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by Fred McMillin
for May 10, 2001

 

The Death of Zinfandel?

 

Prologue

1889—" Time has proven that the Zinfandel, from which so much was expected, has not lived up to the promise of its admirers as a producer of fine wine."

...San Francisco Examiner reporter Frona Wait

Let's go back to the source of those...

 

Grape Expectations—1852

San Francisco, February, 1852—"In his frock coat and stovepipe hat, Colonel Agoston Haraszthy bent over the newly-arrived bundle of European vines, peering through a lens. A faded label bore an unfamiliar name, which seemed to be 'Zinfandel'. He planted them in his garden, and with the unfolding of their leaves unfolded the future of winegrowing in California."

...Idwal Jones, Vines in the Sun

 

The Death Knell—1880

Professor MyersAlthough Zinfandel acreage increased rapidly, it was the Colonel's very own son who forecast the demise of the Zinfandel. Arpad Haraszthy, who by 1880 was president of the first California Board or State Viticultural Commissioners and had made the first two casks of Haraszthy Zinfandel for dad... it was Arpad that pointed out Zinfandel in California should be replaced by better European varieties, such as those from Bordeaux.

 

The Double Wammie

The next 40 years sealed the deal. The phylloxera insect ravaged the vineyards. Then, Prohibition shut down the wineries. Yet, the vine wouldn't go away. The 70,OOO acres of vines in 1919 fell to 21,000 by 1971. There were no fine red table wines labelled Zinfandel, Then, a college English professor made some home Zin that started a revolution. I interviewed him 11 years ago, and here's what he told me.

As a graduate student at U.C. Berkeley in 1954, Charles Myers (pictured) couldn't afford good table wines, so he started making his own. In 1963 he obtained some old-vine Zinfandel grapes from the Sierra Foothill's Deaver Ranch in Amador County. The resulting wine was unlike any Zinfandel made previously. The word spread rapidly. The potential of Zin to make fine reds was clear.

 

The Current Situation

Haywood winemaker, Judy Matulich-WeitzThis article was prompted by the fact that in recent years, Zinfandels have been getting higher and higher ratings by my very picky panel. So if you want to see what Professor Myers started, here are the best we've tasted recently.

Our Recent Top Ten Zinfandels

10th—Sattui, Napa Valley, Suzanne's Vineyard, '97, $17
9th—Rosenblum, Contra Costa County, Pato Vineyard, '96, $19
8th—Gundlach-Bundschu, Sonoma Valley, '98, $18
7th—Sobon Estate, Amador County, Cougar Hill Vineyard, '98, $14
6th—Grgich Hills, Sonoma County, '97, $20
5th—Kenwood, Sonoma County, '98, $20
4th—Sobon Estate, Amador County, Cougar Hill Vineyard, '94, $14 (from my cellar)
3rd—Haywood, Sonoma Valley, Los Chamizal Vineyard, '97, $20 (see photo of Haywood winemaker, Judy Matulich-Weitz)
2nd—Grgich Hills, 50% Napa—50% Sonoma, '98, $23
1st—Steele, Mendocino County, DuPratt Vineyard, '96, $20

 

Postscript—Sip and Tell with Zinfandel

No winemaker has a more deft touch with the old-vine Zinfandels of Amador County than Scott Harvey of the Folie a Deux Winery. My panel is about to taste his latest releases. For more, see the April 12, 2001 WineWeek titled, "Fasten Your Seatbelt."

 

About the Writer

Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. In 1995, the Academy of Wine Communications honored Fred with one of only 22 Certificates of Commendation awarded to American wine writers. For information about the wine courses he teaches every month at either San Francisco State University or San Francisco City College (Fort Mason Division), please fax him at (415) 567-4468.

 
 


 

This page created May 2001

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