Joel Peterson, founding winemaker at Ravenswood, asked some of the country's leading sommeliers and wine educators about the characteristics of an authentic wine.
The responses were heady and varied, but Debbie Zachareas, owner of the Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant in San Francisco, said something that resonated truth: "An authentic wine is a true expression of the land and grape."
And what could be more authentic in the United States than zinfandel?
Like most of us, it arrived on a boat, was renamed and lost its connection to the Old World. It found fortune during the boom years of the Gold Rush where it was the No. 2 most requested libation after whiskey. (In fact, some even refer to it as "whiskey in a wine package" today because of its penchant for producing prodigious amounts of alcohol.)
It fell out of fashion and languished in relative obscurity only to rise to the top of the pop charts in 1975 when Sutter Home ended up making a "white" zinfandel with a little residual sugar by accident. (Yep. They had intended to make a dry rosé, but the fermentation stuck. Sutter Home bottled it anyway and the rest of the "rags to riches" story is vinous history.)
Zinfandel vines became precious commodities. A fan club was born (ZAP, Zinfandel Advocates and Producers) and zinfandel began to search for its roots.
But discovering its ancestry took years. And although genetic fingerprinting now links zinfandel to the Croatian grape Crljenak Kaštelanski, this changes nothing.
Zinfandel has never pretended to be anything but what it is … an orphan that made a name for itself. It never aspired to be a reproduction of a classic wine grape or a classic wine region. As an unknown, it had to stand on its own two feet … and it did.
Zinfandel is the American Dream. You don't get more authentic than that.
Ravenswood Lodi Old Vine Zinfandel 2009 ($13). Amazingly easy-drinking and hedonistic. The tannins are satin-soft. There is rich, ripe, luscious black raspberry fruit laced with a touch of bramble and a kiss of vanilla. It's full-bodied and full-figured. Yep. This little lady has curves. Beautiful.
Ravenswood Sonoma County Old Vine Zinfandel 2009 ($16). This tangy little number is built like a line-backer. The tannins are suede-like, soft but firm. The Bing cherry fruit is dusted with cinnamon and coupled with a four-square minerality that gives both backbone and character. It's a winning combination of balance and muscle, grace and power.
Ravenswood Napa County Old Vine Zinfandel 2009 ($16). A formidable Zin full of cola, baked terra cotta and briar. It hints of torrefaction with subtle notes of roasted cacao and roasted coffee. The ample tannins are dry and chalky giving the wine a stalwart structure. Although fruit is an under-current, it still makes a splash.
Note: For all of you avid fans of the Pot Thief murder mystery series by J. Michael Orenduff:Gruet-guzzling Hubie is back in action popping corks, stealing pots and catching killers in book five, "The Pot Thief who Studied D.H. Lawrence." It's authentic good fun. Run, don't walk, to your nearest bookstore.