Reprinted from the St. Helena Star:Zinfandel had its day in the spotlight as thousands converged on Fort Mason Center in San Francisco for the Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP) Grand Tasting on Saturday, Jan. 29.
For 20 years, zin fanatics from far and wide have made an annual pilgrimage to taste this archetypal California wine from hundreds of producers. It is quite unlike any other festival or tasting, in that it only focused on one variety: zinfandel.
Two massive pavilions, packed with people, all clamoring for a taste of something they love. When it takes an hour to find parking, and likely a very long walk afterward, you know you are a devoted fan. And in the end, if you don’t know what zinfandel tastes like after this experience, you weren’t trying at all.
Zinfandel is undoubtedly Californian. While its roots can be traced to Croatia by way of Italy, California winemakers have taken this obscure and hard-to-grow variety and made it their own. Ranging from briary and spicy to jammy and fruit-forward, zinfandel is truly unique among its peers.
Now, while most people may consider Sonoma County as the place where zinfandel best thrives, the Napa Valley should never be forgotten. Here and there, pockets of old and ancient vines dot the hillsides and produce wines of character and strength. Hidden gems abound from lesser-known producers, and these were on prominent display at the ZAP festival.
Napa mainstays such as Chateau Montelena, Frank Family Winery, Peju Provence Winery, and Rombauer Vineyards count zinfandel among their portfolio, all producing very respectable wines. A little more digging, however, will reveal small, family-run wineries that produce small lots from special vineyards.
One such producer is Brown Estate Vineyards. For 30 years, the Brown family has been growing grapes and making exceptional wines. They hung their hat on zinfandel early on, and it has been very successful for them. Most priced in excess of $50 per bottle, the wines sell out quickly every year. Their style is big, jammy, and concentrated and the Brown Estate 2009 Napa Valley Zinfandel ($36) and the Brown Estate 2009 Mickey’s Block Zinfandel deliver in spades.
In 1992, culinary entrepreneur Pat Kuleto purchased five parcels from cattle ranchers to create a 761-acre ranch east of Rutherford high in the hills above the Napa Valley. Their zinfandel vines are planted between 1,200 and 1,400 feet, producing some intense mountain fruit. The Kuleto Estate 2008 Zinfandel ($35) is massive, with concentrated aromas of black cherry and violets, exhibiting excellent balance and a long finish.
D-Cubed Cellars do one thing, and they do it well: zinfandel. The brainchild of Duane David Dappen (D-Cubed, get it?), who is one of the most well-respected zinfandel winemakers in Napa Valley, D-Cubed produces several vineyard-designated and blended wines. The D-Cubed Cellars 2007 Napa Valley Zinfandel ($27) shows jammy blackberry and cedar with good weight and refreshing acidity. The D-Cubed 2007 Korte Ranch Zinfandel ($32) is a more “classic” style with cigar-box, pepper, and baking spice with a snappy finish.
Sonoma-based Talty Vineyards and Winery produces small-lot, vineyard-designated zinfandels from both Dry Creek Valley and Napa Valley. Their small 2.5-acre head-pruned, dry-farmed Filice Connolly vineyard yields only about 2 tons per acre, which intensifies flavors. The Talty 2008 Folic Connolly Vineyard Zinfandel ($38) is very expressive with floral aromas, black currants and fresh strawberries, exhibiting a silky palate and lingering finish.
With so many raving fans, it’s hard to believe that zinfandel almost went the way of the dodo. We can thank white zinfandel for its rescue. Without white zin’s invention in the mid-1970s, the wonders of old-vine zinfandel may have been lost to us. Say what you will about the pink stuff, but the robust demand for it extended the commercial viability of old-vine zinfandel vineyards, which saved them from being ripped out. That, coupled with organizations such as ZAP, has made it possible for thousands of wine lovers to enjoy a glass of this unique California wine.