Zinfandel Memories, and perhaps some prognostications...
by Don Clemens
It’s odd to look back and try to remember one’s “first encounter” with a wine type when one’s vinous
memories reach back over more than a half-century. But for some reason, this one has stuck with me.
It was the 1968 Sutter Home “Deaver Vineyard” Amador County Zinfandel, my first experience with a
“serious Zin”. Big, bold, and fruity - but NOT sweet; mouth-filling - but NOT cloying; and my BBQed Baby
Back ribs never tasted that great before! In short, I became a fan of Zinfandel and MOST of its many
A few years crept by, and as I had begun my career with wine, I found myself representing Sutter Home
Winery as a Regional Manager for the company that represented their wines, as well as quite a few
other northern California-based wineries. In just a few short years, a true Zinfandel phenomenon had
appeared: White Zinfandel! Where the traditional “Red” Zinfandel was usually sold as single bottles
from a shelf display, “White” Zinfandel was being stacked, and sold by the case. Never underestimate
the American public’s love of sweeter things. Especially when you’ve been told how “cool” that thing is.
(And “Pink” Wine has had a long history on the American Wine scene. Even a decade or so before the
White Zin craze hit, I remember those Portuguese rosés being proudly poured at so many holiday tables.
Mateus and Lancer’s ruled the imported wine retail game; the New York Finger Lakes district provided
plenty of pink bubblies, and of course, California had its share of low-cost pink things.)
This period, the ‘70s, has sometimes been called the “Golden Age” for California’s wines. Consumers
were realizing that real quality wine production was happening in America; that one could purchase
seriously fine American wine to go with that wonderful dinner that Julia Child or some other eminent
chef had inspired. Wine purchases had shifted from that generic “Claret” to a varietal wine called, for
example, Cabernet Sauvignon. Now, people were seeing all manner of new names on the wine bottles:
Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Grenache, and (of course) Zinfandel! It’s kind of shocking to think that
the now legendary tasting of California wines versus top-rated Bordeaux wines, the so-called “Judgment
of Paris” in 1976, is getting nearer and nearer to the half-century mark!
As vineyard expansion grew, it was clear that the term, “terroir”, was going to become more important.
Decisions about which vines to plant in which locations became more significant, which followed a
growing understanding of how vital it was to know the vineyard soil composition and the climatic
pressures that would affect a given vineyard site. This was important both for wine making, and for wine
marketing. The American Viticultural Appellation (AVA) system became more and more important for
both winery owners and consumers. Decisions about which wine grape varieties would best produce the
desired quality, volume, and, of course, profitability were intrinsically related to the public’s perception
of “the best places”.
Today, we often assume that the wine-buying public knows about such places as Napa, Sonoma, Santa
Barbara, the Central Coast, and (maybe) Mendocino or Lake Counties on, or near, California’s Pacific
Coast. Wineries understand that every bottle that they put up for sale must have the appropriate
verbiage to indicate just where the wine in that bottle came from.
Typically, what we call “jug wine” - usually in 1.5-liter or 3-liter bottles - will have a simple geographic
appellation, such as “California”, under the name of the wine style (i.e., Pink Chablis, Ruby Port, Tawny
Sherry, etc.). That means that the grapes can come from ANYWHERE in California and be blended into
any kind of wine that carries the simple statement “California” for the wine’s origin. If one were to use,
for instance, “Napa Valley” as the origin for a particular wine, the regulations require that at least 75%
of the grapes used come from the Napa Valley, no matter the variety. So, that relatively inexpensive
“Red Blend” can be pretty much whatever a winery has on hand in its holding tanks or barrels and can
even include some white wines! The art of blending a wide variety of fermented grape juices into
something resembling even the concept of red or white Burgundy, or Italian Chianti, or German Riesling,
or French Champagne is really quite an accomplishment.
So, back to the “Origins” story… the Napa Valley has gained a great reputation for the red grapes of
Bordeaux and Zinfandel; Sonoma County’s reputation grew for red and white Burgundy grapes, as well
as Zinfandel; Mendocino County became a prime source for Petite Sirah, Zinfandel and Muscat;
California’s Central Coast is well known for its Chardonnay and Pinot Noir bottlings, and Paso Robles has
gained a great reputation for its Rhone-style wines and Zinfandel. The list goes on. But one of the lesser
mentioned viticultural areas is weirdly a major grape supplier to the “big guys” (i.e., E. & J. Gallo,
Trinchero Estates, Constellation Brands, and Bronco, etc.). That viticultural area is Lodi.
For many people, Lodi is a place somewhere in California that you wouldn’t want to be “stuck in”, thanks
to John Fogarty and Creedence Clearwater Revival and their very popular B-side song, “Lodi”. But, if you
love viticulture and history, you really don’t want to overlook this historic wine region.
Lodi, located southeast of Sacramento and north of Stockton, is the largest winegrowing region in
America. There are more than 100 grape varieties currently planted in the Lodi AVA (spread throughout
its seven sub-appellations). And since this issue of Chicago Wine Press is focused on Zinfandel, some
other Lodi facts might be of interest. Lodi had (as of 2019) almost 16,000 acres of Zinfandel planted.
That’s 40% of the total for the state! In an average year, 129,000 tons of Zinfandel are crushed, about
35% of the total for the state.
One of the recurring themes from Lodi is the availability of truly “Old Vine” wines, particularly Zinfandel,
Flame Tokay and Cinsaut. There are so many different Old Vine vineyards in Lodi that they are
considering a hierarchy of “old”. The examples might be as follows:
Lodi Old Vine – 50 years or older
Lodi Heritage Vine – 75 years or older
Lodi Ancient Vine – 100 years or older
Lodi Historic Vine – 125 years or older
Randy Caparoso, in his outstanding book chronicling virtually everything you need to know about Lodi,
(entitled obviously enough: “Lodi”) offers some serious insight into how the splendid “old vine” grapes
grown there might be used. There is no doubt that making wines from these more-difficult-to-farm, and
lower-yielding vines, is a challenge. Whatever answers are found, they need to be profitable enough for
the growers who must contend with the “hands on” approaches necessary to bring in a successful
harvest of these special grapes. Mr. Caparoso makes it very clear that the vineyards of Lodi are typically
“small farm” ventures; the owners are simply trying to make a decent living from growing a crop that
they love and making wines of excellent quality.
Mr. Caparoso noted that “smaller specialty wineries, producing less than 15,000 cases a year, often grab
the most press in print publications and among the growing number of online bloggers. They also gather
accolades in high-profile competitions in which Lodi wines go toe-to-toe with wines from other regions,
often coming out on “top.” Producers such a Acquiesce Winery, Bokisch Vineyards, Fields Family Wines,
Harney Lane Winery, The Lucas Winery, m2 Wines, Macchia Wines, McKay Cellars, Oak Farm Vineyards,
and Peirano Estate are among those that have been consistently high performers in print and online
ratings as well as in competitions, further enhancing the region’s reputation for premium quality
In the last couple of years, I have found a lot of pleasure and surprising value in some of the Lodi Old
Vine Zinfandels (and other varietals) that are available through various wine clubs and grocery stores
like Trader Joe’s and ALDI. Because so many of the grower/producers in Lodi are in the 15,000 case (or
less) volume, it’s not always easy to find a particular brand. This might be one of those times that it is in
your best interest to read the reviews and join that winery’s “wine club.” I can attest that I have found a
few real treasures from Lodi; and remember, it’s not so bad to be “stuck in Lodi, again.”