Updated Oct 23, 1998
Ongoing "Drinking" notes:
BAD ZINFANDEL, NYET! For those of you interested in high alcohol headache-inducing port-like Zins you'll get no help from me. I do not usually like this raisony sometimes burnt and alcoholic style at all. I will probably draw the "drinking" review line at about 14.2-percent alcohol. I also do not usually care for the Beaujolais-style of Zin that are quaffable, but lack substance and have no Zin character. I like big tasty Zins that are uniquely Californian. If this style is then enhanced with a smart use of oak, all the better. These notes will reflect that bias. The favorite Zins (over 90 pts) in these tastings will be kept at the top of the list in RED.
All NEW tastings are placed at the top of the red and black categories respectively for people who like to check the site often. The newest tasted wine will be at the top. When a new wine is added the update "date" at the top of the page will be changed.-- John C. Dvorak
Geyser Peak 1995 (Sonoma County)
$15 13.3-pecent Alcohol
This wine has a fantastic Sonoma county aroma and freshness. Not a monster Zin, by any means, it's somewhat reminiscent of the flavorful 1995 Sausal but with more of an "old-vines" flavor and quality. You get the sense that this wine could have been made into a blockbuster if the winery had more of a Zin focus. Its winemaker, the famous Daryle Groom, is from Australia and my guess is that he has yet to warm up to this grape. In fact, this wine is incredibly hard to find considering the fact that it comes from such a large operation. 90 points.
Seghesio Old Vine 1996 (Sonoma County)
$20 14.2-percent alcohol
I wanted to try this wine with food since first tasting it and awarding it 93 points. I didn't notice any relative difference. It's a beautiful wine by any standards although my earlier notes indicated more oak than I noticed in this bottle. Perhaps it is melding into the wine somewhat. Unlike some Zins this wine is excellent with food and would probably go well with everything. 93
Sausal 1996 Zinfandel (Alexander Valley)
Approx. $10 -- 13.8-percent alcohol
Not as good as the 1995 as far as I'm concerned, but still excellent. Rather than the bright Zin flavors I expect in these Sausal wines, this wine is more muted but possibly more elegant. It also has more heft on the palate. May develop into something special. 90 points
Plam 1995 Zinfandel -- Vintners Reserve (Napa)
$20 --- 13.0-percent alcohol
Another hard to find Plam wine. While the hand made wines of Ken Plam are not cheap, they are not as expensive as they could be. Luckily selling direct only keeps margins up and prices relatively low considering how small the lots are. Also the wines have certain characteristics that must be accounted for to be fully enjoyed, these wines are so clean and pure and obviously bottled under meticulous conditions. This contributes to the immediate closed nature of the wines and they must breathe for hours if not days (as with the 1996). Few wines change for the better under such requirements, but these do. I liked the 1996 better, this wine is more muted by comparison. 90 points.
Heitz 1996 Zinfandel (Napa Valley)
$10 -- 13.5-percent alcohol
This years version of the Zin seems a little lighter than the 1995 and in may ways more drinkable. Quaffable in fact. While the nose has a distinct Zin aroma the wine itself is less identifiable, albeit good tasting. Excellent with food. I like this wine but wish the winery would put a little more effort into making it bigger with a touch of new wood. If you like the old style Zin, this is an excellent example. 90 points.
Rabbit Ridge 1996 Zinfandel -- Winemakers Grand Reserve -- (Sonoma County)
$27+ -- 13.7-percent
It's a shame that this wine is so expensive. A fabulous, near-perfect Zinfandel. Curiously I was sipping it when Mark McGwire hit number 62. Not a dark burdensome wine, more like a great Burgundy than a Bordeaux. This wine defines the concept of "layers of fruit." It also slaps in the face the notion that Zins must be over 14-percent to be any good. Perfect acid balance, a beautiful Zin nose, long finish. It has everything you'd want from any wine from any region. World class beauty. Ready to drink and a completely satisfying wine experience. Incredible. 95 points.
Elizabeth Vineyards 1996 Zinfandel -- Elizabeth -- (Redwood Valley, Mendocino)
$14 -- 14.2-percent
I gave this wine 91 at the wine competition and had to take some home. Now I see I was scoring low. This wine, of which only 500 cases are made, is actually used as a sales tool for the vineyard to sell its grapes. Elizabeth makes this and a killer Sauvignon Blanc from her own grapes. Very clean well made old-fashioned and delicious. Actually under-priced at $14. The funky hand drawn label is worth $14 alone. Delicious and rare. 93 points.
Plam 1996 Zinfandel -- Vintners Reserve (Napa)
$20 --- 14.7-percent
This wine is way over the alcohol limit for me, but I've recently become a fan of this fine little winery because of it's great cabernet. The 1996 Zin, simply put, needs age. Probably more than the cabernet. The wine exhibits a perfect Zinfandel nose and some of the home made character I like to find. Ken Plam makes very clean tasting wines and this is no exception. The high fruit acid in the wine needs to meld with the wine, though. It follows Plam's legendary 1995 Zinfandel which I intend to try soon. 90 points.
Punchdown 1994 Zinfandel -- "Monte Rosso" (Sonoma County)
Private bottling -- n/a
This wine comes from a large-scale communal home made wine club in San Francisco and I managed to get a bottle to see how close it comes to the classic home style Zinfandel which can be fantastic and most often better than commercial wine. This wine has all the characteristics of great hand made wine. It came from a second picking of the vineyard which usually results in both overripe and distressed fruit. The acid balance is remarkable. This wine is simply wonderful and if all home made wine was this good nobody would ever buy wine. Excellent nose. Very dark and rich. 93 points.
St. Francis 1996 Zinfandel -- "old vines" (Sonoma County)
$22 -- 14.1-percent alc.
When you first taste this wine you wonder if it's even Zinfandel. It kind of tastes like it's made from an unknown fruit and is from Mars or some other world. Quite interesting. It takes a little longer than normal to reveal itself as a Zin and when it does it just doesn't come up to the standard set by the 1995 Age may change that. Whatever the case, it comes close enough to make it a fantastic drink. 92 points.
St. Francis 1995 Zinfandel -- "old vines" (Sonoma County)
$22 -- 14.2-percent alc.
Maybe the best Zinfandel I've had in 20 years. I was in Aspen recently at a hot restaurant and got into a discussion with the sommelier and this wine came up in the conversation. The restaurant got it in and the staff took it home!! You will never get this wine. This is a perfect example of how to properly use American oak. Intense, flavorful, dark, stunning aftertaste. This is exactly what I am looking for in a Zin. Fabulous product. If you happen to see it, buy it! 95 points.
Greenwood Ridge Vineyards 1996 Zinfandel -- Scherrer Vineyards (Sonoma County)
$18 -- 14.1-percent
I've been recently tasting as many of the Greenwood wines as I can get hold of and might conclude that this Zin is their best wine. All the wines from this winery are well designed with a judicious use of oak. Clean favors are a theme too. This is a perfect wine to give someone who doesn't like Zin -- or so they think! You can taste serious wine crafting. 94 pts.
Sausal 1995 Zinfandel (Alexander Valley)
Approx. $10 -- 13.8-percent alcohol
I don't know why I took so long to get to this wine since this winery has been making great Zin for decades. I used to drink the Zin from these folk in the early 1970's and liked it then too. Supposedly many vintages of Grgich-Hills Zin came from this winery and all Grgich did was add oak and a higher price. Grgich had the right idea because this wine would soar to the top with oaky notes. In fact, there is no noticeable oak on this wine. That also means no "old barrel" flavors either. As it's presented I cannot imagine a more pure form of what I can only describe as "bright" Zinfandel. Clean, honest, well-made Zin with pure Zin flavors. Intense textbook flavors. No distractions. Unlike the Rosenblum wines, which have a similar flavor, this wine works perfectly with food. An awesome wine. A steal, this wine puts to shame most Zins selling for twice as much money (including Sausal's own "Reserve" -- see below). 92 pts.
Seghesio Zinfandel Home Ranch 1996 (Alexander Valley)
$18 -- 14.1-percent alcohol
I liked this wine in a mass tasting and liked it when drunk with a meal. Probably needs a year of bottle age to supercede the Sausal 95. Wonderful wine. Huge, dark. 92 points.
Heitz 1995 Zinfandel (Napa Valley)
Approx. $12 -- 13.5-percent alcohol
This wine is one of those big Napa style wines that I prefer over many fruitier styles. Unfortunately a wine like this tends to have a fairly reserved nose. It's big and dark and tastes like a classic good Heitz wine from the old days. A few days earlier I had a 1992 Trailside Cab from Heitz and the family resemblance was obvious. 91 points.
Battaglini Twin Pines Vineyard 1994 (Russian River -- Old Vines -- Unfiltered)
Funky cool looking label but a wine with no oomph or old vine character. Boring, in fact, but not bad. I couldn't finish it and will turn it into a vinegar cuvee. 85 pts.
Greenwood Ridge Vineyards 1996 Zinfandel (Mendocino)
$16 -- 14.2-percent alcohol
I gave this wine 91 points in a tasting but was disappointed with it as a "drinker." Made with grapes or possibly even juice from the Elizabeth (see) and Lolonis vineyards it's a "Cellared and bottled" wine which indicates some loss of control over the winemaking process. This wine has taste characteristics that are identical to the Elizabeth Vineyards Zin, but something is lost here. The nose is non-existent but the wine is delicious when taken by the mouthful. Less so when sipped. The aftertaste is great and almost identical to the Elizabeth VIneyards wine. But overall it wasn't a wine I wanted to drink. It may improve in time. While it showed well in a tasting (91 pts.) it just doesn't drink as well. This again shows the difference in tasting and drinking. 88 pts.
Storybook 1995 Zinfandel Mayacamas Range (Napa Valley) Approx $16 --
I need to drink some old wines from these folk to see what comes of them because this wine has that flavor and balance (specific tannins) you get when you taste a wine that needs a few years age. Three years is my guess, maybe more is needed. I liked this wine, but not so much that I'm going to run out and buy some. But I do get the sense that I may regret it in a few years. 89 points.
Dover Canyon 1996 Zinfandel, Jan Kris Vineyards. (Paso Robles)
$18 14.2-percent alcohol
A serious disappointment. To me this is a wine that was oxidized and stemmy. But you could taste the underlying fruit that could have been handled better. My guess is that bad or old cooperage was the culprit. Who knows? Even still it was not a bad wine and drinkable if you like that style. The color was also a disappointment for a 1996 with more brick color than plum. These guys do very small lots of handmade wine and it's hard to understand how they can let this happen. Far too expensive. 87 points.
Viano Vineyards 1996 Zinfandel (Contra Costa County)
Approx $5 ... 13.8-percent alcohol
It's hard to complain about a $5 wine in today's inflated market when the wine is actually drinkable. And as an everyday wine, if you can out up with the style, it's not bad although most of the Zinfandel character has been beaten out of the wine by ageing in old barrels. Oxidation is, again, a theme here. The wine is, in fact, tired tasting by todays standards. It's that old Italian wine flavor. There is a nice aged wine nose though which some people may like. I used to buy the jug wine from this winery as everyday wine because the wine maker did not over-age the wine and bottled it young before the old cooperage killed the life in the wine. Too bad they stopped making the jug wine. Some of the special bottling Zins from this winery are somewhat better. This is one of the last wineries making this old-fashioned style of wine at old-fashioned prices. A sentimental favorite if nothing else. 85 points.
***Steele Caves 1996 Zinfandel (Mendocino) Pacini Vineyard
Approx. $13 13-percent alcohol
It's possible that this wine should be re-tasted. This was recommended by someone supposedly into BIG Zins. And while I get a kick out of many of the Steel wines and love their packaging this wine simply isn't ready for prime time. It's possible that it's suffering from just being bottled. It's stemmy and grassy and not worth considering, at least now. I doubt that it will improve much but I may give it another shot later. 80 Pts.
The problem with tasting wines soon after bottling or even before they are ready is epitomized by the Steele/Pacini Zin. I re-tasted it, this time with a long breathing period. I also let it sit 24 hours for a second taste -- out of curiosity. The wine was more balanced with excellent oaky tones. Much better. More interesting was the 24-hour test where the oak came on stronger. These wines from Steele are being made with unusual and aggressive wine-making techniques. I've sat down to a couple of Steele-only Pinot tastings and have to wonder how to accurately evaluate these wines. Now I move the Zin to 89 pts and suggest that given time it could continue to improve its rating. It's potentially 95. But I have to say that I am not fond of wines that play hide-and-seek. It's annoying. Still, this may be a wine worth burying for a decade or two just to see what happens. 89 points
Fanucci Vineyard 1995 Zinfandel -- Wood Road Vineyard (Russian River)
~$20-30 14.1-percent alcohol
Had over lunch at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. A mild corked quality when first opened disappeared quickly leaving a beautiful aroma. Seemed like a cheap cork. The wine was huge with classic old vine character and nice flavors. It wasn't a wine that blew away the table though. Since it was one of the most expensive Zins on the wine list I would have expected more impact. The finish was short and dry. I liked this wine but had mixed feelings overall. 89 pts.
Sausal 1995 Zinfandel Reserve (Alexander Valley)
Approx. $20 -- 14-percent alcohol
Huge disappointment. Theoretically this wine should be a lot better than the regular Zin, but it seems to be a case of trying too hard. The "bright" flavors of the regular Zin are muted and the wine is cumbersome and actually tiresome to drink. It's heavy in a bad way. I suspect that these are the kind of winemakers who can make a perfect honest wine such as the regular release but have the never-ending urge to make a prestigious and expensive "gourmet" wine without the specialized skills needed to accomplish it. If I were them and wanted to continue to make this wine I'd try 100-percent new American Oak. These barrels they are using do not cut it. Only the obvious high quality of the fruit saves the wine. 88 points.
Burgess 1995 Zinfandel (Napa Valley)
Approx. $13 -- 13.1-percent alcohol
A pretty wine. Dark ruby, just beautiful-looking. Much more aroma and bouquet than the Heitz with a lot of fruit in the nose. Not as huge a wine as the Heitz but fruitier and oakier with some of the Zin flavors overshadowed by the oak. Totally delicious nonetheless although it tends to fade in time. My wife claims she got a headache from one glass of it. 89 points.
Beringer 1994 Zinfandel (Knights Valley)
I loved this winery's straight Cab from 1994 and its 1994 Howell Mountain Bancroft Ranch Merlot is stunning. So I hoped they made a good Zinfandel from the same vintage. In fact it's delicious with great flavors and superb balance. I did find some unusual flavors in the wine that didn't bother me. I assumed some other grapes got into the blend. Unfortunately my wife, after having this wine had either a sulfite or a histamine reaction and got red blotches and a swollen tongue after this wine. And she is not hypersensitive to these kinds of flaws in red wines although she has her red-faced moments with many California Sparkling Champagnes, Schramsberg being at the top of the list. She's discovered that Billecart-Salmon is the only Champagne she can trust to drink. I can usually spot excess sulfites and wasn't sure of them in this wine. Whatever the case, I decided not to rate this wine. You should note that my wife did not have a reaction to the 94 Cab from Beringer which is an outstanding wine for its price. No rating. No recommendation.
Beaulieu Vineyard 1995 Zinfandel (Napa Valley)
I was actually surprised to see a BV Zinfandel. There are a couple of versions of this wine floating around and this one had no special designation and was recommended by a customer at the Wine Club. Later when discussing Zins with the staff I noticed that no staffer had recommended it. While the wine was good, it was simply boring by any standards. Some reviewers seem to think it's great leading me to believe that various cuvees exist. This wasn't one of the good ones if so. 85 points.
Il Cuore (Aficionado Cellars) 1996 Zinfandel (California)
Approx. $9 13.8-percent alcohol
This wine was plugged by the Wine House in San Francisco as a tasty el cheapo and good Zin. It's a light style (despite its alcohol being high) with a terrific Zinfandel aroma. But when tasted it has cheap flavors that do nothing for me. X-geners may like this wine. I find it to be plonk although there is nothing seriously wrong with it. I won't buy another bottle and I boiled most of this wine down to make a sauce. My picky wife equated it with a cheap Chianti. To me this is just another disappointment. 85 points.
Nevada Country Wine Guild 1995 Zinfandel (Nevada County)
approx $11 12.5-percent alcohol
This is a very bright wine. Up front aromas and flavors easy to slug down. In fact it invites guzzling and might make a perfect picnic wine. The label brags about it being an "organic" wine made from organic grapes with no extra SO2 added. This balancing act with sulfites leaves this wine with a deep aftertaste that I found unpleasant at the very finish of the flavor wave up in the high back of the palate. Some new oak would have probably covered this up although the wine was of a style that would easily be overwhelmed by oak flavor. It's a funky cool-looking bottle of wine with its old-fashioned label. 88 pts.
Wellington 1994 Zinfandel -- (Sonoma County) Casa Santinamaria
Approx. $13 13.5-percent alcohol
This is an enjoyable sipping Zinfandel. Simply put, it's just a well-made wine with good common Zin flavors without anything particularly exciting going on. If you're looking to wow your guests and have them shout, "Man, this wine is great!" then this is not the wine for you. Too subtle. The Zin aftertaste is memorable, but not mind-blowing. It's obviously very well made as there are no flaws. A lot of people would like this wine whether they liked Zin or not. 89+ points.
Pedroncelli 1995 Zinfandel (Dry Creek) "Mother Clone"
Approx. $12 14.3-percent alcohol
This wine is actually over my limit for alcohol but I had to try it since it gets a lot of publicity. There's nothing wrong with it but "Mother Clone?" Puh-leeeze. Nothing special, but not a bad wine either. 87 pts.
entire website copyright (c) 1998 by John C. Dvorak