Like blackberry and cobbler, Sonoma County and Zinfandel just go together. The pairing is one of the most long-standing relationships in California wine. Often called American’s heritage grape, Zinfandel started its journey elsewhere, and there are noteworthy examples of Zinfandel wine made across California. But nowhere else does its history, acreage and quality potential all come together like in Sonoma County.
Zinfandel Key Facts
There are about 5,200 acres of Zinfandel in Sonoma County, or approximately 12% of the county’s total red wine grape acreage. Stubborn survivors, Zinfandel vines can produce for more than 100 years, decades longer than typical for other varieties. Yet some say Zinfandel rivals Pinot Noir as the “heartbreak grape,” because of its uneven berry set, ripening, and vulnerability to late-season rot.
The Origin of Zin
Zinfandel’s reputation as the quintessentially American grape was earned through its humble-immigrant-makes-good success story. It is not actually an indigenous grape of California, like Vitis californica. All Vitis vinifera grapes grown in Sonoma County have their origins in Europe and points east.
Arriving in anonymity, with its original name bowdlerized as if by some indifferent immigration agent—possibly a misspelling of Zierfandler, which is a different variety of grape, anyway—Zinfandel first got some work in the East Coast, appearing in nursery catalogs as a table grape in the 1830s. Then it set out around the Cape of Good Hope for San Francisco, finally making it up to sunnier Sonoma County by the early 1850s, at least.
In the process of uncovering Zinfandel’s true identity, researchers left some false leads that persist as fact in some corners: Zinfandel is not the Primitivo of Italy, the two are simply expressions of the same source, further back in history.
A breakthrough in DNA identification and boots-in-the-dirt fieldwork revealed that Zinfandel was the same as the Croatian grape Crljenak Kaštelanski, an obscure subject of the Austro-Hungarian empire that found its way into the Imperial Nursery in Vienna. But wait, there’s more: the latest word from both high-tech DNA testing and dusty library digging is that its true name is Tribidrag, and it had a more “noble” past than previously thought, being well-regarded in the 14th century.
Zinfandel in Sonoma County
Zinfandel began to usurp the old Spanish Mission grape around the time that Hungarian entrepreneur Agostin Haraszthy set up shop next door to General Mariano Vallejo in the town of Sonoma. Founder of Buena Vista Winery, Haraszthy was credited with discovering Zinfandel for many years—more as the result of his son Arpad’s lobbying efforts than actual fact. Later in the 19th century, immigrant Italian farmers planted it with a hodgepodge of black grapes like Petite Sirah and Carignane to make field blends with extra tannin and acidity.
After Prohibition, surviving vineyards in some of Sonoma County’s best Zinfandel growing areas supplied the jug wine market. Renewed interest in varietal Zinfandel wine became a full-fledged revival in the 1970s and 1980s.
Though it may be “America’s heritage grape,” one of Zinfandel’s most appealing aspects for winemakers and wine enthusiasts alike is that it’s relatively free from tradition, with no significant European analog like the Cabernet Sauvignon of Bordeaux.
That said, the typical Zinfandel profile has, since the 1800s, been described as a claret, a supple, easy-drinking red wine with moderate tannic grip. Fruit flavors are usually located within the brambleberry family, but may range from dark, plum jam to light, perfumy strawberry. Black or white pepper notes are a hallmark in many Zins.
If you are offered a pink Zinfandel in Sonoma County, it’s probably not a “white Zin,” a style that’s been called both the bane and the savior of the grape (and if you like the white Zin style, you’re in for an even better treat). Rosé of Zinfandel is usually made dry, but the crisp, raspberry fruit flavor provides all you need on the palate.
Sonoma County’s Key Zinfandel Regions
The historic heart of Sonoma Zinfandel begins in the town of Sonoma, with important vineyards concentrated in Glen Ellen and Kenwood. Wines tend toward complexity and earthiness.
Wineries: Ravenswood, Bucklin, Cline, St. Francis, Bedrock Wine Company.
Smack in the middle of this appellation, now famed for Pinot Noir, there’s sweet spot for Zinfandel, and a surprising number of vineyards dating back a century-plus. Wines may highlight deep, boysenberry fruit.
Wineries: Bacigalupi, DeLoach, Martinelli, Joseph Swan, Hartford Family, Harvest Moon.
For decades a farming community, and a sort of wine country backwater that’s established itself in recent decades as the spiritual home of Zinfandel today. Wines tend toward juicy, blackberry fruit and rugged tannins. Wineries: Dry Creek Vineyards, Wilson, Mauritson, A. Rafanelli, Nalle, Truett-Hurst.
The warmest Zinfandel region in Sonoma County. Jammy flavors predominate, but real elegance can be found. Unfortunately, the demand for Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon continues to push out the old vineyards before they’ve given their all.
Wineries: Simi, Francis Coppola, Marietta, Alexander Valley Vineyards.
Zinfandel: A History of a Grape and Its Wine (2003, Charles L. Sullivan)
Angels’ Visits: An Inquiry into the Mystery of Zinfandel (1991, David Darlington)
Written by Sonoma Insider James Knight.