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Zinfandel Emerging Into Fuller Bodied Wine

Tom Marquardt and Patrick Darr

Zinfandel has taken a strange and often twisted course in its evolution. Even more so than pinot noir, zinfandel's route has enough ups and downs to make a sober person tipsy. Once the pride of Italian immigrants who found California's hot regions had ideal growing conditions, zinfandel struggled to gain footing in a market that idolized noble French varieties like cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir.

It's struggle has been worsened internationally by its near exclusivity to U.S. soil. With a few exceptions, zinfandel is not planted anywhere else, although it is thought to be a relative of Italy's primitivo grape and has its origins in Croatia. It's certainly not the only grape variety confined to one growing region, but outside of the United States zinfandel just isn't in the game.

Gaining recognition has been hobbled by episodic diversions, too, most notably the white zinfandel craze that associated the variety with sweet, cheap plonk. Although white zinfandel sales are quickly declining, it nearly doubles red zinfandel in sales.

But there was once a zenith when zinfandel was a cult wine made by dedicated craftsmen in appellations such as Dry Creek Valley. We fondly remember the days when small producers like Rafanelli, Grgich Hills, Edmeades, Ridge, Hendry, and others were competing for attention. In the right hands and in the right regions, zinfandel can earn special recognition.

Gary Sitton, left, is taking over winemaking for Ravenswood founder, Joel Peterson.

We were musing zinfandel's odyssey the other day while talking to Gary Sitton, director of winemaking for Ravenswood. Sitton knows the grape's track record all too well. He is slowly transitioning into the pilot seat as Ravenswood's founder, Joel Peterson, moves into semi-retirement. Peterson is known as the "godfather of wine" for elevating the brand to iconic status decades ago. At one time, Sitton said Ravenswood accounted for one out of every four bottles of zinfandel sold.

Peterson sold the facility to Constellation Brands in 2001 and, like all conglomerates, Constellation sought to increase profits by exploiting its most popular wine. Ravenswood's iconic Vintner's Blend became a supermarket staple and annual production was increased to 500,000 cases. It's a deal at about $10 a bottle, but it's a shadow of Peterson's original version.

However, Ravenswood's chances of putting the genie back in the bottle rests in its single-vineyard zinfandels. We've been tasting these wines for more than a decade and they remain impressive – still the handcrafted wines we remember.

"We are at the crossroads as Ravenswood started out as a high-end, cult status brand," Sitton said. "We've grown the appellation tier of our zinfandel and out of necessity we started growing the Vintner's Blend. When you start that, you are wildly successful. But at the same time you try to remain relevant."

He said there has been some erosion of the brand's presence in restaurants because owners just won't put a brand on the wine list that can be found in supermarkets. Instead, he said the tasting room and club sales have picked up some of the slack. Ravenswood's appellation series and single-vineyard series are seeing growth.

Another interesting twist in zinfandel's lifespan has been its increased presence in California blends, an emerging market for consumers. A prolific, high-yielding grape variety that can be planted in places like Lodi where land is relatively cheap, zinfandel is an inexpensive foundation grape for a lot of upstart brands. Sitton doesn't see this as a threat, though.