Original Zins

Original Zins
The award-winning wine writer Karen MacNeil has a good gimmick going: She applies human personality traits to wines. In various forums she has matched varietials to people based on their non-wine habits (Cabernet Sauvignon drinkers are diplomatic, conservative, and like expensive things), and she has gone so far as to characterize grapes as Hollywood movie stars (Marilyn Monroe is Chardonnay, you see, because both are voluptuous and round).

It’s a fun way to think about these matters, but only up to a point. And that point was reached when MacNeil compared Zinfandel to Richard Dreyfuss: “the guy next door; friendly, open, not quite so tight and pulled together.”

Zinfandel, you must demand satisfaction! To be forever linked to the sweaty star of The Competition and Mr. Holland’s Opus need not stand. You deserve better.

Zin (as the grape is known to its friends and detractors alike) does tend to inspire flights of fancy on the part of writers. Grown almost solely in California, it tends toward the jammy, the exuberant, the uncomplicated. It’s a grape that beginners can frequently identify in a blind tasting—it stands out in a room.

The average Zin is a great match for barbecue or a steak, and doesn’t require too much brainpower: The up-front fruit immediately satisfies and somehow closes off further consideration. You wouldn’t debate a Michael Bay movie right? (Oops, there I go with a pop culture comparison.)

But I’ve never been interested in average wines, so last month I tasted 15 above-average Zins, and found a few I could crow about. Turns out Zinfandel can have polish and sophistication, too, especially when harvested from a single well-tended vineyard, as in these three remarkable bottles.

Mazzocco Winery is a family-owned business in Sonoma—the county that is home to most Zinfandels, and certainly to the best of them—and they are turning out some serious vino. Mazzocco Winery Sonoma Maple Vineyard 2005 ($36) is a big sweet wine rich in black cherry and pepper flavors. Incredibly, it has 16.8 percent alcohol—an absolutely huge number (13.5 to 16 percent is the norm for most reds) and one in a zone that I’m generally opposed to, because it unbalances most wines. But the winemaker got away with it here; it doesn’t seem steroided at all, but rather exudes a subtle power. A neat trick.

Dashe Cellars, another Sonoma Zin specialist, has been honing the art of single-vineyard creations for a dozen years now, and it’s paying off. The wines are made by Michael and Anne Dashe, a husband-and-wife team who draw on both their California experience and Anne’s winemaking education in Bordeaux.

Dashe Cellars Dry Creek Valley Florence Vineyard Zinfandel 2005 ($32) is the first wine they’ve made from this plot of land, and it’s a winner: a bouquet of roses on the nose (unusual for Zin) and tons of ripe (but not exactly sweet) raspberry and blueberry notes.

It’s equaled by the spicy, potpourri-scented Dashe Cellars Louvau Vineyard Old Vines Zinfandel 2005 ($32), a classic example of what vines with age can do. These ancient plants produce grapes that create an intense wine with a dusty, spicy edge and plenty of black fruit. It’s quite classy and symmetrical, but still sexy—in a weak moment I’d be tempted to say it’s like the shy librarian who one day lets her hair down, and then all of a sudden…

Lucky for me, I’m not prone to that kind of metaphor.

Ted Loos, executive editor of Art+Auction magazine, is the former features editor of Wine Spectator and has written on wine for Bon Appétit, Town & Country, and many other publications. He's the author of Town & Country Wine Companion: A Tasting Guide and Journal (Hearst Books; $12.95), published in fall 2007. "In the Cellar" appears on ARTINFO every other Wednesday.