After 22 years, ZAP’s annual Grand Tasting has morphed into an extremely civilized affair, which is now reflected in the wines themselves: partly because of relatively cooler temperatures of recent California harvests (2010 and 2011), and partly because of swelling consumer/media grumblings about Zinfandels being too high in alcohol and lacking balance or elegance.
You may ask, since when is Zinfandel supposed to be “elegant?” The fact remains: many of the Zinfandels poured at ZAP last Saturday seemed more squarely fruit focused, and less alcoholic, less oaky, less tannic, less raisiny-ripe and less in-your-face than in years past.
Is this the dawning of the age of civilized California Zinfandels?
That is to say, in comparison to the first decade and a half of ZAP Grand Tastings, when the event developed a reputation for being as riotous as the wines: would-be, purple toothed zin fanatics – reportedly, up to 10,000 at a time – dressed in crazy clothes, screaming, sloshing and moshing to the music of dropped wine glasses on the floor every few minutes. The Zinfandels? As the logo of one famous producer (still) puts it: “no wimpy wines.” Hence, the longest lines at the winery tables pouring 16%, 17% alcohol Zinfandels – delicious, heady, and yes, inebriating experiences.
In vino veritas: ZAP’s Thursday night preliminary event, called Epicuria – when a smaller, select group of Zinfandel producers pour alongside dishes fashioned by talented chefs specifically to match those wines – has grown even more popular. Last week over 900 zin lovin’ foodies paid $125 apiece ($95 for ZAP members) for the experience; complimented by cooking demos highlighting the art of Zinfandel/food matching.
Example: Chef Marc Zimmerman of Alexander’s Steakhouse (Palo Alto, Cuperitno and San Francisco) and his sommelier Maxwell Klassen, demonstrating Liberty Duck tartare with duck liver, sausage spices, caramelized figs, bronze fennel, peppered micro-greens and shaved black truffle (note: winter black truffles retail for $400 to $600/lb.), to go with a pert, spice toned, blackberry and fennel nuanced Robert Biale Zinfandel.
Excusez moy, as Archie Bunker used to say — or geez Louise, can you get more sophisticated than that?
Speaking of sommeliers: at last Saturday’s ZAP Grand Tasting there were a total of 10 of them, including three Master Sommeliers, speaking about variations of Zinfandel terroir (i.e. growing regions) to a small crowd that managed to tear themselves away from the tables stretched across The Concourse exhibition hall (the site of a former train station), proffering thousands of different Zinfandels to discreetly sip and savor.
One of those sommeliers, Ellen Landis – a Certified Sommelier and Certified Specialist of Wine, who also owns and operates Landis Shores Oceanside Inn in Half Moon Bay – did a 90-minute pouring stint at the LoCA table, and later shared her thoughts on the sommelier panel about what makes Lodi grown Zinfandels so appealing.
According to Landis, “When I think of Lodi, I think of wines with rich jammy fruit, lovely balance, and old vine character – Lodi’s terroir shines brightly in its wines!”
Afterwards, we asked Landis to share some of her tasting notes on some of her favorite Lodi Zinfandels tasted at both Epicuria and during the Grand Tasting. She was happy to oblige with the following thoughts; reflections, as it were, of what an experienced sommelier looks for in first class Zinfandels:
2011 St. Amant, Marian’s Vineyard-Mohr- Fry Ranches Lodi Zinfandel ($24) – From vines planted in 1901, this is big and densely concentrated zin showcases sumptuous mocha-accented blackberry and black plum scents and flavors. Deep and beautifully structured with velvety tannins, Marian’s displays deft handling of oak, striking balance and complexity from first sip to well-rounded finish.
2010 Harney Lane, Lizzy James Vineyard Lodi Zinfandel Zinfandel ($33) – Lizzy James reflects five generations of Lodi grape growing, leading to this enticingly rich and full bodied zin that opens with mouthwatering aromas, and oozes jammy boysenberry and black raspberry flavors through a delectable palate. A generous sprinkling of exotic spices and skillfully integrated oak add further dimension. Complex, layered and well balanced with impressive depth and length.
2010 Klinker Brick, The Old Ghost Lodi Zinfandel ($37) – Alluring wild cherry and spicy notes greet the nose and expand warmly on the palate. Produced from a 100-year old vineyard, this seductive Zinfandel coats the mouth with flavors of lip-smacking blackberry, cherry and huckleberry compote, laced with a dusting of cocoa and vanilla bean accents. Purity abounds from start to lingering finish.
2010 LangeTwins Family, Lodi Zinfandel ($15) – For decades the Lange family’s dedication to sustainable farming has been a tradition; and along with releasing thirst quenching, balanced wines, it continues to be a part of what they do so well. Their 2010 exudes expressive fruit aromas that lead to a delicious mouthful of fresh blackberries, blueberries and savory spice. The juicy fruit is wrapped around pretty tannins and offset by lively acidity, and the texture is silky smooth.
2010 m2, Select Block Soucie Vineyard Lodi Zinfandel ($59) – Sourcing grapes from Lodi for several years (this beauty comes from the Soucie Vineyard, planted in 1916), m2’s wines showcase classic Lodi fruit beautifully. With this complex, well-crafted 2010, tantalizing dark berry aromas rise from the glass and remain focused and rich on the palate. The intense jammy boysenberry and blackberry flavors at the core meld with sweet and savory cardamom and tea spices that hold through the long, satisfying finish.
Some other memorable moments from last week’s ZAP events: