The Importance of Zinfandel

In 1888, George Hussman, writing what is the first great book on California winemaking, noted “I have yet to see the red wine of any variety, which I would prefer to the best samples of Zinfandel produced in this State. Unfortunately these best examples are like angels visits, ‘few and far between.’ The reasons for this are manifold. While it will grow and bear abundantly in almost any soils, it is by no means a perfect grape, and must be closely studied to give its best results. First, it needs a soil rich in minerals, iron especially, to produce its best fruit. Then it mist be well ripened, and many cannot wait for this, but pick it when fully colored. As. with a fair percentage of sugar, it also contains abundance of tartaric acid, it will make a wine that is greenish, harsh, and sour, if picked too early. Then it ripen unevenly, often having a large quantity of shriveled berries together with unripe ones, on the same bunch. This is apt to deceive the winemaker, as the sugar contained in the over-ripe berries does not appear fully in the must, when testing with the saccharometer. When this is the case, and there are many of these dried berries, the juice will really come to 25 balling, when it show but 22 to 23…But for all this, it is a noble grape and deserves all the care we can give it.”

How little has changed in that last 120 years!

Zinfandel is indeed a noble grape— and the noble grape that California can call its own. Similar to the other noble grapes of the world— the Pinot Noir of Burgundy, the Cabernet varieties of Bordeaux, the Nebbiolo of Piedmont, and the Riesling of Germany to name but a few— it only reaches an apogee of excellence when a fortuitous combination of great site, old vines, good year, and excellent winemaking intersect. More than any varietal— it is a bitch to make well. As such, the styles vary dramatically, from sweet to pink to red, brooding and alcoholic, green and astringent, to jam. No varietal in California suffers more from bad-oaking. Indeed, the best examples are “Angel’s Visits.”

For me, Zinfandel needs to straddle a spot between opulence and brightness, spice, and perfume. It should be powerful but have a certain elegance. The greatest examples I have had have weight but dance. And this is what I am looking for my Zinfandel’s to do: they need to do an Aztec two-step (to riff-off Ferlinghetti), they should jitterbug with perfume (to jig a bit of Tom Robbins); they should be more Brigitte Bardot than Catherine Deneuve (to steal from any number of people that slept with Bardot when she was underage by current American standards); they should be sultry, sprightly, and sexy. And most importantly, they should ooze soul-satisfying deliciousness.

To achieve this I focus almost exclusively on ancient vines grown in great sites. I am a proponent of dry-farming, organic viticulture when possible—sustainable at the very least, picking at reasonable ripeness, the use of native yeasts, fermentation to dryness, manual punchdowns, limited racking, and a moderate dose of really good, tight-grained, French oak. With all my wines, I value perfume and dexterity over excessive ripeness, I believe deeply in that much bandied about term “balance.” With Diane Kenworthy, from Sunbreak Vineyard Services, and one of the most knowledgeable people when it comes to old Zinfandel, I try to farm as many vineyards as I can to ensure that I am fully to blame for the results :-)

As of harvest 2010, I am incredibly pleased to receive fruit from the following vineyards for Zinfandel (some go into the Sonoma Valley Old-Vine, a few will be vineyard-designated when he combination of year and quality coincide).

Stellwagen Vineyard, Sonoma Valley (planted 1890’s, and includes many mixed blacks and some Semillon)
Von Weidlich Vineyard, Russian River Valley (planted 1930’s)
Monte Rosso Vineyard, Sonoma Valley (1880’s)
Puccini Vineyard, Sonoma Valley (1906)
Lasseter Vineyard, Sonoma Valley (1919)
Scatena Vineyard, Sonoma Valley (1930’s)
Bedrock Vineyard, Sonoma Valley (1880’s)
Lorenzo’s Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley (1900’s)