Zinfandel — The Eye Opener

When I first started learning about wine, I knew jack about Zinfandel. I knew it was a red. I knew that white zinfandel was what many women ordered in bars when they wanted to look sophisticated but didn’t know any better. I knew there was a section in wine stores for it. But I might have tried two or three glasses of the stuff.

Then came a vacation with my Sweet Partner in Crime to Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley. Everything changed.

Zinfandel went from an afterthought in my (then nearly-nonexistent) cellar to a favorite varietal of mine. I liked zins for the very reason many “connoisseurs” turn their noses up…because they’re largely fun, powerful, in-your-face wines. Anyone writing a description from tasting a zin will rarely use the words “faint notes of…”

For a duffer like me, it was paradise. These were the first wines I tried where I felt that I could clearly discern flavors. Wines for which I could read someone else’s tasting notes and say, “Of course!” Wines where I could actually say, “I taste (fill in flavor here)” and feel relatively confident.”

Many of the smaller wineries in Dry Creek Valley we visited don’t do wide distribution, but if you’re in the mood to check out some interesting bottlings, you might want to take a gander and order a few of these:

Dark Horse — Our first night in Healdsburg, we stayed at a wonderful B&B called the Grape Leaf Inn. They had (as many of the B&B’s do) a nightly wine tasting — and one of the wines they were pouring was Dark Horse’s zinfandel. If not oaked properly, this would have been a total fruit bomb, but it was well-aged and the tannins smoothed out the fruit nicely. Marketed as “Wine for Cowboys” — these bottles are worth having just to read the story on the reverse.

Amphora — Amphora was putting together its new production facility when we visited. The sign in front of the tasting room was, at the time, done in spray paint. The wines, however, were hardly slipshod. Amphora specialized in a number of powerful reds. Their zinfandel was rich, plummy, full of spice and vanilla. They also had one of the finest petit sirahs I’ve ever tried (to stay with our big wine motif). An “Amphora” is a Greek wine jug, and the owner/winemaker, Rick Hutchinson, crafts these along with the wines. I’ve heard that the new tasting room is now open, and I hope to get back there before long.

Armida – On a hill surrounded by gorgeous vistas in every direction, Armida was a real find. They specialize in a number of varietals — as they’re lucky enough to have vineyards with very distinct Sonoma microclimates and terroir. Their zins were the star for me. They have a number of boutique zinfandels in the $35-50 range — but I thoroughly enjoyed their second line bottlings, “PoiZin” and “Surf Zin.” Their PoiZin is a big smooth blackberried glass of wonderful. They’d just finished bottling one of their new reserves when we got there — and we cracked that bottle not long ago after a couple of years on the shelf. Divine.

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