Knowing a little about a lot makes you the right kind of dangerous. You can hold a conversation on almost any topic and sound good doing it. (That’s how we all passed college, right?) As a bartender, it means you can connect with a variety of patrons with a variety of interests, strengthen those relationships and – if you’re really dedicated – learn more about what they like.
But knowing a lot about a little is good, too. It’s fun to find a bartender who will spill the secret story behind Larceny Bourbon, or speculate on the barrel shortage, or tell you the history of the martini. It’s a double whammy: we remember stories better than naked facts, especially stories told us by someone we like. And everyone likes a bartender.
What follows is a lot about a little: an interview about Zinfandel with Joel Peterson of Ravenswood Winery. He is known as the godfather of the grape (see a full bio here) and he is the perfect person to give us a high-level “bartenders” overview of this prolific grape.
MH: What is the history of Zinfandel?
JP: Zinfandel is an ancient grape, one of the “founder grapes” in Europe. It’s from Croatia, where it’s called Tribidrag, and the oldest written record of it is in a bill of sale from 1488.
It died out in Croatia for a couple reasons. American diseases (Phylloxera and powdery mildew) swept through Europe, wiping out the European wine business. When Croatia replanted, they used a grape called Plavac Mali, a cross between Zinfandel and another grape that made the clusters looser and skins thicker to resist mildew.
In the late 1700s-early 1800s, the grape became part of the Schönbrunn Collection of Horticultural Materials in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1829, they shared cuttings with Colonel George Gibbs, who grew vines in greenhouses in Ravenswood, Queens (Long Island, NY). The grape passed from him to William Prince and Samuel Perkins in Boston and then, in 1852, to Frederick Macondray in California.
Macondray gave the grapes to Joseph Osborne, who planted them at Oak Knoll, his vineyard in the south end of Napa Valley. Unfortunately, Osborne was shot and killed by a former employee in 1863, which put a cramp in his grape-growing style. But his partner planted the grapes in Sonoma and Zinfandel spread through California. By 1888, it became California’s most planted grape.
Zinfandel vineyards in California have some of the oldest vines in the world. It’s not unusual to find vineyards that were planted between 1885 and 1920. These vineyards are relatively low production, yielding 2–2.5 tons an acre — right in the sweet spot for cultivating really good, concentrated, interestingly flavored grapes.
Unlike other grapes — cabernet, for instance, which tastes like green beans when underripe and a bit like rubber tires when overripe — Zinfandel starts out tasting like strawberries, then pushes its way up to a porty, plummy thing when it gets overripe. The grapes survived prohibition and became popular for their flexibility. Today, Zinfandel is California’s second most planted red wine grape after Cabernet Sauvignon.
There you have it: a quick history of Zinfandel.
MH: Does California lend itself more to Zinfandel than Croatia?
JP: Croatia has a lot of limestone and a lot of wind: the Bora, a cold wind from the north, and the Jugo, a violent wind from the south. During the summer it’s hot and humid with a light breeze that helps cool things off a bit. While there are a lot of grapes grown in Croatia, it’s not the best place for Zinfandel.
California’s climate, however, is perfect for Zinfandel. California’s warm days, cool nights, and low humidities are good for Zinfandel, which is a relatively thin-skinned grape that has tightly-packed clusters — if it gets wet while it’s really humid, it’s prone to mildew and rot.
I always like to say this grape traveled the world till it found the right home, and California seems to be it.
MH: What makes the Zinfandel grape special?
JP: Zinfandel tends to be uneven ripening, so on the same cluster you will have berries that are slightly withered, berries that are perfectly ripe, and berries that are slightly underripe. This gives you ripe flavors and maintains acidity, but you have to be conscious of when you pick or those slightly withered grapes will release a lot of sugar and you will end up with a higher alcohol, more overripe wine than you intended.
Other than that, it’s a good, strong, vigorous grower; there are a lot of old vines, in part because they seem to be resistant to diseases like Eutypa (or dead arm); and it is very compatible with a rootstock called St. George, which prevents the expression of a number of viruses found in other rootstocks.
MH: How would you suggest a bartender describe Zinfandel to a guest who isn’t familiar with it?
JP: Zinfandel is noted for its raspberry, black cherry, and blackberry notes. The wines tend to be round, succulent in the middle, and have a fresh acidity that supports the weight of the wine. Those are the descriptors you will see over and over for Zinfandel.
MH: If a guest wanted advice on choosing a bottle, what would you recommend we say to help them choose?
JP: It depends on who you are. If you are just getting into wine, I would recommend a less expensive bottle like Vintner’s Blend, Rancho Zabaco, or Gnarly Head. They are all a bit different and would give you a good sense of what Zinfandel is like.
If you want to spend a little money, there are some really lovely wines for $20 to $40 made by small producers like Carlisle, Bedrock, Turley, or Peachy Canyon. They are all making beautifully crafted, well-proportioned Zinfandel.
If you like your wine slightly sweeter, I would recommend Lodi Zinfandel as they tend to be picked riper — overripe, in fact — and made into big, jammy wines that have some residual sugar but a fair amount of alcohol. They pack some punch.
Lastly, I would say read and observe.
MH: Do you have any suggestions for how to choose the best Zinfandel for a bar program?
JP: There are plenty of Zinfandels that fit the by-the-glass price level. Lodi wines, such as our Lodi Zinfandel, tend to be softer, forward, and more accessible and make good bar wines. If you’re at a more sophisticated bar, Sonoma County Zinfandels tend to be spicier, high-tone blackberry, and more structured which wine drinkers seem to like.
MH: Any suggestions for food pairings?
JP: Zinfandel is incredibly versatile. It’s good with grilled meat, especially poultry, and some brighter Zinfandels go well with salmon. If you happen to be a vegetarian, anything with lots of tomato sauce and Mediterranean herbs works well, like lasagna or vegetarian moussaka. Also many bean dishes are really good with it. It’s really hard to find a dud pairing.
MH: Before you go, what do you think is the most exciting thing happening right now in wine?
JP: It depends on your perspective. If you are a giant producer, the red blend phenomenon is making a lot of money. But I think the really fun thing happening in California is the changing of the guard, the new generation of young winemakers who are more artisanal and craftsman-like making really lovely wine and experimenting with varieties that have never gotten traction before. This younger generation of winemakers is laying the ground for the next evolution in California wines, and for me that is exciting.
Joel Peterson is up to something exciting too — Once and Future Wine, a small-scale winemaking initiative where Peterson will make all the wine himself. If you ever pour someone a glass, you’ll be able to give a full taste profile — including one of the subtler notes: “My sweat,” says Peterson.
Thanks Joel for taking the time to chat! Hopefully this overview gives you a bit more information about Zinfandel, so you can choose great bottles for your bar program and help your guests find wine they will love.