Although it has always been widely planted, it was seldom, if ever, bottled as “Zinfandel” until comparatively recent times. Many vineyards were installed by Italian immigrants to California in the late 19th century and well into the 20th century; but they interplanted other varieties, such as Alicante Bouschet, Carignan and Petite Sirah, with the Zinfandel, so that if one variety failed to ripen due to bad weather, the others would, thus yielding a steady harvest.
The Italian-Americans often co-fermented the grapes, resulting in the “field blends” they drank during the long winter months. One still comes across these century-old vineyards here and there, in Sonoma County, Napa Valley, Mendocino County and down the Central Coast through San Luis Obispo County and into Paso Robles. In more recent times, these gnarled old vines, which are rarely trellised, were despised. Many thousands of acres were torn out and replaced with Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and even Chardonnay. It was a great pity, because these old vineyards could produce wonderful wine, complex and earthy.
It did not help Americans’ understanding of Zinfandel that in the 1970s Sutter Home, a Napa Valley winery with extensive Zinfandel plantings, created White Zinfandel. Although it was a mediocre wine, sweet and insipid, it proved remarkably popular in the marketplace, so much so that to this day, there are Americans who are shocked to discover that Zinfandel actually is a black grape that makes red, not just white (or, actually, pink) wine.
Another confusion regarding red Zinfandel concerned alcohol levels. In the 1970s and 1980s the wines went through a phase where bigger was considered better. California was awash with high alcohol, very tannic Zinfandels that were supposed to age. Of course, they did not. Then too, many of these Zinfandels were overtly sweet in residual sugar, especially those from hotter climates, such as Paso Robles and the counties of the Sierra Foothills. The bottom line was that the typical wine drinker had no idea what to expect from Zinfandel: was it dry or sweet, white or red, ageable or drinkable upon release? There even was a short-lived attempt to produce Zinfandel through carbonic maceration, the way Beaujolais is made.
I have always preferred Zinfandels that are balanced and dry. Someone once referred to such Zinfandels as “claret-like,” a useful phrase. The best come from Sonoma County and its various sub-appellations, such as Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Rockpile and Alexander Valley. They may be high in alcohol, but they wear the heat well; some heat actually is part of Zinfandel’s varietal personality. If I had to choose one Sonoma appellation above the others, it would be Dry Creek Valley, where the Zins always have a briary, brambly character, reminiscent of ripe wild berries and warm currants, growing on madrone-thick hillsides, with fennel, pepper and sage scenting them under the hot Calfornia summer sun.
Napa Valley, too, crafts excellent “claret-like” Zins. Among the best performers there are Rubicon (which shortly will change its name to Inglenook), V. Sattui, Elyse, Dark Matter and Hunnicutt. I have tasted Zinfandels that were twenty years old and even older; when balanced, the wines can last for decades. But they are best enjoyed young, in all their lusty fruitfulness.
Written by Steve Heimoff