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Jamie Jamison

Jamie Jamison takes notes during one flight of Napa Valley Zinfandels at the recent St. Helena Star/Napa Valley Vintners Panel Tasting.

Jamie Jamison from BRIX Restaurant noticed it; Brianna Beighle of Spottswoode Winery commented on it; John Skupny thought it might disappoint many a cooper.

What were they talking about? A noticeable change in the style of Napa Valley zins. The St. Helena Star and Napa Valley Vintners Tasting Panel sat down earlier this month to taste four flights of Zinfandel, totaling 22 wines. They spanned four vintages – from 2013 to 2016 — and ranged from $20 to $95 a bottle.

The number of wines showing a difference in style from past vintages foreshadows a wider pendulum swing away from old-school zin: those with overly concentrated (almost syrupy) fruit; spirit-y alcohol; and generous heaps of oak spice.

Jamison confronted the subject head-on. “The style has changed from big, jammy and oaky; it is refreshing to see.”

“Cooperages must be sad,” joked Skupny. “They are not selling as many [barrels]” in response to the more restrained oak use in the wines. He also found less jam than in the past, with many of the wines showing bright red fruit flavors. Beighle agreed and shared her preference for “lighter, acid-driven wines”; attributes that several panelists commented on positively during the discussion.

Balance was mentioned over and over again, including integrated alcohol and vibrant acidity that lifted the rich fruitiness of the wines. Alcohols are often high in Zinfandel due to the grape’s inherent nature in the vineyard. The grape bunches ripen unevenly, and so to avoid un-ripe berries, the bunches are picked when all of the berries are ripe, leaving some of the fruit super jammy and laden with sugars. These high sugars are converted to higher alcohol in the fermentation tank.

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Shannon Latting

Shannon Latting peers into a glass of Napa Valley Zinfandel during a January tasting at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone.

While high alcohols are seen amongst these Zinfandels, as a group there were very few where warm heat or the hard edges of alcohol stuck out in the wine. Jamison received a chuckle when he commented, “Those who characteristically look to zin for their buzz might be confused by these wines.”

In addition to style, price was another important focus for the panel. With numerous wines under $30, and the majority under $50, the value for Napa Valley zins was a clear benefit in choosing these wines over other varietal choices. Skupny shared a long-ago conversation he had with Caymus Vineyards’ Charlie Wagner. In the retelling, Wagner had stated, “An $8 zin is going to better than an $8 cab.”

Summing up the tasting nicely, Todd Graff of Frank Family Vineyards said, “There is a style of Zinfandel for everyone, and perhaps we are missing out by not making more Zinfandel.”

Following the discussion, the wines’ scores were revealed. Panelists selected the following first-place wines:

Summers Estate Wines 2014 Two Acre Zinfandel Calistoga ($45) — Ripe fruits and sweet spice dominate this wine; a zin for those who still want them big and powerful.

Chase Cellars 2015 Zinfandel St. Helena ($95) — There is a good reason for the higher price tag here: the wine is made from 125-year-old Zinfandel vines. You aren’t going to squeeze much juice from these “oldies but goodies,” but what you do get is full of flavor and depth. The red fruits in Chase’s zin are made complex by sweet baking spices and a smoky tobacco finish.

Ghost Block 2015 Pelissa Vineyard Zinfandel Oakville ($35) — Ripe red fruits are highlighted by zesty lemon rind and sweet spice complexity.

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Angela Scott and Brianna Beighle

Angela Scott, left, and Brianna Beighle were two of the many people who participated in January's tasting of Napa Valley Zinfandels at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone.

Fortunati Vineyards 2015 Zinfandel Mount Veeder ($40) — If you have written off zin, this wine is sure to change your mind. Bright red cherry fruits swirl seamlessly together with toasty oak and integrated notes of spice and herbs.

Wines in second place in their flights:

Oakville Ranch 2014 Zinfandel (Red Blend) Oakville ($55)—Tantalizing red and black fruit aromas meld with toasty oak in this intensely flavored, fruit-forward wine. Another wine to convert any zin naysayer out there.

PEJU 2014 Zinfandel ($42) — The pronounced intensity of the fruit is matched by generous sweet baking spices giving the wine the perception of sweetness on the palate. Plenty of firm tannins here; this zin is made in a bigger style.

Oakville Winery 2016 Zinfandel Oakville ($25) — The fresh fruit character of this wine makes it a winner, with a blend of ripe and tangy cherry fruit layered with toasty oak finesse.

Storybook Mountain Vineyards 2015 Mayacamas Range Zinfandel ($38) — A fruit-forward zin melding both red and black fruits with well-integrated toasty, oak flavors.

Catherine Bugue, the Star’s tasting panel columnist, loves writing about — and drinking — wine. You can contact Catherine at catbugue@gmail.com. Only wines from Napa Valley Vintner member wineries are accepted and tasted. Many wineries offer local residents discounts on their wines through the Napa Neighbor program, visit napavintners.com/programs and click on Napa Neighbor to learn more.

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