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Voyages of the Vine
America’s Original, Zin

Posted: September 9, 2013

By JT Robertson, Special to BTI

Wine drinkers these days are a savvy bunch.  They know about regions, grapes, growers, and vintages.  This is good!  The more we know and demand, the better juice we’ll get.  But an overlooked factor is vine age.  Pinot Noir needs twenty years to start really strutting whereas young Chardonnay can be impressive at fifteen.  Then there are the grapes that really need some years on their skin to start blowing minds: Grenache, Carignan, Zinfandel.  Fortunately, America’s West Coast is loaded with beautiful Old Vine Zin and it’s an absolute shame there isn’t more recognition of one of our viticultural treasures.
Zinfandel came to American shores by way of the Schonbrunn collection which contained all the wine varietals grown in the Austrian empire.  The earliest mention of Zinfandel, by name, in America was a vine nursery in Long Island in the 1820s.  It made its way to California in the gold rush and thrived because of its hearty constitution and vigorous yields.  Many a prospector had a little vineyard of Zinfandel and washed away their sorrows in their purple cups.  As the 19th turned to the 20th century, it thrived as a potent source of table wine (Gallo’s jugs of Hearty Burgundy were made from old vine Zin).  Ironically, it was the development of White Zinfandel that saved many of the great old vineyards, which are now yielding world-class wines.  The Blush explosion of the seventies meant there was a reason not to rip up Zin for other newly popular grapes.
Enter the new breed of California wine producer who came of age at the same time White Zin was sweeping the nation, who took full advantage of the grand old vineyards that littered California like stones on the beach.  It’s not every day a young, hungry winemaker can get their hands on gnarled, century old vines.  It was these determined enthusiasts who advocated Zinfandel as America’s grape, who demonstrated through careful viticulture and meticulous winemaking how profound a wine it could produce.
In Lodi, the self-proclaimed Zinfandel capital where 40% of California’s fine Zin is made, the hot days and cool, moderating influence of the nearby San Francisco Bay produces full flavored wines of consistent quality with a pleasing spine of acidity.  From Lodi comes the red fruited, medium bodied, tangy side of Zinfandel.
Sonoma County, on the other hand, goes for the gusto.  If it’s labeled simply “Sonoma County”, it’s most likely coming from the North and will be bright and cherry with loads of upfront juicy fruit.  Russian River has one of the longest growing seasons in California, which is what makes it such a great spot for Pinot Noir, but for Zinfandel it means it ripens lonnnnnng and slow, yielding a richer, eye-openingly flavor style of Zin which tends towards tangy raspberry puree.  Dry Creek might be one of the best kept secrets in the Zin world with some of the same richness extant in Russian River but with the acid expression of Lodi.
Napa Valley and Paso Robles both express their Zinfandel in a plush, mouth-filling, dark fruited, and powerfully rich style.  The main difference is the culture of snootiness in Napa versus the more down home charm of Paso.  Expect much more oak on any Zin release from Napa (with the price tag to match) whereas Paso will be about pure fruit expression with no frills.
More and more, there is a divide between “boutique” Zinfandel and Zin meant for mass consumption.  In the wine world, you find advocates on both sides of the aisle.  As is often the case with such debates, both sides are right.  Zinfandel is capable of ageing as gracefully as any of the modern styled Napa Cabernets.  Old Vines combined with low yields will produce wines that match power with refinement.  Collectors can find the greatest examples of California Zinfandel from the most quality conscious producers for the price of a middle of the road Cab or Pinot Noir.  But Zin isn’t a grape overly comfortable with formal dress.  From the right producers with the right vineyards with the right vine age, it offers phenomenal bang for the buck.  While cheaper Zinfandel will naturally push the limits on yields, thus diluting the concentration of the flavors, there are just so many good grapes to be had in the fields of California only the most cynical of big producers will churn out low quality juice.
It is precisely the extremes between quality poles, which keeps Zinfandel from ascending in esteem.  For every highly sought after artisanal producer of Old Vine Zinfandel there are literally tens of thousands of bottles of pale pink blush, barely above the level of a wine cooler.  The same wine drinkers who happily plunk down a hundred dollars on a bottle of Napa Cab will turn their noses up at a twenty-five dollar of old vine Zin.  It was Cabernet that put California on the world wine map, but Zinfandel has been there since the beginning.  It is the constant, the wine grape America took as its own and made into something special.

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