Never shy or reticent, Sonoma County Zinfandel wines embody the style and essence of this plebian Italian immigrant.
For a time many people assumed Zinfandel was indigenous to California, that was incorrect. More recently the grape was linked to the Italian Primitivo and thought to be the same, that is true although not the complete story. In fact through genetic backtracking it has been discovered that Zinfandel and Primitivo are the same varietal as the Croatian grape, Crljenak Kastenlanski. That's a tongue-twister even if you can figure out its pronunciation. For convenience sake we'll stick with the Zinfandel handle.
The Zinfandel often gets disrespected when compared to Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir. This can be attributed to the fact that the spicy black grape is one of the state's most widely planted varieties, ranking second after Cab and has had a long California history, not all of it stellar. Being associated to the insipid White Zinfandel can only direct acidic barbs in its direction rather than adulation. Don't underestimate this grape though, to the enlightened, Zinfandel is a dry complex red that is all jammy blackberries and plums that is laden with rustic briars, spicy pepper, tannins and big doses of alcohol. Zin's can be concentrated bombs of fruit that are boysenberry pie or restrained burliness. California's Zinfandel is grown in most wine regions within the state; Amador County in the Sierra Foothills, Napa Valley, Lodi, Paso Robles and Mendocino-each with their own character and style. But for the crème de la crème, knowledgeable aficionados look to Sonoma County Zinfandel wines where the black juicy variety is widely planted and comfortably makes its home.
Top Regions and Their Producers
Within the large Sonoma County wine region there are a few sub-appellations that are nonpareil for Zinfandel. There are many large wineries and vineyard owners in the county but the majority are small, family-owned, independent and boutique wineries.
Dry Creek Valley
Zinfandel has gained prominence in this short and narrow valley running to the northwest of Healdsburg. Many consider Dry Creek to be the best place to grow Zinfandel. Many of the short, squat and gnarly Old Vines Zinfandel dot the hillside vineyards here and are behind many of its rich and complex Zins. There are big wines here that are aromatic with pepper, cinnamon, coriander and dried flower notes.
- A. Rafanelli - Four generations of Rafanellis know and do Zinfandel exceptionally well.
- Dry Creek Vineyards - Their name shows everyone where they are, Dry Creek. If you like Old Vine Zinfandels, Dry Creek throws one at you produced from 80-109 year old vines. They can beguile you as well with their Fumé Blanc.
- Nalle Winery - Family-owned with Zinfandel a part of their Dry Creek blood. Their family crest includes the inscription, "vinum sapientiam tibi dat" which translates to, "Wine Makes You Smart." Nalle gets an, "A".
- Quivira Wine - One of the few "Q" wineries around and the only one in Dry Creek with a fondness for Zin.
- Ridge Vineyards - Paul Draper needs no introduction. His 1971 Monte Bello Cab was at the famous 1976 Judgment at Paris tasting and placed a Fifth. At the rematch in 1976, Ridge was awarded "First" among a panel of judges. But it would be a major fault to ignore his Ridge's Lytton Springs Zinfandels.
- Rosenblum Cellars - Never doubt Rosenblum when it comes to Zinfandel. They produce Zinfandels from all over California that includes Dry Creek, Rockpile and Sonoma County. For a good and Zinful time visit their tasting room in Healdsburg.
The Rockpile is a relatively new AVA (2002) and is on a rocky perch at the northern end of Dry Creek. The tough and rocky terrain is great for stressing the grapes and the area gets a lot of sunshine as opposed to the fog that much of the rest of Sonoma County gets. Dark and robust Zinfandels that you can chew on. Vineyards only with non-resident wineries producing Rockpile Zinfandels.
Russian River Valley
This sub-appellation is a valley that follows the Russian River as it courses south and to the west from Mendocino County. It's a cool climate wine region with fog and maritime air mixing in with California sun. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are the moneymakers here but Zinfandel excels in some of the hillside areas and produce great and heady Zins.
- Carlisle - A small Russian River Valley winery, Carlisle specializes in hedonistic Zins and also Rhône-style wines.
- Gary Farrell - A nice winery with gorgeous views with great wines besides their Russian River Valley and Dry Creek Zinfandels.
- Hartford Estate Winery - This is one of my favorite wineries in Sonoma and you will get spoiled by their Zinfandel and Pinot Noir wines.
- Martinelli - Jackass Hill, say no more but get on their mailing list and wait your turn if you want one.
- Joseph Swan - In the Russian River Valley Swan specializes in Zinfandels from Sonoma County.
- Williams-Selyem - WS is best known for their archetypical Pinot Noir, their Zinfandels are big and complex and make statements.
This is the largest wine region and borders with Mendocino County in the north. It's definitely a cooler climate and Zinfandel is grown here in the shadow of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot. However, Zinfandel does well here and there are many fine examples to vie for your Zin affection.
- Alexander Valley Vineyards - One of the region's leading wineries for Zinfandel and other varietals.
- Meeker Wine- Big Zins at Meeker. Go to the bank in Geyserville and join the tribe.
Sonoma County Zinfandel Wines
- Ledson - In the Sonoma Valley, Ledson produces Old Vine Zins from around the county.
- Ravenswood - Joel Peterson is the man and does not allow any "Wimpy wines" in a Ravenswood bottle.
- Seghesio Family Vineyards - Since the 1890s four generations of Seghesios have been here making wine in Sonoma County. Zinfandel is part of their family heritage and among the best Zinfandel around. They are located in Healdsburg.
Final Word on Zinfandel
Never seek forgiveness for your Zins.