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Zinfandel: The American Red Wine
By Ed McCarthy
May 5, 2020
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Yes, Zinfandel’s ancestors did come from southern Europe.  But in its present form, Zinfandel is truly an American wine.  And unfortunately, like the late comedian, Rodney Dangerfield, who always protested, “I get no respect!” …  Zinfandel shares the same fate.  Too many American wine drinkers—as they buy expensive California Cabernet Sauvignons and other pricey reds—ignore Zinfandels.  We can probably blame the arrival of the so-called white Zinfandel, an inexpensive, rather sweet, pink concoction that swept through the U.S. a few decades ago (and continues to have a following) for red Zinfandel’s mixed reputation.  Buying habits die hard.  But it is time wine drinkers who are unaware of the wine discovered the really great qualities of Zinfandel.

Red Zinfandel—yes, it is a red varietal wine—is a truly wonderful, dry, medium-bodied, earthy wine, sometimes rather spicy when young, and it ages well—for two decades and more.  It is affordable; you can buy a decent red Zin (as it is often called) for $14 to $22.  Many of the better Zinfandels retail in the $24 to $36 range—less than half the price of equivalent-quality California Cabernet Sauvignons and other “Name Red Wines” (usually Cabernet blends), which in some cases sell for over $100.  However, the four Zinfandel-producing wineries that I feature below, all whose names begin with “R,” are a bit more expensive than average-priced Zinfandels.

I was fortunate to have discovered red Zinfandels early; I have a collection of Zinfandels going back to the 1984 vintage.  I open older Zinfandels regularly; they match up so well with all kinds of cuisine—fish and seafood excepted, at least for me.  I do not remember ever drinking a Zin that was “over the hill.”  Of course, older Zinfandels don’t exhibit the exuberant, spicy fruit quality of their youth.  In fact, with age Zinfandels begin to resemble mature Cabernet Sauvignons.  At International Wine Center in New York, we once did a blind tasting of mature Zinfandels and Cabernet Sauvignons with experienced tasters, and no one did very well at guessing the correct varieties of the wines.

In California, where almost all Zinfandel grapes grow—mainly in Sonoma County and Napa Valley—Zinfandel often grows as part of a field blend, with other hardy varieties such as Petite Sirah and Carignan.  In fact, one wine, made by Ridge Vineyards, Geyserville (a town in Sonoma)—arguably the most renowned Zinfandel wine ($40 to $45 retail) —is not even labeled as “Zinfandel” because the wine seldom meets the required legal 75% amount of Zinfandel in its annual assemblage. Geyserville wine is typically comprised of about 65% Zinfandel with the remaining 35% or so a blend of Petite Sirah, Carignan, and sometimes other varieties (each blend of Geyserville changes with the differing annual climate).  On rare occasions, Geyserville does contain as much as 75 % Zinfandel, but Paul Draper, the legendary, now-retired CEO and winemaker of Ridge Vineyards, has chosen to use the vineyard location (Geyserville) for the appellation as he did for other Ridge Vineyard wines.  Ridge Vineyards does produce other wines annually that are legally labeled Zinfandels, including the excellent Lytton Springs Zinfandel ($45) from Sonoma.  But the two wines that have made Ridge Vineyards a household name among wine consumers are its Ridge Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon (from the Santa Cruz Mountains) and its Geyserville Zinfandel blend.

The other winery that has gained equal or even more fame for its Zinfandels is, of course, Ravenswood Vineyards.  As fate would have it, I was there shortly after 1984, near the beginning of winemaker Joel Peterson’s career as an amazing winemaker, particularly for his Zinfandels.  I had received a tip about this new winemaker, and visited him in his then-patchwork winery where he was working single-handedly making wines.  I tasted his first Zinfandel, a 1984.  I knew even then that Joel Peterson’s Zinfandels would have a great future.  Peterson had a touch with Zinfandels.  He had served a brief apprenticeship with the truly legendary Joe Swan (I know I’m using the term “legendary” too much, but Joe Swan, a retired airline pilot who decided to make wine at the age of 59, really deserves the term).  Swan gave Peterson the following advice: “Stay away from that damned Pinot Noir; stick to Zinfandels!”  Joel Peterson took that advice and the rest is history.  Joe Swan’s advice is ironic, because he became more renowned for his Pinot Noirs than his very good Zinfandels.  But Swan was acknowledging how difficult it was to make decent Pinot Noirs.

Joel Peterson went on to make many outstanding (I almost said legendary) single-vineyard Zinfandels, mainly in Sonoma.  My two favorites are his Old Hill Vineyard Zinfandel from Sonoma, and his Dickerson Vineyard Zinfandel from Napa Valley. Both Old Hill (about $50) and Dickerson Vineyards ($40 to $45) have old vines, especially Old Hill, with many vines well over 100 years old.  Old Hill Zinfandel exhibits power; it will age and mature for many decades.  Dickerson Vineyard features elegance; its eucalyptus trees on the property have a positive influence on the vines.  Joel Peterson sold his winery in 2001 to Constellation Brands, who later sold it to E. and J. Gallo.  The glory years of course occurred while Peterson was making the wines, and I am happy to say that I still own about 30 of Peterson’s Ravenswood single-vineyard Zins—primarily Old Hill and Dickerson Vineyard.  Joel Peterson’s name lives on in the wine world with his son, Morgan Twain-Peterson MW, who has his own winery, Bedrock Vineyard, where he makes fine Zinfandel and other varieties, including Syrah.  Morgan’s Dad, of course, helps out in many ways.

The next name that stands out for me is another winery beginning with “R,” A. Rafanelli.  Winemaker David Rafanelli has made intensely flavored Zinfandels from Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma ($50 to $55).  They exhibit great balance, and age extremely well. They are textbook examples of Dry Creek Zinfandels at their best.  The very serious, no-nonsense Dave Rafanelli also produces very good Cabernet Sauvignons. Dave and Patty Rafanelli have turned over the running of the winery to their two daughters.  Shelly, the eldest daughter, is now the winemaker, and her sister Stacy is Operations Manager.

My fourth “R” Zinfandel is Rosenblum Cellars.  The late Kent Rosenblum, an amicable, retired veterinarian, decided to make Zinfandels as his second career, and made lots of them throughout California, as many as 19 in some vintages ($35 to $40).  His greatest Zinfandel, in my opinion, is “Maggie’s Reserve” from Sonoma Valley.  Rosenblum Cellars continues on under its new owner, Diageo Chateau & Estates.

By the way, both Ravenswood and Rosenblum Cellars produce a very inexpensive version of red Zinfandel called “Vintners Blend” and “Vintners Reserve” respectively, retailing for $10 to $12, sometimes less.  These are quaffing wines, meant for everyday occasions more than for serious contemplation.

There are so many great Zinfandels being produced today.  For a complete listing, I refer you to my book, co-authored with Mary Ewing-Mulligan MW, California Wine for Dummies, John Wiley & Sons.  The following is a short list of some of my favorite Zinfandels, in no particular order:

Cline Cellars, “Ancient Vines” (Contra Costa County) best buy
Chateau Montelena, Estate (Napa Valley)
Dry Creek Vineyard, “Old Vines” (Dry Creek Valley)
Green & Red Vineyard “Chiles Mill Estate” (Napa Valley)
Hartford Family Wines (Russian River Valley)
Nalle Winery (Dry Creek Valley)
Quivira Vineyards (Dry Creek Valley)
A. Rafanelli (Dry Creek Valley)
Ravenswood, Old Hill Vineyard (Sonoma Valley)
Renwood Vineyards (Amador County)
Ridge Vineyards, all, especially Geyserville (Sonoma)
Rosenblum Cellars, Maggie’s Reserve Vineyard (Sonoma Valley)
Rubicon Estate, “Edizione Pennino” (Napa Valley)
Martinelli Winery, Jackass Vineyard (Russian River Valley)
Williams Selyem Winery, all Zins (Russian River Valley)

The last two wineries’ Zinfandels are serious long-lived wines retailing for over $50.

Please discover, or in many cases re-discover, these great red Zinfandels.  They are among the best wines produced in the United States, and they are very well-priced, considering the quality of the wines.

Read more columns by Ed at Ed McCarthy