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Zinfandel - A California Favorite
updated: Feb 09, 2013, 3:00 PM

By Marc Liberts

January 27, 2013

On Sunday January 27, 2013 I attended the BYOB Wine & Dine event held at Max's Restaurant & Cucina in Santa Barbara. The theme of event was California Zinfandel, and the featured speaker was Donald Thiessen from Stacked Stone Cellars.

As always, the event started out with assorted paired cheeses from C'est Cheese which were enjoyed with the wine that everyone brought to share. There were approximately 40 bottles of California Zinfandel brought by the guests which provided a good example of the regional variations in the Zinfandel wines.

The meal started with Kalamata Olive & Sweet Onion Flatbread with Sundried Tomato-Roasted Garlic- Pine Nut Pesto. The main course was a Hearty Lamb Moussaka with Potato-Cauliflower Mash & Peas in a Shallot-Balsamic Reduction. The dessert featured a Dark Chocolate Cherry Mousse with Florentine Cookie. All paired very nicely with the Zinfandel wines from Stacked Stone Cellars that Donald Thiessen shared with us.

Mr. Thiessen gave two talks during the meal to introduce himself and to talk about his wines. He has been in Paso Robles for 37 years, and has used all his expendable capital and converted it to liquid assets. In his words "converting his green into red". He states that his style is different than most because he is a ‘small fish in a big pond'.

In discussing the Paso Robles region, Thiessen stated that Italian immigrants came to the region by boat and landed in Morrow Bay, bringing Zinfandel cuttings with them. The origin of Zinfandel is not very clear, but is believed to come from the Island of Havar in the country of Croatia. It was taken to Italy and is called Primitivo there. When it arrived in Paso Robles, it was renamed Zinfandel. He stated that 60% of all the fruit grown in Paso Robles is shipped to Napa. And he further stated that 50% of all the wines made in Napa are from Paso Robles fruit, because quality wine comes from the vineyard, not necessarily the winery. Paso Robles is the largest AVA in the world. Not only is it the largest area, it also has more Rhone varietals planted then the Rhone Valley itself. Small guys like him are being creative in blending and producing very high quality wines.

His claimed that his farm is organic, bio-dynamic, and sustainable, but he also admitted that he does not pay the fess to the proper authorities who do the certifications. He hand pricks his fruit from his estate vineyard which is head pruned and a dry farmed vineyard. He does a whole-berry fermentation process and all his wines are cold soaked with extended maceration and blended with a little petite syrah.

He is proud to make handcrafted wines in the ‘Old World' style. His Zinfandel wines are barrel aged for 2 years and spend another 6 months in the bottle before he releases them for sale. He states his wines are best after 10 years of age in the bottle, and his wines are designed to be aged for very long periods of time. He talked about the fact that most people don't age wine at all, but he advises consumers to buy a case of wine they like and try one bottle every year until it gets perfect.

I had a chance to interview Tom Rustin, the Ranch Manager of Stacked Stone Cellars before the event.

QUESTION: Please help us get to know you better. What is your history in wine making? What inspires your wine making? Who are your wine mentors?

ANSWER: Every weekend owner and winemaker Donald Thiessen personally welcomes you to the winery as he pours for you his award wining wine. He is known as the "character" around town and will surely have you in stitches with his cowboy style and humor. He enjoys making new friends, listening to live music, trips to the lake, and sharing his fine wine. Donald grew up on an avocado ranch in Ventura and moved to the Paso Robles area 35 years ago with his family. His dream was to find a place to raise his children and become an active part of a small, growing community. Paso was the perfect place! Over the years he raised two children, developed Peachy Canyon Woodworks and Thiessen Construction, and became a well-known cowboy in town. Stacked Stone Cellars began in 1998 when owner, Donald Thiessen, united his love of fine craftsmanship with a love of wine. Stacked Stone Cellars produces small quantities of hand crafted wine. Donald named his "liquid assets" after the elaborate stacked stone landscaping adorning the winery grounds and estate vineyard.

QUESTION: Why do you think Zinfandel is so popular? What characteristics does it have that people like so much? Why do you like it?

ANSWER: Zinfandel is the state grape, proclaimed by our Governor. It was the first grape to be grown in California some 140 years ago. The first bonded winery in California was right on the Central Coast. Zinfandel appeals to a wide range of consumers because of its many facets. They can have a wonderful bouquet, bright fruit up front, big jammy body's, with lush finishes. We like producing the Zinfandel grape because of its heritage her on the Central Coast. Our estate vineyard produces low yields of highly concentrated, jammy, and intense Zinfandel fruit. The vines are sustainably dry farmed and head pruned on the west side Paso Robles, where the soils are rich in minerals and nutrients. The soil is calcareous and siliceous composed of shale, mudstone, siltstone and limestone providing the optimum terroir for Zinfandel. The estate fruit is gently harvested to produce our flagship and award wining wine the "Zin Stone".

QUESTION: What do you think about screw-cap enclosures for wine? Some California wineries have embraced them, some have started using them, and some refuse to use them. What do you think?

ANSWER: Screw-caps are fine for some wines and for some winery's. We believe that they work best for large production facilities. The cost for screw cap machinery or to out source the bottling to another facility take's away from our hand crafted style of making wine.

QUESTION: Who are your favorite Zinfandel producers other than Stacked Stone?

ANSWER: There are many excellent wine makers that make Zinfandel. We feel like the best area to grow and produce the Zinfandel grape is on the west side Paso. We don't get enough of a chance to taste them all so it's not fair to pick out one or another.

QUESTION: What wines will you be bringing to the event? Please provide a brief commentary on each wine that you are bringing to the event.

ANSWER: Here are the wines: 2011 Rosetta: 100% Zinfandel Rose` to be poured at the reception. The Rosetta is rich, ripe and full of tropical fruits. Aromatics of melon and citrus, with flavors of fresh strawberries, balanced acidity and a lingering finish. 2009 Zin Stone: 80% Estate Zinfandel and 20% Petit Syrah - to be poured with the appetizer. 2010 Zin Stone: 80% Estate Zinfandel and 20% Petit Syrah - to be poured with the entree. Our head pruned, dry farmed Zinfandels offers small clusters of grapes packed with intense flavor and color from the minerals and nutrients of our estate soil. Rich & voluptuous. The bold red cherry and jammy raspberry fruit is accented with generous white pepper, cocoa, and caramel notes that roll through the lush finish.

Overall, I am not a lover of Zinfandel wines. I think I purchased one bottle of Zinfandel to eat with a steak dinner a few years ago and regretted it. I usually only purchase Zinfandel if I have to, and I don't really collect it. I have a hard time differentiating Zinfandel wines. To me, they all taste very similar. I can taste the differences between cool weather Zinfandels from Sonoma and Dry Creek versus Paso Robles, and I usually prefer the bigger and more fruity wines from Paso Robles. I enjoyed both the 2009 and 2010 Zin Stone wines from Stacked Stone Cellars. I didn't care for the Rose at all. Mr. Thiessen is the kind of guy you hope you get to sit next to if you are stuck on an airplane or seated with at your dinner table on a long cruise vacation.

Finally, I did a mini blind California Zinfandel tasting during the initial portion of the event where everyone gets to try everyone else's wines. I had 6 California Zinfandel wines I had obtained over the years pitted against each other. The Kirkland wine from Costco took a respectable 2nd place! Special thanks to BevMo! for giving me the bags for my blind tasting and being very cool and nice about it.


WINE #1 - BOGLE VINEYARDS, 2010 Zinfandel, California (2 VOTES)

WINE #2 - KIRKLAND, 2010 Zinfandel, Sonoma County (4 VOTES)

WINE #3 - SEGHESIO, 2011 Zinfandel, Sonoma County (1 VOTE)

WINE #4 - EPOCH ESTATE WINES, 2009 Zinfandel, Paderewski Vineyard, Paso Robles (8 VOTES)

WINE #5 - TACKITT FAMILY VINEYARDS, 2009 Zinfandel, Paso Robles, Swiss Collina (2 VOTES)

WINE #6 - FOUR VINES, 2009 Zinfandel, Biker, Paso Robles (2 VOTES)

MINI BLIND WINNER: WINE #4 - EPOCH ESTATE WINES, 2009 Zinfandel, Paso Robles

MINI BLIND 2ND PLACE: WINE #2 - KIRKLAND, 2010 Zinfandel, Sonoma County (well done Costco!)


1. STACKED STONE CELLARS, Rosetta, 2011 Rose, Paso Robles - anxious and astringent. Not a favorite - 81 points.

2. BOGLE VINEYARDS, 2010 Zinfandel, California - light and pruny. Nothing special - 83 points.

3. KIRKLAND, 2010 Zinfandel, Sonoma County - plush with good density and grip. Pleasant - 87 points.

4. SEGHESIO, 2011 Zinfandel, Sonoma County - nice fullness and richness with interesting cool weather notes of herbs and spices - 89 points.

5. EPOCH ESTATE WINES, 2009 Zinfandel, Paderewski Vineyard, Paso Robles - Good richness and depth with big well defined fruit and character - 91 points.

6. PADEREWSKI, 1993 Zinfandel, 3rd Annual Winemaker's Collaborative Blend, Paso Robles - old and delicious with life still left in it - 90 points.

7. J DUSI, 2009 Zinfandel, Dante Dusi Vineyard, Paso Robles - tangy and ripe with strong dark fruit - 88 points.

8. HECKLER PASS WINERY, 2005 Zinfandel, Santa Clara Valley - Band-aid smell and taste, probably contaminated with Brettanomyces. Unacceptable - 71 points.

9. TACKITT FAMILY VINEYARDS, 2009 Zinfandel, Paso Robles, Swiss Collina - nice ripe fruit with good balance. Enjoyable - 89 points.

10. FOUR VINES, 2009 Zinfandel, Biker, Paso Robles - Plump and round with big ripe fruit. Strong and enjoyable - 89 points.

11. DANIEL GEHRS, 2009 Zinfandel, Russian River Valley - woody and nearly nutty featuring almond notes. Too strange to recommend - 81 points.

12. WILD HORSE, 2009 Zinfandel, Unbridled, Paso Robles - Rich and robust with very ripe fruit notes and decent balance. 90 points.

13. SIN ZIN, 2009 Zinfandel, Alexander Valley - Smelled and tasted like burned matches. Flinty and unpleasant - 72 points.

14. RENWOOD, 2010 Zinfandel, Amador County, Premier Old Vine Zinfandel - Zingy and overt with fun fruit but lacking definition - 85 points.

15. DANCING LADY, 2009 Zinfandel, Della Costa Family Vineyard, Alexander Valley - nice and balanced with well-behaved fruit - 89 points.

16. RED SOLES WINERY, 2010 Zinfandel, Lover Boy Ranch Vineyard, Paso Robles - Balanced and nice with big fruit and good acid. Good and fun and nice - 90 points.

17. RAVENSWOOD, 2010 Zinfandel, California - Husky and big with unruly and inattentive behavior but fun - 85 points.

18. DRY CREEK VINEYARD, 2009 Zinfandel, Old Vine, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County - Cottony and seedy on the palate with good everything else behind those defects - 86 points.

19. EASTON, 2010 Zinfandel, Amador County - Pruny and lush but too much of a slut - 83 points.

20. OPOLO VINEYARDS, 2011 Zinfandel, Summit Creek, Paso Robles - Super ripe almost to the point of absurdity but still fun - 85 points.

21. ORIN SWIFT, Saldo, 2010 Zinfandel, California - Plump & spicy and layered. Combines the ripeness of Paso and the earthiness of Sonoma - a winner - 91 points.

22. PEACHY CANYON, Incredible Red, 2010 Zinfandel, Paso Robles - A touch of Brettanomyces ruined this party - 85 points.

23. RIDGE, 2002 Zinfandel, Lytton Springs Vineyard - Nice balance and good age make this a treat - 90 points.

24. HARASZTHY, 2009 Zinfandel, Lodi, Old Vine - Interesting eucalyptus note around ripe fruit - lacking otherwise - 84 points.

25. QUIVIRA, 2010 Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County - good balance, pretty fruit, decent oregano notes - 89 points.

26. CRANE LAKE, 2008 Zinfandel, California - metallic and thin - cheap tasting - 77 points.

27. STACKED STONE CELLARS, 2009 Zinfandel, Paso Robles, Zin Stone - Big and bold and ripe with good balance, nice minerality, big oomph - 91 points.

28. RIDGE, 2010 Zinfandel, Benito Dusi Ranch, Paso Robles - Good ripeness, nice balance, decent herbal notes, interesting - 90 points.

29. DRY CREEK VINEYARD, 2009 Estate Zinfandel, Spencer's Hill Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County - Light and bright with great balance and verve - 91 points.

30. STACKED STONE CELLARS, 2010 Zinfandel, Paso Robles, Zin Stone - bigger and more ripe and tart than the 2009 - fun to drink right now. Strong and bold and powerful - 92 points.

WINNER OF THE NIGHT: STACKED STONE CELLARS, 2010 Zinfandel, Paso Robles, Zin Stone - 92 Points.

SECOND PLACE OF THE NIGHT: EPOCH ESTATE WINES, 2009 Zinfandel, Paderewski Vineyard, Paso Robles - 91 points.

THIRD PLACE OF THE NIGHT: DRY CREEK VINEYARD, 2009 Estate Zinfandel, Spencer's Hill Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County - 91 points.

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Comments in order of when they were received | (reverse order)

 COMMENT 372657 agree helpful negative off topic

2013-02-09 04:29 PM

Costco zin placed second in a taste test? COSTCO??? I don't know why, but I find this hilarious!

"The 2010 Kirkland zin had a bouquet quite unlike the essence of Michelin tires from the automotive department, but hinting more instead of rotisserie chicken. Guests sipped their Kirkland from red plastic cups, and 12-packs of Bounty paper towels were used to blot up the occasional spill. Free sample hors d'ouvres were dispensed at the end of each table."

I understand that Smart & Final is coming out with its own brand of chardonnay made in Oklahoma. Yum!


 COMMENT 372716 agree helpful negative off topic

2013-02-09 07:22 PM

The Kirkland was tasted blind by all tasters.


 COMMENT 372743 agree helpful negative off topic

2013-02-09 08:22 PM

I know, that's what makes it funny! I'll no longer feel bad about serving cheap wine to guests. If Kirkland is good enough for wine experts, Two-Buck Chuck is certainly adequate for the hooligans I hang around with. I feel very validated.


 COMMENT 372824 agree helpful negative off topic

2013-02-10 10:31 AM

Two Buck Chuck has been around at that price for over 15 years. It makes me shudder what cost cutting measures are employed even if it is a loss leader.


 COMMENT 372835P agree helpful negative off topic

2013-02-10 11:05 AM

Interesting discussion as always but I can't resist objecting to the claim that zinfandel is California's original wine grape. Was this a misstatement or misrecollection? Mission grapes pretty universally regarded as the first wine grape in California and are still grown in some areas. They came in with the Spanish missionaries in the early 1700's or thereabouts. Zinfandel arrived by most history in the late1800's.


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