Norton Safeweb

Monday, March 28, 2011

I'll stop complaining about $300 Napa Cabernet now

Well, I'll stop complaining for a little while anyway.

Admittedly I'm Northern California-centric when it comes to my wine knowledge and preferences.  Most of my very limited knowledge on Old World wines is picked up from the occasional tidbit in a wine forum or a wine magazine.   I've heard rumblings for a few years about Bordeaux prices, but had no idea.  The last time I paid attention they were running about 150 bucks.

Having just started a subscription for the Wine Spectator magazine to expand my horizons the April 30, 2011 issue shows up in the mailbox.  It has reviews for several high-end French wines.  Here are a few from that issue. I hope you're sitting down.

The first one that caught my attention was a Chateau Ausone St.-Emilion that got 94 points.  A great rating.  All that for $1,200.  No, that's for a bottle.  And that's not even from the fancy part of Bordeaux.   With more reading I came up with a couple more examples.

Image from
Chateau Lafite Rothschild Pauillac for $2,000 and Chateau Petrus Pomerol for $3,000.  Wine Spectator called the Petrus "gorgeous, silky and lovely."   I freakin' hope so!

Interestingly, you can find wines in the $25 range mixed in with these in the ratings.  Yes, Rothschild and Petrus are highly sought after wines so it's supply and demand.

In early March I was out tasting on a local special event weekend, the Russian River Barrel Tasting, and recall one excellent Cabernet from a tiny winery named Krutz.  I was thinking after I sampled the wine, "Wow.  Really good!  But 75 bucks?"   

I feel like such a cheap bastard.

Friday, March 25, 2011

What time of year should you visit the wine country?

What's the best time of year to visit Sonoma or Napa?   That's an oft asked question.  And like many questions there is no black-and-white answer so lets look at the various times of the year.   Heck, we can do it by month even!

Pro:  No crowds, you can often talk with the owners and winemakers.
Con: Weather can be cold and wet. In fact, the occasional flood can really put a damper on things. Some smaller wineries may be closed some days as some restaurants may.  I've found wines sometimes not tasting their best because the bottles have been opened for a couple days.

Pro: Still small crowds except maybe President's Weekend.  Weather improving.  Mustard growing in the vineyards.
Con: Can't completely trust the weather yet.

February in Russian River Valley

Pro: Usually pretty good weather (but not in 2011 as CA got pounded with rain).  March and April are my favorite times of the year to drive around the wine growing regions. There are special events in Sonoma the first three weekends.  Mustard plants in full bloom in the vineyards.  The vineyards can be beautiful this time of year.
Con: Huge crowds at the barrel tasting events in Sonoma County.

Pro: Uncrowded, usually great weather, green vineyards and hillsides, vines budding out. This is probably a near perfect time of year to visit.
Con:  Easter break is a bit busy in Napa.

Pro:  Warm, dry weather. A few more visitors, but not near peak season.
Con: Memorial Weekend crowds in Napa and southern Sonoma.

Pro: This is sort of the "secret" time to visit as crowds are often lower than May and the weather is good.
Con: The occasional heat wave can hit anytime between mid-May and early-Oct.  Nothing worse than wine tasting when it's 105!

Pro: First part of the month is still not too crowded. The Fourth is usually not busy as people are BBQing, boating, etc. Some wineries close early on the Fourth.
Con: By mid-July the crowds are out as it's prime vacation season.

Enjoy a summer afternoon at Domaine Carneros
Image from

Pro:  Harvest begins for sparkling wine and maybe some still wines.  The arrival of the first grapes of the season is an exciting time for the wineries.
Con: Vacationers pack the highways in Napa Valley and southern Sonoma County.

Pro:  Harvest gets up to speed as you see grapes going up and down the roads and in the production areas of the wineries.  A great time to take a winery tour that includes the cellar or crush pad.  You can smell the harvest. Also, September is usually some of the nicest weather in the area.  It's even warm in San Francisco!  Usually.  If you want to see the harvest the best time to visit is midweek in late September.
Con: Crowds!  Everybody wants to see the harvest in action.  Avoid weekends in Napa.

Pro: Harvest is still moving along and the weather is still good.  Sonoma County Harvest Fair is the first weekend.  Fall color in the vineyards peaks about mid-Oct to mid-Nov.
Con: There are still big crowds, but not as bad as in September though it's still a mess on weekends in Napa.

October in the vineyards

Pro: Crowds are gone, but so is the harvest probably.  Weather can still be nice.  Late Oct to early Nov is a great time to visit.
Con: Weather may also turn cold and wet--you never know.

Pro: Various holiday goings-on at some wineries including light displays and parties.
Con: Weather can be bad.

The weather in Napa and Sonoma:

Good and bad weather is relative depending on what you are used to putting up with.  The winter season runs from roughly mid-Nov to mid-Mar meaning the temps can be in the 40s or 50s with rain heavy enough to occasionally cause some flooding.  Or the temps may be in the 70s.  Usually it's somewhere in between.  Do you want to visit in cold, rainy weather to avoid crowded wineries and roads? 

The dry season is mid-Apr through Oct.  The cool, foggy morning and evening weather peaks mid-Jul through Aug. Mid-May until early-Oct has the potential for temps over 100 degrees.  This is pretty damn hot to be out tasting wine.  These heat waves are infrequent and usually only last for a couple days.  We have micro-climates so if you head for places with a marine influence they'll be cooler (such as Carneros and Russian River).  You can often find a ten degree temperature difference within a half-hour drive.

Folks from many places aren't always prepared for the difference in day to night temperature swings.  On a clear winter day it can be 65 in the afternoon and 30 overnight. In the summer it can be 90 in the day and 55 at night.

Crowds in Napa and Sonoma:

Weekends are always busier, of course.  The weekend crowds start on Friday afternoon and peak on Saturday afternoon. Memorial Day, Labor Day and Thanksgiving weekend crowds are very heavy.

Napa is busier than Sonoma.  Southern Sonoma County (around the town of Sonoma) is busier than the northern areas (such as Russian River, Dry Creek, and Alexander Valley) because of driving distances from the Bay Area. 

The traffic is much worse in Napa because they get more visitors and because it is geographically more compact.  Sonoma County wine growing regions are more spread out so that spreads out the traffic.

Shipping wine home:

Heat destroys wine.  Be wary of shipping wine from the wineries in the summer.  Wineries should be able to hold your wine for a break in the weather to get it to you safely.  Ask them to do this.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Wine Country Goes Wild

Smart Money Magazine has an article about changes in the Sonoma/Napa wineries relating to increased pressure to sell in these economic times and "the Disneyland effect."

I bring up this article because this blog is mentioned.   Go to Smart Money Magazine, select Spending, then Travel, to the article "Wine Country Goes Wild" or use this Link.

The earlier entry on tourist trap wineries from Dec 10, 2010.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Sonoma Valley Barrel Tasting 2011

Just when I thought it was safe to sober up from last weekend's Russian River Barrel Tasting ...

We made a few stops on Sunday, March 20th, during the annual Savor Sonoma Valley barrel tasting event with about two dozen participating wineries.   No specific recommendations on any wines since I didn't take notes while out tasting and my memory ain't what it used to be.

Beautiful grounds and a nice special event area for the barrel tasting.  The wines seemed tannic and tight without any fruit showing through yet.  Will they be better in a few years?  I'm not familiar enough with these wines to know.  This is a nice place to visit for the aforementioned grounds and the guided vineyard tram tours as it's rare to get a chance to check out the vineyards like this.
Benziger vineyards
Chateau St. Jean
Another beautiful spot with decent everyday wines in the $20 range and some excellent reserve wines, but some of these are going for $90 now.  They have a new deli in the tasting room so this is a good lunch stop.   Extra credit for the SF Giants theme for the weekend!

Deerfield Ranch
The tasting was in a central room in their aging caves setup with tasting bars and leather sofas.  Just add a big screen TV and it would be the ultimate Man Cave!  Some very good wines.
From Deerfield Ranch Winery
More cave tasting, but this time with so-so wines.  These guys used to be better.
Kunde vineyards above the cave entrance
St. Francis
Many of their wines have to be cut with a knife, but boy are they good in a couple years.  Lots of great Zins.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Spring (Apr-May) Wine Events in Sonoma

The big wine-related events in Sonoma County for April and May 2011.  Spring is a great time to visit the wine country!

Apr 2  Taste of Olivet Road winery open house (just west of Santa Rosa).  Or you can sing along, "Follow the Olivet Road." This is a new event.  Info

Apr 2  Pick of the Vine wine tasting benefit for seniors. Info

Apr 10 How the West Was Wine.  West Sonoma County winery open house with food and discounts.  Info

Apr 16-17 April in Carneros open house at wineries in southern Napa and Sonoma Counties. A really fun event for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir lovers.  Info

Apr 30-May 1 Passport to Dry Creek Valley open house with food, wine and music. A great, if a little expensive, event.  Info

May 14-15 Sonoma Valley Reserve.  A pricey, but exclusive group of specialized guided tours. This appears to be a new event replacing the Sonoma Valley Passport weekend.  Info

May 20-22 Taste Alexander Valley.  Wine, food, and entertainment. Similar to Dry Creek's passport event, but less well-known and a bit less expensive.  Info

Plus there are various Easter,Cinco de Mayo, and Mother's Day events going on.

And if you get bored with all the wine there's the Ferrari Challenge at Infineon Raceway Apr 28-May 1. Prepare to see red!
Image from

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

USA Number One! (in wine purchases)

For the first time Americans have purchased more wine than the World's Greatest Winos, the French.  In 2010 Americans consumed 3.96 billion bottles compared to the French at 3.85 billion bottles.   The biggest gain was with the under-30 crowd.  California produces about 60% of the wine consumed by Americans.

Of course, we're no where near the French in Per Capita consumption.  According to the Wine Institute France drinks about 14 gallons of wine per person per year; the U.S. about 2.5, so I don't believe we'll catch the French anytime soon.

Here's a trick question for you:  What country has the highest wine consumption Per Capita? No, not France.  It's the Vatican, which is sort of an independent city-state, population about 900.  A lot of sacramental wines, I guess.

But this makes the U.S. officially the largest consumer of wines in the world.

Read about it in the Press Democrat.

Image from

Monday, March 14, 2011

Summing up the 2011 Russian River Barrel Tasting

Following are some overall thoughts on the weekend now that I've semi-recovered.  You can find more detail in the other blog entries from the past three days.

David Coffaro's vines and solar array on March 11th

The Wines

Overall, pretty much everything I tried from bottle or barrel was a very good to excellent wine.  Mostly I sampled Pinot Noir, Syrah, or Zinfandel with the occasional Cabernet or Cab blend thrown in.  There was one winery, however, that was making pretty bad wines--you can read about that in the March 13th entry. 

Pinot and Syrah prices seem to be creeping up as there were a number of these at $50 or more.  Zinfandel is holding the line or maybe dropping a bit.   The other nice thing, especially with the Zins, is I didn't run across the overly alcoholic fruit-bombs though that may be partially because of the wineries I selected to visit.

There are a lot of really good, really small wineries out there that you've never heard of (or at least I'd never heard of).  These are wines you'll never see on a store shelf or a restaurant wine list.

The 2010 growing season was the worst anyone remembers as the weather was either too cold or too hot and a lot of grapes were lost.   Any time there's talk of a bad year you wonder what will actually show on in the bottle.  I sampled several 2010 wines from barrels and didn't find a bad one though they are still really young and the reds are not close to being fully developed yet.

Partying Crowds

This event has gotten notorious for the huge crowds, and the intoxicated groups of people, especially on Saturday afternoons.   While I've heard others talking about it on the Internet I didn't see much of this possibly because I stayed out of Dry Creek Valley and the town of Healdsburg on Saturday afternoon.   I've been to this event before and worked this event so I only went into Dry Creek on Friday and again briefly on Sunday afternoon.  I didn't venture into the town of Healdsburg.   It made things much more enjoyable not having to deal with busloads of drunk 23 year olds!

Barrel Tasting and Futures

The Barrel Tasting seemed to have gotten away from its original format of actual barrel sampling and offering futures sales on these wines.   This seemed to go hand-in-hand with the drunken party atmosphere of the past few years.   This year almost everyone had more barrel samplings than bottled wines available plus futures offerings on the wines still in barrels.   I'm glad to see the event return to its roots.   A lot of the credit may go to the Wine Road folks who put this event on.  They do a good job of listening to the member wineries and their customers.

One winery I worked at used to do about $10k in futures during one weekend of this event, but that had dwindled to one case a couple years ago!   I'm hoping the futures program is working out for the wineries. 

Good Timing on My Part

I have my semi-annual appointment to get my teeth cleaned this week.   I'll let her figure out how to get all those barrel samples of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah out of my teeth!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Russian River Barrel Tasting, Day 3

This day started north or Geyserville then worked down into Santa Rosa.  Many are very small operations sharing facilities with others.  As usual, I'm sticking to reds.

North of Geyserville near J Rickards and Pech-Merle
J Rickards
Sampled Zinfandels and Petite Sirahs out of barrels and bottles.  The 2007 Old Vine was very good, not a high alcohol fruit-bomb, and $28.  Real Zin! I think the '09 Petite Sirah out of the barrel will be good--some day.

Pech Merle
They share facilities with J Rickards.  Tried Zinfandels out of the barrel and bottle.  Out of the bottle the 2009 Dry Creek Zin was good, the 2008 l'entrée Dry Creek was very good and reasonably priced at $27.

The Dry Creek Zin was better than the Alexander Vly one and the Alexander Vly Cab was better than the Dry Creek (just as it should be).

Zins, Petite Sirah, and Cabs.  The Bordeaux-blend, Buck Pasture Red, was the star of the line-up.

The wines smelled or tasted of raisins, oxidation, and finger nail polish.

MJ Lords
From 2008 they were pouring a Sangiovese, a Carmenere, and a Montepulciano.  Carmenere they called "the lost Bordeaux grapes that's been rediscoved in Chile."  To me it needed a little more body by blending in some Merlot or Malbec maybe.  Montepulciano is Italian (duh).   It's a BIG, spicy wine with a bit of tannins and acids and should be really nice in a few years with a big ol' plate of pasta in marinara.  The Sangi was soft and round and easy to drink for its young age.

Wowee.  Exceptional wines. His last Malbec got some good write-up in Wine Spectator and is long gone, but the '07 Stagecoach Cab, blended with Malbec, is excellent.  I'm going back to try these again soon.

I've had them before and still like the style.  Numerous Rhone-style wines and others.  All have perceptible acid so they work well with food.  The home of the anti-fruit-bomb.  Their table was too crowded so I could only get in for one one this time (a Grenache/Syrah blend).  I'll have to go back on a "normal" day.

Best of the Day
Krutz 2007 Napa Valley Stagecoach Cabernet, $75.   But it was also the most expensive wine tasted over the three day event.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Russian River Barrel Tasting, Day 2

This day was spent in the Russian River area and Santa Rosa.  We sampled at several micro-wineries that share facilities plus a few others.  I'm going almost exclusively for reds and as we're in the Russian River area there will be lots of Pinot Noir.

Way and the heck out in the middle of nowhere near the coast where they make Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the two grapes grown in that area.  We sampled the Fogdog and Freestone Pinots. The Fogdog is fruitier, less complex, and less expensive.  The 2007 Freestone PN was nice, but not $55 nice.

Taft Street
They had Pinot, Zinfandel and Syrah.  All had a similar red fruit flavor and were very similar style.  Decent wines at good prices.  This place was crowded with the Millennial-types so they must appreciate the reasonable pricing.

Red Car
These were interesting wines.   They have multiple tiers (cheap, moderate, expensive) wines.  The reds from the middle and high-end were very good.   The $55 "The Fight" Syrah was excellent as it should be at that price.  The mid-range Box Car Pinot was also nice.  I'm going back to try their wines again on a "normal" day.

Had barrel samples of '10 Pinots and a couple bottled Pinots and Syrahs.  The Russian River Pinot was very good, the Devil's Gulch was excellent, but was $59.  The '08 Cherry Ridge Syrah was outstanding. Very well made wines and they seem to keep the alcohol levels in check.

Hook & Ladder
Stopped by because a friend was working there.  What a zoo!  I think the decibel level of the crowd was enough to rupture vital organs, so I left.

They make Chard, Pinot and Zin, but are primarily about the Pinots. Tasted an '09 Sonoma Coast, '09 Russian River, '08 Bella Una, and '08 La Pommeraie ranging in price from $38 to $56.  The Russian River and Bella Una were the best with the RRV being more fruit-forward and the Bella being more earthy.
From Benovia, 3/12/11

Carol Shelton
From the bottle they were pouring three Zinfandels:  2006 Wild Thing, 2007 Monga, and 2006 Karma.  The Karma was my favorite. It's from Robert Rue's Wood vineyards (see post on part 1 of the barrel tasting for info on Robert Rue).  Also had a barrel sample of an '09 Petite Sirah that I'm still trying to remove from my teeth.

Sampled Pinots, Zins an Syrah from barrels.  Good wines, good prices.

Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with a couple different vineyards of very good Pinots--van der Kamp and Hellenthal.

Simple Math
This is a micro-winery!  He set up a table in the cellar with his friend from Inspiration.  Very good wines and very reasonably priced.  He's making Pinot, Zin, and Syrah in limited quantities.

All about Pinot and it's nicely balanced and decently priced.

Best of the day
2008 Dutton-Goldfield Cherry Ridge Syrah
2008 Red Car The Fight Syrah

Friday, March 11, 2011

Russian River Barrel Tasting, Day 1

This is the second weekend of the annual Barrel Tasting in northern Sonoma County. "Barrel tasting" means the wineries offer samples of young wines, usually from the past harvest, for tasting and buying on futures (pay now, pick them up in a few months). They also offer their current wines for tasting and purchasing.  So there's LOTS of wines to try.  As I'm writing this I'm rehydrating with a beer so I can be ready to do this again tomorrow.  (How DO I do it)?  The event runs Friday through Sunday of both weekends. This is my trip Report from March 11, 2011

Dry Creek Valley, 3/11/11
 Robert Rue
Tasted 2006 Wood Ranch Zinfandel and 07 Reserve Zin plus a Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel from the barrels.
Last year I bought the 2006 Zin.  This year I didn't purchase as it's the first stop of the day.  If I need to I can always go back.

This one is new to me and it looks like a fairly new operation situated up a narrow road in the hills on the eastern side of Dry Creek Valley.
Tasted a 2008 Chardonnay, 2005 Zinfandel, a Cab out of the barrel and 2005 Zinfandel Port.  The Chard was so-so at $32, the '05 Zin was a real throwback to a style you don't see much anymore.  14.2% alcohol and still had tannins even though it's five years old.  Cab was so-so.  The star was the 2005 Zinfandel Port.  Wow.  Great spices, not syrupy, one of the best Zin Ports I've seen.

Papapietro Perry
They make several Pinot Noirs and a Zinfandel.  All were from Russian River/Sonoma Coast except one Pinot from Anderson Vly in Mendocino.  All were fairly expensive, but very good.  They even had some older vintages for sale.
Tasted these 2008 Pinots: Russian River, Sonoma Coast, Elsbree Vyd (RRV), Charles Vyd (Anderson Vly), Leras Vyd (RRV), and Peters Vyd (RRV).  The Leras Family Vineyards Pinot was a knockout.  Also tasted a Russian River Zin that was OK if you are looking for lots of cherry flavor in your wine.

Collier Falls
Tasted the 2006 Dry Creek Zinfandel that recently got the proverbial 92 points from Wine Spectator.
It's a high-alcohol fruit-bomb that has some complexity and spices, but it's not for me.

Tasted a couple young 2009 Zinfandels--a Dry Creek Vly and a Todds Vyd out of Alexander Valley.  I believe the Dry Creek one will be good eventually, but the Todds shows great complexity and structure already.

David Coffaro
David likes Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and a loud audio-visual setup in the cellar.
Barrel sampled about ten 2010 wines including six Zinfandels--mostly Zin blends and a couple Cab blends.  Unfortunately, I didn't bring the list of barrel samples home so I don't remember the two that stood out. I believe both were Zinfandel and Petite Sirah blends with maybe something else thrown in. 
Dave makes very drinkable, food-friendly wines.

Best of the Day
2005 Kachina Zinfandel Port
2008 Papapietro Perry Leras Family Pinot Noir

You can help:  Japan quake and tsunami relief -- Text REDCROSS to 90999 to donate $10.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Wine Tasting vs. Coffee Tasting

Coffee tasting???

I've been going wine tasting for over 30 years (yeah, I started when I was 11. LOL.   I've been to the Kona District of the Big Island of Hawaii a couple times now to taste at some of the coffee-growing farms.  This is what I wrote up from my first trip.

There seem to be interesting similarities between the two.   Kona is pretty famous for expensive coffee and draws a number of tourists.   Just like Napa is famous for expensive wine.   Luckily, Kona isn't choked with traffic and they don't charge you for the privilege of sampling their coffees.

I took a tour at Hula Daddy's Coffee Plantation (yes, it's really called Hula Daddy).  I also tried to stop by Kona Lisa, but they were closed.   Anyway, the tour guide showed us the coffee plants and how everything is manually picked and sorted for the best beans.  Much better than the big guys who mechanically harvest by stripping the plants.   Just like with wine.   We saw the "production area" which is the roaster.  It was cleaning day and they were getting all the gunk out of the roasting machine and the pipes.  

There seems to be a bit of controversy over light-to-medium roast vs. dark roast coffee as the local experts seem to think a lighter roast is better.   Our guide asked plainly, "Do you want to taste the coffee or the roasting?"  And she mentioned heavy roasting can cover up for inferior beans.    Ah ha!  This sounds like California Chardonnay.  Do you want to taste the Chard grapes or oak and butter?   Well, I think most Americans like oaky and buttery just like they seem to like dark roasts.   Hmmm.

She talked up the Hula Daddy Kona Sweet coffee and all the rave reveiws.  Later I saw it on their shelf--$60 a pound!   Well, I've lived without $300 Bryant Family Cabernet so I can pass on this.

Plus there's trellis farming, organic farming, and growing at different elevations in Kona.  Sounds a whole lot like wine.   In fact, Kona is apparently the Napa of Hawaiian coffee as there are actually other areas growing coffee that you never hear about (just like many don't know about Mendocino, Amador, Paso Robles).   One coffee farm in Hilo on the other side of the island had a sign saying, "The un-Kona Coffee."

And there are Coffee Cuppers--the experts.  There are volumes of writings on how to properly taste and judge coffee.  They look for acidity, aroma, body, and flavor.   This sounds familiar.

There are coffee judgings with professional and people's choice awards given as I saw several coffee bags with stickers proclaiming such.  I even heard one server telling some visitors, "This coffee got a 93!"
I'm supporting the American economy!

And there's the controversy over whether Kona coffee is really worth 30 bucks a pound plus-or-minus versus other coffees.   Sounds like, "Are Napa Cabs really worth $75?"

So just like the previous trip I came home with a bunch of bags of expensive coffee--just like visitors to Napa bring home high-priced Cabernets.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Dumbing Down of Zinfandel

 History of Zin in Sonoma
19th century Italian immigrants are credited with bringing Zinfandel to Sonoma County.  They field blended and made it in the style from back home as a wine to go with their Italian meals.    (Field blended means there are other varieties planted with the Zinfandel and it's picked and fermented all together).
With the Mondavi- and Napa-led wine boom starting in the 1970s Chardonnay and Cabernet were king.  Zin fell so far out of favor people started looking for something to do with the grapes besides make jug wine.   White Zinfandel was "invented" and it saved a lot of old Zinfandel vineyards from being uprooted for more Cabernet.

This wine may have saved
many Zinfandel vineyards
Image from
 More Recently
Zinfandel made a comeback of sorts in the 90s then really started to flourish in the last decade with the full-throttle and full-bodied wines.  Mostly by "flourish" I mean prices of this new style jumped as Zinfandel went from a medium-weight, spicy, spaghetti red to the lush, full-bodied fruit-bomb so prevalent now.

Why aren't most of today's Zinfandels still "spaghetti wine?"   The spiciness and the acid backbone are gone from these high-alcohol wines and they just don't stand up to these foods.
Zinfandel has moved away from a complex, brambly, peppery, wine made for tomato-based food and other spicy meals to one of simplistic red fruit flavors.
Much of today's Zin can be described as "bright red fruit followed by some heat."   Think Dr. Pepper with a shot of vodka. 

 Sonoma County Harvest Fair
At last year's local harvest fair wine tasting I went through a lot of Zinfandels to see what I could find out about the current state of this grape. 
I found big fruit is still king, but the alcohols have been toned down (in the processing of the wine).  I also found the majority of these wines to pretty much taste the same and I got bored with them quickly.  Ho hum, another mouthful of red fruit.

It's good to have style choices in a wine variety.  Sometimes I think winemakers are damned if you do and damned if you don't.  If everyone makes a wine the same people complain that's it's boring.  If a wine is made in different styles people complain that they don't know what they're buying.   Think about looking at American Gewurztraminer and Riesling on a store shelf--is it dry or sweet?  Who knows.

 Old Style
Here are some Sonoma folks who still make Zinfandel the way God intended:
Dry Creek, Kenwood (Jack London Vyds), Nalle, Pedroncelli, Preston, Rafanelli, Ridge/Lytton Springs, and Unti.  
And one from Napa:  Storybook Mtn.
These are all food wines.  The Lytton Springs and Kenwood Zins usually need some time to age before they peak.  In fact, some of the best aged wines I've ever had were Zinfandel from these two producers.

 New Style
These are very much fruit-forward and will sometimes show some heat from alcohol in the finish, but these are some of the best of this style:
Armida, Hartford Court, Rosenblum, and Wilson
I picked these because of the past couple years I have bought Zin from all of these folks.

 Dumbing Down
I wonder how many people new to Zinfandel believe finding a black pepper taste to their wine is a flaw?
Great wines are about structure, finesse and complexity.  Too many Zinfandels have none of these making them boring wines.

This post is a follow-up to a previous one about high alcohol California wines.