Zinfandel's Storied Past
Why this underrated wine pairs well with Thanksgiving dinner
At my house, there’s one wine that is always served at Thanksgiving. The maker may vary, and the vintage usually will too, but there is always zinfandel on the table. Like the early settlers of the colonies, zinfandel came from humble roots and grew into something important. Whether it was near the redwoods of Mendocino, the Napa benchlands, the cool Russian River or the hot sun of Paso Robles, zinfandel excelled in California.
But, unlike most other great wine grapes, zinfandel’s origin was shrouded in mystery. It was clearly of European descent, but unlike cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, pinot or merlot, there was no obvious correspondent in the Old World. Many people suspected it was a grape that had faded away in Europe and somehow found a new home on the West Coast.
Zinfandel was first planted in California in the 1850s and soon became the most widely planted grape in the state. It was grown on its own or as part of what are now called “field blends.” These vineyards were often planted by Italian settlers in California and were often haphazard plantings of more than a dozen varieties that were harvested all at once and co-fermented. Some of these ancient vineyards still exist, with 100-plus-year-old plantings that are jealously guarded by a small coterie of California winemakers.
The grape fell out of fashion during and after Prohibition. Many of the oldest plantings were ripped out and planted to other varieties. A few producers soldiered on with the variety, but most of it disappeared into mass-produced blends and fortified wines.
The wine that saved zinfandel is also the wine that almost killed it: the ubiquitous Sutter Home white zinfandel. In 1972, when white-wine demand outstripped the availability of white grapes, the Trinchero family experimented with making a lightly colored, dry, almost-white-but-not-quite wine from juice bled off early from their Deaver vineyard grapes. The wine was a success, but in 1975 the fermentation “stuck” before the wine fermented fully dry, and after checking in on the wine two weeks later, the Trincheros decided to release it, and white zinfandel as we know it was born.
Most “serious” wine people look at white zinfandel lightly, but many of the remaining old-vine zin plantings survived because of it. At the same time white zinfandel was being invented, the original identity of the grape began to be revealed.
Professor Austin Goheen of the University of California, Davis began to unravel the mystery when he visited Italy in 1967, and noticed that wines made from a little-known grape called primitivo bore more than a passing resemblance to zinfandel in both appearance and flavor. The science is very detailed, but by 1993 Dr. Carole Meredith, one of the great authorities on the topic, showed thorough DNA analysis that zinfandel and primitivo were clones of the same variety. Through their relationship to another grape, those varieties were traced further north from Italy into Croatia to a rare variety cultivated there since the 15th century.
The wine produced from zinfandel is distinctive and exuberant. Descriptions of the wines often include adjectives like “briary” and “jammy.” Depending on where it is planted, zinfandel can be intensely aromatic and floral, with bright berry flavors in cooler climates, to heady, spicy luscious ripe reds in warmer climates.
This brash red wine, even with its foreign roots, turned into a unique American wine success story. On a uniquely American holiday, it’s the perfect dinner pair.
Ridge Geyserville, Lytton Springs or Three Valleys – There’s a case to be made that Ridge is America’s greatest winery. There are multiple single-vineyard bottlings here, but Geyserville and Lytton Springs are year-in and out, benchmark examples of how rich, aromatic and complex zinfandel can be. The more widely available and affordable Three Valleys is a great introduction to Ridge.
Ravenswood Vintners Blend – This winery used to vie with Ridge for primacy in the zinfandel world, but at the end of the 20th century they shifted emphasis from single-vineyard bottlings — they still make it, and it’s outstanding — to more widely available value wines. The VB zinfandel is both easy to find and enjoy.
Storybook Mountain Vineyards – It’s one of the only Napa-based wineries to emphasize zinfandel. Dr. Jerry Seps makes three different wines — Eastern Exposures, Mayacamas Range and Reserve — and all are special examples of what zinfandel can do in Napa terroir. These wines are big, structured and lush, and unlike many zinfandels, these wines do quite well in the cellar.