Ridge Lytton Springs 2005

Wine lovers are often bargain hunters too, perhaps by necessity. Back in 2002, Chris and I happened to be in the same city at the same time (Sydney), and experienced the joy of locating, then purchasing, an entire stash of 1994 Ridge Geyserville from a little bottle shop in Chinatown. To find such a wine was grand enough, but the proprietors of the bottle shop in which it lay clearly had no idea what it was, and were happy to sell us the lot for (from memory) about ten dollars a bottle.

Of course, wines of such dodgy provenance often prove disappointing, let alone ones made of a grape (Zinfandel) whose ability to age is contested. But the first bottle we opened that night — before our most memorable dinner — was good, and so was every bottle tasted thereafter. I’ve long finished my half of the stash, but the memory of both the find and the consumption remain vivid. Chris regularly stokes these fond recollections by providing a bottle or two of Ridge wine whenever we meet to drink, so over the years I’ve been lucky enough to taste everything from various Monte Bellos to a spectacular Syrah that gave a bottle of 2001 Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier tasted alongside a run for its money. I remember approaching that Syrah after some initial courses of German Riesling and so on; we were at that point in a grand dinner where the company, food and alcohol begin to meld into a single warm sensation. I smelled it once, not knowing what to expect, and was completely unable to control a spontaneous éclat of laughter. It was so wonderful.

All of which makes it difficult for me to write objectively about Ridge wines. In a sense, though, to approach this wine through a lens of dispassionate evaluation is to miss both what it means to me and what it represents, stylistically. Although I had never tasted this particular vintage before last night, the warm prickliness of its aroma was immediately transportative. To me, this smells of Californian wine, and for that alone I grant it enormous value. Each time I taste a Zinfandel-based wine, in particular those by Ridge, I love the difference of its flavour profile. Here, there’s intense spice and fruit cake, abundant chocolate, coconut and cherries. It’s as if someone stuffed a Cherry Ripe into the ripest, richest Christmas cake imaginable. Hence, it’s not an elegant wine in either character or footprint, and I love that it presents its notes with such blustery confidence.

The palate rebalances the aroma’s intense spice by providing a core of sweet, bright red fruit that cools the flavour profile. Entry is crisp and immediate, starting dark but quickly brightening to show a mix of red and black fruits. These fruits are juicy and perfectly ripened and provide much of the pleasure of eating freshly picked berries. Swirling all around this core are warm, rich spice notes, well-balanced mocha oak and a streak of bright orange juice. The finish leaves one with a lingering impression of the purest, sweetest fruit. Structurally, this is quite spectacular, the acid totally integrated and the tannins chewy and sweet. It’s taken a day to really open up, so I’d be leaving further bottles in the cellar for at least two to three more years before retasting.

In a sense, tasting a single wine prompts one to reflect on the entirety of one’s tasting experiences. This is what makes wine a pastime that becomes exponentially richer as the years pass, and also what can magnify the experience of one wine beyond all proportion. Happily, this wine was able to bear the full weight of my memories.

Price: £25
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail

Ridge Pagani Ranch 2003

It’s a cold, rainy night here in San Diego, so I went for the most alcoholic wine I could find; there are two reasons for this. One, I’m cold and could use some alcoholic heat, and two, after kvetching about the high alcohol content of Mollydooker wines last week, I figured it was time to try another high octane wine from a different winery and see if I can find any reason at all for my dislike of the high alcohol Mollydooker house style. So: here I am.

This wine’s older; the back label suggests holding it until 2010-2011 to allow it to ‘soften,’ and I’ve done that more or less as proscribed. The color doesn’t seem to have faded much, if at all: it’s still that rich, dark, opaque black color I associate with Zinfandel. Just like the Mollydookers, it also has a noticeably clear rim and jambes d’enfer, making its 15.4% alcohol level perfectly clear. Things couldn’t be more clearly different than the Mollydooker wines, though, on the nose.

This doesn’t smell like other wines, not even like other Ridge zinfandels. This takes the whole jammy, Christmas pudding, spice box, Turkish delight aesthetic to overdriven levels. There’s not much by the way of obvious wood; instead, what you get here is extremely ripe fruit. What’s odd, though, is that the alcohol seems to be relatively adroit at keeping itself out of the way enough to smell the wine; you don’t get a snootful of alcoholic vapors, just a twinge. Even so, the second you drink some, bang, there it is: unavoidable alcohol that’s a little bit harsh, obstructing the otherwise clean line here. For all of the delicious, dried fruit, dates and treacle going on here, there’s still a clearly porty aspect you just can’t avoid.

So what’s the deal here? Why does this bother me less than similarly alcoholic syrah and cabernet from Mollydooker? I think it’s simple: zinfandel is more or less an inherently ridiculous grape. It tastes best at higher alcohol levels; it doesn’t really gain a thing when it’s harvested at 13% potential alcohol because the grape just isn’t ripe at those sugar levels. Instead, you have to get it up in the 14s before you can make a palatable wine from it at all. However, cabernet and syrah both do just fine in the 12-14 percent range, and I just don’t see what they gain at higher alcohol levels; I think they begin to lose quite a bit in interest and complexity once you get anywhere past, oh, about 14.5%. When you hit 15, 16, and (God forbid), 16.5% alcohol, a lot of the interesting bits seem to have gone, and the good bits that are left don’t seem to particularly complement the alcohol (in the sense that the overall effect is of a less complex port), unlike zinfandel, whose innate characteristics (think spicy date pudding) do in fact sit will at relatively insane levels of alcohol.

Digression over. Back to this wine: it’s drinking rather beautifully right now and is a fine example of a high alcohol (if not quite late harvest) zinfandel (or, technically, a field blend – there’s alicante bouschet and durif/petite sirah here as well). Age has brought a genteel faded character to the hyperripe fruitfest and given it an earthy, almost cedary edge that’s lovely. If there’s any Old World wine to which I’d compare it, it would be to a 40 year old port; it has definite similarities in terms of complexity, and a lot of the bottom end has fallen out, leaving a melody almost entirely in the treble clef, a wonderful harmony of rich, fruity, aged notes with a nearly sherry-like hint of maderization. Pretty damn good wine, if I say so myself.

Ridge Vineyards
Price: $30
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail

Rodney Strong Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon 2006

Continuing along the lines of yesterday’s wine, this is another ‘high-end’ wine that appears to be primarily stocked by supermarkets. Again, good friends brought this bottle over to share with a pizza, but we wound up drinking something else entirely, so here I am sitting at home enjoying this one on my own for a change.Optically less severe than the Gallo, this wine looks something like dark coffee with a reddish tint. It’s got very obvious legs as well, which (to me) promises a rockin’ good time; all I need to do is find some barbecue or pizza and I suspect I’d be set. The nose is vaguely woody but ultimately dumb; it’s like candy floss/cotton candy in a walk-in, wood paneled closet. Not bad, but again not really wine (at least not to me).The surprise comes when you actually drink some of this: it’s bright and acidic, with pretty firm tannins supporting it all. However, it does seem like something’s been kinda fucked with here: the acidity doesn’t seem right for a wine this sweet (acidification?), and the tannins seem flown in from somewhere else entirely; It’s all kind of disjointed and jarring, and after it all quiets down, you’re left with a sense of jammy sweetness and some lingering acidity at the back of your throat. Not really my idea of a good time: if you’re going to go for happy fun time party wines, might as well find yourself a Chris Ringland cheapie, I reckon. Over time, it all gets slightly better, but still: if you’re spending this much money, there have got to be better options. $8 Aussie cab is more fun, and $18 Loire reds are more interesting, to name a couple of other options at random.All in all, this reminds me of an interesting experience I had many years ago at a Bay Area winery. An old friend (and my then-current boss) was winemaker there, and he went through a lot of work to save some wines that hadn’t turned out quite right the first time around. Using every trick he learned at UC Davis, he was able to deliver something drinkable – but only if you didn’t think about it too much. If you did, you began to realize that Mother Nature could never have produce what you were drinking, which made for a surreal experience.This wine is the equivalent of bad techno.PS. As an aside, this has been a hell of week for cork taint: both a bottle of Dolium Malbec 2002 (which I brought back from the winery, even) and a bottle of the Olivier Guyot Marsannay Favieres Vielles Vignes 2005 were dead on arrival. Grrr. Thankfully, however, Ed at The Wine Exchange cheerfully refunded my $15 for the Marsannay – now that’s good customer service. 🙂Rodney Strong
Price: $18
Closure: Cork

Frei Brothers Reserve Merlot 2005

These are the kinds of wine stores that there are here in San Diego:

  • Supermarkets
  • Liquor stores (bodegas)
  • Small wine shops competing on price (Wine Steals, Vintage Wines, SD Wine Co.)
  • Costco
  • Beverages and more!

I’d argue that there are no high end wine stores in San Diego – we don’t have anything like K&L here, so you’re stuck driving to Hollywood if you’re looking for the expensive stuff.Anyhow, I mention this here to discuss how and why this particular bottle of wine is in my house. Several months ago, friends of friends visiting from the Midwest generously invited me over to their vacation rental near La Jolla and shared their dinner with me. Completely unbidden, they even stopped at a corner liquor shop and bought a bottle of nice wine to share with me over dinner, but someone we didn’t get around to drinking it together, so here it is.This is a wine that you would presumably never, ever find in a “fine wine” kind of establishment. This is factory produce, courtesy of the Gallo family empire. Sure, they’re not mentioned on the label and everything’s been carefully designed that the wine’s produced by a family wine company (true, sort of) in Sonoma County, but between you and me? This is the Wal-Mart of the California wine world staring me in the face. (OK, not so much: Fred Franzia had nothing to do with this, but you get my drift.)So: Tonight’s question is simple: When your average American consumer heads down to the average corner liquor store and buys a nice bottle of wine (read: roughly double what the ordinary stuff costs), what does it taste like? Answer: It tastes like this:The color is very dark for a red wine, nearly black, dark all the way out to a thin, watery rim. Optically, it’s great: this looks exactly what you’d imagine expensive red wine to look at. The nose is decidedly sweet and straightforward, something like Christmas cookies; it’s a sort of low-key, friendly cherry spicebox effect with no real complexity and most assuredly neither funk nor greenness.There’s a noticeable lack of many of the things that make wine work for me as a beverage here. The line of this wine is very strange: it starts sweet, hangs there for a minute, shows a very small amount of tannin, and then finishes quickly and sweetly as well, with a simple berry flavor that isn’t even remotely compelling. I’m at a loss to describe the effect of drinking this, but on some level it seems like a fermented grape juice beverage product scientifically designed to appeal to people that don’t like wine. In fact, even the extremely mild, brief tannins that are here seem present only to announce that this is in fact a Very Nice, Expensive Wine because we’ve come to fear that particular sensation whenever we’re offered wine – if that makes sense. I guess I’m trying to say that there’s a homeopathic dose of nasty here (read: tannins) just to remind the drinker that they’ve moved on into Serious Wine Territory here.All in all, this is vaguely like Chinese barbecued pork in a bottle: slightly sweet, obviously red. Weirdly enough, though, it seems successful at what it seems to have set out to do: provide a wine drinking experience for an aspirational consumer who doesn’t actually like wine… and for that, I do have to respect the winemakers here.Frei Bros.
Price: $18
Closure: Cork

Ridge Buchignani Ranch Carignane 2004

“What is the point of Carignane?”That’s how I was originally going to begin this review. However, I then remembered that I’d already written about this wine a few months ago – and frankly, why revisit it? I said it was naff, right? A historical curiosity, nothing special, purple and childish?I am however in the habit of listening to my elders, to people that know far, far better than I; last week, I was reading through Randall Grahm’s tweets and noticed that he had this to say about carignane:Carignane is the quintessential Ugly Duckling grape, maybe the best thing grown in CA. [link]With that in mind, I’ll try to approach this wine differently this time around. So what does this wine smell like? Mineral? “Rocks and raspberries?” To me, yes, I suppose, but paying closer attention yields smells of expensively tanned leather. Leaning in further, it’s more suggestive of very mild beef jerky with something like lavender-infused caramelized sugar, a strange mix of the meaty and the floral, dusty leather bindings in a gentleman’s library with delicate French confections.Drinking some at last allows me to experience the full complexity of what’s on offer; yes, it can be drunk as a “quaffing” or “bistro” wine (as the back label suggests) – it’s rich, full, grapey, alcoholic, all of those good things you want with your steak frites on a Friday night – but is there more? Well, yes. It’s just speaking a language that doesn’t come naturally to me. There’s a softness that suggests the wine’s peaking in terms of its development; tannins are fully resolved and it’s an ethereal kiss, a sly glance from someone attractive who’s just walking out of the ballroom. Is there real minerality? Well, it’s not as in your face as a Loire red, but yes, listen carefully and you’ll sense it, speaking quietly as the Sonoma hills in Indian summer do. Although there’s that suggestion of sweetness on the nose, there isn’t really any in the wine; the roundness is from ripe fruit, yes, but it’s not porty, not overwrought. More than anything else, though, there’s a sense that it’s too easy to ignore this as something ordinary, something simple, something unexceptional… and much like that quiet girl in the back of the class who you didn’t notice at first, time spent with her, oblivious to questioning looks from your classmate, might just turn into something beautiful.Buy this, drink it, repeat until you get it. That’s the point of carignane.Ridge
Price: $24
Closure: Cork

Gundlach Bundschu Pinot Noir 2005

One smell of this and whoa, you’re in California. This doesn’t come across anywhere near as lean and means as Burgundy or Oregon: instead, you’re in distinctly warmer territory here. I can’t quite put that smell into words, but sometimes you smell a pinot and it just isn’t delicate; there’s a hint of varnish hovering over the full, red fruitiness.There’s a distinct earthiness or sappiness here as well, though, so it isn’t all shiny happy berries, which is a relief. There seems to be a dark, bitter chocolate note there as well, so I’m guessing this stuff has seen a fair whack of oak at some point.In the mouth, though, the wine is surprising: nimble and light on its feet, avoiding any sense of stewed fruit or overripeness. The flavor profile isn’t at all what I was expecting, tending towards the fairly sour with a fleshy midpalate, tasting largely of dusty leather, pipe tobacco, and sour raspberry jam. The finish is slightly overly acidic for my liking, but of course all that means is that you’d best drink this one with charcuterie; by itself, it seems just a bit incomplete, but it does offer up a wide range of flavors ranging from standard Pinot all the way through to earthy sap. For my money, this isn’t really a match for Oregon pinot or Burgundy – it’s just a bit too big and top-heavy in some way – but it’s a very fine example of Sonoma pinot noir and easily holds its own with some of the classic, e.g. Gary Farrell. Price-wise it’s fairly priced, too, which is unusual for this part of the state. Oddly enough the wine it reminds me most of is Bass Philips, albeit in kind of a cartoony way – this isn’t anywhere near the wine that is, but it has a similar fullness of profile, I reckon.Gundlach Bundschu
Price: $35
Closure: Cork

Ridge Buchignani Ranch Carignane 2004

Honestly? The first word that comes to mind here is naff. This isn’t a stylish wine, it’s not fashionable, never has been, never will be. The only reason this stuff exists is because Italian immigrants to California took it with from the old country; it’s survived here and there for over a century, and this wine is produced from some of those ancient vines.It’s a wine-y wine in that it smells like generically good wine. There’s not a lot of complexity; I’m not imagining old libraries, fresh mushrooms, straw in autumn sun, none of that stuff. Instead, it smells like bright, rich, clean, wholesome fruit. There is also a kind of fall-off to the smell that is hinting at bottle age, but it doesn’t necessarily seem like a bonus: instead, it seems like a reminder not to keep the wine around so long the next time.Once drunk, the wine is fairly simple and bright, with a chunky, tannic finish that’s quickly rescued by sprightly acidity. There’s a certain weight to the palate that’s attractive, but ultimately this isn’t one for the ages; it isn’t compelling enough to drink on its own, but would probably shine with charcuterie or a leg of lamb. Ultimately, the most interesting thing about this wine is simply that it exists at all. When I drink this, it’s satisfying to know that a small part of my state’s heritage exists in a consumable form to this day.Ridge
Price: $24
Closure: Cork

Ridge Buchignani Ranch Carignane 2006

Splashing into the glass, this is purple beyond belief. It’s as if Harold of purple crayon fame (or any toddler) imagined a glass of wine and drew it with the brightest crayon in the box.

It smells like a caricature of “fine wine” as well, having much more in common with Bohemian college dreams of sneaking into an Tuscan hayloft with the farmer’s daughter (or the strapping young man who drives the tractor, your tastes depending). It’s a lush, ripe sort of thing; you think of flowers heavy with nectar delivered days earlier, drooping on your sideboard. And yet it’s also fresh, vibrant, filled with the smell of a verdant California spring.

The fullness took me aback, followed by a full city roast coffee finish with extremely subdued tannins. The flavors are fairly straightforward, sure, but a lot of delicious foods are beautiful in their simplicity. To drink this wine is to throw your mind back to the harvest, when the earth’s fullness and abundance gave itself up just as leaves began falling dead to the ground; it’s a quick, jolting reminder to enjoy what you have before the frost.

Drink this with your mistress, preferably with black Moroccan olives and just-baked bread.

Price: about $30
Closure: Cork
Date tasted: November 2008

Ridge Vineyards Carmichael Zinfandel 2005

For the first time in several months, I experienced a brief shiver of pleasure just smelling this wine. That doesn’t happen often, and the list of wines that have had that sort of visceral effect on me is still fairly short (even after a decade’s worth of sporadically heavy drinking).Ahem. Where was I? It smells like… baked goods? Tarte tatin? Some sort of flower, not rose, but heavier? And would you believe it, finally a wine that actually smells like delicious freshly cooked bacon? I swear I’ve had dozens of French syrahs and Aussie shirazes that claimed to smell like bacon, but none have… until now. Wow. It’s like Farmer John pitched in at the winery. Whoa. On the next sniff, it’s gone again, and this time it smells like Zwetschgenkuchen – freshly baked German plum tart. Oh man. This is amazing. It moves on again, this time to Czech morello cherries fresh from the jar (!), or maybe even baker’s chocolate – the kind you only eat once as a child before discovering it tastes nothing like it smells. It just keeps going and going, changing every few minutes.And I haven’t even tasted this stuff yet.It’s not as heavy as I would have suspected – in the mouth it’s almost more like velvety, silky soft raspberry cordial, hugely surprising. There are no rough edges… but the finish hangs in there for quite a while before resolving itself in an almost woody note of cloves and burnt sugar. There’s almost a coconut shaving note there as well… definitely American oak in play here, no doubt about it. (I cheated before writing that down: yes, there is.) Coming back to it again, the next time it’s almost like cinnamon-specked candy I remember from faux pioneer mercantiles in the Gold Rush country of California: sugar with what would taste like imperfections in modern candy, but subtly delicious in a historic context. Blackstrap molasses, nutmeg, cherries, sweetness, and gentle acidity weaving around it all. There are tannins here as well, but you wouldn’t notice them unless you paid careful attention; they’re beautifully integrated and lend a fascinating sense of traditionality to what, I suppose, is hardly a traditional wine… unless you’re a Californian like myself, in which case you wish you could hand deliver a bottle of this to any European who pooh-poohs the very idea of California wine – or to anyone who thinks that a great Zinfandel can’t hold its own with the traditional great wines of the world.Amazing stuff. I can’t imagine what it’ll be like in five years, but I’m going to try and hold on to my other bottle in hopes of finding out for myself.

Price: US $30
Closure: Cork
Date tasted: January 2008

The Sonoma Trail™ Sonoma County Pinot Noir 2006

I laughed a bit as I poured this wine into the glass: I’d just opened two bottles of Ridge petite sirah and, well, this wine is pretty much at the exact opposite end of the color spectrum of red wines. If the Ridge was coagulating bull’s blood, then this is more like an overbrewed cup of Red Zinger. No, scratch that, it looks like agua de jamaica – a Mexican drink made from hibiscus flowers. This would be the perfect thing to serve to secretly alcoholic Mormons in a Salt Lake City Mexican restaurant, but I digress. I laughed again as I smelled the wine: whoa, this actually smells like Pinot! Score! Most of the time, your ten bucks gets you a grim joke of a clunky red wine as you remind yourself that yeah, this is probably the hardest grape to grow. There’s a lot of rich, fresh red cherries complemented by a very faint hint of clove and spice. It may not be the most complex thing in the world, but at least it smells recognizably like Pinot and has a cheerful, friendly fruitiness about it.In the mouth, it’s ever so slightly thin (which, oddly enough, makes it even more convincing). It’s got a kind of Red Vines-iness to it, but it’s by no means truly sweet, and it ends on a pleasant enough down note, with decent acidity and a finish that does persist for a bit.As my partner just said: hey, this shit ain’t bad. What more could you want for ten bucks?The Sonoma Trail™ [but really fresh&easy]

Price: US $9.95
Closure: Diam
Date tasted: December 2007