About five years ago, we began having dinner with four friends at Chez Panisse each year during Zinfandel Week - the event usually falls during the second or third week of December. Zinfandel from coveted vintages (1994 and 1997) and a few cult wines (Martinelli Jackass Hill, Turley Wine Cellars Black Sears Vineyard) find their way on to the list.
The reasonable prices these wines are offered at, along with the high alcohol content the varietal tends to pack, have led to some memorable evenings about which very little is actually remembered. My personal favorite involving a stomach-clutching after dinner tour of the all too fragrant prosciutto room.
This year though travel plans and the birth of a baby boy took two couples out of the mix for most of the week. Luckily, our travelling friends --who happen to work at the restaurant-- made it back to the bay area in time to secure 5 half-bottles of wine from the list. Here, in the order we drank them, was the line-up:
1999 Storybook Mountain Vineyards, Napa Valley, Mayacamas Range
1997 Sky Vineyards, Napa Valley, Mt. Veeder
1997 Franus, Napa valley, Mt. Veeder
1996 Peterson Winery, Dry Creek Valley
1997 Ridge Vineyards, Geyserville
Grapes for the first three wines were all harvested from moutain (that is, not valley floor) vineyards, and at least two were dry farmed. We expected these similarities to play out more assertively across the wines than they eventually did.
The Storybook had some characteristic plum & dark cherry fruit, was medium-bodied, and there was also another dark element to it which we identified variously as tobacco, leather, or dust. In comparison the Sky was considerably brighter, this expressed itself in both the fruit and acid - so lively that it seemed almost effervescent. The Franus was elegant by comparison. The color and body were more akin to the Storybook. Softer almost velvety mouth feel, and cabernet-like earth and spice. This wine was from the Brandlin vineyard on Mt. Veeder, and the Franus website offers a good description of the vineyard and wines.
On a side note, I have opted to not select wine from Franus on more that one occasion because of a deep and abiding label-hate. Imagine my considerable joy at seeing the flash movie on their homepage depicting the old label being literally fragmented by an oh-so helpful rebranding effort.
The Peterson had the bright cherry flavors that I tend to associate with Dry Creek wines. This taste range isn't a favorite of mine, but the intensity of flavor and sheer depth of Dry Creek wines always win me over.
Ultimately we made it to the Peterson Winery bottle, but not the Geyserville. Full of wine and full of beef bourgogne and garlic mashed potatoes.
Stopping after two bottles worth of wine prompted a round of serious self-examination. Though I suspect our host may have been acting on behalf of the bottle, which by all accounts was one of the better california wines of the 1997 vinatge. I hear it is scheduled to make an appearance at our Christmas dinner later this month.