The first major winery I ever visited in the state of California was Ridge. Driving up with my parents to the top of Monte Bello Road in Cupertino, it was the first time I had ever used my industry credentials to do a private tasting with a winemaker and I left that day in utter awe. I'd only been working at K&L for about a month and at that point in time most of my experience with Zinfandel came from the four dollar bottles I'd been purchasing at Trader Joe's. The wines I tasted that day were not only a gigantic step up from what I thought I knew about Zinfandel, they were varied, complex, dynamic, and sourced from different sites all over the state. They had impeccable packaging, each label adorned with the name of the vineyard of origin: Geyerville, East Bench, Pagani Ranch, and Lytton Springs. I remember that day well because of how formative it was in my evolution as a wine drinker. What's funny, however, is that upon tasting the new 2015 vintage of those same wines last week I felt a similar level of excitement. Even after ten years in the business and hundreds of bottles of Zinfandel, the Ridge wines still get me pumped up.
Looking at the reviews and scores thus far for the 2015's, it's clear that the Lytton Springs is the one expression bound for serious glory, but that's not surprising; it's always been the Zinfandel to give to people who say they don't like Zinfandel. It's one of the most elegant, poised, and serious red blends made in the entire state and the 2015 takes that complex and layered formula to an entirely new level. It's also quite a historic spot, dating back to 1972 when the winery made its first expression from vines planted at the turn of the century on the eastern half of the vineyard. Both the eastern and western portions of the vineyard were purchased in the early 1990s, and today the vineyard is home to 100-plus-year-old Zinfandel vines interplanted with Petite Sirah, Carignane, a small amount of Mataro (Mourvèdre), and Grenache. More like a Bordeaux blend than a classic Zin, the addition of 16% Petite Syrah in the 2015 edition adds serious grit and structure, but it's brilliantly done and bolsters the richness of the fruit beautifully. When you start to think about what goes into crafting a great wine, not just the quality of the fruit or the location of the vineyard, but also the blending of different varietals to make something greater than the sum of its parts, the Lytton Springs is high on my list of iconic blends. As you decant it, you'll notice more and more complexity as the air unlocks all that intrigue: berries, spice, brush, earth, excitement! It's incredible.
While the 2015 Lytton Springs is more a more structured and nuanced wine, the Pagani Ranch is the real crowd pleaser. It's so soft and loaded with sweet cassis fruit right off the bat with hints of violet on the finish and a texture that's like velvet on the tongue. Like Lytton Springs, Pagani is one of very few vineyards comprising primarily 100-year-old vines, which produce concentrated and richly-textured wines. I'm far from what you'd consider a big, rich California wine lover, but as a professional I like anything that's well made. I really enjoyed this wine, from its immediate charm and juicy character to its plush mouthfeel and seductive sweetness. There's a reason Ridge is one of the most iconic California winemakers in the business and it's wines like this that help to cement that reputation. They're Zinfandel specialists, making what are in my opinion the best expressions of the varietal in California.