Zinfandel: An Epoch History in Paso
Zinfandel is one of the most popular grapes in Paso, and it’s not hard to see why! This grape attracts people with its wide spectrum of flavor profiles: extremely peppery to super jammy and chewy and all of the soft and balanced middle ground. Any taster will be able to find a Zin they can fall in love with! A New York Times article stated that “the appellation is so big and the conditions are so disparate that it’s almost impossible to say what is characteristic of Paso Robles,” but also that the author doesn’t “recall tasting so many well-balanced Zinfandels at the same time.” While it’s fun to taste all the different Zins Paso has to offer, it’s also important to look at the rich history of Zin and how it’s grown to become a huge part of present-day Paso Robles. Epoch Estate Wines itself also has many links to Paso’s history of Zin!
Where did Zinfandel originate?
There has been a lot of controversy over the years on where exactly the Zinfandel grape has originated. This is largely due to the fact that the grape had been split from its original home on the Dalmation Coast of Croatia, where locals called the grape Tribidrag, or Crljenak Kaštelanski, and into two well-known grapes we still see today: Zinfandel and Primitivo.
Where did this split take off? Don Francesco Fillipo, an 18th century Italian priest, sourced some of these grapes from Croatia, to be planted in Liponti, Italy. The vines grew successfully and according to a Vivino article, the “Tribidrag grapes seemed to ripen before any other grape, so he started calling them Primitivo (translation: first one).”
While the Hapsburgs of Austria had control over Croatia, some of the Tribidrag grapes came back with them to Vienna, where they eventually fell into the hands of an American horticulturist, George Gibbs. Gibbs brought these grapes back with him to Boston in 1829, where he introduced them as the table grape Zenfendel (notice the different spelling). The grape took off in the United States and eventually arrived in Napa with Gibbs in 1850 to become what we know as today’s Zinfandel.
For years and years, Zinfandel and Primitivo were considered to be two different grapes, completely unique from one another. Fast forward to 1968, over a century after the grapes arrived in Napa, and Austen Goheen, a professor at UC Davis, noticed the similarities between these two grapes and declared them to be genetically identical to each other. It wasn’t until many more years later in 2001, that these grapes were identified to have originated in Croatia.
When did Zin come to Paso?
As it relates to who brought Zin to Paso, there is controversy there too. However, there is no denying that it was brought over around the late 19th century and has thrived growing in Paso since. Here are some key players in the start-up of zin in Paso. Some of them even have a direct link to Epoch. 🙂
Originally from Indiana, Andrew York came out to Paso and established Ascension Winery in 1882. The name eventually changed to York Mountain Winery, which many of you might be familiar with today! York Mountain became the first bonded winery on the central coast (located where Epoch’s Tasting Room and York Mountain Vineyard are located today) and had a good long run from 1882 all the way until 2003. York Mountain was able to stay open even during prohibition, making wines specifically for “the church.”
Andrew York brought in some of Paso’s earliest Zinfandel vines, with cuttings rumored to be brought over from his brother, Eli York, who had already started an established winery in the Napa area. Andrew planted 40 acres of Zinfandel on his land on York Mountain using dry farming methods. Along with his own vines, York eventually bought grapes from other growers in Paso and began to advertise his wines in 1892. The Wine History Project of SLO found an article in an ad for the Paso Robles newspaper of York stating: “I have on hand 5,000 or 6,000 gallons of one and two-year-old wine, which I can sell, delivered in town if desired, cheaper than it can be procured in the city.”
Paderewski Vineyard, Willow Creek District, Paso Robles
97% Zinfandel, 3% Grenache
Notes from Jordan: “Intricate and pensive, delicate yet decadent, this classy and refined Zinfandel speaks Paderewski Vineyard with its smoky reduction, fresh blackberries, bay leaf, violet and underlying minerality.”
What critics are saying: Jeb Dunnuck 95, Wine Advocate 95, Vinous 94, Wine Spectator 93
Taste for yourself ($65):
In 1895, York began working on the construction of the winery again, adding a Tasting Room and more stories onto the facility. He even brought in lumber from the original Cayucos pier; this can still be seen today in Epoch’s Tasting Room, where we have reused many of the same materials from the old York Mountain facility to mix the modern with the old! The York family continued to own the winery until they sold ownership to the Goldmans in the 1970s. In 2003, the San Simeon Earthquake hit, and the Tasting Room was severely damaged to the point of being condemned. The building sat in rubble for seven years until Bill and Liz Armstrong acquired the property out of foreclosure in 2010 and started the long road of reconstructing this facility. In December of 2016, Epoch’s new Epoch Tasting Room was officially open for the public!
James Anderson (1852-1921) may very well have been the first person to actually grow Zinfandel vines in Paso. Originally a sheep farmer from Australia, Anderson was a shipwreck survivor who came to the Central Coast and purchased a piece of land at the foot of York Mountain in 1876, now known as Anderson Creek. Anderson may also have been the very first person to build a winery in the historic Ascension District; as stated in Wine History Project of San Luis Obispo article, there are no records that show evidence of any earlier wineries. Anderson became very well respected in the wine culture of SLO county. He had 12 acres of vines total, and they were Zinfandel and Burger (white French grape) varieties.
Ignacy Jan Paderewski
Paderewski (1860 -1941) is a huge part of both Paso’s past and present. Originally from Poland, Paderewski was both a politician and a world-renowned pianist. In 1919, after World War I, Paderewski became Prime Minister of a newly independent Poland. When he wasn’t busy being a politician, Paderewski regularly toured the United States as a pianist, playing shows all over the States in the 1890s and early 1900s. On his ninth tour in the US, Paderewski developed rheumatism, and in 1914, his doctors advised him to travel to Paso Robles specifically for the hot springs and their health benefits. When he arrived in Paso, the land immediately reminded him of his home in Poland, so he bought 2,000 acres in the Adelaide district of west Paso and established his Rancho San Ignacio Vineyard. Here he planted 35,000 Zinfandel cuttings brought over from a nursery in Riverside. Epoch now owns 350 of the original 2,000 acres of Paderewski’s vineyard, which is home to our beautiful Paderewski Vineyard!
This is where Epoch’s history comes full circle. Paderewski would grow his grapes on his land and then bring them over to York Mountain Winery to be turned into wine. Paderewski’s wines eventually became as cherished as his piano playing!
Paderewski is still celebrated in Paso today. The Paderewski Festival is held annually in Paso Robles in honor of Ignacy Jan Paderewski. This is a four-day music festival held in the beginning of November that brings in people from all over the world! This festival is rich with concerts, exhibits, lectures, master classes, film screenings, and wine tastings. The Paderewski Festival is a cherished Paso Robles tradition!
Italian immigrant, Frank Pesenti, came to the Central Coast in 1914, where he worked in the York Mountain area. He eventually planted his own Zinfandel vines in 1923, and years later after prohibition, established the Pesenti Winery in 1934. Pesenti, located on Vineyard Drive, was known for its “local sales of jugs containing generic table wines and Zinfandel.” The Pesenti family operated the winery until 2000, when the winery was purchased by Larry Turley and is now known today as Turley Wine Cellars. Today, Turley still uses the old Zinfandel vines, grown mainly on limestone soil, from the Pesenti Vineyard.
Another Italian immigrant who found himself in the Paso Robles area in the early 1900s was Sylvester Dusi. Dusi came out to Paso in 1910 with his wife, Caterina, and eventually moved near his brothers near York Mountain. In addition to buying a hotel on Pine Street in downtown Paso, Dusi also purchased land, which became known as their Dusi Ranch; he planted Zinfandel vines on the property in 1926. Winemaking has stayed in the Dusi family ever since.
Sylvester and Caterina had three kids (Guido, Dante, and Benito), and they, too, eventually became important parts of the wine industry in Paso. Benito continued to grow Zinfandel after his father’s death. He sold their grapes to wineries, many of whom made award winning Zinfandel wines from their fruit. York Mountain was the largest local winery that purchased grapes from the Dusi vineyards. Dante Dusi grew and sold grapes as well. He purchased land that he and his wife, Dorothy Stepple, lived on; this property eventually became the well known Dante Dusi Vineyard. Benito, the youngest of the Dusi brothers, was offered by his father 60 tons of Zinfandel grapes to produce wine. He sold this Dusi Zinfandel in gallon jugs for $1.10.
Dante Dusi passed away in 2014, but the Dusi family continues to sell their grapes and make Dusi wine. Dante gave his vineyards to his two sons, Mike and Rick. Dante’s granddaughter, Janell Dusi, learned how to grow and make wine from her grandfather, and she now has her own label, J Dusi; her flagship wine? A Zinfandel, of course. The family continues to expand their vineyards and keep the Dusi traditions alive.
Gerome (Joe) & Romilda Rotta
Joe Rotta (1885 – 1958), first generation of the Swiss-Italian Rotta family in Paso, purchased land from farmer, Adolphe Siot, in 1908; this property eventually became known as Rotta Winery. Siot taught the Rotta family how to grow and maintain the vineyards and helped plant the initial Zinfandel vines; with a background in family dairy farming tradition, they had no previous knowledge of viticulture. In 1925, Joe sold the winery to his brother, Clemente Rotta, and his wife, Romilda, and Adolphe continued to teach the Rotta’s how to grow and make wine.
A natural to the wine business, Romilda held up the marketing and sales side of the family business. Like York Mountain Winery, Rotta Winery stayed open during Prohibition, selling their wines to local parishes. After Prohibition, Rotta became the second bonded winery (the first being York Mountain) in the area, and they became very well-known for their jug wines of Zin. In the 1960’s and 70’s, Romilda “Momma” Rotta (photo to the right) became popular with the local college students and surfers, and they would come see her to purchase gallon jug wines for $2.25. She’d even give them $0.50 off if they brought their original jug back to refill. Here she is pictured with a bottle of Zinfandel Rose.
The winery stayed in the family for three generations from 1908 – 1976, and then again in the years from 1990 – 2013. Unfortunately, the original winery was damaged in the 2003 San Simeon Earthquake. A new state-of-the-art winery was constructed in 2006 and is being used today!
Present Day Paso
Zinfandel is still a huge part of Paso Robles today. Winemakers all over the area still use this grape to create their own distinctive Zin. If you want a Paso experience specifically revolving around its Zins, check out Wine Country’s guide to tasting Zins in Paso! But don’t forget to come on by Epoch’s tasting room. 😉 We have our own delicious bottling of this beloved variety. It is not always available in our Tasting Room, but it does make appearances from time-to-time and it can be procured annually through our Entourage Releases.
Also, make sure to check out Vintage Paso Zinfandel Weekend. Although it has been cancelled this year due to COVID-19, there will still be many opportunities in the years to come to experience this celebrated weekend in Paso.
Let’s Drink Some Zin!!
I couldn’t possibly write this blog about Zins without trying some for myself! Here are a few local Zins I had fun tasting. All of these are so unique from one another, as they are from different vintages and regions of Paso. Although tasting rooms are closed due to COVID-19, all of these wines are still available for purchase via curbside pickup and shipping. We all need a little more wine during these times!
J Dusi 2014 Zinfandel: This bold, full-bodied, Old World, Italian Style Zinfandel comes straight from the Dante Dusi Vineyard. There are full bright fruit notes of blackberries, plums, and cherries that are balanced with a bit of pepper on the finish. There’s only a limited quantity of this vintage left, with a two bottle limit per purchase, so make sure to get your hands on some of this Zin soon! 🙂
Epoch 2015 Zinfandel: Of course, I had to add Epoch’s Zinfandel to the list! The 2015 Zinfandel has a whole lot to offer. Being extremely balanced and more on the soft side for Zins, it is not too peppery and not jammy; it has delicate qualities of both along with darker fruits such as blackberries and plums. There is also minerality within the wine, giving it a wonderful balance. The grapes come from the Paderewski Vineyard in the Adelaide district of Paso. The wine is 97% Zinfandel and 3% Grenache, aged for 18 months in French Oak Barrels and Puncheons (45% New).
Lone Madrone 2016 Bailey Ranch Zinfandel: This 100% Zinfandel is coming from the Bailey Ranch (head pruned and dry farmed!) vineyard on Peachy Canyon Road. There are notes of dark fruits (lots of cherry!) in this wine as well as earthy notes.
Already have some Zins waiting for you to drink in your wine cellar but not sure when to drink them? Check out Wine Spectator’s Vintage Chart to see which of your wines are ready to be enjoyed!
Don’t let Levi’s face fool you… he LOVES our 2015 Zinfandel and can’t wait to taste it with you once our Tasting Rooms is up and running again! Ü
Thanks for reading & happy tasting!
& a HUGE THANK YOU to the Wine History Project of San Luis Obispo for all the up-to-date information and history of the area. 🙂