Reviving Old Vine Zinfandel

Reviving Old Vine Zinfandel

The qualities of old vine California Zinfandel could distinguish it as one of the most exciting and prized wines in the American market. Many of the plantings date over 100 years, connecting the modern wine world to a pre-Prohibition wine landscape that’s almost impossible to access otherwise. Now as then, Zinfandel has strong name recognition with consumers. The bottles are affordable, with even the top expressions rarely breaking $100 at retail.

It’s also American in a way that virtually no other widely cultivated variety is. While the history of wine in the US is relatively short, as Christina Turley, the director of sales and marketing at Napa Valley’s Turley Wine Cellars, notes, Zinfandel’s longevity is to be celebrated. She explains, “Zinfandel is one of the plants that lasts the longest, especially if it was done the right way—head-trained and dry-farmed from the very beginning. By far the vast majority of the old vine vineyards that still exist in California are Zinfandel vineyards.” And although the variety is not native to the US, she argues, “like most things truly American, it came from somewhere else but made its name here.”

Old Vine Origins and Opportunities

Zinfandel’s ancestry lies in Croatia’s Dalmatian coast. In 2001, at UC Davis, DNA tracing matched Zinfandel to the obscure Croatian variety Crljenak Kaštelanski, of which only nine living vines were thought to exist at the time this discovery was made. Zinfandel is also genetically identical to the variety the Italians call Primitivo, which is widely grown in Puglia. But despite many waves of migration from Italy to California, Zinfandel actually made it to America by way of Vienna, Austria, where George Gibbs, a nursery owner on Long Island, attained the first cuttings in 1820. By 1832, the variety was being advertised by a Boston nursery under the name Zinfandel, and it achieved a measure of popularity in the Northeast. In that same time frame, Zinfandel arrived in California, where it quickly grew in popularity thanks to its vigorous nature, sizable yields, and agreeability as a table wine.

Even if it wasn’t apparent when these vineyards were first being established, Zinfandel is perfectly suited to the growing conditions of northern and central California. As David Gates, the senior vice president of vineyard operations at Ridge Vineyards, explains, “The beauty of California and Zinfandel is that we're truly even more Mediterranean in climate than the Mediterranean. We rarely, if ever, get hard rains before harvest, and that’s key to Zinfandel: we can get it as ripe as we want without risk of rot.” Ridge produces single-vineyard old vine bottlings from a number of vineyards, such as Bedrock and Pagani Ranch, both in Sonoma Valley; Benito Dusi Ranch, in Paso Robles; and Jimsomare, in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Ridge’s program and others highlight the incredible diversity of old vine sites for Zinfandel throughout California. Some are situated in the most prestigious appellations in the state, while others can be found in less-famed regions, ranging from the Sierra Foothills in the north to Paso Robles in the south. California has nearly 40,000 acres of Zinfandel vines, with the greatest concentration in Lodi, which has about 40% of the plantings. Reliable statistics on old vine plantings are challenging to find, but statistics from the Historic Vineyard Society suggest that there are roughly 1,000 acres of Zinfandel vines over 100 years old in the state. These different vineyards can vary widely in size, elevation, soil type, and other characteristics, but they have two major similarities. The first is that the vines are almost entirely head-trained, a method of vine training that has fallen out of favor in California in more recent times, because it both requires more manual labor at harvest and typically produces lower yields than training on trellis systems. The second is that the vineyards are almost never planted solely to Zinfandel.

Some of these older, pre-Prohibition vineyards of mixed plantings may seem haphazardly planted, Gates remarks, “but you look at others and say, ‘Maybe it’s not so random.’ It’s very rare to find vines or vineyards planted in the 1880s or 1890s that aren’t mixed. Most of the people growing these grapes either had immigrated from European winegrowing regions or grew up in a winegrowing family.”

Those additional grapes include a range of Mediterranean varieties, such as Carignan, Petite Sirah, Alicante Bouschet, and Mourvèdre, with many others in smaller quantities. This mixed-planting strategy made sense over a century ago, when field blends were the norm for wine. There was limited information and expertise in California viticulture, and a scattershot planting method was a way to ensure at least some properly ripened grapes in an uncertain and unproven landscape.

It’s unsurprising, then, that these old vine vineyards provide a bulwark against the challenges of climate change in the 21st century, a pressing issue on the West Coast. The vines are well suited to producing balanced fruit in a wide range of growing conditions, and Zinfandel is particularly successful in drought conditions. The composition of the vineyards is also crucial.

John Olney, the head winemaker and chief operating officer at Ridge Vineyards, says, “Certainly, it’s a cornerstone of what we believe quality old vine Zinfandel is about at Ridge, which is that in your old vine vineyards, almost without exception, you have some other complementary varieties baked in.” He notes that Carignan, for example, ripens “at lower sugar levels, with better acidity.”

Olney continues, “I don’t think it’s a mistake to say that there’s generally 2, maybe even 3% of white grapes hanging around in old vine Zinfandel. When we plant our new blocks of Zinfandel, we never plant 100% Zinfandel. And, in fact, as things have been heating up around the world, we include more and more white grapes, which really helps us out.”

Turley adds, “Old vineyards—I mean, talk about sustainable. It’s something that you haven’t had to rip out and replace and irrigate and all of that. In most vineyards, that happens every 20 years. That’s not a sustainable practice.” Turley Wine Cellars also bottles several old vine Zinfandel expressions, ranging from old vine blends from around the state or within specific appellations to single-vineyard wines, such as those from Hayne Vineyard, in St. Helena; Monte Rosso Vineyard, in Sonoma County; and Steacy Ranch, in Lodi.

An Overlooked Grape

Despite all those potential selling points, old vine vineyards throughout California are being ripped out, and producers are favoring other varieties. This is partly because, over the past few decades, some influential figures in the wine world have dismissed Zinfandel as simple wine unfit for serious drinkers. The grape’s history is also partly to blame. Zinfandel gained strong name recognition with the help of two products that don’t exactly conjure thoughts of quality wine: White Zinfandel, a rosé wine typically made in a sweet style and first popularized in the 1970s; and bargain bottles with names that offer various puns on the word Zin. Given that neither category reflects the full potential of Zinfandel, skepticism of the variety is perhaps warranted.

The winemaker Russell Bevan, who works with old vine Zinfandel at several wineries in California, notes another historical challenge to the variety: “The disrespect that Zinfandel gets is because, in the mid-1990s, alcohol levels got soaring high. So many people started making 16.5% alcohol Zinfandel. I think that in those high-pH, high-alcohol Zins, a lot of the old vine stuff got lost, because sommeliers and a lot of the wine world didn’t want to drink super-high-octane Zin.”

To Bevan’s point, one of the frequent criticisms leveled against Zinfandel of all types is that its pleasures are too obvious, too hedonistic. It is a fruit-forward wine in most examples and frequently is made in a style that tends toward soft and velvety, with lower levels of tannin and acidity compared with some iconic reds. These characteristics, however, conflict with the preferences of many wine professionals today. As Turley explains, “I think one of the challenges for Zinfandel is that its appeal can be pretty evident. And I think that the wine world has, over the last two decades, moved alarmingly away from pleasurability being an important piece of wine.” At a time when bright, high-acid reds are in favor, the joys of Zinfandel can be overlooked.

There are also more concrete reasons why these old vine Zinfandel vineyards are being lost. One is that, throughout California, agricultural land is being squeezed by growing populations and increased development. Especially in some of the lesser-known appellations where old vine vineyards are found, the goal of retaining vineyard land isn’t as widespread in the community as it is in some of the more famous regions. While viticulture is relatively profitable as an agricultural industry overall, it can’t compete in terms of value per acre with housing or other forms of development.

In more premium growing regions, such as Napa Valley and, to a lesser extent, Sonoma County, the economics of growing old vine Zinfandel are even harder to determine. As Cabernet Sauvignon has become the most popular and most profitable grape to grow in these appellations, maintaining acres of Zinfandel vines that require hand-harvesting and careful pruning—for limited yields with lower price points than Cabernet—doesn’t make sense for many growers. “This has really become pressing with inflation and the cost of labor,” Olney says. “It costs [about] as much to farm Zinfandel as it does Cabernet. Cabernet is—you know, I hate to say it, but—it’s still king.”

Highlighting Zinfandel’s Potential

That’s where the story pivots back to consumers, and to telling the story of these wines and the vineyards they come from. Wines with such a distinctive history would seemingly be easier to sell. “Unique is a cheap word in a lot of ways,” says Olney. “It gets thrown around a lot.” While people earnestly making wine anywhere should feel there is something special about their vineyards and their wines, he explains, “it’s more true here than, I think, almost anywhere else, in this country at least, and that’s what we have to work with.”

It’s also the case that all the wine professionals consulted for this story were zealous about not just their wines but the special place that old vine Zinfandel holds in American wine. “I’ve actually begged some of these growers to let me work with their fruit,” admits Bevan. “When you work with old vine Zinfandel, you become the caretaker of a piece of history. You have the opportunity to craft something that will give you different flavors, aromatics, and textures than anything else. How often are you allowed to be a caretaker of that kind of history?” He also notes that, unlike the 1990s, as winemakers now focus on using old vine Zinfandel to make “lower-alcohol, more balanced wines, we’re seeing them show all these tertiary flavors, not just dark, pruny fruit.”

There’s a danger in ascribing superior quality to scarcity or rareness, and deeply passionate winemakers and grapegrowers risk substituting enthusiasm for quality, which is why tasting these wines is crucial. Although some bottlings are made in quantities too small to be widely available, tasting examples of old vine Zinfandel without preconceived notions can reveal deeply underappreciated wines that will appeal even to those who might typically shun the variety.

Despite a lifetime around wine, and Zinfandel in particular, Turley remains deeply passionate and romantic about the grape. She recalls how watching a Western that was likely set in the late 1800s led her “to think that was around the same time as the Zinfandel had been planted, and that’s what the world looked like out here. And to think I’m still consuming something from the same plant that was put into the ground by people that long ago—that is truly a wild phenomenon, and it makes me feel small in the best possible way.”

Indeed, that romance, that ability to connect people to a time and place that feel almost as alien in 2023 as the setting of the stories of the monks in Burgundy, is what makes preserving and championing old vine Zinfandel a worthy cause. Every time one of these vineyards is ripped out and replanted to Cabernet Sauvignon, or turned into a housing development, or even abandoned, another link to the past is lost, a past that should be venerated as an important contribution to the wine world.

You Might Also Like