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The Taming of Big, Bad Zinfandel

Once a blockbuster wine, Zinfandel is emerging from exile

Jeff Siegel By February 3, 2022
exterior shot of Ridge Vineyards at Monte Bello
Ridge Vineyards at Monte Bello has always been a champion of single variety winemaking. Photo courtesy of Ridge Vineyards.

Each year, after the harvest, the three winemakers would meet for dinner. Each would bring samples of their work for the others to taste, each would try the wines, and then each would offer their insights and criticisms.

“We’d tell jokes and share stories, and have a wonderful time,” says Joel Peterson, then of Ravenswood, who met annually with Kent Rosenblum of Rosenblum Cellars and Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards. “It’s an era that I miss for sure.”

They were known as the three R’s, from the names of their wineries, and their goal was to help Zinfandel become the grape that they thought it deserved to be, on a par with Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and the rest.

In the decade or so between the mid-1990s and the boom that ended in the Great Recession, the three were featured on the cover of the wine magazines. Their wines were critically acclaimed and sold millions of cases. For a while, Zinfandel seemed poised to transform wine in the U.S. and become this country’s version of Chianti or Beaujolais ― a quality, affordable, and everyday red.

In the end, that never happened. Today, Zinfandel is a mostly anonymous supermarket variety and a grape used to produce tanker trucks of sweet red blends.

“These guys — my dad, Joel Peterson, and Paul Draper — were like the abstract expressionists, who blew the world away by doing something the world hadn’t seen before,” says Shauna Rosenblum, Kent’s daughter. “They went against convention and started really pushing the envelope as far as what a wine could be. They started exploring what the grapes were capable of doing.”

Shauna and Kent Rosenblum drinking wine

Kent Rosenblum with his daughter Shauna Rosenblum. Photo courtesy of Rockall Wine Company.

30 years later

Rosenblum and Ravenswood now belong to their second corporate owners and are just names on store shelves. Rosenblum died in 2018, Draper is mostly retired, and Joel Peterson makes some Zinfandel for his own small label.

They were an unlikely trio: Rosenblum was a veterinarian who kept his practice in the Bay Area even after he hit it big. Draper was a philosophy graduate from the University of California, Berkeley who made one of the Cabernets that bested the French in the legendary Judgment of Paris in 1976. Peterson, a microbiologist whose father had been a part-time wine writer.

“But they were the vanguard,” says Joel Butler MW, a Seattle retailer. “The bigger producers, back then, none of them did much with Zinfandel. There didn’t seem to be a market for it.”

The exception was white Zinfandel, the sweet pink wine that was a cash cow in California for almost 50 years, which drove wine geeks so crazy that it had its own saying: “Friends don’t let friends drink white Zinfandel.”

Joel Peterson headshot

Winemaker Joel Peterson among the vines. Photo courtesy of Joel Peterson.

Which was ironic, given Zinfandel’s place in California history. It was first planted there in the mid-19th century; so not only is it among the oldest grapes in the state, but many of those vines still bear fruit used to make wine. Where it came from was a mystery that was only unraveled in the last decade; it came from a grape known as Tribidrag, from Croatia. Today, California has the highest Zinfandel plantings in the world.

And the Italian immigrant families who dominated California wine after Prohibition were growing and making varietal Zinfandel well into the 1980s, be they Martini, Sebastiani, Rafanelli, Seghesio, or Pedroncelli. It’s just that no one really noticed in a world that was becoming increasingly about Cabernet, Merlot, and Chardonnay.

“That’s what attracted me to Zinfandel,” says Carol Shelton, a winemaker who played a key role in Zinfandel’s golden age. “I’ve always seen it as the Rodney Dangerfield of grapes, an underdog grape that needed a champion because it was an American grape. I had already worked at a winery where I made seven Chardonnays and seven Cabs, and I didn’t want to do that anymore.”

Call it terroir

Zinfandel, known as Primitivo in Italy, grows almost anywhere, whether near-desert conditions in southern California, or in the practically perfect climates of Napa and Sonoma

“That means it’s not the variety, but how it is made and how you take care of it in the vineyard that makes the difference,” says Jon McPherson, the master winemaker at South Coast Winery in Temecula, who has worked with Zinfandel since the 1980s. 

The wine can be jammy or spicy, reasonable in alcohol, or exotically high. It can work by itself or be blended with a small percentage of other grapes.

“There are more regional differences with Zinfandel in California than there are with something like Cabernet, especially if you take climate into account, as well as old vines,” says Peterson. “So if you’re making wine in California, why Cabernet, which is a Bordeaux grape? Why not Zinfandel?”

Others agreed and the amount of Zinfandel in the state almost doubled between 1990 and 2000. But several things happened, more or less at the same time:

Robert Parker, then the most powerful critic in the world, fell in love with 15% to 16% alcohol wines; he gave 100 points to a 2005 Australian Shiraz from Torbreck, which clocked in at 15.58% and jammy, high-alcohol, almost sweet reds became the darlings. 

Zinfandel producers, most notably Turley Wine Cellars in Napa but also Rosenblum Cellars, followed suit. Suddenly, wines that had been mid-to high-14% abv — not unlike French Rhône reds, say Peterson and Shelton — added a point or two. Bill Rich, then a retailer and wholesaler in Dallas, says he always thought that California Zinfandel producers, and especially those in Napa, saw that boozier wines got the best scores and used that approach to sell more wine at higher prices.

This jump in alcohol, combined with higher prices, confused consumers. So they looked for something else and found Pinot Noir, says Julie Pedroncelli-St. John, whose family has been making Zinfandel in Sonoma since the 1970s. “This is mostly my impression,” she says, “but ‘Sideways’ came out about this time, and we saw a shift from Zin to Pinot Noir, because Pinot was easier to drink.”

Then there was white Zinfandel. The red version, and especially at lower prices, never completely emerged from the shadow of its pink cousin. By the middle of the 2000s, it was common to call it red Zinfandel to differentiate it from the sweet stuff.

“There are more regional differences with Zinfandel in California than there are with something like Cabernet, especially if you take climate into account, as well as old vines. So if you’re making wine in California, why Cabernet, which is a Bordeaux grape? Why not Zinfandel?”

The true believers still believe

“Pendulums swing,” says Shelton, “and if people keep their minds open then it can come back. Because consumers do have open minds and are willing to try something new. And I’m doing my best to bring it back.”

She may not be the only one. A variety of younger winemakers, like Mikey and Gina Giugni of Scar of the Sea, see Zinfandel and its old vines as part of California’s wine heritage. Meanwhile, multi-generational producers like Bucklin Old Hill Ranch and Peterson, both in Dry Creek, make Zinfandel. Fred Peterson says he is regularly told by sommeliers that his wines “are not what people who order Zinfandel expect these days, so I don’t think it would do well.”

Which, maybe, was the point all those years ago — and maybe that vision hasn’t gone out of style.

3 Californian Zin to try:

bottle of Carol Shelton Wild Thing Mendocino Old Vine Zin 2018

Carol Shelton Wild Thing Mendocino Old Vine Zin 2018 (~$18)

At more than 60 years old, this is old vine Zinfandel, made by someone who has never let savory and spicy, claret-style Zinfandel go out of style; it’s 76% Zin. And how many wines, of this quality and significance, are this affordable?

bottle of Ridge Vineyards Lytton Springs 2019

Ridge Vineyards Lytton Springs 2019 (~$40)

Ridge’s Lytton Springs, a Zinfandel blend, has been a mainstay of the grape and what it can be for almost 50 years. Technically, the 2019 isn’t a varietal wine, since it’s only 73% Zin and the law requires 75%. But it’s classic nonetheless — spicy and savory, with the grape’s tell-tale black fruit. And it should age for at least a decade.

bottle of Once & Future Frank’s Block Teldeschi Vineyard Zinfandel 2018

Once & Future Frank’s Block Teldeschi Vineyard Zinfandel 2018 (~$50)

Zinfandel legend Joel Peterson uses century-plus old vines for some of the grapes for this wine, which also includes a little Carignane and Alicante Bouschet. The vines are so old that they produce less than two tons an acre, which is even less than some high-end Napa Cabernet Sauvignon vines yield. So yes, history in a glass.