Straight from the vine

NorCal zinfandels sustain a living history

Gold rush era miners enjoyed sipping zinfandel after hours. California’s zinfandel vines are the very oldest alive.

Gold rush era miners enjoyed sipping zinfandel after hours. California’s zinfandel vines are the very oldest alive.

Under the reliable summer sun, the vines at Deaver Vineyards in Amador County grow like trees, stubby and stout. In their younger days, these vines may have felt the breath of John Muir, Mark Twain, grizzly bears and other passersby of the era. For these zinfandel vines have been growing for 141 years, among the very oldest alive.

But after around 1870, Zinfandel’s history gets a bit hazy. While geneticists have matched zinfandel to an Old World grape variety called primitivo in southern Italy and crljenak in Croatia, the three names being synonyms for the same grape, just how zinfandel arrived in California remains uncertain. Many agree, though, that miners of the gold rush era enjoyed sipping it after hours.

Zin does best in hot, dry zones (just a little late-summer rain can destroy a vintage; see below), but nowhere does the grape grow in such prolificacy as in the Lodi flatlands, home to 40 percent of the state’s zinfandel vines. Here, in tribute to the variety, which the state Assembly named as California’s “historic wine” in 2006, the sixth annual Lodi ZinFest last month featured hundreds of wines from dozens of local producers. Among those poured were the wines of Jessie’s Grove Winery, which owns the oldest zinfandel vines in the region, planted in 1889.

While Lodi region zins tend more toward the fruit-forward, “jammy” side, zins from the Foothills often bear a marked spiciness. Here, winemaker Marco Cappelli tasted an El Dorado County zin years ago before he moved to the region. It had “amazing focus of fruit and spice,” he recalls. Thusly sold, Cappelli bought in with the purchase of Herbert Vineyard, a 7-acre planting of well-respected zinfandel vines, now 35 years old. Cappelli sells most of his grapes, grown at 2,400 feet, to five other wineries, each of which bottles the wine unblended and labels the wine as “Herbert Vineyard” zinfandel (as some zin fanatics recognize and seek out this vineyard).

At the Deaver property, owner Ken Deaver believes that Foothills zins outshine those of nearly all other regions. The reason, he says, is the low grape yield of Foothills vines, often 2 to 4 tons per acre. At lower elevations, vineyards often produce more than 6 tons, he says, and as yield increases, intensity of the fruit decreases.

As Deaver puts it, “If you grow water berries, your wine will have no flavor.”

No matter the appellation, zin is not easy to grow, says winemaker Greg Burns at Jessie’s Grove. The grapes tend to develop in very tight clusters, packets of berries that, if rained upon, may trap moisture within and lead quickly to mold.

“If you get rain near the end of the season, you have about three days to get the grapes off the vine,” Burns says.

And Cappelli describes the annual struggle to restrain the wine within the bounds of alcoholic reason, for zin has the tendency to get “hot,” meaning heavy in alcohol.

Cappelli explains why: The grapes on a single bunch tend to ripen unevenly, and by the time the slowest of the berries have attained full development and structure, a good number may have over-ripened into raisins. Crushed and placed in the vat, the dried grapes continue to release their sweetness slowly, and over several days the sugar and concentration in the juice climbs—even after fermentation has begun—and by the time of bottling, many zins may weigh in at 15, 16 and even 17 percent alcohol.

Which may send some winemakers into fits of panic, but it’s a flaw most of us will forgive.

To see the effects that specific regions can have on the wines, we tasted zinfandels from four different parts of the state. Ravenswood Winery’s 2007 Napa County zin tastes plainly of raspberry and pepper, and with the smoky spiciness of a robust barbecue sauce. The 2006 El Dorado County zinfandel from Miraflores Winery carries a sharp bite of pepper and tart berries—the classic mark of the Foothills—with plenty of acidic zest. And R&B Cellars’ 2007 Lodi Swingsville zin lacks that very bite, yet hints of pepper-berry tartness indicates that this zin, though born and raised in the Delta, is doing the best it can.