Time is running out to celebrate “California Wine Month” (yep, I’m a little late since it started 24 days ago…). With that in mind, why not celebrate the “almost” Official Wine Grape of California, Zinfandel. In 2006, then-Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill that would have declared Zinfandel the “official” grape of California. His reasoning was that it would be ‘wrong’ to single out just one varietal. In some respects, he’s correct as Cabernet is incredibly popular and well-regarded dating back to the “Judgment of Paris” in 1976 (which scored CA Cab’s on par or better than top Bordeaux wine—Sacre bleu!), not to mention all the Chardonnay produced there. However, I feel that Zinfandel is very deserving as it has a very special place in the history of wine in California—as well as the United States!
In 1829, “Zinfendel” was imported from Europe to a nursery in New York. From there, it was sold in Massachusetts. Zinfandel made its way West thanks to the Gold Rush of the mid 1800’s. Zinfandel’s origins are believed to be based on Italian grape Primitivo or even two different Croatian grapes, Crljenak Kaštelanski and one called Tribidrag. Regardless of the grape names, scientists have confirmed through DNA testing that Zinfandel and Primitivo are the same. By 1878 Zin was the most popular varietal planted/produced during California’s first wine boom. Like Europe, most California vineyards were destroyed in the late 1800’s when the phylloxera epidemic took over. Luckily some Zinfandel vines survived because they were isolated or planted on resistant rootstock. In 1900 most vineyards were replanted, with Zin being the most common varietal—until the 70s’.
We blame a lot on the 70’s—fashion, disco, big hair. One thing to add to that list? White Zinfandel. I do blast White Zin a lot due to its bubble gum flavor and that crazy pink color but there are 2 major things that White Zin managed to do: one was to save Zin as a financially viable grape, as many were plowing their vineyards to plant suddenly popular Cabernet and Merlot, so White Zin saved many vineyards due to its popularity. The second thing? Honestly, it introduced wine to the masses. Dare I say that White Zin is a gateway wine? No, I’m not making the ‘smoking pot leads to heroin use’ analogy, I am simply saying that if someone tries ANY wine (and likes it) and continues to ‘explore’ wine, that is awesome, even if it is white zinfandel leading the way!
A white zin drinker may not change their ways, but they may try another “sweet-ish” wine like Riesling or Moscato. From there they may try a dry white, such as Sauvignon Blanc or even Chardonnay. What’s next? Well, maybe they will continue to ‘think pink’ and try a rosé as the process is similar (leave the skins on the juice to impart more color but MUCH less residual sugar). From there? How about a nice Pinot Noir to start, then onward to Zinfandel, Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. By the way, all of this was a nice ‘stair step’ list of ‘from light to heavy’ wines; give that a shot and see how your exploration goes!
But back to Zinfandel, probably my favorite. Why? While it does have a high alcohol content, the fruit makes the wine very approachable. In fact, you can easily sip Zin solo but when you add food, it’s not so overpowering like many heavy tannin wines like Cabernet. It’s as if Zinfandel was made for another great American pastime—grilling! BBQ is yummy with Zin, spicy foods too. So while “California Wine Month” comes to a close, we are just about knee deep in tailgating season so why not bring a little Zin to your next event? No, not the girly pink stuff; be manly and grab one of the 3 R’s (Ravenswood, Rosenblum and Ridge), which represent some of the best-known Zinfandel producers/pioneers). Each of the first two have inexpensive entry-level wines (Vintner’s Blend and Vintner’s Cuvee come to mind). From there, try some of the Ravenswood ‘County’ Series—you’ll be amazed by the differences between their Napa, Sonoma, Lodi and Amador county designates! All three make excellent single-vineyard wines (perhaps I’ll discuss the differences between “California”, County/Region and Vineyard designations next time) but the price rises (base Zin’s start around $8-10; County wines $15 to 20 and single-vineyards are $20-50+).
There are also a lot of Zin-blends out there (nicknamed ‘kitchen sink’ blends as they have many varietals, typically Zin and syrah-based). But again, there are many different producers and many different regions as listed in the ‘county’ designates above (don’t forget awesome Paso Robles juice!). So give Zinfandel the respect it deserves—even the pink stuff, albeit begrudgingly… Let me know your thoughts and share your Zin adventures with me! Cheers, Bo