Columnist Lettie Teague discovers that her love of Zinfandel has put her at the height of fashion, for once.
Most of the things I like aren't very fashionable. I live in a neighborhood a few streets away from fancy (my husband has dubbed it "Applebee Acres" in honor of the nearest dining establishment). My car is euphemistically referred to as a "late model"--doesn't that sound better than "used"? Even my dog doesn't rank high among American Kennel Club breeds (27th, if you must know). So the fact that one of my favorite wines--Zinfandel--is in vogue came as quite a surprise.
As little as five years ago, red Zinfandel was an oenophile's outcast, its reputation almost ruined by a certain pink plonk called White Zinfandel. Today, thanks to committed producers turning out intense, high-quality wines, Zin is in favor again. Now would-be Zin drinkers will wait years for a bottle of a certain single-vineyard, mailing-list wine while others will pay three-figure prices to purchase them in restaurants. At Daniel in New York City, patrons happily pony up $226 for a bottle of Martinelli's fabled 1997 Jackass Hill Zin.
As a longtime Zin fan, it feels good to finally be part of a popular movement (unless you count amassing credit-card debt). It's a far cry from the days when Zin drinkers were the vinous equivalent of a political third party. It used to be easy to spot a fellow Zin enthusiast--likely as not sporting a T-shirt proclaiming a preference for big, juicy reds. Ravenswood's motto was a particular favorite, with its muscular boast: "No wimpy wines." Now you can't tell a Zin freak from a Cabernet cultist. Both wear shirts emblazoned with the crest of a certain polo player.
I guess in some ways this change was inevitable. Disaffected drinkers of other varieties--Cab drinkers tired out by tannins, Merlot drinkers maddened by an endless array of thin, weedy wines--were destined to catch on to the fact that a rich, juicy Zinfandel gives more consistent satisfaction. And with a good Zin, the gratification is practically immediate: lots of lush, ripe fruit right up front and, on the finish, approachably soft tannins. Oh sure, sometimes the alcohol gets a little excessive (some Amador County wines have gone close to 17 percent), but overall, Zinfandel is an awfully easy-to-drink wine. It's also a great food wine; with equal amounts of fruit and acidity, Zin matches well with a wide range of dishes. That's why it's my Thanksgiving choice year after year.
The story of Zinfandel is, accordingly, an all-American one. That is, it starts with an immigration, in this case, of a vine brought to this country via Long Island in the early 1830s. (The exact origin of Zinfandel is the source of ongoing debate; some say it came by way of Croatia, others think its parent was Italy's Primitivo grape.) Soon after its arrival, Zinfandel was shipped to Massachusetts for exhibition at a horticultural show. Home winemakers were urged to try it. And while the sales campaign was by all accounts successful, Zinfandel ultimately fell out of favor. I couldn't find a Massachusetts winery still growing the grape. When I phoned Westport Rivers, the state's biggest winery, owner Carol Russell seemed surprised to learn it had ever been planted there. "But we're a cool climate region!" she protested. I urged her to consider a revival, but she politely demurred, saying she'd "rather plant hops."
California winemakers were a lot more receptive. When Zinfandel arrived in the mid-1800s, it was an immediate hit. In fact, it was so widely accepted that nearly 150 years later, Zinfandel is considered a de facto native--which is more than could have been hoped for had Zin remained in Massachusetts, a state where it actually matters whether you arrived via the Mayflower.
Today, many of those early California vines still produce fruit--witness the proliferation of labels that proclaim a Zin made from "100-year-old vines" or sometimes just "very old vines." This latter assertion is left open to winery interpretation; there are no rules regarding what can be called an old vine--one winemaker's ancient may be another's adolescent. It is, however, not just a marketing ploy; grapes from old vines generally produce wines of greater depth, interest and flavor.
Although the age of such vines suggests an enduring popularity, the story of Zinfandel is more boom and bust. By the late 1970s, it was almost entirely bust. Serious wine drinkers were looking to France, while more frivolous types were finding pleasure in things pink and fizzy. No one seemed to care much for homegrown red Zinfandel.
What happened next is one of the ironies of the grape. (How can you not love a grape that's got irony?) The invention of White Zinfandel--made by removing the red skins of the Zinfandel grape before fermentation--actually rescued red Zinfandel. The demand for White Zin saved growers from having to pull up all their old Zinfandel vines to replant them with something more popular. They still made red wine, too, but for many, the pink stuff paid the bills. Some highly respected producers went this route, including De Loach in the Russian River Valley, which still turns out a better-than-average blush, in addition to its elegant reds.
But Zinfandel isn't just a chameleon when it comes to color. It's also adaptable to a wide range of places, although after 100-plus years, producers have a pretty good handle on where it does best. While Napa was one of Zin's first destinations, it's been by and large replaced by the cash crop Cabernet. That said, there are still several great Zin-growing areas there, mostly in the mountains and on hillsides. Generally, Napa Zins are a little more polished, a little more, well, Cabernet-like than those of other regions. They're also a little more expensive. Some favorites include the nearly unattainable Turley, as well as those of producers Storybook Mountain, Green & Red and Howell Mountain Vineyards.
Sonoma is a very different story. Not only does it have twice as much land devoted to Zinfandel, it's also home to its most important appellations, among them Dry Creek, Russian River and Alexander Valley. Of the three, Dry Creek has the edge. Home to a large number of old vines, this region traditionally produces Sonoma's most powerful wines. Notable Sonoma producers include Ridge (Lytton Springs label), St. Francis and Dry Creek Vineyard, whose Heritage Clone Zin is a great deal at about $15 a bottle.
The cooler climate of the Russian River Valley produces Zins that are more about elegance than power. A few favorites include De Loach, as well as vineyard-designated bottlings from Ravenswood and Rosenblum. These two wineries, along with another famous winery that begins with an "R", Ridge, produce Zins from all over California, ranging from simple value-priced blends to very fancy, single-vineyard bottlings.
There are also plenty of stylish, even more affordable Zins made in less well-charted locales. Down in Paso Robles, Doug Beckett, founder of Peachy Canyon winery, turns out a terrific Bordeaux-like Zin he named after one side of a highway ("Westside"). Way east in Amador in the foothills of the Sierras (which the local tourist board insists on calling "Gold-Rush Country"), the Zins are more brawny than Bordeaux-like. One reason is the area's very old vines; there are Zinfandel vineyards in Amador that are older than California's statehood. Nevertheless, wineries like Renwood and Monteviña turn out Zins that are enormously concentrated but also impressively polished. (Look for Monteviña's Terra d'Oro Deaver Ranch Old Vines bottling.)
A similar full-throttle style plays out in Mendocino, with producers Mariah and Edmeades making some of the county's most interesting wines. Although Edmeades was a Zin pioneer in the early 1970s, it was only with its acquisition by the Jackson family 13 years ago that the winery's--and for that matter, the region's--potential was realized.
Zin makers are focusing not only on regional styles but more particularly on single-vineyard wines, presumably from plots where the grape performs best. In fact, there are so many single-vineyard Zins around now, it sometimes seems as if every vineyard in California is planted to Zinfandel.
But the most famous vineyard of all, Jackass Hill, is one of the oldest. This 114-year-old Russian River property produces a wine of legendary richness and intensity, but in such minute amounts that even the most dedicated Zinfandel lovers, myself included, have never tasted it. Even when I made a pilgrimage to Martinelli, begging, cajoling, waving credit cards and cash, the owners stood firm: None of their Jackass Hill Zin was for sale. Every last bottle belonged to mailing-list customers.
I admired their militant brand of commitment--and resolved to start saving for that bottle at Daniel.