Appreciating endangered ancient vines during National Zinfandel week
2015 Zinfandel ready to be picked off Maley family's 57-year-old Wegat Vineyard in Lodi's Mokelumne River AVA
Wednesday, November 18, 2015 is National Zinfandel Day.
Who thinks of these days anyway? International Tempranillo Day was just last week (November 12), right on the heels of International Merlot Day (November 7). We’re drinking as fast as we can, folks!
Of course, it is Zinfandel Advocates & Producers (a.k.a. ZAP) that has been behind the annual observation of National Zinfandel Day. No organization has done more to expand appreciation of Zinfandel than ZAP. In events in cities across the country throughout the year, ZAP not just celebrates the grape, they also contribute directly to research (joint efforts with U.C. Davis) that add further to efforts to preserve heritage Zinfandel plantings throughout the state.
Which is why we also say: if there’s any special wine day you should be celebrating, it should be National Zinfandel Day. Zinfandel, needless to say, has always been one of the Lodi Viticultural Area’s pièce de résistances.
Absurdly small, shriveled Zinfandel clusters from +100-year-old Noma Ranch point to reasons why ancient vine plantings are often uprooted and replaced in Lodi
No one knows exactly who planted the first Zinfandel grapes in the region, but we do know that El Pinal Winery – a Stockton based producer which sourced most of its grapes from Lodi growers – was producing a “White Zinfandel” by the mid-1860s (records show “Zinfindal” grapes growing near Oak Knoll in Napa Valley in the late 1850s, and Amador County's still-venerated Original Grandpère Vineyard dates back to 1869).
By the 1880s and 1890s – a period when Lodi farmers transitioned from wheat to watermelons to grapes – Zinfandel, along with Flame Tokay, became the most widely planted crops in the Lodi region. Zinfandel, like Tokay, proved to be a natural for Lodi's moderate Mediterranean climate; especially in the deep sandy loam soils of Lodi's Mokelumne River sub-AVA. Today, blocks of Lodi Zinfandel planted as long ago as 1888 are still leading healthy, productive lives.
Today, out of Lodi’s +100,000 acres of wine grapes, just over 19,000 acres are still devoted to Zinfandel. This accounts for anywhere from a third to 40% (depending upon the vintage) of the state’s total Zinfandel crush each year. Lodi appellation bottlings absolutely dominate the market for $12-$28 California Zinfandel; although specialty Lodi producers are now successful with ultra-premium priced Zinfandels, retailing for as much as $65.
All-too-common November scene in Lodi: uprooted old vine Zinfandel block
However, no one should take this for granted. If you drive around Lodi in November or December each year, you see the usual number of fields that have been totally cleared, punctuated by giant piles of uprooted vines. Most of these are trellised plantings that have outlived their usefulness, after 35, 40 years in the ground. But a good percentage of the vines ripped out each year are pre-1960s Zinfandel plantings.
Why? It's the reality of today’s wine business, where trellised plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon can yield two, three times more profit than old, head trained Zinfandel, which need to be pruned and picked strictly by hand. When you see 50 to +100-year old Zinfandel plantings in Lodi, or anywhere else in California, you’re looking at vines that are cultivated and valued as heirlooms, or for the sheer love of it, and often less for the profit. In most cases, there is more money to be made with new plantings of other varieties, in greater demand or more amenable to mechanical harvesting.
Just-pruned old vines in November 2014 along Lodi's Ray Rd.
The moral of this blogpost being: you can never appreciate ancient vine Zinfandel too much. Seriously: an old planting can be here today, gone tomorrow.
Heck, old timers say that if it weren’t for the White Zinfandel craze 20, 25 years ago, most of the old plantings wouldn’t even be here today. Appreciation of varietal bottlings of red Zinfandel didn’t really heat up until the mid-1990s (prior to the White Zinfandel fad, most California Zinfandel grapes went into generic jug reds); and just in the nick of time to keep from being uprooted and replaced by Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and other varieties exploding in popularity.
So for National Zinfandel Day, please show the old vines some love by opening up a bottle, or two. Think of them as survivors as much as procreators of truly delicious wine. To enhance your mood, here are some older posts to perk up your mind and taste buds:
There is nothing, after all, than a fruit-filled yet sturdy, savory, spice scented Zinfandel in the cool and cozy familial days of November!
This past September, visiting Southern California sommeliers try their hand at picking 73-year-old Zinfandel in Mohr-Fry Ranch