“We picked zinfandel as our featured wine for the month of May,” said Paul Bush, owner and winemaker at Madroña Vineyards, “because May kicks off the barbecue season and what better wine for anything you barbecue than zinfandel.”
Zinfandel is the most heavily planted grape in El Dorado County; most wineries make it and because of the different soils and weather patterns, it varies in style from a light, claret wine to very heavy, “fruit up front — knock your socks off” wine.
Because it comes in so many different styles, there is one that will pair with nearly any food.
For years some believed that zinfandel even originated in California, as, perhaps, a hybrid of other varieties. After all, nowhere else in the world was a wine called zinfandel being produced. Since its popularity had been out shined by big, French varietals such as cabernet sauvignon, for many decades few wineries bottled a pure zinfandel and most of the zinfandel wine was being used to blend with other grapes in what California wineries simply called “Burgundy,” or “Claret.”
About three decades ago Zinfandel became more popular as a varietal and at about the same time, scientists decided it was a good time to go looking for its origin.
Initially a grape in Italy called primitivo drew the scientist’s attention. In 1994 tests by Professor Carole Meredith at University of California, Davis showed that the zinfandel and primitivo grape were genetically the same. However she was not sure that the zinfandel in California came from Italy and old-timers in Italy called primitivo a “foreign grape.”
Other scientists chasing the history and trail of the zinfandel grape found that around 1822 a New York nurseryman acquired cuttings from the gardens of the Imperial Hapsburg Collection in Vienna, which included grapevines and other plants that had been gathered from all over the once huge Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The nursery people didn’t recognize several of the cuttings. It was a thin-skinned, dark red table-grape that some unknown person had named zinfandel, or actually, “zinfendal.”
In 1832 a nurseryman in Boston advertised that he had “Zinfandel for sale” — grapevines that he may or may not have obtained from the New York nursery.
Arrival in Gold Country
Somewhere between 1852 and 1857 zinfandel grapes were introduced into California and were first planted in El Dorado, Amador and Sonoma counties, followed almost immediately by plantings in other counties as they began to import the vines by ship from the east coast.
Within 50 years there were more acres of zinfandel grapevines in California than any other varietal.
Continuing her research, in 1998 professor Meredith began to research the principal red wine grape of Croatia, Plavac Mali. She established that zinfandel was one of its two genetic parents. First only one vine, then eight more vines out of a planting of 6,000 vines in Croatia were found to be identical to zinfandel.
A few years later, on the Dalmatian Coast, researchers found another 15 vines slightly further to the south of the others that are genetically identical to zinfandel but under an even older name, Crljenak Kastelanski.
A wine made from this grape variety was popular throughout the Adriatic region as early as 1300 A.D.
The variety may have originated somewhere else, but for the last 700 to 800, perhaps 1,000 years, it has been growing in Croatia. And now it is a top wine in California.
In preparing for this month long celebration, Madroña Vineyards personnel met with a number of local restaurants and, like they did with the New World Port a few months ago, asked them to feature a dish during the month of May using either a zinfandel from their lighter Hillside Series or their more robust Signature Series. The list is continually growing but presently the following restaurants are participating:
In the Placerville area, Café Luna will pair the Signature zinfandel with its unique pork osso buco; Casa Ramos likes the Hillside with the carne asada y mas, burrito carnitas and zarapes; Cascada will pair the Hillside with puerco con franbuesa, costillas de borrego and Negro y azul; Cold Springs Golf and Country Club likes the Hillside with the bacon wrapped filet; Cozmic Café will pair the Hillside zinfandel with portabella mushrooms; Heyday is pairing Signature zinfandel with the Double R Ranch flat iron steak and coq au vin; Placerville Brewery will serve the Signature zinfandel with prime rib (Saturday and Sunday only) and the speciality elk burger; Powell’s Steamer will pair the Hillside with cioppino “lazyman” style; Zia’s is pairing their hand rolled pizzas and lasagna with the Hillside and Z-Pies is featuring the Hillside with both the rosemary lamb and steak cabernet Z-Pies.
In the Camino area, Shilla Sushi picked the Hillside to go with the barbecued albacore and baked Lion King roll while Sierra Banquet Center believes both of the zinfandels pair well with the filet mignon, rib eye steak and, on Thursday’s only, the speciality pastas.
In Cameron Park, Kobe Sushi has paired both zinfandels with the sexy salmon crunch roll, barbecued albacore tuna and Korean style barbecued beef short ribs; Los Pinos, a sister restaurant of Cascada, will also be serving the Hillside with puerco con franbuesa, costillas de borrego and Negro y azul and grilled flat iron steak salad, while Snooty Frog is pairing the Hillside with tournedos Rossini, made with Snooty Frog paté containing the 2002 Madroña New World Port and topped with bearnaise, along with tilapia sautéed in garlic with a champagne cream sauce.
In El Dorado Hills, the new Chantara Thai Cuisine has selected two of its dishes, salmon curry and lamb on the run to go with the Hillside zinfandel.
In Somerset, the Gold Vine Grill is pairing the Signature zinfandel with two dishes, the Somerset broil and a pork chop.
In Pollock Pines, the famous Fifty Grand will be paring both wines with its rib eye steak, filet mignon and prime rib (available on Thursday, Friday and Saturday).
In Coloma the Sierra Nevada House is pairing three dishes with the Hillside zinfandel, roasted chicken with blueberry apple confiture, pear chutney pork chop and its unique salmon BLT, made with charbroiled salmon, hardwood smoked bacon, lettuce and tomato on a ciabatta roll.
A special Madroña Vineyards Zinfandel Dinner on Sunday, May 6 at Café Luna, 451 Main St. in Placerville, has sold out. However, there is another one scheduled for Sunday, May 20.
The salad course starts the meal with grilled garlic shrimp, black pepper and melon salad with Fontina cheese on greens, paired with 2011 Nebbiolo Rosé then an asparagus and Gruyere tart paired with 2000 Zinfandel. The pasta course is pork and fennel lasagna with house-made ricotta, paired with 2010 Signature Zinfandel and the main course is braised, dry-rubbed beef short rib with Gorgonzola polenta, grilled tomatoes, garlic mushrooms and roasted parsnips, paired with 2008 Reserve Zinfandel.
To finish off the meal is a fabulous dessert called Torta Barozzi, a bittersweet chocolate truffle cake with a dark cherry/zinfandel sauce and paired with 2007 Madroña Late Harvest Zinfandel.
For more information and reservations for this dinner contact Café Luna at 530-642-8669.
Additional zinfandel events for the month of May include a continuing zinfandel celebration in the Madroña tasting room featuring a different older vintage every day (1979-2008) and on weekends a paring of the 2007 Late Harvest Zinfandel with Mimolette cheese. As a great finale, on Thursday, May 31, there will be another wine dinner at Maranello Restaurant in Fair Oaks.