WHAT: Zinfandel is the great American wine. It may have roots in Croatia or Italy, but it is in California where zinfandel hit its stride.
For many years its origin was unknown until DNA testing found it was identical to Italy’s primitivo and an ancient variety in Croatia.
However, differences in vine vigor and cluster size separate Zinfandel from its genetic twins, and further differences in cultivation, terroir and winemaking combine to give Zinfandel its own particular flavor profile with a truly American name, history and style.
U.S. rules even say zinfandel and primitivo are not interchangeable on labels. So when you find a great zin you know you are drinking an American original.
Frank Family Vineyards makes one of the best zinfandels around. Zins are one of my favorite wines, and the Frank Family version is in my top two or three.
In the glass it is a deep scarlet color with beautiful peppery aromas of leather, fruit and dried orange rind. The aroma is seductive, but this wine really grabs you with its rich flavor and silky mouthfeel. It has typical red raspberry and dark berry flavors with complex layers of strawberry, cinnamon and oak. The finish is long and pleasant.
The grapes were grown under long-term relationships with vineyards in Chiles Valley, Rutherford, St. Helena and Calistoga. After fermentation, the wine spent 15 months in 33 percent new French oak barrels and 67 percent once and twice-filled French oak.
The finished wine is 84 percent zinfandel with 14 percent petite sirah and 2 percent cabernet sauvignon.
I admire people like Rich Frank and Larry Turley who grow zinfandel in Napa Valley, where they could make much more money growing cabernet sauvignon. Great zins are produced in several California areas, but it’s hard to beat a Napa zin.
Zinfandel was introduced to California during the Gold Rush somewhere between 1852 and 1857 and became widely planted because it thrived so well in the state’s climate and soil. Today, zinfandel is the third-leading wine grape variety in California, with more than 47,000 acres planted and 355,599 tons crushed in 2014, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
Zinfandel in Napa tends to be made in a claret style like a red Bordeaux. It tends to be full bodied, highly aromatic and with higher acidity and tannins, so it can age longer.
WINERY: Founded in 1992, Frank Family Vineyards is owned by former president of Disney Studios Rich Frank and his wife, Leslie, an Emmy Award-winning news journalist.
Winemaker Todd Graff has been with the winery since 2003 and creates a wide portfolio from the family’s 380 acres of estate vineyards and other vineyards under long-term contracts. Graff has been general manager since October 2015.
Frank started visiting Napa Valley on weekends in the 1980s before buying the historic Larkmead Winery, which opened in 1884. He bought the winery with Koerner Rombauer in 1992 and bought out Rombauer in 2007. The stone building from the original winery is on the Registry of National Historic Places, and is now used for parties and receptions.
The winery is a fun place to visit, with a lively tasting room and a picnic area. The staff keeps it loose and fun, but they also teach you about wine. The tasting room moved from a ramshackle old metal building to a beautiful 1930 Craftsman home a few years ago. There are several rooms to use depending on the type of tasting you want.
Graff and his staff make a range of varietals, including cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, zinfandel, chardonnay, petite sirah, sangiovese and some incredible sparkling wines.
Rich Frank now also runs his own entertainment company, Prospect Park, which develops television projects.
Frank Family has received Napa Green certifications for both its vineyards and its winery in the Napa Green Certified Winery and Napa Green Certified Land programs. The program is designed to conserve and improve the quality of the environment through vineyard-specific programs. Certification also means the winery has minimized energy and water use, waste and pollution.
GOES WITH: We had this with a mixed grill plate from my friend Clint, my brother from a different mother. We had a slab of ribs, a large hunk of pork shoulder and several sausages. It was all great, but his ribs stole the show. He makes the best ribs this side of Dreamland.
One of his secrets to great ribs is he takes so much time with them. He cooks them low and slow, over charcoal at a temperature as low as 150 degrees. It takes hours to cook them at that temperature, but the result is worth it.
Clint uses an apple cider vinegar-based mop sauce to keep the meat moist, and he’s always trying some new liquid to spray on the ribs as they cook. That’s one of the characteristics of great cooks: they’re always trying to improve their recipes.
These ribs were nice and crispy on the outside and tender and juicy on the inside, a perfect match for the smooth peppery and fruit flavors of the zin. You can add barbecue sauce, but the ribs are so tasty, they’re wonderful without any sauce. We added mashed potatoes, peas and a salad to round out the meal.
Clint is one of the best cooks I know, especially around a grill. Years ago he used to regularly win a grilling contest that raised money for charity. Clint won several awards every year, so occasionally he would cook but not compete. One of those years I won best pork and third place poultry. The contest ended, but I still have the trophies.
The Frank Family zinfandel also would go well with a wide variety of foods including spring lamb, pizza or pulled pork.