Chapter 2 in any book on California wine history has to be about Zinfandel and what it means to the state.
After talking about the pioneers who began 150 years ago as orchardists, botanists, and nursery folk, and the early plantings of grapes (including the long-forgotten Mission grape), Zinfandel becomes a key reason that California eventually developed as a garden spot for great wine in the United States.
A grape variety that seems unique in many ways, and a breed apart from other Vitis Vinifera vines, it yields a wine that can be dramatically fruity, deeply flavored, and usually relatively high in alcohol.
That last trait isn't universal, but to avoid harvesting green berries from uneven-ripening plants, which might give the wine an herbal flavor, many farmers harvest the grape later, which makes for a higher-alcohol wine.
As a result, judging many of these wines in one three-hour sitting isn't as easy as evaluating other wines. And at the recent Sonoma County Harvest Fair wine competition, the panel I was on had the enviable task of tasting 63 Zins priced $35 and more.
What surprised me was that there are as many as 63 Zinfandels in Sonoma County that sell for that much. (In reality, there are a lot more!) Our panel talked about it, and noted that a wine has to be awfully good for it to get a gold medal, given the price.
With the bar set that high, we still found 12 wines worthy of that top honor, which is amazing, since in most wine competitions the number of gold medals awarded ranges between 5% and 7% of the wines entered. We gave 19% of the Zinfandels gold medals.
Included were some familiar names: 2006 Carol Shelton Bacchus Laureate ($52), 2008 Haywood "Rocky Terrace" ($38), 2007 St. Francis Rowe Vineyard ($45), 2008 Armida "Poizin Reserve" ($80) as well as its &‘08 Parmalee-Hill Vineyard ($39), and 2008 Wilson "Carl's Reserve" ($45).
There were also some newcomers, including two attractive wines from Ledson (&‘06 Russian River, $44, and '07 Dry Creek, $40), Mill Creek for its stunning 2007 Krek Vineyard ($38), 2008 Stephen & Walker Trust ($38), and 2008 Gracianna Russian River "Bacigalupi" ($42).
The mundane history of Zinfandel belies the fact that wines like this should cost as much as $35. Back in the early years of the California wine industry, Zinfandel was used primarily as a source for raspberry-ish fruit in red wine blends that were called Burgundy and other generic names.
Farmers, many of them Italian, often used Carignane for its tough, uncompromising richness, Petite Sirah for its color and weight, Barbera and other Italian grapes for acidity, and other randomly planted red grapes to make a blend. And the key player was Zin.
To this day, Zin is used as a base for many upscale red wine blends, and the public has latched onto this grape, notably vineyard-designated wines that display distinctive characteristics. As a result, the above wines are made in small quantities, are in demand, and thus their prices are higher than they might otherwise be.
But Zin need not be expensive, and my Wine of the Week earned a silver medal at the Harvest Fair judging and is a dramatically fine example of the variety.
Wine of the Week: 2008 Dry Creek Heritage Zinfandel, Sonoma County ($19): Drawn from both warmer- as well as cooler-climate vineyards, this superb wine has a lovely raspberry/strawberry nose and a soft entry, lacks the usual harshness of high alcohol since it has only 13.5%, and finishes with delightful richness and balance. This is probably the best ever Heritage Zin from Dry Creek, a great job by winemaker Bill Nuttel and his assistant, Julie Schreiver. Often discounted to $15, occasionally less!