California Wine Country Recap 2022

Posted November 8, 2022 by The Enthusiast
Categories: Vino

Sunset over the Livermore vines, which seem to abound at every turn of the road in that region.

In September, my wife and our three-year old daughter made our annual pilgrimage to wine country. While the departure of Covid restrictions has opened up tasting experiences considerably, there are many wineries that used that opportunity to disallow minors from attending tastings, so we had to pick our spots carefully, outside of one day that we had family caring for our daughter. It is understandable on some level why wineries that were forced to creatively adapt and innovate their experiences to the restrictions at the time would be hesitant to roll back that progression to instead redirect and accommodate kids who can’t buy the wine anyway, but nevertheless this does signify the changing vibe in California wine country at large. We have pretty much given up on visiting Napa altogether at this point due to a combination of a lack of family-friendliness, rising tasting costs and rising hotel costs (although it is surely understandable that someone spending $100 per person on tasting fees wouldn’t want to listen to a screaming toddler).

The backdrop at MacRostie is second to none.

After spending some time at the Napa wineries last year that did allow kids and also venturing way up the coast to Anderson Valley and Mendocino, we decided to focus our efforts this year upon the 2019 vintage of Zinfandel in various Sonoma appellations, which by many accounts was the best single vintage of that varietal ever produced in America. Zinfandel is often a forgotten grape, but is easy to gravitate towards due to its youthful and ripe dark fruit and berry flavors that often embrace terroir-driven earth and spice notes, checking in at alcohol levels a touch higher than most red wines. It is in my opinion the quintessential grilling wine, and its best offerings are affordable, to the tune of a quarter of the price of some of the Cabernet offerings of equal or lesser quality across the way in Napa Valley. Zinfandel holds a unique place in the spectrum of American wine, as it is the only grape specific to the United States; you will not see the name “Zinfandel” printed on a bottle of wine anywhere else in the world.

Zinfandel did not originate in the United States, however. Originating as the grape Crljenak Kaštelanski in Croatia, it made its way here in the mid 1800s and was planted as a field blend, but it sank into obscurity during prohibition. Emerging as a blush wine in the 1970s, White Zinfandel put the grape back on the map, even as these uninspiring wines of intense sweetness and devoid of complexity are often confused with the more robust red wine counterpart that is made from the same grape. Primitivo, which can be found in Italy, is essentially the genetic equivalent of the Zinfandel grape, also deriving as a clone from the Croatian grape.

Our trip in 2022 happened later than our usual July target due to simply running out of time to travel during the summer, and it was great to visit the region at this time of year. The growing season presented unusual challenges, with colder than usual temperatures in the spring resulting in late bud break, only to endure abnormally high temperatures above 110 degrees the first week of September and an incoming atmospheric river forecast just a couple of weeks later. The combination of these events resulted in a somewhat frantic harvest environment well before normal during our visit, and some wineries even opted to pick fruit even earlier in the midst of the heatwave. It will be interesting to see the the results of these different strategies employed by various vintners, as all of whom we spoke with described 2022 as a challenge from the start.

Malbec grapes at St. Francis are ready to be picked, as vines begin to glow with the colors of autumn.

Over a 7 day period, we visited 15 wineries and tasted about 70 different wines. Before venturing north to Russian River Valley and Dry Creek Valley while staying in downtown Healdsburg, we made a trip to Livermore for the first time to visit family there and explore the region. We were impressed by the beauty of the terrain and the multitude of wineries to visit. While none earned scores high enough to crack these lists, it is apparent that this up and coming region is one to be taken seriously. Concannon and Darcie Kent both offer sweeping vineyard views combined with relaxed tasting options that serve impressive Cabernet, Chardonnay and Zinfandel, while Wood Family’s tasting room is a lively, friendly party environment where our daughter received an acoustic guitar serenade on the evening of her third birthday.

At Concannon, a large lawn area offers picnicking and multiple tasting options, from flights to bottle service and glass pours.

Once further north into Sonoma and Dry Creek, we visited familiar can’t-miss favorites such as Seghesio, Limerick Lane, Bedrock and Dry Creek Vineyard, returned to Ridge and Hartford Family after a few years of hiatus, and also enjoyed some new experiences. Notable among these were St. Francis and its rollicking pedal-trolley tour through the vineyards, as well as the subtle beauty of Benziger’s one-of-a-kind biodynamic property via tractor tour. While none of the wines poured during those experiences quite met the cut against the heavy hitters of the region, visits to both of these properties are highly recommended. Also just missing the cut here was MacRostie, who pours some great cool-climate examples of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with an unparalleled backdrop. At small Dry Creek producer Pedroncelli, a miscommunication on a bocce court reservation was rectified with a VIP treatment and private seating outside behind the barrel room where we took in the views of the valley below. Merry Edwards pours its uniquely styled Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc wines in a quaint garden nearby a relaxing fountain while providing a historical overview of one of California’s great pioneers and innovators.

Hold on to your hats and your phone as you try to take video riding over the bumps and hills at St. Francis on its wild trolley.
Benziger’s self-sustaining, picturesque property is not to be missed.

Without further adieu, I present my reviews of my favorite wines I tasted during the trip. As always, the wines are listed first by score and then ties are broken by price point in attempt to recognize and reward value. Many of these 2019s have sold out, and I scooped as many as I could before that happened, but all are names to remember in future vintages as California Zinfandel continues to make its move into a more primary special occasion wine and food pairing option based on its combination of quality and affordability. I’ve listed a few notable whites we tasted and enjoyed as well. Next year, we plan to change direction entirely and focus upon the Rhone varietals produced in Paso Robles, a region I visited a decade ago and am eager to return to. Until then, cheers, and keep sipping the good stuff.

REDS:

1. Seghesio Zinfandel Rockpile 2019, 95 Points, $50: Racy, youthful and energetic, with a polished texture of cherry and dark raspberry fruit above complex licorice root, white pepper spice, dried herbs and subtle dill. This is super streamlined and direct, demonstrating an ambitious focus throughout. Astounding texture, probably the greatest Rockpile to date. Long finish.

2. Limerick Lane Zinfandel Rocky Knoll 2019, 95 Points, $65: Muscular and burly, with a somewhat backward profile that showcases smoke and cedar notes up front above an intense core of blackberry and dark plum fruit. This shows complex notes of anise root, cracked black pepper and chocolate pumping underneath. Masculine in style but retains elegance as the finish lingers long with wet stone accents.

3. Dry Creek Zinfandel Somers Ranch Dry Creek Valley 2019, 94 Points, $44: An exciting Zin with a ton of personality, as this flips from an intense core of blackberry and wild raspberry into a sudden blast of mocha and tobacco spice that says, “gotcha!” Notable for its creamy texture, this really pumps, with a toffee note kicking in late.

4. Seghesio Zinfandel Pagani Ranch Sonoma Valley 2019, 94 Points, $50: Big, rich and powerful with toasty oak weaving through layers of juicy blackberry and dark plum fruit that pick up accents of black licorice and black olive. A bruiser, with black pepper and savory herbs lingering long beyond the fruit and gaining a subtle mocha note. Easily the best bottling of this vineyard ever made by Seghesio.

5. Hartford Family Zinfandel Hartford Vineyard Russian River Valley 2019, 94 Points, $65: Ultra-silky and vibrant on the palate, with a gorgeous and focused core of blackberry and blueberry that are vivid and vibrant, leading into undertones of licorice and peppercorn. This is ripe and intense all the way through, but shows textural perfection through a long finish. The focus here is on texture.

6. Seghesio Zinfandel Home Ranch Alexander Valley 2019, 94 Points, $65: Rich and plummy, with a dense core of explosive red currants and wild berry fruits that are layered with complex savory herbs, cedar and smoke. A real monster, gaining depth from accents of black licorice and root beer as this lingers long and powerfully.

7. Limerick Lane Estate Cuvee 2019, 94 Points, $85: Complex and packed, showing intensity throughout its core of black cherry, wild berry and blackberry fruit that is accented by smoked meat and cracked pepper notes. Texturally impressive, showing polish and elegance through the long finish. Zinfandel, Syrah and Petite Sirah.

8. Ridge Monte Bello Santa Cruz Mountains 2019, 94 Points, $225: Subtle oak, mineral and red currant fruit aromas. Remarkably polished and elegant, with black cherry and blackberry fruit gliding over cedar, sandalwood and subtle smoke notes, lingering long with a defined note of iron mineral and a softly intertwined floral accent. Silky tannins hold it all together, but this still needs some time. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc.

9. Seghesio Zinfandel Cortina Dry Creek Valley 2019, 93 Points, $40: Floral and perfumey aromas of blue fruit, showing an edge of dank earth on the nose. Elegant body shows violet and blueberry up front over a silky texture that carries long with white pepper and briary spice. Toasty oak lingers through the long finish. This is an interesting juxtaposition of feminine delicacy and aggressive earthiness.

10. Dry Creek Vineyard Petite Sirah Spencer’s Hill Dry Creek Valley 2019, 93 Points, $40: Combines loamy earth with deep, dark and intense blackberry, fig paste and dark plum encased in smoldering charcoal and gravelly mineral notes. This is remarkably polished given its power and depth, with chewy and refined tannins adding texture, grip and complexity.

11. Dry Creek Vineyard Zinfandel Spencer’s Hill Dry Creek Valley 2018, 93 Points, $44: Balanced and expressive, with clove and baking spice notes weaving through violety blackberry and dark raspberry fruit, lingering long with a briar and cracked pepper edge that lingers long through the finish. Showcases the terroir of Dry Creek with precision.

12. Ridge Lytton Springs Dry Creek Valley 2019, 93 Points, $45: A rich and juicy offering, loaded with thick, plump blackberry and dark plum fruit flavors that evolve into a blast of briary spice, anise and mocha that linger long. Impressively refined and detailed. Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Carignan and Mataro.

13. Bedrock Heritage Sonoma Valley 2020, 93 Points, $55: Briary and deep, with a core of black cherry and wild raspberry fruit that shows black pepper, allspice and licorice root accents underneath. This lingers with a firm tannic grip through the finish, but should soften up in time, and makes up for its youth with vibrant personality. Zinfandel, Carignan and Mataro.

14. Seghesio Zinfandel Montafi Russian River Valley 2019, 93 Points, $65: Combines herbal nuance with powerful dark berry fruit that shows great energy and drive. This is rich and intense, combining black cherry and dark raspberry flavors that are layered with toasty oak and dried herbs. Long finish with a hint of cocoa powder creeping in late.

15. Limerick Lane Zinfandel Marquis Russian River Valley 2019, 93 Points, $72: Graceful and elegant, with perfumed red currants and baking spices on the nose. Silky texture of crushed red plum and wild berry shows lovely cinnamon spice underneath, lingering with a hint of vanilla bean alongside an edge of mineral. Feminine style, with the red fruit and baking spices lingering long.

16. Nalle Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley 2019, 92 Points, $42: A warm and rustic style, with dried cherry and wild raspberry fruit up front, layered with toasty oak, loam and cracked pepper. This takes a bit to open up, but is appealingly old-school, lingering long with briar and licorice root accents.

17. Bedrock Syrah Bien Nacido Santa Maria Valley 2019, 92 Points, $45: A rustic, cool-climate style, loaded with smoke, leather and cracked pepper above a core of crushed blackberry and dark plum fruit. Charcoal and iron notes complement the bracing finish here, lingering long with an echo of cocoa bean. Firm tannins add grip.

18. Dry Creek Vineyard Zinfandel Beeson Ranch Dry Creek Valley 2018, 92 Points, $55: Eucalyptus and cedar notes shade robust wild berry fruit over a graceful texture. Briary spices kick in late to add complexity through the long finish. Old vine fruit is evident, with plummy notes picking up steam as it lingers.

19. Hartford Family Zinfandel Dina’s Old Vine Russian River Valley 2019, 92 Points, $60: Big, explosive purple fruit aromas. Full-bodied and rich, with fig, dark plum and black licorice flavors that build toward cedar, cracked pepper and wet stone undertones. Shows depth and structure, with medium-grained tannins adding grip.

20. Limerick Lane Zinfandel 1910 Block Russian River Valley 2020, 92 Points, $68: Silky and elegant, with perfumey black cherry and wild berry fruit flavors that show undertones of dried herbs, white pepper spice and cocoa through the long finish.

WHITES:

1. Ridge Chardonnay Santa Cruz Mountains Estate 2020, 92 Points, $60: Aggressive minerality on the nose, with shades of burnt toast and golden citrus. Shows power and drive behind its poached pear, golden apple and honey flavors that melt seamlessly into a background of well-integrated oak, butterscotch and vanilla bean. A biting minerality adds intrigue all the way through.

2. Hartford Court Chardonnay Radian Santa Rita Hills 2019, 92 Points, $70: Soft and floral on the palate, with graceful lemon and pear flavors that explode into toasty spice and subtle mineral undertones. Lemon meringue pie notes really come through over the course of a long finish.

3. Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc Russian River Valley 2017, 91 Points, $36: Sugary, sweet aromas reminiscent of a Sauternes. Shows great personality, with light floral nuances leading into lemon drop, apricot and stone fruit flavors, with complex petrol, honey and wet stone mineral accents lingering long. Uniquely styled and one of a kind.

4. Bedrock Cuvee Karatas Sonoma Valley 2015, 91 Points, $45: Shows a distinct petrol minerality alongside floral notes on the nose. Waxy body evolves with lemon citrus and honey flavors, backed by a floral essence of chamomile tea, lingering with a flinty minerality. Tastes like a Sauternes.

5. Hartford Court Chardonnay Far Coast Sonoma Coast 2020, 91 Points, $70: A refined style, with golden apple citrus weaving through terroir-driven mineral and saline nuances, finishing with a blast of butterscotch and spice through the long finish.