November 19 is National Zinfandel Day according to the Wine Lover’s Calendar. Now I have to admit, that of all the major wine grapes this is not one of my favorites, though I am slowly trying it again at times. When I was a boy and I got a chance to try wine and that was big time, it was usually “Dago Red” and that was what the old men would call the wine they made in the basement. Not even a garagista wine, this was always a basement wine. In the old days, there would be boxcars that would end up on sidings near my old neighborhood and the men would go and buy crates of grapes from California. The old men from Italy would call the grapes Primitivo, but the crates would say Zinfandel, years later the old men would be proven true, as DNA testing proved that they were the same, but you couldn’t fool them. Most of the men had primitive crushers and old barrels, but the concept was still the same, and I guess that Federal and State laws allowed home made wine for personal consumption back in the day; at least I think they did.
I remember as a boy, the first thing that I noticed was the heavy taste of the wine, but it was the aftertaste that I remember more, even to this day, and for some of my regular readers they know that I do not like using descriptive language when talking about wine, because I have always felt that people find different tastes at times. The aftertaste that I always found from Zinfandel as a boy and that I carried with me into adulthood was the taste of egg whites. Let me explain that I love eggs, preferably poached in a poaching tray, as I have never enjoyed the taste of egg whites to this day, so when the egg white is partially hidden I am much happier (and I know that the statement sounds strange, but think of a soft boiled egg in the shell, as opposed to the poached egg that is just done in boiling water, with a sloppy looking egg white attached to the yolk. I mention this phobia of mine, because years later, it was explained to me, that the old men used to use egg whites to filter the homemade wine; I still have never seen it done, so it is a mysterious step to me, but it has vindicated in my own mind that there was indeed a cause for my aftertaste memory.
Zinfandel or Primitivo have both been grown very successfully in Sicily and in California, where it was introduced in the early part of the Nineteenth Century and has flourished both in Napa and Sonoma Valley to this day. In the old days, I remember the jug wines in the handy dandy gallon bottles to be the wine of choice at many homes that we visited, and the wine was poured very generously into regular water glasses, because the wine was quaffed with a meal, rather than sipped. I remember Famiglia Cribari and Carlo Rossi wines in houses and lining the old Italian Markets in the neighborhood.
My outlook slowly changed about Zinfandel one evening in Napa Valley, as my Bride and I were having dinner at The French Laundry. I remember talking to the Sommelier and asking for a wine that is popular with the local populace and he brought over the wine that changed my outlook. The wine was Sean Thackrey Old Vines Pleiades VIII (July 1999) and it may be one of the most unique wines made in Marin County and for that matter in all of California. It is a non-vintage wine made from fruit that Sean Thackrey finds and enjoys and he may blend red and white wine grapes together, and this was his eighth endeavor. It was a blend of Zinfandel, Syrah, Carignan, Petite Sirah and Merlot, and it was wonderful, the dinner was outstanding, but that evening my thinking changed for Zinfandel and since then I have had other Zinfandels as well. Old dogs can sometimes learn new tricks.