Posted on | June 23, 2014
Written by | W. Blake Gray
Summertime. As Americans scramble to maximize their grills from June through Labor Day, Zinfandel takes on a leading role thanks to is spicy, stand-up-to-just-about-anything intensity.
But why stop there? Zin has much more going for it than sheer intensity. Consider these current-day attributes:
1)The ripeness pendulum has swung backward for Zinfandel, and there are good wines available in a variety of less opulent alcoholic styles.
2)The 2012 vintage, the main one distributors are now offering, was better in both quality and quantity than 2011.
3) Zinfandel has a new selling point, particularly for young customers, as it is a primary component in many of the red blends that are so hot today. If those customers want to get something a little more sophisticated, it’s easy to explain that the bright fruit flavors they love in the red blends are usually coming from Zinfandel.
Christian Miller, research director of Wine Opinions, says that the Zinfandel market is becoming more like the Pinot Noir market. Miller points out that mass-market jug versions of Zinfandel are slowly going away, while small high-end Zinfandel producers are doing well. And Zinfandel producers have always used regional identity to differentiate their wines from each other.
Zinfandel sales were down about 5% in food and drug stores in 2013, according to Nielsen data. However, Nielsen doesn’t analyze wine shops. Mark Vernon, president of Ridge Vineyards and current president of ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates and Producers), says that while getting quality data on higher-end Zinfandels is difficult, “Our distributors came in and said the high-priced Zins have strengthened. Kind of like the whole economy.”
Ridge is one of several Zinfandels named by almost every store we polled as an annual favorite. People like their detailed labels, and the fact that they have other grapes in their Zinfandel-based field-blend wines has turned into a marketing plus. (In fact, Ridge is now not putting “Zinfandel” on the front label of its entry-level Three Valleys wine, even though it could, because distributors thought it could sell well in the red blend section.)
Another frequently named store favorite is Turley, particularly their more easily acquired Juvenile bottling. Turley’s wines are allocated and stores can announce their availability in email as a draw to bring in customers. Codey Foster, wine manager at Ancona’s Wine & Liquors in Ridgefield, Connecticut, says, “We keep Turley Zins in our high-end room.”
Seghesio is another favorite. “I love to recommend Seghesio,” says Patrick Monteleone, owner of Harry’s Wine & Liquor Market in Fairfield, CT. “They do such a nice job, year after year.”
Joel Gott is a brand that has also impressed stores with its consistency. “It’s under $20 and generally has good balance,” Monteleone says.
The Issue of Alcohol
A 2012 Wine Opinions survey of members of the trade found that 49% said the biggest issue facing Zinfandel is the “backlash against high alcohol, ultra-ripe wines.”
“People who know their wine, the more experienced customer, likes to know what the alcohol level is,” says Michael Bray, owner of Passion Vines in Somers Point, NJ.
With its natural tendency to develop lots of sugar, Zinfandel became the first variety to push the ripeness boundaries, with some critical hits that were over 16% alcohol.
“A lot of attention was paid to the highly ripe, unctuous style of Zin,” Ridge’s Vernon says. “It garnered more attention than it deserved. People who were making Zin because they wanted to follow trends reacted and produced Zins in that way. But the pendulum has swung back. It’s the influence of food and cuisine and restaurants, as opposed to focusing on wine as a standalone beverage or a cocktail.”
The Wine Opinions poll also brought up several strengths for Zinfandel, as 56% of the trade said it complements a wide variety of food; 45% called it informal and unpretentious; and 69% said it has a long and interesting history in California. In fact, most of the oldest vineyards in California—and in all of the Americas, for that matter—are primarily Zinfandel. If customers want to drink a wine with history, Zinfandel has it.
What’s especially encouraging about Zinfandel is that as bottlings keep getting better, prices have not spiraled upward. There is plenty of serious, high-end Zin in the $20-$40 SRP range—making it very attractive when cross-selling from other California reds. Not surprisingly, merchants who enjoy selling the varietal wine have developed favorites.
“Chateau Montelena is a bit of a house favorite,” says Jim Bray at Passion Vines. “And Cakebread is definitely a more elegant style of Zinfandel.” He adds that Sky is a personal go-to Zin: “They’re really cool because they’re a small boutique company, very small production Zinfandel.”
At Ancona’s, Cordy Foster says, “Our favorite Zinfandel winemaker is Fred Peterson,” Foster says. “It’s a more medium-bodied, moderate alcohol Zinfandel.”
“Williams-Selyem is a tough Zinfandel to get,” says Ken Maykut, wine manager at Coastal Wine & Spirits in Branford, CT. “If you can get your hands on it, people go nuts for it.”
And along with a robust high end, there is a wealth of everyday-drinking options and interesting small producers that retailers can stock and sell with confidence, based both on quality and backstory.
For cheap Zinfandels, Bogle and Ravenswood have posted track records of success. St. Francis, Rodney Strong and Dry Creek Vineyard are a little more expensive, but are solid and generally under $20 SRP.
Bella is an exciting young winery making balanced, lower-alcohol style Zinfandels from some of the best old vineyards in Sonoma County. Some of Bella’s wines are more complex and restrained than more famous wineries’ versions from the same vineyards.
Industry veterans like Scott Harvey and Carol Shelton have a practiced hand with Zinfandel.
Lagier Meredith calls its excellent Mount Veeder Zinfandel “Tribidrag,” the Croatian name for the grape. It’s an interesting opportunity to talk about Zinfandel’s heritage on a shelf talker.
Tres Sabores and Frog’s Leap make estate-grown Zinfandels from organic grapes in Napa, and never joined the rush for ripeness.