Once dismissed and nearly abandoned, this varietal is finally being recognized as the multifaceted player that it is.

Back in 1957, Joanne Woodward won an Oscar for her work in a film called The Three Faces of Eve. It told the true story of a woman with multiple personalities, all fighting for control of her life, and it seems an apt metaphor for Zinfandel. If ever there were a grape fighting to find its true identity, it is Zinfandel.

The confusion arises in part because Zinfandel’s great strengths are also weaknesses. The grape is naturally prolific, a relatively early ripener, and grows successfully all over California. Therefore, it can be (and is) made into everything from simple, sweet “white” Zin; to sleek, sculpted “claret-style” Zin; to heavily extracted, jammy Zin; to raisiny, Port-like, late harvest and fortified wines. But this begs the real question: What is it supposed to be? To quote another ’50s icon, the TV game show What’s My Line, “Will the real Zinfandel please stand up?”

Zinfandel’s ongoing identity crisis also springs from its uncertain history and lack of pedigree. Recent advances in ampelography (the science of vine description) point to the Plavac Mali grape of Yugoslavia as a likely ancestor, but that hardly seems likely to add any luster to the grape. Digging deeper into its murky past, historians have found evidence that it was cultivated in East Coast greenhouses in the 1820s, then brought to the West Coast in the wake of the Gold Rush. Its effortless vigor, deep color and
all-round versatility made it a favorite with 19th century growers, and by the 1880s Zinfandel was more commonly planted than any other red wine grape in the West.

It proved a favorite with the Italian grape growers who emigrated to California at that time, and some of their vineyards survive to this day. During Prohibition, says Ravenswood’s Joel Peterson, a sort of natural selection occurred. “The really good vineyards were carefully and generously guarded by home winemakers,” he points out. “They kept many of the best vineyards alive and functional. So you had this selection of prime vineyards in good places, with all the qualities known to produce superior grapes: dry farming, open canopies, close spacing and special locations—all the things that make great wines great.”

Superior grapes or not, Zinfandel in the decades following Prohibition retained its blue-collar, working-grape image. It was widely used in blended reds and fortified wines, consistently overcropped and rarely given any special attention. Then, on the heels of the vinifera renaissance in the 1960s and ’70s, it found itself in danger of vanishing entirely. As California winemakers turned their attention to emulating the great wines of Europe, Zinfandels, which were huge, alcoholic wines with mouth-numbing tannins and raisiny, Port-like flavors, suddenly seemed hopelessly out of fashion.

About this same time, a few pioneering winemakers such as Ridge’s Paul Draper and Ravenswood’s Peterson began seeking out old Zinfandel vineyards in cooler, coastal sites. They recognized that their lower yields, smaller berry and cluster sizes, and more evenly ripened grapes could be made into more elegant wines. But it was a lonely, if not quixotic, effort. In California 20 years ago, it seemed that everyone wanted to make Chardonnay and Cabernet. Zinfandel growers couldn’t get more than a couple hundred dollars a ton for their grapes; for the old vineyards, yielding a ton or less per acre, that meant essentially giving them away.

Then, miraculously, Zinfandel unveiled yet another personality: sweet and pink. Peachy Canyon’s Doug Beckett is one of many who believe that Sutter Home’s huge success with white Zinfandel in the 1980s saved the old vineyards. “People tend to pooh-pooh white Zin the way they did wine coolers for a long time,” he says. “And we’ve lost sight of the true value of white Zin, which was the saving of the old vines. Sutter Home came along and created a demand for these red grapes that hadn’t had a home. If Sutter Home had not stumbled onto this product, I don’t think there’d be any old vines left in California today.”

Fast forward to 2001. Today this Horatio Alger grape is again successfully redefining itself, this time as “America’s Heritage Grape.” Increasingly, Zinfandel wines and vines are receiving the sort of fanatical, vineyard-specific winemaking attention previously reserved for all-star varietals such as Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. Winemakers and growers outside of California are taking notice too. According to ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates and Producers, an association dedicated to promoting and improving Zinfandel wines), Zinfandel is now being cultivated in at least 15 states, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas and Washington.

In recent years new Zinfandel plantings have also taken hold in Australia, New Zealand, South America, South Africa, even France and Italy. But unquestionably, California continues to have a lock on the world’s best Zinfandel, and it is grown in some 39 counties throughout the state. Figures provided by the California Agricultural Statistics Service show that, in the past decade alone, California Zinfandel acreage has risen from a total of 29,547 acres to 46,000 bearing acres (as of 1999), establishing it once again as the state’s number one red-wine varietal, ahead of both Cabernet Sauvignon (39,988) and Merlot (36,506).

The picture isn’t entirely rosy, however (though it is quite rosé, if you catch my drift): Nearly half this Zin acreage is in the San Joaquin Valley, and primarily used to make sweet, pink wines, not the ripe, complex red wines that serious Zin-lovers crave. Furthermore, nonbearing (presumably new) plantings of Cabernet, already in the ground, will put it ahead of Zinfandel once again in the next couple of years. Inevitably, the great old Zin vineyards are dying off, and new plantings have slowed down significantly in the past couple of years. Increasingly, there is a sense of urgency about the efforts to raise the quality standards for Zinfandel.

ZAP co-founder Jerry Seps, who has pioneered modern styles of Zinfandel-making at his Storybook Mountain Vineyard just north of Calistoga, points out that “we don’t have a standard of what great Zin should be. But I would argue that finesse, complexity, balance and structure—all the components of any great red wine—should be there. The exact same criteria.”

Storybook’s wines express that philosophy consistently. For example, the 1997 Eastern Exposures bottling, one of Wine Enthusiast Magazine’s highest-rated Zinfandels ever, mixes spicy fruit, cocoa and mineral notes in the seductive nose, followed with tart currant and cranberry fruit, leading into a tight, sharp, brightly etched finish. The 1997 Napa Estate—Mayacamas Range and the 1997 Estate Reserve bottlings also express the complexities of mountain-grown grapes, with elements of mineral and earth laced into the precise, black cherry fruit. Better yet, these wines are built to age for a decade or more. “One of the things that Zin needs to overcome is its reputation for rusticity,” Seps concludes.

Call it the elegance factor—it is something that the old vines in particular (loosely defined as those at least 50 years old) have in abundance. Seeking to learn more, Jim Wolpert, chairman of the Department of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California at Davis, has been working for the past decade to isolate and propagate the most desirable Zinfandel clones from old vineyards scattered throughout the state.

“One of the reasons we started this work,” he explains, “is that we heard from the industry very loudly that the Zins in our certified virus-free material make great white Zin, but not red. With other varietals we’d go back to the original home, but we don’t know what that is with Zin. But we do have all these 60-, 80- and 100-year-old vineyards, and people are making great wine out of them. So we said, ‘Let’s go out and make some collections.’ Bear in mind that even back in the late 1980s the Zin market was not as good as it is now. We thought we might actually lose these selections, and we wanted to capture and maintain them.”

The result of those efforts has been to establish a one-acre Heritage Vineyard as part of the U.C. Davis Oakville (Napa) Research Station. It contains vines representing 90 different Zinfandel selections from 13 counties, grafted onto St. George rootstock. As a control, researchers have also planted three clones of Zinfandel currently certified by U.C. Davis Foundation Plant Material Services. This past autumn the Heritage Project made its first test wines, in very small lots, from 20 or so select vineyards. The process, agonizingly slow though it may be, is highly significant to the future of California Zinfandel. If all goes well, there will be a dozen or more clones of virus-free, state-certified Heritage Zinfandel available through nurseries within the next six to eight years.

Individual wineries are also conducting their own similar experiments, looking for ways to apply modern grape-growing techniques to classic old vine stock. At Dry Creek Vineyard, winemaker Jeff McBride has made a Heritage Clone Zinfandel since 1997, one that successfully replicates some of the classic flavors of century-old vines.

“We’ve tried to capture those old flavors with modern viticultural-trellising techniques,” notes McBride. “We’ve discovered that if you have the right climate, the right clonal selection, the right trellising, you can begin to replicate those old flavors as long as you are using some of those old clonal selections.”

At the same time, yields can be significantly higher than the ton or less per acre that century-old vines produce, making it possible to be profitable and offer the wine at a good price. The first Dry Creek Heritage Clone Zinfandel, from 1997, sold for just $15, scored 90 points, and showed lovely flavors of dried fruits, leaves, tobacco, coffee and plums, with nuances of coffee, cinnamon and toast. The 1998 version, from a more difficult vintage, is almost as good, with plummy fruit, high acids and some nice complexity in the mouth. When ZAP was founded 10 years ago, Ravenswood’s Peterson recalls, there were only about 15 wineries making Zinfandel of sufficiently high quality to qualify as potential members. Today, ZAP membership has soared to 250. The annual ZAP tasting, held at Fort Mason in San Francisco each January, attracts over 6,000 Zin enthusiasts and offers hundreds of wines for tasting. Prices for Zinfandels, though still well below those commanded by Cabernet Sauvignons, have climbed steadily higher, and reached levels that allow grape growers and winemakers to lower yields and take the expensive steps necessary to improve quality in the vineyard, which then carries over into the finished wines.

“The whole concept of how you ferment Zinfandel, how you age it, what parameters you expect the grape to produce for a balanced wine, the kind of oak that you use, and essentially how you package it, have all changed over the past decade,” notes Peterson. “What else has changed is that people are now proud of their Zinfandel. There’s a great competition among winemakers to make the best Zin of the year. The general run of Zin is much better now than it has ever been.”

Specifically, Zinfandels are getting better because better site selection and vineyard management practices allow it to be picked riper than it used to be, producing a softer, lusher mouthfeel. This also adds to the intensity of the finished wine—without making it raisiny or stewed. The higher prices now commanded mean that greater attention is being given to Zinfandel in the winery as well: better barrels, better equipment and a little more care every step of the way. As a result, it isn’t just a secondary wine for many wineries. Ridge and Ravenswood, Rosenblum and Cline, Storybook and Peachy Canyon have been joined by legions of smaller Zin specialists with an unwavering focus on quality.

Most of these new producers make just a few hundred cases of Zin and sell out quickly. But there are so many of them that no one is left out of the treasure hunt, as with “trophy” Cabernets, for example. Furthermore, winemakers are inspired to put a very personal stamp on their wines. Peachy Canyon’s Beckett notes that “Zinfandel reflects the personality of the winemaker more than any other varietal.” As evidence, he points out that Turley, among Zin-makers, and Screaming Eagle, among Cabs, have really excited critics and consumers, yet “we have a lot of people trying to make wines like Screaming Eagle. But when you look at Zin, to this day, you don’t have a lot of Zins that are trying to be like Turley.”

“The makers of Zin,” he continues, “aren’t heavily oaking their wines to get better scores in the publications. They’re crafting the wines to truly reflect the terroir and the varietal. We’re looking for raspberries and Bing cherries, subtle hints of chocolate and fresh earth tones. This comes back to the vineyard. You can go vineyard to vineyard to vineyard and have three different wines with Zin. You can’t always do that with Cabernet.”

If there is anything likely to derail the growing appeal of Zinfandel, it is the twin engines of its own search for quality. First, there is the proliferation of single-vineyard bottlings. Making a half dozen different Zins each year is not uncommon, and some wineries consistently offer a dozen or more. Despite the undeniable appeal of such diversity to collectors, for the average wine drinker this profusion of labels, not always clearly differentiated by style, is yet one more obstacle to determining what exactly Zinfandel is trying to be.

Second, there is the steady rise in prices, which, though justifiable in terms of the extra care taken with the wines, and definitely moderate when compared with the price escalation in other red wines, is nonetheless inching past the comfort level for the everyday red that Zin has traditionally been.

While gaining in prestige, Zinfandel has also become fair game for stricter evaluation by the critics. As the wines improve, the pressure for high scores increases, and the effects of a negative rating can unfairly taint an entire vintage. To cite the most recent example, 1998 was not an easy vintage for vintners, and some in the press wrote it off before the wines had even been released. This raises some hackles among winemakers. “How do you trust your own palate unless you know the differences among the vintages?” asks Rosenblum’s Cohn. “A lighter vintage gives you something to drink while you’re waiting for the bigger wines to round out. That’s what’s so great about vintages. Each year it’s a different experience.”

So what lies ahead as Zinfandel moves into its third century? Most industry prognosticators see continuing improvement in quality, stabilizing prices, and an expansion of Zin on restaurant wine lists, particularly as Thai and Tex-Mex restaurants discover how well it suits their cooking. Growers are planting Zinfandel at higher elevations, looking for chalky/calcareous soil, reducing crop size to ensure better quality, focusing on shoot positioning and canopy management and dropping down to one cluster per cane to guarantee more even ripening.

The many faces of Zin are slowly but surely melding together to create a complete, integrated picture of quality at a comfortable price, while preserving a diversity of styles made to suit all pocketbooks and tastes.

“I think Zin is still the best varietal—and the best value—on the market today,” insists Beckett. “It’s a fun wine, a fruit-forward wine, a friendly wine at a young age. Look at our Incredible Red. Here’s a wine that’s $11, that jumps out of the glass, that food makes better. It’s fun, it’s friendly and it starts the evening by putting a smile on everybody’s face. I hope that people realize that Zin is as American as jazz or rock ‘n roll. It is truly what we’re about.”

Published on March 1, 2001

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