Zinfandel — The “Craft Beer” of American Wine

Photo from the Provincial Archives of Alberta. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons with no known copyright restrictions

In 1915, on the eve of Prohibition in the United States, there were over 1300 breweries across the country producing around 60 million barrels. While the growing behemoths of Anheuser-Busch and Pabst Brewing Company had national scale, the vast majority of these breweries were small regional players that were deeply influenced by the traditions of the local immigrant communities.

In 1940, seven years after the repeal of the Volstead Act, that number of breweries was nearly halved to 684 yet the country was still producing nearly 55 million barrels as production and distribution started consolidating around the big breweries.

By 1980, there were only 101 breweries in the United States cranking out nearly 200 million barrels–with the 10 largest breweries being responsible for nearly 94% of that.

This was the state of the beer industry on the eve of the Craft Beer Movement–a movement spearheaded by folks who simply wanted something different apart from the mass proliferation of American lagers.

Chanpuru — “Something Mixed”

I’ve been binge watching Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, trying to get through all 8 seasons on Netflix before it leaves their listings on October 1st.

Photo by Opponent. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Also good to know that the Okinawan diet includes plenty of beer!

In the Season 6 episode on Okinawa, I was introduced to the phrase chanpuru which Bourdain described as the Okinawan idea of eating something different every day and enjoying the richness of variety.

Considering that the Okinawa diet and lifestyle is legendary for promoting long life and contentment, this was certainly a concept that resonated with me–especially being part of a generation that is notoriously “…open to new experiences, new regions and new grape varieties.”

Which brings us back to Zinfandel and the lessons of craft beer.

While the craft beer category in the United States has evolved to encompass envelop-pushing styles and new ideas, at the root of the movement was a desire of beer lovers to get back some of what was lost prior to Prohibition–those traditional styles and varieties of beers that were regionally influenced by local German, Austrian, Irish and Latin immigrant communities.

While the majority of beer drinkers had “moved on” and were content with their mass-produced lagers, a tiny but growing segment of passionate beer lovers knew that this country’s brewing heritage was a worthwhile story to explore. And if the big brewers weren’t going to explore it, then these beer lovers needed to take the mantle themselves and lead the way.

They not only found their chanpuru but made it their own.

Heritage Vines — Heritage Wines

Photo by Simon Davison. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Zinfandel vineyard first planted in 1910 in Saratoga, California. Even the “young” 1976 vines are over 40 years old.

First introduced to California during the Gold Rush of the 1850s, Zinfandel has always been an American wine with an immigrant’s story–likely coming to the US as a Croatian vine (now known to be Crljenak Kaštelanski/Tribidrag) that was part of an Austrian nursery collection.

Once the grape reached California, it was spread widely across the state–particularly by Italian immigrants who established numerous old vine vineyards in the North Coast that are still treasured today.

While the Hungarian immigrant Agoston Haraszthy, the “Father of California Viticulture”, didn’t originally bring Zinfandel to the US, Thomas Pinney notes in his A History of Wine in America, Volume 1 that Haraszthy did much to propagate and promote the variety.

By 1888, Zinfandel was the most widely planted wine grape in California with around 34,000 acres. Even after Prohibition, Zinfandel still maintained significant plantings with Master of Wine Benjamin Lewin noting in Claret and Cabs that in the mid 20th century, Zinfandel far outpaced Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley with many Napa “clarets” actually being Zin-based.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that Chardonnay (and in the 1990s Cab) eventually surpassed Zinfandel as most widely planted variety in California. However, with over 44,000 acres, Zinfandel still remains the third most widely planted grape in California.

Master of Wine Morgan Twain-Peterson of Bedrock Wine Co. and Tegan Passalacqua of Turley Wine Cellars both serve on the board of the Historic Vineyard Society. Here they are giving a presentation on old vine vineyards at the 2018 Hospice du Rhone.


A Sleeping Giant

Interwoven within those 44,000+ acres are plots of old vine Zinfandel that are increasingly being highlighted by wine producers and organizations like the Historic Vineyard Society.

Scattered across the state of California–from Sonoma to Amador County, Lodi to Paso Robles, Santa Clara Valley to Cucamonga Valley–each of these old vine vineyards are planted with stories that span several decades. In the case of the Zinfandel vines in the Grandpere Vineyard in the Sierra Foothills, those stories have been shared for nearly 150 years.

For a generation of consumers that crave experience and authenticity, connection and chanpuru–few wines can craft a better calling card for Millennial wine drinkers than Old Vine Zin (the real stuff, not the marketing fluff–which is fodder for another post).

But are Millennial drinkers actually interested?

Perhaps.

This post was provoked by two articles that came across my Twitter dash today–Mike Veseth (@MikeVeseth) examining trends in the US Wine Market highlighted by Nielsen data that was reported in Wine Business Monthly and Winesearcher.com’s Liza B. Zimmerman report on the takeways from the recent Silicon Valley Bank’s State of the Wine Industry report (brought to my dash via @DwightFurrow‘s daily round up of interesting blog writings).

I found it curious that this grocery store display of “Beginner’s Wines” under $20 didn’t feature any red wines–only Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc and Riesling.


After noting Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay’s sustained dominance in both case volume and sales value, Veseth was surprised to find that the number one variety in terms of average bottle price in the United States was Zinfandel at $11.19 a bottle–beating out Pinot noir’s $10.43 average. Along with his surprise, Veseth expressed a desire to see more research into this development.

Of course, correlation does not imply causation and all that but I couldn’t help but wonder if there is a link between this and the “frugal hedonists” that Rob McMillan, founder and executive vice president of the Silicon Valley Bank Wine Division, describes when talking about Millennials in Zimmerman’s WineSearcher.com piece.

While the under $9 category of wines are slumping, adventurous Millennial drinkers are branching out more into the $8-14 range. Like craft beer drinkers before them who weren’t content with just the cheap brews of the mass produced beers, Millennial drinkers are willing to spend a little bit more to get something that appeals to their wanderlust hedonism and cravings for something interesting.

Few varieties offer a better (or more frugal) bang for the buck in quality than Zinfandel.

Yeah….I’ve been low on Merlot but given these options, you really can’t blame me for heading over to the Zin aisle.


While there is not that huge of a quality gap between an $8 Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Pinot noir and a $14 example–when you get to Zinfandel there is a much more noticeable jump in quality from the $8-9 Bogle and Seven Deadly Zins of the world and $12-14 examples from the Sobon and Maggio-Reynolds families or even relatively large wineries like Ravenswood, Klinker Brick and St. Francis.

The jump to the $15-25 range in Zinfandel also offers an exponentially higher quality jump than you typically find in Cabs, Merlot and Pinots with offerings from wineries like Rosenblum, St. Amant, Seghesio, Truett Hurst, Carol Shelton, Ridge and Renwood.

Then when you start exploring the character-driven wines of single vineyard, old vine Zinfandels from producers like Turley, Bedrock, Carlisle, Bella, Robert Biale and the higher-end Ridge wines, you find oodles of wines in the $40-60 range that would blow most $100+ Napa Cabs out of the water.

Even Turley’s entry-level Juvenile Zin at $30-38 offers more character and complexity than a lot of Cabernets twice its price.


Zin-ful Thoughts Part II

Now I’m not saying that cheap, crappy Zin doesn’t exist.

If there is a dollar to be made and a brand to be mass produced, you know that one of the big mega-corps are going to capitalize on it.

Just look at what has happened to the craft beer segment which has become a feeding frenzy of acquisitions by the big beer firms trying to conquer the craft market by gobbling up brands like old European powers colonizing Africa and the New World. Just as beer drinkers have to be open minded, but weary, so too are wine drinkers well served by frequently asking who made the wine that is in their glass.

Still these mass-produced (and sometimes “faux old vine”) Zins aren’t all bad and I would wager that, for an equivalent price, a mass-produced cheap Zin is on par (if not better) than a mass-produced cheap Cab, Merlot or Pinot.

Above all, what I am saying is that there is a special heritage here in the United States with Zinfandel–a heritage that is too valuable to be lost to the dust bin of history.

Just like the craft beer drinkers of the late 20th century reclaimed their heritage, we also have the same opportunity to reclaim a bit of ours and add a little more chanpuru to our drinking options.

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