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[whitespace] Ranking the Big Reds

So many tastings, so little time

By Christina Waters

Renwood Winery, Amador County, 1996: My yearlong love affair with zins all started with a sip of Renwood--great things in zinfandel start with "R." There are several grades of Renwood, ranging in price from $20 to $40, depending upon the vineyard of origin. But you can depend upon discovering huge, powerful, romantic flavors in any of them, thanks to the complexity of Renwood estate's old vines, some of them 135 years old and said to be the oldest in California. Peppery, celestial and filled with the essence of the Sierra foothills.

Ravenswood Vintners Blend, 1997: An impressive achievement for $7.99. Elegantly low in alcohol (13.5 percent) yet filled with the bravura and berries that live up to winemaker Joel Peterson's dictum, "No Wimpy Wines." Youthful and vigorous, this sassy zin is the wine-lover's best friend, big enough to take on a puttanesca, and yet well-structured enough to have delicious manners.

Ridge, Geyserville, 1995 ($30): Blending only 62 percent zinfandel grapes with petite sirah, carignan and mataro for firmer structure-- all from the same vineyard in Sonoma County--this is an inky, purple beautiful. Succulent as a bruised plum and huge with peppery meatiness with a nose of blackberries and spice, it's worth every penny of its $30 price tag.

Ridge, Lytton Springs, 1995 ($30): Still big and boasting more than a modicum of complexity, this one is noticeably soft. Its definition is fading.

Ridge, Paso Robles, Late-Picked, 1997 ($23): Loaded with 95 percent zinfandel, this opulent earth mother sips like a stained-glass window. A true Grape Goddess, laced with blueberries. Not a trivial pursuit.

Ridge, Pagani Ranch, 1996 ($28): My personal favorite. The wine I will request in the next life. Pax pinot, this is the Holy Grail of all red wines. Not overwhelming, but gorgeously welcoming--a supple tryst with cassis, blackberries and nutmeg strewn on the forest floor. Like a smoldering kiss, sunset at Point Lobos, an Ingmar Bergman movie, midnight in the garden of good and evil.

Dashe Cellars, Dry Creek, 1996 ($19): Wonderful stuff from former Ridge assistant Michael Dashe. Splendidly drinkable, restrained and elegantly structured, front-loaded with raspberries and an encore of allspice. Yes!

J. Fritz Winery, Old Vine, Dry Creek Valley, 1996 ($19.99): Huge, deep red, this gorgeous zin is rife with spice and ripe cherries.

Robert Biale, 1996 ($20): So filled with information that you almost can't drink it with food. It's a meal unto itself, packed with layerings of plums, cherries, mushrooms and blackberries. Massive.

Rosenblum Cellars, 20th Anniversary, Sonoma Valley Cullinane Vineyard, 1996 ($25.99): At this price, it should--and does--deliver a memorable sensuous hit. A musky floral foreground opens into black cherries and pepper, then a few notes of chocolate and mango--finally, after a half hour, a finish of cloves. Very multi-culti.

Shenandoah Vineyards, Amador County, 1996: A big glassful of nicely balanced spice and fruit--everything you could want for $9.99 a bottle.

Sobon Estate, Rocky Top, Shenandoah, 1996: Huge, inky, masculine, this superbly aggressive zin suggests its granite and mineral origins.

Storrs, Central Coast, 1996 ($18): This well-made zinfandel from a variety of grapes offers a hint of banana in the nose and a decidedly feminine roundness. Spicy finish, with a hint of naughtiness.

Savannah-Chanel Vineyards, Santa Cruz Mountains, 1996 ($19.99): Made from 19th-century vines, this zin offers a refined bouquet of mixed berries. Comes on lavishly, but its high-octane content (15 percent alcohol) erases any middle.

Storybook Mountain Vineyards, Estate Mayacamas Range, 1996: Just the right balance of moderate alcohol and raspberry flavors give this lightly tannic zin a whirl. Not complex enough to justify the $20 price tag, but not chopped liver.

Zabaco, Sonoma County, 1994: Begins with fruit and develops into a peppery nose. Then come mouthfuls of red currants and leather--a delightful surprise for under $10.

Zayante, Central Coast, 1996 ($10): More center than finish, this modest zinfandel leans toward earthy, savory intimations, rather than expected spice. Some berries hang in there and make it a good partner for foods.

Fortino, Santa Clara Valley, Old Vine Red NV ($5.99): Grab a bowl of pasta and partner it with this sturdily made, no-apologies zinfandel designed for Italian food lovers. Sips like a $10 wine.

Old Wines: My oenophiliac friend David Hoy pulled the cork on two of his cellar wines--Ridge Park-Muscatine 1983 and 1989--and a Ridge Coast Range 1996. My impressions, in descending order, were predictable. The 1996 zinfandel was polite (13.3 percent alcohol), yet opened into a full-throated bouquet of berries and a hint of vanilla. The 1989 still had enough tannin to stand up to a ripe gorgonzola, but the thin finish resembled the mere memory of a wine. The 1983, enigmatic and elusive, failed to show up in the glass. Drink zins early and often!

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From the October 6-13, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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