ZAPping the Zinfandel Debate

by Chuck Hayward

ZAPping the Zinfandel Debate

Post by Chuck Hayward | January 26th, 2011

In the wine industry, controversies come and controversies go, but one that seems to have stuck around a while revolves around zinfandel. And there's no better place to dredge up the old debate than at the annual ZAP Grand Tasting held each January in San Francisco. This year marked the event’s 20th anniversary, and the question of what zinfandel is and what it should be gained even more traction than in years past.

The debate on zinfandel was probably best encapsulated by the SF Chronicle's Jon Bonné's Thirst column. Rather than go over it in detail, there are a few observations I think bear relevance. For one, it is very easy to project your ideas and philosophies onto a grape like zinfandel. It has a populist appeal which speaks to a broader segment of the market and grates the grits of those who take wine more seriously. Yet when one starts to dig deeper and learn about the old zin vineyards that populate California's North Coast region, complaints arise that the prices are too high and that it drives away everyday drinkers.

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There can be no doubt that the "zin-fanatics" are a unique bunch of wine enthusiasts and they can certainly rile those who take their wine more seriously, including many who are in the industry. Thing is, those are often the same people who complain that we need more consumers at wine events. Apparently, the 8-10,000 zin fans lining up at Fort Mason don't count because they are "that type" of consumer.

The thing about zinfandel is that it is a great entry-level wine. When first starting out in the world of wine, grapes like zin are easy to understand and very approachable. The oak is present and easy to taste and smell. In exploring wine, one does not start out appreciating subtlety and nuance, which is the foundation of grapes like pinot noir… one ends up there after years of tasting. For many wine enthusiasts, the obvious flavors that were easy to appreciate give way to more reserved or delicate ones as the palate changes.

Let the fun begin

The other thing about zin is that it can be both fun and serious; it does not have to be one or the other. You can bring your own palate, your own preferences to a ZAP tasting and you will find many birds of a feather (sometimes literally dressed in feathers) that agree with your approach. And that certainly deserves a celebration worthy of a ZAP tasting. Speaking of which....

The 20th edition of the ZAP tasting was a big success in my book. As the first tasting of the year, it’s a chance to look at things anew and to size up the latest vintage to enter the market, in this case the 2009s. While zinfandel is different than cabernet, I have found that the general qualities of the vintage—as reflected in the wines tasted at ZAP—provide a fairly accurate assessment of the style of cabs that will be released at a later date. And it looks as if the 2009 will be a vintage to watch.

The '09 zins at ZAP were quite consistent in style. Concentrated and compact on the palate, most showed intense flavors that seem destined to unfurl over time. In comparison, many of the 2008s poured at the event were much more approachable with a soft generosity of fruit at the palate's core. Overall the 08s seemed more open and ready to drink whereas the 09s will definitely be candidates for time in the cellar.

Jeff Mangahas of Hartford Family WInery

If there was anything that separated the best 09s from the rest of the pack, it was how the wineries handled tannins. Many wineries had firm, bitter tannins that, combined with the narrow presence of fruit on the palate, created a hard, angular finish to the wines. But certainly not all. In tasting the excellent wines from Hartford Family Winery, winemaker Jeff Mangahas knew that the grapes required gentle handling. "We were very careful in the cellar," said Jeff, "treating the wines gently and avoiding any techniques that would bring out the tannins." The best examples, like Mauritson and Valdez, held the tannins in check and allowed the pure zin fruit speak clearly.

At this ZAP, the best 2009s were far superior to the 2008s being poured. Outpost showed a vibrant, richly textured wine that highlighted Tom Brown's deft hand with Howell Mountain fruit sources. Russian River zins from Valdez Family and Hartford showed beautiful elegance enhanced by the fresh acidity that comes from the region's cooler temperatures. And the Monte Rosso vineyard showed its pedigree by growing excellent fruit for bottlings by Bedrock, Charter Oak and Carlisle.

Brown Estate commands the crowd

The best wines, however, were clearly the portfolios from Brown Estate in Napa's Chiles Valley and Gamba Vineyards located in Russian River. The three Brown releases highlighted the elegance that can come from zinfandel with lush, pure flavors that were ethereal in their presence. Gamba's wines showed the traditional richer style with seamless textures and thick finishes. These were exciting wines that made me feel lucky to taste them, while zin bashers out there missed an opportunity to see how great zinfandel can truly shine.

At every ZAP tasting, people bump into each other randomly and talk turns to which wines hit the mark. Tables packed with tasters sit next to ones with only a few stragglers. A broken glass releases howls and applause. Wildly dressed enthusiasts wander about as do wine reps displaying risqué phrases on their t-shirts. Folks clutch their rolls of French bread and their stained souvenir glass. All those are scenes from this tasting and reminders of ZAP events in the past. I wouldn't want it any other way.

Click here for other pictures from ZAP.