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The Different Styles of California Zinfandel

From dense and chewy to light and refreshing, California Zinfandel now comes in many different styles.

Once upon a time, at the beginning of it all, Zinfandel and I had a loving, devoted relationship. The first bottle of wine I bought was a Napa Valley Zinfandel from a big-name winery and even while sipping it from a green plastic cup, it was divine. Texturally, it was unlike anything I had drank before. It was dense and somewhat chewy without being syrupy. Flavors kept smacking me in the mouth, blackberry, currant, raspberry, blueberry, peach, pepper! One after another, the intensity rose and my mouth watered for another sip. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the wine was about 15.5% alcohol by volume. In the early days, the buzz is important folks.

These are the kinds of wines so many of us start out our journey loving. Big, bold, and unabashedly flavorful. These are also the kinds of wines so many of us retreat from, once our adventures shift towards the pursuit of finesse and the preconceived notions of balance and complexity to accompany it. At least that’s what so many of us tell ourselves. Palates, like anything else, change over time.

The changes that my palate went through were not directly correlated with some newfound wisdom and sophistication. That is to say, it isn’t that the bold and chewy wines of my earlier days lacked balance and complexity at all. My shift towards the likes of Burgundian pinot noir, Beaujolais, and zippy Chianti Rufina was merely a reflection of a constantly changing palate in search of the new, exciting, and refreshing. Now, I can sense my palate shifting once again, yearning for the favorites of old.

In many ways, it is a return not just to my own roots as a wine enthusiast and professional, but to the roots of winemaking in California. 

Much has been made and written about the history of Zinfandel in this country. From the initial belief that Zinfandel was America’s true native variety of vitis vinifera to the old vines dotting the hills of Sonoma and Lodi that predate Prohibition, we know that the domestic wine culture we encounter today would not have been possible without this grapevine. What has received less attention is the reemergence of Zinfandel as not only a viable wine in the marketplace but one with a wide spectrum of expressions. Those in search of boozy behemoths still have no shortage of options but it is the other half of consumers, those in search of lower alcohol levels or simply more restraint in general, that are finding their choices to be plenty.

So, where should you be looking for great Zins in either style? Dry Creek Valley is where you’ll want to start if the more jammy style is your...jam. The vines that line Dry Creek Road are gnarly, throwing their shoots in every direction and giving off serious Sleepy Hollow vibes. Wines here are intensely concentrated and viscous, with single-vineyard bottlings not being entirely uncommon like the 2017 Saini Farms Zinfandel from Bannister Wines. Lodi might be the most famous spot outside of Sonoma or Napa for that same style of Zinfandel, but we recommend looking at the base of Mt. Diablo in Contra Costa County for vineyards (like this one, bottled by Wingspan Wines) planted on its sandy soils, many of which are own-rooted and more than 100-years-old. 

For that more glou-glou, refreshing expression of the grape, both Sonoma Valley and Mendocino hillsides offer tremendous opportunities and values. Source & Sink has revitalized the Kimberly Vineyard above Glen Ellen to produce its stunning first vintage from heritage vines. Martha Stoumen loves finding similarly styled and farmed vines in Mendocino, producing this natural Zinfandel to taste as much like Beaujolais as anything else.

If you’re just getting started with Zinfandel and looking for something that will give you a clear look at the grape’s personality coming from a traditional growing area, look no further than this benchmark example from County Line.