Zinfandel grape comes of age
March 5, 2013
Every year for the past several years I have been invited by ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates and Producer, http://.zinfandel.org) to be the moderator for a day-long session of winemaker seminars at their Grand Festival, which takes place in San Francisco each January. It has offered me a fascinating view into all things Zinfandel.
There were 12 sessions throughout the day, each consisting of two winemakers.
Topics included single-vineyard Zinfandels, historic old-vine vineyards, traditional field blends, barrel samples, winery blends and different wine regions.
Each winemaker poured one wine to exemplify the point of his discussion.
The bombastic, frat-party-gone-wild image might have been useful for establishing an identity for Zinfandel, but now winemakers … prefer to talk about balance, elegance, restraint and food compatibility.
Meanwhile, a short distance away in another part of the building, more than 200 wineries were pouring an ocean of Zinfandel to thousands of devoted Zin-heads.
ZAP's annual Zin Fest is the largest single-variety wine event in the country.
Now in its 22nd year, ZAP has been crucial to the very survival of Zinfandel.
In 1991, a small band of winemakers were growing increasingly concerned that Zinfandel was in danger of disappearing.
Zinfandel, the backbone of the California wine industry for more than a century, was falling out of favor with the wine-drinking public.
Faced with dropping sales, growers were yanking out vineyards or budding over to other varieties. Much of what was left was being produced as white-zin. In fact, new wine consumers sometimes thought Zinfandel was a white grape.
Even though Zinfandel originated in Europe, at the time, the only place it was known to grow was California. All the other important varietals with which California winemakers were experimenting — Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay — were from France, where there were centuries of recorded history and tradition.
Winemakers could choose to follow tradition or forge new ones, but either way, they had a road map to look at.
With Zinfandel, they were on their own.
Joel Peterson of Ravenswood Winery, one of ZAP's founders, was instrumental in transforming Zinfandel into the landmark wine it is today.
The Ravenswood motto was "No Wimpy Wines." Peterson searched out grapes from old-vine, dry-farmed Zinfandel vineyards, making wines to match his motto.
Unbound by any tradition, ZAP's founding members presented Zinfandel as brash and irreverent, not a wine to politely knock on the door, but one to kick right through it. Zinfandel was the Oakland Raiders of wine — loud, proud, unruly and unapologetic.
If winemakers didn't have a blueprint for making classic Zin, neither did the critics who had to appraise it.
Critics complained that Zinfandel was too tannic, too fruity, too alcoholic, too out of balance and not food-friendly.
Randy Caparoso, a trained sommelier and restaurateur and current bottom-line editor at the Sommelier Journal explained, "Sommeliers are trained to appreciate 'classic' wines, and classic wines emphasize balance, elegance as well as a modicum of restraint, even above varietal definition or sheer intensity."
The legions of Zin-lovers who crowded the ZAP Festival over the years couldn't have cared less.
Zinfandel's robust, roguish charisma, not to mention high-octane alcohol levels, fueled their passion.
One enduring memory of anyone who attended the Festival at Fort Mason was the cheer that reverberated through the room, like a wave at a sports stadium, when someone dropped and shattered a wine glass on the floor.
The bombastic, frat-party-gone-wild image might have been useful for establishing an identity for Zinfandel, but now winemakers, like Peterson, prefer to talk about balance, elegance, restraint and food compatibility.
ZAP in turn recognizes that the more consumers learn about Zinfandel, the more they enjoy it. ZAP has started using the festival as a launching pad for a variety of educational activities designed to heighten appreciation.
A few years ago, ZAP endorsed traditional but non-varietal blends (less than 75 percent Zinfandel) and set up a special tasting area where consumers could discover them.
This year in addition to the Grand Tasting, the festival included a terroir tasting area to compare and contrast flavor profiles among different Zinfandel growing regions like Dry Creek, the Sierra foothills or Lodi.
There was tableside service of library and reserve Zinfandels at the Heritage Club Lounge, while the ZinKitchen offered demonstrations like pairings with old-vine Zinfandel.
Randy Caparoso headed a panel of sommeliers for a smart discussion of different Zinfandel growing regions.
Meanwhile, I was conducting the winemaker seminars.
I was impressed with the sophistication of the wines. None seemed overly alcoholic, sweet or rough.
Only one could have been considered moderately tannic.
The wines were fruity, balanced and even elegant.
The standout for me was the D-Cubed Korte Ranch Zinfandel from St. Helena, a magnificent expression of balanced fruit-driven flavors.
Two old-vine vineyards, Lytton Springs from Ridge and Bedrock Vineyard from Ravenswood, were the epitome of style, Zinfandels dressed in tails and top hat rather than boots and leather jackets.
Peachy Canyon Vortex and Proulx Dimples demonstrated that Paso Robles can deliver wines with immense fruit yet still be restrained.
Lovers of a super jammy style of Zinfandel need look no further than Macchia in Lodi.
But perhaps the two wines that impressed me the most were the McCay Cellars Truluck Vineyard Zinfandel from Lodi and the Andis Winery Estate Zinfandel from Amador.
Both of those wines broke the mold of their regions.
While words like rustic and tannic are often attached to the wines of the Sierra foothills and raisined and ripe to those of Lodi, both these wines were fruity, stylish, flavorful and balanced.
To me, they were ample proof that Zinfandel is an evolving, ongoing story that I want to learn more about.
Cheers to ZAP for continuing to lead the way.
Rod Byers, CWE, is a Certified Wine Educator and wine writer as well as a California State Certified Wine Judge. You can find information about his upcoming series of Sierra College Kaleidoscope Wine Classes in March and April at http://www.pinehillwineworks.com and he can be reached at 530-913-3703.