Zinfandel: Riding High on the Comeback Trail


If Cabernet Sauvignon is the aristocrat in cashmere and Chardonnay the lady in silk, then surely Zinfandel is the guy in the Guess jeans and rugby shirt.

Zinfandel, the red wine for pasta rather than foie gras , has been making a huge comeback from a decade ago, when consumers were confused over its varying styles. The latest wave of excitement in Zinfandel is for elegant wines with modest alcohol levels, wines that go with lighter foods.

Joel Peterson is not amused. Or, rather, he is quite amused. Or perhaps he doesn't care. He makes Zin the way it was made a decade ago, bold and brassy, and there's a following for this style. Ravenswood, his Sonoma Valley winery, recently had to move to larger quarters.

Peterson, who grew up sipping 50-year-old Bordeaux from his father's cellar, is today producing some of California's brawniest Zinfandels. He makes these gutsy wines with a sense of style so distinct it prompted one journalist to take a job at the facility, then devote the better part of a book to it: "Angels' Visits," by David Darlington (Henry Holt & Co.: $19.65).

The subtitle of the book is "An Inquiry Into the Mystery of Zinfandel," but it's more than an academic analysis of a grape's origin or a dissection of wine styles. It's a personal look at one man's infatuation with a very American grape and a look at the people who have committed themselves to this variety, even in the face of potentially higher profits from Chardonnay and Cabernet.

The origins of Zinfandel have long been a mystery. We know that Cabernet Sauvignon comes from Bordeaux and that Chenin Blanc seems native to Anjou and Pinot Noir to Burgundy, but the birthplace of Zinfandel has been hard to pin down. Darlington does a thorough job of analyzing Zinfandel and comes to a conclusion I reached just a year ago while in Yugoslavia--before Darlington's book was published, I should add.

"The arrows point to Eastern Europe," said Darlington in a telephone interview. He said the Yugoslav grape Plavac Mali, which may also have grown in what is now Northern Italy, may be the real ancestor of California's unique variety.

Darlington, whose prose is most engaging and whose love of wine quite obvious, has a sense of joy and wonder about Zinfandel that is exceeded only by his research. He said his book is more about people than wine.

"There are so many interesting people in this business, and I was fascinated by the ambience of the trade," he said. He signed on at Ravenswood and hauled hoses around for one grueling year to sense the wonder of turning a humble grape into an elixir that offers so much joy.

Among the people he details are the best Zinfandel specialists in the state, men such as Doug Nalle and Dave Rafanelli; Bob Trinchero of Sutter Home; Paul Draper and the late Dave Bennion of Ridge; the late Joe Swan; Amador County's energetic Scott Harvey (Santino) and Charlie Myers (Harbor). He credits Sacramento merchant Darrell Corti with being a prime mover in the growth of the varietal.

The book focuses, more than anything, on a comparison between what Ridge and Ravenswood do with Zinfandel. Both identify their various wines with vineyard designations, feeling that the characteristics of a vineyard are important and that blending could destroy that uniqueness of spirit.

Ravenswood is now a 40,000-case operation, pretty substantial for a so-called "boutique" winery. It is located at what once was the Haywood Winery in Sonoma Valley.

Peterson's wine lineup (which also includes Cabernets and Merlots and a few hundred cases of Chardonnay) features a covey of Zinfandels so packed with flavor they seem to be throwbacks to the wild-and-woolly late 1970s, when the principle "more is better" ruled.

Yet tasting these wines, one sees they are far more sophisticated than those we knew a decade ago. They have concentration--Peterson's hallmark--but with layers of flavor that could not be detected a decade ago when the tannin was so beefy. In those days, some producers even gave up on Zinfandel, blaming the variety--not their own inability to make the wine with grace--for their woes.

Oh, I'll admit, it's hard to use the word grace when talking about Ravenswood's wines, but there is a lush and complete finish in all the wines, which means that they go with more subtle foods as well as finger-staining barbecue (which the wines' dense flavors also suit).

Of all Peterson's Zinfandels, the wine that gets the highest praise is Old Hill Ranch, from a 90-year-old vineyard on sloped, gravelly soil in Sonoma County. The 1989 Old Hill (just released, $15) is a monster in aroma--blackberry and black pepper scents (I thought I smelled a trace of Petite Sirah, but Peterson said not) along with a roasted component. A fascinating wine.

Peterson seemed to like the wine from the Dickerson vineyard, a 75-year-old vineyard south of St. Helena in the Napa Valley. In the 1989 ($14) there is a huge raspberry/black currant aroma and what Peterson called a "eucalyptus-y" note.

Darlington professed more love for the Old Hill wine, which he called "a wondrous thing," and acknowledged that he didn't share Peterson's enthusiasm for that Dickersonion eucalyptus component.

I also liked the 1989 Cook Zinfandel from Ravenswood ($14) with its red currant/pomegranate aroma and wonderful fruit in the taste. Even the more modest 1989 Ravenswood Sonoma County Old Vine Zinfandel ($11), from older vines in Alexander, Dry Creek and Sonoma valleys, offers depth and a blackberry jam and pepper complexity.

Peterson pushes the envelope of Zinfandel production by fermenting the juice without the prepared yeast strains other wineries use. He prefers the natural yeasts that occur on the grape skins. Winemakers know this can create problems for the fermentation, but Peterson says it adds complexity, and he's careful enough to make sure the wine is sound when it's released.

When Peterson speaks of his wines, he compares them with others and notes that those who are as committed as he is to Zinfandel must stick together. "I sell anyone else's wine as easily as I sell my own," he says. "I like to think of all the Zinfandel specialists as working together in a collaborative effort."

For those interested in seeing the Ravenswood style of Zinfandel without excessive cost, there is the 1989 Vintner's Blend ($7.50), which has the same sort of spice and fruit as the other wines, but without the distinctiveness of the vineyard-designated wines, and without the aging potential.

In the latest swing back to softer, more approachable Zinfandels, Ravenswood continues to make full-flavored wine, but with a sense of style that may best be explained in a book.

Wine of the Week

1990 Fetzer Gamay Beaujolais ($7)-- When Cabernet Sauvignon is too tannic to serve with lighter foods that require red wine, many people choose Pinot Noir. That's usually a good substitute. This wine, however, goes in another direction, and whether chilled or not, it's a wonderful experience. It is as spicy as any wine I have ever smelled and has gobs of raspberry-fruity flavors. This is also a perfect wine for those who swore they'd never drink a red wine.

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