Zinfandel: Uniquely & Distinctly American

David White

David White

Mention Zinfandel to most wine consumers, and it’s quickly dismissed. It’s easy to see why.  For starters, many Americans associate the variety with the cheap, sweet “blush” wines that became popular in the 1980s, like Sutter Home’s white Zinfandel. This style of wine will always have fans, but to many, it’s just too cloying. Most white Zinfandel tastes more like Kool-Aid than wine.

But Zinfandel can be delicious. The best examples are wonderfully accessible and strike the perfect balance between power and finesse. While certainly robust, they’re marked by fresh, brambly berries and are energetic enough to pair with a variety of cuisines. Plus, Zinfandel is uniquely and distinctly American. It’s well worth exploring.

Zinfandel came to the United States in the late 1820s, when a nursery owner in New York purchased cuttings from Austria. The origins of the name “Zinfandel” remain a mystery, but shortly after its arrival to the East Coast, the grape’s popularity quickly soared.

When East Coasters started heading to California during the gold rush, Zinfandel followed and quickly became the variety of choice, often planted right alongside other grapes for diversity. Many of these vineyards remain, giving wine drinkers a direct connection to California’s earliest settlers.

Without question, these ancient vineyards—typically full of thick, gnarly vines—produce the most complex, vibrant wines. Several California vintners are working to catalog, protect, and promote these vineyards through a new nonprofit called the Historic Vineyard Society. Winemaker Morgan Twain-Peterson, the 32-year-old owner of Bedrock Wine Company, is leading this effort.

Twain-Peterson has become a rock star in the wine community because his wines—sourced from some of California’s oldest vines and made using old-fashioned winemaking techniques—are stunning. Indeed, his winery’s namesake, the Bedrock Vineyard, was planted nearly 125 years ago. Twain-Peterson estimates that the vineyard is about half Zinfandel and a quarter Carignane, with varieties like Mourvedre, Syrah, Alicante Bouschet, Petite Sirah comprising the rest.

Other wineries that source from ancient vineyards include Ridge, Ravenswood, and Seghesio, all of which make delicious, affordable wines that can easily be found at your local wine shop. Smaller labels worth looking for include Carlisle Winery, Dashe Cellars, and Nalle. With all these producers, the big Zinfandel fruit is still there, of course, but the wines are balanced, bright, and pair well with food.

Those who fear monolithic, alcoholic fruit bombs when purchasing Zinfandel still have plenty to worry about. But more and more producers—in a quest to rediscover America’s winemaking—are moving towards elegance.