Is Zinfandel breaking out, or just a case of measles?
This past January 28-31, Zinfandel Advocates & Producers (a.k.a. ZAP) held its 24th full-scale "Experience" in San Francisco's Presidio, with the theme: Zinfandel is a rising star… reach out and grab it.
Zinfandel, of course, has always been a longtime star in the varietal market. In fact, Zinfandel's dominance in California vineyards dates back well nigh into the 1850s. So what exactly does ZAP mean with the implication that Zinfandel is still "rising?"
It means, Zinfandel specialists have always been acutely aware that as popular as Zinfandel is, it has never really caught on with certain elements in the marketplace: particularly with consumers, fine restaurants and sommeliers, and specialty wine retailers with a penchant for wines with a more classical sense of balance, place or origin. Among this crowd, Zinfandel has always been perceived as something of a second class grape; producing wines for more common denominator tastes – its appeal based upon alcoholic and fruit driven girth rather than subtlety or restraint, often with over-oaked, overripe, and annoyingly sweet qualities.
So Zinfandel is not Pinot Noir, Burgundy or Bordeaux – what of it?
But hold that thought, because more and more of today's wine professionals and producers are begging to differ; contending that Zinfandel can be an elegant, restrained wine, if only it's allowed to be that way.
This fact was echoed by industry leaders in a number of panels taking place at this past January's ZAP. Wilfred Wong – a longtime San Francisco based retail merchandiser, now a widely followed "Chief Storyteller" employed by wine.com – addressed the trade and media, saying: "I happen to believe that Zinfandel is still on the rise, after four decades of tremendous growth. For the restaurant trade, it has always been one of the most food versatile varietals out there, and recently producers have been finding a sweet spot between power and balance. Many of the wines tasted at this year's ZAP events showed incredible finesse, proving that Zinfandel can appeal to more sophisticated tastes."
Lulu McAllister, wine director at the cutting-edge NOPA San Francisco restaurant, also addressed the trade and media with Wong, seconding his emotion regarding Zinfandel's increased sophistication. According to McAllister, "I have Zinfandels on my list with the structure to handle pork chops and lightness to match fish and vegetable dishes. I think it's the fact that many of the best Zinfandels come from ancient, field crushed plantings – vineyards mixed with Carignan, Petite Sirah, Mataro and other grapes – that is giving us all the more reason to highlight it in the restaurant."
Inevitably there are sobering nays mixed in with optimistic yays. Ron Washam, well known in the blogosphere as the "Hosemaster of Wine," has worked with Zinfandel as a full-time sommelier for over 30 years in the L.A. area, before recently putting himself "out to pasture" in Sonoma County. With his imitable phraseology, Washam tells us, "Every six or seven years some writer has declared 'Zinfandel is about to be a break out.' Zinfandel has seen so many outbreaks, it’s the measles of wine varieties."
Adds Washam, "I did walk away from ZAP thinking that there are fewer Turley impersonators than there were a few years ago, including Turley. One of the prettiest Zinfandels I tasted was the 2013 Turley 'Vineyard 101' – nothing resembling the brutish Turleys of yesteryears. Overall, I found a lot more Zinfandels that seemed focused on pretty varietal aromatics, and fewer that smelled like they should have that pretty Sun-Maid lady on the label. I think that will ultimately serve the varietal well."
Christopher Sawyer – the former wine director of Sonoma's Carneros Bistro & Wine Bar, now working on a book on a recent period in the California wine industry – was quite a bit more positive about the indicators at this year's ZAP. "To me," says Sawyer, "this year represents a huge awakening for people who thought all Zinfandels were big, sweet, and high in alcohol. Instead, we're starting to see a paradigm shift towards a new breed of young, adventurous winemakers who are putting more emphasis on elegance and food-friendliness – especially those working with ancient, heritage plantings from less familiar regions, such as Lodi, El Dorado, Mendocino, Lake, and Contra Costa counties."
Robert Volz of Portland's pour wine bar & bistro told us, "I traveled all the way from Oregon to attend ZAP because Zinfandel is my second-favorite grape, after Pinot Noir." Volz was struck by the Lodi Native Zinfandels, in which he found "lower alcohol levels and higher organic elements, much like the earthy aspects of a Burgundian or Oregon Pinot Noir."
All the same, Mr. Washam remains skeptical: "Will the sommeliers of the world go retro and suddenly decide Zinfandel is the Next Big Deal? I have my doubts. Restraint may be the trend right now, but I have the feeling that the big fruit bombs of the past will make their inevitable comeback. Hey, I love Zinfandel, always have – I just don't think it has to be the next Pinot Noir. It should be fine being 'good ol’ Zin!'"
In our next post: Elegant styles of Lodi Zinfandel