Only a winemaker with a deep independent streak and an intentional avoidance of marketplace realities would devote their career to Zinfandel. The vines are difficult to manage, the wine is challenging to make and sales are perennially lukewarm, except among a small, dedicated following of Zin lovers.\r\n\r\nYet, such winemakers do exist, and the world is better because of them. The best Zin masters turn the fruit of gnarled old vines into bold, nuanced and expressive wines.\r\n\r\nZinfandel is known as California\u2019s heritage variety. While it appears to have originated in what\u2019s now Croatia, the grape came to the state in the mid 1840s. Production began to surge after the 1849 Gold Rush, well before the now-common French varieties were popular. It grew well in the Mediterranean climate and made good-quality wine in various styles, from sparkling and dessert wines to red and ros\u00e9 still selections.\r\n\r\nZin was the \u201cdarling of the California wine industry in the 1880s,\u201d says wine historian and author Charles L. Sullivan. It was the most widely planted red grape in the state as late as 1998, when Cabernet Sauvig\u00adnon replaced it atop the list.\r\n\r\nIts lineage and widespread plantings account for the many small patches of old vines today. The vines survive in spite of Zinfandel\u2019s notoriously uneven ripening habits, susceptibility to mildew and bunch rot, and only moderate color and tannin components. Grown in the right places, it has an exuberant berry-like, briary and spicy flavor profile that can be irresistible.\r\n\r\nThese six Zinfandel producers do it right. Unlike the mass-market Zins that wow drinkers with high alcohol and oaky, jammy flavors, these small-quantity, vineyard designated bottlings reflect their sites in widespread regions of the state. The wines embody subtlety and structure as they paint unique impressions of California terroir. \u2014Jim Gordon\r\n\r\n\r\nBill & Tom Greenough \r\nA Zinfandel Legacy\r\nAt Saucelito Canyon, crafting nuanced Zinfandel isn\u2019t much different today than it was when founder Bill Greenough made wine nearly 40 years ago.\r\n\r\n\u201cMy dad\u2019s first wines in the early 1980s were really low alcohol, 13% across the board,\u201d says Tom Greenough, Bill\u2019s son and the current winemaker. \u201cStyles have changed over the years, but we\u2019ve always tried to keep it consistent.\u201d\r\n\r\nBill found the remote property surrounded by mountains behind Arroyo Grande in 1974. It was home to forgotten Zinfandel vines planted by English homesteader Henry Ditmas in 1880. Just three acres, it had been San Luis Obispo\u2019s County\u2019s first commercial vineyard. But the vines were abandoned around Prohibition.\r\n\r\nUpon discovering the plot, Bill began to bring the head-pruned, dry-farmed vineyard back to life slowly. His first releases, red and white Zinfandel, were from the 1982 vintage, and he sold them from the trunk of his car.\r\n\r\nThose restored acres still form the core of Saucelito Canyon\u2019s estate program, which produces about 5,000 cases a year across 18 different bottlings, mostly Zinfandel varietal wines or blends.\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\nThe wines offer bright acidity and a high skin-to-juice ratio, as the old clones don\u2019t produce very heavy clusters or big grapes. The Greenoughs enhance complexity by staggering picking times from early on through later in the season.\r\n\r\n\u201cThe wines from here are naturally very well balanced,\u201d says Bill, who\u2019s focused on farming these days. \u201cThey\u2019re not quite so big and bold. The fruit is a lot more subtle.\u201d\r\n\r\nHe believes Tom is more adventurous in the cellar, where he cold-soaks some lots\u2014\u201cthat used to scare me to death,\u201d says Bill\u2014and puts others through open-top barrel fermentation. With Zinfandel, ripeness can vary among grapes in the same cluster, so the biggest challenge is determining the grape\u2019s sugar content at harvest.\r\n\r\nFor Tom, that\u2019s the key to \u201censure a good, clean fermentation and not get really high alcohols.\u201d\r\n\r\nTaking on the challenge does have its reward. Saucelito Canyon continues to make fans with its Zinfandel.\r\n\r\n\u201cZinfandel had the connotation for only being really big, giant, jammy, really extracted style of wine,\u201d says Tom. \u201cWhen people try our wines and other good Zinfandel producers, they can be really surprised when it is a more elegant wine, instead of being super sweet and really alcoholic.\u201d \u2014Matt Kettmann\r\n\r\n\r\nJoe Shebl\r\nSeeking the Soul of a Site\r\nShebl is director of winemaking and general manager of Renwood Winery, one of the biggest and best Zinfandel producers in Amador County and the Sierra Foothills. He\u2019s a strategic winemaker who\u2019s not shy about using French oak barrels, adding a particular yeast strain that enhances a wine\u2019s glycerol or even reducing alcohol through membrane filtration when he thinks it\u2019s necessary.\r\n\r\nBut he gives the credit for Renwood\u2019s impressive Zinfandels to Amador County\u2019s shallow soils, relatively high elevation and the warm days tempered by cool evening breezes that come down from the Sierra Mountains.\r\n\r\n\u201cMy battle cry at the winery is to find the best sites and let the fruit show through in the resulting wine,\u201d says Shebl. \u201cFreshness, vitality and drinkability are our hallmarks. To showcase that kind of Zinfandel, it doesn\u2019t have to be a high-alcohol, monster wine. We\u2019re able to preserve the soul of the site.\u201d\r\n\r\nShebl started at Renwood in 1999 as a cellar worker and rose to assistant winemaker. He left in 2009 to start his own winery, Fiddletown Cellars, which also produces outstanding Zinfandels from individual sites. Ultimately, however, he would return to Renwood in 2013\u2014it\u2019s as if his career has come full circle.\r\n\r\nShebl\u2019s Renwood wines are firm in tannins and fairly big at 14.5% alcohol, but that\u2019s wimpy compared to some of his neighbors that register 15% and higher. The differences in the sites show through, with Riker Vineyard displaying boisterous blackberry character and Story Vineyard laden with seductive lilac aroma.\r\n\r\n\u201cI am lucky enough to be able to make them the way I like to drink them,\u201d he says. \u201cWe get more of a finesse-driven style by picking sites that have the weight, but [we\u2019re] going for the sweet-sour balance in the wine. I like it when a wine starts \u2018sweet\u2019 and soft, but has some acidity behind it.\u201d \u2014J.G.\r\n\r\n\r\nBob Biale\r\nA Hero of Heritage\r\nIf you visit Grande Vineyard along the Silverado Trail with Biale, you might be invited into Dorothy Rossi\u2019s house for fresh-baked cookies. Her family has farmed this piece of land since 1920, still tending to many of the original vines.\r\n\r\nGrande is one of the knockout single-\u00advineyard designates made by Biale and his team at Robert Biale Vineyards. Such unique, long-standing parcels are the stuff that Biale\u2019s Zinfandel dreams are made of.\r\n\r\nIt all started with the Aldo Vineyard in Napa, in the middle of what\u2019s now the Oak Knoll District. The plot is named after Biale\u2019s father, Aldo, who found the head-trained Zinfandel vineyard planted in 1937. Despite urging, Aldo refused to replant the land with trendier grapes like Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. He was known to quip, \u201cMy dad grew Zinfandel and I\u2019m sticking with Zinfandel.\u201d\r\n\r\nThe familial vineyard and his father\u2019s persistence in producing Zinfandel was an inspiration to Biale when he founded Robert Biale Vineyards in 1991 with childhood friend and fellow Napa native, Dave Pramuk.\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\u201cZinfandel is not only an ideal wine grape for Napa Valley, and California in general, it symbolizes our forefathers\u2019 immigrant heritage story,\u201d says Biale. \u201cIt\u2019s a hardy grape that came from the Old World, adapted to a new land and went on to great success as the foundation of American winemaking.\u201d\r\n\r\nBiale works with dozens of historic Zinfandel and mixed-blacks sites across Napa Valley and Sonoma, on which he applies more Burgundian winemaking techniques. In 2013, Biale hired Trester \u201cTres\u201d Goetting, another Napa native, to help craft the wines.\r\n\r\nAldo\u2019s and Grande are two of the crown jewels in Biale\u2019s portfolio. The winery also makes Zinfandel from the Falleri Vineyard in Calistoga, a living relic of California\u2019s field-blend era, farmed by members of the Falleri family since the 1920s.\r\n\r\nOther notable sites in Biale\u2019s lineup include the Old Kraft Vineyard west of St. Helena that dates to the 1890s, one of the oldest vineyards in California; R.W. Moore Vineyard in Coombsville, originally planted to Zinfandel in 1905; and the Varozza Vineyard in St. Helena, which has been farmed by the Varozza family since 1913.\r\n\r\n\u201cOur remaining old vineyards in Napa are like historic treasures,\u201d says Biale. It\u2019s good to know that they\u2019re in great hands. \u2014Virginie Boone\r\n\r\n\r\nJake Bilbro\r\nA Sense of Place in Sonoma\r\nLimerick Lane is a historic brand and rambling estate vineyard largely devoted to Zinfandel, which is unusual for the Russian River Valley. Though the oldest producing part of the vineyard dates to 1910, Bilbro, a Sonoma County native who took over the property in 2011, is just its third owner.\r\n\r\n\u201cThe longer I spend at Limerick Lane, not just in the vineyard or in the winery, but living on the property, the more convinced I am that it is a truly magical site,\u201d says Bilbro, the son of Marietta Cellars founder Chris Bilbro. \u201cThe site speaks louder to me than the variety in many ways. Our wines, while full-bodied, are less about ripe fruit and more about the interplay between tannin, acidity and fruit.\u201d\r\n\r\nBilbro\u2019s wines show a real sense of place. They combine the power of a relatively warm knoll just south of Healdsburg with the cooling influence of the Russian River Valley appellation.\r\n\r\nThis is rare dirt for Zin, a variety that remains popular and respected within Sonoma County, even as the area continues to evolve and refine its plentiful Pinot Noir and Chardonnay offerings.\r\n\r\nBut Zinfandel\u2019s history in Sonoma County is significant. The county has the second-most Zinfandel acreage after San Joaquin, with a little more than 5,000 acres planted. Zin vineyards that date back to pre-Prohibition dot the region, and some of the most important producers to put the grape on the map are based here.\r\n\r\nLimerick Lane\u2019s Rocky Knoll Zinfandel has been our highest-scoring Sonoma County Zin for two vintages in a row (2013 and 2014). A dry-farmed, rocky outcropping of vines interspersed with Petite Sirah and Carignan, it\u2019s full-bodied yet balanced and beautifully put together.\r\n\r\n\u201cMy goal isn\u2019t to be considered a great Zinfandel producer, a great Sonoma County producer or even a great California producer, although I hope we are perceived as fitting into all of those categories,\u201d says Bilbro. \u201cMy goal is to have Limerick Lane seen as a world-class estate producer alongside the great estates whose wines happen to be Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Chardonnay, et cetera.\u201d\r\n\r\nHis hands full with the winery and being a father to four kids, Bilbro has slowly begun passing the winemaking reins for Limerick Lane to superstar Chris Pittenger.\r\n\r\nPittenger has been winemaker at Limerick Lane since July. He also makes the wines for his own brand, Gros Ventre Cellars, and was previously winemaker at Skinner Vineyards. \u2014V.B.\r\n\r\n\r\nScott Harvey\r\nFinding Beauty in Difficulty\r\nWhat\u2019s more difficult to make: Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon or Sierra Foothills Zinfandel? Harvey, who\u2019s crafted wines for almost 45 years, has made both more times than he can count. To him, the answer is easy. To make Zin, he contends, is not.\r\n\r\nHarvey took his first winemaking job at Montevina Winery in Amador County in 1974, and the next year did an official work-study winemaking apprenticeship in Germany. Returning to California, he spent the next two decades making Zinfandel and other wines for Story Winery, Santino Winery and Renwood Winery, also in the Sierra Foothills.\r\n\r\nIn 1996, Harvey was recruited as partner, winemaker and president of Folie \u00e0 Deux Winery in Napa. The winery was purchased out of foreclosure, and he was tasked with the mission to revive the operation.\r\n\r\n\u201cWhen I first went over to Napa and got a load of Cabernet Sauvignon delivered to the winery, I said, \u2018No wonder people like making wine over here,\u2019 \u201d says Harvey. \u201cThe fruit was pristine, evenly ripened and beautiful.\u201d\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\nHarvey produced award-winning Cabernet Sauvignons from the winery\u2019s Estate Vineyards in Napa Valley, but he also continued his passion for Amador Zin. He used the region\u2019s best vineyard sites and relationships with local growers to produce exciting wines under the Folie \u00e0 Deux brand.\r\n\r\nEight years later, Harvey returned to Amador County to launch his brand, Scott Harvey Wines. He knows the intricacies and potential shortcomings of the grape well, but what he is concerned about is the challenge that wine lovers face when choosing a Zinfandel.\r\n\r\n\u201cWhat\u2019s happening in Zin is that my style is hard to find, with lighter color, still 14.5% alcohol, but not that huge residual sugar and low acidity that you find in what I call \u2018New World-style\u2019 wines,\u201d he says. \u201cI think the consumer is becoming confused. When I go into a restaurant myself, I am absolutely not ordering a Zinfandel if I don\u2019t know which one it is.\u201d\r\n\r\nHis solution has been to place a graphic on the back label of Scott Harvey Zinfandel bottles. It depicts a style scale from left to right that ranges from New World to Old World, the latter end where Harvey places his winged dragon logo. It serves to show where his dry, non-oaky, complex and high-elevation wines stand. \u2014J.G.\r\n\r\n\r\nRobert Henson\r\nPerfecting Paso Robles\r\nWhen Doug and Nancy Beckett launched Peachy Canyon Winery with 350 cases of old-vine Zinfandel in 1988, the former San Diego teachers became Paso Robles wine country pioneers.\r\n\r\nFor more than 25 years, the pair crafted rich, jammy Zins that would become the emerging region\u2019s hallmark style with the help of their sons, Josh and Jake, who also co-founded Chronic Cellars.\r\n\r\nThen, in 2015, the Becketts hired Robert Henson as winemaker and shifted course. Over the past three years, Henson has explored how Zinfandel can translate the terroir of the family\u2019s five estate vineyards.\r\n\r\n\u201cPicked at the right time and treated with restraint, Zinfandel shows sense of place as well as any other grape,\u201d says Henson. \u201cIt\u2019s more like Pinot Noir than anyone knows.\u201d\r\n\r\nAnd it is often considered more challenging than Pinot Noir in the vineyard. \u201cA perfectly ripe cluster has raisins,\u201d he says. \u201cIf you pick without raisins, you get a green flavor, so optimal ripeness has some raisins.\u201d\r\n\r\nHenson worked in restaurants in the decade following college, as he opened about 45 properties for Brinker International. He then studied winemaking at California State University, Fresno, and worked for Michael Michaud, who crafted legendary Chalone Vineyard wines before he started his namesake label.\r\n\r\n\u201cI didn\u2019t realize how important an apprenticeship would be,\u201d says Henson. It was while working for Michaud that his tastes shifted from heavy Napa Cabs and Super Tuscans to more delicate, ageworthy wines. \u201cI unlearned everything I knew,\u201d he says.\r\n\r\nThat more delicate approach is what Henson applies to the Peachy Canyon wines. He has helped replant many of the older vineyard blocks and even dialed back production from a peak of 100,000 cases to about 50,000.\r\n\r\nOne of his favorite projects is the D-Block, a one-acre plot of 18 heritage Zinfandel clones from across the state that the University of California, Davis, collected years ago. The grapes are picked at once and go into the same bottling. The resulting complexity, Henson says, is \u201cbecause all of the clones hit these different peaks and valleys.\u201d\r\n\r\nIt\u2019s just one more reason to revisit this new era of Zin. And one more reason why, as Henson says, \u201cpeople are remembering that they like Zinfandel again.\u201d \u2014M.K.