Larry Turley of Turley Wine Cellars
Michael Gross Photography
A few years ago, I watched as a young man talking with the clerk in a fine wine shop become more and more frustrated. He had asked the clerk to show him the Zinfandel and when the clerk took him to the red wine, he kept saying, “No, no, no. My wife said it’s a white wine, not red.” Finally, the clerk quietly suggested he might have better luck at the supermarket down the street.
That scene perfectly captures the confusion that often surrounds Zinfandel. Many times, when I serve new friends a glass of one of my favorite Zins, they are surprised at how different it tastes from the Zins they’ve had in the past.
That’s because White Zinfandel dominates the market, and in turn many house wine options, with winemakers selling four to six more times white Zin than red—the wine aficionados consider to be the real Zinfandel. Thanks to white Zins ubiquitous presence, it is often the only type of Zin many people have ever had. Interestingly Red Zin enthusiasts have that popularity to thank for the wonderful reds they can enjoy.
Zinfandel is as close to a native American wine grape as it gets. The grape—which is neither red nor white, but actually has a black skin—yields beautiful wines, rich and powerful in taste and aroma. The bold favors and spiciness in classic red Zinfandel make it perfect for grilled meats and Southern barbecue. Therefore it’s the ideal wine for the summer and fall grilling season.
Red Zin remains a rare bargain among fine California wines even as it has grown in popularity. It offers complexity and concentration of flavor you would expect from a much more expensive wine.
While many fine California wines have to compete with their European cousins, Zinfandel is New World all the way as there are no Old World wines to compare. That may be one reason why some wine snobs turn their noses up at Zinfandel.
It is true that Zinfandel won’t age as well as a fine Bordeaux or Cabernet Sauvignon—four to eight years is optimum. But who cares? Larry Turley, who produces some of the best Zinfandels in the world, says, “Why wait? The wine is ready to drink when we release it.”
Zinfandel is made in a variety of styles, from rich, jammy fruit bombs to more structured, complex, layered styles, offering something for everyone. Most common favors in Zinfandel are blackberry, plum, cherry, raspberry, raisin, pepper and spices. It’s worth noting that because of the high sugar content in the grapes, Zinfandel can be high in alcohol, as much as 17 percent.
Growing Zinfandel grapes, with their thin skin and propensity to ripen unevenly in clusters, is not without its challenges. That can make it necessary for pickers to make several passes through a vineyard to get only the ripe grapes. And it also usually means keeping a watchful eye on the weather during harvest. Too much rain can burst the skins, ruining a harvest.
But the advantages to growing Zinfandel in California far outweigh these issues. Weather and soil conditions are ideal in many locations. The trap thrives in warm but not hot conditions. Some of the best Zins are grown in areas like Lodi, Dry Creek Valley, Paso Robles, Amador and Alexander Valley.
Another advantage is the abundance of old vines, generally those planted more than 50 years ago and some going back a century. Zin was first planted in California the mid-1800s. It was widely planted because it produced a lot of grapes that made a pleasant wine.
In the 1970s European varietals were on the rise and some Zinfandel vines were ripped out to plant grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Vintners made white Zin from their excess juice, creating the pink wine by reducing contact time with the skins.
In 1975 Sutter Home had a problem with one batch of White Zin where the yeast died before consuming all the sugar, creating a sweet wine. It was set aside and when the winemaker tasted it later he decided he liked it. And consumers loved it, which started the rush to sweet White Zinfandel. Sutter Home now produces more than 4 million cases of it a year. When growers saw they could sell their Zin grapes they stopped tearing out vines.
In the 1980s several winemakers discovered the old vines could produce more powerful, concentrated, layered wines, even though yields lessen as the vines age.
The gnarled, old vines became treasures and red Zin fanatics couldn’t get enough of the wine made from them. Larry Turley, who has bought dozens of old vine vineyards and usually makes a separate wine from each vineyard, says, “I’ve never met on old vine I didn’t like.”
Turley is not alone. There’s a two-year waiting list for some of his marvelous old vine Zins. Other legendary and more accessible Zinfandels are produced by Ridge and Ravenswood. Some of my favorites are Turley, Dry Creek Vineyards, Gnarly Head, 7 Deadly Zins, Rodney Strong, St. Francis, Pezzi-King, Rancho Zabaco, Grgich Hills and Ancient Peaks.
If you’ve not explored the world of Zins you’re in for a treat. Not only that, it’s much less expensive than comparing Bordeaux to Cabernet Sauvignon.
You may reach Dennis Sodomka at firstname.lastname@example.org.