Europeans Visit UC Davis' Zinfandel Heritage Vineyard

There is a one-acre plot at the UC Davis Oakville Experimental Station, in the Napa Valley, that is home to 90 Zinfandel vines, intentionally sought out and propagated from the very oldest Zinfandel vines in California. Called The Zinfandel Heritage Vineyard, this block is the result of a joint effort by UC Davis (Dr James Wolpert), UC Farm Advisors and the Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (a group commonly called ZAP) to gain a better understanding of this uniquely-Californian variety and to ensure that its legacy, and its role in California history, is not lost as ancient vines are replaced or die. Zinfandel's actual parentage has already been ascertained by Dr Carole Meredith (UC Davis, Emeritus) and her European associates, but these Oakville researchers and afficionados are looking for clues as to why Zinfandel yields such a diverse range of wine styles, how its growth habits can be impacted by different vineyard management strategies, how its cluster architecture differs and how all these variations can be optimized to produce the best fruit for a given style of wine. The vine cuttings that eventually became these Heritage vines were gathered from all the best Zinfandel regions of the state - Contra Costa, Sonoma, Amador, Lodi, Mendocino and others, a total of 14 California counties in all. The project was started in 1989. For details on the Zinfandel Heritage Vineyard, see http://wineserver.ucdavis.edu/content.php?category=Oakville%20Station&id=259

Recently, Dr Wolpert led a group of European wine distributors on a tour of The Zinfandel Heritage Vineyard. The group was in Oakville as part of a tour to better understand California wines, as they are seeing an increasing number of them in European markets. The tour was well-received, despite the fact that the vines themselves were well into their late Fall, post-harvest period of near dormancy.

However, perhaps the most telling portion of the tour came when the group was invited to taste seven wines produced from The Heritage Vineyard. Since 1997, a series of different winemakers, all affiliated with ZAP and all recognized for their expertise with Zinfandel, have received fruit and made wine from these remarkable vines of ancient parentage. The winemakers include Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards, Kent Rosenblum of Rosenblum Cellars, Ehren Jordan of Turley Wine Cellars, Rod Berglund of Joseph Swan, Bill Knuttel of Dry Creek Vineyards and Robert Biale of Robert Biale, among others. The tasting, led by Richard Flores, a past member of ZAP's board of directors, was particularly interesting because it pointed out how much vintage differences and winemaking decisions impact the style of the resultant wine. According to Dr Wolpert, the wines they tasted were as varied in style and character as the winemakers who made them. The wines ranged from the innate finesse and true fruit of the 2003 Ridge Zinfandel to the "muscular, assertive" style of the 2002 Turley Zinfandel. The Europeans were all very surprised by the alcohol content of many of the wines; one taster remarking that the French feel too much alcohol is a problem, but in the Zins he tasted, the alcohol "belonged" to the wines, as a reflection of the sunny climate in which they were grown. But the consensus of the visitors was that the wines would be well-received by European consumers because they seem to be actively searching for wines that represent their geographical origins. And what better a representative of California wine than Zinfandel.