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Future of Zinfandel in California

Hi guys. Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures. Happy Monday to everybody from what is a cold, rainy, and wet San Francisco today. Late last week I talked about the feature of Grenache in the state of California and so today I wanted to talk a few minutes about the future of Zinfandel and kind of what we’re seeing in terms of plantings and what we can expect going into the future.

First, I think Zinfandel is a really interesting grape. If you go back and look at the history of Zinfandel, there’s always been a lot of conversation and talk about where did the grape come from, where is it native to. Is it native to California? Is it native to Italy where it’s called Primitivo? UC Davis, not surprisingly, has been at the forefront of a lot of the genetic research. In essence, what I think they’ve come to the conclusion of, along with some other research based in Europe, that Zinfandel and Primitivo are almost like different species of monkeys where they share a common ancestor but they were largely allowed to create genetic diversity on the two continents simultaneously. Common ancestor. Not one derived from the other in a lab like some other grapes would be,

Secondly, I also think it’s an interesting grape because it’s the one grape where here in California, if you were to ask somebody within the wine industry, “How do I pick a Zin?” Almost everybody would tell you, “Pick an old vine Zin.” The problem with that though is that old vine is a marketing term. There’s no legal ramifications for it and some vintners do a good job about saying this is what an old vine is and this is why we think it’s an old vine and some just slop it on the label after a few years.

Here’s kind of the way vines and the way I think of it usually works. It usually take about 5 years for a grape vine to start producing fruit in sufficient quality enough that it’s going to be anything but bulk wine. That’s in essence because the roots need to get established. You don’t want to have to be watering it so much so it’s not watered done et cetera, et cetera. A standard grape vine also only produces for about 30 years. Zinfandel, of course, can go significantly longer than that into the century, century and a half. I’ve had wine from grapes that are sitting on vines that are 125, 130 years old and they taste just great. There’s kind of that whole back and forth.

For me, if somebody’s going to be true about what an old vine is, I think if a Pinot vine can only last 30 years, to be an old vine, it has to be older than 30. There are some Sonoma vintners who are slopping on labels after 5 years which I think is doing a disservice to both the grape itself and to the general public who’s buying their product but that’s a story for another day. That’s the problem with Zinfandel though. If I wanted to plant a few acres of Zinfandel in Napa today, it would take me 35 years before I could realistically start to recoup the maximum amount of money from that vineyard, as opposed to say Cabernet, Pino, even Grenache, where you might be able to start recouping it after 5 years so there’s not a lot of incentive there.

That’s why you’re seeing … This is Black Rock and Black Rock is something that we’ve shipped both to our premium wine club members as well as to some folks on different wine club levels. Black Rock I think is interesting because it was made by Kirk Venge who his dad Nils Venge is famous in the wine making community in large part because Robert Parker gave Nils a bottle made by him at least the first hundred point score on Napa wine.

Kirk went through the UC Davis viticulture program and now he makes wine in a number of places himself, mostly high acclaimed. Including places like B Cellars and Venge Vineyards itself, the family namesake winery. They also own this, or at least they make the wine here, Black Rock which is up in Lake County. I think this is where you’re really going to see Zinfandel kind of gain exposure.

I talked to Mark Grenache and they’re kind of needing to be planted in not prime vineyard spots but slightly further away. I think that’s true with Zinfandel as well although Zinfandel can grow in kind of the same Bordeaux kind of climates that others can as well as hotter conditions. Lake County is a good example. You have a natural offshoot for Napa wineries and Napa winemakers who can no longer can afford to buy places in Napa for themselves. Kathy Corison quite famously bought herself a spot off Highway 29 for Corison Winery. An equivalent skilled winemaker, i.e. one of the 10 best winemakers in the world, may never make enough money these days to buy an equivalent site.

That’s kind of sad but that’s also driving people to other wine regions and Lake County is one of those regions that is benefiting now and will continue to benefit in the future. It’s also a place that has the largest fresh water lake in California so there’s kind of that ocean, not ocean breeze but there’s that cooling effect from the lake over the winter and that’s something that winemakers really like to see from their vineyard sites. I think that’s where you’re going to see Zinfandel. You’re going to see people who are industry veterans or people that have perhaps a little bit more patience than somebody who made a bunch of money in tech or silicon valley who wants a wine to give to their friends tomorrow. Instead, you’re going to see people who are part of the wine industry and they want to make Zinfandel because I think you do hear a lot about Zinfandel in the wine industry circles, perhaps more than other grapes, as far as compared to what you hear from the general public.

Places like Lake Country are even further off the beaten path than say Santa Barbara, Paso Robles, and even like the end of Valley. You’re going to see plantings there where people can say, “You know what? We’re building this business. We’re going to build a Zinfandel vineyard and the goal is my kid is going to make the wine there,” and he’s four kind of thing.

I think that’s where Zinfandel is going. You’re going to see a very small number of plantings with it. You will see … There are some projects that have old vines inNapa and elsewhere and I think those are going to continue to garner even more greater attention because it takes 35 years for it to really be an old vine, I think you’re going to see a greater emphasis on the ones that are truly old, past a century. They’re kind of a great vine to look at too. These old marled. They’re shorter, they’re thicker. They look like a grape vine kind of should look like, I think. I think you’re going to see more and more marketing plays on the ones that are older and for good reason.

Once again, Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures. If you’re waiting for a shipment, please check your email and your spam. It’s probably out already. I look forward to speaking with you. If you have a few minutes, take a look at the gift baskets. We’re in the process of updating those. Thanks.