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Zinfandel poised for growth



Some wine varieties in California are permanently popular with the population. Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, for example. In now, in last year, and they’ll be in next year.

Then there are varieties that seem to come and go in cycles, and of them none more so than Zinfandel. It’s had more ins and outs than—well, I won’t go there. But Zin does go through cycles. It was hugely popular in the 1970s and 1980s, when consumers (mainly Baby Boomers) who were seeking “authenticity” in California wine found it in the Zins of producers such as Lytton Springs, Ravenswood, Nalle, Ridge and Rabbit Ridge. Then in the 1990s, Zin trailed off a little; why, I’m not sure (who can ever account for shifting fashion?), except that the 1990s were when we saw the rapid, dramatic rise in importance of “cult” Cabernets. Perhaps they captured the public’s fancy so much that people didn’t have room in their heads (or cellars) for Zin. The 1990s also saw the rise of Pinot Noir, which further crowded the field. Red Rhône-style varieties were also quite popular at that time, with the emergence of the Rhône Rangers. So the Nineties was (were?) not a good decade for Zinfandel.

In this new Millennium, Zin has had a couple periods of popularity, usually when one of the important wine magazines declares that “Zin is back.” But here’s my point: I think that Zinfandel is poised for its biggest, most popular time ever, and here’s why.

  1. A younger generation is curious about red wines other than Cabernet and Pinot Noir. Of course, they’re looking all over the world, but Zinfandel is right in their back yard, an American classic.
  2. Sommeliers always have a soft spot for varieties that make good wine, but aren’t necessarily appreciated by people. Zinfandel is such a wine. It has just the right balance of geeky and accessible.
  3. Zin is a marvelous matchup for grilled meats, but also for the wide range of spicy ethnic fare that’s so popular today. Mexican, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Indian, Ethiopian, Cuban—if it’s beef or chicken, grilled and spicy, Zin will love it.
  4. Zinfandel prices have remained fair. The variety hasn’t exploded in cost, like Pinot Noir and Cabernet.
  5. Zinfandel is deliciously fruity, which people like, and it’s full-bodied. But the tannins are smooth and supple, not hard, like Cabernet’s.
  6. There’s a Zin for every palate. There are high-alcohol Zins that are blood-warming and heady, if that’s what you want. There are Zins below 14% for the lower-alcohol crowd. And everything inbetween.
  7. Winemakers have gotten very good at making more balanced Zins than in the past. A big part of that is more sophisticated sorting of berries. Zinfandel is cleaner than ever.
  8. Zin just sort of has something special going for it. Everybody’s heard about it and knows the name; it’s got good vibes. People don’t have negative associations with it; they’re willing to try it, especially on a personal recommendation.

A couple weeks ago I was invited to moderate a Zinfandel tasting at’s San Francisco headquarters, together with their Chief Storyteller, Wilfred Wong. I remember thinking that if, the country’s biggest online wine retailer, believes in Zinfandel, it must have a good future. Growers, who always have a finger to the wind, apparently think so too: Zinfandel acreage rose 4.3% between 2012 and 2013, the biggest increase of any major variety, red or white, in California.

Have a great weekend!

  1. Couldn’t have said it better myself, Steve! Thank you for championing this scrumptious & spirited ‘grape of glee in a glass’. I’ve believed in, lived beside and made Zinfandel for quite some time… for me it’s always been a wine for all seasons and all seasonings!

  2. Steve: Your short and sweet article gives the novice and cultured wine lover a proper panorama of Zinfandel red wines.
    Zinfandel was my first love of a wine, and every new one that comes along in NH I just can’t resist, but old favorites like Ridge remain a staple.
    Happy Holidays to you,

  3. We always joke at my winery that “people like wines they can pronounce”. That’s why nobody drinks Mouvedre or Carignon. So Zinfandel has that going for it, which is nice…

  4. Gabe:

    From that perspective, the Greek wines should be non-starters in the States. Who knows what these are?:

    And from that perspective, the Hungarian wines should be non-starters. Who know what these are?: Or what “puttonyos” means?

    Bill Haydon:

    What’s your experience on the successful adoption of wines owing to the consumer’s comfort level in spelling and pronouncing the name of the producer and the grape variety?

    Seems to me that Gewurztraminer has failed to be adopted, in part, because consumers don’t know what the grape is or how to pronounce it.


  5. An addendum to a comment awaiting “moderation.”

    And from that perspective, the Portuguese dry wines should be non-starters. Who knows what these are?:

    A recent report suggests that the world’s diversity of wine grape varieties is lessening due to an “international palate” embracing “the usual suspect” so-called noble grapes: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon.

    (Thomas Pellechia, a commenter on this blog, has championed the addition of indigenous Italian grape varieties to that Western European-centric list.)

    “Global Vineyard Shrinks and Diversity Lessens”



    “The global vineyard is shrinking and so is the choice of wines as available grape varieties become more homogenous, according to a new study [in the ‘Journal of Wine Economics’].

    . . .

    “The increasing focus on just a few grape varieties was marked. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot increased in popularity during the decade to be the two most-planted grape varieties, while Tempranillo plantings more than doubled. Chardonnay continued to boom, as did Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. The big loser was the Spanish workhorse Airén, plantings of which fell by a third over the decade.

    “The research also found that, while popular varieties had become even more popular, there was increasing similarity in the world’s vineyards, with the major wine-producing nations becoming more homogeneous.

    . . .

    ” ‘Some people are concerned that the diversity of wine grapes is narrowing to a few ‘international’ varieties,’ the report said.”

  6. An addendum to a comment awaiting “moderation.”

    Not to offend Rhone wine enthusiasts, perhaps Syrah should be added to that list of so-called “noble grapes.”


    The infographics doyens at Wine Folly suggest there are 18 noble grapes:


  7. But wait…Lettie Teague said Zinfandel is not an easy pairing with food.


  8. Great! spot on Steve, I believe this is one of the reasons, the Sierra Foothills has so much energy an momentum with the y,z,mil crowd. They enjoy Rhones and Tempranillo a great deal as well.

    Happy Holidays!

    When your ready to come up, would be happy to host

  9. Like many of us who are (were) just occasional wine-drinkers, I went through a “Cab Sauv phase”, then I went through a “Merlot phase”. During this time I realized white wines were not my deal and that was a good thing because I was learning what really satisfied my soul (and palate). But somewhere during that time (I wish I could recall the moment because in hindsight it would have been an epiphany), I tried Zinfandel. I imagine I tried that ghastly white stuff too, but it didn’t stick. What stuck was the real deal, the true, original, red Zinfandel (as it should be). Somewhere around maybe 2001 or so, I started drinking more Zin. Around 2005 Zin had become my “go-to” wine. Since then, Old Vine Zinfandel has become my “Holy Grail” if you will. During this time I discovered Pinot Noir as well, and it’s become probably my #2 wine overall. But my Zin fascination started with Napa zins (especially Howell Mtn) and Dry Creek Zins in Sonoma, but over the last few years, this has migrated to cooler climate Zins like the Russian River AVA Zins, especially the Old Vine stuff if you can find it. For me, there is no better varietal that combines fruit, tannins, spice, body, nose/aroma, drinkability and either pairing with food or the ability (and desire) to drink it straight. Like I said, Holy Grail.

  10. Alejandro,

    Substitute the grape variety Zinfandel for Cabernet Sauvignon in this headline/article, and the situation remains the same: astute collectors/enthusiasts chase down older vintages from revered producers at wine auctions.

    ~~ Bob

    From the Los Angeles Times “Food” Section
    (April 23, 2008):

    “Older California Cabernets Are Within Reach at Auction”


    By Corie Brown
    Times Staff Writer


  1. The Week in Zinfandel (12/22/14) | Zinfandel Chronicles - […] Steve Heimoff writes Zinfandel Poised for Growth. […]

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