Skeptics complain that California Zinfandels are too ripe and bombastic. They say the wines lack structure. I’m here to tell you it isn’t so. You want proof? The 2018 Zins offer just that, showing freshness and bright fruit, with lively acidity and the kind of tannin structure that’s built to age well.
That’s my takeaway after reviewing more than 175 Zinfandels at our Napa office since my previous report (“Up to the Challenge,” June 30, 2020). More than half of the 2018s received outstanding scores of 90 points or higher on Wine Spectator’s 100-point scale, a fine showing that earns the vintage an overall rating of 94 points in Sonoma and 92 in Napa. Early indications point to another excellent vintage in 2019, for which I give a preliminary score of 93–96 points for both regions.
There’s more good news. Both the 2018 and 2019 harvests yielded large crops, which means value hunters will have a larger selection of Zins to choose from. More than 65% of the wines priced at $25 or less in this report rated 87 points or higher. That’s a lot of bang for the buck. Since many of us are watching our pennies these days, let’s focus on the best buys first.
Winemaker Michael Dashe produced a bevy of good wines this year, but the Dashe Zinfandel California Vineyard Select 2018 (91 points, $24) stands out for its burst of blackberry fruit and excellent structure. The Carol Shelton Zinfandel Mendocino County Wild Thing Old Vine is one of my favorite Zin values year after year and the 2018 bottling (91, $19) is a fruit bomb with a backbone. Achieving great things at St. Francis is winemaker Katie Madigan, whose bold Zinfandel Sonoma County Old Vines 2018 (91, $22) is easygoing yet substantial.
Zinfandel thrives throughout California, yielding great values from multiple regions. Look for Terra d’Oro’s Zinfandel Amador County 2018 (89, $18), loaded with fresh cherry and sage; Three Wine Company’s zesty and briary Zinfandel Contra Costa County 2018 (90, $16); Lava Cap’s Zinfandel El Dorado Reserve 2018 (89, $28), brimming with jammy raspberry accents; and Mettler’s sleek and snappy Zinfandel Lodi Epicenter Old Vine 2018 (89, $25).
Among the top-rated bottlings, Sonoma County is the sweet spot for Zin in California. Though a handful of high-scorers hail from Paso Robles and other regions, Sonoma consistently produces many of the best versions. First and foremost, the terroir is ideal, yet perhaps just as important are the old vines. A century ago, during Prohibition, the stubborn immigrant farmers of Dry Creek, Russian River and Sonoma valleys refused to rip out the best Zinfandel vineyards. Now these 100-year-old sites are legacies from another era, yet they remain constantly endangered due to the interest in other grapes. In Russian River, for example, Pinot Noir is far more profitable.
Each of this year’s leading Zins comes from pre-Prohibition vineyards. Certainly, age plays a role in the quality of the wines; after producing grapes for decades, the vines tend to self-regulate if they’re well-maintained, yielding small, balanced crops. But age isn’t the only factor. These vineyards were originally saved because they already made great wine.
It takes a certain breed of winemaker to be devoted to these old vineyards, which regularly produce the highest-scoring wines each year. Morgan Twain-Peterson of Bedrock and Mike Officer of Carlisle are two exemplars, leading the pack once again.
Five of Twain-Peterson’s wines scored 94 points or higher this year, including the boldly structured Pagani Ranch Heritage 2019 (95, $50), showing deep blackberry and raspberry flavors, and the vibrant Old Hill Ranch Heritage Sonoma Valley 2019 (94, $65), which is jammy yet refined. For his part, Officer nails it with more than 10 outstanding 2018s, three of them at 94-plus. The Zinfandel Sonoma Valley Bedrock Vineyard 2018 (95, $48) is polished and expressive, while the Zinfandel Russian River Valley Papera Ranch 2018 (94, $48) balances harmony with subtle torque and the Zinfandel Sonoma Valley Pagani Ranch 2018 (94, $48) offers richness and presence.
Grower and winemaker Will Bucklin tends one of the oldest and most eclectic vineyards in California. Originally planted in the 1850s, Old Hill Ranch is a 12-acre site that includes more than 30 different grape varieties, many of them obscure. The Bucklin Ancient Field Blend Old Hill Ranch Sonoma Valley 2017 (94, $36) is all personality, with briary berry thicket, savory anise and bitter chocolate flavors.
Williams Selyem is best known for Pinot Noir, but winemaker Jeff Mangahas crafted the impressive Zinfandel Russian River Valley Bacigalupi Vineyard 2018 (94, $65), combining old-school briar with modern finesse. At Turley, winemaker Tegan Passalacqua delivers the Zinfandel Paso Robles Pesenti Vineyard 2018 (93, $38), a deep and brooding version that’s also spry, from a vineyard planted in the 1920s.
Few wineries have been committed to Zinfandel longer than Ridge, which produced its first bottling in 1964. Lead winemaker John Olney and his team made two distinctive versions this year: the deeply structured Geyserville Alexander Valley (93, $45) and the sleek, multilayered Zinfandel Paso Robles 2019 (93, $35).
Both the 2018 and 2019 growing seasons were ideal, increasingly a rarity in heat- and fire-prone California. “2018 and 2019 were both kind of a dream come true,” says Madigan. “And then we had 2020 and it reminded us, ‘Oh yeah, we are in California.’ ”
Between the LNU Complex fire in August and the Glass Fire in September, 2020 was thick with smoke in many regions of Napa and Sonoma, so production is expected to be down significantly.
The 2018 vintage started with a mild spring, and budbreak and flowering proceeded without incident. July was fairly cool compared with recent years, and there were few heat spikes during the summer. That moderate weather pattern continued through harvest. “We weren’t rushing to pick everything before it got out of hand,” recalls Olney.
The relatively cool season and large crop combined to produce lively acidity and tannins, yielding wines that belie expectations. These are not the ripe, jammy Zins many consumers associate with the grape. “They’re more classically composed,” Twain-Peterson says. “In certain years—and some of the best years—Zins have a tension that make them not immediately accessible.” Olney agrees: “They’re full and more structured than you usually see.”
That’s not to say you shouldn’t drink these wines right away. Consumers who prefer more of a fruit bomb style of Zin may find them a bit angular, but I expect the 2018s to bloom after two or three years in the cellar. As Madigan says, “They have a little more personality when they have some tannins.”
The 2019 growing season was similar to 2018, though there was more rain in May and several bursts of heat in August and September. “It was 106 for a couple of days,” Olney says. The 2019s, explains Madigan, have a slightly more generous tannin structure than the 2018s. Twain-Peterson calls the wines “more forward and juicy,” while Olney describes them as “more polished, more elegant.”
I’ll keep tasting the 2019s as they arrive, but my early assessment is that they’re crowd-pleasers. For now, enjoy the 2018s while putting away a few bottles. Remember, there will be significantly fewer 2020s on the market, so you may want to stock up while you can.
Senior editor Tim Fish is Wine Spectator’s lead taster on California Zinfandel
Tim Fish’s Recommended California Zinfandels
More than 175 wines were reviewed for this report. A free alphabetical list is available here. WineSpectator.com members can access complete reviews for all wines tasted using the online Wine Ratings search.
Pagani Ranch Heritage Sonoma Valley 2019
Score: 95 | $50
WS Review: Bold and structured, yet refined, with deep blackberry and raspberry flavors that are laced with tar, smoked sage and cracked pepper.
Zinfandel Sonoma Valley Bedrock Vineyard 2018
Score: 95 | $48
WS Review: Personality meets polish, with black raspberry and blackberry flavors that draw in notes of sandalwood, brown spices and orange oil.
Old Hill Ranch Heritage Sonoma Valley 2019
Score: 94 | $65
WS Review: Vibrant and jammy, yet refined, with deep notes of black raspberry, orange peel, espresso and smoked pepper, building richness.
Ancient Field Blend Old Hill Ranch Sonoma Valley 2017
Score: 94 | $36
WS Review: A dynamic red that’s jammed with personality, showing briary berry, savory anise, bitter chocolate and pepper flavors. Zinfandel blend.
Zinfandel Russian River Valley Papera Ranch 2018
Score: 94 | $48
WS Review: Balances harmony and subtle torque with compelling raspberry and blueberry flavors, laced with orange peel and smoky pepper notes.
Zinfandel Russian River Valley Bacigalupi Vineyard 2018
Score: 94 | $65
WS Review: Combines old-school briar with a polished style, offering multilayered flavors of black cherry, orange zest, smoked pepper and sweet anise.
1912 Estate Vineyard Russian River Valley 2018
Score: 93 | $85
WS Review: Polished and richly structured, this is plump with blackberry, mocha and spiced anise flavors that flesh out on the long, structured finish.
Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley Spencer’s Hill Vineyard Single Vineyard Series 2017
Score: 93 | $44
WS Review: Sleekly elegant yet briary, with black cherry, dried sage and spicy espresso flavors that build richness and complexity on the long finish.
Tribidrag Mount Veeder 2018
Score: 93 | $45
WS Review: A spirited red, delivering boysenberry, pepper and smoky anise flavors that gather speed toward polished tannins.
Estate Cuvée Russian River Valley 2018
Score: 93 | $85
WS Review: Gutsy yet refined, this Zin shows lots of torque, with blackberry, smoky meat, pepper and orange peel notes. Zinfandel blend.
Zinfandel Russian River Valley 2018
Score: 93 | $42
WS Review: Briary yet in a more polished style, offering black raspberry, smoked pepper and roasted anise flavors that finish with zesty tannins.
Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley 2018
Score: 93 | $47
WS Review: Sleek and polished, with expressive flavors of wild berry, fennel and black pepper that take on richness and structure on the finish.
Geyserville Alexander Valley 2019
Score: 93 | $45
WS Review: This red is deeply structured, yet nimble on its feet, with blackberry, fennel and brown baking spices building richness. Zinfandel blend.
Zinfandel Paso Robles 2019
Score: 93 | $35
WS Review: Sleek and multilayered, with dynamic yet elegant raspberry, grilled fennel and cracked pepper flavors that build structure on the finish.
Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley Cortina 2018
Score: 93 | $40
WS Review: Floral raspberry aromas lead to multilayered fresh sage, licorice and cracked pepper flavors, building richness toward briary tannins.
Zinfandel Paso Robles Pesenti Vineyard 2018
Score: 93 | $38
WS Review: A gutsy Zin, with personality to spare, delivering lively raspberry, smoky pepper, licorice and sage flavors.
Zinfandel Sonoma Valley Bedrock Vineyard 2018
Score: 93 | $38
WS Review: Deep and brooding, yet spry, with blackberry, licorice, cracked pepper and brown baking spice flavors that build structure and tension.
Zinfandel Russian River Valley Saitone Estate Vineyard 2018
Score: 93 | $65
WS Review: Tart blueberry and bright, briary cherry flavors take on licorice, spice and green peppercorn hints that extend to the long finish.