Snooth Panel Tasting Program explores Zinfandel


Wine flights for this blind tasting.

Flight 1- Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel
2006 Pedroncelli Mother Clone
2005 Quivira
2006 Holdredge
Flight 2 – Dry Creek Valley Single Vineyards
2006 Dashe Cellars Florence Vineyard
2006 Dry Creek Vineyard Somers Ranch
2005 Carol Shelton Rocky Reserve Florence Vineyard

Flight 3 – 100 years and what do you get?
2006 Terra d'Oro Deaver Vineyard 100 year old – Amador County
2005 Kunde Century Vines Shaw Vineyard Reserve – Sonoma valley
2006 Sausal Century Vines– Alexander Valley

Flight 4 – The big, the bold and the beautiful
2005 Howell Mountain Vineyards Beatty Vineyard Napa Valley
2005 Cakebread Red Hills Lake County
2005 Sky Vineyards Mt. Veeder Napa Valley

Snooth's Panel Tasting Program met this past Sunday night, just in time for Thanksgiving, to do a blind tasting of that all-American wonder-grape, Zinfandel. We had a solid panel, which I lead and included:

Karl – Professional chef and blogger
Stephanie – Sales manager for Astor Wines & Spirits
Greg – A representative for Frontier Wine Imports
Natali – A wine enthusiast
Clayton – A wine enthusiast
Elizabeth – A wine salesperson with Astor Wines & Spirits
Julie – A wine writer and blogger

While technically not American, it is after all the Croatian grape Crljenak Kastelanski,  Zinfandel has certainly risen to fame on the merits of the wines produced in Northern California. A true chameleon of a grape, Zinfandel has been used to produce everything from the ubiquitous White Zinfandel, to  everything from nouveau styles through some of the biggest, meanest, monster fruit bombs ever to emerge from the west coast.

Most Zinfandel however could historically have been characterized as falling within two categories: the restrained elegant Bordelaise style or the rich, jammy fruit driven style that is probably the most typical and representative expression of Zinfandel.

A bit of a quirky grape, Zinfandel require a long, slow growing season due to it's unusual ripening, prone to having both raisins and green berries on the same bunch. While producing what undoubtedly seem like warm climate wines, Zinfandel actually prefers a bit of a cooler zone in order to limit this problem and promote more uniform ripening.

In general regions where Zinfandel has enjoyed success have been viewed as areas less conducive to the production of more prestigious wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon. The Dry Creek Valley region of Sonoma county has long been one of the hot beds of Zinfandel production and is a source of some of the greatest old-vine vineyards in the state.

The more northern areas such as Lake County and Mendocino County in addition to Amador County and some of the other areas of “gold rush” country have also proven to be ideal regions for the production of Zin. Napa valley in general is too viewed as too warm though some exceptional wines have come from the valley, in particular the cooler, mountain regions such as Howell Mountain and Atlas Peak.

At its best Zinfandel is a richly fruited wine full of black berries and spice with subtle soil tones and finely integrated structure. These are not shy wines with alcohol rarely below 14%, and more frequently close to, if not above, 15%. They are wines that can be flamboyant, though many producers have pushed the limits of what this grape can do and produced wines that were terribly alcoholic, jammy and packed with so much oak that while impressive to taste, were virtually undrinkable.

In an effort to discover wines suitable for the Thanksgiving Day feast I selected a dozen wines that I felt would range within the classic style of Zinfandel though give expression to the full scope that this range is capable of.

All of the wines were opened around 2pm and tasted by me at that time. The Panel Tasting went from 6-8pm and thus the wines saw between 4 and 6 hours of air during that time. The wines performed well and while there were some absolute stars all the wines had their virtues.  Each flight had a theme and tasters were asked to contribute their opinions for each wine and then choose their favorites.  The following begins with the least favorite and ends with the wine crowned ‘Best of the Night”.

12th place - 2005 Sky Vineyards Mt. Veeder Napa Valley 13.5%            $30
This was a controversial wine and the lean style and slight volatility provoked pretty visceral reactions from Karl's “vinegar and pine-sol” to Greg's “acetic and latex” and Clayton's characterization of the wine as smelling like a “cheap hotel room”. No one was a particular fan of this wine though I would have to say that it was much better when I did my initial tastings. My ninth place wine.

11th place - 2006 Sausal Vineyard Century Vines – Alexander Valley 14.7%    $30
This wine didn't illicit much emotion with Clayton feeling it was “good for the mass market” and Julie considered it “ nice, easy and accessible” On the flip side Elizabeth noted that it's “not excessively aromatic” nnd Julie commented on it “easy, soft finish”. That pretty much summed this wine up for me. The mouthfeel was very appealing but there was much there there. My twelfth place wine.

10th place - 2006 Dry Creek Vineyard – Somers Ranch Dry Creek Valley 15.0%       $24-26
There was a marked difference of opinion with this wine. Natali liked the “strong berry and pepper notes” on the nose while Karl felt it was “intense, and not in a good way”. Greg disliked this wine feeling that it was “grassy and earthy and totally out of balance with alcoholic heat and bitter tannins”. Elizabeth also felt the wine showed it's alcohol but enjoyed the” jellied rather than jammy fruit and Christmas pudding spices”.  I think this was an intense wine that was a bit heavy and dark and that may have been off-putting to some. My sixth place wine.

9th place - 2005 Quivira Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley 14.9%      $15-20
While also provoking controversy this wine at least was fairly consistently viewed. The dark character of the wine was characterized by Stephanie as “ full of Christmas spice, coffee, and chocolate and even a little farty” Karl also found the fruit “dark and pruny” and Natali took the characterization one step further by noting the “nose lacked freshness”. Clayton enjoyed the “dark, oaky flavors” as did Greg who found the wine “a little funky but very cherried”. A solid middle of the road performance. My eleventh place wine.

8th place – 2006 Terra d'Oro Deaver Vineyard 100 Year Old – Amador 15.5%    $25
With this wine we move from wines that were mostly criticized to wines that garner more praise than complaints. While Greg felt this smelled “weird, like a coffee soufflé” Julie liked the “ bright puckery Jolly Rancher fruits” on the nose and Natali was also enthusiastic proclaiming this to be “quintessential Zin” though she did add it tasted “acidic almost to the point of saltiness” Both Elizabeth and Clayton noted the rather intense spiciness of the wine, Clayton even commented that he felt Like “ a big steak to pair with the spicy flavors” but went on to fault the wine for a short finish.   My seventh place wine.

7th place - 2005 Cakebread Red Hills Lake County 15.1%        $40-42
There were many points of agreement on this wine with both Greg and Julie finding a caramel element and Stephanie and Clayton both commented on the vanilla notes. The oak was noticeable to all and Julie saw it more through it's expression as star anise and spice. Beyond the sweet oakiness of this wine everyone was unanimous in noting the spicy, fruity though somewhat anonymous character of the wine though Karl felt this would be an ideal match for “Peking duck which would tame the wines acid and tannin”.  My eight place wine.

6th place - 2006 J. Pedroncelli Mother Clone Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley 14.4%   $12-15      
This was a bit of a surprise being our value leader, it was an impressive showing.  People were all over the board in commenting on the nose from Stephanie's “soft violets and plums” to Natali's “ dark chocolate and light fruits” and Julie's “peppery black fruit”. The theme of black spice was echoed by Greg who felt the wine had “ a strong licorice bitterness and spiciness but it's finishing too short” a sentiment shared by Stephanie. None-the-less everyone found this to be perfectly decent if not distinguished. My tenth place wine. BEST BUY

5th place - 2006 Holdredge Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley 15.3%           $20
With this wine we really moved up a notch to wines that had more universal appeal though both Karl and Stephanie enjoyed the nose more than the palate with Stephanie commenting on the wines “great notes of earth, tar and smoke” which Greg characterized as “ the most complex of the flight, spicy, earthy, with pencil shavings and a bit of herbalness”. Clayton preferred the palate to the nose commenting on the “bitter cherry fruit”.  My fourth place wine.

4th place - 2005 Carol Shelton Rocky Reserve – Florence Vineyard – Rockpile
Dry Creek Valley 14.8%       $30-35

This wine elicited some unusual descriptor though both Stephanie and Greg found black tea aromatics with everybody commenting on the “sharp”,” Acidic” or “citrussy” component of the nose. Natali enjoyed it and felt “ it was great but blunt, over quickly” While Julie liked it's “ funky, blackberry and pepper” qualities. Everyone also commented on the tannins with Stephanie summing it up as a “super-tannic Zin” My second place wine.

3rd place - 2005 Kunde Century Vines Shaw Vineyard Rsrv – Sonoma Valley 14.9%   $30                                                                                                                            Many felt this wine showed some obvious alcohol but everyone commented on the nose with Julie commenting on it's “interesting” nose and Elizabeth finding “jammy and menthol tones” while Stephanie noticed the “dried chile and dried blackberry fruit” qualities. Clayton also found the “aromas are strong and the wine has real staying power”. Natali liked the “creamy, low alcohol feel and vanilla and cinnamon flavors” while Greg felt the toasted marshmallow and sweet cherry fruit on the nose delivered more than the palate. My first place wine.

2nd place - 2006 Dashe Cellars Florence Vineyard – Dry Creek Valley 14.5% $30-35
While several tasters felt the nose here was a bit hot many had very positive things to say about it from Julie's comment that' it smells like apple pie baked by Grandma Rose” to Natali's comment on it's dry, dark chocolate, almost like a mole” notes and Stephanie's comment on the “waxy kind of blackberry fruit”.  On the palate it was liked though Karl felt I was “not a deep wine but jammy in a good way” Elizabeth found it “friendly and approachable, very jammy with obvious sweetness”.  Both Greg and Stephanie commented on its vanilla laced jammy fruit. My third place wine.

1st place - 2005 Howell Mountain Vineyards Beatty Vineyard Napa Valley 15.6%    $35-40
This was our winner by a fairly wide margin.  Everyone had something positive to say about the nose from Karl's “ Leathery and strong, this smells delicious” to Julie's “smells like complex, dark fruit cake”. Stephanie found “bark and soil tones” while Natali noticed a “smoky, cinnamon thing going on”.  In the mouth Clayton found this to be “ accessible with nice spice and earth, well balanced” while Greg commented on the “core of deep red cherry fruit” and Julie capped off the discussion with the succinct comment “ this warms you up!”.  My fifth place wine.

And that was all we had to say. We brought the remainders with us to dinner and they went very well with our fine Cuban meal. Another successful, enlightening and, dare I say it, warm evening spent with the fine people that makes Snooth Possible.

As we look forward to the Holiday season and beyong keep an eye out for our coming Panel tasting featuring California Syrah, Chianti Classico Riserva, and Wines from South Africa and Australia! If you are interested in participating in the next Snooth Panel Tasting please shoot me an email or check out the Events page on the Snooth forum. Until next time!

Gregory Dal Piaz is the Community Manager at  Snooth, an avid Wine Geek with a passion for things Italian, and a long suffering Mets fan.

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