• Joshua Dopkowski

Zinfandel, The Jon Snow of Wine

Updated: May 1, 2019

A quick education in Red Wine and one of the world’s most underrated drinks


Game of Thrones is coming back to HBO next month, and to honor this momentous occasion, I will tell you all the story of one the true heroes of the wine world: Zinfandel.

During a 2015 visit to the Tomassi winery in Valpolicella, located in Northern Italy, I was enjoying one of the best wines I had ever had. They called it Primitivo, and unlike most of the others, it was actually from the Apulia region in the south (as we now know, Jon Snow was born in the south as well). After just one glass, Primitivo easily became one of my favorite wines. Dark in color but not fully opaque, it had a wonderful peppery and earthy aroma, while the flavors teased the palate with hints of luscious blackberries and raspberries. This was a dynamic and complex wine that was amazing with the spicier Italian dishes, and also wonderful just by itself. I speak from experience, Primitivo is an exceptional wine that goes well with many types of food.


Before discovering Primitivo, I was in love with the California Zinfandel wines of Napa Valley, Paso Robles, Anderson Valley, and Sonoma. I was enjoying a bottle of Zinfandel with delicious BBQ about once per week, but now I was ready to convert to a new grape varietal. Then, someone explained to me, that I didn’t really need to!


Zinfandel and Primitivo are in fact basically the same grape, with the main differences being region and wine-making style.


Quick crash course here: All wine is made from fermented grapes, and nothing other than grapes. When drinking a Zinfandel wine, you are drinking mostly (if not only) juice from the Zinfandel grape. Primitivo is basically the Zinfandel grape under a different name, and grown and harvested in Southern Italy. Zinfandel and Primitivo are both originally from Croatia, where the grape is simply called Crljenak Kaštelanski — I will admit that I have absolutely no idea how to pronounce this, and I needed to copy and paste the name from Wikipedia. It’s perhaps more proper to say that Zinfandel and Primitivo are descended from Crljenak Kaštelanski, and therefore Zin and Primitivo are very close relatives, however genetically speaking these grapes are essentially interchangeable (with nuanced differences).

Real Zinfandel is actually very good for you because it makes you smarter. It does this by preventing you from ever drinking white zinfandel, ever again.

Zinfandel is of course known for the nasty white wine called white zinfandel, however, this cheap excuse for wine couldn’t be further from the best showing of the Zinfandel grape. It’s remarkable actually how this grape can make such a wonderfully dynamic and complex wine, and then also create the worst scourge to ever plague the wine world (yes white zinfandel is worse than Phylloxera because I’d rather have no wine than white zinfandel.)

White Zinfandel typically comes from Zinfandel grapes that are grown on a mass scale to young vines, and in a hot climate so that they ripen quickly; most often the location is somewhere in the Central Valley of California, an epicenter for big agriculture. In comparison to other grapes, Zinfandel vines actually live a really long time and therefore lend themselves to be the perfect mass production vines, since they rarely need to be replanted.


Once the mass production Zinfandel grapes are harvested, they are crushed like any other wine grape, however, the skins are quickly removed from the juice. This is a very similar process to producing Rosé, the difference, however, is that when producing white zinfandel, the fermentation process is often halted in order to retain a sugar content where the wine is still somewhat sweet to taste. With Rosé, the wine will usually be dry and earthy, as well as have a higher alcohol content, and this is because the fermentation process is allowed to run its course (generally speaking).


Beyond what I’ve already said, I don’t want to write any more about white zinfandel. My suggestion is not to drink white zinfandel because white zinfandel is bad for you, and it is also just bad overall. “ZIN” Zinfandel, however, real Zinfandel, is actually very good for you because it makes you smarter. It does this by preventing you from ever drinking white zinfandel ever again.


So why the Jon Snow comparison? (GOT SPOILER ALERT) Zinfandel was first thought to be a bastard native grape of Northern California, however, it was recently discovered that Zinfandel is actually a descendant of a royal grape from Southern Europe (Crljenak Kaštelanski aka Rhaegar Targaryen). Zinfandel also is the nephew of Primitivo, another royal grape which it “mixes” very well with (aka Daenerys I Targaryen). It is no wonder then that Zinfandel and Primitivo do so well against the spicier foods, after all, they do have the blood of the dragon.

Zinfandel is a wonderful grape, and all the different names and variations of this grape are just as good, if not better. Despite this, Zinfandel in America is still most commonly perceived as a budget wine, and this is because of its unnatural relatives, aka the “whites” (white zinfandel), that have come to annihilate all true wine drinkers and convert them into mindless zombies. Yes, white zinfandel is the White Walkers of wine! To be fair, the people that created white zinfandel had noble intentions; they were living in the redwood forest and needed to create a quick and sweet wine that could be sold fast to help them protect the vineyards and forest against heavy industry. Is George R.R. Martin telling the story of California through Game of Thrones? You would have to ask him, however, just like the white walkers, white zinfandel turned on their creators and now threatens to destroy them all. All that will remain will be gnarly unhealthy zinfandel vines that are genetically modified and breed unnaturally.


Zinfandel vines in California, picture by author

You definitely have to know Game of Thrones in order to fully grasp the analogies I use here, however, even if you are not a GOT person, the story is still a good one. Zinfandel is in many ways an underdog wine that still has something to prove. Furthermore, shifting people away from drinking white zinfandel to “Zin” Zinfandel is beneficial to not only health but the environment. Things are not looking good for our hero, however; in Napa Valley, many Zinfandel vines have been tragically ripped from the ground so that they could be replaced by the regal Cabernet Sauvignon (aka House Lannister). Why? Because Napa Cab sells for a lot more than Napa Zinfandel, and the ONLY reason for that is because of the common negative perception of Zinfandel (resulting from white zinfandel). There truly is no reason why Zinfandel couldn’t fetch a higher price if the market wasn’t biased to think of it as a gut-wrenching, soul-crushing substitute for Jack Daniels.

It is true that Cabernet Sauvignon is typically a better wine for long-term aging (10 years or longer), however, Zinfandel is a far better wine for right now, and it can be enjoyed within the first year or two of being bottled. Cabernet Sauvignon on the other hand typically needs a minimum of 3 years from harvest to reach a point where it can be sipped without actually gagging, and at least 5 years to actually reach the quality that Cabs are best known for. Zinfandel can easily be aged for 5 -7 years, which is perfect if you’re entering into a dubious marriage, or about to go to prison for a non-violent crime. Upon the liberation of your bonds, the Zin will be at its peak and ready for a celebration.

Ultimately it comes down to this question: What is going to be the most versatile, provide value, be ready to drink soon and still be delicious? Zinfandel is one of the few wines that fit this bill; the fact that it’s Jon Snow in a wine bottle only makes it that much more interesting.


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