Zinfandel is the “All American Grape,” despite having highly-probable European and Eastern-European ancestors. Zinfandel can also be thanked, or blamed, depending on where one’s tastes lie for the massive sea of sweet, lightly pink blush wines coming out of California in the 1980’s. I sit clearly on the “blame” side of the fence, but given the resurgence of red Zinfandel evolving since the 1990’s, I choose to forget these transgressions, the way one forgives folks for collecting Beanie Babies…

First, let’s talk of ancestry. For many years, ampelographers, or the botanists focused on the study and classification of grape vines, strongly believed that Zinfandel and Primitivo were related. Initially, the scientists believed that the grapes were clones of each other – the story being told that immigrating Italian wine makers brought Primitivo from their native Puglia in the southern heel of Italy. The wayward vines were planted in California around the time of the Gold Rush (1840’s) and thus was born Zinfandel. Makes for great marketing on the back label… As the practice of DNA analysis of grape varietals became more prevalent, the story began to change. Rather than Primitivo begetting Zinfandel, it appeared that the two grapes may be siblings. The analysis strongly suggested that the two grapes shared a parent – Crljenak from Croatia. Recently, the debate has reopened, with newly uncovered evidence suggesting that the two grapes, while genetically similar do not share the same parent – Crljenak, but instead their parent is actually another Croatian grape – Tribidrag… Isn’t genealogy fascinating? Just think six degrees of Kevin Bacon…

Next, let’s talk of history. Regardless of its ancestry, Zinfandel found its way to America and was planted on the west coast during the middle of the 19th Century. The grape is a hardy vine and it thrived in the dry, hot regions of Central and Northern California. Ten percent of all vineyards in this part of California are said to contain plantings of Zinfandel vines and it was the most planted varietal in California as the 20th Century dawned. Production soared during the run up to Prohibition, but like most grapes at that time, Zinfandel suffered mightily at the hands of our noble experiment. It actually wasn’t until the early 1970’s, when Bob Trinchero of Sutter Home Winery began experimenting with Zinfandel, creating a light, blush version that was slightly sweet, that Zinfandel reappeared on the wine landscape. And as they say, the rest is history.

Fortunately, the rebirth of Zinfandel did not damn it to a golden age of mediocrity. Plenty of winemakers realized the potential of the grape and began crafting red versions that underscored the intense fruit and spicy character of the varietal. One such producer is Rosenblum Cellars, founded in 1978 by Kent Rosenblum, the veritable “King of Zin,” located in Alameda, California. Rosenblum focuses solely on Zinfandel and actually, unlike many California wine makers, searches out small grape growers to source produce for their wines. They choose this approach, in lieu of practicing the “estate” model of cultivating their own vines, for several reasons: it provides a showcase for small, passionate producers from underappreciated regions; it underscores the differences between mountainside versus valley floor grown grapes; and it allows the nuance and power of many “old vine” vineyards to validate the credibility of Zinfandel as a world-class varietal.

Winemaking at Rosenblum is handled by John Kane, a 2001 graduate of Enology from Fresno state. Interestingly, when you talk to wine makers in California they describe the Fresno program as “learning about winemaking by getting your hands dirty.” Presumably, as the story goes, if you really want to learn to make wine “old school,” then you go to Fresno, as opposed to Davis, where the focus is more on classroom and science. I like old school…

RosenblumCC

I featured the 2011 Rosenblum Contra Costa County in my Summer Sippers class this past June. It struck me as an ideal red wine for summer, possessing enough tannin to give it structure to stand up to hearty grill fair, but fruity enough to make it pleasant on a hot afternoon. The wine was also right-priced at around the pre-discount price of $14.99/bottle.

My tasting note:

Intense, jammy nose with black berry, dried fruit and exotic spice hints. Full-bodied with moderate acidity and moderate, firm tannin – well-balanced. Dark fruit core with loads of black cherry, black berry and tarry notes. Fruit forward but very nicely structured. Moderate length – smooth with many evolving layers of complexity – seductive and spicy – charming. Drinking well and should hold for another 2 – 3 years in bottle. Great value.

Cheers!

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