Top Ten Zinfandels for Your Summer
While conventional wine wisdom presupposes that everyone is in a Rosé state of mind during the summer; I beg to differ. As a carnivorous creature, protein is never too far from my mind. “Beast Feast” requires some smashing red renegades. Seriously, what do you plan to serve with your 4th of July signature burger? Not discouraging you from your favorite chilled Chardonnay. Simply suspect that at least one of your guests has a mad hankering for a fruity glass of juicy red rowdiness.
Zinfandel is a California heritage grape, accounting for more than ten percent of the state’s vineyard plantings. With that much Zin, one is bound to find some varietal greatness. As with any ubiquitous entity, the challenge is to ferret the unique, different, and palate-worthy. After many dedicated years of zindulgement, I have discovered that I am a big of a fan of stylistic diversity. Whether my palate leans towards jammy fruit or a more elegant, refined offering depends on my mood, environment, circumstances.
Below is a list of contenders that have delighted and excited me over the years.
Crafted by Ian Blackburn’s talented winemaker, Clay Mauritson, these small production, single vineyard Zinfandels are as unique as their proprietor. The genesis of the name “Beekeeper” has deep roots in Ian’s personal history as well as being the crest of Blackburn, England. Ian, a well-known wine personality, chose two premier sites for his wine endeavor: Rockpile – Madrone Spring Vineyard and Black Sears, Howell Mountain. Cabernet-like in spirit, these offerings are re-defining what zinfandel ought to be. High-spirited, immensely flavorful, they will win you over in an instant.
A staple in my cellar, I never know which one of their several Zins I want to try first. Zin wizard, Mike Officer, launched his brand in 1998. His wines immediately garnered a large following; in large part due to their impeccable quality and varietal integrity. Invariably sophisticated, boasting bright, vibrant fruit, round, plush mid-palate and a lengthy finish, his classic offerings continue to gain momentum. In addition, Mike is a founder of the “Historic Vineyard Society,” along with a group of other dedicated conservationalists, such as Tegan Passalacqua (Turley) and Morgan Twain-Peterson (Bedrock). The group aims to preserving California viticultural history, one ancient vine at a time.
Chase family is the fifth generation steward of one the wine country’s most important sites: Hayne Vineyard. This historic vineyard boasts 112-year old Zinfandel vines that are organically dry-farmed. These ancient, hand-managed vines produce magical fruit that is unlike any other. The flavor concentration and overall complexity is mind-boggling. Quiet strength, persistent palatal presence, extraordinary focus and delineation, layered fruit, along with lengthy finish are the hallmarks of these stunning offerings.
Gus Gamba learned much from Richard Arrowood, who he worked with for many years. His family vineyard, planted in the 1900s, is well known for its miniscule yields; as low as a half ton per acre. A minimalist in the cellar, Gus is determined to let his vineyard’s character shine through. The wines are classic, full of integrity, deeply distinct, brimming with bright red berry flavors, solid mid-palate, and lingering finish. They are inevitably age-worthy, should you have the patience.
I have always adored their Pinot Noirs and have since discovered their Zinfandel. 100+ year old vines, the Russian River Valley’s unique climatic conditions, dry-farming and Jeff Stewart’s gentle, deft hand in the cellar account for concentrated wines of great varietal distinction and exhilarating flavor profiles. They offer the perfect marriage of bright berries, exotic flowers; intermixed with baking spices against a backdrop of creamy texture and smooth tannins. A wealth of flavor without the weight; now that’s really something.
My favorite Lodi Zin is crafted by Michael McCay, who has been farming for two decades. Made in small lots, his wines are refined, well structured, and quite memorable. His Zinfandel, made from 80-year old, head trained vines, features sexy, ripe sweetness, expertly framed by a solid core of juicy acidity. Its complexity is undeniable, its heartfelt palatal presence disarming. Delicious to the last drop.
Featuring Howell Mountain fruit grown on a vineyard at 2,100 feet elevation, this Zinfandel is in a league of its own. Not many wines can boast a big score from their first release. While their peers struggled with the challenging 1998 vintage, their debut year, Outpost garnered 93 points from Wine Spectator and went on to instantaneously sell-out the entire production. Thomas Brown, their rock star winemaker, crafts several wines, including a Zinfandel that is as good as it gets. Exploding with dark, vivacious, vibrant fruits, it offers impeccable mouth feel, extracted, elongated flavors and silky smooth tannins (miraculous for its size and girth) This opulent, yet impeccably evenhanded offering, is epic. If you get a chance, don’t miss their Grenache. Life changing.
Industry veteran, Ed Sbragia, spent 32 years as Winemaster at Beringer. He left the iconic winery to start his own brand, which honors the legacy of his late father, Gino. These small lots of well-crafted wines are made by the Master himself, along with his son Adam. Sourced from several family-owned Sonoma County vineyards, the Zins provide incredible power and finesse. Ed’s breadth and depth of winemaking experience shows beautifully in his rich, opulent, well-structured and immensely pleasurable offerings.
Zinfandel in California became nearly synonymous with Turley. Larry Turley’s background included being an emergency room physician and a partner in Frog’s Leap Winery. He founded Turley Cellars in 1993 and almost immediately became known for his opulent, unapologetic Zinfandels. Now home to twenty-eight Zins, this prolific proprietor is as determined as ever to carve his own path. Turley enjoys a great deal of critical acclaim and intense public adulation. They are the only winery specializing in Zin with a lengthy waiting list. Produced from predominantly old vine vineyards, each is unique and special. My perennial favorite is Hayne Vineyards, a wine with depth and soul.
I love every wine Ulises Valdez makes. Twenty plus years of grape growing taught him well. He is widely regarded as one of utmost knowledgeable and skilled vineyard managers in the business. The likes of Mark Aubert, Jeff Cohn, Paul Hobbs, Kent Rosenblum seek Ulises’ expertise. His Boticelli and Landy Zins are some of my absolute favorites. Big, rich, intense and perfectly balanced, they are a joy to consume.
Like Taylor Swift once said “we never go out of style,” so it goes with my love affair with Zinfandel which started long ago and shows no sign of fizzling out.
I say Go Get your Grill and Zin on.
Celebrate Summertime in style!