By: Jim Hunter
When it comes to Zinfandel, Americans are just plain crazy about both the red and white versions, making it the third most crushed grape varietal in the U.S., right behind Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. When it comes to growing and bottling zins, California is king, so whether you love a nice refreshing glass of slightly sweet White Zinfandel on a hot summer day, or you prefer the intensely fruity, spicy red versions there's something for everyone in California. With good weather all year long, anytime of the year is a good time to tour some of the best places in the world for growing this American favorite.
Originally an obscure Croatian grape varietal, Zinfandel came to America early in the 19th century. It's grown in many of California's grape growing regions from the Cucamonga Valley in the far south to the northern border with Oregon. From any major California city, you can be enjoying a Zinfandel experience in wine country in no time.
Although the Zinfandel grape has been around for a long time, White Zinfandel didn't come into existence until the 1970s. Sutter Home Family Vineyard in Napa Valley is widely credited with creating what became known as "blush wine" when they made a rosé of Zinfandel but stopped fermentation a bit early to ensure it had a touch of residual sugar. Today, inexpensive white zin far outsells its pricier red counterparts and tends to be produced by large wineries like Beringer and Sutter Home.
When it comes to red zins, there are a wide range of styles, quality and price. They tend to have high alcohol content and when very ripe, make good desert wines with a flavor profile somewhat like Port. Three of the top California regions for red zins are Amador County in the Sierra Foothills, Sonoma County and Paso Robles.
Amador County is the ideal spot to spend a few days checking out California Gold Rush country and sipping hearty red zins, while still only an hour away from the city of Sacramento. Tasting rooms here are mostly small family businesses where you can often talk to the winemaker, pet the family dog and enjoy a picnic lunch. And yes, you can still pan for gold and see traces of the rustic Wild West atmosphere that inspired writers like Mark Twain.
In Sonoma County there are many good micro-climates for Zinfandel including the Dry Creek Valley and Rockpile areas. Make the town of Healdsburg your starting point for a driving tour of numerous outstanding zin producers. If fine-dining is on your agenda this is also the perfect destination to experience some of northern California's best cuisine.
If your California vacation plans take you to the Central Coast region, be sure to stop in Paso Robles to taste Zinfandels and Zinfandel-based red blends that will knock your socks off. Although wine has been made in the area for a long time, the winemaking focus began to shift away from inexpensive wines to high-quality boutique wines in the 1980's and today some of the most exciting wines in California are made in Paso Robles.
When you head for sunny California, a good Zinfandel wine tasting tour is never very far away. Sample a few on your next visit and you'll know why the American love affair with Zinfandel is likely to remain a lasting one.