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Monday, March 3, 2014

Why Zinfandel is the Best

First, this is about red Zinfandel, not the pink stuff. Sorry to say this note is necessary for there are some who don't know the joys of real zin.

Sonoma County is well-known for Zinfandel as are several other parts of California including Amador County in the Sierra Foothills, Lodi in the Central Valley, Mendocino County just north of Sonoma, and Paso Robles in the central coast area.

  Origins of Zinfandel in California

California has many Zinfandel vineyards going back at least to the 1880s. I say "at least" because without original records of plantings you can't be sure how old a vineyard may be. The oldest producing documented vineyard is the Grandpere (grandfather) in Amador County dating from 1869.

Winemaker from Vino Noceto in the Grandpere Vineyards
Image from

Zinfandel's roots were traced back to an obscure grape from Croatia that made it to the East Coast of the U.S. in the 1820s then to California during the Gold Rush. Zinfandel was thought to be an Italian grape until its DNA was traced to Croatia. There was a large influx of Italian immigrants to Sonoma County in the 1880s with many going into the wine business and they planted lots of Zinfandel. You still see the names in the local grape biz: Foppiano, Pedroncelli, Rafanelli, Rochioli, Seghesio, Teldeschi, etc.

Zinfandel has now been shown to be the same as Primitivo in Italy.

About 10% of Sonoma County's, and California's, vineyards are planted to Zinfandel.

  Growing Zinfandel

Zinfandel has a habit of ripening unevenly so on a single vine you can have green, under ripe grapes along with shriveled up, overripe, raisiny grapes. Under ripe can taste herbaceous and acidic; overripe tastes sweet and pruney. Neither trait is good in large quantities.

That's a trick in growing and making Zinfandel--getting lots of nice bright fruit flavors without going over-the-top into pruniness and having the alcohol content so high you can taste it.

Dry Creek Valley -- Zinfandel Central!
  Zinfandel Styles

Zin comes in two major styles:
  • The more restrained version is generally lower on fruit flavors, higher in acid and tannin, can be described as elegant to rustic, and has some aging potential. Examples: Kenwood Vineyards, Storybook Mountain Vineyards, and Ridge Lytton Springs Vineyards.
  • The riper style is bold, big on sweet, soft red fruit flavors and often high in alcohol. You might call these powerhouse zinfandels. Examples: Mazzocco Winery, Rosemblum, and Wilson Winery.
Of course, not everyone is pigeon-holed in one of these two categories as many try for somewhere in between.

  Why Zinfandel is Special

It's incredibly versatile because the different styles can be used for different occasions.

The more fruit forward zins are great as a cocktail wine (without food). They can work with a slightly spicy or sweet beef or pork dish plus anything with a sweet BBQ sauce. The "sturdier" less ripe zins are great with anything tomato-based (spaghetti is the classic choice) to grilled meats especially burgers, sausages and ribs. A grilled ribeye with a Zinfandel can make for a nice summer evening.

Pinot Noir and Zinfandel can cover pretty much any wine need I have--Pinot with the lighter dishes and Zinfandel with just about anything else.
Lots of great Zins from Rockpile
Image from

Zin is usually rich, dark, concentrated, jammy, spicy, and full of berry flavors. Some of the more restrained style Zinfandels can age for many years though you'll want to consume most of them within five years of the vintage date.

Drinking a really outstanding well-made Zinfandel is a memorable event. One of my most unforgettable wine experiences was with a 15 year old Lytton Springs reserve Zinfandel that I was sure had to be over-the-hill. Not even--it was fantastic!

  Buying Zinfandel

There are many good growing regions in California besides the previously mentioned. Some specific appellations within Sonoma County to look for are Alexander, Dry Creek, and Russian River Valleys, plus Rockpile. Also, when I shop I look at the alcohol level listed on the label figuring 15% means fruit bomb, 14-14.5% means more restrained (this isn't guaranteed, but it's another data point in making a selection).

These different appellations within Sonoma County truly produce different Zinfandels. Some suggestions for producers you have a chance of finding on a store shelf near you:
Alexander Valley - Alexander Valley Vyds, deLorimier, Seghesio
Dry Creek Valley - Dry Creek Vyds, Ridge Lytton Springs, Mazzocco, Pedroncelli, Quiriva, Seghesio, Wilson
Russian River Valley - Deloach, Martinelli
Other nearby producers - St. Francis, Storybook Mountain

If you find you really like many of the Zinfandel wines you are finding then consider a visit to Sonoma County because you can visit dozens of small producers making some incredible wines.  Come see the folks at Bella, Carol Shelton, Dashe, Forchini, Hobo, Nalle, Trentadue, Valdez, etc. and you won't be disappointed.