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What I think about Zinfandel. (Hint: Ask me tomorrow)



I’ll be tasting a bunch of Zinfandels today as you read this. It’ll be the first time we’ve tackled Zin in my regular tastings at Jackson Family Wines; until now, we’ve done Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs, Cabernet Sauvignons and red Rhône blends.

I guess I’m like most people in that I consider some varieties more “important” than others. I know that’s irrational, but there it is. I know that Zinfandel is one of those varieties that can be stunning, but for some reason it doesn’t leap to the front of my mind when I think of California’s best wines, the way Pinot and Cab do. Perhaps it’s because there’s no great European analog to Zinfandel.

Maybe I’m wrong, and in a way, I hope I am. Historically, you don’t get any greater than Zin. But maybe it was Zin’s very association with Nonno and homemade wine that tarred its reputation. When people began to get serious about it during the boutique winery era, it looked for a moment like Zin might become very important. But it didn’t happen: Cabernet so overwhelmed the red wine category that people started ripping out their old Zin vines, a catastrophe that was temporized only by the unforeseen popularity of White Zinfandel.

Many of the Zins we’ll be tasting today are from those remaining old vines, particularly from Sonoma County and most particularly from the eastern parts of the Russian River Valley, around the Laguna de Santa Rosa. Here’s the lineup:

  • Edmeades 2013 Perli Vineyard Zinfandel (Mendocino Ridge)
  • Novy 2013 Limerick Lane Zinfandel (Russian River Valley
  • Novy 2013 Papera Vineyard Zinfandel (Russian River Valley
  • Hartford 2012 Old Vine Fanucchi-Wood Road Zinfandel (Russian    River Valley
  • Hartford 2013 Old Vine Highwire Vineyard Zinfandel (Russian River Valley
  • Edmeades 2012 Gianoli Vineyard Zinfandel (Mendocino Ridge)
  • Carlisle 2013 Carlisle Vineyard Zinfandel (Russian River Valley
  • Limerick Lane 2013 Zinfandel (Russian River Valley)
  • Turley 2013 Zampatti Vineyard (Sonoma County)
  • Robert Biale 2013 Grande Vineyard Zinfandel (Napa Valley)
  • Sineann 2013 Old Vine Zinfandel (Columbia Valley)
  • Williams Selyem 2013 Papera Vineyard (Russian River Valley)
  • Martinelli 2014 Jackass Vineyard Zinfandel (Russian River Valley)

Pretty cool, no? Edmeades, Hartford and Novy are, of course, Jackson Family wines. It’s important for a winery to taste its wines against the best of the competition, and the other Zins are wines that traditionally get high scores from the critics, including me. The Sineann is from Washington State: I wanted to include it because it’s been getting some good scores, and also I like to include in these blind tastings “ringers.” I’ll tell the other tasters that one of the wines is an outlier and we’ll all try to guess which it is.

You have to be very committed to Zinfandel in order to do it at the level of these wineries. Zin remains a tough sell. If it’s expensive—and these are—people wonder why they should buy Zinfandel instead of, say, Cabernet, Merlot, Petite Sirah, a Chilean Carmenere or Argentine Malbec, or some other full-bodied red wine. The “Zin and barbecue” formulation is true enough, but it’s become a journalistic cliché, encouraged by editors selling advertisements. And producers don’t want the public to think you can only drink Zinfandel when ribs are grilling on the barbie. Zinfandel acreage in California is actually up in the 2000s, although not by much: in Sonoma and Napa, it’s virtually unchanged, which shows that growers don’t place much faith in its future.

But as I say, the wineries we’ll be tasting today believe in Zinfandel, and each of them has their loyal fans. I’ll report on our tasting tomorrow, and on whether or not we were able to nail the Sineann as the outlier.

  1. Marion and I were talking last week about why we don’t drink more Zin these days, and the main practical reason is that our favorite Zinfandels tend to be from Paso, and we don’t get that far up the coast too often. (We tend to “do Paso” when coming down from the Bay Area, not when coming up from LA.)

    But, for myself, I also think that a youthful fascination with Zinfandel (“Wow, that’s not like Cab or Pinot!”) has been supplanted by the Rhones. Zin first caught my attention as “the peppery one,” and Rhone reds handle that (and more) so much better.

    Still, when we hit a Zinfandel tasting, we love it.

    Since I represent Buena Vista wines, I probably should better honor the Haraszthy tradition – one of his great, enduring contributions was flooding Sonoma with Zin vines. I think we might turn our focus back to Zin in the near future.

  2. Matthew Austin says:

    The Sineann is actually from Oregon. The Columbia Valley extends into Oregon in some areas, including the Columbia Gorge, where there this vineyard lies on the Southern (Oregon) side of the Columbia River.

  3. Hi Steve,

    The Sineann 2013 Old Vine Zinfandel (Columbia Valley) is actually from the Oregon side of the Columbia Valley AVA. It’s sourced from The Pines Vineyard just outside of The Dalles. The vines were planted in 1852 by an Italian stone mason and brought back to life by Lonnie Wright in 1982.

    I hope this clears up any confusion.



  4. I agree with your comments regarding Zinfandel as a tough sell, especially in the higher price point categories. Nor can I disagree with the historical association of Zin and Nonno and basement wine possibly affecting sales today.

    Zin is being made riper and riper it seems since the mid to late 90’s. I love Zinfandel, always have. However, my personal cellar has had fewer newer vintages since roughly 1997. I don’t think there has been a dramatic shift in oak treatment (meaning more new oak), simply a longer hang time for riper fruit, higher alcohol, and RS. I long for more pepper and spice, 20% new Hungarian oak and 14% alcohol and consumed within the 3-5 year time frame from release. Zinfandel can pair with a wide variety of foods when made properly, with restraint and an appropriate oak profile. Zinfandel and Sangiovese in DCV can’t have a lot or any new oak, it overpowers the subtlety.

    Now for my Public Service Announcement.

    No Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel?! Shame on you Steve! Even though statistically we grow more Cabernet than Zin, to not have a Rafanelli, Preston, Sbragia, Seghesio, Artisan Estate or Ridge Zinfandel in your line-up seems a little odd. DCV is synonymous with Zinfandel!

    If it were nothing but RRV Zinfandel for comparison (which I think is a great idea, some great Zins in RRV), I’d understand, but you’ve got some Napa, Mendo and WA State.

    Just looking out for my Dry Creek Valley brothers and sisters who make great Zinfandel!

  5. Thanks Michelle.

  6. Thanks Matthew.

  7. David Scheidt, fair enough. But like I said, I have to draw the line somewhere.

  8. when I visit California, the only wine I drink is Zinfandel

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