Zinfandel and its Alternative History
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.