The Mystery of Old Vine Zinfandel

Davies Wakefield

davies wakefield | wine uncorked | oct. 2018

I first started drinking “old vine" Zinfandel when I was poor, but I didn't know it at the time. I was going to college on the GI Bill after spending six years in the Navy during the Vietnam War — $175 dollars a month doesn't go far, even in 1970. My college roommate (also a veteran) and I were always looking for keggers, especially ones with food where we could drink beer for free and get some protein as well. We both worked as bartenders at a live entertainment place called Ted's Warehouse in order to supplement the GI Bill money. When we were entertaining our lady friends we usually made spaghetti with garlic bread and splurged on a gallon of Gallo Hearty Burgundy. Little did we know that some of the grapes that went into that gallon came from vines that had been planted in California in the 1800s.

The Zinfandel and other varieties such as Carignan, Alicante Bouchet, Cinsault and Mataro came from small Italian vineyards owned by the Pagani, Justi, Biale, Rinaldo, Aparicio and Martinelli families to name just a few. They sold their grapes to the Gallo brothers back in the days after prohibition because there wasn't a demand for these oddball grapes that are highly prized today. In fact, after prohibition ended, wine grapes were worth less than prunes and walnuts. How Zinfandel came to California and how it managed to survive the vicissitudes of human folly is a fascinating story.

Zinfandel is thought to be one of the oldest grape varietals from which wine is still being made. There is evidence that places the first Zinfandel wine ancestors in the Caucasus at approximately 6000 BC. Research conducted by UC Davis viticulturists has given insight into the history of the grape and its path. The Primitivo grape in Puglia, Italy, was found to be genetically identical to Zinfandel; however, Italians were sure it was not one of their traditional varietals. Historically, Croatia has had several indigenous varieties related to Zinfandel, but most were lost in the late 19th century.

One well-documented route of Zinfandel to California indicates that the grape came from an Austrian collection, and it is possible that Austria obtained the vines during its rule over Croatia. It wasn't until 2001 that researchers discovered just nine remaining vines of locally-known “Crljenak Kaštelanski" on Croatia's Dalmatian coast. DNA fingerprinting confirmed that the ancient Croatian variety has the same DNA structure as California Zinfandel.

Historians have traced Zinfandel's roots in the United States back to the 1820s, when George Gibbs, a Long Island, New York, nursery owner, brought cuttings from the Imperial Collection of Plant Species in Vienna, Austria. By 1832, a Boston nursery was advertising “Zinfandel" vines for sale, and sometime between 1835 and 1845, “Zinfandel" had become a popular grape in the Northeastern United States, grown mainly in hothouses. Around that time, Frederick Macondray, a nursery owner from Massachusetts, is credited with bringing Zinfandel vines to California.

After the 1849 Gold Rush, timber and wire were scarce. Production of Zinfandel grapes surged because it could easily be cultivated using the traditional European “head pruning" technique, requiring no special equipment or scarce resources, which is still used today. Head pruning produces a gnarled thick base that in the winter months looks like a dead shrub. Zinfandel's appeal soared during this time because it grew vigorously and provided miners with a versatile, substantial beverage.

Zinfandel's expansion in the 20th century is a testament to its hardy constitution. While phylloxera destroyed most of California's vineyards in the late 1800s, Zinfandel vines were among the first vines replanted on rootstock starting around 1885. By mid-century it had become the most important varietal among California red table wines — an 1888 census shows that over one-third of all grapevines were Zinfandel. Four historically significant vineyards, representing several regions, were selected to help advance the expansion, credibility and quality of the Zinfandel varietal. The vineyards were chosen for their roles in building Zinfandel's heritage, as well as their diversity and the familial stories they share.

As vineyards were replanted, after phylloxera destroyed most Northern California vineyards, Italian immigrant families took a lead in growing and making Zinfandel. They brought with them the tradition of “field blends" which meant they planted a sprinkling of additional varietals — Petite Sirah, Alicante Bouchet, Carignane — which co-mingled with Zinfandel in the vineyard. These grapes are harvested along with the Zinfandel clusters, crushed and blended from vineyard to bottle, adding a new complexity to the wine.

The wave of blush wines in the 1970s started when California wineries began to draw free-run juice from Zinfandel grapes, fermenting it as “white" Zinfandel. This started a trend that actually led to the preservation of old Zinfandel vines. Red table wines were decreasing in popularity and the growers would have been forced to graft over to other varietals, and the old vines would have been lost forever.

While researching this article, I became aware that it was a near miracle that these vineyards and vines that were planted in the 1880s have survived. Prohibition itself wiped out many of the old Italian family vineyards and after prohibition, when grape prices plummeted, a few more disappeared. The depression itself did more damage. It wasn't until visionaries like Paul Draper at Ridge and Joel Petersen at Ravenswood started searching out these old vineyards in the 1960s, some just barely alive amongst the weeds and bramble, that value was placed on these heritage vineyards. A few, like Martinelli and Seghesio, have survived on their own and are still independent wineries selling their own wines.

Over the years, the definition of “old" has changed as well. My definition, for the purposes of this story, is Zinfandel planted before the 20th century and I found two that fit that description. But, the Zinfandel section of the wine store has a plethora of Zinfandels labeled as “old vine" — most of these are from vines planted in the 1980s which technically makes them old and also dates me as old as well. It also means that the new generation of winemakers recognizes the value of these old vine varietals and is enthusiastically embracing them. That is good news for Zinfandel lovers.

I was easily able to find an old vine Zin from Seghesio. The one I found was in Woodman's for about $35 but it is readily available elsewhere for about the same price. The “old vines" (average age 70 years) are from the Home Ranch Vineyard in Alexander Valley in Sonoma County, which is characterized by warm daytime temperatures cooled by evening Pacific Ocean breezes. This is the original 130 acres planted in 1895. The five generations of Seghesio's have added the Cloverdale Vineyard in 1936, River Ranch in 1942, the Chen vineyard in 1957, Lone Oak in 1960, Keyhole in 1962 and Montafi in 2014. The Montafi vineyard is in the Russian River Valley and was planted in 1926. The Seghesio family is committed to preserving these old vineyards as the heirs sell the properties.

The Pagani Ranch Zins have been one of my favorite wines over the years but it is difficult to find. The Pagani's sell their grapes to wineries with Ridge being the biggest. The Pagani grapes can be found in other wineries as well such as St Francis, Bedrock, Carlisle, Biale, Seghesio and Wellington. I purchased this bottle at the Main Street Market in Egg Harbor for $42. They carry a full line of Ridge wines. The Pagani family came to the Sonoma Valley in the late 1880s. Pagani is a very rare vineyard because it has narrow rows. The vines are also head trained and dry farmed (no irrigation). The vineyard used to be plowed by horses because of the narrow planting. Ridge has been making Zinfandel from the Pagani vineyard since 1991. This is a special rare wine from just 30 acres of vines, well worth the expense. Even at 15 percent alcohol the fruit is lively with fresh acidity. This wine spent a year in the barrel before bottling.

As time passes these old Zinfandel vineyards are being absorbed by larger wineries and the uniqueness diluted by other Zinfandel grapes. Don't miss a chance to try these before they disappear.

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