… and, yes, friends, it looks like it’s climbing clear up to the sky.
jayson
What is this trope about table wines that bear the cloying impress of alcohol levels over 15 percent, even 16 percent and higher? Some winemakers in California seem to fall into the same camp as many producers of craft beer, who believe that the hoppier a brew is the better it is, intrinsically, so, by parallel reasoning, since wine is an alcoholic beverage, let’s pump up the alcohol for a wild ride.

There was a time when wines produced in California came in at alcohol levels between about 11.5 and 12.5 percent, maybe up to 13.5. The norm now is 14.5 percent, with the result that red wines — cabernets, pinot noirs, syrahs, merlots and, especially, zinfandel wines — are riper and juicier but also convey an impression of sweetness and sometimes, on the finish, of heat. These exaggerated qualities increase as the alcohol content creeps past 15 percent and inches toward or past 16. The problems intensify because many of these wines are also exceedingly tannic, so any sense of balance is lost in an entity that turns out to be powerful and dynamic but awkward, clunky and incoherent. I read the deliriously approving descriptions of some of these wines and reviews from other writers, and I have to think, surely we’re not talking about the same product, as I’m sure they will think about me and my fairly harsh evaluations.

So, today, I offer brief notices of beyond-the-pale, high-alcohol, lurching, unbalanced red wines, along with a few that manage to pull off the feat and achieve a measure of poise. Notice that most of these examples are zinfandels from Lodi, Amador County and Dry Creek Valley; the great and surprising exception is a beautifully-made Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon that registers 15.2 percent alcohol. The order is by increasing amounts of alcohol, starting at 15 percent. Proceed at your own risk.
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Renwood Clarion Red Wine 2012, Amador County. 15% alc. Dark ruby color; pungent with ripe raspberry and blueberry infused with briery-brambly notes, graphite and lavender; very dry, quite spicy, juicy with red and black fruit flavors; you feel a touch of raisiny heat on the finish. Very Good+. About $20.
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Renwood Grandpere Zinfandel 2012, Amador County. 15% alc. Medium ruby hue with a light garnet rim; sweet spices, mint, ripe cherries and cranberries with touches of blueberry and boysenberry; quite dry, plush, velvety tannins, large-framed but palatable; a bit of alcoholic heat mars the dense, lithic finish. Very Good+. About $40.
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Priest Ranch Coach Gun 2011, Napa Valley. 15.1% alc. A cabernet sauvignon-based blend. Dark ruby color; smoke, loam, graphite, lavender; black currants and cherries and blueberries, all deeply spiced and macerated; cedar and mint; energized by pert acidity; very dry dusty out-of-scale tannins, austere finish that falters out of balance. Not a success. About $75.
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Bradford Mountain Grist Vineyard Syrah 2012, Dry Creek Valley. 15.2% alc. 75% syrah, 25% zinfandel. Opaque black-ruby with an intense violet rim; big, bold and very spicy; ripe and fleshy blackberry and blueberry fruit with an infusion of ligonberry, blackberry jam and blueberry tart; deep, plush, dusty tannins that coat the palate; every element that I look for in a syrah wine is absent, muted into anonymity by ripeness, alcohol and tannin. Awkward and unbalanced. About $32.
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Jayson Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Napa Valley. (The second label of Pahlmeyer.) 15.2% alc. A complete, harmonious and complex red wine. Dark ruby-purple hue; a very ripe, fruit-infused wine, high-toned and surprisingly elegant in its balance; intense and concentrated, with notes of cassis and red and black cherries permeated by iron and iodine, graphite, ancho chili and meat blood; powerfully dynamic, ferrous and savory, deep, rich and spicy with a resonant mineral core and a concluding touch of blueberry tart; a sleek, polished and chiseled cabernet. Drink now through 2020 to ’23. Excellent. About $65 to $75.
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Truett-Hurst Old Vine Burning Man Zinfandel 2012, Dry Creek Valley. 15.3% alc. Opaque black-ruby with a magenta rim; a strapping, palate-stomping tannic wine, pungent with spiced and macerated black currants, plums and blueberries, pomegranate and boysenberry; lots of leather and loam; formidable structure, dusty, gravelly and austere. Not a success. About $38.
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Renwood Premium Old Vine Zinfandel 2012, Amador County. 15.5% alc. Medium ruby hue with a garnet rim; a lovely blooming, floral and spicy bouquet, evolves to fruitcake, loam and brambles, bitter chocolate; blueberries, mint and pomegranate; a bit of an after-burn but not heavy, over-ripe or obvious; still, the finish is tight and austere. Very Good+. About $20.
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Michael David Winery Earthquake Zinfandel 2012, Lodi. 15.5% alc. Moderately dark ruby hue; very ripe, spiced and macerated plums, currants and cherries with a slightly raisiny fruitcake inflection; large-framed and quite lively; dense, dusty, chewy, infused with graphite and lithic tannins that coat the palate; still, surprisingly well-balanced, really luscious for those who want luscious wines (not me). Now through 2017. Very Good+. About $26.
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Tin Barn Vineyards Coryelle Fields Vineyard Syrah 2012, Sonoma Coast. 15.5% alc. Opaque ruby hue with a magenta rim; both intense and concentrated while being very ripe, smoky and spicy; heaps of leather and loam and a tide of black fruit flavors, but distinctly more zin-like than syrah, with a high-alcohol zin’s off-balance element of cloying fruit and austere tannins. Doesn’t work. About $27.
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Tin Barn Los Chamizal Vineyard Zinfandel 2012, Sonoma Valley. 15.6% alc. Dark ruby with a much paler rim; a lovely bouquet of smoke, lavender and cloves, mint, sandalwood, fruitcake and blackberries; a big, firm, tannic wine that just manages to hold the line against over-ripeness and austerity; it takes a risk and the risk feels worth it; still, you feel some slightly sweet/parching alcoholic heat on the finish. Very Good+. About $29.
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Tin Barn Gilsson Vineyard Zinfandel 2013, Russian River Valley. 15.6% alc. Solid dark ruby hue; a refreshing bouquet of mint, lavender and black cherries until the alcohol wafts up and sort of stops everything in its tracks; very dry, spicy, dense, tannic and austere. Not recommended. About $29.
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Watts Winery Upstream Zinfandel 2012, Mokelumne, Lodi. 15.6% alc. Dark ruby hue with a mulberry rim; an immense presence, fairly well-balanced, considering, but takes on overwhelming ferrous and sanguinary elements and huge dusty tannins; the saving grace is that it’s not sweet, hot or cloying, but not quite coherent or reconciled either. Very Good. About $25.
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Truett-Hurst Old Vine Red Rooster Zinfandel 2012, Dry Creek Valley. 15.7% alc. Medium ruby-cherry color, not super-dark or extracted; very ripe, very spicy and fruity; black and red currants and plums with touches of lavender, licorice and saturated boysenberry; an alcohol after-burn of heat, spice and sweetness, so the finish clashes with the wine’s dryness and austerity on the palate, fundamentally unbalanced. Doesn’t work. About $35.
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Bradford Mountain Grist Vineyard Zinfandel 2012, Dry creek Valley. 15.8% alcohol. 88.2% zinfandel, 10.6% syrah, 1.2% petite sirah. Medium ruby color with a lighter rim; cloves, red and black berries, interesting notes of caraway and sandalwood, but tromps across the palate with boots of dry, austere and astringent tannins coupled with the sweetness of high alcohol in the finish. Nope. About $32.
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Truett-Hurst Old Vine Rattler Rock Zinfandel 2012, Dry Creek Valley. 15.8% alc. Radiant medium ruby hue; a broad, deep, very dry, quite austere wine, awkward, unbalanced, hot and sharp on the finish. Nuff said. About $35.
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Harney Lane Zinfandel 2011, Lodi. 15.9% alc. Dark ruby-purple; ripe, spiced and macerated blackberries and blueberries infused with cloves and graphite, a sort of mineral-laced cocktail of sweet and roasted black and blue fruit, touched with pomegranate and brandy-soaked raisins; acidity plows a row on the palate, preceding formidably dusty, lithic tannins leading to an austere finish. Maybe with a steak, or maybe not. Very Good+. About $22.
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Priest Ranch Somerston Estate Zinfandel 2012, Napa Valley. 16.2% alc. Medium ruby with a garnet rim; cloves, allspice and sandalwood make an exotic festoon; black and red currants and plums, with notes of blueberries, lavender and red licorice; outlandishly plush, dusty yet rigorous tannins dominate the palate, yet the finish is over-ripe and sweet. Awkward and ungainly. Forget it. About $40.
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Martinelli Lolita Ranch Zinfandel 2013, Russian River Valley. 16.3% alc. 253 cases. When I see that a table wine tops the charts at 16.3 percent alcohol, my reaction tends to run along the lines of “You have to be fucking kidding me,” but no, they’re not kidding. Moderate ruby color, almost transparent; roasted blackberries, currants and plums; fruitcake; very spicy and peppery; cloying alcoholic sweetness and heat; very dry, formidably austere tannins; clunky and chunky. Doesn’t work. About $52.
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