Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: What should be the California state wine?

Old zinfandel vines in their winter dormancy await pruning in the Shenandoah Valley, Amador County.
Old zinfandel vines in their winter dormancy await pruning in the Shenandoah Valley, Amador County.

California has nearly 40 official state symbols, including state amphibian (California red-legged frog), state dance (West Coast Swing) and state grass (purple needlegrass; not what you expected, right?)

But California officials have yet to designate a state wine.

I’m here to help correct that oversight. Not that I haven’t tried before. A decade ago I lobbied on these pages that zinfandel should be the state’s official wine. Then-state Sen. Carole Migden, D-San Francisco, subsequently introduced a bill to that effect.

The proposal was largely innocuous and uncontroversial, but stirred up enough opposition from cabernet sauvignon and petite sirah partisans to persuade her to ultimately water down the measure so zinfandel would be declared “the historic wine of California,” a second-division tribute.

The bill breezed through the Legislature, but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it, saying that to single out zinfandel for this honor would slight California’s other varietal wines. (Did he believe that the redwood shouldn’t be the state tree because that would be unfair to the valley oak?)

Well, I’m back on behalf of zinfandel’s singularly significant role in developing California’s standing for fine wine.

Let me repeat the principal reasons why zinfandel should be California’s official state wine:

▪  No other grape or wine is more historically identified with California. Zinfandel has been cultivated in California since the 1860s, and remains the state’s most enduring and versatile grape. Zinfandel is grown almost exclusively in California, with few other states or countries able to offer the climate, the soil and the gumption that it demands. On the international stage, zinfandel more than any other variety showed that California can yield quality wine.

▪  No other grape or wine performs as well in California’s widely scattered and wildly varied terrains. Cabernet sauvignon grows exceptionally well in Napa Valley, pinot noir in Russian River Valley and so forth, but zinfandels of character and stature are as likely to emerge from Cucamonga and Paso Robles as from Dry Creek Valley and Amador County’s Shenandoah Valley. (Incidentally, for sleeper zinfandels of unusual spirit and refinement, don’t overlook interpretations coming out of Russian River Valley.)

▪  No other wine is more democratic than zinfandel. It is made in a broad range of popular styles, from white zinfandel that can be either sweet or dry to late-harvest interpretations that provide all the weight and complexity usually associated with traditional dessert wines like port. And in between are playful nouveau-style zinfandels, lean and athletic claret-style zinfandels and muscular and brash zinfandels meant to accompany the boldest and richest cuts of venison, beef, pork and bear.

▪  In short, zinfandel is California in a bottle. Like a lot of Californians, it showed up here mysteriously, of uncertain origins, without respect, but flourished in the California sunshine and warmth, achieving authority and celebrity. Yes, like other Californians it can be quirky and unpredictable, but beyond that it stands for vitality and hope more than any other wine.

Granted, several other grape varieties and wines have played crucial roles in developing California’s viticultural and enological history, such as alicante bouschet, petite sirah and mission. And let’s not forget vitis Californica, the state’s wild native grape, here before any of the others, but like the others not exploited so fondly and successfully as zinfandel.

Having walked through this vineyard before, I can see other objections to zinfandel being named the California wine. The most mystifying argument likely to arise against zinfandel – and the one basically adopted bySchwarzenegger in his veto – is that such a designation would give zinfandel an unfair advantage over other wines in the marketplace. Wine consumers are smarter than that. They’d likely take pride in such stature given one of California’s wines, maybe even buy a bottle or two out of heightened curiosity, but then continue to invest most enthusiastically in the wines that most excite their palates, which may or may not be zinfandel. What vintner doesn’t boast of his cabernet sauvignon getting 92 points from critic Robert M. Parker Jr. even though Parker ignored the vintner’s chardonnay?

And surely someone will say this campaign is frivolous and silly, that the Legislature and governor have more serious issues to address. Yes, they do, but that argument ignores the instructive role of state symbols for school children, tourists, migrants and the like. What’s more, in this overheated election year why not take time out for something pleasant and light?

Then the issue would shift to Gov. Jerry Brown, no doubt looking to retirement and the start of his memoirs. The thick chapters on his legacy projects like the bullet train and the Delta tunnels aren’t looking as if they will be as thick as he would like, and while zinfandel as the official California wine wouldn’t make for a major legacy chapter it would provide a diverting and uplifting footnote in his remembrances.

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. He can be reached at dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.