Russian River Valley

Can a Jackass Improve with Age? A Vertical Tasting of Martinelli's Jackass Hill Zinfandel

Jackass Hill is one of the legendary vineyards of California.  Planted in the 1890s by Giuseppe Martinelli, this is a legacy vineyard of Zinfandel.  One of the oldest in Sonoma, the vineyard is farmed without irrigation or pesticides. 

Called Jackass Hill because "it is so steep that only a jackass would farm it," the wines produced from the vineyard are some of the most sought-after Zinfandels in California.  They are extracted, high-alcohol, expensive, beasts that are in very limited supply. The wines routinely sell for over $160.  If you can find them.

This is normally not a style of wine headed for the cellar and it isn't readily apparent if they will last, improve, or decline with age.  People are buying this wine for the delicious blast of powerful fruit and pleasure of owning a scare luxury item.

So, when I was invited into a back room of the Martinelli winery to taste a vertical of Jackass Hill Zinfandel with the Martinelli family, I knew it would a special moment and a chance to taste some Sonoma Valley history.

Here my notes on the 2014, 2007, 2003, 2002, 2000, 1997, and 1996 vintages.

Here are my tasting notes of a few memorable bottles.  All the wines were of the finest provenance possible, pulled directly from the winery's cellar, and were tasted first by the winemaker to confirm that they were tasting correctly. 

Martinelli 2014 Jackass Hill Zinfandel.  "Tight and intense. Yet perceptibly soft with extreme black fruit. Flavors of charred meat and hickory smoke. Very smooth. Right now this wine is a strange mixture of alcohol burn and smooth mouthfeel.  The genre here reminded me of bourbon, even if the taste did not."  90 points.

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Martinelli 2007 Jackass Hill Zinfandel.  "Luscious with an apricot and jalapeño compote. That is an incredible thing to write in a tasting note, 'tis true, but it is also an incredible thing to taste in a red wine.  It was truly there and obviously so.  The texture is very smooth with red berry jelly with the least perceptive heat from the alcohol of any vintage of JHZ that I've ever tasted."  92 points.

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Martinelli 2003 Jackass Hill Zinfandel.  "Peaches, plums, and apricots in a slow-cooker with dashes of herbs. A crusty char from smoke and heat. Creates a dark delicious goo."  93 points.

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Martinelli 2002 Jackass Hill Zinfandel.  "The Jackass Hill terroir shows through the alcohol with strong apricot aromas and flavors. Also some stone fruit. Sexy and extreme! Incredibly big and incredibly lush. Massive but not ungraceful. Sweet stewed peppers. A finish that recalls apricots on the grill."  95 points.

Martinelli 2000 Jackass Hill Zinfandel.  "Two bottles were both off-putting and funky. Winery representatives considered them flawed. Not enough experience for me to know if this is the end of this vintage's life or if we just got unlucky."  No Rating.

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Martinelli 1997 Jackass Hill Zinfandel.  "Exotic and lush with those aromas that are created when you pour red wine into cooking tomato sauce. Sweet potato cream. Apple pie with cinnamon. Spicy tomatillos and salsa on the finish."  91 points.

Martinelli 1996 Jackass Hill Zinfandel.  "Over the hill at this point, into the funky tomato-paste thing."  83 points.

Some final thoughts on Martinelli Jackass Hill Zinfandel.

These wines are not subtle shrinking violets and if you want to age them, you need to be prepared for some wildly usual flavors.  I absolutely adored the grilled apricot flavors that hit this wine in the 8-14 year age bracket, but at the 20 year mark, I was not a fan of the stewed tomato character. 

It is unlikely that you are going to find old bottles of this on the market.  Most have likely already been consumed.  But if you spot one, and if you want a wild adventure, consider picking up one of my recommendations here.


Keep reading.  More great wine articles here...

5 Elegant Sonoma County Wines Worth Seeking Out

From the vantage point of my wine shop in Ohio, it is easy to view Sonoma County as a monolith.  It would also be easy to judge an entire region by its largest wineries.  These corporate wine behemoths present an image of boring wines and a bland region.  But that doesn't begin to tell the complete story.

I spent a month recently in Sonoma County and discovered that this is an immensely diverse region and there are dozens of fabulous small producers making compelling wines that month people don't ever taste.

Here are five worth seeking out. - From the lightest white to the heaviest red.

Jordan 2012 Chardonnay 'Russian River Valley AVA.  "Clear light yellow color. Fleshy white peach aromas. Great balanced chardonnay with a touch of of oak and a soothing lemon custard finish. Better balance, acidity, and food-friendliness when compared to most RRV Chardonnays.  90 points.  Retail $33

Lioco 2012 Chardonnay 'Hanzell Vineyard, Sonoma Valley AVA.'  "Wow, this is one of the most amazing California Chardonnay's I've ever tasted!  A pristine yellow color. Aromas of hay and fresh wild honey. Nice acidity, but a firm, tight mouthfeel that opens up to creaminess as you hold it in the mouth. Medium+ body. There is great purity here as well as richness. The finish really persists a long time, so this is a candidate for moderate aging as well.  I've rarely seen such a sophisticated and confident American Chardonnay. Kudos."  95 points. $60 OH Retail

County Line (from Radio-Coteau) 2013 Pinot Noir 'Sonoma Coast AVA.'  Light color a soft pink-purple. Wonderfully delicious with strong obvious acidity, pure raspberries, and the tiniest hint of milk chocolate. A light 'truly-burgundian' take on Pinot Noir. You can almost feel the salt water spray of the Sonoma Coast."  93 Points.  $28 OH Retail.

Medlock Ames 2011 Bell Mountain Estate 'Alexander Valley AVA.'  "Ruby red. Dusty red fruit aromas. Bright strawberries and warm bubblegum. Pleasant amounts of tannins and a persistent finish. A good warm-weather take on Bordeaux Blends."  90 Points.  $30 OH Retail.

Radio-Coteau 2012 Syrah "Las Colinas" 'Sonoma Coast AVA.' "Glowing purple color. Spicy herbs, pipe tobacco, and menthol in lush red fruits on the nose. Melted blueberry pie with subtle hints of many types of stone and smoke. Touch of "bitey" tannin on finish. This needs a bit of time, but I have to believe it will only get better."  91 Points.  $60 OH Retail.

The wines discusses here were originally tasted at Walt Churchill's Market in Maumee, Ohio.