It was sometime around 1990 when Jerry Seps approached me about how Wine Spectator might increase its coverage of Zinfandel.
Seps is the owner-winemaker of Storybook Mountain in Napa Valley and a long-time champion of Zinfandel. A former history professor at Stanford, Seps left teaching to pursue winemaking and, in particular, focus on producing Zinfandels that would age well. He also wanted to expand Zinfandel's fan base.
At the time, Zinfandel had been struggling with an identity crisis. While its core following has always been strong—for many wine lovers Zinfandel rules, Z is the first letter of the alphabet—the grape, and the wine, had undergone a rugged decade.
The red wine version, led then by what I dubbed the Three Rs—Ridge, Ravenswood and Rafanelli—was strong in some areas, particularly single-vineyard expressions of the grape. Yet winemakers were still confronted by a broader market of consumers who thought Zinfandel was a pink wine, as in white Zin.
Many of the best old-vine Zinfandel vineyards had lost their cachet, and their grapes were used for white Zin. Curiously enough, white Zin saved those old vines. Had it not been for the popularity of those "pinkies," most of these gnarly stumps would have been uprooted in favor of the then-hot commodity—Chardonnay or maybe Cabernet.
Luckily those vines survived.
The day I met Seps, I offered to help him. We at Wine Spectator were all big Zinfandel fans, and we felt that the wine deserved to be treated as seriously as any other. In order to expand our coverage, and devote more attention to the wine, we needed to taste as many bottlings as possible. If the Zinfandel community would pull together and submit its wines for review on an annual basis, we’d include Zinfandel as an annual report.
Seps understood. In 1991, he and other Zin lovers formed Zinfandel Advocates & Producers.
Today ZAP has some 300 member wineries, and on Saturday, the organization's annual rally will take place at Fort Mason in San Francisco. The event draws a huge throng of Zinfanatics. Lots of purple-stained teeth. Little spitting. Passion galore, but definitely not for the faint of heart. One year when I arrived at Fort Mason, I thought I had the wrong venue, until I pulled into the parking lot and realized that what looked like a Hells Angels rally was really the Zappers lining up to wet their palates.
If you've never been to this ZAP event, well, you owe it to yourself to give it a try. Just make sure to wear your darkest clothes and bring any riot gear you have. It could come in handy.
Coming tomorrow: The Future of Zinfandel