Vines line Seghesio's Home Ranch in rural Sonoma County.
Like a great many Westerners, it came from somewhere else, traveling from Europe through New England before making its Gold Rush–era journey to California. It nestled in what's now Sonoma County, laid claim to land in the Sierra foothills, stretched out to the Central Coast. By the late 1800s, the grape had been embraced as native.
Zinfandel was California's wine.
Early on, zinfandel was known as the workingman's red: hearty, humble, easy drinking. In the 1970s, white zinfandel—a sweet, pink version—shoved the rustic jug wines aside. Later, in the 1990s, many zins got blasted in a backlash against the dense, overbearing, overly trendy red wines. Flabby, critics called them. Hot, cooked, ho-hum. Zinfandel had lost its way.
"There was no other grape you could do so many things with," says Charles L. Sullivan, author of Zinfandel: A History of a Grape and Its Wine. "Problem was, it had no defining style."
Now, savvy winemakers are getting back to basics, striving to capture the grape's pleasing fruit flavors: blackberry, raspberry, and boysenberry. They're turning down the alcohol, aiming for subtler wines that go well with food. Of course, wines get a special lift when you taste them in the locales where the grapes are grown and the vintages bottled. Zinfandel is one of the state's most widely planted grapes, filling some 50,000 acres of vineyards, most famously north of San Francisco in Sonoma County.
Toward Petaluma, grapevines begin to quilt the bayside hills and become near-constant companions as you continue up Highway 101 past Santa Rosa to the lip of Dry Creek Valley, home to the Lytton Springs outpost of Ridge Vineyards (707-433-7721, www.ridgewine.com). Since the 1960s, Ridge has made subtle and sophisticated zinfandels, typically with modest alcohol levels. You can sense the same restraint in its tasting room, a streamlined facility built of clay and straw, mostly solar powered and blessed with unblemished vineyard views.
"We try not to mess with what we've got," says John Olney, a top vintner at Ridge. "We're following nature's lead, not chasing trends."
A similar resistance to fashion holds sway at Healdsburg's Seghesio Family Vineyards (707-433-3579, seghesio.com), an old-school winery with a pair of outdoor bocce ball courts. The operation dates to 1895, when Edoardo Seghesio planted his first zinfandel, recalling the fruity reds he'd enjoyed in his native Italy. Today, grapes from those same vines go into wines made by fourth-generation vintner Ted Seghesio. If you pick up a hint of blueberries in his Home Ranch zin—well, the experts agree.
At Quivira Vineyards & Winery (707-431-8333, quivirawine.com), in the heart of scenic Dry Creek Valley, you can enjoy peppery zinfandels amid sheltered picnic grounds, then stroll through an organic fruit and vegetable garden. And back south in Santa Rosa at St. Francis Winery & Vineyards (707-538-9463, stfranciswinery.com), old-vine zins play well with artisan cheeses, house-cured salumi, and gourmet dishes prepared on-site by a full-time chef.
If Sonoma County yields the most acclaimed zinfandels, nowhere do the grape's roots run deeper than in Amador County amid the Sierra foothills. Here, at Sobon Estate (209-245-4455, sobonwine.com), vines bore fruit 100 years ago. Set at higher altitude, where grapes ripen slowly and zins are often burly and full-bodied, Sobon's tasting room has a rough-hewn charm. Its walls are fashioned from salvaged redwood casks, and a building next door houses a museum filled with classic farming and winemaking tools.
More than half of California's zinfandel grows in the state's vast Central Valley, where the town of Lodi has evolved into a busy wine center. At family-run Michael David Winery (209-368-7384, michaeldavidwinery.com), familiarity with the grape reaches back six generations. Tasting room staffers pour perky zins with plucky names (Lust, Gluttony, Sloth, Rage), but the wines aren't the sole source of fruit aromas. You could be sniffing fresh-baked pies, pulled hot from the oven at the winery's Farm Café.
Deep historic ties also connect Concannon Vineyard (800-258-9866, concannonvineyard.com) to the soil. An hour southwest of Lodi in the Livermore Valley, the outfit has been here since the 1880s, one of many facts visitors pick up during by-appointment tours of the vineyard and winery. Nearby Mitchell Katz Winery (925-454-9463, mitchellkatzwinery.com) is far younger, its low-key new tasting room set in a renovated barn.
Jammy and full-bodied, the wines are for unreformed lovers of bold, brash zins. Acres of old zinfandel dot the landscape near Paso Robles, a burgeoning wine hub south of the Salinas Valley. Proulx Wines (805-706-0425, proulxwines.com), an endearing, family-run operation, offers zins that range from mellow to exuberant. So does Turley Wine Cellars (805-434-1030, turleywinecellars.com), with its graceful tasting room. In any year, Turley turns out more than a dozen zinfandels, harvesting much of the fruit from gnarled old vines. As you tour the region, watch for them—standing free, no wires attached. They're venerable emblems of California winemaking history.
For more wine-tasting adventures on the West Coast, read Pinot Noir: Oregon Vineyards.
Photography by Richard Knapp (Seghesio's Home Ranch); Mitch Tobias (Paul Sobon, tasters at Sobon)
This article was first published in November 2013. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.