Time commits wine crime Caught red-handed: Age actually steals flavor from some of the best zinfandels.

Vintage Point

January 10, 1996

C To: The Commissioner

From: Michael Dresser

Re: Geriatric zinfandel

Boss, we've finally got the evidence to bust the old Zinfandel gang.

I'm swearing out a warrant today against "Red" Zinfandel for Impersonating a Long-Aging Wine. It's a Class A wine felony, so we should be able to put a cork in him and his cronies for good.

Boss, this was one of the toughest mysteries I've seen on the wine beat. It still could be a difficult case to present to a jury, especially because the defendant has loads of charm and a prominent defense team. But I'm sure we've got old Zinfandel dead to rights.

Here's how it went down:

The call that cracked open the case came in about 9 a.m. one sunny Saturday morning in early December. It was Dr. Jay Miller, one of my most reliable informants.

There's a tasting going down today, he says. Zinfandel. A big haul of older vintages. If you move fast, you can catch them in the act, he says. He names a prominent Baltimore restaurant and says be there in two hours.

I knew right then and there that this could be our chance. Most of the kingpins of the Zin mob would be there -- the Ridge boys, the Ravenswood mob, the Turley Trio. The word was that the Coturri twins would be providing muscle. Robert Mondavi, the godfather of the California wine business, would be providing some juice.

I hit the rendezvous spot about noon, when the tasting was scheduled to be in full swing. It was one of those fancy downtown joints, with thick steaks and a plush velvet decor that made it look like some designer's notion of an old-time bordello. But the front door was locked and there was no sign of life. I didn't like the looks of it.

Creeping around to the rear, I found the delivery entrance unlocked. There was an eerie silence in the deserted kitchen, and no sign of life.

As I crept up the stairs, I heard sounds coming from an office. There was some flunky in there, pushing paper. I managed to sweat out of him the information that the restaurant's deal had gone sour and that the rendezvous had been moved to the

Milton Inn in Sparks. Seems somebody at the joint forgot the reservations. He's probably crab bait by now.

I arrived at the Milton Inn in early afternoon and found going down just as Dr. Miller said. There was a roomful of players, all with their noses stuck in glasses. Dr. Miller, obviously in charge, flashed a knowing grin. I quickly did my best to blend in.

Boss, it was one of the most hard-core tastings I've ever seen. There must have been 60 wines -- zinfandels, petite sirahs and a few other big bruisers. I quickly fell into the routine of taste and spit, taste and spit. It was disgusting, but if I hadn't have done it I would have blown my cover.

At first there was little evidence of wrongdoing. The young zinfandels were exceptional -- giving every indication that they would last for decades.

It was about then that I had my Big Break -- the 1993 Cline Big Break Zinfandel, actually. It came with a perfume of framboise liqueur and a silky texture that nearly seduced me, but just as I was about to give in, an Earthquake struck.

Yes, it was the 1993 Turley Moore-Earthquake Zinfandel, a wine whose blackberry, black raspberry and chocolate flavors could have been measured on the Richter Scale. Sadly, the wine is almost impossible to find in Maryland unless you're "connected."

There weren't a lot of 1993s there, but the ones that were raised my suspicions that we're dealing with another vintage of monster zinfandels. In particular, we should open a case file on the 1993 Ridge Pagani Ranch, Ridge Paso Robles and Ravenswood Wood Road-Belloni zinfandels.

Just as I was getting comfortable with the 1993 vintage, a threesome of bruisers from Ridge Vineyards jumped me. The 1992 Pagani Ranch Late Picked Zinfandel hit me across the palate with a sap of fruit, pepper and spice flavors. The 1992 Lytton Springs pinned me to the floor with its penetrating flavors of black raspberry and chocolate. And the 1991 Pagani Ranch Zinfandel nearly finished me off with its velvet blackjack fist of flavor.

The palate-pounding continued with a 1992 Ridge Geyserville to the mouth and a 1991 Ridge Geyserville to the nose. I was on the verge of giving up and joining the Zin Cult when the 1990 Geyserville arrived with a CLUNK.

Immediately my suspicions were aroused. The fruit had vanished from the wine like a thief in the night.

Further investigation revealed that other zinfandels showed a similar pattern. The fruit in the 1985 Geyserville was gasping its last when we found it. The 1984 Geyserville was a shell of its former self.

It's a scam, I'm telling you. And some of the biggest names in Zin City are in on the deal -- Ridge Lytton Springs, Ravenswood Old Hill, Ravenswood Dickerson.

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