The producers of the 2013 Dominican University Global Wine Marketing Conference for University Professors asked me to talk about California’s wines so I decided to conduct a tasting from two unique wineries and discuss how each winery does their marketing. The wineries were Cornerstone Cellars and Robert Biale Vineyards. When Dominican’s Robbie Hayes recommended Robert Biale Winery, I realized that Biale wines would be ideal to illustrate something important to me, the story of Zinfandel.
In the wine world, especially among old world enthusiasts and academics, there is a great deal of interest about where vines originate and how they grow in different areas. Observations and other business factors lead some people to want to pigeon hole a country with one grape which fails to reflect actual complexities of a wine region. A well-known example of this is Malbec and Argentina. I have found a tendency among folks from other countries, (often encouraged by wine writers and pundits) to think of Zinfandel as California’s grape. In my opinion, it’s counterintuitive to assign Zinfandel (or any one grape) to America, after all we are a nation made up of revolutionaries and individualists. To be clear, this doesn’t take away from the fact that the name Zindandel is from America and California’s old growth vines is an interesting story.
Here is the information I shared with the professors about California Zinfandel as they tasted Robert Biale Vineyard’s 2011 Black Chicken Zinfandel.
Vintage Notes: Another chilly and rainy spring, with cool and moderate summer and fall seasons.
Harvest Dates: 9/26
Winemaking: The fruit was hand-sorted first in the field then again at the winery. Open-top fermentation and punched down three times per day. Pressed to Burgundian oak – 25% new. Aged 14 months.
Winemaker’s Tasting Notes: The 2011 is one gorgeous “Chicken” and is right on the money: lush and dark fruits of blackberry, berry pie, black cherry, white pepper, peppermint, molasses, Oreo cookie, turmeric, vanilla, clove and nutmeg. A mouthwetting snap of acidity balances the round and ripe fruit, and the thin-skinned Zinfandel tannins propel the wine into an elegant and impressive big Pinot Noir style. We expect that this Black Chicken has an optimal drinking range from 2013–2020.
Girl with a Glass Notes: Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma County is the most famous for producing excellent Zinfandel. (There are over 5,000 acres planted in that county.) Napa only has approx. 1,500 (bearing & non-bearing) acres, and while it has ancient vines, it’s over-shadowed by Cabernet Sauvignon. Biale is one of Napa’s “old vine specialists” along with Peterson, Carlisle, Ridge and Turley wineries. Originally Napa’s vineyards were mostly field blends; some wineries still make their Zins from field blends, others, like Biale’s Black Chicken are 100% Zin but from different Napa vineyards.
Best resource for following California Zinfandel is ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates & Producers)
Clearing up the Zinfandel Mystery. Until only recently, Zinfandel was California’s “mystery grape” because its origins were unknown. In 1994, DNA fingerprinting confirmed that the Primitivo and Zinfandel grapes were genetically identical, however, it’s not a 100 percent match. There are clonal differences between the Zinfandel grown in California and the Primitivo in Italy. On wine labels, U.S. regulations require that Zinfandel and Primitivo be identified separately. Studies have also indicated that the grape used for making California Zinfandel did not originate in Italy, but migrated from another origin to various destinations that include Italy. Scientists know that the Zinfandel grape has a European origin. Although further research is required, all evidence to date points to Croatian grape varieties as the origin. The Zinfandel name, however, is truly American—the earliest and only documented use of the name is in America where a Boston nursery owner advertised Zinfandel for sale in 1832. (Source: Wine Institute)
(Read my article about Biale & Marketing a Small Production Winery.)