A reader asks for Zin coverage, and I deliver
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.