California's more storied vineyards always are at risk. They can get diseased and die, of course. They can be abandoned in the wake of economic downturns or unanticipated shifts in consumer tastes. Or they can be torn out in favor of a shopping mall, subdivision or freeway.
Some folks are doing what they can to preserve the state's older and more cherished vines. Several are members of the Historic Vineyard Society in Sonoma County, which as a start is creating a registry of vineyards that have been around since at least 1960, with no less than a third of its vines continuing to yield fruit.
Another is Duff Bevill, longtime vineyard manager for the Healdsburg winery Dry Creek Vineyard. He was aware of the history of a highly regarded zinfandel vineyard up by Geyserville, just north of Healdsburg. Believed to have been planted around the turn of the 20th century, it was pulled out in the late 1980s, its old vines replaced with new.
Bevill also was aware that Richard Rued, a grape grower in Dry Creek Valley, had acquired vine cuttings from the original Geyserville plot and used them to propagate his own stand of zinfandel. Starting in 1982, that's where Bevill went to get budwood for the new vineyards in both the Dry Creek Valley and the Russian River Valley.
His theory, shared by other vineyardists and vintners, is that the attributes of "old vine" zinfandel can be replicated by grafting budwood from celebrated aging vineyards onto new rootstock. The strategy isn't the same as perpetuating a historic vineyard, but the hope is that the enduring strength of the original plot, including the character and quality of the wines it yielded, can be captured and retained.
Today, grapes from the cuttings that Bevill secured and nurtured go into Dry Creek Vineyard's aptly named "Heritage" zinfandel. How the wine compares with releases made from the original Geyserville vineyard can only be speculated on.
However, the Dry Creek Vineyard 2010 Sonoma County Heritage Zinfandel is an uncommonly spirited and refreshing interpretation of the varietal. It defines California zinfandel at its sunniest and most accessible.
It isn't an "old-vine" zinfandel if the prototype for that style suggests a wine dense with color, tannin and alcohol. This is a zinfandel brightly and clearly colored, popping in aroma with suggestions of fresh raspberries and carefully handled oak, and joyfully fruity on the palate, finishing with a dash of black pepper. It's a frisky reminder that zinfandel can have a place at the spring and summer table as well as the winter one.
Dry Creek Vineyard produced its first zinfandel with grapes from the 1973 vintage. Over the past 40 years, however, it's become recognized more for its cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc and "Meritage" wines, the latter a seamless blend of grape varieties usually associated with Bordeaux.
Nowadays, however, Dry Creek Vineyard founded by Dave Stare in 1972 and now run by his daughter and son-in-law, Kim Stare Wallace and Don Wallace is rediscovering and re- emphasizing Sonoma County's reputation for sleek and stylish zinfandels.
"We ought to be thought of as a leader in Dry Creek Valley zinfandel. We have the fruit and the people to do that," said Tim Bell, winemaker for Dry Creek Vineyard. A graduate in enology from UC Davis, Bell has been on the job just two years, but he's well familiar with the region's vineyards, having put in five years previously with Kunde Estate in Sonoma Valley and a decade before that with Freemark Abbey in Napa Valley.
Bell came aboard just in time to put the finishing touches to the 2010 zinfandel, the product of an unusually challenging growing year for California grape growers. Late-spring rains were followed by an atypically cool summer before temperatures became torrid at the fall harvest. Overall, the cool season helps account for the wine's low alcohol, lean structure and sharp acidity.
In addition to the Heritage zinfandel, the winery makes several other versions of the varietal, including its "Old Vine," several vineyard-designated releases and even a late-harvest zinfandel, though it is thinking of switching from the latter to a port-style interpretation.
Dry Creek Vineyard started to release its Heritage zinfandel in 1997, though at that time it was labeled "Heritage Clone" zinfandel.
With the 2002 version of the wine, the family dropped the "clone," concerned that consumers might interpret the term to mean that genetic engineering had been involved in growing the grapes or making the wine. They are thinking of returning "clone" to the label, believing that wine consumers have become accustomed to the term as signifying a particular strain of a grape variety that has evolved on its own.
Whatever it's called, the Heritage zinfandel is showing another way to honor California's long and respected history with the varietal.
Dry Creek Vineyard 2010 Sonoma County Heritage Zinfandel
By the numbers: 13.5 percent alcohol, 13,495 cases, $19.
Context: Tim Bell relishes this zinfandel with just about anything grilled, but especially hamburgers and chicken seasoned with fresh rosemary. He's also partial to pouring the wine with pastas finished with a marinara sauce.
Availability:Heritage zinfandel is available at several outlets in the Sacramento area, including Corti Brothers, Taylor's Market, the Davis Food Co-op, Safeway and BevMo. It also can be ordered through the winery's website, www.drycreekwinery.com.
More information: The tasting room at Dry Creek Vineyard, 3770 Lambert Bridge Road, Healdsburg, is open 10:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne's selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions and visits to wine regions. Read his blog at www.ayearinwine.com and reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.