Zinfandel is California's "mystery grape". Its origins
are subject for debate, some claiming it may have come from Southern Italy where it's
known as "Primitivo". There are others who claim the variety might be from
Yugoslavia or Hungary. U.C. Davis grape guru Carole Meredith, using DNA
profiling techniques, found a match with Zinfandel and a Croatian grape
called Crljenak. Meredith's research suggests Primitivo and Zinfandel are
clones of the same grape, however.
Wherever it came from, California is now its home!
in nearly every type of climate, California vintners have refined their winemaking of this
wine over the years. The grapes don't ripen evenly, meaning some fruit on a vine
will be relatively "ready" to harvest, while other grapes within a bunch are not
mature and high in acidity. It was popular to wait for the green fruit to mature, by
which time the mature fruit would dehydrate to the point of being raisined. This
made for some brain-buster, high alcohol wines. Winemakers often bottle tannic,
alcoholic monsters which were curious to "taste" but difficult to
The Zinfandel market collapsed in the 1980s and some wineries abandoned making the wine
altogether. Some producers formed a promotional agency in hopes of reviving the
flagging interest in Zinfandel. This is called "ZAP" (Zinfandel Advocates
& Producers") and they hold an annual tasting in San Francisco in January.
In 2013 at the annual San Francisco Zin-Fest, here were more than 250 wineries pouring Zinfandels. Talk
about a Bacchanalia!
(They botched it in 2014, holding the trade event at an
isolated location in Alameda, far from public transit and on a week day...far
fewer tasters in attendance as a result!)
Some producers realize that Zinfandel is at its best when "drinkable".
Others, courting the critics, make wines for "tastings". These are often
high in alcohol, high in oak, high in tannin or all of the above. I was showing off
one of these big, blockbuster wines to some visiting Italian winemakers and they concluded
the wine was "candy". Served with grilled steaks, we couldn't finish this
wine as it was not really meant for food. It was made to clobber the competition in
a wine tasting. So, do you want a wine to drink or a wine for a
Thanks to the aggressive promotion of Zinfandel and the fact that many
winemakers are turning out good wines, consumer interest in Zinfandel is quite
enthusiastic. The name "ZAP" is ironic, as consumers wallets are likely to
be "zapped" as prices for Zinfandel have escalated rapidly.
At the 2014 ZAP tasting, most Lodi Zins seemed to have $15-$40 price tags, while
Dry Creek Zins seem to start around $25 a bottle. Many Napa wines were in
the $30-$75 range. Some non wine-trade friends remarked "You know,
Zinfandel used to be such a friendly wine. It was very drinkable and it
didn't cost a fortune. Now everything seems so expensive!"
As someone who's accustomed to paying $10-$20 for a
bottle of really good wine (Spain, France and Italy produce some splendid
bottles in this category), prices can be viewed as being either optimistic or
In fact, after the ZAP tasting, we opened a bunch of bottles we'd been collecting
for a staff tasting and found a superb, imminently drinkable Austrian Blaufršnkisch
which will cost $16.99. I think I'd rather put that bottle on the table
than most of the rocket fuel Zins I tasted!
Grown around California, we favor the wines from Sonoma's Dry Creek and Russian River
Valleys, along with Napa as the best sites for Zinfandel. Good wines are coming from
the Sierra Foothills, though many of these are a bit high in alcohol and lacking in
elegance or finesse.
Mendocino County offers some good Zinfandels and there are a
few interesting vineyards in nearby Lake County, as well. San Benito
County sometimes offers a surprise, while Monterey seems less
well-suited to this variety, but some noteworthy wines come from Paso Robles and San Luis
Obispo. However, we find many of the wines from those regions tend to exhibit
over-cropped, immature notes, while at the same time showing raisiny, pruney elements (the
worst of both worlds!).
California's Central Valley has something like 17,000 acres
of Zinfandel. A few decent wines are made from fruit grown near Lodi, but these are
winegrowing and winemaking rarities. The prices asked for many Lodi
Zinfandels are optimistically high and I can't say there's much being made out
that way that warrants our attention, though there are a few glimmers of hope
here and there.
Having cellared Zinfandels for many years, our experience has shown that the wines which
have relatively good (moderately high) levels of acidity tend to age the best. A
tasting of ten year old Zinfandels back in the 1980s was fascinating! The wines
which had the most notoriety from The Critics aged the poorest, while wines they
overlooked (lighter in body and tannic, but higher in acidity) aged beautifully.
Keep that in mind when someone urges you to buy a big, tannic Zinfandel to hold onto for
ten or more years. It's not the tannin alone which
preserves the wine. It's the acidity. Few
Zinfandels are worth holding on to for more than a few years and many might really be at
their best within several years of the vintage.
Zinfandel is made in virtually every style of wine
"White Zinfandel" came about as in the early
1970s, wine growers had planted red grapes to accommodate the growing demand from
winedrinkers. Coincidentally there was a big boom as the market grew when new
winedrinkers, tired of the sweet "pop" wines of that era wanted something closer
to "real" wine. The Trinchero Family at Sutter Home winery in Napa, made a
"white" Zinfandel with residual sugar and ended up being carried off in a tidal
wave of fame and fortune for their product. At that point in time, Sutter Home was
viewed as a producer of "serious" Zinfandel, especially their noteworthy single
vineyard wine (Deaver) from Amador County. They just happened to be in the right place at the
proverbial right time and made a fortune.
Some producers turn out light, berryish Zins, ready for drinking months after the harvest.
Others devote substantial new oak-aging to their wines, creating big and important
wines. Some intentionally make dessert wines from Zinfandel. Others don't,
finding their fermentation gets "stuck", leaving a slightly sweet wine
with, typically, substantial alcohol. Some of these are truly dessert wines,
while others are only slightly sweet.
We're fans of Zinfandels which are "drinkable." Now this may
sound a bit funny. Of course we want wine that's drinkable! As
opposed to, what? Bathing wine??
In tasting wine with some colleagues, one remarked "I used to look forward
to our blind-tastings of Zinfandels. Today I almost dread tasting flights
of Zinfandel. The wines have become monsters and are not made to have
finesse or elegance. Power and alcohol, along with sugar, seem to be what
many vintners are bringing to the market."
Well, much Zinfandel is made for "wine tastings" more than for the
dinner table. There's a lot of high octane Zin on the market in all price
categories. Some wines seem to be made for the cocktail-drinking
crowd. These tend to be rather big, robust and potent. Often they
have a bit of sugar, too. A recent line-up of Zins found a number of
wines to have significant percentages of sugar. I had written the words
"port like" several times on my tasting sheets.
It seems today we need to differentiate between "table wines" and
Don't be fooled into thinking a costly bottle of Zinfandel is
superior to something reasonably-priced. The reason you
"hire" a wine merchant is to guide you to wines which will appeal to
After the past decade of ZAP tastings I am amused and dismayed.
Amused because some Zinfandels from winemakers with a few years-to-a-few
decades' of history were really good, drinkable wines.