Amador County


… 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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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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