California's Zinfandel Hot Spots

Our California editors share their favorite growing regions for the Golden State's iconic grape.


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Illustrations by Peter Horjus

Periodically, Zinfandel comes into style and goes out of fashion. It’s currently  “in” like never before, with hot new restaurants like Healdsburg’s Spoonbar and San Francisco’s Hakkasan giving it prominent play on their wine lists.

“It’s one of those wines that guests don’t typically ask for, but when we pour it for them, they absolutely love it,” says Cara Patricia, Hakkasan’s senior sommelier.

Part of the consumer hesitance lies in the multiple personalities Zin has shown over the years. It’s been made red, white, rosé, sweet, dry, late-harvest (“Port”) style, Beaujolais-style and even sparkling.

The variety grows well wherever the climate is warm enough to ripen it, which is pretty much everywhere in California that’s not on the immediate coast. Yet, Zinfandel thrives in some regions more than others.

In general, Zin shows two styles: one from warm, inland regions, the other from cool-to-warm regions where the vines experience some maritime influence. 

The former tends to be higher in alcohol, the latter a little more elegant, but neither is “better.” It’s all a matter of taste.

Keep in mind, too, that vintners have several techniques for adjusting alcohol downward. So even warm-climate Zins that got very ripe can still have moderate alcohol levels.

Wine Enthusiast zeroes in on the Golden State’s top Zinfandel addresses, analyzing what makes each one so special.


NAPA VALLEY

In many respects, Napa Valley produces California’s best Zinfandels.

The valley is “in the sweet spot between the cold Pacific and California’s blazing Central Valley,” says vintner Jayson Woodbridge, who produces several brands. Napa’s heat, which is greater than Dry Creek Valley’s but not as intense as Lodi’s, ripens the grapes easily. Cool nighttime temperatures help the grapes retain acidity.

But, as veteran winemaker Joel Aiken says, “Napa has a lot of hillside Zins that are 100-plus years old, and that terroir is different from the valley floor.” 

As with Cabernet Sauvignon, that hillside influence results in smaller berries and more concentrated wines.

The old vines, in particular, seem to make wines with unusual concatenations of flavors. The roots may penetrate deep into the earth, tapping into minerals not near the surface. 

Also, in old vineyards, the varieties are rarely just Zinfandel. They often include Carignane, Alicante Bouschet, Petite Sirah and almost anything else that the Italian-American immigrants originally planted. The resulting wines show a huge range of nuances.

Yet the valley’s soils are so jumbled that any spot—flatland, bench or slope—can yield Zinfandels of power and textured elegance. Summers Estate Wines’s Four-Acre bottling consistently shows well, even though the vineyard is situated on the valley floor. 

Winemaker Ignacio Blancas, who persuaded Summers’ owners not to rip out the struggling vines, puts its success down to several factors: 40–50-year-old vines, the vineyard location, volcanic soils and dry farming.

One last factor in the success of any wine, including Zinfandel, is money. It takes a lot of it to produce world-class wine, and Napa Valley has a lot of money. —S.H.

Recent Top-Scoring Zins from Napa Valley

93 Elyse 2009 Black-Sears Vineyard Zinfandel (Howell Mountain); $37.

93 Summers 2009 Four-Acre Zinfandel (Calistoga); $34.

92 Chase 2009 Hayne Vineyard Reserve Zinfandel (St. Helena); $75.

Other recommended producers: Biale, Black Stallion, Chiarello Family, D-Cubed Cellars, Frog’s Leap, Hendry, Peju, Storybook Mountain, TurleyNapa Valley


DRY CREEK VALLEY

If you taught a class on Zinfandel, your textbook appellation might just be Dry Creek Valley.

“Raspberry, strawberry-ish, not very tannic, highly aromatic,” says Miro Tcholakov, the winemaker for Trentadue and his own Miro brand.

Joe Healy, the winemaker at Bella Vineyards, adds “peppery-spicy” to the description, which approaches my own choice of “briary and brambly” to pinpoint the dusty, dried-leaf, high-toned quality that suggests wild berry foraging on a 95˚F Dry Creek summer afternoon.

Many of Dry Creek Valley’s Zinfandels are from old vines, head-trained and dry-farmed. Zinfandel’s biggest problem, as all winemakers attest, is notoriously uneven ripeness at harvest. Green berries sit next to perfect berries, which both neighbor shriveled raisins. Somehow, this problem seems less pronounced in old vines, especially if they’re trellised.

Of course, vineyard site counts, too. As in the Napa and Alexander valleys, Dry Creek Valley gets warmer the further northwest you go. In the searingly hot Rockpile area, the Zins can get jammy and Port-like.

The best Dry Creek Zins come from the benches and hills, not the valley floor. 

In particular, the slopes on the east side of Dry Creek Road yield wines of focus and spicy deliciousness: Miro’s Woolcott-Bevill and Piccetti (a two-vineyard blend) and Bella’s Maple Vineyards (a single-vineyard wine despite the plural) both come from there. 

Dry Creek Zins, like good Zins everywhere, don’t like too much new oak. Tcholakov seldom ages the wine in more than 25% new French oak. Many others don’t even go that high. A good Zin’s natural tannins don’t need the additional wood tannins extracted from new barrels. —S.H.

Recent Top-Scoring Zins from Dry Creek Valley

93 Seghesio 2010 Cortina Zinfandel (Dry Creek Valley); $38.

92 Miro 2011 Woolcoot-Bevill and Piccetti Zinfandel (Dry Creek Valley); $26.

91 Bella 2010 Maple Vineyards Zinfandel (Dry Creek Valley); $40.

Other recommended producers: A. Rafanelli, Dry Creek Vineyard, Gary Farrell, J. Rickards, Quivira, Ravenswood, Ridge, Sbragia


RUSSIAN RIVER VALLEY

Where Napa Valley and Dry Creek Valley represent warm growing regions for Zinfandel, the Russian River Valley—most of it, anyway—is cool. Russian River Zins tend to be lower in alcohol and higher in acidity, especially in our recent run of cool vintages (2010–12).

One of the best areas for Zinfandel is in the Olivet-Piner area of the Santa Rosa Plain, south of River Road (also prime Pinot Noir territory). This area is open to the maritime influence flowing up from the Petaluma Gap, which receives a daily dose of chilly air from San Francisco/San Pablo Bay. 

Rod Berglund, owner of Joseph Swan Vineyards, says his grapes from the Mancini Vineyard are incredibly late ripeners—he often doesn’t pick until November, which makes this Zinfandel highly vintage-dependent. 

Bob Cabral, director of winemaking for Williams Selyem, whose Papera Vineyard is nearby, says, “You’ll never get the syrupy, viscous, concentrated fruit of Dry Creek Valley.” 

In fact, in a good year when the rains hold off, Zins from the Santa Rosa Plain hit the sweet spot. The long hangtime lets them achieve perfect ripeness, while moderate temperatures, particularly at night, avoid the dried-out berries that can make overripe Zins bitter and pruny.

These cool-climate Russian River Zins age well. Berglund doesn’t even release his for four-plus years, which isn’t particularly cost-conscious. But, he says, “It’s neither wise, nor fair to sell it when it’s young.” —S.H.

Recent Top-Scoring Zins from Russian River Valley

95 Williams Selyem 2011 Papera Vineyard Zinfandel (Russian River Valley); $52.

91 River Road Vineyards 2911 Bischetti Old Vine Zinfandel (Russian River Valley); $18.

90 Joseph Swan 2007 Mancini Ranch Zinfandel (Russian River Valley); $28.

Other recommended producers: Carlisle, De Loach, Hartford, Martinelli, Ravenswood, V. Sattui


LODI

Known for its juicy, boldly flavored wines, Lodi is Zinfandel country, responsible for nearly one-third of California’s production. 

Located inland of Sacramento along the San Joaquin/Sacramento River Delta, Lodi eases gently down and west from the Sierra Nevada mountain range. It’s contiguous enough that portions of the region are nicknamed the Toehills, reflecting how parts of Lodi are very much an extension of the Sierra Foothills. 

Lodi’s grape growers survived Prohibition by shipping trainloads of grapes to home winemakers, so the region remains a bastion of old vines. Plantings date back to 1888, some on their original rootstocks.

The region’s Mediterranean climate—warm daytime heat soothed by Delta breezes—and diverse soils can grow nearly everything, from Albariño to burly old-vine Zinfandel.

The eastern side of Lodi—the vineyards east of Highway 99, including half of the Mokelumne River, and the Alta Mesa, Clements Hills and Borden Ranch AVAs—is slightly warmer and has deep soils that yield small berry sizes. 

These wines tend to retain higher acidity levels, possess tighter tannins and produce rich wines that hint of black tea and dusty chocolate.

The western section of the Mokelumne River AVA—Lodi’s historic center—is dominated by Tokay fine sandy loam soils and cooler temperatures. Its wines are typically round, lush and earthy, but possess ample acidity.

Ryan Sherman, the winemaker for Fields Family, describes his wines as having pretty aromatics, character and complexity, with nothing overblown or heavy—a more restrained approach to Zinfandel. 

With structure, balanced acidity and well-integrated tannins, they offer a nice interplay of red and black fruit components.

“Our wines significantly overdeliver on quality relative to price,” he says. “I’d put some of the newer Zins coming out of Lodi in a blind panel with some of the best palates, and it would be eye-opening for some people, altering preconceived notions.” —V.B.

Recent Top-Scoring Zins from Lodi

91 Fields Family 2010 Sherman Family Vineyards Old Vine Zinfandel (Lodi); $24.

90 McCay Cellars 2009 Jupiter Zinfandel (Lodi); $28.

89 Mettler Family Vineyards 2010 Epicenter Old Vine Zinfandel (Lodi); $20.

Other recommended producers: Borra, Harney Lane, Klinker Brick, m2, Macchia, Michael David, Uvaggio (Primitivo), Turley


SIERRA FOOTHILLS

With vines hearkening back to California’s Gold Rush more than a century ago, Zinfandel is the Sierra Foothills’ longest-standing and most widely planted variety. 

Set among the jagged mountains between Lake Tahoe and Yosemite, Foothills vineyards range from 1,000–3,000 feet above sea level. 

Divided among four counties—Amador, El Dorado, Nevada and Calaveras—vineyards and wineries are spread out. Growing characteristics can vary substantially from site to site, although most vineyards are planted on soils derived from decomposed granite.

The one thing these areas have most in common is Zinfandel. 

The area’s 1970s grape boom kicked off when the old-vine Deaver Vineyard showed up on a Corti Brothers wine from 1968. Wineries from outside the region, like Sutter Home and Ridge, started sourcing grapes from the Sierras. Local wineries, like Boeger and Montevina, followed soon after.

The Amador County towns of Plymouth and Fiddletown serve as the northern center of the appellation. Pioneers like Boeger, Montevina, Renwood and Easton are still going strong, alongside new faces like Andis, Fiddletown Cellars and Helwig. 

Fiddletown Cellars and Borjón winemaker Joe Shebl, who also serves as Helwig’s general manager, says there’s been a shift over the last decade toward more concentrated, structured and refined Zinfandels, “stemming from more precise farming and smarter, more calculated winemaking approaches in terms of fermentation and aging management, use of better barrels and a drive to show off what this area is capable of.”

Working with so many different vineyards, Shebl finds it difficult to peg an “Amador County” style of Zinfandel. Some create Zins with deeply concentrated black fruit flavors and silky, balanced tannins, he says, while others make wines that are lighter, with more fresh red fruit and finesse.

At the southern end of the appellation lies Calaveras County, where a few producers are honing in on specific vineyard sites that seem to capture Zinfandel’s playful nature. 

Sierra Foothills Zinfandels often evolve great elegance upon aging. Tight and often intense when young, with pronounced cinnamon-tinged spice, creamy textures and layers of tar, licorice and cedar, these Zins increasingly offer a sense of freshness, making them very inviting to drink. —V.B.

Recent Top-Scoring Zins from Sierra Foothills 

93 Easton 2010 Estate Bottled Zinfandel (Shenandoah Valley); $32.

92 Newsome-Harlow 2010 Big John Zinfandel (Calaveras County); $36.

91 Cedarville 2010 Estate Zinfandel (El Dorado); $22.

Other recommended producers: Amador Foothill, Andis, Borjón, Deaver, Fiddletown Cellars, Hovey, Lava Cap, Miraflores, Montevina, Renwood, Scott Harvey, Sobon Estate, Terra d’Oro, Yorba


MENDOCINO

The emergence of Anderson Valley as a Pinot Noir and Chardonnay powerhouse has dulled some of Mendocino’s original luster as a source of Zinfandel, but this vast county still has a lot of Zin in the ground. Most of it is within the region’s interior.

The county is huge—bigger than Delaware—and 70 percent forested. The majority of the vineyards lie along the Upper Russian River and Navarro River watersheds, on benchlands in and around the towns of Ukiah and Talmage, in Redwood Valley and in high-elevation subregions like Mendocino Ridge.

Italian immigrants planted much of the Zin here, relying on dry farming and sturdy head-pruned vines. Many of the vineyards were field blends that included not only Zinfandel, but also Carignane, Petite Sirah and others. 

Acres of these vineyards persist today, many of them the legacy of the Italian Swiss Colony era. Mendocino grapes were often shipped to the company’s headquarters in nearby Asti (Sonoma County) to be made into bulk wine destined for bottling facilities all over the U.S. 

John Parducci was the first local to bottle Zinfandel on its own, in the 1940s. Other early Zin pioneers include grower Charlie Barra; winemaker and organic grape-growing proponent Paul Dolan at Fetzer; the late Dr. Donald Edmeades in the Anderson Valley; and prolific winemaker Greg Graziano.

Edmeades winemaker Ben Salazar says geography is what makes Mendocino County such a great place to grow Zinfandel.

“The region’s proximity to the ocean means there’s a cooling maritime influence,” he says, “yet the coastal mountain range protects the area and allows for good heat accumulation during the day.”

Mendocino Zinfandel can offer aromas of ripe cherries and blueberries, intermingled with cocoa powder, toasted oak and roasted coffee. It can also be more classically briary, with blackberry and black raspberry fruit, softly textured hints of tobacco, vanilla and nutmeg, and a finish of black pepper. —V.B. 

Recent Top-Scoring Zins from Mendocino

90 Carol Shelton 2009 Wild Thing Zinfandel (Mendocino); $19.

90 Edmeades 2010 Zinfandel (Mendocino); $20.

89 Woodenhead 2009 Guido Venturi Zinfandel (Mendocino); $34.

Other recommended producers: Artezin, Bonterra, Chiarito, Graziano, Horse & Plow, McFadden Vineyard, Navarro, Paul Dolan, Saracina

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