Zinfandel and its Alternative History

Fieldblend I've always been a fan of that strange, under-appreciated sub-genre of Science Fiction known as Alternative History. "What if the South won the Civil War" or "What if America didn't enter WWII and Germany won WWII" are the two most classic renderings of this interesting little literary sidenook.

So, it naturally got me wondering about "What Ifs" when I read the following from Joel Peterson, founder of famed Zinfandel producer Ravenswood and board member of ZAP-Zinfandel Advocates and Producers:

"The Zinfandel field blend is the type of wine that would have made California famous 80 years ago, if it hadn't been for Prohibition. This wine would have been California's Bordeaux, Chateauneuf-du-Pape or Chianti—a blended wine made from grapes chosen by the people of the region, through mostly trial and error, to produce the best wine they thought the region could produce.  In other words, a fine regional wine only associated with California made no where else in the world."

If only for Prohibition….

Peterson's ruminations come in a press released announcing that at the next ZAP Festival and tasting in January 2011, Red Blends that have at least 34% Zinfandel in them and that typify the idea of the Zinfandel Field Blend will be allowed to be poured at the annual tasting (previous rules called for only wines that are 75% Zin to be poured). In fact, ZAP will be going down the educational warpath, explaining to folks the history of Zinfandel and how in the pre-Prohibition years it often was a part of a Red Blend, rather than bottled all on its own.

This idea of the "Field Blend", which in California was traditionally based on Zinfandel with other reds sprinkled into vineyards in differing amount, is one of the most fascinating elements of California wine history that has, despite ZAPs best efforts, been lost.

Understanding the Field Blend, why vineyards were planted with sprinklings of different varieties, how they were all harvested and how they were eventually bottled under really interesting Old World geographic names is fascinating stuff…that is rarely emphasized anymore.

My only up close moment with a true Field Blend came in working with Will Bucklin, proprietor of Old Hill Ranch and winemaker/owner of Bucklin wines. Old Hill Ranch is Sonoma's oldest vineyard. It is a field blend that holds upwards of 24 different grape varieties. Wines made from this vineyard helped put Ravenswood on the Map. Today, Ravenswood still makes an "Old Hill Ranch" bottling, while Bucklin is now making a reputation creating a unique and, I'd argue, historic wine from the vineyard located in Glen Ellen, California in Sonoma Valley.

I'm happy to see ZAP paying attention to these wines.

But what I can't stop thinking about is Peterson's contention that had it not been for Prohibition, California's most famous wine would be a Zinfandel blend. In today's world of single varietal wines and wine meant to highlight a single vineyard, the idea of the blend as the star is pretty radical. But as Peterson points out, the blend is the basis for the greatest Bordeaux and Chateauneuf du Pape wines, among wines of other regions. In fact, these regions' wines are defined by the blend.

Peterson's speculations are interesting. By the time Prohibition hit, there was a certain amount of tradition that created some momentum toward planting vineyards that were blends in and of themselves. Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Carignane seemed to be the primary grapes in these blends. Further, I've been told that there were three or four different style types among the blends made in California, although these differing blends were not based on climate and soil, but rather on ethnicity: Italian immigrants liked wines of this style, Germans immigrants liked wines of that style, etc and different field blends were necessary to achieve these styles.

While I have a difficult time believing that a world without Prohibition may have resulted in a CA wine industry built around differing wine styles based on "ethnic tastes", I have no problem believing that "The Blend" could have been at the heart of a California wine industry, but with style differences based on climatic variation across the state: Zin-based blends in Sonoma Valley; Petite-Sirah based blends in Russian River/Dry Creek Valleys, etc. In fact, from the perspective of winemaking techniques, the Blend-as-primary-taste-creation-vehicle is a pretty conservative idea and the basis of most great winemaking. It's the varietal approach to winemaking, where one varietal is celebrated on and in the bottle, that is a radical departure from the norm.

The state of the Red Blend in California today is pretty dismal. We have a number of blended wines, but most of them carry a single varietal on the label. No regions have "The Blend" at the center of their production. And those Red Blends that are distributed tend to be after-thoughts.

Still, the marketer and publicist in me thinks that a wine brand based on making only field blends, particularly from older vineyards, would make for a successful venture…if the story was told well and since really no one else that I now of is taking the "field blend" as the center of its efforts.


19 Responses

  1. Charlie Olken - June 15, 2010

    There is, of course, something to be said in favor of blends. I am not sure that I think a Petite Sirah-based blend would be the answer for the Russian River Valley given both the exceesively broad definitiion of that AVA and also the success of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in some of its parts.
    But, there is another reason to doubt the “blend” theory and that is the absolute fact that so many great wines have not been blends. The list is far longer than the list of blends. There are no blends of Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir (forget Champagne for the moment–I am talking about still table wines), Chenin Blanc, Syrah and Viognier in the northern Rhone, Gamay Noir (Beaujolais), Nebbiolo, Albarinho, etc.
    It is pretty hard to posit that no one would have discovered how good RRV Pinot would be if Petite Sirah blends have found a home in that area.
    But, Joel and ZAP do make a point worth understanding. There are some very fine blends on the market that have become quite well accepted. True, more of them are Rhone-based than Zin-based but there is a reason why field blends were planted a century and change ago, and it had nothing to do with love of blends or what was likely to produce the best wine. It was the economic necessity of protecting the farmer from the dangers of relying on one variety when no one knew how to beat the odds in new land with no history.
    Just as Cab S. has naturally taken over in the Napa Valley, with or without blending grapes, it would be my suggestion that Pinot and Chardonnay would have naturally taken over in the RRV simply because they would produce greater economic returns to the farmers.

  2. Steve Heimoff - June 15, 2010

    Its, not it’s

  3. KenPayton - June 15, 2010

    With Prohibition came the grubbing up of field blend vineyards, among many others, at least where law enforcement pressure was acute. I think what Mr. Peterson is getting at is that post-Prohibition the immigrant influence, especially of Italians, had diminished, the connection broken. Other international models, the French, for example, and the solidification of American identity and preference, displaced one singular ethnicity for a more general, American understanding of the business side of wine.
    I would dispute Charlie’s history, at least in part, about the economic motive driving the planting of field blends generally. Certainly knowing what vines would survive climatic uncertainties in a new world played a role, but blends were already a part of an immigrant agricultural experience brought to America. Besides, after a generation of productivity, the results shared among multiple families in a given region, it would no longer have been a mystery as to what would grow and where.
    Barrels, however, were expensive. An immigrant family could afford very few in the old world. The new world was no different. So, in keeping with the desire to grow traditional varieties and that of an equally important (economically-driven) tradition of co-fermentation in a single large barrel, both informed the field blend and its persistence.
    It was the weakening of this connection, and that of the rise of large commercial growers post-Prohibition, that spelled the slow demise of the field blend.
    Tom’s point is well taken. I am convinced that there is a bright future for ‘blends’ in California.

  4. mydailywine - June 16, 2010

    Yes, the hidden depths of the CA field blend has been bandied about by winemakers and wine geeks in CA for some time. I believe it has some merit to it. Yes, it is certainly a catchy idea from a marketing/PR point of view but more importantly is that the wines can be very good…. more consistently enjoyable for me than say, a CA pinot noir. The field blend varietals of zinfandel, petite sirah and carignane, etc all perform well in CA.
    Also, it is a philosophically appealing idea as well, since our society is a bit of a field blend too.

  5. Morgan Twain-Peterson - June 16, 2010

    Tom, I would be happy to show you around our Bedrock Vineyard in Sonoma Valley, whose 33 acres of old vines includes 17 varieties– certain blocks being up to 35% “other” stuff.
    Like most other old vineyards out there it has traditionally been called “Zinfandel,” but the reality is a bit more diverse. Reflecting the reality of what is the vineyard, and furthering the knowledge of what actually constitutes many of the most loved “Zinfandels” is one of the reasons for ZAP’s adoption of certain blending varieties. For instance, if you check out the 2007 Ridge “Geyserville,” long considered an apogee of California Zinfandel, you will notice it is only 57% Zinfandel, which does not meet current labeling standards for “varietal” wine. The same can be said for Lytton Springs. Ridge, like Ravenswood, Bucklin, Acorn, Carlisle, myself, and a few others, actually have taken the time to ID what is out in our vineyards. In reality, many of the wines consumed at ZAP are really field-blends, some of which are more than 25% mixed blacks, but folks have not taken the time to do a proper ampelography on their vineyards- in many cases because the reality might be inconvenient. ZAP has done a great job of taking Zinfandel out of the “white zinfandel” era of the late-80’s and early-90’s when it was started, and the inclusion historic bed-mates found in the same vineyard seems a natural next step in telling the historical narrative of “Zinfandel” in California.
    There is a lot of early writings from Charles Wetmore, George Hussman, and other fathers of California viticulture and oenology, focusing on blends, most done in the field, as being the basis for making good wine. In fact, as early as 1883 Wetmore was suggesting blending higher acid varieties in the field with lower acid ones in warm climates to make for smoother fermentations. In almost all of these, Zinfandel, and all of its finicky predelictions towards uneven ripening on the cluster, tendency to “soak up” in the fermenter, excessive alcohol, lack of color in certain settings, were being countered by using different cultivars. All of which was being done to make a type of wine, a “claret,” a “burgundy,” etc. according to the conception of such wines in the day.
    The rebirth of California wine came very much on the back of “varietal” wines, as a generation of knowledge was lost during California and the overall quality of wine made during the two decades post-prohibition was quite poor. It was also the development of alternative rootstocks to Rupestris St. George that allowed for the development of varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Pinot Noir which set quite poorly on on St. George (Cabernet and Pinot were among the first varieties experimented with in the 1880’s (and indeed we have a few old vines at our vineyard) but its problems with coulure lessened its desirability.
    It’s also worth noting that the plantings of vines in California actually went up during prohibition. The provision in the Volstead Act that allowed individuals to make a couple hundred gallons of home-wine each year was big business. Those varieties most sought after were those that could endure the long trip by train to the rail yards of Chicago, New York, Boston, etc. These varieties were Alicante Bouschet, Petite Sirah, Carignane, and Zinfandel. These four were those that had been clearly identified as hardy producers of good quality grapes that flourished across the practical entirety of the Golden State.

  6. Tom Wark - June 16, 2010

    I know exactly where Bedrock is and would love to get a tour sometime.
    Great post and interesting.One thing that I am really interested in is the concept of the field blend as a ethnic touchstone. I’d love to know more about the different field blends and how they differed based on the ethnicity of the farmer or the customer for the wine.
    Again, great info. Thanks.

  7. JohnLopresti - June 16, 2010

    Mixed red blocs became a rarity around the time of the shift from centralized large wineries to the new generation of single varietal houses, at least in the parts of one county with which I am familiar. I think one of the difficult aspects of producing a blend in the current market is price-point, though with modern mobility and multiplicity of winery sites, possibly potential is there for new products somewhat resembling the age-old genre. MGriffin (1) tried to preserve that vision in a locale perhaps too cold for the best of the principal-three blend varietals, though that site now emphasizes single varietals more responsive to the modern market. In a slightly warmer region LPreston (2) has some fables very similar in ideology to what MG was trying to preserve, LP still producing a so-called Buchignani blend which is also built upon zinfandel. It seems true, some change has occurred, and customer dollars have grown disinterested in semi-distinctive blends of reds as the modern technology has enabled single varietals to be the standout premiums. Ridge (3) also has a few niche blend red products emphasizing the classic triad zin, carignane, petit sirah. For some reason, Preston’s website local history seems to strike the right chord, that having the vineyard close to the family residence seems the essence of the earliest commodity concepts for red blends. Several vineyard blocs I pruned basically the three reds also had a few white vines in the mix; makes the grapes go further. Carignane has modest sugar problems, whereas zin has its own distinctive rambling maturation characteristics although with potential for excellent character; and petit sirah only rarely assists the blend with more than its characteristic inkiness.
    (1) One residual sentence about blend: http://www.hopkilnwinery.com/about/
    (2) Interesting comments on blends, and even vinegar:
    (3) Scroll to bottom for 2009 releases, which clearly reflect some few ranches in the supplier column are based on the blend of 3 reds:

  8. Morgan - June 16, 2010

    Hey Tom- Would be happy to show you around anytime you like. You have my email.
    As for ethnic touchstones– this is a bit more difficult. The “italian field-blend,” is much known, but is actually relatively innacurate. The first, and most diverse field-blends, were put in by people with the last names of Hill, Hearst, Wetmore, Drummond, Fischer, and even a Goldstein (Monte Rosso’s visionary) etc. and most of these vineyards pre-date the en-masse arrival of Italian immigrants during the Second Industrial Revolution. It is true that many families such as the Seghesio’s, Teldeschi’s, Passalacqua’s, Buchignani’s, Papera, Frati, Pelleti, Mancini, Pagani, etc. now possess much of the old-vine material available now that include mixed-blacks, but they seem to have either acquired the land, or planted the vineyards in the first three decades of the last century where the general choice of “mixed-blacks” had been relatively whittled down, based on climate, to Pets, AB, Carignane, Grenache, and sometimes a spattering of Tempranillo.
    It is true that the small amount of white wine made in California seems to have catered to the Germanic population, and most wineries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had a ‘hock.” Based on what was planted then this was likely a blend of Semillon, Green Hungarian, Colombard, Trousseau Gris (gray riesling), and some other semi-aromatic varieties. I only know of one, old, white field-blend remaining, and this was planted as recently as 1954. It is a field-blend of Gewurtz, Trousseau Gris, Riesling, Green Hungarian, and a few other unknown things. It went to Gundlach-Bundschu for a long time– one of the few overtly German-run wineries around (The vineyard is called Compagni Portis and goes to myself and Arnot-Roberts now).

  9. [email protected] - June 16, 2010

    Tom, thanks for your comments on the blend press release. I think your musings pretty much cover the interesting aspects of this particular proposition. Charlie, I certainly didn’t mean to imply that the blend would be the only wine that California produced exclusive of any other varietal that was appropriate for a particular region. In fact, pre-prohibition there was already some experimentation with varietal labeling, though it is likely that most of those wines were only 51% varietal. What I do believe, however, is that the Zinfandel based field blend is core to understanding the evolution of California winemaking (particularly in the Sonoma viticultural areas) before prohibition. The field blend also represents a wine that is of native California origin, rather than an ersatz wine, labeled varietally, deriving its credibility and relevance from a particular European location (i.e. Cabernet and Bordeaux, Pinot Noir and Burgundy, or Riesling and Rhinegau). It seems to me that the world has never been ready to accept California varietal wines as being the classic and the benchmark of a particular variety. Zinfandel field blends, on the other hand, evolved from the very beginnings of the California wine experiment with different generations and ethnic groups carrying the torch. They started being made almost at the same time that Zinfandel was brought in in the 1850’s. Varieties were tried that seem unusual today. Things like Grand Noir, Serene, Ruffusco, and Pelorsan and others. There were a wide range of varieties brought in as part of the Haraszthy collection and a number of other sources. Growers experimented with many grapes and eventually came up with the ones that they thought did well in California. These growers, for the most part, at least in Sonoma, were of New England gold rush stock, with names like Hill and Whittaker and Boggs and Osborne. As the growers became more sophisticated and more understanding of grape varieties they began to focus on fewer of them, though many of the vineyards like Old Hill and Bedrock (planted in the late 1880’s by Hill and Hearst) for instance, still contain as many as 15 – 20 different varieties. With the Italian wave of immigration, the selection was again refined and four varieties began to dominate, though they were not exclusive. The four varieties were Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Carignane, and Alicante Bouchet. Each has something to add to the blend; sophistication and fruit, spice and tannin, acid, and color. All things needed to make a good, sound wine that accommodated the variability of vintage. These blends were certainly adopted by home winemakers during prohibition and eventually became known as “dego red”. This would have been a fairly pejorative label to someone attempting to rebuild the California wine business in the 1960’s and 1970’s. One only had to be present for one of Warren Winiarski’s tirades against Zinfandel and its ilk to see how narrowly the new wine intelligentsia of California defined their mission. There are a number of wineries that have begun making these traditional California blends again. They’re all very credible and very interesting. Schoolhouse Mescalanza, Marietta Angeli Cuvee, Elyse Niro Misto, Ridge Geyserville, Ravenswood Icon, Bucklin Bambino and York Creek MXB, to name just a few. It is unfortunate that the evolution of this most unique of California wines was truncated, but I believe that the time has come when these wines will regain the recognition they deserve and stand among California’s best. The advent of the younger wine enthusiast, the instant access to information and a broader understanding of the world of wine, all auger in their favor.

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  11. Paulette Eschrich - June 17, 2010

    As I read the original article Acorn Winery came to mind. I believe all of their wines (red), including their Zinfandel, are field blends.

  12. Morton - June 17, 2010

    First, a field blend means that differing grape varieties are intermingled in a vineyard block and picked together at the same time in the same container and made into wine. Such wines are very rare and becoming rarer for good reason. Winemakers have long known (since the 1800’s) that different grape varieties reach optimal maturity at different times and that picking a mixture of grapes some at and some not at optimal maturity does not optimize wine quality. They also know that the grape varieties are improved by different cultural practices which cannot be optimized in the one size fits all agriculture of a promiscuous planting. Planting varietals by block isn’t just practiced in America because of prohibition, it is everywhere in the world of wine, including Bordeaux.
    Second, the best wines made in California pre-prohibition were pure varietals. This is how the best vineyards were planted using the best knowledge at that time. I have tasted many 19th century California wines. They ranged from Zin, to Pinot, to Cab, to Riesling. They were all from single grape varieties. This is why almost all vineyards were replanted after Prohibition as varietal blocks. It was a chance to get things right. Varietal labeling followed years later and was successful because the wines were better.
    A field blend is a romantic notion and a marketing vehicle. Nothing more.

  13. JohnS - June 17, 2010

    My great great uncle angelo frati said a red wine could consist of only two varietals,Zinfandel and Carignane. My familys Dupratt vineyard today has just those two reds. Other vineyards in the area had more varieties. Here in Sonoma we still have a few vines planted by the Batto family 120 years ago. Their blend? Zin ,Carignane, Petit Syrah and Tokay. JohnS Sonoma

  14. Dave Erickson - June 19, 2010

    “A field blend is a romantic notion and a marketing vehicle. Nothing more.”
    There’s a winemaker in Alsace named Marcel Deiss would would like to have a word with you.

  15. Andrew Lazorchak - June 19, 2010

    School House Vineyards on Spring Mountain is all about the field blend and the Mescolanza is one of their signature wines and the vines date back to 1890.
    Field blends. It’s a great notion, and a giant what-if? And from a marketing perspective, the blend was the underdog in American eyes, and that has changed (i.e L’Aventure). The field belnd notion ties into the naturally grown “organic” realm, and that is fantastic for marketing too.
    Viticulturally speaking, their is probably something to be said of field blends and their harmonization by having varietals co-habitating in a vineyard.
    Has anyone mapped the population of varietals over time in California? The missionaries had a good hand in disseminating vines, but I’d be curious to see where the other infiltrations came from and how we could expect to see old vine plantings to be populated these days, how would old-vines from Sta Barbara be influenced differently than those in the Sierra Foothills. For instance, Charbono is another one of those hard to find wines, that seems popular in old Calistoga vineyards.
    Would be great to see consumers turned-on to vineyard knowledge and actually driving consumption by understanding climate, history, and varietals.
    Sometimes the best opportunities are in your face, so let’s hope this one takes. But my hunch is that ZAP does not need any fuel in the fire. From a marketing perspective – this could be an opportune time to pique the mass of Zin lovers, and split them. A more exclusive category of Zap fans that is now all about the Field Blend Wines, priding themselves on knowledge of vineyards and historical plantings, could become a whole new and more potent category. And I do not mean to lump Zin lovers into a group, but everyone loves an up-sell, and wine is just one of those hobbies where you get to keep on learning.
    Good luck Joel, I am a fan!

  16. Christopher Watkins - June 21, 2010

    A great article Tom, and obviously thought-provoking, judging by the array and intensity of responses. Some of what’s been said I quite agree with, and some comments obviously don’t merit much in the way of response, but on behalf of both myself and my employer Ridge Vineyards, I am more than happy to chime in in defense of the field-blend, and I would offer up our Lytton Springs and Geyserville wines as examples of the merits of such a methodology.
    The reasons for our dedication to a field-blend model are numerous, and run the gamut from rather more abstract philosophical stances to more tangible factors related to taste and quality. But in the end, I think it’s safest to say that the field-blend model is part-and-parcel with Ridge’s fundamental commitment to honoring the true character of any given vineyard to the best of our ability. Ridge is (save for one exception) a single-vineyard producer, fundamentally dedicated to practicing a (choose your term) non-interventionist/minimum-impact set of methodologies in both the vineyard and the winery, in hopes of capturing all the singularities that make up the full expression of a particular vineyard; the field-blend concept being but one component in an over-arching spread of decisions made to reflect this commitment. Integrated Pest Management, Beneficial Crop Cover, Irrigation Management, Reduced Tillage, Compositing and Recyling, etc. are all examples of this fundamental philosophy in action. The point being is that every vineyard we work with has its own unique set of characteristics —microclimate, soil types, vine age and history, topography, etc. — and by trying to “intervene” as little as possible, we hope to accordingly ultimately craft a wine that is unique to its vineyard. So, by this reasoning, if the vineyard is planted as a field blend, then the wine we make will be a field blend.
    There is of course tremendous market pressure out there demanding vintage-to-vintage consistency, but for our purposes, this kind of consistency cannot possibly be honest to the vineyards; Mother Nature does not repeat herself, so neither should her wines. Via the single-vineyard methodology, however, I think a wonderful kind of consistency is more than achievable. For example, Geyserville may change year to year, but it always tastes like Geyserville, and accordingly, unlike any other wine out there. This is, to my way of thinking, a sort of holy grail intersection of terroir and the marketplace; integrity as regards representing the vineyard, integrity as regards representing the brand.
    All the concerns raised about field blends (uneven ripening being the most common) are certainly at least arguably valid, but just because something is difficult to manage shouldn’t mean it isn’t pursued, and to suggest that field blends can’t possibly attain greatness would seem to fly in the face of the long-term and fairly legendary success of a great many Californian wines; I like to think of both Geyserville and Lytton Springs being in that category, and it would seem there is at least some degree of support for that faith. Not that the critical intelligentsia working in the world of wine should be seen as be-all/end-all barometers of quality, but if we can take it as a safe assumption that Parker/Laube/Tanzer/Dias Blue/Robinson et al have achieved their prominence via some sort of reputable skill sets, then I think it’s safe to say that the Geyserville and Lytton Springs wines have earned their fair share of accolades from all corners of the critical world, and they’ve done so as field-blends. In addition, I spend every weekend of my life sharing these wines with guests at our Monte Bello Tasting Room, and I know first-hand the pleasure these wines bring to their palates.
    In the end, to each their own, of course, but we as a producer believe in field-blends, and I like to think our wines prove the concept; I love the Geyserville and Lytton Springs wines; I love them year after year after year, and I think their singular array of complexities and multi-tiered aromatics and flavors are due in no small part to the performance of those field-blended varietals. So cheers to you Tom, for raising the discussion, and cheers to all who are making delicious wines in this wonderful fashion!

  17. Will Bucklin - June 25, 2010

    Hooray for ZAP!
    I have to echo what Chris Watikins says; that the field-blend model honors the true character of any given vineyard. I would also add that field-blends are not solely interesting based on their varietal components; they also tend to be ancient vines and they are often dry-farmed.
    One can argue the finer points but there is something compelling about drinking history in a glass. Even if it is just romance, I see nothing wrong with that!

  18. emil dukovac - July 15, 2010

    i have been blending zin with muscat and i have blended zin with thomson seedless..
    Now i would like to try a different combination using zin and ??
    what about chardoney?
    any other combination…
    red on red would it be too black and make you teeth black when you smile..
    Our family has been making the blend of zin and muscat since 1950.
    I am looking for an exciting change
    I will be receiving a new kentucky burbon barrel shortly. this will add to the mix…

  19. jordan shoes 8 - May 27, 2011

    People are excited about pouring this white powder, how using the product is a way to show distinct style — by all using the same product.
    Food marketing is designed to make the product as appealing as possible. That seems fair, as long as there is a reasonable connection, and you have some idea that what yasdfou’re seeing isn’t literal.
    Dealing with the hype of food marketing is one pitfall in trying to eat better.

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