Thursday, September 30, 2021

Dry Creek Zinfandel

This is more or less a stream-of-consciousness report on California Zinfandel and the Dry Creek Valley.  We intended to write about the new Quivira Vineyards Zinfandel that came in last week.  Our vendor got noticeably animated when he presented it to us so we know it's got to be good.  We just got sidetracked in our research.

Zinfandel made its arrival in California in 1852.  Italian immigrants pursuing their gold rush dreams carried their vines on their backs across the country little knowing that the real treasure going forward would be their gift to the domestic wine industry.  Zinfandel, or Primitivo in Italy, or Tripidrag in Croatia before that, is about as far from wine nobility as it gets.  But as we're learning everyday, if you get the right ordinary grape planted in the optimal environs, good things can happen.

One of those venues for the Italian peasant vines was Dry Creek Valley, a sixteen mile long, two mile wide valley in northern Sonoma County.  Dry Creek was granted its legal definition as an AVA (American Viticultural Area) in 1983.  Its viticultural history actually goes back to 1880 which was a historical pivot point for the domestic wine industry.  Zinfandel had already become the most widely planted grape at that time in California but the Phylloxera aphid had also just arrived in the state at the same time.  Because the bugger was so destructive, all of the vineyards of California would have to be replanted setting back the industry for a decade or so. 

We took our first wine industry job in Berkeley, California back in 1976.  At that time we were charmed by some very flavorful field blends that we now know owed their opulent fruit profile to the Zinfandel grape.  Those blends were, in fact, Zinfandel-based.  And they were charming in their crudeness.  They were rough and brambly and unpretentious and the perfect counterpoint to wine snobbery.  And they were great with burgers!

Our point here is to contrast our perception of things with the industry marketing effort of that time.  They were trying to present Zinfandel as a type somewhat on a par with Cabernet Sauvignon or at least close to that kind of quality.  Concurrently Gallo and others were using the grape in some very successful, economical commercial blends.  The cognitive dissonance is hard to ignore.  How can something be both an economic filler in a blend and a centerpiece varietal at the same time?  But that's Zinfandel.  And that's marketing.

If you flash forward to today we see a mature Zinfandel market that has settled on reasonable pricing for this very utile grape.  The blends are everywhere and they're as good as ever.  Sonoma Dry Creek varietal Zinfandels have assumed the appropriate mantle as some of the best in California.  

What's wrong with this scenario?  Nothing, as far as it goes.  But the mass marketers are too clever by half.  Technology has cleaned up Central Valley grapes to the point where they can be blended into northern California Zin-based blends that are then marketed to an unknowing public as "fine wine."  Extraneous additives are then plugged into these kinds of wines further de-legitimatizing things.  And pricing is high.  And it just ain't right.

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