Enthusiasm for Zinfandel was bigger than ever at the Zinfandel Advocates and Producers' eighth annual tasting at the Fort Mason Center in San Francisco on Jan. 30. More than 5,500 Zin fans sampled wines from 180 Zinfandel producers, including 36 newly participating wineries.
Judging from winemakers' and consumers' reactions to the more than 370 wines available, earlier hype about the 1997 vintage was justified. The wineries poured more than 90 barrel samples, including a few from 1998, but primarily from the 1997 vintage. "I still think it's the best vintage we've had," said Ehren Jordan, winemaker at Turley Wine Cellars, who was pouring barrel samples of Turley's 1997 Hayne Vineyard Zinfandel. Meet some of the winemakers and attendees.
Many in the industry consider 1997 to be one of the best and biggest vintages in California. Ideal weather conditions -- including heavy rain in late 1996 and dry skies throughout nearly all of the long growing season -- led to a huge crop of dark, ripe, flavorful Zinfandel grapes. Still, the thin-skinned Zin grape is susceptible to rot, and growers who were caught off guard by the combination of a huge crop and late summer rains harvested less-than-perfect grapes.
In general, said Paul Draper, winemaker for Ridge Vineyards, 1997 showed "good color, wonderful fruit and good structure, despite the higher yield." Ridge offered barrel samples of its 1997 Geyserville, Lytton Springs and Pagani wines at the tasting. Draper said he was impressed by the huge number of excellent wines available compared to last year's ZAP tasting, where he was disappointed by the majority of 1996 wines he sampled. "In 1996, it was not as easy to get full extraction of color, and it was much harder than any vintage in the '90s to get good mouthfeel," he explained.
Consumers also noticed the difference between the 1996 and 1997 vintages. Randy Buckner, a ZAP regular, said he "I've had a really hard time finding a stinker, whereas last year, I had a really hard time finding anything great."
In keeping with the bigger and better 1997 vintage, some producers expanded their Zinfandel lines. Rosenblum Cellars is now offering 23 different Zinfandels from a variety of California appellations, and Turley has increased to a total of 13 Zinfandels, including two from the Lodi District. Most wineries had two or more bottlings from a single vintage available.
Excitement about 1997 overshadowed discussion of the 1998 wines, which faced a difficult growing season. Last year, cold weather and rain delayed bud break and flowering, and the harvest ran four to six weeks later than usual, prompting concerns that the grapes wouldn't ripen before fall rains. Winemaker Rod Berglund of Swan Vineyards likened the wait for ripe grapes to a "suicide watch." He added, "The extra hang time really made a big difference ... but people who panicked and picked before the rains brought in fruit that wasn't physiologically mature."
Nonetheless, many winemakers felt that 1998 would be a solid vintage. "1998 looks incredible," offered Joel Aiken, winemaker at Beaulieu Vineyard. "It's huge. We're saying bigger and more tannic -- black fruit, but with enough richness to balance the tannins."
ZAP, a nonprofit organization, was founded by a group of Zinfandel producers and enthusiasts in 1992. Since then, its annual Zinfandel festival and tasting has grown in popularity, and tickets to the event often sell out well in advance.
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