Zinfandel has been a key player in Paso Robles winemaking since the 19th century.
Today, the area boasts some of the largest old zinfandel vineyards in California, some producing since before Prohibition.
“The oldest vines in Paso Robles are zinfandel vines,” said Malani Anderson, manager of Turley Wine Cellars’ Templeton tasting room. Based in St. Helena, co-owner Larry Turley specializes in finding old zinfandel vines in the state.
In 2000, Turley bought the old Pesenti Winery and its vineyards, planted in 1923. The older vines, Anderson said, produce more complex-flavored wine.
“But these days, if you ask someone who doesn’t know the history of Paso Robles, I think they would say this area is becoming known for Rhone varieties,” she added. “I think it just depends on who you ask.”
Called “America’s heritage grape,” zinfandel vines arrived with European immigrants accustomed to making table wines for their families, according to wine histories. Eventually the vines were taken across the continent to California. It’s considered the only grape varietal “discovered” in the United States.
Researchers at UC Davis have studied its DNA and say it’s most closely related to an obscure vine in Croatia. An Italian varietal called primitivo is also a close relative and clonal link.
Widely planted during the Gold Rush, zinfandel was the most-grown grape in California between the 1860s and the early 1990s, according to the Zinfandel Advocates & Producers, a group dedicated to promoting knowledge of the grape.
Wineries saw demand for inexpensive white zinfandel rise in the 1970s. In the 1980s, interest in red zin grew as wine drinkers branched out to fine wines.
Zinfandel Advocates & Producers, or ZAP, was founded in 1991. It includes more than 250 wineries and nearly 5,000 enthusiasts. It holds an annual celebration in San Francisco, while the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance hosts its Zinfandel Festival each spring.
A local survivor
Although its sales and consumption have never reached the levels of the “Big Three” — cabernet, merlot and chardonnay — zinfandel has acquired a strong following that supports specialized wineries.
Today, less than 10 percent of San Luis Obispo County’s vineyards produce zinfandel, according to annual crop reports. Cabernet sauvignon plantings in the county outnumber zinfandel almost 3.5 to 1.Nevertheless, demand for quality Paso Robles zinfandel remains strong.
“I passionately believe that zinfandel is Paso Robles and Paso Robles is zinfandel,” said Steve Felton, Norman Vineyards’ winemaker. Felton produces five different red zinfandels, white zin and a port. “Arguably it’s one of the finest regions for zinfandel in terms of the terroir in the state.”
Steve Peck, red winemaker for J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines, said the San Jose-based winery was attracted to Paso Robles for its cabernet sauvignon. But Peck believes it’s important to make zinfandel too.
“If you’re going to consider yourself an authentic player in Paso Robles wine, I feel you have to have a zin in your portfolio, and it better be good,” Peck said. “The folks that have been coming to Paso Robles for a decade or more, it’s something they associate with us.”
Zin’s many faces
While some wineries describe zinfandel as a “hard sell” on the national market, it sells well in local tasting rooms, winemakers and tasting room managers say.
With its berry and spice flavors, drinkers with less experienced palates may prefer it over bolder wines such as cabernet, with its higher tannin levels.
The red grape is incredibly flexible, capable of producing anything from a pink sparkler to a full-bodied red to a rich, late harvest dessert wine. Zinfandel port, made by adding brandy and sugar, is a classic pairing for chocolate.
It also blends well with others, such as syrah, petite sirah or cabernet sauvignon. The other grapes can round out zin’s flavors, colors and aromatics to produce a richer, more balanced wine.
Zin blends are seeing resurgence in popularity, local winemakers report, and could be the next trend for ever-exploring enthusiasts. They may also help ensure the grape’s future in the developing Paso Robles region, as cabernet and Rhone producers add it in their red blends.
“Historically, the first zinfandel vineyards were zin blends,” said Josh Beckett, head winemaker of Peachy Canyon Winery. “They were field blends with mataro, mourvedre, counoise.”
Since the early 1980s, his father, Doug Beckett, has been making zinfandel from Paso Robles grapes. Today, Peachy Canyon has 10 zinfandels on its menu.
“I love zin blends,” Beckett said. “I think personally a lot of them make better zins. But I think there’s always going to be people out there who want a straight, true zin.”
Paso Zinfandel Festival is ThisWeekend
The 18th annual Paso Robles Zinfandel Festival runs today through Sunday. For a full slate of events ranging from seminars and cooking classes to winemaker dinners at more than 140 area wineries, visit www.pasowine.com.