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Views on Zinfandel
By Gerald D. Boyd
Oct 30, 2012
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In his book on California wine, the British wine writer, Stephen Brook said that Zinfandel has a “forthright love-me-or-leave-me character.”  That pretty much sums up the no compromise essence of Zinfandel in California, from its emergence in the 1830s to the beginning of the Zin Renaissance beginning in the late 1980s.

What was Zinfandel doing during the intervening 150 years?  Perplexing growers and winemakers and challenging sales and marketing people to find a place for the gutsy wine in the hierarchy of California red wine.  Stylistically, Zinfandel was all over the map In the 1970s and 1980s, from light and fruity to heavy and dense, including a pink aberration known as White Zinfandel and the port-like Late Harvest Zinfandel that had a short but interesting life.  In the late 1970s, some Zinfandels were so big and concentrated that you could use one to run your lawnmower.  When pondering what to recommend as a food match on one of its entertaining side labels, the former Monterey Peninsula Winery, suggested that its monster Zin would go nicely with a Zen Macrobiotic Casserole.

That was then.  These days, Zinfandel has found its way into the mainstream of California red wine, thanks to a growing number of Zin specialists in the Sierra Foothills, Lodi, Paso Robles and Sonoma County’s two hallmark sub-regions Dry Creek Valley and Russian River Valley.  I’ve been a Zin fan since I started drinking California wine, closely watching the progress of Zinfandel move from ripe, jammy, and high alcohol to wines with finesse and appeal that mirror--dare I say it--Cabernet Sauvignon, but with more up-front fruit.

A couple of years ago, my love for Zinfandel was the excuse I needed to add a special tasting of California red Zinfandel to a wine competition I direct called, Best of the Bay & Zin Challenge.  Interest has grown for the Zin Challenge and in 2012, entries were the highest yet.  Gold medals were awarded to Zinfandels from Lodi, Sonoma County and Amador County.  I was curious how Zinfandel is doing now and where it will be in the future, so I talked with Sonoma’s Carol Shelton, president and winemaker of Carol Shelton Wines and Amador County’s Leon Sobon, founder and partner of Shenandoah Vineyards and Sobon Estate.  Stylistically different Zinfandels from these wineries won gold medals in the Zin Challenge.

With all the back and forth about Zinfandel and the confusing range of styles, I asked if they thought consumers understand Zinfandel.  “Our customers do,” says Leon Sobon.  “But I don’t think consumers in the Northeastern part of the country understand Zinfandel and I attribute the misunderstanding to snobbery.”  Shelton agrees.  “I sometimes have to work hard to convince the snobbier ones that my Zins are worth tasting because they are not overdone and are every bit as elegant and complex as the more ‘noble’ Pinots and Cabernets.”  But Shelton thinks there is a form of regional confusion by consumers when it comes to Zinfandel.  “Try pouring in the Midwest where they are still surprised when they receive a glass of red wine when they expect all Zins to be pink!”

The views held by Shelton and Sobon got more pointed and emotional about the perceived snobbery that swirls around Zinfandel in Cabernet and Pinot dominated markets.  “Unfortunately, Zinfandel is most often the blue-collar grape, with the snobs looking down on it because it has no real European pedigree or snooty counterpart in the high-end wine world,” maintains Shelton.  Both Shelton and Sobon believe emphatically that Zinfandel merits a place next to Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir as a fine wine.

Winemakers are famously difficult to pin down what they believe separates their wines from the competition.  Spice and up-front ripe berry aromas and flavors are the base notes for every Zinfandel, but I was looking for those characteristics that define a Zin from distinctly different parts of California, such as Sonoma County and Amador County.   The influence of terroir seemed to be a good place to begin.

Terroir is very important, says Leon Sobon, particularly to the Zinfandel he gets from Fiddletown.  “The soils there are different from those in Shenandoah, more decomposed schist versus decomposed granite in the Shenandoah Valley.”  Carol Shelton draws a more specific line.  “I firmly believe that Zinfandel is more transparent to terroir than ANY other grape variety…Zinfandel truly exemplifies the dirt and microclimate of its origin.”

The two vintners more or less agree on the importance of terroir on winemaking.  “I would like to think that terroir is more important but it can be totally dominated by winemaking,” says Shelton.  “Winemaking still ensures the production of quality wine, so I would have to say that terroir is less important to winemaking,” counters Sobon.  Shelton added this practical afterthought:  “I guess you have to decide what is more important to you and your consumers.  If getting all geeky about showing terroir differences is not going to help sales, then I’d say that winemaking is pretty important to develop the flavors for which consumers want to pay good money.”

Traditionally, American oak was the wood of choice with Zinfandel, although lately the infusion of French oak has been felt.  Shelton finds that American oak’s sweeter, rounder mouth feel and flavors complement the rich, jammy fruit of Zinfandel.  “However French oak does contribute nice backbone and longer aging potential, as well as nice vanilla creaminess.” 

So, I wanted to know if terroir influenced the type of oak Sobon and Shelton chose for their Zinfandels.  For her Cucamonga Zin (also known as Monga Zin), with “red fruits and Middle East spices,” Shelton goes with Ozark (American) oak.  “On the other hand, my Karma Zin, with blacker fruit, lends itself to more spicy Appalachian oak as well as to French oak.”   Sobon favors American oak for both of his Zinfandels but combines American oak with mixed European oaks for his Fiddletown Zinfandel. 

In any conversation about Zinfandel, “jammy” is usually cited as a common descriptor.  But is the blackberry jam character good or bad?  “It’s good, but secondary to fruit and spice,” claims Sobon.  “But bad when overdone and it usually means some residual sugar.”  Shelton, however, thinks “jammy” is not understood and offers this defense:  “Some people use it to mean that it smells and tastes like delightful berry jam, while others throw their hands up in horror and say it (jammy) means the fruit is cooked and porty, overripe.  If it smells cooked and port-like, then say that, but don’t slam my jam!”

What aroma and flavor characteristics did the two winemakers believe attracted the judges to award gold medals to Sobon Estate Fiddletown Zinfandel 2010 and Carol Shelton Wines Karma Zin Sonoma County Bastoni Vineyard 2008?  Sobon says that his Fiddletown Zinfandel is more “dusty blackberry plus spice, while just over the hill Shenandoah Valley Zin has the same blackberry but without the spice.”  Shelton describes the characteristics of her Karma Zin as “quite spicy, with rich blackberry fruit and a hint of blueberry.  The tannin structure is quite elegant, very polished and refined and there is good natural acidity for balance.”

Winemakers have their favorite regions for sourcing Zinfandel grapes, and I wondered if Shelton and Sobon had tried grapes from a region or two that they had yet to try.  Sobon said no, and Shelton had this to say:  “I have tasted them all, and use fruit from Mendocino, Cucamonga, Rockpile, Russian River Valley and Dry Creek Valley, all in Sonoma County.  I am generally not fond of the leathery quality I get in Zin from Paso Robles and Napa Zin can be a bit lean for my tastes, although there are many exceptions from each region.”

What, then, is the future of Zinfandel in the U.S. market, and does it have a place on the international stage?  “I think there is a bright future for Zinfandel in the United States.  Except for Canada, Zinfandel is a tough sell in international markets,” says Sobon.   “There are a lot of Zinners in the United States and Zin sales are OK,” claims Shelton.  “Europe is very interested in Zinfandel, as is Canada.  Asia is still pretty driven by the status of Bordeaux and Burgundy, but they might see the light someday.”