I’m not related a plot line for “CSI,” but rather the storied past of zinfandel, the most widely planted grape in California before Prohibition.
Zinfandel was the backbone of generic red wines in the days before such wines carried varietal designations. Zinfandel thrived so vigorously in California that many thought it indigenous.
But modern genetic studies have proven zinfandel is not a native vinifera wine grape. No vinifera originated in America. Vinifera came via other cultures, primarily those once part of the Roman Empire.
American zinfandel originated in the area now known as Croatia — not in Italy as once thought. Zinfandel is found in Italy, where it is called primativo, but it’s likely that the Italian plantings originated in America.
After Prohibition, zinfandel became the backbone of red jug wines. It was also used to add oomph to weaker red wines.
Zinfandel is a tenacious grape. Many pre-Prohibition vines are still in production, and fruit from these ancient vines is much revered.
Zinfandel once covered more acres than any other red varietal in California. It is currently the second most-planted red grape in California. Cabernet sauvignon is first.
Zinfandel was always made into hearty red wine until 1972 — when the Trinchero family of Sutter Home Winery found themselves overrun with zinfandel. They decided to press a batch and drain the juice before it had time to take on color from the dark-skinned grapes.
The light juice was fermented into a pretty pink wine and released under the French name “Oeil de Perdrix,” which translates to “eye of the partridge.” It later became known as white zinfandel.
The wine was an immediate hit. It made the Trinchero family fabulously wealthy, affording them the opportunity to expand ownership to brands like Joel Gott, Napa Cellars, Menage a Trois, Terra d’Ora and a host of others.
Other wineries followed suit, and America was suddenly awash in a sea of pink wine.
But some producers remained loyal to big, bold red zinfandels — among them Joel Peterson of Ravenswood Winery, whose slogan remains “No Wimpy Wines,” and whose iconic label of intertwined crows is immediately recognizable.
Peterson founded Ravenswood in 1976 with a friend. They had no winery, no vineyards and little money. Peterson sourced fruit from other growers, many of whom harvested the treasured fruit from old vines.
Peterson’s early zinfandels were among the first to carry single vineyard designations. They received critical acclaim and garnered a cult following.
Peterson still makes single-vineyard designated wines like those from Old Hill, Dickerson, Bedrock and Belloni Vineyards, but these are available locally only by special order.
In 1982, Peterson expanded production to include a County Series blending fruit from several vineyards. In the mid-1980s, he launched his Vintners Blend Series, sourcing fruit from a wider growing area.
In 2001, Ravenswood was sold to wine conglomerate Constellation Brands, making Peterson a multimillionaire. He could have walked away, but he chose to stay with his baby, where he has been winemaker for the past 30 years. He remains Ravenswood’s most ardent cheerleader, and serves on Constellation’s corporate board.
Try these non-wimpy Peterson zins with steak or barbecue:
Ravenswood Napa Valley Old Vine Zinfandel. Suggested retail price $16. Available by special order from your favorite wine merchant. From the County Series, this wine has lots of jammy fruit. Full-bodied, but not in your face like some zins with high-octane alcohol. Beautifully balanced and luscious.
Ravenswood 2010 Vintners Blend Zinfandel. In the $10 range at Winn Dixie and Target. Walgreens has the 2009 vintage. As exhibited by its ubiquitousness, this is a popular go-to red. A quality zin for the price.
Contact Pat Kettles at email@example.com