2013 Russian River Valley Zinfandel

As Sarah Palin once proclaimed on Saturday Night Live, “I can see Russia from my house!” Indeed, Russia is a very close neighbor of our nation’s largest state, and was the first to be settled by the Russians hundreds of years ago. In the early 1800s, these early Russian settlers started heading South in search of fertile land, new hunting grounds, and probably a little warm weather. They had soon set up outposts around what is today the heart of Sonoma County. The land here was suitable for a variety of crops, the most important of which must have been wine grapes.

More immigrants followed, including many from Southern Italy. They brought with them their beloved Primitivo, a grape that had made its way over from Croatia, where it is known as Crljenak Kaštelanski.  (It is still up in the air as to whether the Italians planted the first Zinfandel in the U.S. It is also likely that the first plantings came from Hungary by way of Croatia.) The varietal produced a hearty wine loaded with jammy red berry notes and plenty of spice. It was the perfect fortification for friends and family members spending long days working the land in the foggy climate. Thanks in large part to research done at the famed U.C. Davis, today’s winegrowers are able to make specific, well-informed decisions when it comes to the grapes they plant, as well as where and how they are planted. (U.C. Davis also confirmed that Crljenak Kaštelanski, Primitivo, and Zinfandel are all the same grape.) This was not always the case, and for decades California’s vineyards were planted as field blends, containing many Zinfandel vines along with Mouvedre, Carignan, and Petite Sirah vines all within the same site. These additional grapes create a more complex wine, contributing unique flavor, structure, and darkening color. In recent years, many prominent winemakers have looked to create Zinfandel based wines from these vineyards, wines that give a glimpse into the state’s winemaking history.

The Sonoma wine industry suffered great decline following the passing of the 18th amendment. Once flourishing vineyards fell into disrepair. When prohibition ended, demand for Zinfandel grapes saw no sudden rebound. Instead of being regarded as California’s flagship varietal, it almost became California’s forgotten varietal. However, some cellar experiments at Sutter Home winery in the early 1970’s led them to market a pink, slightly sweet version of the grape. White Zinfandel soon became a sensation. As wineries once again began to clamor for Zinfandel, vineyards were revitalized and some historic vineyards in Sonoma that may have soon been replanted to Pinot Noir, were instead left as Zinfandel.

Walk into any large supermarket or well-stocked wine shop and you will surely see at least a half a dozen different Zinfandel bottlings. Chances are, one or two of them will be labeled as “Old Vine.” Each year a vine is in the ground past a certain age, it produces less and less fruit. However, the fruit that is harvested is more concentrated, giving off intense flavor and structure. If your goal in winemaking is to produce a powerful, full-bodied, fruit forward wine, old vines can certainly help you achieve that. There is no official requirement to label a wine as Old Vine.

Although the Windsor Oaks estate was first developed as an agricultural property in the early 1900’s, the vines used to create this current release were planted much more recently. Still, the ideal growing conditions of these rolling hillsides have led numerous top-tier wineries to purchase grapes from the property. Although the Russian River Valley as a growing area has become known for Pinot Noir, we believe the pedigree of Zinfandel from this region comes through clearly in this wine. It is full-bodied with notes of strawberry preserves, cracked pepper, cocoa powder and even peach yogurt. Rich and fruity, it is perfectly suited to a variety of holiday season dishes, from roasted pork loin with glazed apples, to turkey and cranberry sauce.

Martin Sheehan-Stross