Lytton Springs” as one of the first to absolutely wow me and create a lifelong memory.
My journey with this long-time California grape variety has continued and evolved, with many other memorable experiences.
I was recently reminded by Randy Caparoso, a noted wine journalist and former founding partner/wine guru of the Roy’s Restaurant group, that we should be paying more attention to zinfandel-based wines, as they can have lots of flavor, mojo and innate character, while also being incredibly food-friendly, a point that Caparoso, as a former sommelier, strongly advocates.
In addition, many top producers are championing really old, heritage vines grown in various nooks and crannies throughout California, rather than replacing those vines with more popular, mass market grape varieties. The real enticement, however, is value —especially compared with grapes like pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon.
Care for a taste? Here are recommendations for really interesting zinfandels:
2016 Ancient Peaks Zinfandel “Paso Robles”–grown in the Santa Margarita Ranch, in the hills of southern Paso Robles, Calif., at roughly 1,000 feet in elevation, is owned and operated by three ranching families (real cowboys). My wife and I chased & lobbied them for many years to get some of their wines to the islands. The ranch has at least five distinct soil types, three of which contribute to this wine — shale, volcanic and rocky alluvium. I love how earnest, blue-collar and welcoming this wine is, year after year. Serve it at barbecues (slightly chilled), with pizzas and meatloaf, or simply pour it when friends come over to talk story after an especially long, hard day at work.
2013 Edmeades Zinfandel “Gianoli Vineyard”–Starting with the 1994 vintage, Edmeades, with winemaker Van Williamson at the helm, has crafted some of the most provocative, hearty, robust, soul-stirring zinfandels out of California. Now under the direction of winemaker Ben Salazar, Edmeades zinfandels are somehow more civil, not as wild, wooly and “funk-centric,” yet they remain true to the soul of their stable of top-notch vineyards. I’ve written before about Edmeades “Mendocino” bottling which is more readily available. They also produce a small, high-quality portfolio of single-vineyard zinfandels, in this case from Gianoli Vineyard, an iconic site in the remote, rugged, high-elevation Mendocino Ridge appellation. It was first planted in 1882, although roughly 40% was replanted in 1997 using cuttings from onsite heirloom vines. The wine is certainly is something to write home about — bold, full of mountain-grown, old-vine character, structure and complexities. While only 250 cases were produced, it is worth searching out.
2016 Scherrer Zinfandel “Old & Mature Vines”–This has been a unique and heartfelt rendition of old-vine zin since the original 1991 vintage. Smelling and tasting that 1991 bottle was an aha moment for me, providing a compelling example of what zinfandel can be. What draws me to this wine is that it is an old-vine zinfandel crafted by a pinot noir master, meaning it is much more transparent, civil and refined. Recently, a regular guest kindly shared the 1997 vintage of this wine with several of us. It certainly had a pinot-esque edge in terms of transparency, texture and balance. It was truly lovely. Having tasted every vintage of this bottling over the years, I can say the 2016 is stellar today, but just wait and see what 20 or more years of additional bottle aging will bring. It certainly will be a worthwhile adventure. Scherrer also produces Zinfandoodle–a charming blend of two or three vintages. This terrific wine “find” is also quite a good match for a wide array of dishes, from fowl to meat, from casual to more serious fare.
This is just the starting point. Other noteworthy renditions I have also seen available in Hawaii on a much more limited basis include those from—Carlisle (one of the most acclaimed & prolific masters of old vine Zinfandel); Turley (quite the cache producer of unique Zins from up & down California, now with winemaking prodigy Tegan Passalacqua at the helm); and Linne Calodo (the Problem Child & Outsider bottlings, which showcase the minerality of the marine soils of Paso Robles and therefore a completely different slant on what Zinfandel can be).
As a side note, Caparoso is now championing many family owned, old-heritage-vine zinfandels from the Lodi, Calif., region, where he lives. I have tasted several, and would say they give a completely different perspective on what this grape variety wants to say. As more of these real treasures come to the islands, I will make sure to spread the word.