On February 5th I met up with a number of great colleagues including David Glancy, Deborah Parker Wong, Bruce Cass, Elaine Brown, Gilian Handleman, Traci Dutton and Fred Swan, as well as a few envoys from Lodi including Stuart Spencer, Camron King, Kimberly Charles and Jordan Carmack.
Some 57 Zinfandels (up to two per producer) had been submitted to vie for the Top 12 selections that will be used to promote Lodi Zinfandel over the next year or two. I've participated in this selection in the past, and there are always a healthy number of fine wines, thanks to Lodi's exceptional reservoir of very old Zinfandel vineyards.
Lodi's grape growing heritage dates back to the late 1800's, but as late as two decades ago, most of Lodi's grapes were grown by family farmers who sold most of them to large wine companies. There were 50 year old vineyards selling grapes for a couple of hundred dollars per ton - grapes that would be used to make Sutter Home White Zinfandel. It sounds ridiculous, but it's true.
After 2000, that really started to change. Winegrowers realized they were going to have to get more out of their crops, either by developing their own wineries and brands, or by selling them to local boutique vintners.
It has been a process for local growers. There have been fits and starts, successes and failures, and a lot of consultants involved, but Lodi has slowly and steadily made a name for itself. I think it's safe to say that there is more diversity of quality Zinfandel from Lodi than we might have seen five or ten years ago. I say that having judged this competition in earlier years.
This year's competition spanned a few vintages, including the cool 2010 and 2011 vintages. Some of the wines were pretty, floral and elegant, others were concentrated and decadent, and many fell somewhere in-between. A few had some bitter, green flavors, but that's to be expected in unusually cool vintages.
The judges rated the wines on a 1 to 10 point scale. My ratings ranged from 1 (for a wine that I thought was fatally flawed) to 9 (for several wines that I thought were pretty terrific). All of the wines that made the cut got at least a 6 from me, which I would characterize as 'above average.' I think some of the other judges had more tightly-grouped scores, and in the end, I'm told that the scores were tightly-grouped in general. There was a run-off between four wines for the final three spots in the final twelve.
Here are the final twelve in my personal order of preference with some tasting notes. Some very different wines were among my favorites, and for me, that's the most telling result of the tasting: Lodi now has a more diverse pool of winemaking talent, and they're making more diverse wines.
1. JC van Staden 'La Tau' 2012 Zinfandel ($20) South African winemaker who makes wines for another label or two from Lodi as well as this, his own certified Lodi Rules Zin. An exceptionally elegant Zin, relatively light in color with a pretty, floral nose, delicately peppery with raspberry fruit, great length and finesse.A genuinely fresh take on the grape that still presents great varietal character. (9/10)
2. Macchia 2012 'Mischievous' Zinfandel ($22) Tim Holdener has proven himself over and over again in blind tastings to be one of the best winemakers of the region. I'm hardly surprised to see another of his wines in the top twelve. Vivacious violet and blueberry aromas, plenty of ripe fruit, perfectly integrated oak, great acidity and a long finish. (9/10)
3. Watts Winery 2012 'Upstream' Zinfandel ($25) I remember meeting with this family in Lodi a decade ago. They had been growing grapes for generations, but were just starting their own label. The wines were not great. I'm happy to say this was one of my favorites. What a way they have come upstream. Perfectly ripe and elegant with a lovely nose of rose, violet and cherry, flavorful and even. (9/10)
4. Tierra Davina Vineyards !Za Zin 2010 Old Vine Zinfandel Another previous winner from winemaker Patrick Campbell, it had good concentration and nice, even ripeness with enough tannin to keep the ripe Zinfandel fruit in perfect check. Great overall balance. (8/10)
5. Michael David 2012 'Earthquake' Zinfandel ($26) Another bold, perennial selection. It's a ballbuster of a wine, but they do it well, and I've seen this wine pass plenty of critical exams. If you like 'em big, this is one for you. Deep color, concentrated jammy fruit, but it carries the weight well and maintains a good overall balance. (8/10)
6. Heritage Oak Winery 'ZINHEAD' 2011 Zinfandel ($25) A really nice medium-weight Zin. Fruity, aromatic and spicy. It just comes together remarkably well and shows a delicate winemaking hand.
7. Ehrenberg Cellars 2010 Zinfandel ($18) Made in Alameda from what my sources tell me, it's got great Zinfandel character with luscious raspberry fruit, quality oak and shows lovely overall balance. (8/10)
8. Harney Lane 2011 Zinfandel ($22) Exotic spice aromas with good depth of flavor, red and black fruit and a slightly bitter finish checking the generous fruit. (7/10)
9. Lange Twins 2010 'Centennial' Zinfandel ($60) One of the last of the tasting, but still made an impression with a savory nose, deep red and black currant flavors and well-integrated oak. Very well-made. (7/10)
10. Jessie's Grove 2011 'Westwind' Zinfandel ($32) Not surprised to see one from these guys in the top twelve, either, since they own some of the oldest, best tended vineyards in the region. Balances some sweet, but not overly sweet Zinfandel fruit with subtle savory notes. (6/10)
11. McCay Cellars 2010 'Trulux' Zinfandel ($32) A heavy-handed, but very well-made Zin with jammy, concentrated fruit and savory aromas that finish long and even with admirably balanced alcohol. (6/10)
12. Michael David 2011 '7 Deadly Zins' Zinfandel ($16) Not my favorite, but a great value and very well-made with nice deep color, brambly berry aromas, notes of chocolate, cranberry and good acidity. Don't love the barrel treatment or (possibly?) oak additives, which detract from the charm. (6/10)
BEST OF THE REST
There were a handful of other Zins that I personally liked very much that didn't make the cut. Here are those wines and how I scored them:
Twisted Roots 2012 '1918' Old Vine Zinfandel ($35) (9/10)
Klinker Brick 2011 'Old Ghost' Zinfandel ($37) (9/10)
E2 Family Winery 2012 'Zagan's Fire Estate Grown' Old Vine Zinfandel ($15) (8/10)
St. Sophia 2009 Zinfandel ($25) (8/10)
d'Art Wines 2012 Zinfandel ($25) (8/10)