Each January, a major zinfandel tasting is staged in San Francisco. Put on by Zinfandel Advocates and Producers, or ZAP, it’s an event I once attended regularly.
Twenty dozen wineries would pour hundreds of zinfandels, and the event was almost an annual sell-out. Advance reservations were suggested.
A decade ago, I attended my last ZAP event. The reason was alcohol: So many of the wines had risen in the amount of alcohol that I couldn’t appreciate them any more.
At the time, I called the event an alcoholathon — a line some ZAP attendees actually liked. Though the event was supposed to be an homage to a California original, the zinfandel grape and the wine it made, the wine had changed over time. Soon, many zins had the weight of rust remover.
The great zinfandels of the past, with their raspberry-ish aromas and pizza leanings, had been corrupted to make wines that were brutishly hot on the tongue. Any connection between what we once knew and the zins from the late-1990s on was purely coincidental. Or accidental.
Instead of raspberries and strawberries, we got wines that smelled more like prunes, raisins and coal tar.
But as we were leaving the last ZAP event we attended, we ran into the brilliant Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyards and asked him what he thought of the alcohols he was seeing.
Grahm thought for a second, then said, “It’s sort of like rating the quality of the orchestra by how loud it plays.”
Well, times change, and it may be time for me to revisit zinfandel.
In the last three years, including North Coast zinfandels from the 2010, 2011, and 2012 vintages, I’m encouraged by what I have seen: more elegance, less alcohol, and a vibrancy that is hard to deny.
My random tastings of zinfandel range widely — wines from Sonoma to Santa Ynez Valley, along with wines from Livermore Valley, the Sierra Foothills, and even Lodi, a region that once made only massively styled Zins. Today you can find zinfandels from most of the above regions that display the fine character of the fruit with alcohols that are well under 15 percent, and many actually are under 14 percent.
Among the most interesting zinfandels I’ve recently tasted was a 2010 Amapola Creek from the Monte Rosso Vineyard ($42). Winemaker Richard Arrowood retained blackberry and boysenberry aromas and the wine’s impeccable balance reminds me of wines from the 1970s.
The 2012 Ridge Zinfandel ($26) from Paso Robles is dramatically styled with American oak and spice notes. Just slightly rustic, the wine is an American classic.
From Santa Rosa’s Paradise Ridge, the 2011 zin from Hoenselaars Vineyard in Russian River Valley ($35) carries all the classic raspberry and spice character anyone could want.
Balletto in Russian River made a 2010 zin ($24) that is light in color, as were so many 1970s zins, and has the gorgeous zingy fruit of the 1980s.
Even a wine as reasonably priced as is the 2011 Rancho Zabacco Zinfandel from Sonoma County (“Heritage Vines”) ($18) has a delightful fruit component that works well with smoked meats.
For details on the ZAP tasting events in late January 2015, visit Zinfandel.org.
Wine of the Week: 2012 Dry Creek Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley, Old Vines ($30) – Dry Creek Valley is a wonderful place for Zinfandel, and this wine’s clove, raspberry and delicate oak characteristics provide the initial impact, and with a little air the wine opens up to show superb structure for pairing with a wide array of meat dishes.