There are parts of Sonoma County that provide the perfect growing conditions to make world-class Zinfandel wines. Zinfandel is a heat loving grape that thrives on plenty of sunshine with some moderate cooling from nearby coastal regions, which is exactly what Sonoma County has to offer. The result is juicy, jammy, delicious Zins that are the shining stars for many Sonoma County winemakers.
For a time, many people assumed Zinfandel was indigenous to California, but that was incorrect. More recently, the grape was linked to the Italian Primitivo and thought to be the same, which is true although not the complete story. In fact, through genetic backtracking it has been discovered that Zinfandel and Primitivo are the same varietal as the Croatian grape, Crljenak Kaštelanski. And while there's a genetic link (it's likely the same grape), although there are few exceptions where Zin wines are called Primitivo, Sonoma County wines made from this grape say Zinfandel on the label.
Zinfandel has enjoyed a sort of Renaissance in the past decade; it's grown increasingly popular as a high-quality, fine wine. In early days of California winemaking, Zinfandel was often disrespected when compared to California's big wines, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. While the spicy black grape has always been one of the state's most widely planted varieties, ranking second after Cab, it has had a long California history, not all of it stellar. For years, wine drinkers only associated Zinfandel with White Zinfandel, an inexpensive mass-market blush wine made from the same grape. However, some winemakers, such as Seghesio and Martinelli Winery, have always had a deft touch with Zinfandel, and their sterling efforts have contributed to the proliferation of truly great Zinfandel wines from Sonoma County.
What to Expect From a Sonoma County Zinfandel
Zinfandel is a dry, complex red that is all jammy blackberries and plums. It is laden with rustic briars, spicy pepper, tannins, and big doses of alcohol. Zins can be concentrated bombs of fruit that are boysenberry pie or restrained burliness. California's Zinfandel is grown in most wine regions within the state - Amador County in the Sierra Foothills, Napa Valley, Lodi, Paso Robles, and Mendocino. Each has their own character and style. But for the crème de la crème, look to Sonoma County Zinfandel wines where the black juicy variety is widely planted and comfortably makes its home.
Top Regions and Their Producers
Within the large Sonoma County wine region, there are a few sub-appellations that are nonpareil for Zinfandel. There are many large wineries and vineyard owners in the county, but the majority are small, family-owned, independent, and boutique wineries.
Dry Creek Valley
Zinfandel has gained prominence in this short and narrow valley running to the northwest of Healdsburg. Many consider Dry Creek to be the best place to grow Zinfandel. Many of the short, squat, and gnarly old vines Zinfandel dot the hillside vineyards here, and they are behind its rich and complex Zins. Zinfandel wines from old vines are big wines aromatic with pepper, cinnamon, coriander, and dried flower notes.
- A. Rafanelli - Four generations of Rafanellis know and do Zinfandel exceptionally well.
- Dry Creek Vineyards - Their name shows everyone where they are, Dry Creek. If you like old vine Zinfandels, Dry Creek throws one at you produced from 80 to 110 year old vines. They can beguile you as well with their Fumé Blanc.
- Nalle Winery - This is a five generation family-owned winery with Zinfandel a part of their Dry Creek blood. Their family crest includes the inscription, "vinum sapientiam tibi dat" which translates to, "Wine Makes You Smart."
- Quivira Wine - Quivira is one of the few "Q" wineries around, and it's the only one in Dry Creek with a fondness for Zin.
- Ridge Vineyards - Paul Draper needs no introduction. His 1971 Monte Bello Cab was at the famous 1976 Judgment at Paris tasting and placed a fifth. At the rematch in 1976, Ridge was awarded "first" among a panel of judges. The winery continues to win awards, including the much lauded Ridge Lytton Springs; the 2015 vintage was named 91 on Wine Spectator's Top 100 Wines of 2018.
- Rosenblum Cellars - Never doubt Rosenblum when it comes to Zinfandel. They produce Zinfandels from all over California that includes Dry Creek, Rockpile, and Sonoma County. For a good and Zinful time, visit their tasting room in Healdsburg.
The Rockpile is a relatively new AVA (2002) and is on a rocky perch at the northern end of Dry Creek. The tough and rocky terrain is great for stressing the grapes, and the area gets a lot of sunshine as opposed to the fog that much of the rest of Sonoma County gets. It results in dark and robust Zinfandels that you can chew on.
- Bella Vineyards cultivates grapes throughout Dry Creek Valley and the Russian River Valley, but one of its most acclaimed wines, the Bella Rock's Edge 2015 Zinfandel, was especially highly acclaimed, receiving 94 points from Wine Enthusiast.
- Mauritson Rockpile Wines grows its Zinfandel grapes where they thrive; on the hillsides in the Rockpile AVA. The results are critically acclaimed Zinfandel wines; for example, the 2016 Rockpile Ridge Zinfandel received 93 points from Wine Enthusiast.
Russian River Valley
This sub-appellation is a valley that follows the Russian River as it courses south and to the west from Mendocino County. It's a cool climate wine region with fog and maritime air mixing in with California sun. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are the moneymakers here, but Zinfandel excels in some of the hillside areas to produce heady Zins.
- Carlisle - A small Russian River Valley winery, Carlisle specializes in hedonistic Zins and also Rhône-style wines.
- Gary Farrell - This is a nice winery with gorgeous views with great wines including their Russian River Valley and Dry Creek Zinfandels.
- Hartford Family Winery - The acclaimed Zins from this Russian River winery come from old vines that produce powerful, juicy wines.
- Martinelli - Jackass Hill is Martinelli's claim to Zinfandel fame, and with good reason. The winery also produces delicious Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
- Joseph Swan - In the Russian River Valley Swan specializes in Zinfandels from Sonoma County.
- Williams-Selyem - WS is best known for their archetypical Pinot Noir, their Zinfandels are big and complex and make statements.
This is the largest wine region and borders with Mendocino County in the north. It's definitely a cooler climate, and Zinfandel is grown here in the shadow of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot. However, Zinfandel does well here, and there are many fine examples to vie for your Zin affection.
Sonoma County Zinfandel Wines
Many wineries source their Zinfandel grapes from vineyards throughout the county, producing world-class fine wines.
- Ledson - In the Sonoma Valley, Ledson produces old vine Zins from around the county.
- Ravenswood - Joel Peterson is the man and does not allow any "Wimpy wines" in a Ravenswood bottle.
- Seghesio Family Vineyards - Since the 1890s, four generations of Seghesios have been here making wine in Sonoma County. Zinfandel is part of their family heritage and among the best Zinfandel around. They are located in Healdsburg.
Zins Are the Jewel of Sonoma County
With several perfect mirco-climates for growing Zinfandel grapes and producing powerful, tasty wines, Sonoma County creates accessible Zinfandels that are definite crowd pleasers. Sonoma County zinfandels are also powerhouse food wines. With generations of experience behind the Zinfandel production in Sonoma County, you're sure to find consistently good Zins to please every palate.