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Origin Aside, Zinfandel Has Deep American Roots
By Robert Whitley
Mar 28, 2006
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The year was 1958, and Miljenko "Mike" Grgich had just arrived in the Napa Valley, where he went to work for Lee Stewart at Souverain Winery.

"I remember the first time I saw the vineyards at Souverain, which is now Burgess," said Grgich. "I said, 'This looks like my home in Croatia.'"

Grgich had been gazing upon an old Zinfandel vineyard, but the conventional wisdom at the time held that Zinfandel was a native American grape variety.

There is no question that Zinfandel has flourished in America and that its legions of fanatical devotees mostly happen to be American, but the scientific evidence has confirmed that Zinfandel's roots are indeed in Croatia, along the Dalmatian coast where Grgich was born and raised.

That said, there is ample evidence that Zinfandel vines perform better in California than anywhere else in the world (along Italy's Adriatic coast, in a region called Puglia, the Zinfandel grape is known as Primitivo), and that diverse growing conditions in California allow the Zinfandel grape to express itself with a multitude of aromas and flavors, all of them good.

By most accounts Zinfandel vines were widely planted throughout California before the turn of the century by Italian immigrants.

Seven winegrowing regions have emerged as exceptional zones for Zinfandel, each with its own unique set of flavor characteristics.

Amador County can rightly be called the home of the blockbuster Zinfandel. The Zins that are made in the Sierra Foothills of Amador spawned an entire vocabulary that is unique to Zin. Terms such as jammy, briary and brambly described the ultra-ripe wines that were produced in Amador in the 1960s. Pure fruit aromas of raspberry, blackberry, strawberry and blueberry were so sweet and seductive that an entire cult of Zin lovers grew up around them.       

At the time, Ridge Vineyards -- located in the Santa Cruz mountains, far from Amador -- became one of the first California wineries to exploit the growing popularity of the Amador style, and to this day Ridge is considered one of California's preeminent Zinfandel producers. Amador producers to watch out for are Montevina (Terra d'Oro), Perry Creek, Renwood, Boeger and Amador Foothill Winery.

Dry Creek Valley Zins moved to the head of the class in the 1980s, after interest in Zinfandel had waned (spawning the white zinfandel phenomenon) and then underwent a revival. Dry Creek Valley Zins run the gamut, from the jammy, high-alcohol Zins in the Amador style to more balanced, spicy wines that often benefit from blending with other grapes. This warm region definitely has the heat necessary to produce the jammy Amador style.

Many of the Zinfandel vineyards in the Dry Creek Valley are old vines that are head pruned -- thick, gnarly vines that are not trellised and never grown more than a few feet off the ground. The High Priest of DCV Zin is A. Rafanelli. The wines of A. Rafanelli are so severely allocated that even visitors to the winery can't purchase more than a bottle or two at a time. Other top Dry Creek Zins to look for include Bella, Fritz, Ridge Lytton Springs, Seghesio and Rancho Zabaco.

Paso Robles has the heat of Amador coupled with a cooling maritime influence after sunset that preserves the acidity and makes even jammy Paso Zins taste slightly fresher than Amador Zins with the same level of alcohol. Peachy Canyon, with a number of beautiful vineyard-designated Zins, is the star of this region, but Eberle Winery runs a close second.

The Napa Valley, California's high-rent wine district, is the sleeper in the Zinfandel arsenal. Napa Zins, which are generally overshadowed by cabernet, merlot and syrah, tend to be more balanced and made in a "claret" style, which is to say like a red Bordeaux. Grgich Hills winery certainly makes a remarkable Zin in this style, and there are other exceptional producers in the appellation, including Storybook Mountain, Chateau Potelle, Howell Mountain Vineyards, Fife, Niebaum Coppola and Chateau Montelena. Biale is highly regarded but the Biale Zins typically have the higher alcohols more closely associated with Dry Creek Valley and the Sierra Foothills.

The other real sleeper is the cool Russian River Valley, which would seem to be the least likely spot to plant Zinfandel. Yet the Zins from the region, mostly old vine, are bright and spicy and a bit lower in alcohol, generally, than Zins produced elsewhere. By far my favorite producer is Hartford Family Winery (formerly Hartford Court), but I'm also quite enamored of Gary Farrell and Dutton Goldfield Zins.

Mendocino County also can be counted upon for top-notch Zinfandels, often from old head-pruned vines. The wines of Mendocino aren't as well known because they aren't as heavily marketed, but a couple of favorites are Edmeades and Gabrielli. The Mariah Zins from Mendocino Ridge also have quite a following.

Last but not least is Rancho Cucamonga, which has only recently come into play among Zin aficionados despite the fact that its Zinfandel vineyards are some of the oldest in California. Carol Shelton, one of the state's top Zinfandel producers, makes a phenomenal old vine Zin from the Lopez Vineyard that she calls "Monga Zin." Geyser Peak Winery in Geyserville also produces a Zinfandel from old Rancho Cucamonga vines, as do a number of Temecula Valley wineries (South Coast, Hart and Thornton, to name a few) and San Diego County's Orfila Vineyards.

Special mention should be made of the legendary Zinfandel producer Ravenswood, which is located in the Sonoma Valley but produces exceptional and highly sought-after Zins from most of the top zinfandel regions in the state. Ravenswood and Ridge have had much to do with the popularity of zinfandel over the past several decades, and continued to make spectacular Zins through the doldrums of the 1970s, when many Zinfandel producers switched over to production of white zinfandel.

Of course, all of these regions are located in California, far from the place where Zinfandel was born. Though Zinfandel may no longer be accurately described as the greatest native American grape, bottom line, the cult of Zin is an all-American phenomenon.