Earlier today, as I stood before members of the Plymouth Rotary Club in Amador County, I found myself talking about the highs and lows of zinfandel in the Shenandoah Valley over the past 40 years. Zinfandel was the first varietal wine to grab my attention seriously, shortly after I moved to Amador County in 1970. As I reminisced about zinfandel and tried to predict its future, I realized that zinfandel, which established the Sierra foothills as a fine-wine region, is more susceptible to fashion and debate than any other grape and varietal in the state. In almost equal measures, people love it or hate it, or if they don't admit to hating it they relish pointing out that so many other grapes and varietals are aesthetically, historically and culturally superior, at least to them.
Zinfandel, by comparison to so many other grapes and wines, is cantankerous and chameleon. After all these years, it hasn't let itself be squeezed into a safe and secure mold. It can be delicate and flighty (white zinfandel) or weighty and brooding (zinfandel port), or it can take on all sorts of other characteristics in between. Even as a table wine alone, interpretations of zinfandel can range from the lithe and refined to the muscular and brash. It's a wine that demands patience and study, qualities usually associated with the so-called "noble" varieties like cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir, yet rarely applied to this California upstart.
Zinfandel also is on my mind because a few days ago I posted here an item about the disappointing class of zinfandels our panel judged at the West Coast Wine Competition in Rohnert Park last week. Of the 51 we judged, only three got gold medals. A disproportionate number were overwrought and imbalanced, without zinfandel's inherent charm and zest. But rather than indulge regret, let's celebrate - and look for - those three wines that won gold medals, the identities of which I learned after the judging: Redwood Creek 2008 Lodi Zinfandel ($8); Nevada City Winery 2007 Sierra Foothills Zinfandel ($19); and Campus Oaks 2007 Lodi Old Vine Zinfandel ($10).
What did they share in common? Clarity, freshness and balance, with fruitiness juicy and glossy; in short, they were drinkable, just what zinfandel aspires to be first and foremost.