The Winos’ Tasting Series: doing our best to “reserve” judgment on some Zinfandel

By Jesse on January 11, 2009

“Reserved.” It’s a word we Winos see frequently — most often in the form of small white signs placed on tables when the wait staff sees us approaching and doesn’t want to deal with our shenanigans. Reserve, however, is a totally different form of the word, and one we encounter perhaps even more often. It seems like every other bottle likes to brag about how it’s some sort of “reserve” — private reserve, cellar reserve, limited reserve, etc.

Unregulated by law as it is in this country, the term “reserve” is often tossed around indiscriminately (along with phrases like “classic collection” or “vintner’s select”). Sometimes, though, it’s used in the way it was originally intended: to designate an upper-tier wine that, for some reason, is a cut above the regular issue. The Winos recently had a chance to taste the standard and the “reserve” versions of a Dry Creek Zinfandel side-by-side. To make it interesting, we tasted the wines blind, unencumbered by the whims of the labels. Would the superior breeding of the “reserve” shine through in the glass?

When a captive audience of five Winos gathered in my living room on a recent Sunday, I realized the time was ripe to break out a couple of Zins sent our way by the good people at Ferrari-Carano. Both were graduates of the class of 2005, but one was the Dry Creek Valley “Reserve,” while the other was the standard issue Dry Creek. I distributed some glassware, poured the bottles out side-by-side, and took some notes as the Winos went to work.

Wine #1 poured out dark and inky in the glass. “Sticks,” offered Jessica as she took her first whiff. “In fact, it smells like wood chips… like cheap playground wood chips.” Myla called it smoky, and Dylan thought it smelled “raisiny.” A languid funk lingered over the fruit, provoking observations ranging from “unripe” to “mashed potatoes out of the box” (and Myla became the first Young Wino ever to smell “Shrinky Dinks” on a bouquet). Once the plastic funk breezed off, however, I picked up some red berry notes, particularly raspberry and cranberry.

101_5825.jpgThe palate, unfortunately, retained some notes from the funky period the nose had experienced. Andrew got “chemically,” and Heather said she thought it tasted “like a retirement home.” Other people found a silver lining, observing some red currant and burnt cedar notes; next, hints of cola and chocolate were perceived on the mid-palate. However, there were complaints that the wine ran too hot, and featured an off-putting “medicinal undertone.” Calling it a “$10-and-under” wine, Jessica spoke for the whole group when she opined that she hoped this was the non-reserve.

Wine #2 offered up a nose that met with universal appeal. Jessica got plum, Andrew chocolate, and Myla cloves and tobacco. I thought it smelled old-world, and I even picked up some seasonal notes of hot mulled cider. “It smells like loamy forest,” said Jessica, and several others agreed, noting that it was “almost like a compost pile, in a very positive way.” Dylan thought it smelled “toasty,” and Myla betrayed her preference early by offering, “I can smell expensive!”

We tasted the anonymous wine, and Jessica didn’t take long to call it “infinitely better.” Andrew agreed: “very light-bodied, but fucking delicious.” I disagreed with the first half of his assessment (I found it solidly medium-bodied), but agreed with the second. Round and smooth, with some toasty mahogany character, the wine provoked me to note that it tasted “like a silky rainbow.” Others were also creative in their praise: Heather said that drinking Wine #2 was “like sex with King Louis XIV.” Jessica picked up bright red cherry notes, and I observed a “rich pine forest” character throughout. The finish was substantial, and lingered for a minute or more.

Clearly, the Wino assemblage had chosen a favorite — and, as much as I would’ve loved to play spoiler, I was forced to admit that Wine #2 was indeed the 2005 Ferrari-Carano “Reserve” Zinfandel (Dry Creek Valley). Blended with 4% Petite Sirah, this delightful Zin hailed from the Ferrari-Carano estate vineyard in Dry Creek, and boasted a price tag of $36. Running a distant second, as far as that evening’s judges were concerned, was Wine #1, the 2005 Ferrari-Carano Zinfandel (Dry Creek Valley), a blend of 85% Zinfandel, 11% Carignan, and 4% Petite Sirah, which retailed for $28.

Approach the old “reserve” moniker with a healthy dose of skepticism the next time you encounter it in the aisles of your local grocery store; it might be no more than a buzzword hastily applied by a thoughtless marketer. However, when actually paired side-by-side with a sister bottle that doesn’t bear the “reserve” badge, you may well determine it to be a sign of superior quality. In this particular case, at least, the Winos found a case where the “reserve” bottle is definitely worth dropping the extra “reserve” cash.


Pouring up the blind bottles; no peeking, please; Andrew likes having two wines at once


Taking some serious notes; one little word makes all the difference; good wine make-a people go craaaazy!

The Young Winos of LA — edutoxicating Los Angeles since 2005

1 Comment »

  1. I thought “Reserve” meant that wineries could charge more for the bottle?

    Bryan Kane
    Winemaker
    VIE Winery
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    PS — There are no reserve wines at VIE, so we must be underpricing our wines — right?

    Comment by Bryan Kane — January 23, 2009 @ 4:14 pm

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