AT THE WORLD'S largest Zinfandel tasting, you could taste virtually every new and soon-to-be bottled Zinfandel in California. It was a shoulder-to-shoulder affair, held Saturday, Jan. 26, at Fort Mason in San Francisco. With the San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz (the Rock) and the Golden Gate Bridge as the backdrop, thousands of Zinfanatics jammed this spacious hall to pay homage to the newest vintage, the brilliant 1995, and commingle with peers from around the country, many of whom built their vacation plans around this red wine extravaganza. Zin lovers are a hearty breed by nature, but on Saturday they had to brave gale force winds of up to 50 mph, forecasts of 3 to 10 inches of rain and probable flooding, which isn't so bad if you're dressed warm and in a boat equipped with radar. ZAP hosts this tasting and is the umbrella organization that brings together Zinfandel Advocates and Producers, a tight-knit group that fervently believes that Zinfandel is the greatest wine in the world.
THESE ARE GLORY DAYS for Zinfandel, as the vintages since 1990 have all been outstanding and the wine, down and out in the 1980s, is surging in popularity. Part of Zinfandel's allure lies in its personality. It's marked by ripe cherry, raspberry, plum, wild berry and cassis flavors, plus lots of pepper, spice, anise and cedar and can be made into a variety of styles that pair well with foods ranging from fish to fowl to pasta and cheeses. The most popular Zins these days are bold, big, ripe and jammy wines—dare I say explosive?—and what I call a claret style, where the wine is not as ripe, nor high in alcohol, but more tame and elegant. One key to claret-style Zinfandels is that they often include other grapes in the cuvee, such as Barbera, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignane, Petite Sirah or Sangiovese, which when blended with Zinfandel adds a shade of depth, a broader range of flavor and often a greater sense of harmony, finesse and texture.
YET ANOTHER MAJOR trend is the move toward more vineyard-designated wines and a big part of this story is the amazing number of excellent vineyards that are now devoted to great Zinfandel. Just as amazing is the fact that many of these vineyards were used for the production of White Zinfandel (the pink stuff) just a few years ago. DeLoach alone now makes a handful of vineyard-designated wines—Barbieri Ranch, Papera Ranch, Pelletti Ranch and Saitone Ranch—all from Russian River and all from grapes that used to go into DeLoach's White Zinfandel. Zinfandel flourishes in many areas of California, from Paso Robles in the south to Russian River, Sonoma Valley and Alexander Valley in Sonoma County; Mount Veeder, Howell Mountain and Napa Valley proper in Napa Valley to parts of the Santa Cruz Mountains and Mendocino. If you have to remember just one thing about buying Zinfandel, think of the letter R, for you'll come up with such names as Rabbit Ridge, Rafanelli, Random Ridge, Ravenswood, Renwood, Ridge and Rosenblum, all first-class producers.
IN INTERVIEWS WITH a dozen winemakers on Saturday, I found a consensus that 1995 is a great year for Zinfandel even if the wines weren't as showy early on as they are now. "I didn't think they would end up as pretty as they are," admits Paul Draper of Ridge. "1995 was a more difficult year with fermentations and you had to work to get the richness in the wines." Winemakers said the 1995 harvest, which ran long for Zinfandel, a late ripener, allowed the grapes to fully ripen, and it shows in the wines, which have lots of color and flavor. Zinfandel continues to attract new names, so I'll drop a few here: Duckhorn has entered the Zin market with a new brand called Paraduxx and the 1995 is superb, a shade fuller and fruitier than the 1994, which will debut this year. Other newcomers include Turnbull, with an Oakville appellation wine; Unalii Hillside Estates, using Lodi-grown grapes; Keegan Cellars, using Alexander Valley grapes; La Crema with Sonoma County grapes; and D-Cubed using Howell Mountain berries.
STILL OTHER NAMES that were new to me: Milliaire (Sierra Foothills), J. Runquist (Amador grapes), Spenker (Lodi grapes) and Vigil (California appellation). After tasting some 70 wines, I've no doubt this is a terrific vintage for Zinfandel. Those from the likes of Turley, St. Francis, Ridge, Robert Mondavi, Joseph Swan, Rosenblum and Gallo were as good as ever, maybe even better. If you want to attend next year's tasting, pencil it on your calendar now, as it's held the day before the Super Bowl. For tickets or more information about ZAP, write P.O. Box 1487, Rough and Ready, Calif., 95975, or call 916-432-8964. One of these years California is going to have a crummy Zinfandel harvest, which will produce a lot of long faces, but for the time being that's not in the cards—1996 will be yet another first-class vintage for Zinfandel and that alone is worth smiling about.
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