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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. 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.

  2. jason carey says:

    I think I know who Randy is , and if you drink his Zins, they are fantstic, not for everyone, but for me with a palate which likes fresher and less heavy wines..
    As to the “serious” question.. I don’t want to ever take something like wine seriously. The situation in Egypt yes. wine.no

  3. jason carey says:

    PS I think RRV Zins have the most bright and exciting fruit.. Along with Dry Creek Such as Nalle, Quivira, Seghestio, some Dashe wines.. and others.

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