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WINE

Zinfandel Tasting Report
updated: Jan 29, 2011, 8:45 AM

By Marc Liberts

I've tasted and drunk wine for 23 years, and think I've tried perhaps a dozen Zinfandel wines during that time. Don't get me wrong - I have nothing against Zinfandel. I've even been wine tasting in Zinfandel's Central California Home in Paso Robles a number of times. For no particular reason, it is a grape varietal that has eluded me up until tonight.

Seth Kunin of Kunin Wines in Santa Barbara was the featured winemaker tonight at Spiritland Bistro's BYOB Wine & Dine dinner and wine tasting. Seth gave a fun and informative lecture about the Zinfandel grape and talked about the differences between Paso Robles and Sonoma County Zinfandel wines. Seth likes wines that have more structure, acid, and balance as opposed to big, jammy, overtly fruity wines.

Seth talked about his preference for classic old-world winemaking and styles, and is heartened by the current trend in that direction. One reason Seth likes Zinfandel is that he believes it is a real American grape, and he shared with us a recent university study indicating that Zinfandel may indeed be native to the Americas.

A number of guests pointed out that it is commonly believed that DNA evidence indicates that Zinfandel grapes here in California originate from the Primitivo grape variety found in the southern portion of Italy and from a Croatian grape named Crljenak Kaštelanski. It is assumed that European immigrants may have brought the grape to the Americas in the late 1790's. It is believed that the grapes made their way to California during the California Gold Rush, in the early 1850's.

Because Zinfandel grapes need high heat to ripen properly for winemaking, the grapes thrived in Paso Robles, Sonoma County, Lodi, and other hot growing areas. Santa Barbara County is generally too cool to allow the Zinfandel grape to ripen properly. Most Santa Barbara County wineries making Zinfandel wine, like Kunin Wines, source their grapes from vineyards in Paso Robles. Zinfandel wines made from Paso Robles vineyards tend to be on the bigger, fruitier, jammier side. The same wines made from grapes in cooler Sonoma County tend to be less fruity, higher in acid, and exhibit more structure.

We were also lucky to enjoy the cuisine of John Aspra of Epicurean Cowboy Catering. I've been attending this once-a-month event for 2 years, and John created my favorite menu by far! As always the First Course was assorted gourmet cheese. The Second Course featured Duck Confit Egg Rolls with Julienned Vegetables over Asian Slaw. Not only were the egg rolls delicious, they paired perfectly with the Zinfandel wines. The Third Course was a Spice-Rubbed Cedar Plank Salmon with Smashed Root Vegetables & Roasted Brussels Sprouts. Everyone loved the Salmon, and I even ate AND enjoyed my Brussels sprouts. Finally, the Fourth Course featured Bananas Flambé in Orange Liqueur. Overall, an excellent meal that paired extremely well with the featured wines.

Everyone is supposed to bring one bottle of wine to share, and I was able to try about 30 of the Zinfandels, primarily from Paso Robles and Sonoma County. The results were as follows:

1. RN ESTATE Vineyard 2007 Young Vine Zinfandel - Paso Robles - Fruity on the nose with pleasant fruit and light spice on the palate. A juicy wine that is slightly flabby. I rated it 85 points.

2. ORCHID HILL 2006 Paso Robles Zinfandel - At 16.7% alcohol this wine is a bit of a beast. The nose was fruity and bold, and the wine delivers a big blast of sour cherries and plums with a little spice at the end. The high alcohol bothered me, and limited my rating to 89 points.

3. SCOTT CELLARS 2005 Cuvee J - Central Coast - 16.3% alcohol! This wine is also labeled as 22% Syrah. I found the nose to have interesting fruit and spice notes. On the palate this wine is very jammy with some decent acid. But, overall the wine seemed out of balance. Big and fun to taste, I rated it 87 points.

4. COTTONWOOD CANYON 2003 Bistro Classic Zinfandel - Paso Robles. I'm a sucker for aged wines, and this was no exception. The maturity of this wine is apparent when you taste it because the big slap of sour cherry is decently balanced against the acid and spice. It isn't a perfect wine, but time has helped bring this wine together and I rated it 90+ points. It paired very nicely with the dinner selections.

5. SEXTANT 2008 Paso Robles Wheelhouse Zinfandel - Purchased at Costco for about $15.00, this wine was young, brash, tight, and pleasant. The nose features nice fruit and mild perfume. It is jammy on the palate and features a nice hit of cherry and plum. I liked it and rated it 88 points. For the price, I recommend it as a good and affordable example of Zinfandel you can snag at Costco.

6. DANIEL GEHRS Zinfandel Reserve 2005 Santa Ynez Valley - This wine was outside of the tasting parameters because it wasn't from Paso Robles or Sonoma, but I thought it would be worth evaluating against them. The label says that the grapes come from a small block of vines near the Santa Ynez Mission, featuring cool foggy mornings, bright sunny afternoons and alluvial soils typical of Sonoma County. It has a decent fruity nose, and is plush and fruity on the palate. I found the fruit a bit overwhelming and out of balance. Overall a good effort that I rated 86 points.

7. TOBIN JAMES -James Gang Reserve Zinfandel 2007 Paso Robles - Terrible rotten egg stinky nose. Once you get past that, the wine has decent fruit and perfume on the palate, but ends with a slightly medicinal twinge on the tongue. I had to rinse my glass twice to get the stink out. I rated it 80 points due to the flaw.

8. CANARD SAUVAGE 2009 Dry Creek Valley Sonoma County Zinfandel - A really interesting wine that starts with a nice fruity and spicy nose. It is very well balanced and has nice acid present. It finishes with nice peppery spices that add some heat to the equation. At 14.8% alcohol, it was a pleasant relief from the higher alcohol wines that I tried before it. I really liked it and rated it 91+ points.

9. SEGHESIO Sonoma Zinfandel - Sonoma County 2008 - Seghesio is one of the best-known names in the current Zinfandel game, and this wine lived up to the reputation. A very well made wine that starts out with a classic fruity nose with a slight hint of anise. On the palate, you get the requisite hit of sour cherry, spice, nice acid, and good overall balance. This wine is thinner than the Paso wines, and paired nicely with our meal. You can find this wine in many supermarkets and fine wine stores for around $20.00. I highly recommend this wine, and you can rest assured that if you give it as a gift or bring it to dinner, you can confidently tell your friends and guests that this is what good Zinfandel should taste like at a very good price point. I rated it a strong 89 points.

10. CASTORO CELLARS 2007 Zinfusion Reserve Zinfandel Paso Robles - This wine starts with an unpleasant stinky nose that smells like sulfur. It is jammy and fruity on the palate and is quite plush, as you would expect a Paso Zin to be. However, the wine seemed out of balance and awkward. Not my favorite, I rated it 84 points.

11. PEACHY CANYON 2007 Zinfandel Paso Robles Westside - Starts with a decent and light nose featuring plums and pepper. On the palate, it is light and fairly balanced. Overall, an easy wine to drink and enjoy, but boring. I rated it 86 points.

12. DRY CREEK VINEYARD 2008 Sonoma County Heritage Zinfandel - This is a nice wine that has good balance between the fruit and acid. It has some mild sage and earthy flavor components on the palate which harmonize with the fruit. An enjoyable but unremarkable wine which I rated 87 points.

13. BUCKLIN Old Hill Ranch Zinfandel 2006 Sonoma Valley - This is an interesting wine that has more spice than the previous wines tasted. It is big for a Sonoma Valley wine and also somewhat tannic. I think this wine would be a big hit if aged another 5 years. Overall, it is interesting and fun to drink and I rated it 90 points. A good effort.

14. IMAGINE 2007 Zinfandel Paso Robles - At only 13.9% alcohol, this was one of the friendliest wines of the group we tasted. It is super jammy, as you would expect from a Paso Wine, tasting almost like prune juice or sour pomegranates. It was one of the favorites of the evening, but I couldn't get past the overwhelming fruit and the minimal acid and balance. If you like a fruit bomb, this wine is for you. Fun but not inspiring, I rated it 87 points.

15. KUNIN WINES 2007 Zinfandel Paso Robles Westside - This wine starts with a nice fruity nose that proceeds straight to the palate. I liked the fact that it isn't too jammy, but the high alcohol knocked my palate sideways. True to the fruit, I liked it and rated it 88 points. Kunin Wines is located on Anacapa St. in Santa Barbara and is worth a visit and tasting if you are in the area. This is probably the best Zinfandel made in Santa Barbara, and is enjoyable in almost every way.

16. CAROL SHELDON 2007 Monga Zin Old Vine Zinfandel Cucamonga Valley - Being from Cucamonga Valley, this wine was also outside the parameters of the tasting rules. However, I thought it would be fun to compare it against the Sonoma and Paso Zins. The wine starts with a really pretty nose featuring dried fruits and cherries. On the palate you'll experience big fruit and nice acid that is well balanced without being overwhelmed by alcohol. There is also a nice herbal spice component on the palate as well. Overall, a really nice effort that is worth seeking out if you can find it. I rated it 90+ points.

17. SAUCELITO CANYON 2007 Zinfandel Arroyo Grande Valley - Another wine outside the parameters of the tasting theme! The nose is unpleasant and sulfur-y, like rotten eggs. If you can get past that, there is decent fruit and an unusual vegetal component. Awkward and stinky, I rated it 80 points.

18. PASO CREEK 2007 Zinfandel Paso Robles - This wine has a typical nose featuring nice red fruits. On the palate it is fruity and it has some pleasant spice. I didn't find it interesting beyond the fruit and became bored with it. Overall, a solid 85-point effort.

19. OPOLO Summit Creek Zinfandel Paso Robles - Another Paso Robles style wine with a nose featuring dried cherries and prunes. On the palate I got hit with too much sweetness and found it cloying and flabby. The wine does have a long and strong finish, and was enjoyed by a number of the tasters. I wasn't impressed and rated it 84 points.

20. KUNDE ESTATE - Zinfandel Sonoma Valley 2006 - A decent wine with nice fruit and some earthy spice. The wine is a bit flat and dull, but not bad overall. I rated it 87 points.

21. CLINE Zinfandel California 2009 - At only 14% alcohol, this wine is easy to drink and enjoy. It has most of the usual Zin flavor components you would expect, just not in huge amounts. Overall a decent wine I rated 86 points. Another wine that was out of the tasting parameters because it isn't from Paso or Sonoma.

22. TOBIN JAMES Dusi Vineyard 2008 Zinfandel Paso Robles - One of the favorites of the night, this wine features anise and fruit on the nose. It is a big, balanced wine with loads of fruit and decent acid. At 16% alcohol, I found it slightly overwhelming, but within acceptable limits. I liked it and rated it 89+ points.

23. GELFAND VINEYARDS 2008 Zinfandel MFZ Paso Robles - POW! Where did this one come from? This wine starts with a big interesting nose of fruit and spice. On the palate, a blast of prunes and sour cherries hits you. Even though this wine seems heavily extracted, it somehow finds balance in its hugeness. Probably one of the most interesting and fun wines to drink of the evening, I really enjoyed it and rated it 93 points. If you like huge jammy wines that aren't obnoxious, seek out Gelfand's Zinfandel.

24. WILLIAMS SELYEM 2001 Russian River Zinfandel - A beautiful aged wine that was a pleasure to drink. I doubt there is a 10-year-old Zinfandel for sale at any retail wine store in Santa Barbara County. That being said, this wine is supple, sublime and great. It is complex and interesting, and I rated it 91+ points.

25. REINKING Zinfandel 2007 Sonoma County - A pleasant wine with nice spice and fruit. It also has decent balance and acid. I enjoyed it and rated it 89 points.

26. VALDEZ 2006 Zinfandel Sonoma County Rockpile - Rockpile Road Vineyard - A really nice Zinfandel that starts with a sublime and nutty nose. On the palate the fruit is understated with nice spice and very good acid balance. A very well made wine, I really enjoyed it and rated it 91+ points.

27. ROCKPILE WINERY Zinfandel Rockpile Cemetery Vineyard 2007 - Another really nice Zinfandel from the Rockpile. This wine features very nice fruit with a pretty nose and excellent balance. Benefitting from good complexity I rated this 90 points.

28. GALLERON Sonoma County 2001 Branham Rockpile Zinfandel - Another beautifully aged wine, showing how much wine can improve over time. This 10-year-old Zin has excellent balance, very nice fruit and decent spice, which add depth and character. I really enjoyed this wine and rated it 91 points.

Overall, I really enjoyed the Zinfandel tasting. As opposed to Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux, or Rhone Blends, Zinfandel comes through as a more honest, direct, and simple wine to drink and enjoy. Most of the wines we tasted would go great with every-day Italian foods like pizza, spaghetti, or anything with a marinara sauce, and most are in the $15.00 - $25.00 range. Go with Paso Robles if you prefer big fruit, high alcohol, and jammy style wines. Seek out Sonoma if you like less alcohol, more acid, and better balance.

THIRD PLACE: VALDEZ 2006 Zinfandel Sonoma County Rockpile - Rockpile Road Vineyard

SECOND PLACE: WILLIAMS SELYEM 2001 Russian River Zinfandel

FIRST PLACE: GELFAND VINEYARDS 2008 Zinfandel MFZ Paso Robles

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