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On Wine

Dan Berger On Wine: The Great Zincline

I used to like Zinfandel. He was an engaging, humorous fellow who often regaled us with silly jokes, had razor retorts for hecklers who disliked his brand of humor, and usually was the life of the party.

Then arrogance set in. He began to believe his press clippings, imagining he was a lot greater than he really was. Smug, full of himself, he began to act haughty. His jokes began to fall flat — obvious, oafish. He gained a lot of weight and his ostentatious, ill-fitting wardrobe sported fashionista labels.

I thought he’d settle down once he joined forces with his distant cousin, the Italian expatriate who calls himself Primitivo. But that union proved to be a match made in hell because it wasn’t fate that brought them together as much as a simple quest for manna.

Looking back, I’m not sure when Zin’s transmogrification began, but it certainly was evident about 2005 when I attended a Zinfandel walk-around tasting in San Francisco. Of more than 350 wines in the room, only 22 had alcohol levels under 14%.

Today, you would be hard-pressed to find one that’s less than 14.9%.

By 2005 or so, it was already clear that Zin needed to slim down. Along with added mass were body odors reminiscent of raisins and bad Port. Oxidation too.

Many decades ago, this was a handsome dinner table confrere, witty, urbane, cultured. Even athletic. The superb wine writer Bob Thompson once suggested that one of many appropriate styles for this comrade was as a happy-go-lucky California Beaujolais — svelte, elegant, coiffed (razor-cut), and polished.

Instead, he fell into disrepair. He became dark, brooding, noir-ish. Ultimately, that led to an overall decline in sales. A trade group in support of this once-charming kingpin even investigated why sales had declined. Results were inconclusive.

“There are several reasons” for Zin’s sales slump, said Miro Tcholakov, whose Miro wines include several Zins with balance and structure. Miro said he didn’t think Port-y aromas are that problematic; many wine buyers still love bigger, richer Zins.

He said the Big Three wines currently getting the most attention in California are Cabernet, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. And that last variety may well be the one that helped cause the decline in overall sales of Zinfandel that I’ve witnessed in the last 15 years.

“With Pinot so hot,” said Miro, “a lot of cooler-climate Zinfandel was pulled out of the ground and replaced with Pinot Noir. And really,” he added, “it’s a cool-climate variety, a lot cooler than most people realize.”

With Pinot Noir now commanding higher prices than ever, some cooler-vineyard Zinfandel was converted to Pinot. “And it’s hard for me to replace that kind of (Zin) fruit at a fair price,” Miro said.

He said the price of Zin grapes not long ago was about $2,500 per ton. “Today that same fruit is $5,000 per ton,” he said, which means that the $25 Zinfandels of a few years ago today are now $50.

“In the $25 to $30 category, you can still find a few nice wines (Zins),” but to get the best may cost you $40 or more,” he said.

Global climate change also has impacted the radical new style of Zinfandel that we’ve seen. Miro said heat spikes and drought can be death to Zinfandel.

“It’s a grape that’s prone to drying up and raisining,” he said, “unlike the Bordeaux varieties that will take the heat waves a lot better.”

Another thing that really has harmed Zinfandel is the loss of interest shown by two important brands, Ravenswood and Rosenblum. When both brands were acquired by corporate entities, the quest to make distinctive Zins was junked and both began to be made with rather ordinary fruit.

It has long been believed that the American consumer would not notice such subtle differences. I’ve noticed.

Then there’s the question of Primitivo. Although closely associated genetically with Zinfandel, it is distinctly different from Zin in one crucial respect: It has almost none of the wild spice component that’s similar to raspberries that was one of the aromatic and flavor charms of Zinfandels of the past.

Because it is slightly easier to grow than is Zinfandel, it has become widely used not only as a blending grape for Zin, but also 100% Primitivos have been identified on the front labels of many wines that call themselves Zinfandel.

Zinfandel purists know perfectly well that this is close to being a fraud. But no one speaks of this as if it’s some deep, dark secret.

One reason Primitivo has been so widely accepted by some Zin makers is that Zinfandel is a difficult variety to grow in at least in one respect: It ripens extremely unevenly. When harvest time nears, most Zinfandel vines still have some green berries visible.

If a winemaker or a grower is concerned about the possibility of some “green” flavors creeping into the wine because of green berries and chooses to wait until all of the berries have colored up, the result will usually be a lot more ripeness than will make an elegant wine.

And when you’re using mediocre fruit and later harvest dates, the result can be oafish wines, at least to those who want to serve this wine with food — 16% alcohol Zinfandels usually are hot on the tongue and obliterate flavors in most foods.

Will Zin ever again display some of his old charms? Or will he continue to puff himself up with pretension and the putting on of airs? It’s sad how egotism can wreck everything, thereby ruining a fun-loving companion, threatening our friendship forever. I miss him and hope he returns.

What I refer to as a zincline left him overweight, lugubrious, ill-mannered. Crude obscenities now replaced clever rejoinders. A breathalyzer now is a threatened species.

Yes, a few $15 to $25 Zins are still being made that display Zinfandel-ness but many wines were described by Miro as “drenched in shock and awe,” with several extremely popular brands that are selling for $30 and above that are actually sweet.

Watch those alcohol levels and aerate most Zins to knock off a bit of the hotness.

Wine of the Week

2019 Miro Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley ($40/see below) – The combination of richness and elegance in this 100% Zinfandel from a very old vineyard in Dry Creek Valley is a classic example of merging the old world with the new. There is 14.5% alcohol here, but it is seamlessly integrated into the background, with raspberry and strawberry both appearing as featured players. The flavors are spot on Dry Creek (spice), and it is better with 2-3 three hours of aeration. Bottle Barn in Santa Rosa has this wine for $17.99.

Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, Calif., where he publishes Vintage Experiences, a subscription-only wine newsletter. Write to him at winenut@gmail.com. He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 AM.

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