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Is Zinfandel “a serious wine”?

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Zinfandel has had more face lifts over the years than Joan Rivers. When I first stumbled onto the wine scene, in the late ‘70s-early ‘80s, Zin was enormously popular. This was partly because it was the only varietal that was thought to be indigenous to California, thereby pleasing the patriots, and also because the American critics of the time (and there weren’t many) loved it. Here are Charlie Olken, Norm Roby and Earl Singer on Zinfandel from their 1980 The Connoisseur’s Handbook of California Wines: “…the most versatile wine grape grown in California…” “full-bodied, intensely flavorful wines…” “…vigorous, berrylike, sometimes spicy…”. Critical darlings included Zins from Burgess, Caymus, Clos du Val and Buehler; Bob Thompson, the dean of California wine writers, described Ridge’s Geyserville Zin as “claret-like,” the greatest compliment a critic could bestow upon a non-Bordeaux red wine that wasn’t Pinot Noir. Even Hugh Johnson said, in 1977, that Zin was “Capable of ageing [sic] to great quality.”

But then, in the 1980s, Zinfandel seemed to drop out of the spotlight. Cabernet Sauvignon was all the rage, followed by Merlot. Since then, every few years Zinfandel makes a comeback (courtesy of content-addicted wine writers, who are always looking to anoint what’s in and what’s out), but for every comeback, there follows a demotion.

The first Zinfandel I took notes on was a 1976 from Wine and the People, which I wrote about a year ago. I’ve drank a lot of Zinfandel since then, although mostly for tasting purposes. I can’t remember the last time I opened a bottle for pure pleasure, although there must have been occasions. That’s perhaps a little unfair to Zinfandel. Made right, it’s a fine wine. But I think the title of Jon Bonné‘s blog last week, Is Zinfandel a Serious Wine?, suggests some of the difficulties Zinfandel faces. Jon doesn’t directly answer his own question, instead taking a repertorial approach. “[I]t’s nearly impossible to find Zin-focused conversations among what we’ll call wine influencers,” he writes. That is clearly true. To the extent I’m an influencer (and so is Jon), I cannot recall a time in years when I shot the breeze with my fellow writers or critics about Zinfandel.

We have to ask, though, what “a serious wine” means. I think we can all agree that Cabernet, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are serious wines. If we broaden our scope beyond California, we can add other varieties to the list (Riesling, Syrah, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, etc.). Why do we describe some varieties as “serious” while others aren’t? Jon writes “Dolcetto, for instance, will never be discussed as a major, influential wine,” and surely no one will disagree with that. But I think we have to look at more psychological aspects, or even philosophical ones, when it comes to how we determine if something is “serious” or “frivolous.”

Obviously, no grape variety or wine is anything in itself, other than what it is. But then along come we humans, ascribing all kinds of qualities to it, and we end up with varietal hierarchies, the vinous equivalent of royalty and peasantry. I’ve always been fascinated by the importance of authority in shaping how the broad masses think. Although I’m not an elitist, I do believe that many wine drinkers will readily assume a particular wine is great simply because a wine critic says so. That’s sad, albeit understandable, given the myths that have surrounded wine for thousands of years, not to mention the baffling complexity of having to decide amongst thousands of brands. But could it be that Zinfandel is not considered a “serious wine” because the majority of critics have so stated?

I think this is true. Perform a thought experiment. If, suddenly, the leading critics suddenly declared that Zinfandel was a very great wine (always with the proviso, applicable to every other variety, that it must be made right), don’t you think that the public would eventually come to the same conclusion? This is because people are so unsure of themselves, they’ll believe whatever the tastemakers tell them. Why do you think the Chinese are paying a zillion dollars for Lafite? It’s not because they like the way it tastes, that’s for sure. It’s the same reason why the collectors in this country started coveting Guigal’s Côtes-Rôties in the 1980s and 1990s, when they were told to do so. I have had those wines and, to be perfectly honest, they’re not all that different from a good California Petite Sirah. But Petite Sirah isn’t considered “a serious wine” because not enough critical consensus has built up that it is.

So I’m not ready to say that Zinfandel is or isn’t serious. In this year of 2011, I’m going to pay it more attention, give it another look-see. I’m not talking about those monstrous high alcohol bruisers that also contain residual sugar. I’m not talking about unevenly ripened Zins, whose berry flavors are bracketed by raisins and vegetables. I’m talking about the kind of Zinfandels I’ve given high scores to lately: De Loach, Deerfield, Zichichi, V. Sattui, Dry Creek, Seghesio, Rubicon, Tres Vinicultores, Dutcher Crossing, Magistrate. Funny how so many of them are from Dry Creek Valley. No coincidence, that; in Dry Creek, the vines, often very old, are happiest.

  1. Hi

    I would invite you to please try Ridge Zin’s as part of your Zin focus this year (I am sure you must have prob. tried their Zins at some point). I have been drinking their wines for years. Everyone knows Monte Bello Cab, but their range of Zin’s are amazing. And they age very very well too. I am sure that if RP had cottoned on to Zin the way he had with Bordeaux, Rhone, Barossa we might have seen the same effect. Thank god that has not happened. Most Ridge Zin’s remain fairly priced, I think an median price is about $35. Thanks again for a great piece Steve… Cheers!

  2. My take: it *can* be a serious wine, especially when made from older vines. However, like almost every single red wine grape variety, Zin shines best when blended. But I’m a fan of blending vs. single-varietal bottlings so I’m biased…

  3. Larry Chandler says:

    I don’t know if Zinfandel is a serious wine or not, but Joseph Swan makes serious wines, and among them are Zinfandels. His wines from the early part of this century are elegant, complex and still youthful.

  4. I liked Jon’s piece, was surprised at all the controversy it seemed to create, but I guess the title was deemed incendiary to Zin lovers, even though those that read Bonne know thats not his style.

    This doesn’t seem overly complicated to me; Zin is mostly America/New World focused, so by default has a smaller following, and drops out some of the ‘serious’ wine aficionados. Its generally just not a complex wine, but more of a comfort wine, a quaffer, or something to pair with classic food like BBQ. Most are made for the average American New World palate.

    Like many wides made for New World palate and mass consumption, the tendency towards big, fruit forward designed to appeal to the mass, unsophisticated palate is easy to fall into. And it doesn’t hurt that the varietal can easily fall into this trap with its tendency to achieve high brix while attempting fruit maturation.

    I am often labeled as a Zin dis liker which isn’t true. I can appreciate a well made Zin. And I actually enjoy and buy zin, especially cooler climate RRV; I have also found Zins with some bottle time to drink well, if made with enough structure.
    We have LOTS of old vine head trained Zin here in RRV as you know Steve; just moved to a road with acres of it in Fulton. :)

    Whats interesting to me is the climbing price points. When Zin nets 30%+ more than Sara Lee grenache, and bottle prices start climbing over $30, I raise an eyebrow. For a zin as unique and carefully crafted as Ridge – I get it. When the fruit bombs start going there, thats a different story.

    great piece – cheers!

  5. William Allen has it right.

    Zinfandel can be as good as Ridge, which means balanced, focused and able to improve in the bottle or as immediate as the slightly sweetened versions that are also in the marketplace and are meant for drinking today.

    It can be a serious wine, but it is not Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir. And when one looks at where Zin grows, less than half the standing acreage and less than 40% of the crush happen in coastal vineyards meaning that the majority of Zinfandel will be more geared to early enjoyment than to the kind of serious contemplation and cellaring which we reserve for Ridge, Ravenswood, Storybook Mountain and their peers.

    Just because the larger portion of Zin is not “serious” does not disqualify the grape. And any suggestion to the contrary simply does not understand its full potential.

  6. Bill Green says:

    I agree with Charlie and to some degree William. If your palate is Old World-centric, you generally don’t view Zinfandel as a serious wine. I’m not sure why there has to be such exclusivity in wine thought? Most of the New World-centric drinkers that I know don’t think that way. They love and admire Old World wines, too.

    I real question should be “Does Bonne even like California wines?” Not particularly it seems to me. I wonder if Sud Ouest would hire a wine writer who didn’t like Bordeaux?

  7. I definitely dislike the ‘sweet and sour’ sorts of Zin that are indicative of the variety’s uneven ripening. Raisin in an acidic, somewhat green wine is unwelcome to me. I wonder though is this is a sort of varietal character, like bell pepper in Cab, if not complexity that could be desired if trumpeted loud enough by many voices. (Aside: the trend of ‘trockenbeerenauslese’ Napa Cab seems a sort of elevation of anti-complexity by selecting grapes in a very narrow range of ripeness. Maybe something in the middle is a worthwhile goal.)

    A lot of wine mythology seems to be about self-fulfilling prophesy. If a wine is good, then it can sell for more, and a winery can invest more in making it good consistently. If a wine is bad, no one buys it, and it wont improve without capital investment. Given how Napa producers claim that they must sell at $50+ just to break even, I think there is a fair amount of that at play with Cab. Zin doesn’t generally attract those price tags. But it does appear some distinct terroirs, just as with Cab Franc in the Loire or Nebbiolo in Piedmont, elevate it.

  8. And one more thought–if Cab was judged by the median wine produced under its name, it wouldn’t be very well respected, either.

    Bill, Bonne writes mainly on CA wines, so I think he likes them. His yearly top 100 is almost entirely from CA with a few WA and OR outliers. It’s not like he is some outsider. He is playing a sort of Zin ombudsman role in my estimation. It’s a shame someone can’t ask tough questions without being attacked by those who only want to hear propaganda.

    As for Old World snobs, some take it too far by thinking classifications from centuries past are the be-all, end-all. But there is nonetheless a respected tradition of dry tables wines with vinous flavor profiles. The flavors and balance point of CA wines should be different, but if wineries choose to forge a new path (off-dry Zin semi-port) under the title of dry table wine, then they should be called on it.

  9. It is so very obvious that so-called “tastemakers” or “wine influencers” live in their own world. The real world in general, Steve, is quite enthusiastic about Zinfandel: re the 7,000 plus partaking in ZAP each year. Only a fool (or deluded “tastemaker”) would think these people at ZAP are simply following “tastemakers.” They follow their own individual tastes, as well they should; and for many of them, Zinfandel is a damned serious wine, and naysayers can go to hell.

    I’ve influenced a few people in my day, and I rarely drink certain wines: like red Bordeaux and California Cabernet Sauvignon, and most Chardonnays. As it were, many of the people I enjoy wine with on a personal basis don’t enjoy those wines much either. Does that mean we don’t consider red Bordeaux and Cabernet Sauvignon to be “serious” wines? Of course not. We know these are perfectly “serious wines.” They’re just not to our taste, and often don’t go with the food we eat.

    Ergo: any statement saying Cabernet Sauvignon, or Zinfandel or Chardonnay, aren’t wines to be taken seriously says more about the sayer rather than the wines. If you don’t think much of a certain wine, you’re either hanging out with the wrong crowd or you’re simply expressing a personal agenda. Nothing wrong with the first scenario. But the second one? Methinks personal predilections are best kept to one’s self.

  10. Hmmm. Anthropomorphizing wine. Serious wine. What next? We will giving our autos names like Rocky for a truck and such.

    Steve, is critical consensus the same as validated popularity?

    ‘Zinfandel’ does not have the buzzworded power of Cab or Merlot etc.

    I think a better way to think of this is asking if the winemaker is serious, about making the best out of what he has.

    How does ‘serious’ correlate to style? Is a light gulpable wine not serious, because it is fun?

    Part of what I think is that because of the relatively short history of the US some people equate that short history with a lack of culture or cultural heritage.

    People like to drink wines for different reasons on different occasions. Take the consumer serious, give them well made wines to choose from.

    Perhaps some time ago some one decided that Malbec was serious enough for the Argentinians to get into the market with it. Some of it is good and some isn’t.

    If a principle is good enough for one country, why should it not be good enough for another.

  11. “It’s the same reason why the collectors in this country started coveting Guigal’s Côtes-Rôties in the 1980s and 1990s, when they were told to do so. I have had those wines and, to be perfectly honest, they’re not all that different from a good California Petite Sirah”.
    Steve, do you really mean that?
    Leaving aside any value judgment, a Guigal Côte-Rôtie and a CA Petite-Sirah are as different in character as they can be. Yet, IMHO, Guigal’s three single-vineyard wines (La Landonne, La Mouline & La Turque) are among the most complex, multi-layered and balanced wines that you can find. They‘re moderate in alcohol, concentrated yet subtle in the warm vintages, but light bodied and delicate in the cool years; and always have great acidity.
    BTW, it is about time for CA winemakers to acknowledge that grapes from old-vine Zinfandel, Petite-Sirah, Carignane and Mataro/Mourvèdre are by far the best inputs (now available) for producing local terroir-driven wines.
    Lastly, if most Zinfandel producers took it seriously; aiming at dry, still wines, instead of reductive, syrupy, alcoholic sodas, as you accurately noted, my guess is that the current negative stereotype would be reversed and then not only wine critics but everyone would start taking it seriously.

  12. Peter, I do consider Petite Sirah, at its best, a world class wine. And I agree with you that if producers took Zin seriously, it would be taken more seriously by the public.

  13. Personally, I do not want Zin to be “serious”–the cachet that a “serious” wine carries often time ruins the QPR. Zin, on the other hand, is meant to be fun — a big mouthful of berries and bramble, hedonistic, maybe a little hot, maybe a little sweet but oh so good with ‘-Q and chili, stews, short ribs etc. Obviously, the best examples will seek some refinement but I still want them to have the soul of a zin (like putting heated, leather seats in a Shelby Mustang….). I agree with 1WineDude that Zin does better in field blends (think Carlislie, Bedrock) and with many of the responders that it does better in modestly cooler climes (El Dorado, RRV) and with older vines (Lodi, Dry Creek). Plus, I think Zin has a future as part of the Cali Rhones (Linne Caldo) — so much so that this year I am making a Zin / petite sirah / mourvedre / syrah blend from Amador (thus far, in the barrel, its pretty solid). So…enjoy Zins but do not make them or take them seriously please!

  14. Bill Green says:

    Producers have been taking Zin seriously, Steve. You just haven’t been paying attention.

  15. I’m more inclined to think it’s not taken seriously by a large chunk of the wine appreciating public because, for many of us, our enthusiasm for Zin was an early stage in our wine consuming careers and one we grew out of as our palates evolved. I would tend to say the same thing about Aussie Shiraz. I would submit that most people don’t pass through a Bordeaux or Oregon Pinot phase to ultimately settle on Zin as the terminal point in their wine appreciation evolution, but that the reverse is much more commonly true.

    I think the second factor hurting Zin’s standing with hard-core wine aficionados is the tolerance for flaws that would stand out like sore thumbs in other varietals. All the usual ass-covering provisos apply here; there are plenty of well made Zins out there. There are also many that seem like they should not be commercially viable due to high residual sugar and volatile acidity levels (to say nothing of the oft-ranted about alcohols), but they find favor with a large portion of Zin-aficionados. I sort of hope that Zin lovers would hold producers to higher standards, but, really, maybe its best to just say “How nice that they found each other.”

  16. Well, I guess you’re making my point, Mr. Heimoff: inasmuch as jillions upon jillions of cases of Zinfandel continue to be successfully made and sold under brands from Gnarly Head to Ridge, Bedrock to Rock Wall, Biale to Turley, are you sure about the fact that the “public” doesn’t take Zinfandel “seriously?” Evidently you are, which is absurd.

    But I’m glad you’re determined to pay “more attention” to the grape in 2011. When you do, you may see that Zinfandel in general, like all other wine categories of quality (be it Chianti, Bordeaux, German Riesling, California Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, etc.), is undergoing transition. Many zin lovers are well aware that there is a trend towards less raisiny or jammy fruit, lower alcohol, less obnoxious oak, etc., and they’re liking it. Like all trends, it’s partly winemakers responding to consumer preferences, and partly consumers responding to the natural evolution of grape growing and winemaking.

    Many other zin lovers may stick to brands who will insist on making them in the bigger, riper styles prevalent in the late ’90s. Lord knows there are plenty of zin lovers who prefer the lighter “claret” styles of the ’60s and ’70s; either that, or zins pungent in raw American oak (those wines are still out there, too, if you know where to find them).

    Point is: one of the beauties of the grape is its constant variability of style. Critics used to say that one of the “problems” with Zinfandel is that there are so many different styles, the poor public is “confused.” Well, if the public is so confused, how in the world have longtime producers like Ridge and Ravenswood continued to make the grape its stock and trade, through thick and thin? What explains the unending proliferation of small brands, many of them artisanal, specializing in the grape, and marching them out each year at events at ZAP?

    Zinfandel isn’t going to get any less popular, no matter what a critic or tastemaker might say about it. The poor, misguided consumer may be “wrong,” but I don’t think so. One thing they know: they sure are drinking up a helluva lot of Zinfandel, and zin producers are crying all the way to the bank.

  17. It’s ironic that Zin is considered “unserious” compared to Pinot Noir, at the very time that that in California the two grapes seem to be trading positions, structurally. There has been a surge of acreage of Pinot Noir in the Central Valley, intended for line extensions and chain brands at low prices. Meanwhile, many former suppliers of white Zin are trying to adjust their vineyard practices to produce quality red Zin. High end Pinot Noir has experienced substantial discounting, while mid and lower priced Pinot Noir sales are on fire. In contrast, the weakest part of the Zin market has been line items in big chain-oriented brands; new mid-priced brands and vineyard or appellation-driven higher priced wines have shown steady growth in sales.

    Zinfandel often shows terroir extremely well. Perhaps it’s just due to the high proportion of old vineyards and/or the relatively hands-off or basic winemaking involved, but certainly terroir is one of “serious” wine’s calling cards. Yes, if Zin is overripe and overoaked it can lose distinction, but this is a battle being played out across most red varieties these days. It’s just that for some reason Zin became the whipping boy for that conversation.

    It’s not true that Zinfandel is a variety that people “transistion through” on their way to Cab or Pinot Noir. It plays a very small role as a “gateway” variety. Consumer research shows that high end Zin enthusiasts are well-versed in and regularly consume those other varieties, but they have settled on Zin as their favorite. Interestingly, perhaps because of conversations like this one, they are more hesitant to order Zin in high visibility social situations, like business dinners. They seem to think: “I know how great Zin is, but do my tablemates?” I wonder how they got that idea…

  18. Had never been much of a Zin fan for all of the usual reasons but just got to do my first visit to Ridge Lyton Springs on Wednesday. The diversity really impressed me and we walked away with a few bottles, one from 113 year old vines I think. Changed my perspective a lot and it was way better than the Napa Cabs we had this week.

    Anything can be serious when well executed. Music, art, food, relationships. The person who only sticks to “serious” wines (safe wines, Cabs, Chard)isn’t a serious wine enthusiast. “Oh I just LOVE food. Only eat steak though.”

  19. Zin and Sauvignon Blanc are my two favorite varietals. Why? Because I enjoy them with my meals (and they do pair well with many dishes), they’re generally less expensive than those varietals considered “serious”, and they reflect their terroir. That said, if grades were given out, Zin would be a “B” grape, just like, say, Barbera. “B” players are capable of spectacular performances, too; however, they’re maybe just a little harder to find. Ridge, Storybook Mountain, Rafanelli, all can be spectacular at times. Enjoy – that’s what it’s all about!

  20. Serious wines are rarely interesting and interesting wines are rarely serious. Just like people.

    I hope Zinfandel never becomes a “serious” wine.

  21. Morton–

    When Zinfandel sells for $35-50 a bottle in the hands of Storybook Mountain, Grgich Hills, Ravenswood, Ridge, Edizione Pennino, etc, it is serious wine. There is not a lot of Napa Valley Zin these days, and that’s too bad because some truly lovely, fairly elegant Zins have been made in Napa over the years.

  22. What defines “serious”? May I quote James Suckling from a recent review of Brunellos, as I was just pondering this sentiment in a discussion of “seriousness”–for wines built to age…

    “What excites me about the wines is their metamorphic character. They seem to change all the time in the glass. First they seem elegant and shy, with delicate enticing aromas of flowers and cherries alongside refined and silky palates, but then with time in the glass, they grow in color,
    aromatic strength, and sheer power. I have rarely discovered such energy in a Sangiovese.”

    Perhaps suggesting he does not consider a Sangiovese “serious”… Is ability to evolve a component of “seriousness?”

    I for one feel serious when I enjoy a peppery Ridge.

  23. Emily, I’ll paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart on his remark about porn: I can’t define it, but I know it when I taste it.

  24. When I was a working sommeliere and suggested a Zinfandel to accompany a hearty beef dish, someone said, “is there really RED Zinfandel?”

    I think part of the problem for the general consumer may still be the “hangover” from white Zin/blush wines.

  25. Charlie, I’m with you on your comment re: Napa Valley. In general, Napa makes California’s greatest, most balanced Zinfandels.

  26. BGK, I would give Barbera a C, maybe C minus, not a B. It’s nowhere in the league of a great Zinfandel (except that a properly made Barbera will live forever).

  27. That’s what I thought…the definition of a serious wine is a high price.

  28. Greetings all!

    My name is Christopher Watkins, and I am the Tasting Room Manager at Ridge Vineyards/Monte Bello, and also the host of 4488: A Ridge Blog.

    I want to say, first off, many thanks to all of you who have said such fine things about Ridge Vineyards!

    Secondly, I wonder if I might address the question of serious vs. fun (for lack of a better way to frame the debate as it seems to be shaping up) by positing that one can be quite serious about one’s fun. I find that both Ridge, and Zinfandel, have fascinating histories specifically because of the way they have historically lived at some unique juncture point of high and low brow tendencies; when they succeed, they perform a marvelous integration of funk and sophistication, head and heart, technique and instinct.

    Many if not all of our greatest artists throughout history were deadly serious about producing that which would ideally be entertaining to us; comedians who rehearsed jokes for 10 hours a day, composers who brought themselves to the brink of exhaustion at the piano, painters who drove themselves to the edge of madness at the canvass, writers who labored over every punctuation mark in every poem. As recipients of their artistry and dedication, we revel in the sensual enjoyment of their creations, be they light or heavy, fun or serious, playful or ponderous.

    The point being, one can be serious about making a zinfandel that is flat out fun to drink. I am a proud employee of Ridge Vineyards because I think that’s exactly what Ridge does, and it’s something I wanted to be a part of. And we are certainly not alone in doing this. All the accolades, devotions, and praises evident in this comment feed alone attest to it. Cheers to zinfandel, and cheers, as always, to Steve for producing such effectively provocative writing. It’s serious work he does, but it’s alot of fun to read!

    Regards,

    Christopher Watkins
    Tasting Room Manager-Ridge/Monte Bello
    Host: “4488: A Ridge Blog”

  29. Christopher, this is very interesting to me because I’m currently reading a biography of Leonard Bernstein, who was torn between his “serious” side as a classical composer, and his “fun” side as a Broadway composer. He asked on more than one occasion why “West Side Story” should be seen as “low” art while a Beethoven symphony was “high art.” Others pointed out that Mozart’s operas, which we consider “high” art, were the equivalent in the 1700s of Broadway musicals. I don’t think Bernstein resolved that identity crisis while he lived.

  30. Michael Barry says:

    Hi Steve,
    I have only had a little exposure to Zin as it is not grown much in OZ,(no prohibition here), but I learned how good it can be over a day in Dry Creek

    However the standout of that week was the Zin from Rubicon.

    I am working my way through a box of Zin from Prince Hill in Mudgee OZ, it is not a great wine but a more than enjoyable drop with rich meats.

    On balance I guess I would say, Zin can be a great wine, expect to pay for the winemakers talent, but oh so much dross out there in checkout land USA. It is located next to the critter wines.

  31. Ron Saikowski says:

    Zins are a versatile wine. They can be light, fruity to big, bold,high alcohol to fruit bombs to fun whimsical. Not many wines can have such a vaiety of personalities. Why take Zin so serious when it is so fun! It is wine to be consumed on a cold, blustry winter day in front of the fire place or sipped with ice as a white Zin on a hot day at the pool. Zins are a matter of reflection and perception with a touch of dash and panache! Gotta love it for its diverseness. Should be the drink of the Democratic Party since it can handle such diverse personalitieis so well.

  32. Dear Michael Barry, if you’re referring to the Rubicon 2007 Edizione Pennino Zinfandel, I couldn’t agree more. I gave it one of my highest Zinfandel scores in 2010. It shows Zin’s personality, with Napa’s elegant balance.

  33. Steve, you state that Napa makes California’s best Zins. Incorrect. Calistoga makes California’s greatest Zins. If I ruled the universe, I would have passed the Calistoga AVA much sooner, but it would only be used for Zin, and Petite Sirah based wines.

    As for the “Seriousness” of Zin, think about this: Does Cabernet reflect terroir in California as well as Zinfandel? Think about it. While you may believe that you can pick an Alexander Cab out of a Napa line-up, I would highly doubt it. But look at Zins from Calistoga vs. Dry Creek vs. Shenandoah vs. Russian River vs. Rockpile…

    Zin is the grape that truly reads the terroir of California. Cabernet rarely does.

    On a side note, having been lucky enough to taste a broken vertical that went back 20 years, Nalle Zin needs at least 15 years to truly show it’s stuff.

  34. Hey Steve,
    I always thought of Dry Creek as exceptional for Zin, until I tried Ridge… And then I drank my first taste of Biale Black Chicken Zin from Napa. it made me a disciple. I think it was my first ovz, 60 year old vines, but it had elegance and balance too. Check it out during your 2011 look-see!

  35. To be considered a “serious” wine would it also have to be considered “Collectable”, or ar least “Cellar-worthy”?

    We purchase equal amounts of Zin and Cabs at our house, but many of the cabs (and occasional Bordeaux) end up on the cellar racks, whereas almost all of the zins get drunk soon after purchase.

    I never look at a zin and say, “Maybe this needs another 2,3,5 years to be at its best”, but I sometimes agonize over opening a Cab or Bordeaux too soon. Is this a sign of seriousness on my part, or am I merely following the advice of people who know more than I when it comes to maximizing a wines potential?

    As stated previously by others, Zins can and in some cases should age, but I don’t see myself buying a zin at $35+ and giving it cellar space when I can buy a pedigreed Cab for a few dollars more.
    A zin for me still falls into the category of “Immediate gratification”, and that in itself is a serious pursuit.

  36. Bill, you make excellent points. Thanks for writing in.

  37. Steve,
    What makes a wine ‘serious’? Is it age ability for that small percentage of people who have the space for a wine cellar? Is it collectability for those who look at wine as an investment or as a great trophy? Is it the wine you share with those you most enjoy spending time? I believe that each of these makes a wine serious differently. Here the week after our successful 20th Annual ZAP Festival. The Producer members of ZAP, showed how serious, as well as fun, Zinfandel can be. One of the key parts of the three days and four events was releasing ten years of research at The Heritage Vineyard, which was a chance to literally taste the very serious history of Zinfandel in California. ZAP has partnered with UC Davis in a clonal study on Zinfandel a project we our producers with the support of our advocates have invested over $350,000. I at D-cubed Cellars along with the other ZAP Producers welcome you to renew your relationship with the both serious and fun wine that is Zinfandel.
    Duane Dappen
    Winemaker D-cubed Cellars
    ZAP Board President.

  38. Hi Duane, I didn’t exactly end my relationship with Zin. But I am hoping to re-examine it this year. It would help if you could encourage more of your members to send me Zins for review!

  39. To my buddy Chris Watkins at Ridge – That was one of the most well thought out, well versed blog responses I have ever read. I’ve told you this before but wanted to acknowledge in the public airwaves that I think you are doing an incredibly fine job representing Ridge. To walk the line between fun and serious – not an easy thing to do. You do it well my friend.

  40. Mike Officer says:

    Oy! All of this makes my head hurt! As many have asked, how do you define “serious”? For a variety to be serious, does it mean the best examples have to command hundreds of dollars a bottle? No one argues that a $28 J.J. Prum Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spatlese isn’t serious so it can’t be about price. Maybe for a wine to be serious, it has to age well. But wait! People seem to think California Cabernet Sauvignon is serious. Yet how many California Cabernet Sauvignons truly age well, developing additional complexity in bottle? Beyond the few oft-cited examples, very, very few in my opinion. And besides, some Zinfandels do age well. I had a 1977 Clos du Val Zinfandel (labeled 14.7% if I recall correctly) not long ago that was sublime. Ditto for a pair of Mayacamas Zinfandels from 1970 and 1973 (also both over 14% ).

    No, I suspect the issue of Zinfandel and seriousness (I suspect you could substitute the word “nobility”) is rooted in the lack of an old-world, prestigious European counterpart. For many though, this isn’t an issue. I poured at ZAP last Saturday and there were approximately 8000 people in attendance who seemed to be taking the variety very seriously. But they were having fun too! Imagine that. Having fun at a tasting. What is the world coming to?!!? There were also over 200 wineries pouring. All of them seemed to be quite serious about growing and making Zinfandel. Many have even made Zinfandel the cornerstone of their business. In attendance were also many wine writers (excuse me, “wine influencers”) who also seemed to appreciate Zinfandel and its charms. Nearly impossible to find a Zinfandel conversation amongst “wine influencers”? Apparently for some. But the Wine Spectator devotes nearly a full issue to the grape. Only a few other varieties receive that kind of coverage. Robert Parker also covers Zinfandel extensively, even having a separate vintage rating for the variety in his vintage charts. The International Wine Cellar reports on many, many Zinfandels as well.

    But conspicuously absent at the tasting (please correct me if I’m wrong) were the writers who seem to question Zinfandel’s popularity, who seem to think Zinfandel is all about a box of Raisinets. I had the opportunity to taste approximately 50 wines. Not one tasted like raisins. Not one had excessive v.a. Not one had acetaldehyde. Not one seemed over-oaked. I tasted many sensibly oaked, completely dry, structured renditions. There are many great Zinfandels being produced in a myriad of styles. If someone can’t find a suitable one, then they simply don’t care enough to make the effort.

  41. Wine is a personal pleasure. Each of us can taste the same wine and have different opinions of its’ characteristics. To be a true critic or judge you must analyze the wine for the way the wine maker intended it to be in relationship to the varietal or blend. Thus, I experiment on my own by attending tastings and drink what I like.

  42. Michael Barry says:

    Hi Steve,
    I believe it was the Editizone we (my son & I) were privileged to be poured at Rubicon. What a wine.
    Zin is one of the few good things to come out of prohibition. The bad include the rise of organised crime , the confusing patchwork of crazy statutes purporting to “control” alcohol distribution & of course the accountants friend, white zin.

  43. I believe each tasters palate depends on what they grew up tasting. I grew up on Lino Martinelli’s Big Zinfandel and I love Zin blended with Petite Sirah. That type of wine fits my palate like keys to a lock and it’s because I associated those flavors with satisfaction from an early age. I find that people who grew up with French wine don’t always feel the same and I don’t see any problem with that. I think it’s interesting that often what we grew up with is what we hold most dear.

  44. Greetings all, and apologies for a late second entry to the conversation; I’ve been laid out with a pretty rotten cold. Anyhow, Steve, thank you for your reply, a great observation. I think in fact that music may be one of our best metaphorical prisms through which to look at this matter. Nowhere has there been a more peculiar tension between the projected seriousness of intention and the perceived frivolity of result.

    The classical tradition certainly has its share of this, and your point about Mozart is a perfect one; it begs the question of how, and to what extent, result and reception can fundamentally impose redefintion on intention and craft. To come back to zinfandel for a moment, I suppose the question would be, “if zinfandel is well-crafted and made with a seriousness of purpose, but is subsequently received as lighter and less serious, what is it? Serious or not?”

    Another curious phenomenon in music, which I believe also happens with wine, is the matter of the deificiation of the “common” vs. the popularization of the “rare”. Regarding the latter, think Nirvana. That this scrappy little trio of trashy punk rock miscreants from the poor-white-trash sub-suburbs of Washington State should become the absolute gold standard of contemporary “alternative rock” (read: mainstream) would have been almost unimaginable at the time they came out. Yet what went largely unrecognized through the transition was just how GOOD they actually were, and how SERIOUS they actually were. Look at those songs now, and one can readily see an extreme degree of craft at work. Much like Dylan before him (the Dylan of “Don’t Look Back” for example) Cobain was notorious for dancing away from summations of his work; tell either of them they were the voice of a generation, and they’d swear they were just crafting little ditties; disparage them, and they were the self-proclaimed greats. Mainly, though, the phenomenon is such that something that was once very special, very rare, and very deliberate, became commodified into conventional.

    Regarding the other side of this duality, I can think of no better contemporary example than the fact that Buddy Guy is playing Northern California this coming April … at Davies Symphony Hall!

    The parallels here are this; how did the wine of John Fante’s “The Brotherhood of the Grape” or the wine of Kerouac’s “Dharma Bums,” become the wine of pinkies in the air, art galleries, and Decanter Magazine? And conversely, how did Zinfandel become “the people’s wine”; so much so that that it should spark such a fierce debate over whether or not it’s “serious”?

    Regards,

    Christopher Watkins
    Tasting Room Manager: Ridge/Monte Bello
    Host “4488: A Ridge Blog”

    p.s. thank you Bill, for your very kind words!

  45. Jeff Jindra says:

    Zin is a tough grape to grow. This is probably the biggest reason it is hard to define what zinfandel is and find ones that you love. Zinfandel as anything in life can be taken serriously, although some styles are hard to appreciate. Personally it is my favorite grape, but rarely do I find zinfandels that I like. However recently I have found two producers that have really been doing a good job with the grape. They are Loxton Cellars, and Joseph Swan. YuM! Give them a try if your looking to re-discover Zinfandel that is balanced and not just a meal in a bottle.

    Cheers,
    Jeff Jindra

  46. hmmm… OK, I’ll bite, Zinfandel is my opinion is the most difficult grape to cultivate and the most challenging to make in a world class style. It has just as thin skins as Pinot Noir yet has more juice in the skins (which rots by merely talking to it) and the clusters are just as tight if not more so than the finicky Ms. Noir. Moreover, zin ripens so unevenly (much more than Pinot), one has to multi-harvest zin if they expect any sort of delicate layers of perfume and pedal and if they’re to avoid the terrible alc levels and pruny-raisin profiles. Why the heck do we cherish and love the grapes for 9 months only to run out there and pick the block based on averaging the sugars and paying the pickers by the pound and not the hour. Take your time. This is an asinine concept…

    While Zin certainly deserves more respect than it’s garnered over the decades, it’s because of the way it’s farmed and made that really had been disrespectful. So are we wondering why zin needs top even be questioned as “serious” or is our blog host purely being rhetorical in nature and he knows why many serious wine people laugh zin right off their table.

    Too many brix = too much alcohol = too much glycine (you know, the thing that makes the zins taste sweet and high scoring Cab’s and Pinot Noirs taste… sweet with just a few years in btl.)

    Too much NEW OAK- Zin is all about the fruit.

    Too little of acid- See the “too many brix” item above.

    The fact is, up till recently, zin is an over bearing cocktail wine that is extremely limited in appeal, it won’t age (with exception of a few) worth beans, it doesn’t pair well AT ALL with nightly dinners and people who’ve been drinking wine for years know this.

    Zin can be made with layers and complexity, it just needs more people treating it with R-E-S-P-E-C-T. You know the song, “You better think…”

  47. Mike Officer says:

    Randy (I assume Pitts),

    How many Zinfandel growers have you worked with that allows you to make such a ridiculous statement, that Zinfandel is farmed with no respect? That’s an insult to hundreds of farmers who do everything they can to grow the best Zinfandel possible. And made disrespectfully? Perhaps in your opinion but there are hundreds of producers who would beg to differ.

    I’ve been enjoying Zinfandel for 30 years. I find it pairs very well with nightly dinners. It is no more a cocktail wine than any other variety.

    And by the way Randy, it’s glycerol (or glycerine), not the amino acid glycine.

  48. Randy–

    As usual, you are more right than wrong but go too far and undercut your own argument. There are now, and have been for years and years, plenty of good table wine Zins. Yes, the pruny-raisiny stuff is out there as well, and very few folks will disagree on that point. But to suggest first that there are no Zins that would drink with pizza or red-sauced pastas or savory pork dishes is simply inaccurate. And if your standard of measure is, as you have said, “people who have been drinking wine for years know this”, then I probably qualify. To be sure, I drink less Zin now. The first is where we agree–there are fewer mannerly Zins and the second is the rise in quality of Pinot Noir–it may not go with pasta but many of them go perfectly well with pork tenderloins and pork rib roasts. Toss in some Syrahs that like savory dishes and Zin all of a sudden has more competition.

    I would not say that Zin deserves more respect, but I get yoru drift. Rather, Zin needs and is getting a slightly scaled back style. The taste preferences of the buyeers is changing–as it has every time we have gone through one of these “intensity and ripenesss is king” phases.

  49. YES…ZINFANDEL IS A SERIOUS WINE!

  50. I feel the only way to make good zin is when multiple harvests are involved. Otherwise you’ve got pink clusters in with raisins. So most people wait for the pink to ripen while the clusters already ripe turn to shrivel. Mike- Ridicules statement? Nah- I don’t think so. I do not buy much zin at all rather I farm the blocks myself because few if any would go to the length that I do to grow and make the type of zin I do. Like you, I make Zin after the style I like to personally drink. Lower alc, less oak higher natural acidity and lighter body. Right, glycerol.

    Not sure what your definition of nightly dinner is, but most zins do not in fact go well with fish, chicken breast, salads, fresh steamed veggies.

    For example, look at the “good eats” event at ZAP. Short Ribs, Venison Raguu, pork sliders as far as the eye can see and that’s about it.

    Stats and demographics don’t lie Mike. People who drink traditional varietals don’t really like zins because of the way MOST are made, so by default wineries make them for an extremely limited audience. This is what I plan on changing. Since most zin growers know about the extreme variance in ripening not just among clusters on a vine but also among berries in the cluster AND the choose not to address it and make massive style because of that, then yeah, I think it’s disrespectful to the variety. If consumers only knew the condition of the clusters arriving at the crushpad… Actual photos of 26-28 brix zin or Pinot or Cab, I feel almost certain they’d object.

    I love Zin as much as another zin producer and perhaps more. I am converting folks into zin drinkers simply because I respect the grapes by harvesting them with only moderate sugars, I use minimal new oak (3% new oak on all my wines- and that’s [plenty!), and ultimately respect the wine with a full 20 month barreling. Zin like all world class red wines need that second spring in the barrel. Most zins are 15.5-16.5%, aged 9-11 months in 30-60% new oak and have residual sugar such that when the tannins settle in 3-4 years, they taste… yep sweet. There are exceptions but are few and far between.

    So please continue to tell me and my small yet passionate wine army we’re wrong. People love lower alc, lighter bodied less oaked zinfandel. You just got to get it in their glass.

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