2009 Hillgate Zinfandel

Price: $6.99 @ Trader Joe’s

What They Said:

2009 Hillgate ZinfandelPer the bottle “Just beyond these gates are the majestic hillside vineyards that reach into untouched and untamed wilderness of a region known for its beauty and clear air, where the wines have become notable for their fruit forward syle and awards are more and more abundant. Welcome to Hillgate, Gate to the Hills Lake County, California.” <- Wow that is helpful, isn't it!

What I Think:

My friends at the TTB tell me this label is tied to the Laird Family Estate in Napa. As my initial search turned up no connection between the estate and Lake County the origins of this one will remain a mystery. I’ve reached out to the winery to see if they would be willing to share any information and will certainly let you know if I hear back. But for now onto the main event…

(14.9%) To cut to the chase the most impressive Trader Joe’s wine find I’ve had in some time. Big nose of dark, peppery fruit. Smooth, rich and bold on the palate. Certainly fruit forward but without turning jammy (as many at this price point do). Soft tannins with a nice vanilla (barrel driven) creaminess on a pleasant, lasting peppery finish. A perfect match for summer barbeque. I plan on grabbing at least six more. Give it a try and let me know what you think…

Rating: Buy It

And while you’re out and about you might want to grab the Rousanne under the same label to see if it hits the mark. Mine is chilling in the refrigerator now…

2009 Dynamic Lake County Red Table Wine

I was familiar with the Dynamic Vineyards label and Ceago Vinegarden when I picked this one up. Ceago was founded by Jim Fetzer whose family started their winery in 1968, turned it to organic in 1984 and sold it to Brown-Forman, one of America’s largest alcohol conglomerate, in 1992. He started Ceago soon after (1993) in Mendocino before moving to Clear Lake in Lake County in 2001. Per their site Ceago’s “mission is to craft small lots of wine from estate grown organic and biodynamic grapes using the best of Old and New World winemaking techniques.”

As mentioned I was familiar with this one when I picked it up. For I had very much enjoyed their 2006 offereing. Little did I remember it was the Mendocino which I enjoyed and not the Lake County which I neglected to review at the time given my disappointment. The blend back in 2006 was completely different (45% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Syrah, 20% Malbec) so perhaps it would fare better this time around. Let’s check it out…

2009 Dynamic Lake County Red Table WinePrice: $8.99 @ Trader Joe’s

What They Said:

I can’t find a word on this one and since the Ceago Vineyards site still references the 2006 version you’ll have to take my word for it…

What I Think:

(14%) 53% Syrah, 43% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Sauvignon – Almost cloying on the nose. Off sweet with warm red fruits and spice. Dark in the glass, full bodied and lush on the palate. Problem is little happens between there and the time it dries out on the finish with creamy, vanilla notes on top of light tannins. IMHO this could use more Cabernet in the blend to add some acidity and balance. Then again wine making is not me forte. I’d say this one is good but one dimensional (as noted above). I won’t be buying again but if a fruit forward slightly sweet red is your style feel free to give this one a try.

Rating: Skip It

2008 Dos Brotos Ranch Red

Price: $6.99 @ Trader Joe’s

What They Said:

2008 Dos Brotos Ranch RedPer the bottle “Every vine we grow us meticulously hand pruned annually by our extended family of vineyard workers. We cherish and respect these folks for the expertise they bring to our vineyards. All of our vines are spur pruned, leaving two buds per spur (Dos Brotos). “Dos Brotos, Por Favor” is a term you will hear echoed throughout our vineyards every pruning season from January through March. Our Ranch Red is a blend of Syrah, Zinfandel, Barbera, Cabernet Sauvignon, Mourvedre and Tempranillo. So please try our wines and like our extended family would say Disfrutalo! (Enjoy)”

What I Think:

As mentioned in my value hunting post this one is a kitchen sink blend of Zinfandel, Syrah, Barbera, Cabernet Sauvignon, Mourvedre, and Tempranillo that per my friends at the TTB appears to be at least loosely affiliated with the folks at Francis Ford Coppola Winery.

Dark garnet in color with nice, dark fruit and spice on a pleasant nose. Juicy and jammy on the palate with dark black cherry fruit flavors. Smooth but completely lacking in tannins and acidity. This allows barrel notes to quickly assert themselves before turning damp and earthy which ultimately dries out the finish. While this wine has redeeming qualities and is easy to drink I find myself walking away undecided. At times this wine seems rich and velvety (especially at 13.5% abv) and at others fruit bomb-ish with a disappointingly short finish. Will I give it a 2nd try? At $7 I’m thinking not but you never know…

Rating: 12th Bottle

What did others have to say about the Dos Brotos Ranch Red? Here’s some thoughts from the gang at justagrape.com.

2009 Overlake Chardonnay

Price: $5.99 @ Trader Joe’s

What They Said:

2009 Overlake ChardonnayPer the bottle “Classic Chardonnay in style. Toasty oak and vanilla lead to green apple and lemon drop aromas. A mix of fig, melon and mineral accented by ample acidity. Displays a creamy moderately buttered finish.”

What I Think:

I reviewed the Overlake Sauvignon Blanc offering a few days back and as mentioned then I had grabbed the Chardonnay as well. The first think that struck me about this one, as mentioned by JB, was the quality of the bottle itself. This wine came across as more expensive than the price tag based on the sheer weight when holding it in your hand. Could it deliver in the glass?

Straight buttered popcorn on the nose. This is a full bodied wine with the vanilla barrel flavors heavily present throughout. Some acidity emerges late in the mid palate and allows some green apple and lemon notes to sneak through though they are quickly muted. The finish is very creamy and buttery (can’t believe they used “moderately” above) though lingers nicely. Guessing many would enjoy this (my wife loves it!) as it seems I’ve had many similar offerings for three times the price. Still though this wine seems well made I am looking for a lot more fruit and acidity than can be found here. If you are a fan of a big buttery Chardonnay this may be right up your alley. Feel free to give it a try.

Rating: 12th Bottle

2009 Overlake Sauvignon Blanc

Price: $4.99 @ Trader Joe’s

What They Said:

2009 Overlake Sauvignon BlancPer Trader Joe’s Fearless Flyer “North of Napa & northeast of Sonoma, California’s Lake County may not be as well known as its movie-star-famous neighbors, but its wines are at least as worthy of your attention. In fact, Lake County has long been a favorite “hidden” source for many of California’s most prodigious winemakers due to both the quality and availability of its terroir. So when top-notch wines from Lake County are priced at $4.99 a bottle, they’re definitely ready for their close-up.

All of this leads us to introduce Overlake Sauvignon Blanc, a celebrity-in-the making from Lake County. On the nose, it’s vibrant & fresh with grapefruit, pineapple & grass aromas. On the palate, you’ll find an excellent balance of tangy, rich and smooth elements, followed by a long, refreshing finish. On the wallet, Overlake Sauvignon Blanc’s low price of $4.99 is sure to get your attention – for wine of this quality, this is a real superstar of a price.”

What I Think:

When I first saw this on the back cover of my most recent Trader Joe’s Fearless Flyer my mind immediately, with excitement, leapt back to the 2007 Overlake Cabernet Sauvignon which was ranked #2 in the Trader Joe’s Top 10 Wines List in May of 2009. Initially disappointed I continued reading further down and found a mention of the Cab which was in stock as well. Off to my local store I went with corkscrew and glass in hand as I felt another parking lot tasting was in order. That was strike one on the Cab (I am 0-3 on tracking that one down now, anyone have any luck?) but I did grab this Sauvignon Blanc as well as the Chardonnay. One item of note is that the previous versions of these wines were made by “Kitchen Sink Wines” which appeared to be affiliated with Coppola and these latest offerings are courtesy of “Plunkett Creek Vineyards” which is apparently tied to Wildhurst Vineyards (where a similar bottle goes for $12). That mystery will have to wait for another day though as I want to get to this bottle…

The nose is loaded with grapefruit and nectarine aromas. Unexpectedly heavy and viscous on the palate, you are quickly aware this is not your typical Sauvignon Blanc. That said it is still enjoyable starting; smooth with the same nectarine flavors emerging first. A lemon component kicks in around the mid palate before delivering a tart and refreshing finish that lingers nicely. It definitely finishes fuller in body, a hint sweet and lacking much of the acidity you typically find reminding me of a previous VINTJS offering. Not what I was expecting from a Sauvignon Blanc but I found myself pleased nonetheless. I already grabbed three more bottles; feel free to grab one yourself!

Rating: Buy It

2005 Red Lava Syrah

Price: $7.99 @ Trader Joe’s

What They Said:

2005 Red Lava SyrahPer Red Lava Vineyards “Our beautiful, obsidian black wine is concentrated with intense blackberry, mocha and mineral notes, rich tannins and a long supple finish.”

What I Think:

This one goes for $25 on the winery site so picking it up for $8 was a good start! I can’t tell you how tired I get of finding these scenarios. If you are a winery and if you are going to cut your prices be sure to offer them to your most loyal customers. Those that buy direct! Take Rabbit Ridge for example. Their excellent 2008 Allure de Robles goes for $5 a bottle at Trader Joe’s but before it arrived on their shelves they offered it to wine club members for $50 a case. Now that is how you should be treating your best customers!

Sorry for the tangent. Let’s get back to the bottle at hand… Tart red fruit and pepper on the nose are muted by wet wood aromas. Nice rich, red peppery fruit intermingled with blueberries greet you on the palate. A mild black olive component appears in the mid to late palate before leading to a hot, heavy spicy finish that falls apart to reveal thin wood/barrel flavors. A nice wine with nice fruit that is ruined by a bad finish. BTW, this bottle was a heavy one, they didn’t spare any cost there so guessing this wine was meant to be expensive. Nonetheless I don’t see myself buying another bottle. Let me know your thoughts if you do!

Rating: 12th Bottle

2007 Shannon Ridge Zinfandel

Price: $5.99 @ Trader Joe’s

What They Said:

2007 Shannon Ridge ZinfandelPer Shannon Ridge “Shannon Ridge Vineyards & Winery, on the steep mountain slopes in Lake County, uses sustainable farming practices to produce the finest mountain fruit possible. Our winemakers are impassioned to create wines that represent the best of our vineyards. This Zinfandel is a bold wine with nice flavors of white mocha, creamy vanilla, raspberry, strawberry, clove, and rhubarb with a long finish on the palate. Served with aged cheese or spicy beef dishes.”

What I Think:

This one (a blend of 76% Zinfandel, 17% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Petite Sirah) started all fruit and with time began to show a bit more balance as the acidity started to break through. This is the inverse of what I usually experience with wines, wonder how come… In the end it had a nice tight, sour cherry flavor profile (almost akin to the candy) and was loaded with deep, warm fruit and spicy, peppery notes on the finish. This one represents a pleasant alternative to the somewhat typical jammy fruit bombs you see in this price range. Definitely worth a try if you enjoy balanced Zins.

2008 Shannon Ridge Wrangler RoseShannon Ridge also offers a Syrah (which joshiemac has great things to say about), a Sauvignon Blanc (heard mixed results) and a Wrangler Rose which I apparently drank before I was able to take notes. That must be a good sign. Perhaps I’ll pick up a four pack on my next visit though my instinct is telling me these may already be gone from Trader Joe’s for good.

Rating: Buy It

2007 Overlake Cabernet Sauvignon

 2007 Overlake Cabernet SauvignonPrice: $5.99 @ Trader Joe’s

What They Said:

Nothing to be found. Looks like you are stuck with me on this one…

What I Think:

This one came recommended a month or so ago via a Trader Joe’s (often my beaten path in South San Francisco) cashier who saw me lugging out a case plus of wine and thought I was missing the boat. Y’all know me, love recommendations. We headed over to the aisle to hunt this one down but alas it was out of stock. Fast forward three weeks, headed home from the airport and need to do grocery shopping so headed back here. Perusing the wine aisle and sha-bam there it is. Decent looking label, Lake County which I have some loves for (see Beringer Clear Lake Zin and Dynamic Lake County Red) plus a personal recommendation and three bottles are quickly in the cart. Big buy for me before tasting a drop…

Obviously with expectations high what I needed is for someone to tell me this sucked right before I drank it to get those back in line. Alas no one was available to assist. The nose is typical of a $6 Trader Joe’s Cabernet consisting of darker fruit and oak. The front of the palate initially seems a bit flabby but quickly pulls itself together. The mid palate show nice balance with rich, dark fruit holding throughout which all makes it to the finish where a hint of black pepper is added to the mix. 14.75% alcohol? Are you kidding me? No heat and virtually no tannins. Amazing at $6! My only word of warning (given I’ve consumed 2 of these bottles already) think twice before crossing this one with spicy food (tacos) as that was a pairing that didn’t work, save it for simpler meat dishes

This is the best fruit forward sub $6 Trader Joe’s can since the XS. The “fruit forward” disclaimer came due to my Grape Madness experience with the Fetzer (which upset Sterling in the opening round) which was much more subtle and is worth a try as well. Trying to say what you see is what you get with this one, l don’t expect complexity or layers. That said, if you are interested in a nice, everyday, fruit forward drinker this may be one for you. It is for me, I have a ½ case minimum in mind for me next time I see this one. Sure to make my next Top 10 list which you should be seeing in the next 48 hours.

Rating: Bulk Buy

Additional Thoughts: Lake County: Been a big fan lately. Look for good values out of this region in the next few years as it is relatively “undiscovered”. Had some nice wines from there and am keen to explore further. Next two tasting trips, after Greece (did I mention I leave in less than a week? Any tips?) are here and to Lodi/El Dorado County… Anyone have recommendations for either?

2003 Beringer Clear Lake Zinfandel

Price: $6.99 @ Trader Joe’s

What They Said:

Per quaffability “If you’ve spent any time around Napa, particularly “up valley”, you’ll find that many of the locals like to quip about Lake County as some kind of “Deliverance” style backwater, where the all the toothless residents are either crank addicts, mentally disabled, or both. Without commenting about the merits of such jokes or what it says about denizens of either county, I will say that some Napa wineries are seeing greener, or at least cheaper, grass on the other side of the fence, and planting and growing good wines up in Lake County.

Among those is Napa and Knights Valley behemoth Beringer, which has put out this Clear Lake Zin, the first wine I have seen from that appellation.

This wine makes a good first impression, with a nose of peppery, briary fruit, braced with with a beam of toasty oak and a touch of chaparral.

There is true zin fruit in the mouth, medium bodied, ripe but a little drier than you’d expect, leading to a finish marked by firm tannins. Very pleasant, especially at this price”

What I Think:

We opened this one for comparison sake when having steak and drinking the Sausal Century Vine Zinfandel. Given that this is my third bottle of the Clear Lake I had a pretty good idea of what to expect. But, wow, the difference was extraordinary! The boldness here versus the mellowness of the 130 year old Sausal vines was something else. Now this wine is probably bigger than your average Zinfandel but even still.

On opening this one you get scents of sweet, ripe and definitely hot, brambly fruit with that same mint/menthyl aroma lingering in the background. On the nose you get loads of ripe, bursting blueberries that last through the mid-palate before giving way to a dry dusty backbone that leads to a lip smacking finish. Even better than the last, a sure winner! I’m going to have to keep my eye out for some other wines from the Lake County appellation, be nice to see how this compares to something a little closer to home. Granted with the differences so vivid it was hard to do an apple to apples comparison but this surely held its own versus the Sausal offering though that one cost 4 times as much. I am going to have to start going through these bottles more slowly, only six more to go.

Rating: Bulk Buy

2003 Beringer Clear Lake Zinfandel

Price: $6.99 @ Trader Joe’s

What They Said:

Per quaffability “If you’ve spent any time around Napa, particularly “up valley”, you’ll find that many of the locals like to quip about Lake County as some kind of “Deliverance” style backwater, where the all the toothless residents are either crank addicts, mentally disabled, or both. Without commenting about the merits of such jokes or what it says about denizens of either county, I will say that some Napa wineries are seeing greener, or at least cheaper, grass on the other side of the fence, and planting and growing good wines up in Lake County.

Among those is Napa and Knights Valley behemoth Beringer, which has put out this Clear Lake Zin, the first wine I have seen from that appellation.

This wine makes a good first impression, with a nose of peppery, briary fruit, braced with with a beam of toasty oak and a touch of chaparral.

There is true zin fruit in the mouth, medium bodied, ripe but a little drier than you’d expect, leading to a finish marked by firm tannins. Very pleasant, especially at this price”

What I Think:

Well if you follow this blog you know I had a bottle of this Zinfandel a while back and have chronicled the shopping attempts to track this one down. Between my wife and I it took us three TJ’s to track this one down and when she finally found it we grabbed the last eight bottles they had left. Now that is putting my money where my mouth is on the Bulk Buy rating….Wonder if Parker is doing that when he gives wines extraordinary ratings.

On drinking the wine I wasn’t disappointed in our investment. I took more time to enjoy rather than analyze it but here is the blurb that I threw together for it, “Chewy on the palate, brambly, still very good! I am thrilled to have 7 more bottles around. If you like Zinfandel and you see this one make sure you grab it, you won’t regret it…”

Rating: Bulk Buy