Back to the Future of Napa Zinfandel

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Wouldn’t it be cool if you could travel back in time and tweak events just a little so that the past’s future (our present) would be better? That was the idea behind Steven Speilberg’s hit 1985 film “Back to the Future” and its many sequels.

Scientists are not optimistic that this time-bending strategy would work. They question whether a souped-up DeLorean sports car is the ideal time travel vehicle. And they warn of the dangers of changing history even a little. It’s dangerous to tinker with the past because of potential unintended consequences further down the road.

Tweaking the Judgement of Paris?

As I wrote in last week’s column, the present in Napa Valley is intensely focused on Cabernet Sauvignon, crowding out winegrape varieties like Zinfandel and Petite Sirah that once dominated vineyards here. What if we could go back to 1976 and alter the famous Judgement of Paris so that Napa Cabernet wasn’t the surprise victor of that France vs California taste-off? What would Napa Zinfandel be today if Cabernet Sauvignon didn’t so completely over-shadow it?271201_97be_oct17_3820

Zinandel, once the numero uno  wine grape variety in the Napa Valley, now accounts for only about 5 percent of vineyard acreage. Petite Sirah is just half a percent. But some of the wines that are made tell a fascinating “back to the future” story of what could have been.

Sue and I met with two devoted Zinfandel producers, Julie Johnson of Tres Sabores winery in the Rutherford district and Bob Biale of Robert Biale Vineyards in the Oak Knoll district to learn more about Zinfandel’s present and its potential future.

The Curse of Big Zin

Julie Johnson dry farms 40+ year old Zinfandel vines in a foothill vineyard niche that is shaded from the afternoon sun. The wine is aromatic, balanced, medium-bodied, with delicious fruit and spice. Such wines are not easy to grow or make, Johnson told us, and selling them is also a bit of a problem.

Recent Nielsen data reported in the August 2018 issue of Wine Business Monthly shows how far Zinfandel has fallen in terms of retail sales. Zinfandel is the 11th most popular varietal wine on the Nielsen list, wedged between Riesling and Syrah/Shiraz at bottom of the table. White Zinfandel outsells red Zinfandel by a substantial margin. Ouch! That really hurts.

Zinfandel buyers often expect big, ripe, boozy Zin, which is not a style that’s on the Tres Sabores radar. Store shelves are peppered with California appellation Zinfandels that are dark and strong (and sometimes a little sweet, too). They are the market’s idea of Zinfandel.

Wines like this sell in part because they can fit into the popular red blend or dark red category pretty easily. But the Tres Sabores Zin is a horse of a different color and many restaurant wine programs hesitate to take on wines like this, despite their quality, because they differ so dramatically from what they think consumers expect from a Zinfandel wine. The idea of Zinfandel with finesse is fading fast.biale

All In on Zin?

And so you have to be pretty committed to go all in on Zinfandel as Robert Biale Vineyard has done. Sue and I met with Bob Biale at his beautiful winery and tasting room in the Oak Knoll district. Bob’s father Aldo and the family’s heritage as winegrowers are the inspiration for the business, which makes 15 different Zinfandel wines as well as other varietals including a surprising Greco Bianco we were served directly upon arrival.

Bob is devoted to preserving Napa’s Zinfandel DNA through many efforts, including especially his work with the Historic Vineyard Society, which seeks to identify and preserve producing vineyards that are 50 or more years old. Tegan Passalaqua, who specializes in single vineyard old vine Zinfandel at Turley,  is also active in this group.

A few of these historic vineyards provide grapes for Biale’s wines, such as the Valsecchi Vineyards Carneros Zinfandel we tasted.  There’s just an acre or so of 100-year old vines, Bob told us, and they produce just 95 cases of wine. But the wine is very special — elegant and balanced like all the Biale wines. Fantastic. Seriously, some of these old vine Zinfandel wines made me think of elegant Pinot Noir. I wonder if these wines would age like a fine Burgundy? Hmmm.

Occasionally Biale is able to persuade a grower to plant a bit of Zinfandel when it is time to renew a vineyard rather than the more certainly profitable Cabernet . Maybe the site just isn’t right for Cab. Or maybe the winegrower has been influenced by Bob’s obvious devotion to the wine and its history. Doesn’t matter — with a little luck these could be the historic vines of the future.

Back to the Future?

I don’t think I can manage the Marty McFly trick and rewrite the past, so the legacy of the Judgement of Paris is safe. Napa is Cabernet Sauvignon territory and the valley has developed around the production and sale of luxury wines. The history of the pioneers and their Zinfandel and Petite Sirah is there, however, hidden in plain sight and ever-threatened by the Cab boom.

Maybe it had to be that way, but it is interesting to imagine an alternative universe where Zinfandel’s heritage is honored and celebrated to a greaert extent. I am glad that there are people like Julie Johnson and Bob Biale who are keeping the old vines and their memories of Napa days long past alive for us to taste today.

3 responses

  1. Thanks, Mike, for putting a spotlight on zinfandel that focuses on finesse and elegance instead of high alcohol and sweetness. It’s unfortunate that the economics of real estate and scale are chipping at the foundation of a variety that originally introduced many of us to the great potential of California wine.

  2. I am with you too. Signorello used to make a Zin from Luvisi vineyard in Howell Mtn. 1999 was the last year tho.

    I will add a recommendation of Decoy Zin, tho it is not Napa. It tastes like a Bordeaux.

    If someone could fix the clusters to ripen more evenly, the whole world would be better.

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