Regulars at the annual ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates & Producers) tasting in San Francisco are accustomed to debating the best wine of the day. Building a consensus, of course, is like teaching a cat to bark: Forgettaboutit!
Like everyone at Saturday's tasting, I had a favorite wine, but more importantly, I walked away with a new understanding of Zinfandel. That isn't an easy admission. When I first moved to California in the late 1980s, Zin was my first infatuation. I've written about wine for the better part of 15 years and I've been to 12 of the 16 annual ZAP tastings. So you'd think I'd have Zin figured out by now.
But somehow I became cynical about Zinfandel, like many people in the industry. It's easy to do. Pinot Noir is about elegance, Cabernet is a marriage of finesse and power; after tasting them long enough you fall into a comfortable groove. But Zin is like my 7-year-old son. One minute he's soft and lovable and the next he's unruly. You get breathless trying to keep up with what he'll do next, and once you're around him long enough, it's easy to get caught up in the negatives and miss too many of the positives.
As I entered Saturday's tasting--in which some 9,000 people crowded around to taste the wines of 250 producers--a comment from colleague James Suckling was in the back of my mind. Our lead taster for the wines of Italy and Bordeaux, Suckling was recently visiting our Napa office and tasted some Zinfandels with James Laube and me. The Zins that day were particularly good and Suckling's excitement was palpable as he talked about how distinctive the wines were and how their uniqueness to California stands out in the wine world.
Turns out, it was a good year to challenge my cynicism. The producers at ZAP were pouring wines predominately from 2004 and 2005, and the two vintages couldn't be more different for Zinfandel. The 2004s are ripe fruit bombs and the 2005s are subdued, more claret in style.
And as I tasted the wines, I realized that those of us who've complained that Zinfandel as a varietal lacks focus, that stylistically it's all over the map, well, we've missed the point. In fact, that is the point. Its unpredictability, its lack of polish, its ever-youthful exuberance is what makes Zinfandel so damn appealing. It was like my 7-year-old: I'm too often distracted by the clumsy puddles of OJ and sharp objects in the carpet to really jump in and just have fun.
Whatever style of Zinfandel you fancy, the next year should be a good one for you. The 2004s are widely available and the first of the 2005s are just starting to arrive. Most of the 2005s being poured were barrel samples so, obviously, the wines were young and not yet complete.
For now, I'd give a slight edge to the 2004s. The best wines have a rich, jammy ripeness that powers from start to finish, although you'll find more than a few unbalanced, alcoholic or dried-out wines. A heat wave during harvest in 2004 played havoc on Zinfandel grapes, and some regions and producers coped better than others. My favorite 2004s of the day included Cedarville El Dorado ($22), Cline Contra Costa County Big Break ($26), Edmeades Mendocino Ridge ($18) and Unti Dry Creek Valley ($24).
The 2005s have fine potential. The best are balanced, well-focused and easy to sip, but many of the wines have a modest hole in the midpalate and some finish with firm tannins. 2005 was a cool growing season with very few of the heat spikes that Zin makers like to see. The wines, no doubt, will benefit from a few more months in the bottle.
Most of the top-gun Zin producers were exclusively pouring their 2005s, and that included the top wine of the tasting for me: Robert Biale Napa Valley Stagecoach Vineyard Biale Block ($41). Other 2005s to look for include Carlisle Russian River Valley Pietro's Ranch ($38), Davis Family Russian River Valley Old Vines ($30), Outpost Howell Mountain ($42), Rosenblum Sonoma Valley Maggie's Reserve ($45), Seghesio Sonoma County Old Vine ($33) and the always impressive Turley Hayne Vineyard ($75).