Forgive Me Pinot, For I Have Zinned

Last summer, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed legislation that would have designated Zinfandel as California’s “historic wine,” a watered down version of a previous bill that considered calling Zin the official state wine. Schwarzenegger said he thought the bill would have been “inappropriate,” a snub to the state’s recognizable Pinots and Cabernets. In truth, Zinfandel has a long and mysterious genetic history, one that is in many terms worthy of the “historic” label. Santa Barbara’s Zin contributions, however, would suggest otherwise.

In recent years, UC Davis enologists traced the DNA origins of Zinfandel to a Viennese horticulturist's exemplar of a Croatian planting called Crljenak Kastelanski, in direct lineage to an Albanian or Greek parent. Nevertheless, Zinfandel can be considered the most historic of California wines as it has been grown here for more than 150 years, dating back to the Gold Rush. Supporters of the “Zin For State Wine” note how well these vines were propagated throughout the state from Sonoma to the Central Valley, Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego and even Santa Cruz Island. Nowhere else in the world has Zinfandel been fashioned into such a broad range of commercially viable styles of wine as in California. From White Zinfandel, to a lighter, more fruit forward, approachable red wine style, to heavier, heady, rich, denser styles that have gained in popularity over the past 20 years, Zinfandel has become California’s dominant wine.

Primitivo, although not a direct parent to Zinfandel, is genetically a close relation and deserves mention with reference to the 2003 Primitivo from Santa Barbara Winery. The grapes came from the Santa Ynez Valley vineyard of Andrew Joughin, who purchased the cuttings from vines originating in Italy. Primitivo is well known as the primary wine of Italy’s Puglia region where it was widely planted starting in the 1850s. Because of the similarities of climate to his Los Olivos area vineyard and the Puglia region, Joughin apparently thought this would be an interesting selection as well as a good food wine.

Interestingly, while no other area compares to the production output and quality level of California, only a handful of Santa Barbara wineries currently make Zinfandel, among them Consilience, Brophy-Clark, Arthur-Earl and Ken Volk (from Paso fruit). Santa Barbara Winery produced its last vintage in 2004 from grapes grown at LaFond Vineyard. As the vines had been planted in about 1972, they started to go into decline and were replaced with Riesling.

“It was sad to see our Zin go, but we still have the mid-weight ‘ZCS,’ a blend of Lodi Zinfandel and Carignane with some Sangiovese,” says Craig Addis, marketing director at Santa Barbara Winery.

Zinfandel is still a hot production item at Consilience Winery, where it has been crafted from grapes grown in Rhodes’ Vineyard, in Mendocino County’s Redwood Valley, since 1998. People often think of Mendocino County as a cool region because of the Mendocino Coast and the Anderson Valley, but Consilience winemaker Brett Escalera points out that the interior reaches of the county can get extremely hot during the summer months and are very warm during much of the growing season.

“Because Zinfandel is such an uneven ripening variety, it is typically allowed to hang on the vine longer than most varieties, and it is picked much riper than other varieties, in order to minimize unripe or green grapes,” Escalera says. “Because it is picked so late and so ripe, it typically benefits from very warm to hot growing conditions, especially in areas with diurnal temperature swings of forty to fifty degrees that allow for enough cooling to provide a beneficial, and reasonably long, growing season.”

Escalera makes a big, weightier style of Zinfandel that can take some extended time in barrel (16-24 months), so he prefers not to use a lot of new oak that would influence its flavor over such a long barrel aging time. He then likes to blend in Petite Sirah for added weight, color, density and structure and a little Syrah for texture, roundness and fleshiness. The current release, 2004 Consilience Rhodes’ Vineyard Zinfandel ($30) is dense, chewy, heady, and rich with prominent berry, jammy and spice characteristics.

Michael and Kim DePaola serve their homegrown DePaola Zinfandel at their Santa Barbara restaurant, Emilio’s, 324 West Cabrillo Boulevard. The 2004 “Flora,” named for Michael’s Italian aunt, is a full-bodied, aromatic Zin that seems to go well with any type of food.

The wine had the acid to stand up to a baby arugula salad with vinaigrette dressing (vinegar is notorious for making many wines tasteless because of its own acidity). Within 30 minutes of opening, the wine breathes and changes enough to bring out the fruit and caramel in paella, rigatoni, ribeye steak and even pizza.

Michael and Kim planted their two-acre vineyard and built their home on 45 acres in Arroyo Grande (near Sausalito Canyon) and harvested their first fruit in 2004. The terroir there is wonderful for Zin, with hot temperatures and south-facing slopes. Winemaker Bruno D’Alfonso crafted the 2004 vintage, but Michael is now the winemaker.

It’s a message, perhaps, that Zin, whatever its distinction, always has a home of its own.

Sip Tip

When winemakers from larger production wineries such as Clos du Bois’s Erik Olsen have the opportunity to make a small lot reserve wine, they often have the advantage of financial backing to select high-quality, expensive grapes. For the Clos du Bois North Coast Chardonnay 2005, Olsen chose grapes from prime vineyards, hand-stirred the wine in French oak barrels during aging (much more labor intensive than the pour-over method) and the result was an elegant wine with ripe pear and apple balanced by plenty of natural acidity. The extra good news is that this reserve Chardonnay is affordable, only $14.

For more info visit www.closdubois.com.