Paying for the Zins of Others

(Originally published August 2003)

What's better than rediscovering an old love? Finding out she's now filthy rich!

No, but seriously, folks. Hanes's first vinous love was with the Zinfandel grape, the quintessential expression of Californian sunshine and goodness, so bursting with ripe fruit that you can't help but break out into a smile while sucking one down. Over the past few years Hanes has exposed himself (and luckily avoided arrest) to many other fine wines broadening his appreciation of delicate, gentle wines as well as more supercharged fruit bombs. Let no one convince you that enjoyment of either pole is mutually exclusive. Even as Hanes comes to appreciate the soft caress of a silky Bourgogne rouge or the focused restraint of a Loire Muscadet, the yearning for a good old Zin has never faded away. Yet, Hanes drank fewer and fewer over the years. Why, you ask? A very good question and one Hanes will now answer.

The history of Zinfandel is one of shadowy origins. Its widespread popularity has waxed and waned through its history in California but it has always remained synonymous with winegrowing in "The Golden State." This is due in large part to their being no European correlate to compare Californian Zinfandel to, as opposed to Californian Pinot Noir with Burgundy or Californian Cabernet Sauvignon with Bordeaux. But we'll get to that in a second. Pretty much the definitive read on the topic is David Darlington's book, re-released in 2001 as "Zin: The History and Mystery of Zinfandel." Great narrative framework and well-researched. Hey, David, where's my kickback?

The presence of Zinfandel has been recorded in Long Island, NY during the 1820s and the grape grew throughout New England during the 1830s. Zinfandel's tenure in California can be traced back to around the 1850s. Historical documentation shows it to have been primarily grown in Amador and Sonoma Counties.

Here's where things get interesting! Having become so entwined with the self-image of Californian winemaking, genetic research over the past few decades has finally pinned down most of the grape's origin. Zinfandel has been proven to be virtually genetically identical to the grape known as Primitivo in Puglia, Italy (having only the type of miniscule differences found among vine clones in any varietal that has propagated separately for such a long period of time). Zinfandel and Primitivo have further been identified as very close relatives of the Plavac Mali grape and as virtually identical to the Crljenak Kastelanski grape, both of Croatia. Yet, while contemporary genetics can prove this identity what it cannot do is decisively map out the historical routes the grapes have taken from one land to another.

Most researchers believe the grape came to Italy from Croatia and through the emigration of Italians to America, onwards through the North American continent to California. There is even talk that the grape might have truly originated in Greece or Albania. Among all the possible routes Zinfandel could have taken to California, one fairly certain path was via the Hungarian wine expert Agoston Haraszthy who brought thousands of cuttings of hundreds of grape varietals to the U.S. during the 1850s and 1860s. But before this, there are nursery records which show other sources introducing Zinfandel during the 1850s. There is no single historical point of introduction.

But what we don't know, and probably will never know, is to what extent any "repatriation" of the grape from America to Italy occurred. Many Italian-Americans returned to Italy, taking rootstock with them. It is very possible, if not probable, that many of today's Primitivo vines came from California. And what about vines taken from Italy back to Croatia? Have vine, will travel. Anyone got a time machine here?

Today, many Italian producers of Primitivo, leaning on the fact of genetic identity, want to label their wines as Zinfandel, thus gaining the prestige and name recognition achieved by the Californian version. Naturally, most Californian wineries oppose this. In a tricky move, Sobon Estate in Amador County has in the past labeled wines as Primitivo, the winemaker maintaining that there were enough distinct differences from his Zinfandel and Primitivo vines to warrant a separate bottling.

Regardless of where one stands on the Zinfandel vs. Primitivo debate, there is no denying that no one is getting more spanked than the Croatians with their Crljenak Kastelanski! C'mon, who can pronounce the name? Never mind who's ever tasted this stuff? Hanes suggests that as punishment all Zinfandel and Primitivo wines must henceforth be labeled as Crljenak Kastelanski.

Today, there are over 50,000 acres of Zinfandel in California. Many of the best are designated as "Old Vines" (i.e., vines over 40 years of age) because they produce fewer grape bunches with more intensity and richer flavor. For a wine that on the whole is an early drinker and not meant to be aged for many years, Zinfandel can be made in a wide variety of styles, from "hedonistic fruit bomb" to bright, tart light quaffer. Typical Zinfandel flavors include black pepper, spice, eucalyptus, blackberry, cherry, raspberry, and sometimes prune or raisin.

Underscoring the many faces of Zinfandel is the, yes, the horrible freak show, the, the... White Zinfandel!

You'd be surprised how many people think the Zinfandel grape makes pink wine and not red wine. Yes, you were one of these people. Hanes has seen many people stare in amazement at a glass of red Zinfandel, wondering what other grape the Zin was blended with to get that deep purple color. Yeesh. White Zinfandel was created in 1973 by Bob Trinchero of Sutter Home Winery. Initially, he created White Zinfandel via the simple winemaking process known as "saignée," which means bleeding off some of the grape juice to concentrate the remaining juice's flavor and color. The juice that was bled off was white in color, hence the name. See, saignée works! Sutter Home bottled this run-off wine and at first called it "Oeil de Perdrix," or Eye of the Partridge.

In 1975, a fortuitous mistake was made and the run-off juice was ignored during the fermentation process. The fermentation did not fully complete itself, leaving a wine that was pink and on the sweet side. So was born the White Zinfandel we all know and luv. This vinous abomination catapulted to fame and popularity during the 1980s, setting Western Civilization back millennia.

Zinfandel is also grown in other areas than California, Puglia and Croatia. Hanes has had good ones from Oregon. The grape is slowly developing a foothold in Australia and South Africa, although Hanes has yet to sample these emerging wines. Despite the fact that the grape is not quite the easiest to grow, often suffering from uneven ripening, one can expect it to spread further and over time shed its reputation as a California-only wine.

Alright, enough of the history lesson! The question was, why has Hanes drunk fewer and fewer Zinfandels? Sadly, it is not a complex issue. The main culprit has been they cost too much now. Many of Hanes's early favorites have skyrocketed in price. For example, the Ravenswood Zin from the Monte Rosso Vineyard went from around $32 for the 1996 vintage (which is still a pretty high price!) to around $43 for the 1999 vintage. The price has come back to earth a bit, but it's still no inexpensive everyday wine. Yet price is only one aspect of the issue -- after all, Hanes is no cheapskate! After a great string of vintages from 1994 through 1997, things have been hit or miss with lots of subpar 1998 and 2000 Zinfandels around. Part of the joy of drinking Zinfandel is that it is a fun wine to chug, and if it isn't fully ripe or unbalanced with too much alcohol and not enough flavor it just ain't fun no more.

There's also been all those damnable 2001 German Rieslings! It's been hard for any other wine to pass Hanes's lips with all those delectable Rieslings around over the past year.

But we are now blessed! The 2001 vintage has shown itself so far to be stellar almost across the board and the good vibrations are back with a vengeance. Furthermore, there's more diversity among the availability of wineries and regions represented on retail shelves, a factor which brings both price competition (hopefully) and increased thrill of discovery. Plus, hey, one could argue convincingly that Zinfandel is the "ultimate summer red," a great complement to barbeque, hamburgers or steak. There's nothing like kicking back in the yard or on the rooftop with your shoes off sipping on a nice 16% alcohol fruit bomb!