ZINFANDEL: A PERSONAL HISTORY
This most mysterious of grapes hasn’t changed much in the past 165 years, but the uses, perception and history of it have. As a student at San Francisco State University in the 70’s I proposed doing my history thesis on the zinfandel grape and was met with the stunned silence that can only mean “you weren’t serious were you”? Well, I was. Off I went to interview the people who knew the grape best in California- the old Italian vintners who both grew and loved the grape. Zin was red, gnarly and delicious, Zinfandel in the 1970’s had both a mysterious past (it just sort of landed in California) and a very unpredictable future. The grape, depending on how it is grown and harvested can take on a variety of flavors and styles. The popular ones of the 70’s were: the California hearty burgundy (really great zin as part of an anonymous table wine blend- usually cheap). Or it was a high quality wine that was obscured by the fame of cabernet sauvignon (Mondavi, Louis Martini, Sebastiani, were the main practitioners). And last, but not least: the cult zin (Story, Mayacamas, Ridge, David Bruce). The cult zins ranged from elegant to downright experimental. One wag proposed a neck label that read “for competition use only- not for family dining”. Last, but certainly least, there was zinfandel port. The back label always read “age for 20 years”- they fell apart in five.
I drank and experienced them all. Food for zin depends on quality and price. Cheap $5-6.00 burgers on the grill or hot dogs. Moderate $10.00-$20.00 a wide range of meats from barbecue with sweet sauce, ribs, sausage, pork chops, turkey. At $15.00 and up, duck, lamb, prime rib, goat cheese and expensive cuts of meat. Zinfandel is versatile.
In the early 1980’s I was Sales Manager for a small sized fine wine distributor in Portland, Oregon. My favorite sentence was “sorry, it’s allocated”. One of our winery people came in with a request: “we made a few cases of pink zinfandel by mistake, would you please find a way to get some off our hands.” “Sure, why not”. Then KABOOM. Those few cases turned into the whale watching trip where you wound up in the middle of the ocean riding the whale. From writing 3 star restaurant wine lists I was stacking this pink stuff sky high in stores. White zinfandel had taken over the world.
So, for a decade, we suffered through the “I didn’t know it was red too?” question. Fortunately, as with all things that go viral, it spun its course. In the meantime, we found out a lot of cool things: the grape is the tribidrag, arriving in the U.S. from the Imperial vine collection in Vienna in the 1820’s. Researchers found the original 22 vines in a garden in Croatia. It has been a long, strange ride for the zinfandel grape, and I am thrilled just holding a bottle in my hand when I see it in a store. Give me the red stuff from those gnarly old winemakers, please.