Amador County


No holds are barred in California, unlike in the Old World, where government agencies determine where grapes can be grown and what grapes go into certain wines. Many wines, of course, are famous for their combinations of grapes, like Chateauneuf-du-Pape, which may contain any ratio of up to 13 grapes, red and white, or Bordeaux, where winemakers fashion cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc (primarily) into some of the world’s most elegant, powerful and best-known red wines. No such customs or regulations abide in the Golden State, and today we look at five wines that offer some unusual blends of grapes, some more successfully than others. The trick is to create a blend that delivers distinctive, if not original, qualities rather than something than comes out smelling and tasting like a generic “red wine.” These wines were samples for review. Enjoy!
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Bonny Doon Vineyards A Proper Claret 2013, California. 13.5% alc. Cabernet sauvignon 46%, merlot 17%, tannat 15%, petit verdot 13%, syrah 8%, petite sirah 1%, the point being that this is a very improper claret — Bordeaux red wine — indeed. Dark ruby-purple with a magenta rim; solid, tannic, fills the mouth with briers, brambles and underbrush but builds layers of cloves and allspice, cedar, ancho chili, then undertones of dusty black currants, raspberries and plums; no molly-coddle here, intense and concentrated, lip-smacking acidity; dense, chewy; needs a medium rare strip steak or a great joint of venison. Now through 2018 to 2020. Loads of personality. Very Good+. About $16, a Real Bargain.
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Casey Flat Ranch Estate Red Wine 2012, Capay Valley, Yolo County. 14.8% alc. Cabernet sauvignon 56%, syrah 30%, cabernet franc 13% viognier 1%. Dense ruby-purple; cassis, black cherries and raspberries; hints of menthol, violets, hedge and heather, then graphite and underbrush, leather and mocha; bushy and brushy but succulent, balanced, integrated; a touch of the iodine-and-iron complex (sounds like a vitamin) under delicious black fruit flavors with a note of blue; wild berry notes, licorice and lavender lend some elevation to a wine of true class, distinction and character. Now through 2020 to ’22 with steaks and braised meats. Excellent. About $45.
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Gnarly Head Limited Release Authentic Black 2012, Lodi. (Delicato Family Vineyards) 14.5% alc. Petite sirah-based blend. A limited edition wine for Fall. The problem with the Gnarly Head wines is that they’re not gnarly enough. One of the purplest and most opaque wines I have ever seen; very ripe, spicy, grapy, gamy; plummy and jammy with sweetish blackberry, blueberry and currant scents and flavors, plush and velvety, “soft in the middle,” as Paul Simon says; quite juicy, smoky, a little loamy; comes across as unfocused and inauthentic. Good+. About $12.
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Juxtapoz Red Wine Blend 2012, North Coast. (Delicato Family Vineyards) 15% alc. Syrah 55%, zinfandel 23%, petite sirah 9%, malbec 6%, cabernet sauvignon 4%, “other reds” 3%. Dark ruby with an opaque center; first impression is of woody spices and walnut shell, then ripe black currants, cherries and plums, hints of plum skin, cedar and black olive; a few moments in the glass bring in notes of slightly caramelized fennel; scrunchy tannins and bright acidity make a fairly robust wine; you feel the alcoholic heat a bit on the finish; takes an hour or so for this to come together, and it finally convinced me that it worked. Cheesy label, though. Drink now through 2016 to ’18. Very Good+. About $25.
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Renwood Clarion Red Wine 2012, Amador County. 15% alc. 25% each zinfandel, petite sirah, syrah and marsanne; that’s right, one-quarter of this wine is from white grapes. Dark ruby purple color; a deep spicy wine, bursting with notes of blackberries, black currants and blueberries permeated by violets, lavender, potpourri and graphite; sleek, supple and integrated and manages not to be overwhelmed by the alcohol content; picks up hints of cloves, walnut shell, briers and brambles through a wildly fruity but earthy, mineral-packed finish. Tasty and intriguing. Drink now through 2016 or ’17. Very Good+. About $20.
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This post started as the Weekend Wines Notes on Friday, but if you follow me on Facebook, you know that this was a weekend of dog rescuing and transporting, so I was not able to finish until this morning. So be it.

First, allow me to mention that zinfandel is not “the all-American grape” that some writers still inexplicably assert, mainly in popular magazines. It’s a European vinifera grape just like cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot noir, chardonnay, riesling and so on. Second, while capable of being made into fine wine indeed, zinfandel has the problem of being too versatile, that is, it can be made into a confusing array of styles so that consumers don’t know what they’re getting when they choose a bottle at their favorite retail store, but that’s why knowledgeable sales clerks exist, n’est-ce pas? In today’s edition of Weekend Wine Notes, I look at products from three producers that focus on zinfandel; in the case of two of these, McCay Cellars and Wine Guerrilla, the wines are designated single-vineyard. One style of zinfandel is full-throttle, super-ripe, dense and alcoholic; that’s the style favored by Wine Guerrilla winemaker Bruce Patch. It’s not my favorite manner — I think it distorts the grape’s character and results in undrinkable wines — and that stance is reflected in the reviews that follow. I liked three of Patch’s 2009s better, and I admire him for working with these historic old vine field blend vineyards; here are the more positive reviews. These wines were review samples. Unfortunately, label images for McCay’s recent releases don’t exist; at least I couldn’t find any.
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McCay Cellars Equity Vineyard Zinfandel 2010, Lodi. 14.4% alc. 288 cases. Dark ruby color, tinge of mulberry; intense and concentrated, graphite and briers, black currants, blackberries and plums, licorice and lavender; sleek and polished but dry; vibrant acidity plows through the center; loads of dusty tannins and oak; notes of cloves, sandalwood, fruitcake, hint of pomegranate; dense and chewy, a real mouthful of wine that flows beautifully on the palate. Try from 2015 through 2018 to ’20. Excellent. About $32.
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McCay Cellars TruLux Vineyard Zinfandel 2010, Lodi. 14.4% alc. 278 cases. Slightly darker and more intense ruby color than the previous example; iodine, iron and graphite; fruit and floral elements both fresh and dried; black currants, blackberry and blueberry; potpourri, bitter chocolate, heaps of briers, brambles and underbrush; very intense and concentrated, even brooding, but quite vibrant and resonant; finish is packed with granitic minerality, dusty tannins and dried spices. Try from 2015 or ’16 through 2019 or ’20. Excellent. About $32.
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McCay Cellars Jupiter Vineyard Zinfandel 2010, Lodi. 14.6% alc. 449 cases. Dark ruby color with a touch of magenta; intense minerality yet warm and spicy; very dry dusty grainy tannins and oak sanding the circumference, but zinging acidity adds liveliness; a dense, deeply spicy and dusty graphite propelled zinfandel that needs a year or two; presently a bit inexpressive. Try from 2015 or ’16 to 2020 or ’21. Very Good+. About $28.
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McCay Cellars Contention Vineyard Zinfandel 2010, Lodi. 14.9% alc. 223 cases. Dense dark ruby-purple color; spiced and macerated blackberries, black raspberries and plums, rather fleshy and meaty; iron and iodine; a very intense and savory core of potpourri, lavender, fruitcake, bitter chocolate and graphite; a huge mouthful of wine with austere tannin-oak-and-mineral-infused finish. Try from 2015 or ’16 to 2020 or ’22. Very Good+ with Excellent potential. About $64.
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Renwood Zinfandel 2011, California. 14.5% alc. 86% zinfandel, 10% primitivo, 2% roussanne, 1% each mourvedre and souzao. Bright medium ruby color; black currants, plums and blueberries with a touch of red raspberry; briers and brambles, intriguing hints of mocha and cherry cola; shapely and moderate tannins. A tasty zinfandel. Now through 2014. Very Good+. About $15, representing Good Value.
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Renwood Premier Old Vine Zinfandel 2010, Amador County. 15.5% alc. 92.5% zinfandel, 5.8% syrah, 1.7% souzao. Medium ruby color; spiced , macerated, roasted and fleshy; bristly black and red currants, a rasp of raspberries and rose hips; fresh and clean but with the dried spice, espresso bean and fruitcake note of old vines; finish is fairly austere and somewhat unbalanced with a touch of alcoholic heat and sweetness. Drink through 2015. Very Good. About $20.
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Renwood Fiddletown Zinfandel 2011, Amador County. 14.8% alc. 99% zinfandel, 1% mission grapes. Lovely medium ruby color, slightly lighter at the rim; red and black currants, red and black cherries, notes of blueberries; briers and underbrush elements, violets and tobacco leaf, cloves, mocha and a beguiling hint of pomegranate; very satisfying balance and integration; dusty graphite and tannins, a dry but not austere or forbidding red wine, perfect for Thanksgiving dinner. Now through 2015. Excellent. About $25.
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Wine Guerrilla McClain Vineyard Zinfandel 2011, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County. 14.5% alc. 80% zinfandel, 20% petite sirah. Dark ruby-purple color; very ripe boysenberry, blueberry, blackberry, with iodine, mint and graphite, smoke, lavender, violets; juicy blue and black fruit flavors permeated by dusty granitic minerality and tart acidity, all set in a structure of powerful tannins; a not pleasing sensation of a dry red wine that feels sweet; will a few years tone down the effect? Good. About $35.
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Wine Guerrilla Clopton Vineyard Old Vine Zinfandel 2011, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 14.5% alc. A field blend of zinfandel, palomino and alicante bouschet. Dark ruby-purple color; blackberry, blueberry tart, super-ripe sweet fruit packed with cloves, allspice, sandalwood and hints of rhubarb and beetroot and loam; big, dense and powerful, relentlessly dry yet almost cloying with sweet ripeness so the balance feels off; will a few years bring coherence? Good. About $40.
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Wine Guerrilla Carreras Ranch Block 2 Old Vine Zinfandel 2011, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County. 14.5% alc. A field blend of zinfandel, petite sirah, Napa gamay, alicante bouschet, chasselas dore. Dark ruby-purple, almost opaque; deep, rooty, loamy and earthy; smoke, leather, briers and brambles; intense and concentrated, very dry, dusty and minerally; dense, almost viscous, has the dignity and power of old vines — these planted in 1916 — as well as the intensity and concentration. Now through 2019 to ’20. Excellent. About $40.
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WG Sonoma Monte Rosso Vineyard Block E44 Zinfandel 2010, Sonoma Valley. 15% alc. 200 cases. Very dark ruby-purple color; smoke, plums and blueberry tart; heady notes of cloves and sandalwood, violets and lavender; deeply earthy and mineral-laden in the graphite and granite range; stout, dusty leathery tannins; feel some heat on the finish; next morning, quite dense, austere, almost astringent oak and tannin influence; will the fruit survive? Not recommended except for those who want to take a chance. About $35.
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Wine Guerrilla Conte Vineyard Zinfandel 2010, Russian River Valley. 15.6% alc. 120 cases. 85% zinfandel, 10% petite sirah, the rest grenache and carignane. Deep ruby color with a magenta rim shading to garnet; very ripe, stridently spicy; boysenberry and blackberry tart; sweetish alcohol; both super-ripe and austere; uncoordinated and unbalanced. Not recommended. About $30.
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