Can California Zinfandel Get Its Groove Back?

Glass of zinfandel red wine

As a native Californian, I’ve always wanted to like Zinfandel more.

Though its roots are in the Old World—it’s genetically identical to both Italy’s Primitivo and Croatia’s Crljenak Kaštelanski, which also goes by Pribidrag and Tribidrag—Zinfandel found popular footing in California’s original wine boom.

By the early 1900s, it was grown nearly everywhere in the state, from the redwoods of Mendocino and hillsides of Paso Robles down to the flats of Rancho Cucamonga and elsewhere throughout Southern California.

When the state’s modern wine industry took off in the 1970s, Zinfandel enjoyed distinct advantages. Not only did its jammy profile attract American consumers seeking ripe flavors, but many wines came from old-vine vineyards, which provided a romantic connection to the Golden State’s almost forgotten, pre-Prohibition wine history.

Ripeness was only amplified over the years, so much so that Zinfandel’s most famed producer, Ravenswood, adopted the tagline “No Wimpy Wines.”

That brash attitude was shared by others statewide, and nowhere was the ensuing extravagance more apparent than the Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP) consortium that formed in 1992.

A San Francisco gathering of winemakers, grape growers and consumers, it became an annual bacchanalian affair where thousands came to sample tooth-staining Zins.

Six Producers Bringing out the Best in California Zinfandel

But as consumer tastes are shifting toward more elegant, less alcoholic wines, so is a lot of Zinfandel. I learned as much attending ZinEx earlier this year.

A rebranded version of ZAP also based in San Francisco, the three-day event put education on the forefront, showing many reasons to believe Zinfandel may get its groove back, albeit by doing a slightly different dance.

First, there’s a variety of styles being explored. I tasted powerful versions from Lodi, nuanced expressions from Sierra Foothills, savory styles from Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma and, perhaps most interestingly, sprightly spins from newer vines in Yolo County.

Such a range only portends well for the future.

Secondly, the old-vine connection is only more fascinating today. Whether they’re made ripe or lean, the old-vine wines I tasted possess truly unique California character, offering layers of herb and spice beyond the fruit.

And people only seem to want to know more about the stories behind these vineyards.

And lastly, there appears to be a deeper pursuit of field blend wines. This ties deeply to Zinfandel’s history, as the grape was often planted alongside Carignan, Petite Sirah and other “mixed black” varieties.

These Zin-led blends bode well for enjoyment, too. While we can’t make Zinfandel what it’s not, producers can employ other elements to add complexity. Indeed, that’s probably why they were planted together in the first place. So let’s embrace what we’ve got.

Three California Zinfandels to Try

Easton 2016 Rinaldi Vineyard Old Vine Zinfandel (Fiddletown); 94 points, $35. This intense, full-bodied and distinctive wine accents beautifully concentrated black cherry and blackberry flavors with haunting hints of sage, black pepper and balsam. A firm moderately tannic texture is buoyed by good fruit acidity. The vineyard in remote Fiddletown dates to 1865. –Jim Gordon

Rexford 2017 Gillian Enz Vineyard Zinfandel (Lime Kiln Valley); 91 points, $35. A great expression of the Gillian Enz Vineyard, located very close to the historic Enz Vineyard, this bottling shows aromas of blackberry jam, roasted black cherry and loamy soil on the nose. The palate is framed by bright acid and tight tannins, offering flavors of black cherry, violet and clove. Editors’ Choice. –M.K.

Stephen Ross 2017 Dante Dusi Vineyard Zinfandel (Paso Robles); 90 points, $40. From a historic vineyard, this is Zin done in an old-school, lighter style. Aromas of red plum, wet stone, damp wood and red spice show on the nose. A lush strawberry-sorbet flavor underlies the palate, where wild mint and more soggy forest-floor touches also arise. –M.K.

Published on April 28, 2020
Topics: Wine and Ratings