Dollar for dollar, Ridge is probably the best winery in the U.S. This is doubly impressive given that it makes almost no white wine and most of the reds it makes are zinfandel. But quality will out, as the Ridge Lytton Springs demonstrates.
The Lytton Springs ($32, purchased, 14.3%) is an amazing wine, a zinfandel blend that includes just enough petite sirah, carignane, and mataro so it can’t be labeled zinfandel. Credit this to Ridge impresario Paul Draper’s sense of humor and winemaker John Olney’s sense of what needs to be done with the wine. Who knew one percent more petite sirah and one percent less zinfandel would make such a difference?
Look for lots of jammy black fruit with more oak than expected, but with pepper, acidity, and some herbal notes toward the finish. Best yet, there are even so-subtle tannins, something most zinfandels, even at this price, abandoned years ago and that lend structure to the all that fruit. This wine is a work in progress, and will only become more complete, as the fruit fades and it becomes spicier and deeper over the next couple of years.
Highly recommended, and especially as a gift for a red wine drinker who appreciates something just enough off the beaten path. I had the Ridge Lytton Springs with pot roast, and it was one of those pairings that explains why we do pairings. And Christmas prime rib would be terrific, too.
The Wine Curmudgeon spends an inordinate amount of time trying to find California labels to use for the wine of the week. Either they’re too pricey, $10 wines in $16 packaging, or too crummy, one-note wines with little more than focus group sweet fruit.
So when I find a California wine to use, like the Clayhouse Adobe Red ($12, purchased, 13.7%), you know it’s not a wine of the week just to fill space. Rather, it’s one of a too-rare example of what California — in this case, the Paso Robles region — can do with cheap wine when a producer focuses on wine and not hocus pocus.
This red blend, mostly zinfandel, has lots of sweet red fruit. But that’s not all it has, and the fruit is more than balanced by a surprising grip, some zinfandel brambliness that you almost never see anymore, and soft tannins on the finish. That a wine at this price and this style has tannins to complement the fruit shows how serious Clayhouse is about quality.
Highly recommended, and so far above the glut of grocery store wine that I must endure to do what I do that I could carve out a special place in the 2016 $10 Hall of Fame for it. Serve the Clayhouse Adobe Red as winter ends, but keep it around for summer barbecues.
Reviews of wines that don ?t need their own post, but are worth noting for one reason or another. Look for it on the final Friday of each month.
? Bonterra Zinfandel 2011 ($16, sample, 14.5%): More old-style zinfandel than new, with brambly black fruit and alcohol in balance instead of a fruit-infused cocktail that makes you reach for a glass of water after a sip and a half. Another winner in my recent zinfandel streak, and a treat to drink.
? Carlos Pulenta Malbec Tomero 2011 ($15, sample, 14%): Fairly-priced Argentine red that doesn’t have too much black fruit — which means it’s drinkable and not syrupy — and somehow manages to be mostly balanced. A very pleasant surprise.
? Da Luca Pinot Grigio 2012 ($13, sample, 12%): Disjointed pinot grigio with requisite tonic water at back but also weird fruit in the middle, almost tropical. Not much better than grocery store pinot grigio but at almost twice the price.
? Tormaresca Chardonnay 2012 ($9, purchased, 12%): How the mighty have fallen. This white, like the Tormaresca Neprica, used to be value-priced quality wine. Now, it has just one note — lots of what tastes like cheap fake oak, with very little fruit or interest. Very disappointing.
Dollar for dollar, the best winery in California may be Ridge Vineyards. This may seem an odd thing for the Wine Curmudgeon to write, given that none of its wines cost less than $25. But Ridge crams value in every wine, and I’ve long admired its commitment to quality and fair pricing.
How well run is Ridge? How about the York Creek ($28, purchased, 15.3%), made in a style that usually makes me hit the wine rant key on the computer. It’s Ridge’s version of a high-scoring Wine Magazine zinfandel, which means lots of alcohol, too much oak, and plenty of sweet black fruit, and in this often tastes more like port than table wine. The difference, of course, is that since it’s a Ridge product, the York Creek has structure, body, and tannins, and tastes like wine and not a novelty act. Look for some very nice herbal notes, too, something that seems almost impossible given all the alcohol.
Very nicely done, and if I didn’t like it as much as Ridge’s Lytton Springs zinfandel (which didn’t seem to be available in Dallas), that’s my preference and not a reflection on the wine. It’s well worth drinking, a prime rib wine for Christmas at about half the price of the Winestream Media’s over-the-top zinfandels.
One of the things that the Wine Curmudgeon doesn ?t like about this job is how cynical it has made me about grocery store wine. So many of them have been so disappointing that I ?m at the point that if the front or back label uses adjectives or descriptions like reserve, old vine, or artisan, I figure the marketing department is compensating for quality (given that federal regulations for using terms like these is vague, at best).
So I expected absolutely nothing from the Ravenswood ($10, sample); that ?s why it sat in the wine closet for 13 months. Shows how much I know, other than to reiterate the No. 1 rule of wine reviewing: Don ?t judge the wine until you taste it.
This red is surprising in many ways, not the least of which is that it held up for a year. There is lots of sweet berry fruit in the modern zinfandel style, but it ?s not unpleasant and it ?s balanced by some some traditional zinfandel character (particularly pepper). It ?s a nice value for $10.
Don ?t worry too much if the wine you find is the current vintage and not this one. One of the good things about grocery store wines is that they are consistent in taste and style from year to year.
If more California producers tended to business the way Ridge does, the Wine Curmudgeon would not have nearly as much to complain about. It has been one of the best wineries in the U.S. for almost four decades, and it ?s not a coincidence that its Monte Bello cabernet sauvignon was a California entry at the Judgment of Paris.
Even during the silliness before the recession, when so many wineries chased points and dollar signs, Ridge did things pretty much the way it had always done them. It ?s still doing that today, which is why it ?s always on my list of the wineries that I respect the most.That ?s saying something, because its least expensive wine is around $25.
That ?s the Three Valleys ($22, purchased), a red blend made of mostly zinfandel. It has enough zinfandel character to appeal to those who like the post-modern style, yet it's also balanced between the jammy blackberry fruit, the oak, and what seems to be an almost herbal-like spiciness. And, somehow, it's only 14.4 percent alcohol, almost unheard of for zinfandel these days.
In this, it's an honest wine, something Ridge has always aimed for. Winemaker John Olney practices his craft the way it should be, and not how so many others do it to get high scores or critical raves.
Pair this wine with almost any red wine food, especially as the days get cooler, and it's an excellent choice for the fall holidays.
Reviews of wines that don ?t need their own post, but are worth noting for one reason or another. Look for it on the final Friday of each month. This edition, in honor of July 4, focuses on wines worth drinking for the holiday:
? Pepperwood Grove Groovy Green Pinot Noir NV ($7, sample): As long as you don't mind that it doesn't taste like pinot noir, it's an adequate red table wine with pinot and 25 percent syrah (the maximum amount allowed for it to be called pinot). And the Groovy Green bit? For its environmentally friendly packaging.
? Jean-Marc Brocard Chablis 2009 ($20, purchased): What's the Fourth of July without a French wine to honor the country that made our independence possible? The Brocard is chardonnay, but is rounder and softer, with more red apple fruit than the usual wines from the Chablis region, which have green apple and bracing acidity. Having said that, it's not worse, just different, and a nice way to end a holiday weekend.
? Pio Cesare Langhe Arneis 2011 ($20, purchased): Arneis is a rare Piedmontese white grape usually used for blending in expensive red wine, or to make flabby, simple stuff. This wine, though, has been taken somewhere it has never been before — crisp and fresh, with an almost gewurtzraminer-like spice and subtle pear fruit. Yes, expensive, but highly recommended nonetheless.
? Kendall-Jackson Zinfandel Vintner's Reserve 2010 ($17, sample): Nicely done mid-weight zinfandel, with some heft, blackberry brambliness, and black pepper. But it is neither overwhelming, like the 15 1/2 percent alcohol zinfandels, or all fruit, like the poorly made cheap ones.