After a two-month delay due to (you guessed it) another Covid surge, Zinfandel Advocates & Producers (a.k.a., ZAP) will be holding its 2022 ZinEX Grand Tasting in San Francisco on this coming Saturday, March 26. For Zinfandel lovers of the world, this event is the holiest of holy days of obligation. If you want to find out where California Zinfandel is now at in terms of style and the varietal's typically compelling deliciousness, this is the place to be.
In fact, all the credit in the world goes to ZAP, a nonprofit 501(c)(3), for successfully promoting the knowledge and appreciation of Zinfandel — specifically, red Zinfandel — since the organization's founding 1991.
For the record, ZAP's now consists of over 300 "producer" members and over 5,000 "advocates" (non-industry consumers) across the country. ZAP promotes educational events and tastings, while revenue from ZAP membership fees goes to the Zinfandel Heritage Vineyard Project, which was initiated in 1995 with U.C. Davis to develop grape selections and rootstocks to increase diversity available to the winegrowing industry, with a secondary benefit of helping to preserve heritage Zinfandel plantings.
The earliest history of Zinfandel in Lodi
Despite the significant decrease in popularity of White Zinfandel over the past 10 years — White Zinfandel lovers of the past have since transitioned into dryer whites, reds and rosés, while sweet wine lovers have moved on to Muscats — the Lodi appellation remains California's largest source of Zinfandel, by far.
The most recent statistics show that that there are still approximately 16,000 acres of Zinfandel planted in Lodi, which is 40% of the entire state's total.
Why Lodi? The number one reason is that the grape, which originated in Croatia and has also been cultivated for over 100 years in Southern Italy, is perfectly at home in Lodi's mild, steady Mediterranean climate. It basks happily and effortlessly in the Lodi sun.
Coastal regions such as Napa Valley, Sonoma County, Paso Robles and Santa Barbara are also defined by a Mediterranean climate — meaning, cold (but never snowy), wet winters and warm, bone dry summers. The difference between Lodi's sun and the coastal regions' sun is a 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 immediately adjacent Delta. Like a vinous Polynesian, Zinfandel loves that.
The other factor is soil. The region surrounding the City of Lodi, now officially classified as the Mokelumne River Viticultural Area, is distinguished by an extremely deep (as much as 90-feet), fine grained sandy loam soil — essentially an alluvium originated from granite (the base rock of the Sierra Nevada) layered with rich organic material 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, the entire world for that matter.
When Lodi's seven sub-appellations were originally mapped out and proposed to the federal government twenty years, the petitioners proffered a Storie Index analysis, measuring the vigor and potential productivity of all of Lodi's areas. The proposed Mokelumne River AVA rated an 80-95 in vigor, whereas all the other Lodi regions rated between 15 and 40. A huge differentiating factor.
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 were not aware of the potential of Zinfandel in this particular terroir. They had to discover this by trial and error — plant a lot of grape varieties, see what grows best. In 1861, for instance, both Zinfandel and Flame Tokay — the latter, a table grape 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 be 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 it is a postage stamp-sized 5-acre mixed block called Royal Tee, consisting mostly 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. When the City of Lodi held its historic, three-day Tokay Carnival in 1907, its reigning monarch was called "Queen Zinfandel."
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 a grapes and drop in crop values. Grape pricing woes only hardened the grape growers' determination to control the market by establishling 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 as under 14% alcohol). Thus, Lodi's co-op wineries began to die along with consumer tastes for dessert wines.
Many wine aficonados of today can well recall the modern day evolution of Zinfandel in the Lodi wine region for themselves. Here is a bullet-point distillation:
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 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.
Which is why we love the Zinfandels of today. See you at ZAP!
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 lodiwine.com. He also contributes editorial to The Tasting Panel magazine and crafts authentic wine country experiences for sommeliers and media.