I am a total fan of old-vine zinfandel. I like the "mixed black'' grapes that are often part of a field blend, the history and commitment over generations that result in a century-old vineyard still bearing excellent fruit.
Paul Draper at Ridge Vineyards and Joel Peterson at Ravenswood have been producing such wines for decades. Their track records are remarkable. You can find many other wines labeled old vine, ancient vine, heritage clone and so on, but few are as consistent and reliable as these.
Both California vintners put a wealth of detail on their labels and in their tasting notes, including field blend percentages. Some truly old vineyards, such as Old Hill Ranch in Sonoma, may have more than a dozen varietals mixed together. Old Hill owner Will Bucklin maps out his entire 135-year-old site at www.buckzin.com/sonoma-vineyard.html.
The field-blend concept was brought over from Europe, mostly by Italian immigrants. They mixed compatible varietals that could be picked all at once, fermented together and bottled as a rustic, all-purpose red wine. What is fascinating is how the concept still works, even though it goes against virtually every "rule'' for making great wines today. When all your vines are mixed, you're bringing in grapes that have ripened unevenly. That's a big no-no. Fermenting them together should result in some green or stemmy character; another no-no. And you're throwing away the opportunity to blend your best wine from your best barrels. Yet, as these wines prove year after year, the old ways still work.
Four from Ridge
Ridge 2008 Three Valleys ($22). This is three quarters zin, a blend from choice sites, including some that are 80 to 100 years old. Spicy, brambling, peppery and nicely balanced.
Ridge 2008 Geyserville ($35). Produced in every vintage since 1966, this is full-bodied, fleshy, ripe and detailed, with juicy acidity and mellow tannins. The vines range from 10 to 120 years old.
Ridge 2008 East Bench ($30). All zin, bold and rough, though not old vine. An interesting comparison showing the difference in fruit flavors from new plantings.
Ridge 2008 Paso Robles Zinfandel ($30). Best of all, from the Dusi Ranch, planted in 1922. This is all zin, nicely focused with brambly fruit, Asian spices and fine tannins.
Ridge wines are distributed by Noble, Ravenswood by Young's-Columbia.
Six from Ravenswood
The Ravenswoods provide a wonderful opportunity for your group to pool funds and try them all. Decant them (or open a few hours early), and note the subtle differences and richly defined details. Here is the winery's suggested tasting order:
Ravenswood 2007 Dickerson Zinfandel($35). Pure zin from a Napa vineyard. The oldest vines date to 1930. Wonderfully pure cherry/berry fruit, nuanced with mineral, tar and seed flavors.
Ravenswood 2007 Belloni Zinfandel ($35). Century-old vines in the Russian River Valley produce this field blend that is 78 percent zin. Smooth and deep, it's loaded with cherry, pepper and gravelly minerality, as well as sweet cedar and coffee from barrel aging.
Ravenswood 2007 Barricia Zinfandel ($35). Half of this Sonoma Valley vineyard dates back to the 1890s. Harmonious and floral, the blend includes one quarter petite sirah.
Ravenswood 2007 Big River Zinfandel ($35). All Alexander Valley zin, with red and purple fruits, black olive, cassis and light minerality.
Ravenswood 2007 Old Hill Zinfandel ($50). I love this wine; it's generous and spicy, a potpourri of fruits with streaks of curry, chocolate, coffee and caramel.
Ravenswood 2007 Teldeschi Zinfandel ($35). This Dry Creek Valley vineyard was first planted a century ago. A mouthful of blueberries and chocolate, pure and lingering.
Paul Gregutt is the author of "Washington Wines Wineries.'' Find him at www.paulgregutt.com or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.