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California’s new Golden Age of Zinfandel

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California is producing some of the greatest Zinfandels ever. Indeed, we’re in a Golden Age of Zinfandel. Although planted acreage of it has barely budged over the last ten years–from 47,000 acres in 2001 to 48,000 acres in 2010–acreage in such prime coastal counties as Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and San Luis Obispo has crept upward, fueling the drive toward quality.

For decades, as wine historians know, Zinfandel suffered from an identity crisis worse than any other variety in California, and matched only by that of German Riesling. If nobody knew what to expect from a Mosel or Rhinegau–sweet? dry? off-dry?–for Zinfandel the possibilities were positively bizarre. Not only the sweet-or-dry conundrum, but would it be impossibly tannic? High in alcohol, even approaching port? There was a brief moment when vintners used the carbonic maceration on Zinfandel bunches, same as in Beaujolais; I used to like it (freshy, fruity, zippy wines with a hint of gassy bubblegum) but in retrospect I can see that it was a circus freak. Zinfandel might have been white (and still might be), it might have been pink, it might have been fortified. Identity crisis, indeed.

A few houses, classically oriented, always turned out balanced Zinfandels, the kind sometimes referred to as “claret-style.” Pedroncelli, Louis M. Martini, Sutter Home, Joseph Swan, Foppiano, Montelena, Buena Vista, Clos du Val, Ridge, Grand Cru, Sebastiani–they kept the Zin flame burning, although in many instances, those wineries have gone through substantive changes today, so that one cannot say the same thing.

Pinot Noir often is referred to as the heartbreak grape, the hardest one to grow properly and vinify correctly. This is largely true, but Zinfandel will brook no challengers in the difficulty sweepstakes. It is far harder to get Zinfandel right than Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Syrah. Zinfandel is a notoriously uneven ripener: on the same bunch you might find shriveled grapes, green grapes and perfectly ripened berries. This is the chief difficulty, and is why so many Zinfandels are so unbalanced. A good Zinfandel has a purity of aroma. One sniff is all it takes to know that here is a lovely wine. The wine often is said to be “briary” and/or “brambly.” I myself use these terms (when applicable), to some extent interchangeably; and I use them to describe, at various points in the tasting experience, the aroma, or the flavor, or the mouthfeel. By these terms I mean to suggest the quality of a walk through the California countryside on a hot summer day. It could be on the sunny fringe of a dense Redwood forest on the Sonoma Coast, or in a benchland of the Sierra Foothills, under a brutal August sun. You are alert to the smells of the earth: the baked, dry dust under your feet, crumbling Douglas fir needles, pine cones, the mentholly sharpness of eucalyptus, a waft of ripe red and black wild berries. If you come across a berry patch, stick your nose as close as you can and sniff: that is the briary, brambly quality. You experience it in the chimney of your head, not quite aroma, not quite taste, but both, and tingly, like a whiff of white pepper. That is Zinfandel’s hallmark. Amerine and Singleton, in Wine (1967) described Zinfandel as being a variety “with a distinguishable varietal aroma”, although they did not describe what it was. Around the same time, in General Viticulture, professors Winkler, Cook, Kliewer and Lider repeated the meme, referring to Zinfandel’s “characteristic varietal flavor” but offering no further elaboration. But then, all of these writers were from U.C. Davis; academic prudence kept them from writing too subjectively.

The best Zinfandels I’ve had over the past year have been from Seghesio, Ravenswood, De Loach, Storybook Mountain, Ledson, Sbragia (well, Ed’s Zins are perhaps a bit too muscular to be called “claret-style,” but they’re very good), St Francis, Bella, Sausal and a nice Francis Ford Coppola 2009 “Director’s Cut,” at $24 a bargain. Geographically, they hail from the North Coast’s best valleys. What you look for in a well-grown Zinfandel are small clusters of evenly-ripened berries. The vineyard often will have a slope to it, and the ground will not suffer if the dirt is volcanic red; smell it, look for trace elements of minerals, candle wax, iodine, baking spices. So much the better if the vines are head-trained and dry-farmed. But look, too, for wild berries around the vineyard’s periphery, perhaps in a nearby stream bed. Zinfandel is a product of its ecosystem; it speaks terroir as purely as any variety, although the voice is baritone, not Pinot’s pure tenor.

  1. Could not agree more with Steve, some great zins for consumers to buy…Top three areas producing great Zin… Sierra Foothils, Sonoma and….

  2. Steve: I grew up in RRV along with Zin vines planted in the 20′s, along the creek by the berry patch. Your description drew me back to my childhood and the lazy days of August. Now that’s great writing! Thanks for the walk down memory lane.

  3. I think the benchmark for what you call “claret” styled Zins, has to be Nalle

  4. You do not know or understand the “new age” steve as evident by your past reviews and scores. Johnny come lately I guess is better than never come at all. From a guy who writes a huge piece on “up and coming zin producers from the RRV and omit obvious candidates exemplifies either your lack of understanding of Zin producers in the trenches fighting the gatekeepers or your so BIASED, it’s disallowing you true legitimacy. I do not envision a future zin world with roles played by ancient corporate gatekeepers. Sorry.

  5. Oh and the 2004 Zin you gave an “80″ points is being very well received now with 5 1/2 years in the bottle and selling at $58 per bottle. Over Barrel Tasting Weekend, it was my biggest selling wine from my vault. Again, lack of vision when it comes to traditional wines that need 3-5 years in bottle to reach maximum complexity. You know, the main def of “world-class wine”. Age-worthy.

  6. James McCann says:

    Randy,

    Please don’t be mad at Steve. He’s so full of hatred that I imagine it’s not easy for him to get through the day.

  7. Patrick says:

    I recently did a vertical of Noceto OGP Zin (02, 04, 05, 07, 08) and found lots of elegant and delightful things.

  8. Dang….we’ve been told for yrs, Steve, that Riesling shows terroir more than any other grape variety. NoNoNo…the Piedmontese-loving drinkers assure us w/ great conviction that Nebbiolo displays terroir more than any other variety. “Baloney” sez the RedBurg/Calif Pinot lovers…we all know that the fickle Pinot shows terroir more.
    Now…Steve…you throw out Zinfandel as displaying terroir the equal of any of these grapes?? Jeez…I’m terribly confused now. I don’t think I’ll ever figure out this terroir thing. What’s a guy to do???
    You also claim that Zinfandel suffers an identity crisis..that there is so much diversity in styles that the poor consumer is confused. Much like Reisling (here the question is more about r.s. level I think). But we’ve also been told by certain authorities that that’s exactly why Syrah suffers in the current marketplace..this diversity in styles. Back in the dark ages, some of those authorities claimed that this diversity was killing Zinfandel sales. “Oafish wines w/ shabby table manners”. And what did that bring us?? Those “food wine” Zins of the early-mid ’80′s.
    But enough of this stirring-the-pot mode. I agree…the quality of Zins these days has probably never been higher. And I heartily embrace this diversity of style…..from a claret style like Ridge or DougNalle…to a bigger/brasher style like Carlisle or Bedrock. And..yeah..I think most of them display terroir on some level…though I’m not sure I’d recognize their terroir if it hit me upside the head.
    And…au contraire..Monsieur..I thought CaryGott’s Montevina Zinfandel Neuevo, packaged in hlf gallon jugs, was an awful lot of fun to drink…as much..nay, more so…than any Beaujolais Noveau.
    Tom

  9. TomHill, you raise so many issues I don’t know where to begin! Briefly: All the varieties you mention are famous for displaying terroir but I think Zinfandel does it in a different way than Riesling. Zin isn’t transparent, but since it’s so difficult to get right, it needs exactly the right spot/s. Re: Syrah, I don’t think its problems are due to “identity crisis.” Well, maybe a little, given confusion over Shiraz/Petite Sirah. But the main problem in Cali is that Syrah has yet to stake out a rationable for people to buy it, instead of Cabernet, Merlot, Zinfandel. And like I said in the post, I liked Cary’s Zin Nuevo too–that’s exactly the wine I was thinking of. But it would be considered a freak today–not bad, maybe even refreshingly good, but definitely out of step with today’s prevailing styles.

  10. Bill Smart says:

    Steve – this is really great. You’ve described what we have been saying for years – that Zinfandel and California are truly synonymous. We think the Dry Creek Valley is the heart and soul of Zin in CA but we’re a tad biased there. :)

    Thanks for sheding more light on Zinfandel. A variety that continues to get overlooked (especially on the east coast) but when made correctly certainly rivals the greatest wines in the world.

  11. Something we can agree on. My favorite zins inc. Nalle, Ottimano, 8-10 year old Turley (never young), and Williams Selyem. (Yeah, WS is known for pinot but they make great zins IMHO.)

    I think you’ve given yourself a great article idea. Write an article discussing zinfandel’s identity crisis and discuss in-depth the differing styles seen over time. Maybe identify where today’s top producers shake out stylistically. It would be a great roadmap for those interested in learning about zinfandel or interested in a particular style (like me). I would buy a copy of WE for that article.

  12. I’m not as familiar with quite so many different wineries as all of you, but allow me to put in a plug here for Peachy Canyon in the west side of Paso Robles. I think they make some wonderful zinfandels. No affiliation, I just like them.

  13. I was ready to give up on Zinfandel until I tasted one amazing bottling after another from Robert Biale Vineyards at a Napa Harvest Dinner a couple years back. Bob Biale is making elegant zins, and converts like me. I hope you’ll take note of Biale next time you check in on northern California zin, Steve – not only for their wines, but also for Biale’s efforts to spread the word about California’s heritage grape.

  14. Steve,

    One other area I think you may have overlooked in your review was Lodi. You know the place known as the zin capital of CA if not the world and certainly home to some of the oldest Zin vineyards in CA.

  15. Jeff, I haven’t reviewed the wines of Lodi for quite a while. Virginie Boone does that for Wine Enthusiast, as well as other inland areas. I must say that when I was reviewing Lodi, I wasn’t struck by an overall high quality standard.

  16. I cheerfully beg to differ. As a group, zinfandels today are not better than they were 40 years ago or 30 years ago or 20 years ago or 10 years ago. We are not in a golden age of zinfandel.

    The majority of zinfandels on the market today are not as you described. The characteristics of the majority of zinfandels on the market today are
    cooked, jammy, raisiny, porty flavors
    extremely rich
    alcohol level above 30 proof
    hot vapor sensations due to high alcohol
    burning sensations from high alcohol and typically high VA.

    Excellent zinfandels are available today, just as many great zinfandels were produced during the golden ages of the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s.

    However, the majority of zinfandels on the market today do not resemble classically oriented claret-style zinfandels. The majority of zinfandels on the market today are not balanced, and do not display briary, pepper, or fresh berry flavors. The majority of zinfandels on the market today resemble port or liqueur, and are enjoyable when pounded from a shot glass.

  17. Steve,

    First time, long time.

    After reading your post and the comments that followed, I felt compelled to jump into the fray.

    Since the Great Recession, I, like many others, have seen my paycheck has shrink in size. I no longer have the option purchasing high quality Napa Cabs, CA cult pinots, Northern Rhone Reds and exploring “the next big thing” in the wine world. I have now become one of the wine drinking masses, buying the $6-12 bottles, at the supermarket. And you know what? Thank God for CA Zinfandel!

    At the $6-12 price point, no other grape variety or region brings has much pleasure, versatility and sheer happiness to my palate as does CA Zinfandel. What further amazes me about the lower priced Zins, is that the quality can and does come from all over the state. Sonoma County, for sure. Lodi, you betcha. Mendo, Paso, Clarksburg, yep, yep, yep.

    Another thing, over the last couple of years, one of wine’s main competitors, beer, has seen a significant increase in price. Low priced Zinfandel no longer competes just with Cotes de Rhones, Spanish reds, Argentine Malbec, Aussie Shiraz and so on. Its now in the ring with a 6-pack of Bud Light. Its fight that I think favors Zin.

    PS Mom came over last night and we started our spring gardening regimem. She brought over a bottle of 2008 Kenwood Sonoma County Zin and we drank it with herb chicken and potatoes. We were happy.

  18. Dear C. Bliss, yours is the kind of comment that keeps me going. Thank you so much, and bless your Mom.

  19. Dear Earl, your comment makes me wonder if you taste enough Zinfandels. Yes, there are plenty of awful ones, but the wineries I named, plus others, lend the lie to your objection.

  20. Patrick says:

    Steve thanks for not covering the Central Coast Zins. It really helps to keep our price points at a reasonable level. We are proud of our Zins here in San Luis Obispo county. I think if you want to find balance in a Zin you don’t have to look any further than here.

  21. I think a brief nod to Amador County’s splendid Zinfandels are certainly in order when discussing the Golden Age of Zin, especially since Zinfandel has been grown here probably longer than anywhere else in California with vines going back to 1869.

  22. Steve,

    I realy enjoyed your article on zinfandel, it is my favorite varietal to grow and make wine from. Our family planted the first zinfandel in Sonoma County in the mid 1800′s. It is nice to hear that you enjoy our zins and really appreciate the nice comments about us. If you are ever around and want to have lunch give me a call.

    Steve

  23. I love this “discussion” on probably the worst varietal California produces. I pour wine in a small winery…..the audience for Zin always asks why our Zin is red……please give me more white Zin!

  24. Steve, thanks for your reply to my reply. Your reply is inadequately dismissive.

    You mentioned
    1) 11 houses that made good, balanced zinfandels in the past
    2) 10 producers that make good, balanced zinfandels now.

    My main point is
    1) good zinfandel was made in the past
    2) good zinfandel is made now.

    In other words, just as you implied, the percentage of good zinfandel made now is the same as it was in the past. No lie.

    One difference between now and the past is that the majority of zinfandels on the market today are too rich, jammy, alcoholic, vaporous, hot, porty. Examples I treid recently include

    Michael David Earthquake at 34 proof
    Michael David Lust at 32 proof
    JC Cellars Sweetwater Springs 2007 at 33 proof
    JC Cellars Iron Hill at 30 proof
    Miraflores El Dorado 2008 at 30 proof
    Michael Pozzan Napa Valley 2007
    Pech Merle l’entree Dry Creek Valley 2008
    Sextant Wheelhouse Paso Robles 2008 at 30 proof
    Orin Swift Saldo 2009 at 31 proof
    Tobin James James Gang at 31 proof
    Rosenblum Rockpile Road 2009 at 32 proof.

    Steve, the wineries I named, plus others, lend the lie to your objection to my objection.

    I agree I do not drink enough zinfandels. I drink wine at formal tastings, events, winery visits, and at home. Excluding mass tastings, I probably try a hundred zinfandels a year.

  25. Steve, doesn’t look like you have tasted A. Rafanelli Zin recently. You might revisit it. Really love their balanced Zins.

  26. John Roberts says:

    Great post Steve. Zin is one of my least favorite wine varietals and the unpredictable manipulation so widespread in my view, has to do with why. I suppose I also just love Syrah way more. I’ve had great zin from Hendry, Unti, and producers from Howell Mtn and Dry Creek but for me, overdone Zin is just more offensive than cab, etc.

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