Giving Thanks for Field Blends

Around Thanksgiving, a lot of people like to ask me which wine I suggest with turkey.

My stock response is, “Whatever you like.”

Turkey is so neutral in flavor that just about any wine will work well with it.

Now, if someone asks instead what wine I actually choose to drink with my turkey dinner, I tell them that I love America’s most quintessential wine: the Old Vine Zinfandel Field Blend.

The field blend is more than just Zinfandel, though Zin is certainly the main player. On its own, Zin can sometimes be a little too much of a good thing. The grape also ripens unevenly, and can sometimes mix unripe and overripe flavors in a slightly unpleasant way. Other grapes like Petite Sirah, Carignane, Mourvèdre and Alicante Bouschet can add color and even out flavors in a compelling way.

It’s A Zin Thing

Try these vintage-blend favorites with
your turkey and mashed potatoes.

Ravenswood “Old Vine Hill”
Joel Peterson produces less than 1,000 cases of this, but it is worth the hunt to secure a bottle.  This wine can seem almost overwhelming in its depth and reserves of flavor. It has all the brambly berries Zin is so famous for, but the other varieties contribute secondary aromas and flavors that produce a striking, complex wine.

Ridge Geyserville
Really, any Ridge wine will do, but Geyserville has always been a personal favorite. The 2011 vintage blends Zin, Carignane, Petite Sirah, Alicante Bouschet and Mataro (Mourvèdre) and is as silky and complex as a powerhouse can be.

Bogle Phantom
This $20 bottle delivers major flavor bang for the buck. OId Vine Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Mourvedre produce a big, bold, dark and rich red that will stain the glass and bring smiles to the faces of Thanksgiving Day guests.

Marietta Old Vine Red
This wine is, year-in and year-out, one of the finest values produced in California. The current release is Lot 59. Zinfandel is the dominant grape, with an assortment of other “Mixed Blacks” there to play various supporting roles. At less than $15, this wine would make for a fine Thanksgiving value, as well as a wonderful weeknight wine for leftover turkey.

The field blend is often produced from ancient vineyards planted by immigrants during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Pre-prohibition, these field blends composed the bulk of all wines produced in California. Joel Peterson, the legendary winemaker and Zinfandel advocate at Sonoma’s Ravenswood winery, believes Prohibition cost America an opportunity to have its own wine.

“The Zinfandel field blend is the type of wine that would have made California famous 80 years ago, if it hadn’t been for Prohibition,” he says. “This wine would have been California’s Bordeaux, Châteauneuf-du-Pape or Chianti — a blended wine made from grapes chosen by the people of the region, through mostly trial and error, to produce the best wine they thought the region could produce. In other words, a fine regional wine only associated with California, made nowhere else in the world.”

When Prohibition passed, the American wine industry was nearly destroyed, and even after Repeal, it took until well after World War II for the industry to revive itself. Where Zinfandel and blends dominated before the War, Cabernet Sauvignon became the new big thing after it. Many of the old vineyards in Napa and Sonoma were uprooted, if they hadn’t already stopped producing, and varietally-labeled wines modeled after the reds and whites of France eventually became California’s claim to fame.

Fortunately, small pockets of the original old-vine vineyards survived, and in the ‘70s, winemakers like Peterson and Paul Draper at Ridge began to seek out these hallowed pieces of land and began producing iconic field blends. Peterson’s Old Hill Ranch bottling, along with Draper’s Geyserville, Pagani Ranch and Lytton Springs wines are rightly considered among California’s top wines.

American consumers have noticed. More and more, the “red blend” is a category that sells, and many large companies have rushed to fulfill demand. These less expensive reds can range from remarkable values to dismal and anonymously sweet.

At its best, the Zinfandel field blend delivers a unique wine experience steeped in American history.

It is a style that has survived the test of time, and would be a lovely addition to Thanksgiving dinner!

Categories: Beer, Wine, Spirits, Food