Trader Joe's store display of 2021 Cline Ancient Vines Zinfandel, Contra Costa County, California

If You Love BBQ, Get to Know this Grape, and this Wine

Fast Facts:

  • 2021 Cline Ancient Vines Zinfandel, Contra Costa County, California   ($13.99 @Trader Joe’s in California)
Today’s online edition of Decanter reported that veraison (that celebrated harbinger of harvest when wine grapes begin to blush and change color) has begun in the vineyards of northern California. They talked with winemakers from Napa, from Sonoma – all the usual suspects.  But like many others, did not speak to one of the oldest wine growing areas in California: Contra Costa County.
You’d be forgiven for not knowing where Contra Costa is. It is an AVA directly east of San Francisco Bay.  Once a prolific wine-growing region, the county is home to some century-old plantings of Zinfandel, Mourvèdre and Carignan that produce rustic, earthy and leathery styles of red wine. This particular wine checks all three of those boxes.

The county sits on the edge of the San Francisco and Suisun bays and the city of San Francisco across the bay gives the county its name – “contra costa” meaning “opposite shore” in Spanish.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, Contra Costa County had a significant portion of land under vine. However, during Prohibition, growers could not earn enough from their grapes to justify using such high-quality sites and other fruit crops such as cherries and pears were planted instead. Most grape growers moved further north and away from San Francisco into Napa and Sonoma counties, but a few hardy souls remained.

One of the area’s treasures is its old Zinfandel vines, which yield excellent deep, bold reds that rest on a strong tannic backbone and wild acidity. The quality soils of Contra Costa County are the defining feature of its terroir. Vines that were planted 100 years ago on deep, sandy soils are today aged thick knarled stock that have relatively low yields, particularly as the vines have aged.  Deep and free-draining, the sand offers little resistance to wandering root systems, and the lack of water in the ground means that the vines produce small, concentrated berries with thick skins. This is a good thing which leads to concentrated wines with firm tannins and excellent structure. We should all thank the Wine Gods that these growers have not torn these iconic vineyards out due to low productivity and the fact that Zinfandel is not exactly the most commercially viable wine grapes these days.  You can thank Sutter Home and the once ubiquitous White Zinfandel for that – at least in part.

Lying East of San Francisco Bay, the small vineyard that was used to make this wine is part of the broader San Francisco Bay AVA and the further encompassing Central Coast AVA to the south. It’s often said that Contra Costa was “Napa before there was Napa,” a reference to the area’s early 20th century glory, before Prohibition and the Great Depression hit the vineyards. Today, it’s emerged as a rising star in California because of a return to plantings and very favorable climatic conditions influenced by the Bay and its signature early-morning fog.


Bottle and glass of 2021 Cline Ancient Vines Zinfandel, Contra Costa County, California.
Bottle and glass of 2021 Cline Ancient Vines Zinfandel, Contra Costa County, California. Even the horses look eager to taste!

Tasting Notes:

Oak, currants, and berries on the nose. Blackberry and cherry fruits on the palate with a super soft and smooth finish. 2021 Ancient Vines Zinfandel shows the varietal strawberry character that Zinfandel is known for. Well balanced and fresh with a touch of plum and black pepper make for a very enjoyable glass of wine. Very drinkable now but will age well for 5-7 years or longer. Accompany this wine with slow-cooked BBQ pork, chicken mole, or spinach mushroom casserole. Enhancing the strawberry, raspberry, orange zest and vanilla characteristics. Wonderful to pair with prosciutto and arugula pizza or a mouthwatering meat lasagna. And as we stated in our subject line – just about every kind of meat grilled over an open flame!

Cline Family Cellars is a family-owned and operated winery in Sonoma, California, built “on a passion for winemaking and rooted in respect for the land.” For me, Cline has always been synonymous with high QPR Zinfandel.  Fred Cline started Cline Family Cellars in 1982 in Contra Costa making his first vintages from original plantings of Mourvedre, Zinfandel, and Carignane, some of which dated back to the 1880’s. In 1989, Fred purchased a 350-acre horse farm in Carneros and moved the winery to Sonoma County. As one of the original Rhone Rangers, he began planting varietals that included a number of vineyards dedicated to Syrah, Viognier, Marsanne, and Roussanne. Since those first plantings, Fred and his wife Nancy have continued to plant vineyards throughout Sonoma County, expanding to include more classic varieties like Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Chardonnay.



Front label of 2021 Cline Ancient Vines Zinfandel, Contra Costa County, California   ($13.99 @Trader Joe's in California)
2021 Cline Ancient Vines Zinfandel, Contra Costa County, California. At $13.99, it only looks expensive.


Need More Wine Picks from Trader Joe’s – or Costco?

If your search for this wine lands you in Trader Joe’s, take along our handy Lucky 13 list of TJ’s wine here.

And if your wine shopping excursions land you in Costco, prepare by grazing our most recent reviews of Costco wines here in our Lucky 13 list.

Happy hunting.



1 thought on “If You Love BBQ, Get to Know this Grape, and this Wine

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: