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WINE

Zinfandel Finds Itself

July 28, 1999|CHARLES OLKEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There was a time when the California wine trade treated Zinfandel as cheap Cabernet Sauvignon. Then the grape got popular and prices started to rise, even as the price of Cabernet held steady.

To no one's surprise, Zinfandel's popularity soon faded, and had it not been for the advent of White Zinfandel (made from the same grapes that a few years earlier had been producing full-bodied red wines), lots of older Zinfandel vineyards would have been pulled out and replaced.

There have always been producers, of course, who were making Zinfandel in riper, fleshier, more outgoing styles, but it took a while for the world to realize that Zinfandel can be a truly opulent, rich, intense wine whose making owes nothing to Cabernet and everything to what the grape is capable of delivering.

Producers like Ridge and Ravenswood were at the forefront of this movement. Soon, an upstart winery, started in a backyard in Alameda, came along to advance the cause of "slurpy" Zinfandel even further.

Rosenblum Cellars, begun in 1978 as an outgrowth of an award-winning home winemaking effort, has become rather large and highly successful. It is still in Alameda, in the heart of the urban Bay Area, but now it is a big winery in a large converted boat building facility (with a fabulous view of San Francisco across the bay from its second-story tasting room).

Kent Rosenblum's philosophy is simply that Zinfandel should taste good. He accomplishes that, and wins lots of applause in the process, by making his wines fruity, open, concentrated and inviting. This is the Zinfandel of the future.

* * * 1997 Rosenblum Cellars "Samsel Vineyard, Maggie's Reserve," Sonoma County, $30. This wine--the best of more than 115 Zinfandels I've tasted recently--offers a dazzling blend of ripe, outgoing fruit suggestive of blackberries and prunes, in near-perfect harmony with a fair measure of creamy, vanilla-like oakiness. Full in body without being heavy and impressively stuffed from the first inviting sniff to a lengthy, fruit-filled aftertaste, it is a lovely wine now and can only gain in smoothness and refinement over the next three to six years.

* * 1997 Ridge Vineyards "Lytton Springs Vineyard," Dry Creek Valley, $27.50. The wines from Lytton Springs, one of California's most famous Zinfandel properties, have long been noted for their intense flavor and full body. They have also been among the longest-aging Zins. This wine meets all these standards, even if it does veer a bit toward the bold, brash, overripe side of the Zinfandel personality. This will be a favorite of those who like its brawny, gutsy, concentrated style, yet it will go well with food. It is sure to disappear from the market soon.

$ * * 1996 Marietta Cellars, Sonoma County, $15. If less noteworthy for sheer scale than the preceding entry, this delightful wine earns its stars for direct, fully ripened, uncomplicated fruit. It is sweet and juicy with an invitingly plump texture, and its long and lively flavors sing of ripe berries and oak. Less tannic than many Zinfandels, and thus suited to early drinking, it could still be held for a couple of years.

* 1997 Lolonis Winery, Redwood Valley, Mendocino, $16. Attractive, moderately open in style and reasonably generous with its berry fruit aromas, this offering, from a winery whose Zin seems to score well year after year, is ripe and somewhat round on the palate with only a bit of distracting heat at the end. But never mind about small quibbles: Serving it with pasta or barbecue will soften that finish and make the Lolonis into a most welcome partner at the table.

$ * 1997 Rosenblum Cellars, Contra Costa County, $14. Although this has been a very popular wine over the years, this vintage is a bit controversial in wine-tasting circles because it pushes the envelope toward a bit of chocolate over-ripeness. Still, it has a solid center of fruit, and nowhere does its ripeness translate into excessive heat or tannin. This is simply a nice, tasty, fleshy wine in need of no cellaring or ceremony.

$ 1997 Chateau Souverain, Dry Creek Valley, $11. Blended with small but noticeable amounts of Syrah (10%) and Petite Sirah (4%), this middle-density wine adds a bit of spice to its wholly dependable fruit, even if some tannic roughness intrudes at the finish. Probably not deep enough to warrant much bottle aging, it belongs in that family of well-muscled Zinfandels that work so well in their youth with smoky chops and ribs hot off the barbecue.

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Definition of Symbols

* * * A world-class wine, superb by any measure, the top 1% to 2% of all wines tasted.

* * An exceptional wine, well worth the effort to find, 10% to 12% of wines tasted.

* An admirable wine, tasty, focused, attractive, about 25% of wines tasted.

No Rating: The best are quite pleasant and can be good buys when moderately priced.

$ Good value for the money.

x Below average quality, to be avoided.

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