Grill and Zin It

It’s summer which means that the grill is in use. As you plan your next grilled meal, think of pairing it with Zinfandel. Zinfandel is “California’s grape” and there are some very old vineyards planted across this state. I had the pleasure to taste some of the wines from producers who are caring for these heritage vines to produce beautifully elegant wines that pair with a range of grilled foods. Check out some of these wines, as well as suggested food pairings, which I wrote about in the Napa Valley Register and share here.

Is there anything that screams “summertime” more than outdoor grilling!?!? It is such a summer tradition that July has been deemed National Grilling Month. However, outdoor grilling is a summer-long activity, if not year-round. Once you have your grill or smoker, heated up and ready to go, it is time to open a bottle of wine. And California Zinfandel is a natural pairing.

Zinfandel is California’s grape. Zinfandel is the third-leading wine grape variety in California, with more than 44,400 acres planted, according to The Wine Institute, and it is grown in 45 of California’s 58 counties.

While you might think of Zinfandel as a big, jammy, high- alcohol wine, it is not. Instead, it is a grape that is likened to Pinot Noir when it comes to temperament. Zinfandel is difficult to grow as the berries are big and thin-skinned and the grapes tend to over-crop and ripen unevenly.

But Zinfandel is a grape that shows a sense of place. It is a grape that produces wines that range from light and elegant to big and rich. It makes a wine that has drying tannins and good acidity. Zinfandel does not overpower food but rather complements it. And that is why elegant, structured Zinfandel is versatile to pair with a range of grilled dishes.

Over a couple virtual tastings, I met some of the producers making Zinfandel from classic vineyards. Each wine has a story to tell and each wine also has a different dish to pair with it.

Berryessa Gap

Berryessa Gap is located just east of Lake Berryessa in Yolo County. The Coble Ranch Vineyard, located a few miles from their tasting room, flanks the California Coastal Range next to Napa and Solano counties. The climate is hot and dry, and cool breezes travel through the gap allowing for cool nights and warm days. These are the perfect conditions for grapes such as Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Tempranillo, Barbera, Malbec, Durif, Albarino, Verdejo and Sauvignon Blanc, which grow on the 60-acre ranch.

2017 Berryessa Gap Zinfandel, Coble Vineyard, Yolo County ($22)

Bright aromas of dark cherry, wild berries, dried cranberry, plum and cloves hit the nose. On the palate, the wine is fresh and light with notes of wild berry, cherry, cinnamon, and clove spice. Fine tannins and moderate acidity are in balance as the wine has a smooth finish.

Grilled food pairing: New Orleans-Style Barbecued Shrimp with Creole Cream Cheese Grits from Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey by John Currence

Robert Biale Vineyards

Founders Bob Biale and Dave Pramuk note: “From our beginnings dedicated to advancing Zinfandel, we have always considered ourselves part farmers, part winemakers, part historic preservation society.”

Bob’s grandfather Pietro first planted Zinfandel in 1937. After Pietro’s untimely death, his son and Bob’s father, 13-year-old Aldo, began selling Zinfandel along with eggs and produce from the family’s farm.

The Black Chicken Zinfandel, the flagship of the winery and a benchmark for the varietal, was named in honor of its history. Over the old “party line” phone system, the code words “a Black Chicken” signified a jug of bootleg wine. As this was only a few years after Prohibition, this code word kept nosy neighbors and the authorities from finding out about Aldo’s underground Zinfandel operation.

2018 Robert Biale Old Kraft Vineyard Zinfandel, St. Helena ($55)

Honoring the Zinfandel tradition, Robert Biale works with historic old vines, some dating to the 1880s. Winemaker Tres Goetting explained that every time he steps onto a vineyard, “I can just feel the history, it is truly magical.” He added, “I think ‘wow’ Franz Kraft planted these vineyards that I get to make wine from.” The Old Kraft Vineyard was planted in the 1890s by Franz Kraft, a well-known winemaker at the time. His vineyards and winery were on the west side of town on Madrona Avenue. The iconic old native stone winery is now a cellar for Spottswoode Winery. Most of the original vineyard has been replaced, however owners Bill and Margie Hart did not replace the old parcel to the north of the winery. Instead they called Bob Biale to assist in revitalizing the plot with craggy, twisted vines. The resulting single- vineyard wine has a jammy nose of black and red fruits. On the palate, the wine is elegant and fresh with soft tannins and notes of juicy plum, black cherries, black tea, and spice.

Grilled food pairing: The Fried-Onion Burger (aka The Smash Burger) from The Great American Burger Book by George Motz

Armida Winery

The Cousins and Foley families have been making wine for 25 years in the Dry Creek and Russian River Valleys. They make small lot vineyard designate wines including Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Gap’s Crown Vineyard, Chardonnay from Durell Vineyard (Sonoma Coast), Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon from Stuhlmuller Vineyard (Alexander Valley), Pinot Noir and Zinfandel from Parmelee-Hill Vineyard (Sonoma Coast), Zinfandel from Maple Vineyards (Dry Creek Valley), Zinfandel from Gold Mine Ranch (Dry Creek Valley), Zinfandel from Italo’s Vineyard (Alexander Valley), Pinot Noir from Castelli-Knight Vineyard (Russian River Valley), Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Mosque from family-owned Redwood Ranch and their estate vineyard field blend Il Campo, a combination of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Alicante, and Carignan.

2017 Armida Maple Vineyards Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County ($44)

Certified sustainable, Maple Vineyards is 27 acres of head-trained, dry-farmed Zinfandel. Located at the corner of Dry Creek Road and Lytton Springs Road in Dry Creek Valley, the vineyard sits about 100 feet above the Dry Creek floor. The oldest block was planted in 1910 and this vineyard is legendary as it survived through Prohibition when many vines were removed. Today it is managed by David Rafanelli. Armida owners Bruce and Steve Cousins have been purchasing fruit from Maple Vineyards for over 20 years. The Zinfandel, which has 8 percent Petite Sirah blended in, has notes of bramble, raspberry, black cherries, plum, cassis, violets and lots of spice on the nose. The spice follows through on the palate and the wine finishes with big, structured tannins.

Grilled food pairing: Sous Vide Barbecue Porterhouse Steak from Armida Winemaker Brandon Lapides

Pedroncelli Winery

Pedroncelli Winery has been in the Dry Creek Valley for more than 90 years. John (Giovanni) Pedroncelli Sr. purchased the vineyards and a small winery in 1927 and today the third and fourth generations of the Pedroncelli family run the sustainably farmed winery. Zinfandel was planted on the property before Giovanni Pedroncelli purchased the property and today it is their flagship wine.

2017 Pedroncelli Zinfandel, Bushnell Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County ($26)

The Bushnell Vineyard is located on the eastern hillsides of Dry Creek Valley. It was purchased by the Pedroncelli family in 1943, and today Zinfandel and Petite Sirah are cultivated on the 15-acre site. The wine is big and bold with aromas of blackberry, boysenberry, black cherry, plum, earth, dried herbs, violets, and dark chocolate. This full-bodied wine is robust with gripping tannins and lots of spice.

Grilled food pairing: Grilled Loin Lamp Chops with Red Wine, Garlic and Honey Glaze

Three Wine Company

Matt Cline has been making wine for 35 years. He started at Cline Cellars with his brother in the 1980s. In 2002, he left Cline Cellars to focus on the old vines in Contra Costa County. Matt and Erin Cline launched Three Wine Company in 2008. Their passion is for preserving and educating on the historic varieties Zinfandel, Mataro and Carignane.

2015 Three Wine Company Zinfandel Live Oak, Contra Costa County ($36)

The Live Oak Vineyard was planted in the 1880s and was already 95 years old when Matt started working with it 30 years ago. The vineyard was planted on sand dunes and wind blows through the vines. Resistant to phylloxera, the vines are own-rooted and are dry-farmed. The 2015 Zinfandel has Petite Sirah, Carignane, Mataro, and Alicante Bouschet blended in, resulting in a dark black wine. Notes of bramble, raspberry, blackberry, boysenberry, violets and spice swirl out of the glass. The deep, dark aromas give way to a bright wine with firm acidity.

Grilled food pairing: Grilled peaches with balsamic vinegar

Rock Wall Wine Company

Winemaker Shauna Rosenblum was taught everything she knows by the “King of Zin,” her father Kent Rosenblum. With a penchant for Zinfandel, Shauna was trained to love this grape. Rock Wall Wine Company was founded by Kent and Shauna, whose philosophy is about the right grape in the right place. Located in Alameda, Rock Wall Wine Company is located on the former Alameda Naval Air Base, which was decommissioned in 1997 and turned over to the community and is slowly being converted to civilian use. The name Rock Wall refers to the defensive perimeter wall built during World War II in the San Francisco Bay to protect the base from Japanese air to sea torpedoes.

2018 Rock Wall Wine Company Zinfandel Reserve, Maggie’s Vineyard, Sonoma County ($50)

Maggie’s Vineyard is located in southern Sonoma County. Planted in 1901, it is one of the oldest vineyards in Sonoma Valley. As a heritage site, white grapes are interplanted at the vineyard.

Kent Rosenblum leased Maggie’s Vineyard in 2018 after having worked with the vineyard for many years prior. Six weeks before harvest, Kent passed away and Shauna took over, finished harvest and made this wine.

The 2018 Zinfandel is a co-fermentation of Zinfandel with small amounts of Sémillon, Muscadelle, and Palomino. The wine is a bright red color with ripe notes of red cherry, blueberry, blackberry, and pepper. It is a very pretty wine with a lovely juicy finish.

Grilled food pairing: Grilled avocado

Martinelli Winery

The Martinelli Winery has been growing grapes in Sonoma County across five generations and for 135 years. Giuseppe Martinelli and his bride, Luisa Vellutini, eloped and moved from Tuscany to California, looking for land to farm. In the 1880s, he and Luisa bought a small two-and-a-half-acre piece of property that sits on a 60-degree slope called Jackass Hill. Today, all the Martinelli Zinfandel vineyards originate from their heritage Zinfandel vineyards and their oldest vines are 140 years old.

2018 Martinelli Winery Giuseppe and Luisa Zinfandel, Russian River Valley ($58)

Named in honor of great-grandparents Giuseppe and Luisa, the Giuseppe and Luisa Vineyard was acquired by the Martinelli Family in 1961 and planted in 1994 with cuttings from the original Jackass Hills vineyard planted by Giuseppe. It is a bold wine with aromas of boysenberry, black cherry, black plum, raspberry, and sweet leather. Medium-bodied, the wine has bright acidity.

Grilled food pairing: Smokehouse burger with Pinot Noir Barbecue Sauce from the Fire + Wine Cookbook

From Sonoma Valley, Russian River and Dry Creek Valley, to Napa, Contra Costa and Yolo County, heritage vineyards continue to thrive thanks to these winemakers. Old vine Zinfandels are expressing where they are from. Drying tannins and beautiful acidity make these the wines the ones to open when you are firing up your grill.

Read the original story in the Napa Valley Register.