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Zinfandel: California's Mother Lode

Zinfandel entered my life like a divine lightning bolt.

A California newbie in the mid ’90s, I thought I had discovered the mother lode in the Sacramento Safeway, where I found a plethora of juicy, rich, wines for under $5. To my novice palate, they were delicious.

Then I met an old-vine Zinfandel in the Sierra Foothills. I was traveling El Dorado County’s bucolic back roads to sample wine, visit gold-mining sites and gain a better understanding of my new state. Little did I know, I would find all of this in my first pour.

In Boeger Winery’s cool, dark, dirt-floor tasting room, the basement of a small 1870’s home, a small glass of dark red wine was served to me. It was rich with brambly fruit and black pepper, and lingered on my palate for minutes. The $5 grocery-store wines seemed like fool’s gold in comparison. The wine was Zinfandel and the grapes grew just outside the door on thick, twisted vines, planted by the same Italian family that had built the homestead, soon after the Gold Rush.

Many of the Italian immigrants who had flocked to the area for gold, recognized that there were more riches to be had from California’s sunny hillsides. As the mines were stripped of their glitter, many miners stayed on to plant vines and other crops. The East Coasters, it’s believed, brought Zinfandel, which had been imported from Europe by a Long Island nurseryman around 1830.

The vine flourished in the warm California sun and mineral-rich soils. By the 1880s Zinfandel was the most widely grown grape in California. While phylloxera and Prohibition did a number on its acreage, it emerged better than most vines. With many Zin vines planted on resistant rootstock or simply isolated from the disease, it survived the biological disaster to withstand the oncoming regulatory one as one of the most popular grapes used for sacramental wine and home winemaking.

But in the ’60s and ’70s, growers started ripping up California’s favorite vine to make way for Cabernet and other French varieties. A sweet accident saved it. In the mid ’70s, Sutter Home Winery, which produced a dry, red and a dry, pink Zin, encountered a stuck fermentation of the pink, leaving residual sugars behind and creating a sweet, low-alcohol wine that the company realized might appeal to the public. They were right. By 1980, White Zinfandel was the pop star of the wine world as sales increased from 25,000 to 1.5 million cases. Today it still outsells red Zin 6.5 to 1.

As frivolous as serious wine enthusiasts may find White Zinfandel, it certainly helped wine growers reconsider the grape. Many old vines were spared and new vines planted. And the fruity, soda-like drink continues to attract new consumers to the wine world. In turn, maybe the name eventually brings them around to its original, bolder red version.

That may have been the case in the mid ’90s when red Zin’s resurgence took root. Interest in red Zin in all its styles, from bold, robust, fruit-forward wines to more restrained, complex, earthy wines, has continued to grow steadily since. Zinfandel Advocates & Producers (ZAP) formed in 1991 with 22 winery members, now has 300. And 52,000-plus acres of California land are devoted to Zin, making it the third most planted variety in the state, and boasting to some of the oldest vines.

Zinfandel will always have a special place in my heart. That old-vine Zin in that 19th-century basement, was not only my first sip of quality wine, but also the first time I connected this beverage to something beyond a pleasurable drink. This was living history – a direct link to another time and a sensory bond with its people and place that no book or museum could ever replicate. Zin always speaks to me of my adopted California home, my American history and Italian heritage, but most intensely, it reminds me of that eureka moment that lit in me a passion to explore wine that continues today.

Pictured above are members of the Lombardo-Fossati family who planted the original Zinfandel vines at Boeger Winery in the late days of the California Gold Rush. In the background is the house and cellar, which later served as Boeger’s tasting room. Photo courtesy of Boeger Winery.