State of Zin

The erstwhile country bumpkin of California reds, Zinfandel has evolved into a wine of unexpected depth and finesse, reports one former skeptic, Martin Filler.

I cringe when anyone or anything is called the new whatever. Season after season, style watchers inevitably pronounce some color the new black, sometimes black itself. George Clooney is declared the new Clark Gable. (Actually, he’s closer to Cary Grant, if parallels must be drawn.) Of course, the fashion and celebrity cultures thrive on such spurious analogies.

In the American wine world the question everyone keeps asking is, What will be the next Pinot Noir? West Coast Burgundy-style reds made from this lovely grape had been winning praise well before 2004, but that year’s sleeper movie Sideways turned a modest trend into a full-blown fad. Vintners rushed to cash in as prices soared, oblivious to how market-driven pandering might debase Pinot Noir as badly as Chardonnay had been during the boom-and-bust from which it still hasn’t fully recovered. At least Sideways determined what won’t be the new Pinot Noir, thanks to Paul Giamatti’s expletive-charged diatribe against hapless Merlot.

Much as I hate predicting the next big thing, certain overlooked varietals command renewed attention every so often for quite legitimate reasons. And among American reds, the Pinot Noir phenomenon seems to me less remarkable than the parallel transformation of Zinfandel, a wine I long dismissed and have come to understand only recently. Last winter my wife and I were invited to lunch at New York’s Union Square Café by a couple who are serious wine connoisseurs. I offered to bring in some special bottles (which the restaurant allows, for a reasonable $20 corkage fee).

The just-released ’95 Krug and a half-bottle of ’98 Yquem seemed just the right beginning and ending, but for balance I wanted a main-course red rather less luxurious. Searching through our cellar, I found a magnum of 1997 Edizione Pennino, the Napa Zinfandel produced by Francis Ford Coppola. Perfect! Zin’s characteristic directness is made for Union Square Café’s rustic dishes.

The Pennino proved a big hit, its fruity bite just right with hearty pulled-pork sandwiches and chunky pasta in rich game sauce. I finally got the point. The proper place for a top-flight Zinfandel had never seemed clearer to me than in a quasicasual context where a first-growth Bordeaux would have been too stately.

Years ago a member of New Jersey’s Essex Hunt Club told me she’d just met the new beau of her fellow equestrienne Jackie Onassis. "He’s very nice," my source said of Maurice Tempelsman, "but he wore black shoes." Ebony oxfords, mandatory with a blue suit in the city, look out of place in the country, where only brown shoes will do. Though I happily flout nonsartorial pairing conventions all the time, my belated appreciation of Zinfandel has made me more conscious of the important distinction between appropriateness and propriety.

During the 19th century, Zinfandel earned its reputation as California’s foolproof red grape. The natural affinity Zinfandel had for the region and its climate established beyond doubt the state’s promise as a winemaking hub. Last year Sacramento lawmakers voted to designate Zinfandel California’s "historic wine," but Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill. "It would be a shame to recognize only one" of the state’s varietals, he noted, implying the legislation was a thinly veiled marketing ploy. It would also be a shame, though, not to recognize the rise of Zinfandel to a world-class quality few ever would have predicted.

The wizards of California Zin can best be described as true believers, as it has always been easier to make money with Chardonnays and Cabernets. By the sixties Zinfandel had attracted a regional following among unpretentious Californians I call the Sunset magazine crowd—basically middle-class enthusiasts who liked how this economical red stood up to guacamole, taco pie, and other Mexican-inflected dishes that were staples of the magazine’s recipe pages. Sophisticates, meanwhile, looked down on Zinfandel as irredeemably gauche, and the higher their aspirations, the deeper their disdain.

Not every connoisseur is a wine snob, however. Coppola, whose Napa winery produces one of the world’s finest Cabernet blends, Rubicon, has devoted part of his ultrapremium acreage to Zinfandel as a labor of familial love. The gutsy wine reminds him of the Italian-style reds he grew up with, and he named his stylish but not overly assimilated Zin Edizione Pennino, after the music-publishing business of his maternal grandfather.

Coppola further emphasized his Italian roots with the wine’s barbell-shaped label, showing the Bay of Naples and Mount Vesuvius on one side and on the other, New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty (the first image of a federal monument ever approved for use on an alcohol label). "Francis grows Zin because he likes to drink it himself," says Scott McLeod, Rubicon Estate’s director of winemaking. "His attitude has always been, If someone else wants to drink it, too, great, but I’m making it for myself no matter what."

Coppola’s diversified and highly successful business plan made his taking a flier on Zin not a very risky proposition. But Kent Rosenblum, the so-called King of Zin, owes his prominence not just to an uncanny instinct for this particular grape but also to his heart-and-soul commitment to what once seemed a most unlikely specialty. If Rosenblum’s long hair, droopy moustache, and guileless enthusiasm suggest an aging hippie, few of his business contemporar- ies have achieved so much by adhering to the sixties injunction to follow your dream.

Born in Minnesota, Rosenblum became a veterinarian, and after he and his wife moved to the Bay Area in 1970, they fell in love with northern California’s burgeoning wine culture. Frequent visits to Napa and Sonoma vineyards inspired him to start making wine at home, which revealed his extraordinary gift and led to the founding of Rosenblum Cellars in 1978.

From the outset he felt drawn to Zinfandel rather than California’s premium red grape. "Cabernet always seemed pretty much the same to me, at least within a given region," Rosenblum recalls. "But Zin really showed its specific place, whether on a mountaintop in Sonoma or a hillside in Paso Robles. And I saw its ability to make distinct, denser, more colorful wines."

So how did Zinfandel morph from a rough-edged red with little development beyond an initial spicy kick into a complex long-finish wine? The biggest factor was Rosenblum’s observation that, as he puts it, "the older the vines, the better the fruit." Mature plants will yield grapes of higher quality, and if harvested later, their concentration of flavor deepens. The innovative practices adopted by Rosenblum and others in the Zin revolution vary in certain respects, but what all the top players have in common is a reverence for old vines.

Rosenblum, though a passionate exponent of single-vineyard cuvées that express their locale (I’ve never heard him use the tricky term "terroir"), has no great interest in owning land—it’s Rosenblum Cellars, not Vineyards. From the start he’s preferred to scout out owners of promising old-vine stock and buy grapes from those growers if they lived up to his standards. It was a lot faster than planting Zin himself, then waiting 20 or 30 years. Once he got the grapes he wanted, Rosenblum was content to create his wines in unbucolic settings like "glamorous Alameda," as he laughingly calls the gritty industrial city adjoining Oakland.

His intuition was right on the money, and his big break came in 1986 when his ’84 George Hendry Reserve Zinfandel took top honors at the San Francisco International Wine Competition. As the business grew, so did its range of grape sources, to the point where Rosenblum Cellars now bottles vineyard-designated Zins from cultivators as far north as Mendocino and as far south as Santa Barbara.

"We’re like thirty little wineries rolled into one," says this savvy maverick, whose belief in diversification within his chosen varietal has been rewarded with ever-higher ratings: Two years ago Rosenblum’s 2003 Rockpile Road Vineyard Zinfandel ranked third on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines list. Its deep, ripe black cherry flavor is not unlike some of the great Cabernets of Napa’s Rutherford region, even though it’s from Sonoma. At $30, it’s one of Rosenblum’s midpriced Zins. My favorite, Maggie’s Reserve, is a bit more but still an undeniable bargain at $45, reflecting the founder’s shrewd sense of how to build a market.

Critics have complained about the new Zinfandels’ alcohol content—high and getting higher all the time, a result of natural sugars stimulated in part by global warming. Whereas the 2005 Mouton Rothschild was deemed high at 13.2 percent, many California Zins top 15 percent, with Rosenblum’s 2004 Maggie’s Reserve clocking in at an almost boozy 17.5 percent. "Some people say the increased alcohol is making these Zins less food-friendly," Rosenblum says, "but we’ve done careful market research and find no consumer resistance whatsoever."

Rosenblum’s most formidable rival in quality is Larry Turley in Napa. His sumptuous cuvées support Robert Parker’s claim that "year in and year out, they are among the finest Zinfandels money can buy." Ah yes, money. Turley’s suggested retail price for its 2004 Hayne Vineyard Zinfandel is $86, though you’d be lucky to find a bottle for less than $150, thanks to sellers’ markups on the vineyard’s small-production wines. Which makes my preference for Turley’s Old Vines Zin—I recently picked up a 2003 for $125—seem thrifty. Still, that’s almost triple Rosenblum’s most expensive bottle. Are the Turley Zins also three times as good? If you asked me while I was drinking one, I couldn’t say no, though later I would have to confess that Rosenblum’s best Zins deliver superior value.

Let’s put things into a larger perspective. At a time when an immature, recently revamped minor Bordeaux can cost $200 or more, I’d sooner pay that—better yet, even less—for an epically proportioned, consistently stunning ready-to-drink post-millennial red that happens to be a Zinfandel. Would it be appropriate with filet mignon, rack of lamb, or other Bordeaux-classic main courses? Mais oui, far more so than, say, the jumped-up 2005 Château Angelus: highway robbery at $235.

Plus, Angelus just doesn’t go with turkey con carne, as anyone in the Sunset crowd could tell you.

Five Great Zins to Drink Now

Big, beautiful Zinfandels perfected in California over the past two decades bear out the faith of devoted advocates convinced this long-disparaged varietal could ascend to greatness. They were right, but don’t let their priciest bottles divert your attention from the less ambitious but nonetheless excellent Zins attracting defectors sick and tired of mediocre $40 Pinot Noir.

2004 Charles Underwood Farleigh Zinfandel

A salesman pleaded so urgently for me to try this debut vintage Zin—a 50-50 blend from old vines in Amador County and younger growth in Mendocino—that I couldn’t say no. Take his word and now mine: Giveaways of this quality never last. Pounce while you can. $15

2004 Ravenswood Winery Old Hill Zinfandel

Like a mouthful of wild berries revved up with allspice, this exceptional effort reflects the expertise of a producer that has been central to advancing Zinfandel’s cause. Though I favor Ravenswood’s Pickberry Cabernet/Merlot blend and am bored by its ubiquitous Vintner’s Blend Zins, this pioneering maker deserves lasting respect. $60

2004 Rubicon Estate Edizione Pennino Zinfandel

Grown by Francis Ford Coppola on prime Napa turf usually devoted to Cabernet, this velvety, elegant Zin shows the heights a once-scorned grape can attain in the hands of a true believer. It’s powerful but less unctuous and more food-friendly than the biggest Zin guns. $38

2004 Rosenblum Cellars Maggie’s Reserve Zinfandel

Though Rosenblum’s Rockpile Road has set off a crit-ical stampede, the finish of Maggie’s Reserve grabs me every time. The intense raspberry and blackberry flavors bring to mind a vinous version of summer pudding but with tiny jolts of cinnamon and eucalyptus that keep it from cloying. A masterful achievement. $45

2004 Turley Old Vines Zinfandel

Larry Turley’s philosophy of Zin—old vines, low yield, late picking, no filtering—can’t be disputed once you’ve been seduced by his stunning cuvées. Old Vines combines grapes from several sources with breathtaking balance. Production is small, so expect big retail markups. $28

Bold complements: Pairing with Zin

Today’s more sophisticated Zinfandels go surprisingly well with dishes beyond old fallbacks such as barbecued babybacks or braised short ribs. Before we went to dinner last Thanksgiving in New York, our impromptu "light" lunch—baked Virginia ham with Eli Zabar’s definitive mac-and-cheese—turned into an unanticipated feast thanks to Rosenblum Cellars’ 2004 Maggie’s Reserve Zinfandel. This massive cuvée—sweet but not sugary, in the manner of late-harvest Rieslings—played off the salty honey-glazed pork and crusty-creamy elbow pasta to perfection. With Flattened Chicken, a garlicky London River Café Cookbook favorite that overpowers most whites and even many reds, I like Ravenswood’s sufficiently lusty but engagingly smooth 2004 Old Hill Zinfandel. And I’d treat a blockbuster Turley Zin like a big-deal Amarone, saving it for the end of a major meal and serving it with nothing more than a plain, dense plum cake or the best nuts you can find.

Ending with a "Z"

Americans unfamiliar with Europe’s fine red dessert wines—such as Italy’s Recioto and France’s Banyuls—should try one of California’s newish late-harvest Zinfandels. Best of the lot is Rosenblum Cellars’ 2004 Rosie Rabbit Late Harvest Zinfandel ($18), a concentrated blend of raisinlike fruit. Other contenders include Dashe Cellars’ 2005 Dry Creek Valley Late Harvest Zinfandel ($24) and Ridge Vineyards’ 2003 Stone Ranch Essence Zinfandel ($28). All come in 375-ml half bottles only.