Zinfandel: Uniquely and Distinctly American

Mention Zinfandel to most wine consumers, and it’s quickly dismissed. It’s easy to see why.

For starters, many Americans associate the variety with the cheap, sweet “blush” wines that became popular in the 1980s, like Sutter Home’s white Zinfandel. This style of wine will always have fans, but to my palate, it’s just too cloying. Most white Zinfandel tastes more like Kool-Aid than wine.

Among consumers who know that Zinfandel can produce dry reds, many believe the variety inevitably produces monolithic, alcoholic fruit bombs. Avoiding such wines makes sense – it’s difficult to find pleasure in wines go down like cough syrup.

It’s unfortunate that so many wine drinkers have these impressions.

Zinfandel can be delicious. The best examples are wonderfully accessible and strike the perfect balance between power and finesse. While certainly robust, they’re marked by fresh, brambly berries and are energetic enough to pair with a variety of cuisines. Plus, Zinfandel is uniquely and distinctly American. It’s well worth exploring.

Zinfandel has a fascinating history.

For most of its existence, it was thought to be an indigenous American grape. But when a professor from University of California, Davis, visited Italy in 1967, he realized that Primitivo – a dark-skinned, southern Italian grape – was remarkably similar to the American “original.” By 1972, researchers concluded that the grapes were, in fact, identical.

Primitivo, however, also had dubious origins. So researchers started investigating, and in the late 1990s determined that Zinfandel’s roots are Croatian.

Zinfandel came to the United States in the late 1820s, when a nursery owner in New York purchased cuttings from Austria. The origins of the name “Zinfandel” remain a mystery, but shortly after its arrival to the East Coast, the grape’s popularity quickly soared.

This made perfect sense – the grape was a home winemaker’s dream, as it was reasonably easy to grow, vigorous, and fairly resistant to disease.

When East Coasters started heading to California during the gold rush, Zinfandel followed and quickly became the variety of choice, often planted right alongside other grapes for diversity. Many of these vineyards remain, giving wine drinkers a direct connection to California’s earliest settlers. (It’s worth noting that if it weren’t for the popularity of white Zinfandel in the 1980s and ‘90s, many of these vineyards would have been ripped up.)

Without question, these ancient vineyards – typically full of thick, gnarly vines – produce the most complex, vibrant wines. Plus, as New York Times’ wine critic Eric Asimov once wrote, “[these] wines seem to tell stories. Not red, white and blue fables of triumphalism but tales of immigrant vision and perseverance, of American history and the pastoral roots of a great industry.”

Several California vintners are working to catalog, protect, and promote these vineyards through a new nonprofit called the Historic Vineyard Society. Winemaker Morgan Twain-Peterson, the 32-year-old owner of Bedrock Wine Company, is leading this effort.

Twain-Peterson has become a rock star in the wine community, because his wines — sourced from some of California’s oldest vines and made using old-fashioned winemaking techniques — are stunning. Indeed, his winery’s namesake, the Bedrock Vineyard, was planted nearly 125-years ago. Twain-Peterson estimates that the vineyard is about half Zinfandel and a quarter Carignane, with varieties like Mourvedre, Syrah, Alicante Bouschet, Petite Sirah comprising the rest.

Other wineries that source from ancient vineyards include Ridge, Ravenswood, and Seghesio, all of which make delicious, affordable wines that can easily be found at your local wine shop. Smaller labels worth looking for include Carlisle Winery, Dashe Cellars, and Nalle. With all these producers, the big Zinfandel fruit is still there, of course, but the wines are balanced, bright, and pair well with food.

Those who fear monolithic, alcoholic fruit bombs when purchasing Zinfandel still have plenty to worry about. But more and more producers – in a quest to rediscover America’s winemaking – are moving towards elegance.

David White, a wine writer, is the founder and editor of Terroirist.com. His columns are housed at Palate Press: The Online Wine Magazine.