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Marking National Zinfandel Day with a history of the grape in Lodi

Updated: Jun 27, 2023

Today, November 17, is National Zinfandel Day.

Every day, of course, is a good day for Zinfandel in Lodi. There are more acres of Zinfandel in the Lodi appellation than in any other region in California, and Lodi crushes over 40% of the state's production each year.

Why Lodi? Because Lodi's Mediterranean climate, with its consistently bright, warm days and cool nights all through the growing season, is naturally conducive to Zinfandel. The grape loves the Lodi sun!

As many wine lovers can well recall, there was a humongous boom for a pink-colored, medium-sweet wine called "White Zinfandel" (a misnomer because these wines were never really "white") which lasted from the mid-1980s to the early 2000s. Because of its accommodating climate, the region's extensive acreage as well as moderate grape prices, Lodi was the primary source of fruit for this wine category. White Zinfandel is far less popular today, but there is an abiding consumer taste for red Zinfandel that has kept this grape in the ground after well over 100 years—long after, for instance, the historic 1907 Lodi Tokay Carnival, when a "Queen Zinfandel" was elected to preside over the three-day festivities (see our post, In 1907 Lodi celebrated grapes as no American city never-ever has).

One more thing to keep in mind if you, too, will be marking this day by popping a bottle of Zinfandel: There is, in fact, a distinct "Lodi" style of Zinfandel. It is a style that is consistently softer and more fruit-fragrant than elsewhere in California, often earthy (i.e., loam-like subtleties), and veers more towards the red fruit spectrum (black cherry, raspberry, strawberry, etc.) of the varietal character. This has everything to do with Lodi's distinctive climate and the large sandy loam soils in which the grape is grown on this side of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. For an up-to-date guide to most of the variations of Lodi-grown Zinfandel bottlings, see our recent post-2022 roundup of Lodi Zinfandel styles.

So let's talk a little about the variety's grand history in the region...

The earliest history of Zinfandel in Lodi

The number one reason Zinfandel has thrived in Lodi is the grape's origins in the Mediterranean Basin. For a long time, between the late 1800s and 1960s, the cultivar's origins were shrouded in a murky history. Grape scientists, however, were able to ascertain that the grape originated in Croatia, and has also been cultivated for over 100 years in Southern Italy. These regions are also marked by a mild, steady Mediterranean climate, which in turn characterizes not just Lodi but also most of the coastal California wine regions.

To be specific, coastal regions such as Napa Valley, Sonoma County, Paso Robles, and Santa Barbara are defined by a climate that is moderately cold (but never snowy) and rainy during winters, and bone dry and warm to downright hot during summers. The difference between Lodi's sun and the coastal regions' sun is Lodi's lack of fog cover during the growing season. In Lodi, grapes see the sun from the moment it rises over the Sierra Nevada to the second it sinks into the California Delta immediately to the west—absolutely optimal conditions for Zinfandel, just as it was for more than a century for Flame Tokay.

The other factor is soil. The farming region surrounding the City of Lodi, now officially classified as the Mokelumne River AVA, is distinguished by an extremely deep (as much as 90 feet), fine-grained sandy loam soil—essentially alluvium originated from granite (the base rock of the Sierra Nevada) layered with rich organic material, spread out by the Mokelumne River over the past 15,000 or so years. There is absolutely nothing like Lod's particular variation of sandy loam, classified as Tokay series fine sandy loam, elsewhere in California, the country, or the entire world for that matter.

The Mokelumne River AVA is also the source of the richest soil in all of Lodi. When Lodi's seven sub-appellations were originally mapped out and approved by the federal government in 2006, the petitioners (a small group of Lodi growers) justified the proposal by proffering a Storie Index analysis, measuring the vigor and potential productivity of all of Lodi's areas. The proposed Mokelumne River AVA rated 80-95 in vigor, whereas all the other Lodi regions rated between 15 and 40. A huge differentiating factor; is a big reason (apart from economics) why there are so many acres of extremely healthy, productive old vines (mostly Zinfandel) planted prior to the 1970s, with a good number of blocks over 100 years old.

The Mokelumne River watershed area was where the pioneering farming families found they could, basically, stick a vine cutting into the ground, and then watch it take root and grow. In the 1800s Lodi's water table was just a few feet below the surface. With all the sun in the world and a well-drained yet super-vigorous, fine sandy loam soil without a speck of gravel or rock, Zinfandel quickly found its heaven-on-earth.

Needless to say, the Lodi region's first farmers, back in the 1860s, were not fully aware of the potential of Zinfandel in this particular terroir. In the beginning, they relied on instinct, quickly discovering the grape's suitability for the area on the basis of trial and error. The normal approach was to plant a lot of grape varieties, and then see what grows best. In 1861, for instance, both Zinfandel and Flame Tokay—the latter, a table grape (i.e., primarily for eating as a fresh fruit product) of Vitis vinifera origins which would become Lodi's most widely planted grape by the turn of the last century—were among the 30 varieties reportedly planted by George Perley in collaboration with George West (who founded El Pinal Winery in 1858) on Perley's farm just west of present-day Woodbridge.

In 1864 George J. Leffler went on record as planting 6 acres of Tokay, along with 2 acres of Black Prince (also identified in California as Rose of Peru), and 2 more acres of 15 different varieties. The location of Leffler's vineyard would now be near Eight Mile Road, south of the City of Lodi. According to Lodi Historian, “The plump-berried Tokay and Black Prince varieties did the best, and these eating grapes were successfully sent to the San Francisco market by boat.”

When Ezekial Lawrence, another pioneering Lodi farmer, arrived in Lodi in 1857, “there was less than 10 acres of grapes in San Joaquin County” (Lodi Historian). But by 1879, Lawrence and a few other growers were shipping Lodi-grown grapes “by railroad cattle car to New York City in 16 days travel.” Wheat, and later watermelons, dominated the Lodi farmlands up until the 1890s, but Tokay and wine grapes such as Zinfandel soon proved to be more profitable.

In her book Jessie's Grove, Wanda Woock described the square-mile block just west of the present-day City of Lodi that her great-grandfather Joseph Spenker purchased in 1869, "The land had hundreds of oak trees, and although it would work to clear some of them for planting, with the trees growing so abundantly he knew the quality of the soil would be excellent." Spenker originally concentrated on wheat, and then watermelons, but grew "excited," according to Woock, about the possibility of growing grapes, "all the different varieties he could grow," and "the fact they were to stay in the ground for many, many years to come" as opposed to being a crop that needed to be replanted each year.

Spenker's first vineyard, planted in 1886, consisted of 25 acres of a grape originally listed as "Black Malvoisier" [sic], which sold as Black Malvoisie until 2004 when it was finally identified by U.C. Davis as Cinsaut. This 1886 planting remains Lodi's oldest continuously farmed block (called Bechthold Vineyard) today. After 1886, Spenker made repeated trips to the El Pinal nursery to consult on grape selections. According to Woock, "West told him the popular grapes now were Madeline, Black Hamburg, Sweetwater, Black Ferra, and Emperor."

Spenker's second vineyard went into the ground in 1889. What remains of this planting is a postage stamp-sized 5-acre mixed block called Royal Tee, consisting mostly of Zinfandel (84.5%) with Carignan, Flame Tokay, Mission, and Black Prince. This vineyard is picked as a field mix and bottled by both Jessie's Grove and Marchelle (a label owned by acclaimed winemaker Greg La Follette) and is still farmed by Spenker's descendants (Jessie's Grove's Greg Burns and his mother Wanda Woock).

Satisfied with the results of their earliest plantings, in 1900 the Spenker family added 16 more acres of Zinfandel, 5 acres of Carignan, and 8 acres of Mission. Of the 1900 plantings, only the Carignan survives today, producing fabulous wines under brands such as Jessie's Grove, Sandlands, Marchelle, and Precedent.

George West and his brother William West, who owned and operated El Pinal based in nearby Stockton, contracted and purchased nearly all of the wine grapes planted by Lodi farmers up until the early 1900s. In his book Zinfandel: A History of a Grape and Its Wines, Charles Lewis Sullivan writes that the Wests were cultivating Zinfandel at least by the 1860s and that in 1883 an El Pinal Zinfandel was submitted to a viticultural convention in San Francisco.

Sullivan also cites a surprising innovation. Noting the success of El Pinal's technique of turning free-run Zinfandel juice into a pinkish wine, California viticultural commissioner Charles Wetmore—another pioneer of California white wines and also the founder of Livermore Valley's Cresta Blanca Winery in 1882—openly advocated the use of Zinfandel to produce a "white" wine. If this story is true, this wine probably qualifies as the world's first "White Zinfandel," although it's unlikely that it was called that. Other California vintners would not begin to experiment with this type of white-ish Zinfandel until the late 1960s and early 1970s, although in the 1860s the Buena Vista Vinicultural Society is thought to have utilized Zinfandel to produce sparkling wines, which would have also required fermentation of free-run juice separated from skins.

Lodi's modern-day usage of Zinfandel

Somewhere between the 1880s and through the Prohibition years (1920-1933), Zinfandel emerged as Lodi's most widely planted wine grape, utilized for both table wines and fortified sweet wines. During Prohibition, when America's commercial wineries were shut down, Zinfandel was one of the most popular grapes among home winemakers (who were permitted to produce up to 200 gallons of their own wine per household) across the country — so much so that Lodi growers scrambled to plant more Zinfandel and other black-skinned grapes (such as Alicante Bouschet) during the late 1920s.

By 1933, however, Lodi growers were faced with a surplus of grapes and a drop in crop values. Grape pricing woes only hardened the grape growers' determination to control the market by establishing their own production wineries. Therefore, between the 1930s and 1960s Lodi was dominated by grower-owned cooperatives, which utilized grapes such as Zinfandel for sweet wines such as Port. While these co-ops were set up to capitalize on the prevailing consumer tastes for fortified dessert wines up until the late 1960s, the region found itself behind the eight ball once Americans began to transition to lighter table wines (i.e., wines legally defined by the feds as under 14% alcohol). Thus, Lodi's co-op wineries began to die along with consumer tastes for dessert wines.

Many wine aficionados of today can well recall the modern-day evolution of Zinfandel in the Lodi wine region for themselves. Here is a bullet-point distillation of the grape's recent history:

  • 1960s to 1970s — Zinfandel begins to go into inexpensive red table wines, mostly bottled in jugs under generic labels such as "Burgundy" and "Chianti," although a small amount also goes into varietal bottlings (although, also sold in jugs or as "regular" sized bottles with screwcaps).

  • 1980 to 2010 — This was the peak of the White Zinfandel "craze." Demand for Lodi Zinfandel was so strong that, at one point, grapes were sold at higher prices per ton than their average price today. A lot of Lodi farmers' wives were driving around in shiny new luxury cars.

  • 1990s until today — Organizations such as ZAP have helped remind consumers that "real" Zinfandel is a red wine, not a pink one. The past 30 years have seen a steady proliferation of California brands specializing in varietal bottlings of Zinfandel, typically blended with Petite Sirah and influenced by heavy doses of American oak (an aggressive wood that helps "sweeten" the aroma and flavor of Zinfandel) to meet consumer expectations of varietal character.

  • Since the early 2000s — Zinfandels with the "Lodi" appellation on labels begin to make an appearance in the market, competing with other California appellations (prior to this, most Lodi Zinfandel went into "California" appellated bottles, although much of them still do). Over the past 20 years, there has been a subtle stylistic evolution from "big," ripe, oaky profiles to more moderately scaled, restrained styles reflecting both an evolving winery thought process and a gradual change in consumer tastes.

  • Since 2010 — With White Zinfandel sales plummeting, the usage of Lodi-grown Zinfandel in both proprietary red blends (in which the grape plays an anonymous role) as well as in more specialized, vineyard-designate varietal bottlings has steadily increased.

  • Since 2012 — Lodi Zinfandel has also entered a new, more sophisticated phase in terms of pure (i.e., not blended with darker, heavier grapes such as Petite Sirah), terroir or "place" driven styles of varietal bottlings, much of it influenced by a "Lodi Native" project (native yeast fermented, minimal intervention styles of Zinfandel identified by names of vineyards rather than brands) which began in 2012.

This is why we love the Zinfandels of today—especially those of lovable ol' Lodi. Enjoy your National Zinfandel Day!

Randy Caparoso is a full-time wine journalist who lives in Lodi, California. Randy puts bread (and wine) on the table as the Editor-at-Large and Bottom Line columnist for The SOMM Journal, and currently blogs and does social media for Lodi Winegrape Commission’s He also contributes editorial to The Tasting Panel magazine and crafts authentic wine country experiences for sommeliers and media.

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