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A reader asks for Zin coverage, and I deliver

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On the “Comments” section of my Reader Survey (you can click here to access it, and I hope you will if you haven’t already), a respondent wrote:

“Steve, I enjoy reading your blog, but would like to see more coverage of less known wineries. Today it was about Williams Seylem. It seems everyone writes about them. I’d like to see coverage of folks and wineries that others don’t write about. Also, your coverage of Zinfandel is poor at best. This is such an important wine in our state and in the country as a whole. And I don’t mean another story about Ridge. There are a lot of interesting things being done by small producers…”

I’m impervious to mindless criticism, but when the jabs are justified, I hear them. And this reader is justified. So here’s a post about Zinfandel.

He’s right that Zinfandel is an important wine in California. There were 48,354 acres of it planted in 2011, making it the second most-widely grown red variety, after Cabernet Sauvignon, at 79,290 acres. The two counties growing the most Zin were San Joaquin (19,340, or nearly 40% of the statewide total), and Sonoma (5,349 acres, or 11% of all Zin in California). I suspect that most of that Central Valley Zin disappears into inexpensive jug and boxed red wines, while most of the Sonoma fruit goes into premium varietal bottlings.

There were 345,168 tons of Zinfandel crushed in 2011, making it the second most-heavily crushed red wine, again after Cabernet Sauvignon. But it’s interesting that Cabernet, at 384,301 tons, beat Zin by only a little, compared to its vast dominance in acreage. I conclude from this that all that Zinfandel in the Central Valley is heavily cropped. Growers are growing it to sell cheaply, so they allow those vines to bear as much fruit as they can.

The first Zinfandel I still have a record of drinking was a 1976 Wine and the People, with a “Sonoma” [neither county nor valley] appellation. This was before the U.S. had an official AVA system. The alcohol was 13.5%, and the retail price, in 1979, was $10. Not exactly cheap for that period. In my note I called it “strong and spicy.” I liked it a great deal and drank it with steak. A month later I had a Ridge 1976 Lytton Springs Zinfandel that set me back $8. It was from the vineyard on the east side of Dry Creek Valley, almost in Alexander Valley.

When I was learning about wine, the conventional wisdom was that Sonoma County produced the best Zinfandels. (Well, a lot of people argued for the Sierra Foothills, and Amador County specifically, but once I became exposed to them, I often found them a little too hot and sweet for my tastes.) I like a Napa Valley style of Zinfandel, which I find drily elegant, as exemplified by wineries such as Storybook Mountain, Rubicon’s Edizione Pennino, Schulz Lampyridae from Howell Mountain, and V. Sattui’s Black-Sears, also from Howell Mountain. But Sonoma County, and in particular Dry Creek Valley, really star. Some great larger producers are De Loach, Hartford, Seghesio and Ravenswood.

Here are some smaller Zin producers who have impressed me in recent years: Zichichi (Dry Creek Valley), Tres Vinicultores (Sonoma County AVA), Bella (also Sonoma County), Phipps (Dry Creek Valley), Bluenose (Dry Creek), Sanctuary (Mendocino Ridge), Black Sears (Howell Mountain, what great fruit), Titus (Napa Valley), Magistrate (Dry Creek Valley) and Dutcher Crossing (Dry Creek). I guess you’d have to say that, in terms of the sheer volume of top producers, Dry Creek Valley is producing the best Zinfandels in California.

I like Zinfandel, I respect its long history in California, I bear no ill feelings toward it, but I don’t drink a lot of Zin. I can enjoy a good bottle and give it a good score, but Zinfandel is not a wine I’d normally buy for myself. I suppose I have a tendency to think of it as a barbecue wine because even at its best, it’s lusty and briary, in the rustic way of a country wine. Zin can make a good Port-style sweet wine, but if I want Port, I’ll buy a nice ruby or LBV from Portugal.

Zinfandel goes up and comes down in popular esteem. Even when I arrived on the scene, it had that roller-coaster reputation: in one day, out the next. It didn’t help that it was made in so many different ways: red, white, rosé, carbonically macerated Zin that tasted like Beaujolais, sweet, dry, high alcohol, moderate alcohol, raisiny or not, even (OMG) sparkling. I think Zinfandel will always remain something of a niche wine, but that houses known for it (Seghesio, Ravenswood) will enjoy steady demand. Finally, it makes me very happy that all that Central Valley Zin is finding its way into people’s bellies at a fair price. The wine industry is a pyramid, its broad base consisting of millions of consumers who need sound, everyday wine, and that’s exactly what Central Valley Zinfandel gives them.

  1. Zinfandel has been California’s workhorse red since the gold rush era, and I think it remains one of California’s great treasures. Twenty years ago, when I was working in a retail wine shop in St. Paul, I remember Japanese tourists combing the wine racks for good Zins to take back to Japan.

    Zinfandel is an essential part of the story of the Italian immigrants that settled in Sonoma and Napa, even though Zin’s connections to Italy are nebulous and seldom connected to the parts of Italy those immigrants came from. It just made a nice paisan red, and that’s what they liked about it. Over the years, growing it and blending it became an art, especially in Sonoma. To me,that is probably California’s most original contribution to the world of wine.

    The vineyards that are left in Napa are undeniably special, but it seems to me that the true art of growing the challenging grape, and blending it, are best represented in Dry Creek Valley and the borders with Alexander Valley and Russian River Valley. Dry Creek Valley is home to tons of longtime family-owned Zinfandel producers. I’d add a few more brands to the mix: Rafanelli, Nalle, Mauritson, Wilson, Mazzocco, Carlisle, Dry Creek Vineyard, Quivira, Paradise Ridge, and I would agree that Bella has been on a roll.

    I personally adore a well executed ‘claret style’ elegant Zin blend, and I’ll always have a soft spot for Nalle, who arguably do it better and more consistently than anyone, even though they’ve fallen from critics’ darlings to far too often ignored.

    I think the heir to their style is Kenny Likitprakong with his Hobo brand. His wines really do it for me. They’re not blowsy or overly alcoholic, and I love seeing them on restaurant lists, because they’re modern, food-loving Zinfandels.

  2. doug wilder says:

    Nice to see a mention of the Bella from Scott Adams which are excellent examples of ‘claret style’ Zinfandel that I have admired since inception. I recently tasted a couple dozen zinfandel and they were among the highlights, along with Acorn from Alegria Vineyard and Beekeeper, from Rockpile.

  3. Craig Rous says:

    Shame on you Steve!
    I sure wish you writers would not make sweeping statements about regions without at least looking into the facts. To say “I conclude from this that all that Zinfandel in the Central Valley is heavily cropped” is irresponsible at best. Please take a good look at the Lodi appellation before making such generalizations. There are many very good head trained, low yielding vineyards and wines produced by local winemakers. Try Heritage Oak, St. Amant, McCay, Ironstone or Bogle, all make very good Lodi appellation Zinfandels that are not “heavily cropped”.

  4. John Pratt says:

    Southern Oregon is becoming another great source for delicious Zinfandel, akin more to Sonoma and Dry Creek styles than Central Valley. Try TeSoAria Winery or Troon Vineyard Zin for a sample of what we can do on nice hillsides here.

  5. For a different view of Zin, try Buehler (Napa Valley)- a polished, elegant style and always balanced.

  6. True that Dry Creek has some great zins, but Lodi too has some amazing old vines which are producing some wines by cult wineries like Turley. This area often gets the bad rap but dont let this place fool you.. Its being used in lots of blends by Napa wineries. Watch as this area will emerge

  7. Great article and I agree that pound for pound Dry Creek is producing the most compelling Zin. That said, I have to say may favorites all hail from Howell Mountain. Two HM producers I would add to the list are Outpost Winery and my favorite Robert Craig (sourced from the Black Sears vineyard). Craig’s new release is stunning.

    You’re reader had some good suggestions. One more would be to cover some lesser known varietals. For example, I have recently discovered a new (to me) varietal called a Mondeuse. Never heard of it until I tasted one at the Mt. Veeder tasting. Just had my first bottle last night (Lagier Merideth – Mt. Veeder) and it was simply fantastic. My new go-to varietal for torture inducing pitching duels and pairs rather nicely with a Sergio Romo slider..

  8. Not a mention of Mendocino County….shame since many tons depart Mendocino bound for wineries to the south to either make a zinfandel blend or be the zinfandel produced by a vintner who does not give credence to the county of origin. Take note-Mendocino produces some of the best fruit in the industry.

  9. Interesting blog and writings Steve. Expansive article which resonate with most in the industry and consumers.

  10. For some reason it never occurred to me to make a comment in your Reader Survey like the one that inspired this column, but kudos to your reader who did. Also, kudos to Tim for highlighting so many great Zinfandel producers. I believe Zinfandel remains underappreciated. Steve, I even find that your column doesn’t give the grape quite the credit it deserves.

    Because Zinfandel really is California’s most unique contribution to the world of wine, it should especially be championed by California-focused wine writers. It’s disappointing that so many treat it like a niche-wine. It’s versitile. It is often a great accompaniment to a variety of foods. It can be full of power or elegant and even at lower price points seems to deliver greater complexity than many other popular varieties. For my money, Zinfandel can deliver all of the quality of most $40-80 Napa Cabernets at half the price or less.

    I agree with Tim that Sonoma County — specifically Dry Creek Valley, Russian River Valley, and Sonoma Valley — produces Zinfandel at its finest.

    In addition to the producers listed by Tim, I’d add Bedrock, which I think deserves a lot of credit for bringing considerable recent attention to the relatively few remaining old Zinfandel and mixed Blacks vineyards in Sonoma County. Steve, referencing your post from yesterday, the stories of these wines are stories that sell. In comparison to all the dot com millionaire Cabs in Napa, how exciting is it to drink a great wine and think about it being produced from a 100 year-old vineyard planted by pioneering Italian immigrants?

  11. I knew this gal… her grandpa, who she called Boompa, came to the US as a very young man from the Adriatic island of Brač, Croatia. He settled in Sacramento and for most of his life, each Fall he would go up into the foothills and buy Zinfandel grapes and make red wine. He kept a barrel in the cellar and loved the wine. “Amador County Zinfandel”, he would say, “24% sugar!” (If you know anything about Zin, if you pick it at 24 Brix you have a 15% alcohol wine.)

    He swore to me that the wine tasted just like the wine he remembered from his childhood. And that the grapes looked the same. I wish he were alive today so I could tell him he was right all along. It was, in fact, the same grape.

  12. Steve – I am glad to see you explore the topic of Zinfandel and I appreciate you creating a dialouge around this important varietal in California. I think there are many myths/mis-perceptions of Zinfandel. As Tim so eloquently stated, what makes Zinfandel great is the differing stylistic interprations of the grape. Sure, this leads to many different kinds of wines and maybe that’s why it doesn’t the serious respect it deserves. But also, who wants to have one varietal taste the same no matter where it is grown and who is making it? How boring is that? I for one am glad Zinfandel is what is – a wine that can be serious, charming, elegant, affable, fun, affordable and just plain good!

  13. Dear Bill Smart: I hear and respect you. But I do think, from the consumer’s point of view, they deserve to have an expectation of what Zinfandel means. If it’s all things to all people, then in a sense, it’s nothing.

  14. Dear Mike, I knew I’d hear from Zinfandel fans. As I wrote, I have enormous respect for Zinfandel (how could I not?), and I recognize its vital place in California’s history. I’m just saying that, as a normal consumer, which I’m not, I’d probably not be buying a whole lot of Zinfandel.

  15. Dear Margaret Pedroni, I haven’t reviewed Mendocino County wines for a couple years. My wonderful colleague, Virginie Boone, performs that service. Perhaps I’m missing out on something! But I’m just speaking from personal experience, as always.

  16. Dear Bob, thanks. I’ll look for a California Mondeuse.

  17. It is weird that so many reviewers don’t talk much about Zinfandel, I agree. You’d think that as California-centric as America is, that there would be considerably more discussion about Zins. But alas, it’s not the case for whatever reason. Perhaps it is because Zinfandel can be so varied and perhaps even polarizing for those less experienced wine drinkers? I don’t know.

  18. Calaveras County is doing some great things with Zin, especially Newsom Harlow.

    Another great blog, keep it up!

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  1. A reader asks for Zin coverage, and I deliver | STEVE HEIMOFF … | Which Wine Is Sweet - [...] Port-style sweet wine, but if I want Port, I'll buy a nice ruby or … … Read …
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