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[whitespace] Pamela Storrs
George Sakkestand

Drop Zone: Pamela Storrs of Santa Cruz's Storrs Winery tests a fruity zinfandel with a spicy finish.

Blood Red and Ready to Rock

California's love affair with its most widely planted grape--zinfandel--takes on new luster

By Christina Waters

IT WAS THE GRAPE that launched a thousand jug wines. Zinfandel. But the once-lowly companion of rigatoni with red sauce has suddenly acquired high-priced cachet. After gallons of Gallo, it's hello designer labels with prices to match. Former fodder for Central Valley table wine, zinfandel has hit the viticultural big time for more than 200 wineries specializing in California's golden grape. Still a rarity in Midwestern burgs--where only the wine blushes at the words "white zinfandel"--in California the grape reveals its true colors: blood-red and ready to rock.

Explosively flavorful, sensuous and ripe to drink the minute it's bottled, zinfandel is the wine drinker's new best friend. To stumble upon a Rodney Strong Old Vine Zinfandel at the corner Safeway ($10) is to anticipate ecstatic bliss on the order of Saint Teresa's. Here is a wine so large, so amiable that it practically pours itself.

Unlike a polite--and pricey--pinot noir, zinfandel offers immediate access. Bursting with spice and berries, often lavish with alcohol (14 percent to 15 percent versus 12 percent in European-style pinots), zinfandel dances with Mediterranean dishes as if it were a liquid Zorba. Sexy and sassy, zinfandel makes wine drinking fun again. No more terror ordering red wines in restaurants. Arrivederci, monotonous, overly oaked chardonnay. And best of all, one can drink it while it's still young enough to afford. Can cabernet sauvignon do that?

Is this simply a millennial phenomenon, this sudden appearance of so many appealing and bravura wines? Does the red tide of zinfandel reflect California's current obsession with Italian food? Have we finally wearied of one-note merlot?

A winemaker many consider the creator of some of California's finest zinfandels was consulted. Paul Draper has coaxed sumptuous zinfandels out of grapes from historic Ridge Vineyards vines in the Santa Cruz Mountains for 25 years. His admirers include the fussiest, least-satisfied critics on the planet: French winemakers.

Ridge Work

ELEGANTLY LEAN and infinitely patient, Paul Draper surveys his latest offspring, hundreds of barrels of zinfandel sleeping peacefully in American oak barrels three stories beneath the Santa Cruz Mountains. The main winery building, where Ridge zins await their debut, was constructed late in the last century by Italian oenophiles who knew a good slope when they saw one.

Osea Perrone--an M.D. with a lust for opera and fine wine--built the Monte Bello Winery of native limestone, producing his first official vintage in 1892. After Prohibition, what remained of the vineyards was nursed along by theologian William Short, and in 1959 new owners--all Stanford Research Institute engineers--pioneered a few gallons of estate cabernet. One sip of the resulting Monte Bello Cabernet convinced them to invest seriously and reopen the winery.

"The original partners," Draper explains from his office overlooking the 3,000-foot Ridge summit, "recognized this as an ideal Bordeaux-type wine region. They didn't have to gamble. The mature vineyard already on site provided ample proof--it was a known quantity by the time they invested."

Below us, the barrels are being probed by torchlight. Racking--a time-honored process of gently separating slumbering wine from its sediments--is being conducted by skilled hands. The zin master moves quickly up wooden stairways, explaining the strategies for extracting maximum color and flavor.

"The color is in the skins," Draper explains, "and the tannin--which provides structure and longevity--is in the stems and seeds." In a cool upper room, hundreds of barrels of cab and zin transform themselves in American oak barrels.

"In 1964, we produced our first zinfandel from 19th-century vines." Draper smiles for a moment and continues the saga of how the Ridge partners quickly knew that they'd never break even with the yield from their vineyards alone. "There was no cabernet of quality for sale, so we started looking at zinfandel grapes."

Experimenting with grapes from more than 30 locations around the state, Draper and his winemaking comrades eventually settled on a handful of vineyards, notably those at Geyserville and Lytton Springs, as the "most consistent and predictable."

Terroir, Baby, Terroir

AS ANY RED-WINE LOVER knows, Ridge graciously offers at least four zinfandels at any one time. Most coveted are those from vineyards owned or leased at Geyserville, Lytton Springs and Pagani Ranch--all in Sonoma County. From the Dusi Ranch in Paso Robles and York Creek in Napa come even more full-throated zinfandels wearing the Ridge label.

Many are considered "old vines," an inconsistently defined term for vines at least 50 years in age. "We have the full spectrum," Draper notes, "from 130-year-old vines in Sonoma, century-old plants at Pagani, all the way up to newly planted." But it's true, Draper will admit, that the older, the better. "Even at 35 years, the vines still don't have the nuance of 50-year-old vines."

In every case, the trick lies in a dedication to low-yield viticulture, in which grapes are hand-raised (head-pruning keeps the grape clusters at the top for full sun exposure) to the exact moment of ripeness needed for full alcohol and maximum varietal signature.

Fewer grapes create happier, stress-free plants. "You need to be a good farmer, basically," Draper continues. "Don't overproduce--especially with fragile, old vines. That way, you maintain more depth and nuance in the fruit. You have to manage them, not push them."

The secret weapon of zinfandel--dramatically noticeable from the first sip--is its accessibility. "The tannins are in balance," Draper says, sounding like a feng shui master. Balanced tannins allow the wine to be approachable and delicious even when it's young.

In a fussier varietal, like cabernet sauvignon, so much tannin is present at birth that the grapes need years of maturing to soften into a pleasing glass of wine.

"If you get the zinfandel fully ripe at harvest," Draper notes, "then you get an intensity of flavor you just don't get with a cabernet or pinot." According to Draper, 12 percent to 13.5 percent alcohol is typical for a cabernet sauvignon, whereas for zinfandel to reach its full fruity potential, the minimum alcohol level (powered by warm climate) increases to 14 percent or 14.5 percent.

Variations on zinfandel styles are the result of regional differences in climate, soil and sun-to-shade ratios. Vineyards in the Sierra foothills, planted more than a century ago with zinfandel vines by recalcitrant gold miners, set the current tone. The style was over-the-top, flamboyant, teeth-staining, lavishly perfumed and pyrotechnic.

These mega-zins were the result of long growing seasons and warm climates in which grapes could come to full--and hence aggressively flavorful--ripeness. On these large vineyards, the harvest took longer to complete. Grapes waiting to be picked kept ripening, often overripening, which made for huge alcohol and flavor.

Many consumers remain imprinted with the memory of uneven and inconsistent zinfandels--some inky monsters verging on port, others filled with underripe, flat berries--the result of everybody and his cousin tinkering with zinfandel.

Vineyard technique--and planting the right grape in the right soil--is key to the glorious flavor of a well-made zinfandel. So is something the French (who always seem to have the right je ne sais quoi for things) call terroir. Think of terroir--a crucial but unnamable mixture of climate, soil and grape variety--as the sense of place that permeates the finished product. It lends the archetypal watermark of nature and nurture.

Ridge espouses old-fashioned "get out of the way" winemaking, in which the grapes express themselves cleanly without lots of laboratory influence--and without blending the yield from different vineyards in different geographical regions.

"I find it's more satisfying to find individual vineyards that produce that quality we like," Draper says, "rather than blend. Single-vineyard wines allow the character of the vineyard to emerge; classic and celestial examples include any Ridge wine from Pagani Ranch."

The other big factor in California's current love affair with zinfandel is youthful drinkability. "The main characteristics appreciated by zinfandel lovers--intense fruit and sensuousness--are at their best usually from the day of release up to five years," Draper tells me. "A good vintage can go seven years."

Draper believes that some of his wines can last 20 years. "The 1997 Geyserville I find to be an exceptional vintage. I think you could lay it down until 2020, and it wouldn't have dried out--it would become a fascinating glass of wine."

Zinfandel is hard to beat, in Draper's opinion. Even though "there's a huge public that wants a softer wine, like merlot, zinfandel's coming on strong. From the moment we made our first bottle, we sold every bit of zinfandel we made," Draper says with a smile.


Zin Infidel: Winemaker Randall Grahm begs to differ about the rush to zinfandel.

Ranking the Big Reds: So many tastings, so little time.


Monster Reds

JOEL PETERSON AGREES. The winemaker at Sonoma's Ravenswood Winery is widely considered one of the superstars of mondo Zinfandel. His vibrant monster reds burst with 14.5 percent alcohol, opulent black pepper and raspberries for under $10 a bottle. "Zinfandel is doing incredibly well," he beams. "We'll do a total of 270,000 cases this year--70 percent of it is zinfandel. And there's no end in sight."

Why? "Because the consumer can buy very high-quality zinfandel, tasting within the same profile as high-quality cabernet, and still pay half as much, or even one-third as much." That's why.

Peterson, a tireless lobbyist for zinfandel on the winemaker dinner circuit, thinks that "the public is increasingly aware that zinfandel is a food-friendly wine. Delicious and not too aggressive. Our vintner's blend is our bestselling wine, and it's $7 to $12 a bottle, depending on where you buy it. People like the flavor. How bad can blueberries and raspberries be?" he asks with a chuckle. Ravenswood makes a variety of zinfandels--with a variety of price tags--ranging from the low-priced blend to a "really juicy megawine" from century-old vines.

He's being modest. You'd be hard-pressed to find a restaurant in California that doesn't list Ravenswood, a reliably tasty, affordable partner to all things Italian. And it's undeniable that the rise of zinfandel parallels the West Coast explosion of Mediterranean restaurants. Puttanesca, linguine a la Matriciana, osso bucco--these all cry out for a wine that has attitude, that can read and write. And sing Puccini. Complexity-challenged merlots or intricately subtle pinot noirs just can't do the job.

"Zinfandel has substantially increased our sales, and it has a very regional flavor," Peterson points out. "Unlike the Scotch drinker, I think true wine drinkers don't like the same wine every night. Wine drinkers like to experiment with different flavors." So there's room for all styles, the regionally distinctive zinfandels of Napa, Sonoma, Amador and Lodi.

Peterson points out a more pragmatic reason for the sudden infestation of zinfandel: "There's a lot of it. It's the most widely planted grape in California." Perhaps that's why the once blazing-hot merlot mania has slowed down. Or maybe merlot drinkers--having mastered trainer wines--are trading up. "Zinfandel has come a huge way," Peterson admits. "It's improved immeasurably in five years. Now you can drink almost any bottle you can find on the shelves."

Mother of Them All

ON AN ACRE in Napa Valley, close to 500 heirloom zinfandel vines from more than 63 different vineyards are carefully nurtured. A joint venture of UC-Davis--led by professor of oenology James Wolpert and a vigorous bunch of diehard enthusiasts, growers and historians who comprise ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates & Producers)--the vineyard is a living museum of the best and oldest of the varietal's roots, as well as a laboratory for future production.

UCD geneticist Carole Meredith, who helped gather the zinfandel varieties (clones) for study, is currently engaged in tracing the ancestry of this sturdy grape. Meredith, who recently hit the front pages after discovering the source of chardonnay (a classic pinot grape crossed with the humble gouais blanc), conducts DNA testing in her UC-Davis laboratory and has traced zinfandel back to the plavac mali grape of Croatia.

"I went to Croatia last May and brought back 150 samples of plavac mali for analysis here at UC-Davis," Meredith emailed me. "We found that plavac mali is undoubtedly a relative of zinfandel. It could be one of the parents, or it could actually be a seedling of zinfandel. We won't be able to distinguish between those possibilities unless we can find a third variety that fits in as a second parent."

Meredith explained that Croatian zinfandel was lost to phylloxera in the late 1800s and speculates that "it may once have been a prominent variety, which would account for its having been taken across the Adriatic to Italy and also to the imperial garden outside Vienna, from where it might have been sent to the United States." It's possible that zinfandel might have disappeared from Croatia entirely, but Meredith isn't giving up. "I am working with a team of researchers in Croatia who intend to keep up the search."

We do know that zinfandel grapevines, imported from Austria, were being sold in a Long Island nursery in 1822, becoming a popular table grape in the Northeast well into the 1840s. Coming west with the Gold Rush, zin grew like a weed in the Sierra foothills. By the late 19th century, it was the most widely planted variety during California's first wine boom.

Planted on resistant rootstock, some of the hardy vines flourished in the Wild West even after phylloxera took out almost every other grapevine in California. Popular with Italian immigrant families and managing to survive Prohibition as the darling of home winemakers, zinfandel once again brought its blockbuster flavors to public attention during the latest premium wine boom of the '70s, when white zinfandel--for better or much, much worse--started enjoying its 15 minutes of vintage fame. In 1998, 340,000 tons of zinfandel were harvested in California, versus 225,000 tons of cabernet sauvignon. What goes around comes around.

As Riesling is to Germany and Chianti to Italy, so zinfandel has come to be identified as a uniquely New World variety. Though technically European in origin, in Carole Meredith's educated opinion zinfandel deserves its reputation as an all-American grape. "It is here that zinfandel has come into its own, and so many wine consumers around the world associate it with this country."

Devoted to maintaining rootstock, biodiversity and the history of the mighty zinfandel, the Heritage Vineyard "represents an effort to identify superior zin stock for California winemakers," Meredith says. "It is of significant commercial importance, and it is hoped that some better selections will be found in the Heritage Collection that will benefit all zin producers." And zin drinkers.

Ancestors of the Grape

FOG HUGS THE HILLSIDE a few hundred feet below the tasting room at Ridge Winery. Situated high above sea level, it commands a view that visitors now share with ghosts of opera-loving Italian winemakers and their long-departed guests; people who made the trek up the mountain by horse and buggy; vineyard pioneers--ancestors of the grape.

Here among the emerald-green vines, I sample the newly released 1997 Geyserville Zinfandel--the liquid essence of one summer in one vineyard. The wine is made of 74 percent old-vine zinfandel, with additional structure provided by 15 percent carignan, 10 percent petite sirah and 1 percent mataro grapes--all from the same estate.

It is already quite a grownup wine. My glass goes supernova. The first sip launches limitless layers of complexity. Blackberries and pepper find their way to the back of my head. They ricochet back and forth inside my mouth and finish--slowly--with a long, velvet lullaby.

Draper was right.

Explosive fruit. Sensuous texture. Bye-bye, merlot.

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From the October 6-13, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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