In Pursuit of Balanced Zinfandel

I was a sophomore in college when I experienced one of my earliest and most impressionable wine experiences. I’d been pulling my hair out over a history paper for my Jacksonian America course and experiencing writer’s block like never before. Working as a TA in the history department had made me a perfectionist to a fault – the faculty now felt like more like colleagues and suddenly I felt a crushing (and entirely self-imposed) pressure to produce Pulitzer prize-winning papers, exams – even office hour requests. I was 20 years old.

As I sat in my favorite professor’s office, heaving despair and inadequacy all over her resplendent mahogany desk, she looked at me with a mixture of empathy and bemusement. When I finally stopped whinging, she leaned over conspiratorially and winked, “You know, I never sit down to write without a glass of red wine, but your case might call for Zinfandel.”

Two days later, cloaked in a Ravenswood-sponsored haze of creative genius, my paper had practically written itself. And two months later, after I received a departmental award for that same essay, I told my former writing companion (Ms. Double Tall Vanilla Latte) that I would no longer be requiring her services.

Thus began my subsequent Pavlovian association between wine and loftier intellectual pursuits. Zinfandel would always remain my first love. Honest and straightforward, I could always count on it to be exactly what I wanted it to be: big, fruity, and slightly sweet from all that alcohol my professor had surely meant to prescribe for my manic state back in her office.

But as was inevitable, I eventually grew out of my relationship with Zinfandel as I began to flirt with the more sophisticated, complicated – and yes, often older – Barolo, Bordeaux, and Burgundy I soon met after college and in grad school.

By comparison, my onetime paramour had grown as vanilla as the flavors imparted by its predictable new-American oak regime.

Which is why I was so humbled recently when I ran into my old friend in the wine region of Lodi, California. But it wasn’t the Zin I remembered. Gone was the overripe jam and baby fat, and all that off-putting cedar-spice cologne in which it used to bathe. I never realized how understated yet complex its natural aromas could be without all that makeup. Perhaps most crucially, the alcohol problem was finally under control. And there was a slightly acidic, mouthwatering kick to it that kept me coming back again and again after each sip – intrigued in a way Zinfandel had never before left me.

 Label splatter recommended, but (unfortunately) not included.

Label splatter recommended, but (unfortunately) not included.


And this is exactly what the Lodi Native Project set out to accomplish. This, their first vintage release of six single-vineyard 100% Zins, is meant to showcase vineyards over brands, taking an artisanal – dare I say Burgundian – approach to the region. They succeeded. After tasting each wine, my Zinfandel crush has been rekindled (if maybe slightly redefined).

These vintners had the audacity to strip Lodi’s flagship grape down to its purest form, and rarely has it ever tasted so good. Earth tones abounded, along with fresh, mineral-laced red fruit, bright florals, gently roasted herbs and soft, fruit-driven tannins that characterized each (otherwise inherently unique) wine. Who knew that with careful vineyard management, native yeast fermentation, minimal cellar intervention and a rejection of all things oak, zinfandel could be so hauntingly nuanced – even ethereal?

With all the talk of ‘balance’ these days, the college sophomore in me can’t help but associate what’s going on in Lodi with a larger intellectual trend in the wine industry. These Native Zins aren’t what I’d call esoteric – sure they are made very naturally, but they’re not ‘natural’ wines.  And they are still Zinfandel at heart – not one comes close to clocking in at under that controversial 13.7% ABV yardstick. The Natives do, however, fit into a growing patchwork of California vintners who are trying to break out of their varietal archetypes. I’ve been skeptical of bias-driven movements in the recent past, but if the Lodi Native project is a harbinger of things to come, I’m happy to pursue a bit more ‘balance’.