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ZINFANDEL: The Story of an American Hero!

  • CHAPTER 1: One Grape’s Journey
Joel Peterson: The Godfather of Zinfandel

Zinfandel is known as America’s Wine, and even though it probably originated in Eastern Europe, no other country has so wholeheartedly embraced this delicious varietal. Being that this loveable lug of a wine grape has been welcomed and celebrated as our own, and because some really entertaining Zinstories abound, it clearly deserves some extra ink, so this story will be told in three parts.

Anyone who has been introduced to these wines in the last 20 years knows its’ signature style is that of a   fruit-filled blockbuster. Many high-volume offerings have a touch of sweetness, and the Kardashian body and wow-factor that high-levels of alcohol brings.

Nothing wrong with these big bruisers and those characteristics make the wines wonderful matches for bold foods such as BBQ, and even chocolate desserts. That style also contributes to value price levels as the grapes can be grown at high yields and ripeness levels and still retain concentrated fruit flavors that please the palate. This allows producers to make large volumes of yummy, if simple, wine at low cost.

What goes missing in such wines is complexity and nuance, and they have a tendency to overpower most foods. Being one of the very few people I know who collects, catalogs, and of course, enjoys aged Zins, I feel uniquely qualified to communicate the history of these beauties over the past 150 years, as well as tell you about some modern versions that offer the old-school styles and charm.

Italian immigrants and their neighbors started planting this grape in California about 150 years ago, usually in vineyards that were referred as “mix-blacks”, because they typically had multiple grape varieties that were all fermented together into sturdy reds. Through tasting trials, these pioneers determined that Zinfandel was their favorite, so as the vineyards needed partial or complete replanting, Zinfandel became more prevalent. These vineyards were all over California, but as America’s population moved west, and development of land increased, these sites were some of the first casualties.

Fortunately California’s state government kept accurate agricultural records so we now know which  existing sites are truly old-vine. A seminal example of that is Rockpile Ridge Vineyard in Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley, which was planted by the Mauritson Family in the 1860s and is still producing great wine from their eponymous brand.

Finding true old-vine wines can be a challenge because use of the term is completely unregulated. That’s right, any brand can label their version OV. But fear not because in parts two and three I’ll give you a primer on how to identify authentic producers so you can experience your own personal  Zintopia!

CHAPTER 2: The Road to Glory
In last week’s episode we followed our grape-protagonist from humble beginnings in Croatia to it’s excellent California adventure as the darling of immigrant winemakers. We now reveal that until vine disease ravaged the state’s vineyards in the 1980’s Zinfandel was treated as a premium grape, raised in the best vineyards and allowed to express its sophisticated side. The last 20 years have seen a turn to huge crop loads and extreme ripeness in bargain versions. At highest quality levels the past few years have seen a return to balanced but still bold versions featuring more dry wines with substantial profiles of spice and earthiness to complement the always outstanding fruit components.

This means a variety of Zinfandels styles are now available that can dress for any occasion, from a BBQ-Hootenany-Hoedown, to formal dinner fare.

Zinfandel at Home With Its Soul-Mate

Even the world’s Grand Cru level Zinfandels can be had for under a $Benjamin, and many for much less. Comparing that to the stratospheric cost of top Cabernet Sauvignon indicates an opportunity for wine lovers to sample an exceptional wine experience at a relative bargain price. So if you can afford it, try one of the following or another top-tier bottle at least once.

As we wrote about last issue, Mauritson Wines’ Rockpile Ridge Vineyard bottling is not only an excellent Zinfandel with real complexity, structure and age-ability, it is a taste of history coming from one of the oldest vineyards in California, and crafted by the family that started that vineyard in the 1860s.

Larry Turley, of Turley Winery, is a true Zinfanatic sourcing grapes from 51 vineyards and counting! You will find many expressions represented here as Mr. Turley and Winemaker Teagan Passalacqua believe in letting each site have their own voice with each and every vintage.  

Robert Biale Winery, from Napa Valley, specializes in Zinfandel and one of its’ best is not only a gem, but a great story. Their “Black Chicken” Zinfandel’s name originated during prohibition when some wineries may have been making wines other than the allowed Sacramental version. Mr. Biale could not discuss such alleged wines openly so whenever details need to be discussed they used the above fowl code name. Trust me the wine is as good as the backstory!

Joel and Morgan Twain Peterson, Once and Future and Bedrock wineries respectively, source from multiple heritage vineyards statewide, but their home-site of the Bedrock Vineyard in Sonoma is a standout yearly.

Carol Shelton Wines is based in Mendocino, and is another producer that sources from old-vine vineyards state-wide. She has a magic touch with this grape and even her top-tier Zinfandels can be had for a song.

Stay tuned for Part Three where we will dispense more Zinformation.

  • CHAPTER 3: Zin’s All Grown Up!

In our 3rd and final chapter of The Book of Zin 2019, we will bring this bold, brambly, black-fruited underdog story full circle.After getting all historical in chapter one, and identifying specific standout producers in chapter deux, let’s start round three with some general Rules-of-Thumb, to increase your chances of Zinecxtasy.

ONCE AND FUTURE: The Real Deal

RULE #1: Look to regions because, especially at value price points, you are far more likely to get hand-crafted wines from either estate or neighborhood fruit sources. Lodi, Sierra Foothills, Paso Robles and Mendocino are regions to look for on the label. These are not only areas that grow and make good Zinfandel, they also allocate top vineyards to this grape because they usually sell their Zins for as much as their Cabernets, which in other regions garner far higher prices and therefore get the best terroir. Naming a region on the label guarantees that at least 85% of the grapes involved were born and raised there, where as a generic California appellation is a geographic crap-shoot at best.

RULE #2: Is Wineries Over Brands, which means it is more likely that you will get a distinct wine that was made in something less than industrial batches.  An easy way to check this to do a quick internet search of the label name and see if the story is about people and vineyards, or just a bunch of marketing taglines. In other words look for substance over style-points there and you will likely find the same in the bottle.

RULE #3: Go with your palate, because if you like the juice that is all that counts. No other wine I know has as many fanatics of cleverly named brand wines that play off of the Zin prefix, and have bawdy clever label art. Think Cardinal Zin, 7 Deadly Zins, Earth Zin and Fire, Zinfatuation, and my personal favorite Zin-phomaniac. Being that the #1 factor Americans take into account when choosing wine is indeed the label, it’s no surprise these are fan-favorites.

As for the Zinartisans featured in Part 2, the previous issue of The Tahoe Weekly which you can see on-line, their single-vineyard offerings are exceptional, and again I highly recommend going that route whenever you can, however even their value-priced multi-vineyard blends are standouts.

On the Local Front, Renwood Winery has a claim to vines from the first Zinfandel cutting, called the Grand Pere, planted in the United States, and makes a line of nice value-priced Sierra Foothills wines.       

With the newest generation of restrained Zinfandels to complement the bombastics, there has never been a better time to Zintilate your wine world.

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