The 15th Anniversary ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates & Producers) tasting stampeded through San Francisco last week. It's billed as the world's largest celebration of a wine varietal, and if that's untrue, well, I'm not sure what's bigger. ZAP 2006 boasted 272 producers pouring more than 600 different wines.
Just like the grape it celebrates, ZAP is boisterous and a bit unruly. The communal energy (and noise) created by some 8,000 attendees falls just short of frenzied. But while the crowds and commotion can be frustrating, there's no better place for a crash-course on Zinfandel. Nearly every quality California producer shows up, and this year there were 14 new estates in the mix. A handful of out-of-state wineries (from Baja, Chile, Italy and Washington state) also participated.
ZAP comprises four events—one evening featuring assorted seminars, another built around food-wine pairings, a dinner/auction and a tasting. My favorite event was Thursday's Good Eats & Zinfandel Pairing, at which nearly 50 producers matched wines with dishes from assorted restaurants and caterers. "Only" 1,000 people attended. Zinfandel, which tends to be high in alcohol, can be too powerful for many foods, but the chefs and vintners often hit the mark and exceeded expectations.
Firmenich Restaurant in Plainsboro, N.J., made a delicious chili, using skirt steak, smoky chipotle peppers and a bit of cocoa that harmonized with the spice and earth notes of the Sunset Cellars Dry Creek Valley 2001.
Zoom Vineyards, based in Napa, matched its California Selection Lot 4 Napa Valley with ribs made by North Main BBQ, of Euless, Texas. The Texans were hard to miss with their car-sized, armadillo-shaped steel smoker. Their barbecue sauce includes red, black and white peppers, vinegar, ketchup and a number of other (not-to-be-revealed) ingredients.
Most producers poured wines from either 2004 (many still in barrel) or 2003, though there were plenty of older options. With an eye toward current and upcoming releases, I focused on the younger wines.
Zinfandel doesn't easily conform to generalizations. The grape is difficult to grow, plagued by a tendency to ripen unevenly. Vineyard savvy is key, so the finished wines always present a qualitative grab bag.
But 2004 looks promising. The better wines have the ripe, forward fruit expected from the variety, but in some cases show better balance than in 2003, a year in which many wines were picked under duress in torrid heat. Though some of the '04s showed a raw, youthful character, the depth and concentration are there. The usual suspects (Rosenblum, Seghesio, Turley) offered encouraging reference points. The Rosenblum Hendry Vineyard Napa Valley, the Seghesio Old Vine Sonoma County and the Turley Hayne Vineyard Napa Valley all stood out.
Plenty of other producers also excelled. I particularly enjoyed a trio of '04s from Sonoma's Hartford Family Winery: the Highwire Vineyard Russian River Valley, the Fanucchi-Wood Road Russian River Valley and a Russian River Valley AVA. Each featured the region's signature vibrancy and fruit intensity.
Tastings such as ZAP demonstrate that in the right hands, Zinfandel reflects its growing region as much as any other grape does. For my money, Russian River can produce some of California's most stylish, intense Zins. Dry Creek is another benchmark, with distinctive earth and mineral flavors that meld with ripe, powerful fruit.
Vintners and the trade are upbeat. One reason so many producers poured '04s (bottled early or still in barrel) is that their '03s are sold out. "It sounds like everybody's Christmas was strong. It was the best people have had in a number of years," said Pete Seghesio, CEO of Seghesio Vineyards.
And consumers share the positive vibe. If anything, the crowd appears younger and more diverse than once was customary at ZAP. There are not as many of the hardcore Zin fanatics as formerly, or maybe they're just not as apparent in the crowds. Zinfandel (and its advocates) now meshes nicely with other mainstream California reds.