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Zinfandel: Continually Reinventing Itself

By Stephen Eliot

I am sitting with my morning coffee overlooking a serene lake high in the Sierras. It is the kind of morning that, with the exception of a few angry muscles reminding that yesterday’s hike in the mountains was a bit overdone, comes with the feeling that all is right in world. It has been nice to get away from the wine culture wars, but I made the mistake of just checking in on the latest on-line wine news, and it seems that my serenity is less secure than I thought.

It has been over twenty years since I have revisited some old-favorite haunts here in the Tahoe basin, and, as is so often the case in those times of reflection about where life has gone, my profession and passion for things vinous inevitably has me thinking about what was, what is and what might be in the world of fine wine.

My all-too-short sabbatical follows weeks of tasting and writing about new Zinfandels for our upcoming September issue, and I find myself musing this morning on a recent article from Dan Berger posing the notion that Zinfandel is at a crossroad. Its basic premise is the familiar one that California Zinfandel has for too many years lost its way, and that its “proper” style has been tragically perverted by wineries chasing scores from a handful of influential critics. The tedious argument, and it is one that is routinely invoked in discussions of most any variety these days, goes that they are too big, too ripe and no longer fitting partners to food and that there is some mythical past that has been betrayed. As is often the case, there is an element of rewriting history at work.

There have always been big, very ripe Zins dating back to the 1960s and 1970s. Bold, fully ripe bottlings from the likes of Ridge, Mayacamas and David Bruce, to name but a few, were highly regarded and much in demand by serious collectors of the day, just as there were plenty of well-made lighter versions that were ideally suited for drinking with everything from barbecued ribs to spaghetti and meatballs.

California Zinfandel may well be at a crossroads today, but I would argue that it has been so for much of its modern history, and, whatever twists and turns it may have taken over time, Zinfandel has been immune to any and all efforts at defining a singular, “correct” style. And, to that, I would say “amen.” It seems to me that Zinfandel endlessly finds itself at “crossroads”, both real and imagined, imposed by fashion, critics, winemaker choice and consumer demand or neglect, and that it has the uncanny ability, when reaching such to take a left turn, a right turn and going straight ahead all at once.

One of Zinfandel’s great virtues is that it can succeed in a wide range of styles. There are laments by many who sell it that its very variety leads to consumer confusion. It is the same refrain regularly heard about Syrah, but, in either case, the idea that there is any one style, any singular incarnation that is the grape’s right and true expression is at best born of unbridled arrogance.

I never have a problem with any commentary that aims to elevate and praise or diminish and damn this or that wine or wine style as long as the writer makes clear that any such critical conclusions are based upon personal preference. Yes, a critic’s authority requires the force of belief and must speak with an experienced and hopefully reasoned voice, but it cannot be bound by a crusader’s certainty that their perspective is the only one. Now, I am the last one to preach that every opinion is equally valid or that quality lies solely in the eye of the beholder, but, given the celebration of diversity that is endemic in today’s discussions of fine wine, I am rankled by those zealous missionaries who claim to have seen the way and are too quick to let those who have not see the errors of their ways.

I fully endorse the idea that you should drink what you like, and I make a practice of following the same, but if, for example, you believe that Zinfandels checking in at 15.0% alcohol are to be summarily dismissed as inherently wrong and not what the variety was meant by nature to be, I can only say that you are missing a great many memorable wines and do not have a real grasp on what great Zinfandel can be. And, the only way to end any confusion one might have about its so many guises is to taste and taste again. I have no doubt at all that you will find more than a few Zinfandels to like.

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by Mike
Posted on:8/18/2016 3:23:11 PM

A very well-reasoned piece.  I reacted the same way to Berger's article.  Not only did it seem recycled, it feels like he's stuck in some mythical era in which all wines were to his taste.  That's fine but from where I sit, I see plenty of diversity in the Zin market with something to please every palate.  Perhaps it's simply a glass half-empty versus glass half-full kind of thing.

same old story
by Mr. Winter
Posted on:8/19/2016 1:44:42 AM

Make Zinfandel Great Again! . . . when is Again?

Zinfandel has always been a multi-faceted variety, perhaps its greatest virtue: Ripe, bold, deep; 'claret' style (I never knew what that meant); fruit focused; over-the-top ripeness and oak; late harvest and sweet; fruity, simple and cheap; a range of flavors based on region, Sonoma, Amador, Paso, Lodi; even white/rose,  You choose.

And typically a good value versus similarly crafted cabernet and pinot noir.  What's wrong with that?

Zin style
by Ray Krause
Posted on:8/19/2016 10:34:30 AM

Having started the Central Coast Wine Competition back in the 80s, I was fortunate to have both the Great Corti and the original Curmudgeon, Jerry Mead as guest judges. They found themselves in disagreement over two Zinfandels, of divergent style, as to which deserved the gold. One wine, well extracted, oaked, layered and fleshy.  The other, bright, good grip with pervasive berry aromas and flavors. The result, (could have been ugly) both golds. Simple story unless you knew the players. My own taste memory wanders back to the mid-60s offerings from Martini, Sebastiani and Mirassou (pre-Monterey) as a style seemingly all but lost on today's "signature" Zin winemakers.

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