On the trail of a signature California grape
As pressing issues go, a humble grape called zinfandel does not have the social import of gay marriage, high-speed rail service or public school funding, but there it was in the eye of a political storm just the same.
In February 2006, Carole Migden, then a state senator representing Marin and parts of Sonoma County and San Francisco, proposed designating zinfandel as California’s official state grape. Supporters wrote elaborate odes to old vines dating back to Gold Rush days; naysayers clamored for the rights of cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. When the Senate passed a slightly watered-down version of Migden’s bill, making zinfandel California’s official “historic grape,” zin fans lobbied the assembly with a party in the Capitol—where the wine, predictably, flowed freely.
The assembly approved the measure, but when the matter landed on Governor Schwarzenegger’s desk he vetoed it—preferring not to give one grape variety such an esteemed honor in a state where so many thrive.
At first glance this setback seems like par for the course for zinfandel, which has suffered years as a “can’t get no respect” wine due in part to the poor reputation of its denuded sister, white zinfandel. But as those who appreciate it well know, zinfandel is actually a versatile black grape that produces robust reds never lacking in potency.
True to the underlying message of Migden’s proposal, zinfandel has indeed been grown more abundantly in California than anywhere else by a long stretch, but as DNA testing proved in the 1990s, its true origins are Croatian. No matter, because it’s been in the soil and climate of California, and in the hands of California winemakers, that the grape has come into its own. Today it’s the second most planted red wine grape in the state, and it boasts the most old vines of any varietal. Many of the earliest zinfandel vines survived both Prohibition and infestations of the potentially ruinous pest known as phylloxera.
Zin ranks among the biggest of big red wines, and more often than not it tastes powerfully of berries, with a clear presence of tannins (the same compounds you’d encounter when sipping a strong cup of black tea) and a high alcohol content, often above 15 percent. But its versatility—it can be made dry or sweet—makes it incredibly food-friendly. And how quintessentially Californian is a wine that goes equally well with artisan comfort food and haute cuisine?
To take the zinfandel tour from south to north through five California wine regions, as well as their American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) and sub-appellations, is to follow the path of Junipero Serra and the Franciscans who brought the wine making craft to Alta California in the late 18th century.
The Central Coast & Monterey
If you’re aware of the Central Coast as a wine region, you probably think of pinot noir, thanks to the 2004 movie Sideways. But despite the prevalence of pinot, this area encompassing the Paso Robles area and San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties is littered with wineries producing zinfandel—often at competitive prices. In particular, the Arroyo Grande Valley AVA in the hills sloping toward Pismo Beach is home to luscious zinfandels made from 100-year-old vines planted behind Lake Lopez. With its proximity to the ocean, this is mainly a cool growing region, but hillside vineyard placement affords the warmth zinfandel grapes crave, while the area’s old vines yield fewer grapes, giving the wines added depth and sophistication.
Unlike the rest of the Central Coast, Paso Robles has very high daytime temperatures, and its zinfandels reflect that with their high alcohol content and abundant tannins. At their best, Paso Robles zinfandels taste powerfully of very ripe, but never overripe, fruit.
A bit farther north, Monterey County is not an area known as zinfandel country, but it does produce some zin winners, with the best tending toward spiciness and mild tannins. The region to look for on a label is Carmel Valley, Monterey County’s only oceanside AVA. It’s here that at least one inventive winery proprietor has sourced plantings from Sonoma, Napa and Amador county vines. Good examples of Monterey zinfandels can have an aroma of raspberries, black fruit and caramel with mellow, plum flavors on the palate.
>> What Else to Try: Chardonnay really shines in this region, especially in and around the Santa Maria Valley north of Santa Barbara, where farmers grow the grape in hillside vineyards that produce fruit-forward, high-acid examples of the varietal. The Arroyo Grande and Edna Valley AVAs, which benefit from ocean breezes off Pismo Beach and Morro Bay, produce lush, minerally chardonnays. To the north, Arroyo Seco chardonnays have lots of oomph in the aroma and a crisp but mellow taste. Toward Salinas and Monterey, you’ll find exceptionally high-quality wines made from grapes grown in the Santa Lucia Highlands.
The Sierra Foothills
If the Sierra Foothills region east of the Central Valley still evokes a Gold Rush rugged cowboy aesthetic, so do its earthy zinfandels. Thanks to the thirsty pioneers who settled the area, the Sierra Foothills and adjacent appellations are home to California’s greatest concentration of old-vine zinfandel. This is especially true in the Fiddletown AVA of Amador County, an area hotter than its surrounding regions; here zinfandel accounts for three quarters of all grapes grown.
The California Shenandoah Valley AVA, so called to distinguish it from Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, also mainly produces zinfandels—big, robust ones. This region put the entire Sierra Foothills region back on the map, enologically speaking, after the shame that descended following Sutter Home’s lucrative but now much-maligned white zinfandel experiment of the 1970s. That was the period when the Napa winery known for making fine wines from Amador County fruit began to use zinfandel with ample residual sugar to produce a rosé. Redemption came when wine industry sage Darrell Corti, owner of the historic Corti Brothers gourmet grocery and wine store in Sacramento, began to sing the praises of Amador County grapes to other Napa wineries. Prominent producers listened, with highly successful results.
Sierra Foothills zinfandels may occasionally get a bad rap for a lack of finesse—blame the alcohol that results from the region’s blazing heat. But the best examples can actually boast deep, exhilarating aromas, clean flavors and plenty of fruit.
>> What Else to Try: It’s somehow fitting that Italian varietals like barbera and sangiovese thrive in this region whose hills can visually transport you to Tuscany. Brought to California from Italy’s Piedmont region during the Gold Rush, barbera—a grape with high natural acidity that translates as fresh and even a bit tartly fruit-forward on the palate—fares well in this hot climate, which can render other varietals too low in acid and therefore a bit flat. The heat is also a friend to sangiovese, whose late harvest produces high-alcohol wines that age beautifully. Likely planted in the foothills in the late 1800s by Italian immigrants, today sangioveses from the region are sometimes blended with grapes native to France, like cabernet sauvignon, to create a relatively new and highly sought-after category of wines known as Super Tuscans. The blending grapes in Super Tuscans add a fullness and intensity to a varietal that is typically lighter in body and often has strong notes of cherry.Napa Valley
Although the Napa Valley’s celebrity and outsize popularity have brought traffic and tourist crowds, the region inarguably produces truly sublime wines. There are few varietals Napa vintners don’t make well, and zinfandel is no exception. Napa’s zins are rarely overripe or too alcoholic, and they typically boast lots of berry and plum. Zinfandel vineyards in Calistoga and the Mount Veeder and Spring Mountain AVAs benefit especially from warm temperatures and volcanic soil, the latter of which is thought to produce wines with strongly spicy notes.
The Napa Valley is also home to a living museum devoted to the grape. The Zinfandel Heritage Vineyard in Oakville features vine cuttings from 14 California counties. The project was created 10 years ago by a team of viticulturists and farming experts from UC Davis in conjunction with the Zinfandel Advocates and Producers association. Each year, a rotating roster of renowned winemakers produces a limited amount of wine from the vineyard.
>> What Else to Try: No trip to Napa is complete without enjoying the region’s world-famous cabernet sauvignon. While Napa’s zinfandels don’t vary dramatically from appellation to appellation, its cabernets express terroir far more profoundly, with the land in between the cool of Carneros and the heat of Calistoga practically begging the grape to thrive.
Just as Sonoma County is generally viewed as a somewhat mellower wine mecca than its eastern neighbor, Sonoma’s zinfandels are a bit tamer as well. But make no mistake, tame does not mean underwhelming. In fact, the wines made from zinfandel grown above the fog line in Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley are generally considered the best examples of the varietal you can find in California, if not the world. In an irony that speaks to zinfandel’s status as a truly populist grape, much of that Dry Creek zinfandel acreage was originally planted with the intent to cultivate it for bulk wine. Hot days, cool nights and fine crafting have allowed the wine those grapes produced to escape that humble fate. The stiffest competition to Dry Creek’s spicy, berry-filled zin isn’t far away—it’s in the Russian River Valley, where Italians settling in the hills also had the foresight to plant vineyards above the fog line.
That fog line—and growing grapes above it—seems to be the key to zinfandel’s success throughout Sonoma, and the strategy has quite literally borne fruit in southern Sonoma, particularly on Sonoma Mountain. If it’s old-vine zin you’re after, look to the Alexander Valley, an area known for rich, voluptuous wines in a range of varietals. The Rockpile AVA adjacent to Dry Creek is also making a name for itself with interesting zins that are lush and intense.
>> What Else to Try: Santa Barbara’s pinot noir may have landed that starring role in Sideways, but even if you love a good SoCal pinot, Sonoma’s version is an altogether different example well worth trying. Mother Nature does pinot many favors here, especially near the mouth of the Russian River, where the cooling ocean fog helps keep acid high, and in Carneros, where bay winds have much the same effect, resulting in delicate, nuanced wine.
The Fort Ross sub-appellation north of the Russian River is close enough to the ocean to create expectations that fog would here too boost acidity of pinot noir. A strong interest in Fort Ross wines arose that consequently drove up prices, but once again the fog line wound up playing a crucial role. With most of Fort Ross’s vineyards planted above it, the fruit produced there is actually big, bold and early to ripen.
Farther up the coast in Mendocino County, producers are known for careful and often eco-friendly crafting of wines. When it comes to the region’s zinfandel, that artistry comes across in manifold ways—a reflection of the county’s diverse geography.
As in the Russian River Valley, Mendocino’s Anderson Valley AVA was long ago settled by Italians who recognized the hills above the fog line as a good place to grow zinfandel. Winemakers have had particular success with fruit from the western hills of Anderson Valley, which produces highly praised zinfandels that can possess strong notes of oak and coffee. The adjacent Mendocino Ridge has the distinction of being the state’s only noncontiguous AVA, because the vineyards it includes must be situated above 1,200 feet. Zinfandel is the primary grape grown on these “Islands in the Sky,” as the appellation has come to be known—a place where the intensity of the fruit is said to match the climatic extremes and beautiful vistas of its peaks.
Given Mendocino’s status as the region with the highest percentage of certified organically grown grapes in the country, it’s no surprise that many of its zinfandels bear the organic stamp. The scenic town of Ukiah is a center of sorts for this commitment to green growing practices, and the vineyards in its orbit are known for producing full-bodied, soft and spicy zins.
>> What Else to Try: This is the place to sample two light-bodied varietals most strongly identified with Alsace—gewürztraminer and riesling. The cool stretch of the county that hugs the coast and includes the Anderson Valley AVA creates an ideal terroir for both grapes. Another great source for riesling is Potter Valley, a growing region devoid of wineries that’s situated inland and to the north of Ukiah. Mendocino’s gewürztraminers are all about that powerful lychee perfume for which the varietal is famous, but they tend to be dry on the palate, making them food-friendly. Its rieslings can range from bone-dry to dessert-sweet, often with stronger flavors than one might expect from this usually subtle wine.