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The Paso Robles region has been a winemaking
area since the late 1800s, but there were not too many wineries there.
A few such as Rotta and Pesenti seemed to specialize in Zinfandel, but these
were not especially noteworthy. We recall visiting the area in the
1970s and wondered how they managed to find customers.
Santa Barbara was a novelty in those days, too, despite having very little
vineyard land in production.
Gary Eberle, though, was exploring the region, finding Napa and Sonoma land
to be out of the question. He was a football player in college at Penn
State, taking the field for the famous coaching legend, Joe Paterno.
Eberle was a biologist and after Penn State he went to Louisiana State
University to study cellular genetics. An LSU professor shared
Eberle's appreciation for wine, but on a whole different level.
Gary was at the entry-level stage, drinking the popular wines of the day
such as Mateus Rosé and Blue Nun Liebfraumilch. The more sophisticated
professor introduced his to top Bordeaux and this ignited the passion for
Soon he was enrolled at UC Davis and studying enology with the late, great
Professor Harold Olmo. And the Paso Robles/San Luis Obispo
region was pretty much untapped, so Olmo had him monitoring the weather
there as well as evaluating soils or, if you prefer, terroir.
In 1973 the Estrella River Winery was just starting and Eberle became
affiliated with that brand. One of the novelties at Estrella was they
made wine from the rather obscure Syrah grape. The place grew quickly
and was a bit out of control. These days that facility is the Meridian
winery, a large, rather industrial producer.
Gary went on to start his own winery, though. His first vintage of
Eberle wine was 1979 and there's significance to the logo: a boar (Eberle
While he's well-known for his Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah wines, Eberle
also makes an old-school Zinfandel. It's 100% Zinfandel and, yes, it's
high octane at 15.1% alcohol. But the wine has higher acidity than you
typically find in Paso Robles and the pH is right in the ideal place for the
wine to shine with food and cellar well.
The grapes come from three vineyard sites. It's vinified fairly
conventionally and see but a small percentage of new oak. This may be
too subtle for some wine drinkers, as it's not much of a fruit bomb and the
oak is rather mild.
But it pairs handsomely with ribs, burgers, meatloaf and Mediterranean fare.
- Currently in stock: 2017 EBERLE Paso Robles
John Williams has long been turning out elegant and refined bottlings of
Napa Valley Zinfandel.
And while we count him as one of the best Zin-makers in the state, we'll
bet few experts and few consumers would mention Frog's Leap as a source of
Yet he typically makes one of the state's most drinkable bottles of
One feature that sets his wine apart from most others is that it's usually
less than 14% alcohol. This is rather unheard of.
Most winemakers pick the uneven ripening Zinfandel grape when it's very
high in sugar and so you'll often encounter fragrances that are a bit
raisiny. While this is not uncommon, some of us view it as a
Williams also has another trick up his sleeve, apart from grapes picked
when ripe but not raisined. He co-ferments other grapes with
Zinfandel and these routinely get harvested at a low sugar
Petite Sirah and Carignane are co-fermented with Zinfandel in an
effort to produce a wine weighing in below 14% alcohol. Sometimes
there's a bit of Valdiguie in the blend, but not this vintage. And,
thanks to some heat spikes, the alcohol level this year is 14.1%, so they
missed their target of less than 14%.
John matures the wine for about 13 months in oak and concrete cubes.
The 2017 shows a
nicely woodsy note and you can easily tell it's American oak. The
wine displays dark berry notes, a hint of spice and a faintly woodsy tone.
It's medium-full bodied on the palate, but not the inky, ponderous sort of
wine that seems to typify Zinfandel these days.
Think of this as a Zinfandel with manners.
It also carries a well-behaved price tag...
The 2017 is oh-so-drinkable now and it will likely live through 2027+ and
still be a good, delicious bottle of wine.
Who knows? It may live even longer, especially if you have a cool
We tasted the 2018 and it's a good bottle, but it seems they've increased
its price something like 15% and we have skipped it until its price is
more in line with its quality and value.
Currently in stock: 2017 FROG'S LEAP NAPA ZINFANDEL Sold
ORIN SWIFT'S)) "THE
you're looking for a fellow named Orin Swift at this winery, you're going to
be out of luck.
The owner and winemaker was Dave Phinney and you might think Orin Swift is
his Witness Protection Program pseudonym. It is not. His dad's
middle name was Orin and his mom's maiden name was Swift...so, Orin Swift.
Dave spent some time in Italy and, of course, fell in love with wine.
When he returned to the U.S., he was in Arizona and worked in a wine shop
trying to sell wine to beer drinkers. The University of Arizona had
planted an entire acre of an experimental vineyard and I gather Phinney got
some dirt under his fingernails before heading to the University of Robert
Mondavi in Napa for an internship.
Mondavi, Opus and Whitehall name are tattoos he sports, but the best one was
his own "Orin Swift Cellars" logo.
The most famous wine from Orin Swift is a Zinfandel-based blend that's
become quite popular and for good reason. The wine features the
painting of Francisco Goya called "Le Petit Prisonier" and it's
called The Prisoner.
The Prisoner label was sold (or Phinney took on a partner).
The new owner is Augustin Huneeus who owns the Quintessa brand from Napa and
a Chilean portfolio called Veramonte as well as having invested in the
Flowers winery in the Sonoma Coast appellation. But then in 2016 Huneeus had
the huge drinks company called Constellation sniffing around and they paid
him $285 to bail out The Prisoner and a few other labels that were amongst
Huneeus is reported to have paid less than $50 million and then, a few years
later, he sells this to Constellation for close to $300.
This wine is the epitome of what wine critic Robert Parker referred to as having
"gobs of fruit." Yes, it's definitely a fruit
Under Phinney's jurisdiction, consumers knew the wine was made from Napa
fruit and he would publish each vintage's "recipe," telling us
what grapes were incarcerated in each vintage.
Now that the brand has grown, all Constellation will say is that the wine is
allegedly made of a similar blend without revealing the percentages.
This would be Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petite Sirah and
They still cite two vineyard sources in the Napa Valley on their web site,
but then the wine carries a "California" appellation, meaning they
can blend fruit from anywhere in the state.
Despite now incorporating, likely, less costly fruit, the wine still carries
its hefty price tag.
Remember that Constellation is the company that makes and sells
"Mega Purple," a grape concentrate that adds color and more to a
Read our friend Dan
Berger's article on this product...no winemaker ever admits to
using this, though. We're not saying there's Mega Purple in this wine,
but it wouldn't be a surprise.
- Currently in stock:
ORIN SWIFT "The Prisoner" SALE $54.99
2019 "The Prisoner" 3-liter bottle SALE $289.99
BLACK SEARS WINERY
- A couple of psychologists were crazy enough to purchase a large
chunk of property atop Napa's "Howell Mountain" and
there were apple trees, some grapevines and forest land.
Neither was particularly skilled in farming, but they took care of
the existing vines, mostly Zinfandel, and planted some other
varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.
Of the slightly more than 400 acres, Black Sears has a bit less
than 30 acres of vines. Early on they sold all the fruit but
in the late 1980s they vinified a bit of fruit and today the
winery usually produces less than a thousand cases of wine
Joyce Black and Jerre Sears were running out of steam in the early
2000s and thought about simply selling the property, but their
daughter Ashley and her husband Chris packed their bags in Seattle
and pull up stakes to move to the Napa Valley.
Happily they're carrying on the Black Sears legacy and doing a
There's not a lot of Zinfandel on Howell Mountain...Cabernet
Sauvignon is quite expensive on that hill.
But Black Sears makes a distinctive, classic Howell Mountain
Zinfandel. It's a big, robust Napa Valley red wine...we like
the blackberry fruit and the underlying spice notes with a touch
of orange peel, perhaps. There's a bit of nice wood, too, as
one-third of the barrels are new.
Currently in stock: BLACK SEARS 2017 Napa
"HOWELL MOUNTAIN" ZINFANDEL $74.99
ONCE & FUTURE
- Once Upon a Time...
Well, this story begins with a fellow named Joel Peterson who had the good
fortune to meet Sonoma wine pioneer Joseph Swan back in the early
1970s. Swan was an airline pilot and he loved exploring French
wines. His enological pursuits led him to bring back cuttings of
Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but he practiced fermentation using Zinfandel
which was a bit more plentiful in those days.
His winemaking was low-tech, but he developed a good following even if his
wines were not the most polished in their day.
Peterson says Swan "took him under his wing" and then a few
years later, with some financial backing and partners, he was the
winemaker for a fledgling enterprise called Ravenswood. He produced
some exceptional, single vineyard wines, but the economic realities of
running such a business pushed him to produce greater quantities of more
And they did.
Peterson was at the helm when Ravenswood had all sorts of "Vintners
Blend" bottlings and they made hundreds of thousands of cases of
well-priced (and well-made) wines. It was a remarkable growth curve
in terms of sales. The company "went public" in 1999 and
things were looking rosy. Two years later Ravenswood was acquired by
Constellation Brands. A few years later, Constellation purchased the
Robert Mondavi winery and it was a huge enterprise.
By 2021 the Ravenswood brand was sold by Constellation to the E & J
Gallo Winery. Ouch!
Around 2013 Joel reassessed his place in the world of wine production and
resigned from Ravenswood to return to making smaller lots of soulful,
His mantra at Ravenswood had been "No Wimpy Wines!"
So these days, in his mid-70s, Peterson works diligently on his
"back to the future" project, Once & Future Wine.
He still is vinifying small lots of various grape varieties from Napa, Sonoma
and Contra Costa counties.
A new vineyard he's now making is that of the Heminway vineyard in the eastern
hills of Napa. Heminway is probably better known in the Zinfandel world as
the Green & Red vineyard, as the Heminway family has been making seriously
good Zinfandels for a few decades.
Peterson gets fruit from Green & Red's Tiptop Vineyard and he co-fermented
Zinfandel with about 20% Petite Sirah. The 2019 is a stellar bottle of
Zinfandel, having been matured in French oak cooperage with approximately 30% of
the barrels being brand new.
We love the plummy, red berry Zin fruit and that mildly woodsy character adding
additional complexity. It's quite enchanting to drink presently and should
likely continue to show well into the late 2020s.
Currently in stock: ONCE & FUTURE 2019 Napa
Valley "GREEN & RED" ZINFANDEL $49.99
BUCKLIN (Old Hill Ranch)
the Sonoma Valley you'll find a vineyard site which was originally planted
in the 1850s by William McPherson Hill in what is now the town of Glen
Old man Hill is long gone, but the Old Hill Ranch continues to thrive, run
by the Bucklin clan, whose parents bought the place in 1981.
In the 1980s, the grapes mostly were purchased by a fledgling little
winery called Ravenswood and this lot was bottled as a single vineyard
wine. We also recall our old friends Bob Roudon and Jim Smith making
an "Old Hill" bottling, or two...that may have been even before
The Bucklins will tell you their parents found the vineyard to be
overgrown and unkempt. Some farm advisor took a look at the place
and suggested ripping out the vines and starting over...but fortunately
they didn't cotton to that notion and so they asked the opinion of some
local winemakers. Joel Peterson, who's a big fan of old, historic
vineyards, suggested they sell the grapes to his winery, Ravenswood.
And soon after, "Old Hill Ranch" became a famed bottling in the
Ravenswood stable of big, powerful Zinfandels.
The vineyard, though, is not entirely Zinfandel. There are several
dozen varieties planted in this one vineyard. They know it's
predominantly Zinfandel and they spent two years examining each vine in
order to ascertain what's there exactly. Colombard, Trousseau,
Tannat, Grand Noir, Lenoir and Chasselas have been identified, along with
more normal varieties such as Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre.
The Bucklins decided to take the winemaking plunge at the turn of the
century and winemaker Will Bucklin was lured back to the old homestead
from his gig as a winemaker for a Willamette Valley winery.
We've tasted Bucklin wines over the years and are delighted to have found
the 2014 Ancient Vines bottling to have hit the mark. It's dark
purple in color and has all sorts of interesting fruit notes. We
find ripe plum, blackberry and some spice, along with a mildly vanilla
bean fragrance. It's full-bodied and dense on the palate. This
is one of those wines which needs a big wine glass and a lot of
swirling--you'll find different nuances emerging over the course of a meal
which adds to the enjoyment of a grand bottle such as this!
The production is limited, of course, as these old vines don't yield a
large crop. Some vintages produce 400 cases. In 2013, there
were precisely 564 cases made. It's a high octane wine, but it
manages to straddle the boundary of balance thanks to intense fruit and
Currently in stock: BUCKLIN 2014 "Ancient Field
Blend" OLD HILL RANCH ZINFANDEL, etc. $34.99
- ROSENBLUM CELLARS
- You can call
him "Doctor" Rosenblum if you like since Kent is also a
veterinarian. I don't think he prescribes Zinfandel for his patients,
but probably for their owners.
Kent Rosenblum was deported from Minnesota around 1970. He has managed
to lose most of the accent, having lived in the Bay Area for so long.
After embracing the California lifestyle, he decided he wanted to explore
making wine, not only drinking it. So he and a neighbor started
producing some homemade wines. Encouraged by the results, he decided
to see about making wine professionally. Rosenblum was able to
convince a banker to lend him enough cash to start a winery. The poor banker
didn't know what a monster he was unleashing! That was in
Now things have gotten seriously out of hand. Rosenblum cellars
produces about 90,000+ cases of wine annually. And Dr. Kent sold the
winery to Diageo, a bazillion dollar drinks company...so there goes the
Rosenblum name, as that's been sold.
They made something like
18 Zinfandels, not to mention really curious things like Vanilla and
Chocolate-flavored "Port" wines. Some of the
Zinfandels approach the style of Port, so perhaps it's not much of a stretch
to produce something that is "port-styled."
In the relative early days, Rosenblum made some nice wines...and later on
with Jeff Cohn as their winemaker, they routinely produced charming, fruity,
berryish Zinfandels. And then...then they got sidetracked.
Then they seemed to be catering to the cocktail crowd.
Many of the wines show deep, saturated colors, extremely ripe fruit, very
high levels of alcohol and, often, residual sugar. For many wine
drinkers, the range of Rosenblum wines is "over the top" as
they're "pushing the envelope" and then some. The
labels don't inform consumers that the Zinfandel inside the bottle may
contain a substantial amount of residual sugar.
From a marketing standpoint, having relatively small lots of wines makes
selling some of them an easier task. You can more comfortably scale a
series of small hills, perhaps, than a high mountain. The character of
the particular region, though, seems to be muted or masked by the current
style of winemaking here. Virtually everything tastes more of
"Rosenblum" winemaking than it does of
They made all sorts of single vineyard Zinfandels and this would have been great
had they picked the fruit when the grapes were ripe instead of picking them
over-ripe. The notion of capturing "terroir" or the
somewhere-ness of a site by making wine from raisined grapes is simply folly
and it's a pity.
But that's what can happen when the marketing people and the accounting crew
have more "say" in the winemaking than well-trained enologists or
Rosenblum wines were typically high in alcohol. That may explain why
one label, years ago, told about the vineyards in Contra Costa, "40
miles west of San Francisco." I called legendary San
Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen who loved making fun of people for
this sort of thing. Kent got some publicity for his wine, as a
result. I hope he didn't hold a grudge!
Well, Rosenblum sold the winery in 2008 to the drinks company called
Diageo. After they drove this place in the wrong direction, the
brand was harvested by the Franzia family and their Bronco Wine
Company. The Rosenblum winery no longer exists and the label is
controlled, sold and marketed by the Franzia clan.
Rosenblum, by the way, had bankrolled his daughter in her wine-making venture
called Rock Wall winery. But most of those wines were over-the-top fruit bombs, too.
In 2022 Shauna Rosenblum shuttered her Rock Wall winery and she was hired
by Ridge Vineyards to be their lead winemaker.
We wish her good luck.
Currently in stock:
2006 "Rockpile Road" ZINFANDEL 750ml ($35 List) Sold Out
2005 "Richard Sauret Vineyard"
ZINFANDEL Sold Out
Rombauer wines have what seems to be a loyal following. Zinfandel has
often had a bit of sweetness and now they're really catering to those
consumers who prefer noticeable amounts of sugar in their "dry"
wines. Chardonnay, too, has plenty of sweetness and has never been
The Rombauer wines are a textbook example of "consumers talk
'dry' but drink 'sweet.'"
They used to offer some information regarding the various vineyard
sites...this vintage the fact sheet notes this solely as a
"California" appellation bottling, so it could have fruit in it
from Modesto or Cucamonga. (They used to use mostly Sierra Foothill
displays sweet berry fragrances with notes of chocolate, so it's relatively
consistent with recent previous vintages.
- The wine is
sort of like a dryish Port/slightly sweet Beaujolais...too sweet for the dinner table but not really
sweet enough for dessert.
Think of this as California's leading Spätlese
It's a kind of 'cocktail' wine for some
consumers, being full-bodied and rich on the palate. In a
blind-tasting, I also detected a note which reminded me a bit of
pineapple. Curious. Anyway, it's a Zinfandel which really
excites some consumers. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.
- Currently in stock: 2020 Rom-Baby "California" Zinfandel
(List $35) SALE $32.99
2020 Rom-Baby "California" Zinfandel
magnum (List $90) SALE $79.99
fifth generation of the Felten family launched the Klinker Brick winery
brand in the early 2000s and today the 6th generation is on board, helping
run the family business.
The Feltens came to Lodi, California in the early 1900s and were
watermelon farmers. But they saw the neighbors planting grapevines
and so they began cultivating Zinfandel back in the days well before
They also planted Carignane (high yielding red grape), Tokay (for sweet
wines) and Alicante Bouschet (for color).
The fruit was shipped to the East Coast and Canada for home winemakers,
though the Feltens made a bit of wine for their own
consumption. After Prohibition they still sent a bit of fruit
to the East, but most was purchased by California wineries.
They realized they were not producing the best quality fruit
into the early 1980s as vineyard sites were typically flooded as a means of
irrigation or growers used "ditch irrigation" as a means of keeping
the vines viable. But these methods contributed to larger yields than one
would find in premium wine areas and the wines were a bit empty.
The advent of drip irrigation allowed a grower such as the Feltens to rein in
the yields and have a chance of producing better quality grapes. Of
course, the area is quite warm and the swing between hot daytime temperatures
and cool night temps is important in retaining acidity in the fruit. Some
temperature charts we found on the internet claim Lodi may be a couple of
degrees, on average, as warm as Napa and Sonoma throughout the growing season
and perhaps close to those regions for cool, night time temps.
We find this surprising.
Lodi, though, doesn't have much in the way of mountainous vineyard sites and the
soils tend to be more sandy than anything else.
For years Lodi was a place to go for lower-priced wines. Ages ago, we
recall there was one "artisan" estate in Lodi, though it was actually
a large winery. This was a winery called Barengo and winemaker Dino
Barengo mostly sold wine in bulk. He bottled a small percentage as his
Zinfandel was of good quality and well-priced compared to the expensive five
dollar Zins from Napa and Sonoma.
These days we're often shocked that Lodi Zinfandel has $30-$50 price
Few wines, in our view, justify such pricing.
But the Felten family wines under their Klinker Brick label are of good quality
and, for us, lead the way in this region.
How did they choose the name Klinker Brick? Well, you'll see buildings in
the area and some of them have these special, somewhat odd-shaped bricks which
are a bit misshapen and denser than a typical brick. These
"clinkers" will even make an odd sound when clapped together.
We currently have the 2017 vintage of Klinker Brick Zinfandel.
It's one of the more charming and somewhat "adult" versions of Lodi
The wine is dark in color and has lots of red fruit fragrances, along with a
sweet, woodsy note and some brown spice tones. It's close to dry on the
palate, fairly soft in terms of acidity and medium-bodied. We suggest
serving this lightly chilled, as that seems to tone down the alcohol in the wine
(which is high).
This is not a wine for cellaring...buy it and drink it within a few months of
Farrah and her Pop, Steve Felten
Currently in stock: 2017 KLINKER BRICK LODI
ZINFANDEL Sold Out
The Outpost winery was founded in the late 1990s by a couple named
Pringle. They had purchased a lovely, high-elevation vineyard
site in Napa's Howell Mountain appellation and made some outstanding
- They chose the name of the place when a waiter in a
Napa dining hot spot wished them well on their journey back home, which he
referred to as their "outpost." The name stuck.
We found the early wines to be exceptionally good and it had a marvelously
spicy note to it, partly due to the grape and partly, we think, the terroir.
Pringle had a Bay Area distribution company which seemed to delight in
telling potential customers a loud "no!" when we asked for the
With a small production, the winery had only sold its wines to private
customers along with some restaurant accounts. I recall asking the
original proprietor, as Ellen and I tasted his wine, if he had sufficient
quantities to sell a bit of wine in stores. He said he wasn't
interested in selling Outpost wines in stores and when I asked if he could
explain why (knowing what his response would be), he told us "I want my
wine to be served with good food."
A vein in Ellen's neck started to bulge out and was pulsing as she
contemplated jumping over the table to throttle the poor fellow. After
all, it's not like customers come into the shop looking for $50 bottles
of Zinfandel to pair with a can of Spaghetti-o's.
Pringle cashed in his chips and sold the winery and its vineyard
acreage to a couple who had come from Chicago to Howell Mountain. Frank
& Kathy Dotzler came west after a career making some sort of computer
parts. The couple had spent their honeymoon in Napa and this had a major
impact on them. They purchased a property which they named the True
Vineyard. Their dream was to eventually build a winery, but then the stars
and planets aligned an the Pringles were willing to sell their place a bit
further up the hill.
These days Outpost's little winery is the home of a number of other
brands. Winemaker Thomas Rivers Brown got his start at Turley, so he's got
a good foundation for making Zinfandel. Some of the other brands made at
Outpost presently include Chiarello, Seaver, Schrader, Post Parade, Sodhani and
Black Sears, amongst others.
Production of Outpost Zinfandel is still rather small, tallying to about a
thousand cases annually. Yields in the vineyard are kept to modest
quantities and the wine is one of the showiest Zinfandels from the Napa Valley
We like the blackberry fruit notes and the peppery spice notes. It's
full-bodied, but not a jammy fruit bomb...there's some "soul" to this
wine which we appreciate.
Anyway, the Outpost 2018 is terrific wine and pairs well with grilled
meats or a range of nice cheeses.
Currently in stock: 2018 OUTPOST Napa/Howell
Mountain ZINFANDEL SALE $69.99
The vineyard is high in the hills and it's not uncommon for them
to have a dusting of snow in the winter.