Zinfandel, the Great Grape of California

The Juice

Zinfandel is often considered the only true American wine grape. Now also considered California’s state wine, evidence suggests that this grape was actually brought to California around 1850. DNA analysis shows that it is genetically equivalent to Croatian grapes, Crljenak Kaštelanski and Tribidrag, as well as to the Primitivo variety traditionally grown in Apulia, the “heel” of Italy. 

In name, though, Zinfandel is truly American, with the earliest known use of the name recorded in 1832 in Boston. Zinfandel was then introduced to California during the Gold Rush around twenty years after. The grape thrives in the Golden State’s climate and soil, as it now is the third-leading wine grape varietal in California, grown in most of its 58 counties. It is also the third most planted grape in America, following Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. 

In the 1980’s, Zinfandel became wildly popular in America as a slightly pink, faintly sweet wine. This became known as White Zinfandel, causing many wine lovers to mistakenly think that there’s a white zinfandel grape as well as a red one. Despite its name, White Zinfandel is actually not a white wine at all. White Zinfandel wine is made from black and blue-hued wine grapes of the same name. These grapes have darker skins with a light center. The pale pink color of White Zinfandel comes from the color of the skins bleeding while soaking. To this day White Zinfandel outsells Red Zinfandel six to one.

The true essence of this popular grape lies in its taste. Red Zinfandel is commonly described as both fruity and spicy, including notes of blackberry, raspberry, boysenberry, and cherry as well as black pepper, licorice, and cinnamon. 

But is the popularity of California’s state grape slowing declining? In the past 50 years of American winemaking, no grape has seen more ups and downs than Zinfandel. First with its origin in question, and then within which winemaking style best suits the fruit. The grape is also known to ripen unevenly, which also lends to the complications it has faced. Despite nearly flat growth in overall Zinfandel sales, plenty of California wineries are doing just fine with California’s heritage grape variety.

Candice Reinerston, owner and assistant winemaker at Riverstar Vineyards, in Paso Robles has been growing Zinfandel on her property since 2016, when her family bought the vineyard. Trying to put a new twist on the legacy she inherited, Candice has brought in everything from new barrels to new fruit for Riverstar. As one of the few millennial winemakers in the area, we sat down with Candice to hear about her experience growing Zinfandel in her vineyard and what she expects for the future of the grape. 

Candice and Daughter Ruby

Why drew you to Paso Robles to purchase your vineyard? 

Candice: Definitely the wines. Drinking wine has always been a family thing. My grandfather used to make wine in his basement in San Francisco. Paso just has this vibe of casualness and is welcoming. It’s more laid back then other wine regions in California, in my opinion.

What have your experiences been as a winemaker in the industry?

Candice: I can often feel judged instantly because I am young and I’m also a woman. Maybe people will assume that I don’t know what I’m talking about or I’m inexperienced. That can be frustrating. The positives have been that we are bringing a whole new dimension to winemaking. We have a whole new set of experiences and different solutions to problems. Doubt me, and I’m gonna show you later. I don’t need to be number one, but I want to be treated equally. 

Candice working in the vineyards. She’s a character, always making her team laugh.

There hasn’t been much of a spike in Zinfandel recently… Why have you decided to continue to produce a grape on your property that has been declining?

Candice: Well right off the bat, this is our heritage grape here. Zinfandel is what initially brought people to Paso. People wanted this jammy, high alcohol wine that universally people seem to like. I was excited that there was already Zin growing on the property when we bought it. It traditionally ripens very unevenly, so that’s been a struggle for us the first couple of harvests. We are actually replanting five acres of Zin because I feel like it adds to our blends; a little sweetness, some pepper notes. It makes beautifully colored wine. I love to see the range of wines that can be created with it. Our neighbors, everyone around us is making zin, but they’re different every time you go. That’s why I was really excited to work with it and why I’m excited to continue to work with it. There’s also the big Zin Fest in paso, so people really love it around here.

(Candice is referencing the annual Zin Fest in Paso, this year dubbed Vintage Paso: Zinfandel Weekend, a themed weekend in Paso Robles Wine Country featuring individual experiences at over 100 wineries.)

Would you say that Zinfandel is a popular wine for older or younger generations?

Candice: I could see it in both. Probably more for younger people. Around Paso it’s grown a little sweeter, or fruit forward. You’re getting those jammy notes, berry pie, vanilla flavors. For wine drinkers who are just starting out and only like white wines or sweeter wines, i think Zin is one of those wines that will push people into reds, especially in a blend. 

What do you see for the future of Zinfandel in Paso?

Candice: I think Zin is here to stay. I think especially as Californians really are proud of California things… like this is our grape! I think older drinkers like it, but it really is such a good transition wine for younger drinkers. It helps develop people’s palates more. I think you’re going to continue to see Zinfandel in blends, and I don’t think it’s going anywhere.

Written By Baharan Abdollahi

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