Rod Byers: Is anything wrong with Zinfandel?
I had the opportunity to attend a Zinfandel tasting in Sacramento sponsored by Zinfandel Advocates and Producers, better known as ZAP. Headquartered in Grass Valley, ZAP was formed in 1992 to preserve and promote Zinfandel as California’s heritage wine grape.
Zinfandel has been the backbone of the California wine industry for over 100 years, working mostly in obscurity, hidden in jug wines and red blends. As the modern era began to take shape in the 1980s, individual wineries were struggling to create an identity for red Zinfandel. Meanwhile the White-Zinfandel craze was in full bloom.
Concerned that a new generation of wine drinkers were coming of age thinking Zinfandel was a white grape, 22 wineries joined together to form ZAP.
Twenty seven years later ZAP is as necessary as ever.
Wandering around the Sacramento tasting, chatting with winemakers, I encountered more apprehension than exhilaration. I wondered, are Zinfandel storm clouds gathering?
Chief among the concerns is that in spite of years of continuous wine sales growth in America, off-premise Zin sales are flat. As a result, Zinfandel is losing shelf space to faster growing categories.
White-Zinfandel sales are down too, losing ground to trendier dry rosés.
If you’re wondering where any surplus Zin is going, look for the freakshow section of the wine shelf, full of gnarly heads, ghost riders and the walking dead. The “red blends” section is exploding thanks in part to Zinfandel, once again working under a different name.
Best deal on the shelf?
Winemakers are also concerned about a glass ceiling for Zinfandel prices. An informal survey of one of the country’s most prestigious wine shops suggests they have cause for concern. Of the over 1,700 California Cabernets in the store’s inventory, 830 were priced over $100. Of the 336 Zinfandels listed, two were over $100.
Consumers should note, the reverse is equally true. Because of that ceiling, Zinfandels can be the best deal on the shelf, offering better price to value ratios than either Pinot or Cabernet.
Still, the implications are not lost on growers and winemakers. If you are going for top dollar, don’t go with Zinfandel.
That has a rippling effect into the future as well. Non-bearing acres, vineyards that are planted but not yet in production, are an indicator of what’s to come. In 2018, there were 400 non-baring Zinfandel acres in California. There were 5,662 non-bearing Cabernet Sauvignon acres.
While there are pockets where Zinfandel achieves better pricing, the statewide average is $600 per ton. The statewide average for Cabernet Sauvignon is $1,683 per ton. What are you going to plant?
Zinfandel acreage in general has been decreasing for the past half-decade.
Even worse, California’s most sacred vineyards, the old vine Zinfandel vineyards are being pulled out with alarming frequency. Lodi, which produces 40% of California’s Zinfandel, is home to many of those magnificent, gnarly old vines. The trouble is, they’re getting yanked.
It’s simple economics. Old vine vineyards are more expensive to farm but produce fewer grapes. Unless farmers can get a better price per ton, they’re opting to rip them out and replace them with something either more productive or more lucrative.
While the popularity of Lodi Zin is on the rise, it has not led to a corresponding increase in the price paid for ton. Zinfandel grape prices in Lodi have been declining over the last several years.
A surprising amount of old vine Zin still goes into the production of White-Zinfandel. With White-Zinfandel demand softening, growers feel like they have no choice but to modernize their vineyards, which means pulling out the old vines.
Not all gloomy in ‘Zinfanland’
Curiously, Lodi Zin has had another unintended consequence. As a group, the wines are strongly flavored. Typically they are very ripe, oaked, and high in alcohol. It is an over-the-top, polarizing style. While there are many who love it, there are many who don’t.
That in itself doesn’t matter except that Lodi Zin dominates the supermarket Zinfandel shelves. Similar to White-Zin from a generation ago, today’s new wine drinker might think that’s what all Zinfandel tastes like. Depending on how they like the style, they may or may not try another one.
Please don’t leave thinking that everything is gloomy in Zinfanland. First of all, Zinfandel was the second most crushed red grape in California last year, behind only Cabernet Sauvignon.
There is another encouraging trend. Small producers are increasingly opting out of the clogged distribution system, preferring instead to go directly to the consumer. Small wineries are on the leading edge of the rapidly growing direct-to-consumer market, which offers a considerably higher price per bottle return than does the traditional three-tier distribution system.
That is where ZAP stepped in a generation ago, and they play the same important role today. They created a bridge directly between the producer and the advocate, the consumer who loves Zinfandel.
The beauty of Zinfandel is that there are so many different expressions of the grape. By hosting events across the country ZAP has introduced legions of fans to the diverse wonders of Zinfandel, in all its variations.
Got a Zinfandel thirst? Check out a couple of stellar Nevada County grown and produced bottles.
Try the Szabo Vineyards 2013 Zinfandel and Reserve, full of black pepper and spice, beautifully balanced and perfectly aged. Sierra Starr offers two Zins. The 2015 Old Clone is fruit-driven, elegant and well-structured while the 2014 Phil’s is bold, rich, and fruity with a big finish.
Rod Byers is a certified wine educator and wine writer, as well as a California State Certified Wine Judge. He is the host of the local television show Wine Talk. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and he can be reached at 530-802-7172.
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