Zinfandel – California’s Claret

Yes, it’s true, all Zinfandel grapes have red skins. The white Zinfandel grape does not exist – yet.

Zinfandel has been a part of California’s history for around 150 years. It was rumored to have been brought into California in 1862 by Agoston Haraszthy, then owner of Buena Vista Winery. He was a member of the state commission on viticulture who brought back thousands of vine cuttings from a trip to Europe. His account of this trip and his work in the early California wine industry can be read in his book Grape Culture, Wines and Winemaking, published in 1862.

However, Zinfandel was never mentioned in Haraszthy’s literature of the time. Instead, there is mention of “Zenfendel” in 1829, by a Mr. George Gibbs of Long Island. Zenfendel resurfaced in Boston a few years later where it was known as “Zinfindal” and grown in greenhouses as a table grape.

After the California Gold Rush, many a forty-niner decided to forsake the gold pan for a plow, sending for plants from the east coast. It’s likely that Zinfindal was included in a shipment around 1852 and by 1859 was documented to be grown in both Napa and Sonoma. In 1862, the same year that Haraszthy’s book was published, the Sonoma Horticultural Society gave a bottle of Zinfindal to a French winemaker at a California winery who proclaimed it “a good French claret.”

Still, Zinfandel was used to make jug wines in the early years and favored by the California winemakers of Italian decent. It reminded them of the wines from Sardinia, Sicily or Puglia. With good reason.

In the early 1990’s, the mysterious Zinfandel was finally DNA fingerprinted. It was found to be the Primitivo grape of southern Italy. But even that was disputed when an ancient Croatian variety, Crljenak Kastelanski, was confirmed to be – through DNA fingerprinting – genetically identical to Zinfandel.

It turns out that Crljenak Kastelanski and Primitivo are related, sort of like twins. Triplets if you count Zinfandel. But differences in vine vigor and cluster size separate Zinfandel from its genetic twins. Other differences such as soil, rainfall and winemaking combine to give Zinfandel its own truly American style.

U.S. regulations stipulate that on wine labels, Zinfandel and Primitivo be identified separately. Thankfully, there is no danger of having to learn how to pronounce Crljenak Kastelanski on an American wine label.

Today, Zinfandel is California’s third most widely planted grape in 45 of the 58 counties. In 2014, total acreage planted to Zinfandel was 47,827 with San Joaquin topping the charts at 18,718. Sonoma had 5,260 acres; Amador brought up third place with 2,055, Mendocino had 1,930 and Napa, a mere 1,497 acres.

Over 100 years later, California Zinfandel has more than 4,800 labels. A majority of the grapes, though, are used to make White Zinfandel. White Zinfandel at 35 million cases continues to outsell red Zinfandel.

Over the past thirty years, it has developed into one of California’s best reds. However, depending on climate and producer, there are so many different styles ranging from big, rich, ripe, high-alcohol, spicy, smoky, concentrated, and intensely flavored to a light, fruity rose.

The best Zinfandel, for my palate, are not the pink ones.  However, a very long time ago, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, with no other wine on the boat, I drank some Sutter Home White Zinfandel. It tasted delicious out there in the middle of the ocean with no store within miles.

But I’ve had many more bottles of the big, full-bodied, robust, rich, intensely flavored Zins that have stained my teeth to look like a geisha’s.

Some of my favorites that come to mind are Cline in southern Sonoma. They have acres of old, Old Vines. Their Oakley vineyards are dry-farmed and head-pruned, as they were a century ago. Hot sun, sandy soil, and cool evening air from the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers produce a stunning, concentrated wines.

Also in Sonoma, Dry Creek  Vineyards owns Beeson Ranch, old vineyard dating back to 1896. This head-pruned, dry farmed property produces a very delicious claret style Zinfandel.

Martinelli Winery has been farming the valley since 1880. They specialize in small single lots of great wine. The wines are fermented with naturally occurring yeasts, and kept in barrel for 10 months. They are unfiltered and unfined, and only racked before bottling. This is an intense Zin.

I’ve followed the footsteps of Ridge, who bottle read-ridgevineyard designated Zinfandels. Ridge began in 1886 with 180 acres in the Santa Cruz Mountains. That was done in by prohibition but they reappeared with new ownership and wine in 1962. Winemaker Paul Draper has an unbroken record of hits with his Zinfandels. Look for Geyserville, Lytton Springs, Dusi Ranch, Pagani and Three Valleys. The wine labels are an oenological education for sommelier wannabes.

Rafanelli holds a special placed in my heart. While visiting Sonoma, we popped in on Rafanelli because it was so hard to get in Washington State. It was mid-afternoon and the tasting room was not open yet. We went out front and took pictures of the head pruned vines out front. They had to have been at least 100 years old.

Meanwhile, a school bus stopped in front of the winery and out stepped Shelly Rafanelli. She opened the tasting room door, dropped her books on the table and the tasting commenced. We were treated to some sublime wines.

Other Zin makers to seek out are Ravenswood with a No Wimpy Wine attitude. they have a stable full of intense, rich red Zinfandels. Ravenswood is celebrating 40 years under the leadership of Joel Petersen, who works with over 100 growers.

Another really longtime Sonoma County family is Seghesio Family Vineyards. In 1895, Italian immigrant and winemaker Edoardo Seghesio planted his first Zinfandel vineyard. Seghesio was a key supplier of grapes and bulk wine to California wineries. Around 1983, the fourth generation Seghesios began selling Zin and other varietals under the Seghesio label.

Zinfandel, whether white or red, is a great party wine. Perfect for backyard picnics and family get-togethers. Enjoy these Zins with barbecued meats with sweet barbecue sauces, stewed or roasted beef, strong, rich cheeses like blue or Stilton, duck, hamburgers especially with cheese, lamb, pizza, pork chops, sausage, and it’s also the perfect match with that mother of all family get-togethers – Thanksgiving. Cheers!