For the last few decades, Zinfandel has been sort of synonymous with inexpensive, easy drinking reds and really inexpensive (OK, cheap) pink plonk. And while these wines still exist (Sutter Home makes 4 million bottles of White Zinfandel a year!), high quality Zinfandel that’s made more like, shall we say, grownup wine, has crept steadily upward in price in the last few years, making it harder and harder to unearth wines like the Victor Vineyards, with balanced fruit and spice and a well under $20 price tag.
Sought-after, ‘cult’-y wines like Turley and Ridge are partially to blame for this price creep, but we can’t entirely pin this on the aspirations of ambitious winemakers. A big part of this is the vines themselves.
Saving the Old Vines. Considered embarrassing wine with training wheels by many, White Zinfandel gave us one thing: growers had a reason to preserve the few old Zinfandel vines that date back to the 19th and early 20th century. And these gnarled old vines haven’t had an easy life.
Many, like the ones on Victor Vineyards estate, were planted in the late 19th and early 20th century by immigrants who saw that the warm climate and sandy soil in Lodi would be perfect for orchards and vineyards. Victor Vineyards was the site of the first cold storage facility for holding fruit and grapes at the right temperature before shipping – established in 1920 – and their tasting room is still housed in one of these old storage warehouses.
The 1920s brought something else that threatened the life of the Zinfandel vines that would become historic American treasures: Prohibition. There was still a fairly brisk grape growing business during Prohibition, since home winemaking was still legal for the most part. But many Zinfandel vines were ripped out and replaced with Alicante Bouschet, because Zinfandel was very prone to rotting on journeys to the East Coast, where many grapes grown for home winemaking were shipped. Lastly, these vines survived the phylloxera crisis of the 1980s in California.
The Old Vine Advantage … Often Means Expensive. Old vines, while they grow complex, flavorful fruit, don’t grow very much of it, so making wine from these historic plants is much more expensive than it would be from younger, more vigorous vines. Old Zin vines are also almost always what we call ‘head trained’ or bush trained, which means that the vines aren’t neatly trellised on wires in a way that makes them easy to harvest by machine. More handwork means more expensive wine.
Though there is no legal definition for old vines, it is generally agreed upon that 40 is when vines become ‘old.’ We’ll leave the debate on what the definition for ‘old’ is in people for another email, but we think the dividing line might be whether or not you understand Snapchat…
All of this makes the fact that Victor Vineyards is able to craft an affordable, delicious, balanced Zinfandel aged in French oak (which is more expensive than American oak) from 100 year old vines all the more impressive!
– Diane McMartin