The New Zinfandel

by Andrew Chalk

Zinfandel is the Apple computer of wine grapes. No grape has a following like it. These oeno-moonies flock to San Francisco each superbowl weekend to attend ZinFest, AKA ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates and Producers), a tasting of virtually every Zinfandel maker’s wines. The winemakers themselves are there pouring, connecting one-on-one with their reverential disciples. It’s a hugfest. Or it was. I attended reliably for a decade – and then I stopped. It wasn’t the fact that ZinFest had grown from 2,000 people in a section of one of the halls at Fort Mason to 10,000 spilling like a corpulent’s spare fat out of both halls onto the deck outside (to the doubtless amusement of the sea lions swimming in San Francisco bay). It wasn’t the long lines. The deciding factor was the changed character of Zinfandel itself. When I started drinking Zin it was like being in a secret society. Most “serious” wine drinkers scoffed at the grape as raw ingredient numero uno of jug wines like Gallo Hearty Burgundy. Aside from ignoring the seminal role played by Hearty Burgundy in getting me through graduate school, this argument ignored a small cadre of California producers treating the grape as a first-class varietal. They made the wine as carefully as they made their Cabernet Sauvignons and their Chardonnays. Best known amongst this cadre was Ridge Vineyards, one of the most respected wineries in California. I tasted their flagship Zinfandel at Saturday tastings hosted by the best wine store in St. Louis at that time (long since closed). I could not afford that wine (Ridge Lytton Springs) but I could, now and again, afford their $6.99 entry-level offering California Coast Range. It was so-called to denote the fact that the grapes came from anywhere in northern California and not a specific vineyard like Lytton Springs. Ridge California Coast Range was a seductive wine in every sense.

Buyers of varietally labelled Zinfandel at that time were like current-day Hyundai buyers: unimpressionable by label cachet and looking solely at the value proposition that was offered. Our numbers slowly increased and, even though new stations in life like “working stiff” afforded me an income large enough to go-mainstream and buy Cabernet and Pinot Noir, I still drank Zinfandel on a regular basis. Enough others did likewise and Zinfest, and its vehicle ZAP, were born. There were, by agreement, three styles of Zinfandel in the 1980s. The light ‘claret’ style exemplified by Rafanelli. The fruity, peppery style that was the mainstream. And a late harvest style (often misleadingly named ‘Port’).

The Rodney Dangerfield status of the grape was transformed by influential wine critic Robert Parker. He ordained Turley Hayne Vineyard Zinfandel with 90 points on his 100 point scale and sales of the grape went through the roof. Every producer wanted to make Zinfandel in the style of Turley. That meant: high alcohol (often over 15%); pronounced residual sweetness; massive forward fruit; French oak and soft ripe tannins. The wines were not badly made. That was the problem. They were well-made fruit-bombs. They did not go with food, and they did not age. They were tiring to drink and quickly became monotonous. Returning to ZAP each year, more and more of the producers were switching to this style. There was definitely a section of the market that liked it, mainly new wine drinkers, and it may have performed a useful role by virtue of it being their first stepping stone into the complicated and protean world of wine appreciation. For me, the style was an exit door from Zinfandel, and I stopped generally buying it and drinking it frequently. I still had the wine when someone else brought some to a tasting, or at trade events, but the level of exposure was lower than it had been.

Enter Joel Peterson. Or, rather, re-enter Joel Peterson. The founder and winemaker of Ravenswood Vineyards is one of the most respected Zinfandel winemakers on the planet. He came through town recently to taste me on his single vineyard designate wines — the pinnacle of the Ravenswood lineup. He didn’t know it, but he was also setting me straight on how Zinfandel can be made with reasonable alcohol levels, complex mouth flavors, and be reflective of the terroir where the grapes were grown. Over sophisticated barbecued meats and roast vegetables and grains like polenta (grits, as they call them in Italy) at Smoke we worked through five single-vineyard designates and Joel provided background on each one.




2011 Ravenswood Zinfandel Dickerson Vineyard, Napa Valley

Zinfandel from Napa is rare. Most of it has been pulled to make way for Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine is 100% Zinfandel from what might be considered Ravenswood’s most famous vineyard. 4 acres planted in 1930, 3 acres in 1979 and 3 acres in 1985. Virtually all old-vine fruit (> 30 years). Low yielding but characterful.

Ruby color. The nose is rich with dark fruit (blackberries, plums), tar  and mintiness from the eucalyptus trees that grow along the vineyard perimeter. Taste is ripe, but complemented by pencil lead and wood notes. Grippy tannins. It is not too alcoholic, nor too oaky, nor too sweet.

This is a very mainstream wine that would make a good introduction to Zinfandel for a neophyte or as an example of the grape included in a blind tasting.

2009 Ravenswood Zinfandel Big River Vineyard Alexander Valley, Sonoma County.

100% Zinfandel from the classic Zinfandel growing Alexander Valley area.

Color shows age: transitioning from purple/ruby to garnet/ruby towards the edge.

More red fruit in the nose (raspberries). In the mouth the fruit is more open than the previous wine (likely again due to age). Tannins still have considerable force.

2011 Ravenswood Zinfandel Belloni Vineyard, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County

75% Zinfandel, 25% mixture of Petite Sirah, Alicante Bouschet and possibly others in trace amounts.

Dark fruit in the nose with hints of licorice. Velvety tannins in the mouth. Great for current drinking.

2011 Ravenswood Zinfandel Barricia Vineyard, Sonoma Valley.

75% Zinfandel, 25% mixture of Petite Sirah and Carignan. Planted in 1892.

The Petite Sirah contributes a pepperiness to the nose of this wine. There is also black cherry. In the mouth there are dark fruit flavors, soft tannins and a long, dark fruit finish.

2011 Ravenswood Zinfandel Teldeschi Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County.

78% Zinfandel, 18% Petite Sirah, 4% Alicante Bouschet. Planted in 1913.

Ruby color. Nose of blackberry and  boysenberry.  Mouth filling dark fruit flavors along with black pepper and pencil lead. My personal favorite.

These wines all leave the bad habits I spoke of behind. They are complex, have hallmarks of age worthiness and are copacetic with food. Thanks Joel. I think I might start drinking some Zinfandels again.

1 Comment

Filed under Andrew Chalk, Crave, Wine

One response to “The New Zinfandel

  1. Welcome back to Zinfandel. Thank you for the thoughtful article. I love your history and thought about ZAP. As you probably know we have cut some of the fat that was feeding the Sea Lions. We have opted for a much smaller, more intimate, educational venue at the Presidio. Back to our roots!

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