Each issue Wine & Spirits focuses on one variety or group of related wines and selects the best wines in that category for the year.

August 2003

Over the last twelve months, Wine & Spirits tasted 247 Syrah & 273 Zinfandel.

The following 10 Syrah & 10 Zinfandel wines received the strongest praise from our critics. A list of all Syrah & Zinfandel wines tasted, with the recommended wines highlighted, is available on

96 I Qupé $35
2001 Santa Barbara County Alisos Vineyard Syrah

You'll find the color of the wine is amazing, a deep violet that somehow communicates the huge presence in the glass. Then the scent is overpoweringly beautiful. Alisos's owner Tom Austin planted these vines in 1994 on their own roots, on a west facing slope of Los Alamos Valley, using budwood from Qupé proprietor Bob Lindquist. Alisos, a warmer site than Bien Nacido, is still marine influenced, and gives a wine that spreads a world of spice across the palate. Then an earthiness comes up with air, a mineral character like chipped stone running deep into the wine. It's a wild ride. (215 cases) Qupé Wine Cellars, Santa Maria, CA

94 I Curtis $32
2000 Santa Barbara County Crossroads Vineyard Syrah

Is it the scent of the sea before the rain, an ozone and salt air combination? Or is it the blue-purple core of the wine, the color of Sicilian black olives, and the deep red edge, like Kalamata purple. Both are a set up for the Mediterranean feel of this wine, a calming Spanish moment along the coast, near a roadside of anise, near a pan-roast of paella. It buzzes with those scents of black licorice, of roasting, fresh green olives, then it grips with complexity at the back of the taste, digging black earth out of the tannins. Decant it for a rabbit and chorizo paella, or cellar it a few years to see what's yet to come. (515 cases) Curtis Winery, Los Olivos, CA

94 I Edmunds St. John $30
2000 El Dorado County Wylie-Fenaughty Syrah

Steve Edmunds has found the place to grow syrah. Wylie is a hilltop vineyard; its meager yields from vines grown in rock, starved for soil and water, contrast with the more vigorous, slow-ripening plants at Fenaughty. Edmunds blends the concentration of the Wylie fruit with the complexities of Fenaughty to create this liquid monument to California's geological past. The stoniness is there in the mineral scent, and in the tingle of energy in the tannin, like dust off a split rock. It's all carried on black juice of astonishing length, luscious and supple, gripping but with a lazy give. That contrast to the hard edges makes it accessible now, and invites watching over the next ten years. Intuition & Blind Luck, Berkeley, CA

94 I Garretson $45
2001 Paso Robles Rozet Vineyard The Luasc‡in Syrah

Massive, yet withheld: Powerfully dense with a delicate weight, the blackness of this wine sinks in, blanketing the tongue and the throat with a veil of cherry, raspberry, huckleberry and carob-scented earth. It tastes of grapes roasted in the sun, but not burned, still holding their freshness. Enjoy this now for its youthful scent of violets, but be sure to give it plenty of time in a decanter before dinner. That floral aspect will probably fade in the cellar, though other complexities are sure to build as this ages. (330 cases) Garretson Wine Company, Paso Robles, CA

93 I Babcock $20
2001 Santa Barbara County Syrah

This deep, lasting wine shows just what to grow in Santa Barbara. The vineyard sources read like a Who's Who of Syrah: Thompson, Babcock, Alisos and Beckmen, all in sandy loam or rocky loam, all low vigor. The wine is toned and clean-living, even as its flavors are dramatic, with a full-on power of spice and soil. Lifted dark raspberry fruit evolves toward black cherry and blueberry tones as the wine takes on air. A warm spice builds as well, green as rosemary, fragrant as a rose. Decant a bottle for a rosemary-roasted lamb, or cellar to see what will come with age. (2,186 cases) Babcock Vineyards, Lompoc, CA

93 I Beckmen $38
2001 Santa Ynez Valley Purisima Mountain Syrah

A coastal syrah rooted in clay loam soils over limestone, this has the scent of woodland mushrooms and dense red spice. It's light in touch, firm in effect. The range of spice Ń cinnamon, cardamom, cumin Ń gains depth and complexity with air, and the wine only seems to grow fresher. A walk in the coastal woods. (500 cases) Beckmen Vineyards, Los Olivos, CA

93 I Betz $34
2000 Columbia Valley Boushey Vineyard La Serenne Syrah

Voluptuous black curves: This wine is chock-full of power and fruit grip, first black raspberry, then blueberry, wrapping around every curve of the tongue. Rather than any linear structural components, there's an energy coursing through the wine, a tension to all its generous fruit. The spice that tension brings might place this with grilled eggplant brushed with fragrant olive oil and herbs. Betz Family Winery, Woodinville, WA

93 I Chateau Souverain $20
2000 Alexander Valley Syrah

Rustic and dynamic, this has the energy syrah gets when the vine hits a balanced ripeness. There's an electricity between the crushed granite tannins and the crushed violet fruit, a juiciness in the end that keeps coming on red. Overall, the wine is relatively light in body, but there's a lot of detail in the space between the tannin and the fruit. It fills that space with a smooth texture, smoky and firm, ready for barbecued brisket. Chateau Souverain, Geyserville, CA

93 I Novy $23
2001 Santa Lucia Highlands Syrah

Youthful and unresolved, this shows its tension between fruit as sharp as strawberries, as ripe as fat blueberries, and a black place in the middle all velvet, cashmere, silk. Tannins rush in, yet the wine stays open, flashy, alive. Adam and Dianne Lee (of Siduri fame) make this wine from two vineyards, mostly Garys' with a little fruit from Rosetta's. (321 cases) Novy Cellars, Santa Rosa, CA

93 I Shadow Canyon $40
2001 York Mountain Shadow Canyon Vineyard Syrah

This sophisticated, black wine starts out complex, with the sweetness of ripe fruit balanced by the rasp of earthiness. There's a floral, honeyed buzz over the dense fruit, and there's a long-lasting hum of flavor in the end, gripping and savory. Poured from the bottle a day later, this is more delicious, still firm, the flavors of the earth adding detail. Shadow Canyon Cellars, San Luis Obispo, CA

95 I Chateau Potelle $50
2000 Mt. Veeder, Napa Valley V.G.S. Zinfandel

Heavenly zin. This delivers lasting black fruit in the essence of tiny berries, silken, elegant, with mood-altering power. A contrast of dark riches, from five-spice powder to unsweetened cocoa, builds tannin complexities right into the fruit. And that fruit holds deliciously fresh, with nothing overripe about it. Grown 2,000 feet up on Mt. Veeder in volcanic, rocky soil, on vines planted back in 1969, this is a zin for the ages...or for a cookout on Point Reyes. Chateau Potelle, Napa, CA

94 I De Loach $25
2001 Russian River Valley Saitone Ranch Zinfandel

Italian in style, this smells like a Barolo, then breaks out into a California dream that may make you heartsick for the Sonoma coastline. This cool zin has captured the Russian River Valley in a bottle. It's coastal scrub and moss, low-bush blueberry with tannins carved out of stone. The black spice, anise and dried fig complexities that come up with air give a Porty edge, but the wine remains completely fresh, lifting all those flavors into a zesty, zinny, purely delicious finish. This is what California does best. Grab it if you can; enough people understand to make this kind of site-expressive zin hard to get, but evidently not enough to drive up the price. Two other De Loach Russian River Zins scored 93 points in our April issue: 2001 OFS and 2001 Papera Ranch. De Loach Vyds., Santa Rosa, CA

93 I D-Cubed $35
2001 Howell Mountain Zinfandel

This commands a full range of flavors as impressive as the views from Howell Mountain. Breathe in the black jam of black raspberries, taste fresh black currants before tannins take their share, leaving smoke, fig, Italian espresso, and a lasting sense of freshness. The wine is intense and delicious, a blunt power grab for now, though no less pleasurable for it. Cellar it if you prefer more mellow satisfactions. (670 cases) D-Cubed Cellars, Angwin, CA

93 I Ridge $30
2001 Dry Creek Valley Lytton Springs Zinfandel

From Ridge's ancient, head-pruned vines on the rolling hills above Dry Creek, Lytton Springs blasts with flavor in 2001, complex, dark and brooding. Generous on the palate, with hard tannins which are fully ripe, making the finish gravelly, seeming to provide their own mineral scent in the dense aroma. Some panelists objected to the alcohol level in the wine, one warning, "Don't smoke around this wine." This critic, however, found it well within bounds of the wine's overall structure, a grand portrait of California's terroir in the year 2001. Another Ridge Zinfandel scored 93 points in this issue: 2001 California Llewelyn. Ridge Vineyards, Cupertino, CA

93 I Frog's Leap $22.50
2001 Napa Valley Zinfandel

Fashioned as a claret, this wine smells like a classic zin, purely California, deliciously fresh. Sweet spices provide significant complexity, the dark-toned fruit touched by scents of tobacco, sassafras and jasmine. It's full in texture without feeling weighty, bottled summer to brighten a winter night. Frog's Leap, Rutherford, CA

92 I Girard $24
2001 Napa Valley Zinfandel

Spicy and blunt as an old-vine carignan from the hills of Roussillon, this sophisticated zin grows in two hillside vineyards, including Harris Vineyard, near the top of Mt. Vaca at 2,800 feet. Scents of green herbs and red spice ride a wave of black currant fruit. Then it's shut down by the tannin, the round fruit and spicy aromatics remaining in the background, waiting to expand with air or age. (925 cases) Girard Winery, Napa, CA

92 I Newlan $28
2000 Napa Valley Zinfandel

Black raspberry and black plum-skin flavors lend zest to this lifted, zaftig zin. It's round, supple and solid, a circle of flavor cool as rainwater, spicy as pepper. Generous and ready to enjoy for its freshness, this will continue to gain complexity as it ages. (1,848 cases) Koves Newlan Vineyards & Winery, Napa, CA

92 I Rancho Zabaco $28
2001 Dry Creek Valley Chiotti Vineyard Zinfandel

Decant this before you sit down to dinner, and it will be ready for the aged Cheddar at the end of the meal. A big, old-fashioned zin, this is fragrant with spice and candied red raspberry fruit. The structure is clean and tight, even as the texture is fleshy as a slow-roasted pork belly, which you might serve with it before the cheese course. Infused with a smoky, herbal character in the finish, this is ready to enjoy now, or to cellar for a decade. Zabaco Vintners, Healdsburg, CA

92 I Rosenblum $42
2001 Sonoma Valley Maggie's Reserve Samsel Vineyard Zinfandel

Tart blackberry scents emerge out of the black aroma of tobacco smoke, then the wine turns brighter, piercing through the youthful tannins with red cherry and red currant flavors that are almost electric in their charge. The fruit is persistently clean and fresh, surrounded by complex and heady richness, coiled in youthful tannins that will mellow with a steak, or with ten years of age. (500 cases) Rosenblum Cellars, Alameda, CA

92 I Storybook Mountain $45
2000 Napa Valley Estate Reserve Zinfandel

A classic zin: This is dark, succulent, heady with violets and zesty red fruit. And it has that character that some people describe as "briary," right there in the middle of the taste, an intriguing textural component of the tannin, somewhere between herb and soil. The high alcohol whips it into a meringue of dark, zinny flavor, undeniably delicious with Stilton or other blue cheese. (688 cases) Storybook Mountain Vineyards, Calistoga, CA