Six Producers Bringing out the Best in California Zinfandel | Wine Enthusiast
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Six Producers Bringing out the Best in California Zinfandel

Only a winemaker with a deep independent streak and an intentional avoidance of marketplace realities would devote their career to Zinfandel. The vines are difficult to manage, the wine is challenging to make and sales are perennially lukewarm, except among a small, dedicated following of Zin lovers.

Yet, such winemakers do exist, and the world is better because of them. The best Zin masters turn the fruit of gnarled old vines into bold, nuanced and expressive wines.

Zinfandel is known as California’s heritage variety. While it appears to have originated in what’s now Croatia, the grape came to the state in the mid 1840s. Production began to surge after the 1849 Gold Rush, well before the now-common French varieties were popular. It grew well in the Mediterranean climate and made good-quality wine in various styles, from sparkling and dessert wines to red and rosé still selections.

Zin was the “darling of the California wine industry in the 1880s,” says wine historian and author Charles L. Sullivan. It was the most widely planted red grape in the state as late as 1998, when Cabernet Sauvig­non replaced it atop the list.

Its lineage and widespread plantings account for the many small patches of old vines today. The vines survive in spite of Zinfandel’s notoriously uneven ripening habits, susceptibility to mildew and bunch rot, and only moderate color and tannin components. Grown in the right places, it has an exuberant berry-like, briary and spicy flavor profile that can be irresistible.

These six Zinfandel producers do it right. Unlike the mass-market Zins that wow drinkers with high alcohol and oaky, jammy flavors, these small-quantity, vineyard designated bottlings reflect their sites in widespread regions of the state. The wines embody subtlety and structure as they paint unique impressions of California terroir. —Jim Gordon

Tom Greenough (left) and Bill Greenough (right) of Saucelito Canyon
Tom Greenough (left) and Bill Greenough (right) of Saucelito Canyon / Photo by Shelly Waldman

Bill & Tom Greenough

A Zinfandel Legacy

At Saucelito Canyon, crafting nuanced Zinfandel isn’t much different today than it was when founder Bill Greenough made wine nearly 40 years ago.

“My dad’s first wines in the early 1980s were really low alcohol, 13% across the board,” says Tom Greenough, Bill’s son and the current winemaker. “Styles have changed over the years, but we’ve always tried to keep it consistent.”

Bill found the remote property surrounded by mountains behind Arroyo Grande in 1974. It was home to forgotten Zinfandel vines planted by English homesteader Henry Ditmas in 1880. Just three acres, it had been San Luis Obispo’s County’s first commercial vineyard. But the vines were abandoned around Prohibition.

Upon discovering the plot, Bill began to bring the head-pruned, dry-farmed vineyard back to life slowly. His first releases, red and white Zinfandel, were from the 1982 vintage, and he sold them from the trunk of his car.

Those restored acres still form the core of Saucelito Canyon’s estate program, which produces about 5,000 cases a year across 18 different bottlings, mostly Zinfandel varietal wines or blends.

The wines offer bright acidity and a high skin-to-juice ratio, as the old clones don’t produce very heavy clusters or big grapes. The Greenoughs enhance complexity by staggering picking times from early on through later in the season.

“The wines from here are naturally very well balanced,” says Bill, who’s focused on farming these days. “They’re not quite so big and bold. The fruit is a lot more subtle.”

He believes Tom is more adventurous in the cellar, where he cold-soaks some lots—“that used to scare me to death,” says Bill—and puts others through open-top barrel fermentation. With Zinfandel, ripeness can vary among grapes in the same cluster, so the biggest challenge is determining the grape’s sugar content at harvest.

For Tom, that’s the key to “ensure a good, clean fermentation and not get really high alcohols.”

Taking on the challenge does have its reward. Saucelito Canyon continues to make fans with its Zinfandel.

“Zinfandel had the connotation for only being really big, giant, jammy, really extracted style of wine,” says Tom. “When people try our wines and other good Zinfandel producers, they can be really surprised when it is a more elegant wine, instead of being super sweet and really alcoholic.” —Matt Kettmann

Joe Shebl, director of winemaking and general manager of Renwood Winery
Joe Shebl of Fiddletown Cellars / Photo by Shelly Waldman

Joe Shebl

Seeking the Soul of a Site

Shebl is director of winemaking and general manager of Renwood Winery, one of the biggest and best Zinfandel producers in Amador County and the Sierra Foothills. He’s a strategic winemaker who’s not shy about using French oak barrels, adding a particular yeast strain that enhances a wine’s glycerol or even reducing alcohol through membrane filtration when he thinks it’s necessary.

But he gives the credit for Renwood’s impressive Zinfandels to Amador County’s shallow soils, relatively high elevation and the warm days tempered by cool evening breezes that come down from the Sierra Mountains.

“My battle cry at the winery is to find the best sites and let the fruit show through in the resulting wine,” says Shebl. “Freshness, vitality and drinkability are our hallmarks. To showcase that kind of Zinfandel, it doesn’t have to be a high-alcohol, monster wine. We’re able to preserve the soul of the site.”

Shebl started at Renwood in 1999 as a cellar worker and rose to assistant winemaker. He left in 2009 to start his own winery, Fiddletown Cellars, which also produces outstanding Zinfandels from individual sites. Ultimately, however, he would return to Renwood in 2013—it’s as if his career has come full circle.

Shebl’s Renwood wines are firm in tannins and fairly big at 14.5% alcohol, but that’s wimpy compared to some of his neighbors that register 15% and higher. The differences in the sites show through, with Riker Vineyard displaying boisterous blackberry character and Story Vineyard laden with seductive lilac aroma.

“I am lucky enough to be able to make them the way I like to drink them,” he says. “We get more of a finesse-driven style by picking sites that have the weight, but [we’re] going for the sweet-sour balance in the wine. I like it when a wine starts ‘sweet’ and soft, but has some acidity behind it.” —J.G.

Bob Biale of Robert Biale Vineyards
Bob Biale of Robert Biale Vineyards / Photo by Shelly Waldman

Bob Biale

A Hero of Heritage

If you visit Grande Vineyard along the Silverado Trail with Biale, you might be invited into Dorothy Rossi’s house for fresh-baked cookies. Her family has farmed this piece of land since 1920, still tending to many of the original vines.

Grande is one of the knockout single-­vineyard designates made by Biale and his team at Robert Biale Vineyards. Such unique, long-standing parcels are the stuff that Biale’s Zinfandel dreams are made of.

It all started with the Aldo Vineyard in Napa, in the middle of what’s now the Oak Knoll District. The plot is named after Biale’s father, Aldo, who found the head-trained Zinfandel vineyard planted in 1937. Despite urging, Aldo refused to replant the land with trendier grapes like Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. He was known to quip, “My dad grew Zinfandel and I’m sticking with Zinfandel.”

The familial vineyard and his father’s persistence in producing Zinfandel was an inspiration to Biale when he founded Robert Biale Vineyards in 1991 with childhood friend and fellow Napa native, Dave Pramuk.

“Zinfandel is not only an ideal wine grape for Napa Valley, and California in general, it symbolizes our forefathers’ immigrant heritage story,” says Biale. “It’s a hardy grape that came from the Old World, adapted to a new land and went on to great success as the foundation of American winemaking.”

Biale works with dozens of historic Zinfandel and mixed-blacks sites across Napa Valley and Sonoma, on which he applies more Burgundian winemaking techniques. In 2013, Biale hired Trester “Tres” Goetting, another Napa native, to help craft the wines.

Aldo’s and Grande are two of the crown jewels in Biale’s portfolio. The winery also makes Zinfandel from the Falleri Vineyard in Calistoga, a living relic of California’s field-blend era, farmed by members of the Falleri family since the 1920s.

Other notable sites in Biale’s lineup include the Old Kraft Vineyard west of St. Helena that dates to the 1890s, one of the oldest vineyards in California; R.W. Moore Vineyard in Coombsville, originally planted to Zinfandel in 1905; and the Varozza Vineyard in St. Helena, which has been farmed by the Varozza family since 1913.

“Our remaining old vineyards in Napa are like historic treasures,” says Biale. It’s good to know that they’re in great hands. —Virginie Boone

Jake Bilbro of Limerick Lane
Jake Bilbro of Limerick Lane / Photo by Shelly Waldman

Jake Bilbro

A Sense of Place in Sonoma

Limerick Lane is a historic brand and rambling estate vineyard largely devoted to Zinfandel, which is unusual for the Russian River Valley. Though the oldest producing part of the vineyard dates to 1910, Bilbro, a Sonoma County native who took over the property in 2011, is just its third owner.

“The longer I spend at Limerick Lane, not just in the vineyard or in the winery, but living on the property, the more convinced I am that it is a truly magical site,” says Bilbro, the son of Marietta Cellars founder Chris Bilbro. “The site speaks louder to me than the variety in many ways. Our wines, while full-bodied, are less about ripe fruit and more about the interplay between tannin, acidity and fruit.”

Bilbro’s wines show a real sense of place. They combine the power of a relatively warm knoll just south of Healdsburg with the cooling influence of the Russian River Valley appellation.

This is rare dirt for Zin, a variety that remains popular and respected within Sonoma County, even as the area continues to evolve and refine its plentiful Pinot Noir and Chardonnay offerings.

But Zinfandel’s history in Sonoma County is significant. The county has the second-most Zinfandel acreage after San Joaquin, with a little more than 5,000 acres planted. Zin vineyards that date back to pre-Prohibition dot the region, and some of the most important producers to put the grape on the map are based here.

Limerick Lane’s Rocky Knoll Zinfandel has been our highest-scoring Sonoma County Zin for two vintages in a row (2013 and 2014). A dry-farmed, rocky outcropping of vines interspersed with Petite Sirah and Carignan, it’s full-bodied yet balanced and beautifully put together.

“My goal isn’t to be considered a great Zinfandel producer, a great Sonoma County producer or even a great California producer, although I hope we are perceived as fitting into all of those categories,” says Bilbro. “My goal is to have Limerick Lane seen as a world-class estate producer alongside the great estates whose wines happen to be Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Chardonnay, et cetera.”

His hands full with the winery and being a father to four kids, Bilbro has slowly begun passing the winemaking reins for Limerick Lane to superstar Chris Pittenger.

Pittenger has been winemaker at Limerick Lane since July. He also makes the wines for his own brand, Gros Ventre Cellars, and was previously winemaker at Skinner Vineyards. —V.B.

Scott Harvey of Scott Harvey Wines
Scott Harvey of Scott Harvey Wines / Photo by Shelly Waldman

Scott Harvey

Finding Beauty in Difficulty

What’s more difficult to make: Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon or Sierra Foothills Zinfandel? Harvey, who’s crafted wines for almost 45 years, has made both more times than he can count. To him, the answer is easy. To make Zin, he contends, is not.

Harvey took his first winemaking job at Montevina Winery in Amador County in 1974, and the next year did an official work-study winemaking apprenticeship in Germany. Returning to California, he spent the next two decades making Zinfandel and other wines for Story Winery, Santino Winery and Renwood Winery, also in the Sierra Foothills.

In 1996, Harvey was recruited as partner, winemaker and president of Folie à Deux Winery in Napa. The winery was purchased out of foreclosure, and he was tasked with the mission to revive the operation.

“When I first went over to Napa and got a load of Cabernet Sauvignon delivered to the winery, I said, ‘No wonder people like making wine over here,’ ” says Harvey. “The fruit was pristine, evenly ripened and beautiful.”

Harvey produced award-winning Cabernet Sauvignons from the winery’s Estate Vineyards in Napa Valley, but he also continued his passion for Amador Zin. He used the region’s best vineyard sites and relationships with local growers to produce exciting wines under the Folie à Deux brand.

Eight years later, Harvey returned to Amador County to launch his brand, Scott Harvey Wines. He knows the intricacies and potential shortcomings of the grape well, but what he is concerned about is the challenge that wine lovers face when choosing a Zinfandel.

“What’s happening in Zin is that my style is hard to find, with lighter color, still 14.5% alcohol, but not that huge residual sugar and low acidity that you find in what I call ‘New World-style’ wines,” he says. “I think the consumer is becoming confused. When I go into a restaurant myself, I am absolutely not ordering a Zinfandel if I don’t know which one it is.”

His solution has been to place a graphic on the back label of Scott Harvey Zinfandel bottles. It depicts a style scale from left to right that ranges from New World to Old World, the latter end where Harvey places his winged dragon logo. It serves to show where his dry, non-oaky, complex and high-elevation wines stand. —J.G.

Robert Henson of Peachy Canyon Winery
Robert Henson of Peachy Canyon Winery / Photo by Shelly Waldman

Robert Henson

Perfecting Paso Robles

When Doug and Nancy Beckett launched Peachy Canyon Winery with 350 cases of old-vine Zinfandel in 1988, the former San Diego teachers became Paso Robles wine country pioneers.

For more than 25 years, the pair crafted rich, jammy Zins that would become the emerging region’s hallmark style with the help of their sons, Josh and Jake, who also co-founded Chronic Cellars.

Then, in 2015, the Becketts hired Robert Henson as winemaker and shifted course. Over the past three years, Henson has explored how Zinfandel can translate the terroir of the family’s five estate vineyards.

“Picked at the right time and treated with restraint, Zinfandel shows sense of place as well as any other grape,” says Henson. “It’s more like Pinot Noir than anyone knows.”

And it is often considered more challenging than Pinot Noir in the vineyard. “A perfectly ripe cluster has raisins,” he says. “If you pick without raisins, you get a green flavor, so optimal ripeness has some raisins.”

Henson worked in restaurants in the decade following college, as he opened about 45 properties for Brinker International. He then studied winemaking at California State University, Fresno, and worked for Michael Michaud, who crafted legendary Chalone Vineyard wines before he started his namesake label.

“I didn’t realize how important an apprenticeship would be,” says Henson. It was while working for Michaud that his tastes shifted from heavy Napa Cabs and Super Tuscans to more delicate, ageworthy wines. “I unlearned everything I knew,” he says.

That more delicate approach is what Henson applies to the Peachy Canyon wines. He has helped replant many of the older vineyard blocks and even dialed back production from a peak of 100,000 cases to about 50,000.

One of his favorite projects is the D-Block, a one-acre plot of 18 heritage Zinfandel clones from across the state that the University of California, Davis, collected years ago. The grapes are picked at once and go into the same bottling. The resulting complexity, Henson says, is “because all of the clones hit these different peaks and valleys.”

It’s just one more reason to revisit this new era of Zin. And one more reason why, as Henson says, “people are remembering that they like Zinfandel again.” —M.K.