WBW 73: My Wine Spark

by Tim Elliott on January 18, 2012

I first found out about Wine Blogging Wednesday in late February of 2005 when Andrew from Spittoon sent me an email inviting me to participate in WBW 7. Back then the wine blogging world was a small group of sites and we frequently commented on each others posts and traded emails. I was intrigued with the idea of a monthly virtual wine tasting event and have participated in 46 of the 72 past events, hosting 4 times. This month’s host, the writer behind the Corkdork blog, has asked us to revisit the wine that first sparked our interest in wine.

My story starts in 1979 when I was in college. At only 19, I was under the legal drinking age in California where I was born and went to school but I spent summers in upstate New York where the drinking age was 18 at the time. Over the summers of 1979 and 1980 I tried just about every form of alcohol but settled mostly on beer as mixed drinks never appealed much too me and the wine I had locally was mostly from Taylor and not very appealing. Since I was summering in Rochester, New York just a short drive to the Finger Lakes AVA you might think it was this regions’ wines that sparked my interest first but, sadly, it was not. But my early experiences while in New York did plant the seeds that bore fruit when I turned 21 and was back in California.

After a couple years studying film at UC San Diego, I transferred to California State University at Chico. This was about a 3 hour drive to Napa Valley but as college students we had plenty of weekend time and my Datsun got very good gas mileage. We also heard wineries didn’t charge anything for tasting which fit our budget perfectly. So one Saturday not long after my 21st birthday in late 1981 my girlfriend and I drove to the Napa Valley to wine taste. Back in those days I knew nothing about wine. In fact, I was so ignorant that I mispronounced most of the grape varieties (Meer-lot, anyone?). It was with this lack of sophistication we ventured up Hwy 29 and pulled into our first winery. If memory serves this was the Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville where we not only got an interesting tour but a very informative guided tasting. And the wines tasted pretty good, too, particularly the whites (Mondavi Fumé Blanc is still a sentimental favorite). I also remember visits to Sutter Home (pre- “Home of white Zin” days) and Louis Martini on this first visit. We liked a lot of the wines with our favorite being the Sutter Home Muscat (now somewhat ironic given Muscat’s resurgence in popularity over the past year). Anything white and sweet filled the bill. Everyone starts someplace.

Grgich Hills ZinfandelMonths past and we revisited Napa Valley a few more times. As we gained a bit more knowledge and confidence we visited new and different wineries. One of these was Grgich Hills Cellar right off the main highway that runs north to south on the western side of Napa Valley. This was in early 1982 and the winery had only been open for 5 years. I remember entering the nondescript tasting room and tasting their Chardonnay. And while this wine was very good it was their Zinfandel that first sparked my interest in wine. Poured by a jovial man in a beret, the wine burst with red fruit on the nose and in the mouth finishing with supple tannins that seemed to melt like bittersweet chocolate. I had tried Zinfandel before but this wine was the first that truly spoke to me and compelled me to learn more about the variety. It was a couple years later that I figured out the man in the beret who poured me this Zinfandel was none other than winemaker Mike Grgich.

Four years later the second wine spark happened. By then I was working for Kodak and we had lived in Rochester, New York for a year and a half. This was the time I first discovered Finger Lakes Riesling and we spent many weekends tasting along the wine trails there. But it was not the local wines that produced this second spark but a well-known Napa Valley Cabernet. Over the previous 4 years I had read several wine books and had tasted a lot of wines. And while I still liked Zinfandel quite a bit drinking Lytton Springs vineyard as often as I could afford it, Cabernet Sauvignon was my latest obsession. I read all about the top Napa Valley Cabernets and drank Bordeaux as often as I could. I had received an award at work that was a gift certificate to a nice local restaurant with a very good wine list. I thought I might find a nice red Bordeaux to match with my prime rib as there were not a lot of California Cabernet on upstate New York wine lists even in the mid-1980′s.

Heitz Cellar Marthas Vineyard Cabernet 1974So imagine my surprise when I saw Heitz Cellars Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet from the 1974 vintage on the list. And it was even available by the glass at the absurd price of $25 for a small pour ($52 in 2012 dollars according to WolframAlpha). It took me only a millisecond to order this glass since we were spending Kodak’s money and I couldn’t imagine ever seeing this wine by the glass again (I haven’t). And the wine didn’t disappoint. I still remember the aromas of mint and eucalyptus that this vineyard is known for along with tobacco and a pleasing earthiness. In the mouth this wine defined Napa Cab to my developing palate. Cassis, blackberry, and spices finishing long with great balance. I can’t remember the level of tannin but I think they were still settling down as the wine was only 12 years old at the time I tasted it.

I would have liked to have revisited one or both of these wines but I’m afraid the Heitz Cab is selling for $800 a bottle and I would bet the current vintage of Grgich Hills Zinfandel is vastly different than the 1978 or 1979 I tasted at the winery. But I don’t think this matters much as these wines live in my memory as turning points that made me want to learn more about wine. Eventually this led me to start this blog in order to have a place to send friends who were always asking about which wines to buy.

Without Wine Blogging Wednesday I probably would not have told this story. Thanks go to the Corkdork for hosting and for a great theme. A lot has changed in the nearly 7 years I have participated in Wine Blogging Wednesday but there is nothing like it. Hopefully this will again be a monthly feature here if we get enough bloggers participating.

My Top 20 Wines of ZAP 2011

by Tim Elliott on February 6, 2011

The floor of ZAP 2011Another ZAP has come and gone and now is the time to sit back and take a look at the notes made during both the Grand Tasting held Saturday, January 29 and the Flights seminar on Friday, January 28.

These are the best wines I had the opportunity to taste but is just a snapshot of 85 wines I happened to select. Many of these are wineries I had never tasted but some are old standbys. And I didn’t make it to the main Ridge or Turley stands so who knows what great wines they were pouring. To keep things diverse, I have selected the best wine of the producer but when I encountered more I will mention them in my commentary. Some wines don’t yet have pricing information but I will call and see if I can fill this in next week.

The following 20 wines capture the best of California Zinfandel or Mixed Black blends that I rated 4 out of 5 stars:

Tasting Notes:

Steele Zinfandel, DuPratt Vineyard 2006 ($24) – This was my first taste of the well regarded DuPratt Vineyard, a small 80 year old patch of Zinfandel in Anderson Valleys’ Mendocino Ridge AVA. Plush blackberry and black raspberry finishing with nice acidity and supple tannins. An outstanding value in a more elegant style of Zin.

Four Vines, Zinfandel, Dusi Vineyard 2008 ($34) – The folks at Four Vines certainly have some attitude but they make some of the best Zinfandels from the bottom to the top of their line. Near the top sits the distinctive Dusi Vineyard from Paso Robles. Bright black raspberry fruit with a nice earthiness on the long finish. I also thought their 2008 Biker and Martinelli bottlings were delicious.

Ridge Zinfandel, Lytton Springs 2001 ($35-ish) – This is the vineyard that single-handedly got me deep into wine and it still speaks to me today. Tasted during the ‘Flights’ seminar along with their 2008 bottling, this wine exhibited the Claret character of an older Zin while still maintaining the blackberry, dark cherry and mineral notes the vineyard is known for. The 2008 Lytton Springs is also a delicious wine that I hope will taste as well as the 2001 is now showing in 2018.

Bucklin Zinfandel, Old Hill Ranch 2007 ($34) – At 159 years old, Old Hill Ranch is the oldest vineyard in Sonoma and probably in California. A classic field blend of Zinfandel, Grenache, Alicante Bouschet, Petite Sirah and more than 30 other varieties, the vineyard produces just 1.5 tons per acre. As a result, the wine is rich and complex with blackberries and cassis finishing with cracked black pepper and  firm tannins. The Ravenswood Old Hill Ranch 2007 tasted with this wine was nearly as good with perhaps a bit more boldness.

Benessere Zinfandel, Black Glass Vineyard 2008 ($35) – Bright black cherry and raspberry fruit finishing with plush tannins. A delicious Napa Zin. Also tasted the 2007 vintage with similar notes.

Robert Biale Zinfandel, Founding Farmers 2009 ($-) – The Biale table had barrel samples, and this wine from bottle, all from the 2009 vintage. From the wines tasted, this producers’ reputation for fine Zin is assured. Rich blackberry and white pepper finish long with silky tannins. No, I have not heard of this designation before and didn’t ask the price.

Carlisle Zinfandel, Marinelli Road Vineyard 2009 ($-) – This winery is known for their single vineyard Zins but I haven’t seen one from the 125 year old Marinelli Road Vineyard before ZAP. Very aromatic and striking with blackberry, white pepper and cocoa.

Adelaida Cellars Zinfandel, Michael’s Vineyard 2008 ($35) – Classic California Zin with brambles and black cherry finishing with silky tannins.

Bedrock Zinfandel, Dolinsek Ranch 2009 ($-) – Super rich and concentrated brambles, blueberry and spices. The 2010 Monte Rosso barrel sample was similarly off the charts. Made by Morgan Twain-Peterson, son of Joel Peterson but he’s got his own thing going on with the field blends.

Mazzocco Zinfandel, Pony Vineyard, Reserve 2008 ($50) – Holy crap; how could I have missed this producer until now? Perhaps it’s the small lots of single vineyard Zins that are not available to many outside of California for good reason. I tasted several vineyards and Pony was my favorite both in the regular (and sold out) release and this new-barrel lavished version. Black raspberry and blueberry fruit with cocoa and vanilla. I was also partial to 2008 Maple Vineyard. Good thing they have a boatload of other Zins on their website.

Hendry Zinfandel, Block 28 2007 ($30) – This producer makes three bottlings from different parts of their property. But each time I’ve tasted them, the Block 28 Zin shines through with rich blackberry, blackcurrant and spice. This only slightly overshadowed the fine Blocks 7 & 22 2007 which is also delicious.

Seghesio San Lorenzo 2008 ($60) – Made in very small quantities from a heritage vineyard, this wine was the highlight of the Mixed Blacks stand for me. Rich boysenberry and black raspberry fruit layered with spices finishing long with good acidity. Sadly this wine is already sold out to their wine club members.

Ravenswood Icon 2008 ($70) – Another standout from the Mixed Blacks stand, this wine is only a quarter Zinfandel with Carignon and Petite Sirah comprising most of the blend along with about 20 other unnamed black grapes. The result is a bold and spicy mix of blackberry, black raspberry, blueberry and cracked black pepper.

Proulx Dimples 2008 ($38) – The final Zinfandel blend in the roundup, this wine is made from Paso Robles fruit. The nearly 40% Zin is joined by equal parts Petite Sirah and Syrah making for an interesting mix. Jammy red and blue fruit with vanilla and black pepper finishing with plush tannins.

Storrs Zinfandel, Rusty Ridge 2006 ($30) – Complex aromatics of black raspberry, smoke and tar announce this wine as something special. And the blackberry, black raspberry and plum flavors complete the delicious package with spice and pepper.

Acorn Zinfandel, Alegria Vineyard 2008 ($35) – Big, rich and concentrated blackberry, raspberry and mineral flavors just balances the alcohol. Not sure if this will age well but it’s drinking very nicely at the moment.

Brown Estate Zinfandel, Mickey’s Block 2009 ($55) – An old favorite delivers again with black raspberry, black cherry, white pepper and spices resolving with supple tannins. Yum.

Chiarello Family Zinfandel, Felicia 2009 ($50) – Celebrity chef Michael Chiarello also knows a thing or two about wine. And while I usually favor the rich and expressive Giana bottling, I only had the chance to taste the bottle of Felicia in the Zin Zone. And this might be the best I’ve tasted from this vineyard with jammy boysenberry and blackberry fruit finishing with a nice touch of earthiness.

D-Cubed Zinfandel, Howell Mt. 2007 ($37) – Another old Zin standby, the Howell Mt. from D-Cubed is one of my personal benchmarks for the variety and the AVA. Black cherry, raspberry and chaparral finish with moderate tannins and a satisfying mixture of spices.

J. Rickards Zinfandel, Old Vine, 1908 Brignoli Vineyard  2008 ($28) – My final selection here was a recommendation from Alder Yarrow of Vinography who I ran into at the “Zin Zone” media room. This was among his producers, “flying below the radar,” and might be the best value of my roundup. Bold and earthy with classic blackberry fruit flavors finishing with black pepper and smooth tannins.

Many of these wines are yet to be released while others may be available from the winery website. Since there are so many here, I have not included my customary WineZap links but you can search from the form below:

For expanded coverage of wines tasted at ZAP 2011, be sure to sign up for my newsletter on the right sidebar. The inaugural issue will be published next week. And watch the podcast feed, too.

Disclosure: I received a media pass to all the ZAP events.

Quivira, Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley 2008As I’ve blogged here before, Zinfandel is the first variety that truly spoke to me and put me on the road to the wine geek I am today. And I can recall that the bottle that flipped the switch was an estate Zin from the Lytton Springs Winery from the late 1970′s. This wine was an old vine field blend led by Zinfandel but also inter-planted with Petite Sirah, Carignane, Mataro and Grenache. Today this vineyard produces the Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandel I’ve reviewed here in the past.

Down the road a piece, across the one-lane Lambert bridge, is another winery who makes fine Zinfandel; Quivira. I’ve driven past this winery on my rounds in Dry Creek for work but have never stopped in for a tasting. I think the next time I’m in the area, just a day away, I might make this trip on the strength of their entry level bottling reviewed here.

Quivira is committed to biodynamic farming and no matter how you come down on this practice the wine here demonstrates that good things come from non-intervention. While I might be skeptical of the mystical elements of the biodynamic way, I am totally behind the stewardship of the land key to its practice.

Tasting Notes:

Quivira Vineyards and Winery, Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley 2008 – ($20/sample) – Dark purple color with aromas of bramble, sage, fennel and tobacco. Plush plum and raspberry flavors with black pepper and mint finishing with moderate tannins and good acidity for a Zin. Textbook Dry Creek Zin at a great price.

14.8% ABV
Natural cork closure
Rating: ★★★½☆
Score: 89

Buy this wine online
Snooth listing

A Return To My Roots at ZAP

by Tim Elliott on January 14, 2011

ZAP 2011 FestivalIt’s been four years since I’ve attended the Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP) Grand Tasting in San Francisco. But this year I will be making the pilgrimage once again due to the fortuitous timing of a speaking engagement and business trip. ZAP is not only a place to taste an amazing cross section of wines made from the grape but also somewhat of an endurance test of the palate. But since Zinfandel was the first variety that truly spoke to me, I’ve developed somewhat of a tolerance for it’s harshness even if I taste 70 or 80 over the course of the day.

I was reminded of how close to the ZAP tasting we are from Jay McInerney’s column in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal. He highlights the tasting but also does a short history of Zinfandel in California that took me back to my early days learning about wine. McInerney tells the stories of Paul Draper from Ridge and Joel Peterson of Ravenswood before mentioning more recent notable producers of Zinfandel such as Carlisle and Turley Cellars. At the end he even reviews some wines with one of the best descriptions of Zin I have yet seen in print, “Smells like a blackberry fight.”

So if you will be attending ZAP, hit me up on Twitter and we might be able to compare notes. I’ll also be recording some interviews and scribbling tasting notes into my journal so you can expect some coverage here. For more information on ZAP 2011, check out their website.

via Wall Street Journal

WBW 48: Roots Wines

by Tim Elliott on August 13, 2008

Tonight is the 4th anniversary of Wine Blogging Wednesday, our monthly virtual tasting. And for the 48th edition, founder Lenn Thompson has asked we go back to our wine roots and taste wines we drank when we first got into wine.

Like many wine lovers, my journey started with California jug wines. Since I came of age in California during the early 1980′s, many of these jugs accompanied meals through my last couple years of college. Brands such as Almaden,  Italian Swiss Colony, Paul Mason and Inglenook were regulars but the first jug to become a “house wine” were from Gallo.

The first wine book I picked up, for a whopping $1.95, was the Signet Book of Inexpensive Wine by Susan Lee. My original copy was thrown away many years ago but I picked up another copy at a used book store earlier this year as part of my research for my book, And browsing the “United States” section of this book tonight, I see Gallo’s Hearty Burgundy in the “Best Buy” category (3 stars). This was my go-to red and the first wine I picked up for our roots tasting tonight.

Today Hearty Burgundy is part of Gallo’s “Twin Valley” brand while it’s white cousin Chablis Blanc is now in the ultra-budget “Livingston Cellars” brand. Since the latter was only available in 1.5L and 3L bottles, I passed on trying this wine tonight but did get a bottle of Hearty Burgundy; my first in over 20 years.

Gallo Family Vineyards
, “Twin Valley”, Hearty Burgundy NV ($5) – Deep garnet in color with aromas of red raspberry, geranium and fennel. Bright red fruit flavors with cherry pie filling in the mid-palate finishing with moderate tannins. Clean and state of the art for industrial wine blends but seems unnatural (what Gary would term as “fakey-fake”).

13% ABV
Synthetic cork closure
Score: 77
Rating: ★★½☆☆

Since my former house white of Chablis Blanc was only available in industrial quantities, I decided to pick up my first house Zinfandel. Back in 1981, this was from Sebastiani which I bought on sale for $2.50 a bottle.  Since Sebastiani has since rebooted their brand as a limited production, premium product, I settled for my second place Zin from the 1980′s: Sutter Home.

Yes, from the house that was built from white Zinfandel but back in the early 1980′s, they made some pretty interesting red Zins. My favorite being their reserves tasted on my frequent visits to Napa Valley during my college years. But their regular release was also pretty good from memory so I thought it would be interesting to revisit this wine.

Sutter Home, Zinfandel, California 2005 ($5) – Medium ruby in color with aromas of black cherry, strawberry and sage. Fresh red cherry and strawberry fruit flavors, some black pepper, finishing with supple tannins. A very light style of Zinfandel but a decent red for pizza and pasta dishes.

13.5% ABV
Composite cork closure
Score: 81
Rating: ★★★☆☆

An interesting tasting that shows how my tastes have evolved since the days of the first Reagan administration. But it’s also good to see both wines being clean, fresh and drinkable… although I would not drink these wines daily as I used to.

Thanks to Lenn for his leadership over these last 4 years and I’m hoping to blog WBW 96 with him and other friends in 2012.

WBW 43 – Comfort Wine

by Tim Elliott on March 5, 2008

If there is a single wine that I could name that pointed me onto the path of becoming a wine lover, it’s the Zinfandel made from the Lytton Springs vineyard. I’m not exactly sure why this wine made me sit up and take notice, but it did, and remains today one of my sentimental favorites. So when Joel from Wine Life Today announced the theme of Comfort Wines for this month’s Wine Blogging Wednesday, I knew there was only one wine to fill the bill: Ridge Lytton Springs.

Lytton Springs WInery ZinfandelIt must have been late 1981 or early 1982 when I stumbled across a small winery named Lytton Springs in my search for the best Zinfandel. This variety had already become my favorite most likely due to the forward fruit in most bottlings that was noticeably different from the Bordeaux and Napa Cabs I was mostly drinking at the time. Since I didn’t yet read any wine publications, I must have chosen Lytton Springs Zinfandel from the recommendation of a wine merchant or, more likely, just at random. From my first experience with the aromas of dark fruit offset by spices and cedar, I was hooked. The layers of flavor and impeccable balance also didn’t hurt either and this became my “benchmark” Zinfandel that all others were judged against.

The Lytton Springs Winery was founded in 1970 after Richard Sherwin purchased the old vine vineyard near downtown Healdsburg, California. The vineyard had been planted around the turn of the 20th Century on lands owned by a Captain Litton who many years before built a hotel catering to Bay Area visitors to the local hot springs. By the time of the vineyard planting, the spelling of his family name had evolved to Lytton.

The vineyard is a classic “field blend” of inter-planted varieties with about 70% Zinfandel, 20% Petite Sirah and the remainder split between Grenache and Carignane. As early as 1972, Ridge Vineyards winemaker Paul Draper made wines from this vineyard but it wasn’t until Ridge purchased Lytton Springs Winery in 1991 that the entire 35-acre property was devoted to Ridge wines. There is a great interview with Richard Sherwin over at Gang of Pour if you are interested in more background on Lytton Springs Winery.

I can’t recall when I made the switch to Ridge Lytton Springs but it was most likely in the early 1990′s. The grace and even elegance of this wine made it stand out to me over another favorite Sonoma vineyard, the famous Ridge Geyserville most recently tasted on my birthday last year. So I was looking forward to getting back to Lytton Springs 2004, a wine I last tasted about 14 months ago but failed to blog here for some unknown reason.

Ridgeytton Springs 2004Ridge Vineyards, Zinfandel, Lytton Springs, Dry Creek Valley 2004 ($34) – This wine still displays a youthful purple-ruby color. The aroma profile is classic Lytton Springs: black raspberries & blackberry with fennel and cedar. The flavors are also a mixture of dark fruits with the addition of some blueberry, black pepper and minerality that finishes long with great balance and moderate tannins. Although this wine weighs in at 14.5% ABV, there is no hint of heat on the palate or in the aromas. This is clearly still one of the best Zinfandel’s produced today and is in wide distribution due to production of over 10,000 cases each vintage.

14.5% ABV
Natural cork closure
Score: 92
Rating: ★★★★☆

Buy this wine online

When I taste this wine today, it takes me back to my earliest memories of noteable wines. In fact, Lytton Springs Winery Zinfandel was the best wine I had ever tasted until it was upstaged by a glass of 1974 Heitz Cellars “Martha’s Vineyard” Cab that I had in 1986. But I still have a warm place in my heart for Lytton Springs Zin that will never be changed.

Kudos go to Joel from Wine Life Today for a great theme and congratulations on the birth of his second child just a few days ago. I’m hoping he can find some time to recount all the stories this month in between his fatherly duties.

Next month some guy from New Jersey named Gary is hosting. Should be fun to see what he’s got in mind.