Zinfandel's Past and Future Examined

Growers discuss trellising and hang time at Foothill Grape Day

by Jon Tourney
The Foothill Grape Day Zinfandel panel features Terra d'Oro/Montevina winemaker Chris Leamy (from left), Trinchero Family Estates vineyard manager Kevin Steward and Turley Wine Cellars winemaker and vineyard manager Tegan Passalacqua.
Plymouth, Calif.—Foothill Grape Day, held June 5 at the Amador County Fairgrounds and presented by the Central Sierra office of the University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE), featured a panel of Zinfandel producers who addressed the topic, “Back to Zin: Growing and Vinifying Our Foothill Legacy Into the Future.” The panelists all believe Foothill Zinfandel in general, and Amador Zinfandel in particular, produces grapes and wines that are distinct from other California growing regions. They also indicated Foothill Zins can be produced in different styles based on vineyard site and management practices.

Zinfandel production in the Sierra Foothills dates back nearly to the California Gold Rush of the mid-1800s. In the modern winemaker era, attention for Amador Zinfandel rose in 1968, when Sutter Home began making wines from the Deaver Vineyards old vine plantings. Today, many of California’s prominent Zinfandel producers make appellation- or vineyard-designated wines from Foothill vineyards.

More recently, the region’s reputation for Zinfandel has attracted new interest and investment in Amador, with the purchase of Renwood Winery by Argentine oilman Alejandro Bulgheroni, and the purchase of Karly Wines by St. Helena, Calif.-based Turley Wine Cellars

Zinfandel is the most planted variety in the Sierra Foothills’ two largest wine producing counties—Amador (more than 2,000 acres) and El Dorado (more than 400 acres)—and is the second most-planted red variety in California after Cabernet Sauvignon (about 48,000 acres).

Turley takes root in Amador
Turley Wine Cellars specializes in old vine Zinfandel and Petite Sirah; the wine producer makes 34 wines from 40 vineyards located throughout California. Turley has produced Zinfandel from Amador County vineyards since 1996, but it staked a permanent claim in the Foothills in 2012, when it purchased the Karly Wines property in the Shenandoah Valley (founded by Buck and Karly Cobb in 1980) in order to produce wines locally. Turley opened an Amador tasting room in 2013.

Turley winemaker and vineyard manager Tegan Passalacqua, a founding member of the Historic Vineyard Society, oversees farming on 200 acres of California vineyards with a focus on producing vineyard-designated wines that showcase each site. Most Turley vineyards are farmed organically. The Zinfandels are from older, often dry-farmed, head-trained vines, and wines are made without adding yeasts.

Turley currently produces three vineyard-designated Amador Zinfandels: the Sadie Upton Vineyard Zinfandel planted in 1922 (used exclusively by Karly Wines for the past 30 years), the Cobb Vineyard Zinfandel, and the Judge Bell Zinfandel from a block in the Story Vineyard planted in 1907.

“The wines are so different here (in Amador) than the Zinfandels we make from Mendocino, Sonoma or Contra Costa (counties),” Passalacqua said. Turley’s old vine Amador Zins tend to have a bramble and red fruit structure and are light to medium weight. “There is definitely a difference in these wines, sometimes characterized by less color, which is something that should be celebrated, as I consider Zinfandel the Barolo of the Foothills,” he said.

Referring to the practice of extended hang-time, often used with Zinfandel that tends to ripen unevenly, Passalacqua said this could lead to what he calls “oxidation on the vine.” Explaining Turley’s style, he said: “We want wine from fresh fruit. Overripe fruit will continue to deteriorate during winemaking. If you’ve done the right work in the vineyard leading up to harvest, the flavor will be there.”

Passalacqua believes canopy management is key, particularly for organic vineyards. “In this area, we can have intense sun that can lead to overripe fruit, but if you do proper canopy management early in the season, the grapes can adapt as they develop.”

He summarized, “Sunlight is the best sanitizer.” He believes vertically shoot-positioned (VSP) trellis systems are not good for Zinfandel (or many other varieties), particularly in warmer growing regions. Instead he advocated use of California sprawl with canopy management when using trellis systems. “VSP is too efficient in California, because it allows the grapes to accumulate sugar when the phenological ripeness is not there,” Passalacqua said.

Trinchero adapts to production and market conditions
Chris Leamy has been winemaker at Trinchero family-owned Terra d’Oro/Montevina in Amador since 2004, and he serves as vice president of the Zinfandel Advocates & Producers (ZAP) association. “The Sierra Foothills is a special place, it’s one of the few winegrowing spots in the state without an ocean influence,” Leamy observed. “This area produces fruit and wine that are structurally and fundamentally different than that from the coastal areas,” he continued. Leamy believes head-trained vines can produce a more even, balanced fruit character, and he said the Amador Zins he produces are known for characters of cloves and allspice.

Regarding harvest and picking decisions, Leamy said he uses several factors but also takes visual cues from the vines. “By many visual and data indicators, the fruit may appear ripe, but if the field still appears to be cruising along, there still may be opportunity to develop more flavor and complexity, and we may give it more time,” he said.

In contrast, he offered, “If the vines are losing leaves, that field is done and should be picked.”

Terra d’Oro vineyards are planted with eight different Zinfandel clones that offer options for different wine styles and blends. Leamy said, “Sometimes a single clonal expression is the most beautiful. But if you’re making a larger quantity label for national distribution, a selection of clones to have for blending can be used to fill some stylistic holes.”

Leamy also noted that Zinfandel offers options to adjust to market trends. “The Zinfandel market is very cyclical,” he said. Although his marketing and sales people indicate the Zin market is a bit flat right now, Leamy said the red blend market is doing very well, and Zinfandel is a strong component for that category.

Kevin Steward, vineyard manager with Trinchero Family Estates, farms vineyards in the Sierra Foothills and Lodi appellations for Trinchero’s Terra d’Oro and Sutter Home brands. He said a majority of the Amador Zinfandel (85%) he manages is head-trained, which requires all hand operations. He has experimented with different spacing and trellis systems for new plantings and said a quadrilateral trellis with 11-foot x 5-foot spacing has shown good promise in some locations. This system is producing 5 tons per acre of good quality fruit, as compared to the 3 tons per acre (or less) more typical of head-trained Zinfandel. Steward summarized: “Good quality comes from head-trained vines, but there are other options out there.”

The growers also emphasized the importance of vine and soil nutrition. Passalacqua said, “A big issue for us is composting and cover crops to add back nutrition.” He emphasized that this is often an issue working with owners of old vine blocks who tell him, “My father never did that.” Passalacqua said, “In California we’re dealing with just three or four generations of farmers with these old vineyards, whereas in Europe they may have 20 generations of farmers with the same vineyard, and they know they have to add something back to the soil.”

Steward said Trinchero monitors nutrition by analysis of soil samples and vine tissue samples. Winery pomace from Terra d’Oro is put back into the vineyards as compost. Foliar sprays of macro and micronutrients are applied during the growing season. Steward said, “We harvest 3,500 tons a year at Terra d’Oro, and if we take it away, we have to give it back in some form.”

Foothill Grape Day was organized and moderated by UCCE Central Sierra viticulture farm advisor Lynn Wunderlich, who provided growers an update on powdery mildew weather stations recently installed in El Dorado and Amador Counties to enable growers to use the Gubler-Thomas Powdery Mildew Risk Index. Foothill growers can now access localized weather and powdery mildew risk data online for making fungicide spray decisions and adjusting intervals between spray applications. 

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