Cabernet sauvignon has always been the king of California wine, and Napa Valley produces some of the most compelling and complex cabs on the planet. As in a family, cabernet is the “eldest child,” serious, pragmatic and respectable. The youngest member of the family is zinfandel, the inevitable malcontent, the goof-off, the one no one takes seriously.
I don’t mean white zinfandel (which was accidentally invented in 1975), but real, red zinfandel. Critics and collectors often ignore zinfandel because it isn’t a \”serious\” wine, although zin has a strong history. Zinfandel grapes were first planted in California in the 1850s and zinfandel was for sale in the 1830s on the east coast. Even today some of the vines planted in the 1880s are still producing top quality wine. In 2005, there were over 51,000 acres of zin planted in California, making it the fourth most-planted variety. Most of that juice was grown in the San Joaquin Valley, near Fresno, and turned into a watered-down, anemic blending wine that embarrasses the name
In spite of all this, it surprised everyone when Senator Carole Migden, D-San Francisco, proposed Senate Bill 1253. The bill proposed zinfandel as California’s official wine. Naming any wine in California as #the# state wine is dubious at best, but zinfandel lovers had reasons to celebrate. When the bill went before the state senate last year, Napa producers mobilized and put the squeeze on it, concerned that taking the spotlight from cabernet would adversely affect sales, prestige and years of hard work. The eldest child was unhappy and everyone knew it. When SB1253 came out of its own private crush, it had been reduced from its original intent, watered down as it were. \”This bill designates the wine of zinfandel to be a historic California wine. It doesn’t say it’s #the# historical California wine, although it is,\” said the bill’s author, Sen. Migden. The youngest child tried in vain to assert its position but, alas, it still can’t be taken seriously.
One thing is certain, however: California produces some of the best zinfandel anywhere. From Paso Robles to Santa Cruz, from the Russian River to Amador County in the Sierra Foothills, wineries like Saucelito Canyon, Renwood, Shenandohah Vineyards, Rosenblum Cellars and Ridge Vineyards produce sturdy, unique zinfandels that showcase this amazing grape. Even Ventura wineries like Herzog, Daume and Giessinger produce zin. And no place on earth grows it as well as California. Traditionally, zinfandel is dry-farmed, meaning it is grown with a lack of irrigation. Withholding water stresses the vines, causing the roots to go deeper in search of nutrients. That results in richer, more concentrated grapes. Well-made zinfandel is full of blackberry, pepper and raspberry and a tight tannic structure (though too often it’s a jammy mess of fruit and too much alcohol, not unlike the youngest kid in any family).
So the next time you’re feeling like a malcontent, be mischievous and pick up a bottle of California’s historic wine. It may not be a serious wine, but it’s damn fun.